Review: Marvel’s Black Panther Is The Diasporan Fever Dream We Have Craved For A Long Time

In recent years, the edict of “universality in specificity” has become a go to explanation and rationale for the diversification of storytelling across media. In the 18th entry into its Cinematic Universe, Marvel proves the idiom with a universal look at heroism steeped in African and Afrofuturist specificity. Marvel Studios Black Panther re-frames the now familiar tropes of superhero films to provide a power fantasy in antithesis to our prevailing narratives; centring African Diasporas in a globetrotting vision that merges the best of Fleming’s Bond, Martin’s Game of Thrones, Afrofuturist aesthetic and Lee/Kirby bombast. The strong eye of Director Ryan Coogler and cohorts engineer a movie that never forgets community, sometimes crowding the spotlight for Star Chadwick Boseman. The tension between the movie we get and the movie we’ve been trained to watch thus far in the action/superhero sub-genre leaves us some choppy pacing, but the depth of portrayal by the nuanced script, stunning visuals, impeccable acting and Stellar soundtrack make this movie experience uniquely superb.

 

 

 

Standalone Glory

Following on from the multi movie narrative established by Marvel Studios, “Black Panther” continues the story of T’Challa, titular hero and newly crowned King of the fictional nation of Wakanda, after his scene stealing introduction in “Captain America: Civil War”. Now he must lead his secretive technologically advanced nation as the power vacuum left by his father’s death leaves Wakanda vulnerable to outside threats like Ulysees Klaue (Andy Serkis) and the charismatic Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B Jordan). The stellar cast includes Lupita Nyongo as Nakia, forward thinking spy and love interest to T’Challa, Danai Gurira as Okoye, Angela Bassett as Queen Mother Ramonda and Daniel Kaluyya, now BAFTA rising star award winner, as W’kabi, Wakanda’s conflicted Border tribe head and childhood friend of T’Challa. Guyana born actress Letitia Wright and Tobagonian Winston Duke both take scene stealing turns as Wakandan head engineer and crown princess Shuri and Jabari tribe leader traditionalist M’Baku respectively with Martin Freeman rounding out the cast as put upon American CIA operative Everett Ross.

Coogler, whose previous efforts include “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” brings his team forward from these films and creates a superhero movie firmly entrenched in Africanist thinking. The eye toward detail in the world building for this movie extends from awe inspiring sets, to intricately detailed costuming to painstakingly constructed linguistic beds the characters inhabit. The resulting cultural canvas sits in opposition to the usual Hollywood fare and provides rich portrayals which help the movie stand out. In this aspect, the movie is a powerhouse, as the varied woven fabrics of messaging in the backdrops, clothing and living culture of the world do a heavy amount of the work in making you believe what we see on screen. When mining tribe members invoke Himba tribesmen’s traditional red clay face and hair adornments, or Xhosa is spoken as the native language between Gurira’s “Okoye” and the king as they openly mock a clueless Agent Ross, we are glimpsing a fully realised alternate world in all its glory. Taking more than a few queues from Bond (James) in the travelogue like journey, the blend of real and CGI sets and stunts are well polished and almost flawless. The big throw down between the main players at the end gets murky with the overload of effects, but that’s hardly a complaint in the face of the beauty onscreen for most of the movie.

Actor’s Paradise

As for the performances, this is by far the best acted superhero movie so far, with Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa brought to life with a mostly internal depiction of a lead superhero. Quite in contrast to the big showy lead of an Iron man or Thor, more Akin to Christian Bales’ understated Bruce Wayne, though decidedly less broody and able to crack a wry smile. But the superb cast constantly threaten and many a time outright steal the show from our title character, leading to a balancing act that feels a bit more ambitious than the 2 and a quarter hour runtime can accommodate. Speaking of show stealing, Michael B Jordan’s Erik Killmonger employs a breadth of menace, charm and single-minded rage that elevates him to the top of on-screen villains. While T’challa is the journeyman, seeking and finding his voice by the movie’s end, Killmonger’s confidence, eloquence and resolve inhabit a space that brings a steady hand to the movie’s narrative and gives us a sympathetic even whilst murderous villain. Tradition vs progress, in a society that marries both seamlessly, is a major preoccupation of the movie and the onscreen hand off from old guard favourites like Forrest Whitaker and Angella Bassett, to new favourites like Letitia Wright and Winston Duke is a fitting parallel. Both Shuri and M’Baku soak up every minute of screen and script time they have, again bring undeniable charm, levity and context to the movies struggles. The ultimately powerful script delivers moments from the hammy or cute, your mileage may vary (“what are those”, Wright’s techno-wiz princess shouts), to the subtle {turncoat musings of W’kabi during his conversations with his childhood friend turned King). The inflections, spot on dialects and varied postures of the superb cast bring it all to life in competence. You believe Okoye’s resolve when she pledges her life in service to the throne, and it seems like all the actors dove head first into their roles to make this so. For an action driven affair, Black Panther is funnier than you might expect, and not in a slapstick forced way. Characters are sharp, with deep commentary embedded into their biting wit.

Soundscape

The movies soundtrack features frequent Coogler collaborator Ludwig Goranson, and balances talking drum narrative, wailing Senegalese song refrain, intimate and majestic horn sections and roiling 808’s to deliver a hybrid sound that fits each character well, but may sometime be too understated for the effect onscreen. When it does rise however, the joyous chants of the “warrior’s falls” scene add that extra kick to a majestic visual, as does the introduction of Wakanda itself and Killmonger’s menacing theme, which does justice to his gait and presence. By films end, the sound canvas is as important to the story as any other tool used in creating this world, rounding out a full narrative experience.

While the film is a little bloated in mid-narrative, the overall action, acting and colourful depictions of African culture have touched a cultural minefield off for the afro-centric around the world. In that sense we did not get nearly enough of the world of Wakanda. Countless think pieces will no doubt be out and in the process of writing, but at the end of the day, as a movie, this is as distinct, nuanced and personal a story as popcorn flicks have ever produced. A diasporan fever dream, equal parts Shakespeare, Spy intrigue and Superhero origin, Black Panther gives universality in a specificity we have craved for a long time and maybe didn’t know we needed this much.

 

The Breakdown

AFFECT – Manner or execution

4.5/5

EFFECT – Way it translates on screen

4/5

Overall

8.5/10

Jason Morrow is a Writer, Journalist, Photographer, Designer, Performer and Creative from St.Vincent and The Grenadines. He currently resides in Jamaica. An unabashed nerd who views pop kulcha from a Karibbean perspective, catch his snark here and @sonofasankofa on Twitter

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