The makers of Black Panther aren’t messing around. In the decade since Marvel began producing films about its superheroes, there have been far too many white hunks with black and ethnic-minority sidekicks – but the title character of their latest film is an African king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who derives amazing strength and speed from a magic potion and an armoured bodysuit.
The film takes extraordinary delight and pride in its African-ness
That, in itself, would make Black Panther as revolutionary as the organisation with which it shares its name, so its director and co-writer, Ryan Coogler (Creed), could easily have decided that there was no need to break any more barriers. He could have surrounded T’Challa with a white supporting cast, and had him battling monsters on American soil. But no. Coogler and his team had a more radical vision in mind – more radical, indeed, than that of any previous Hollywood studio blockbuster.
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For a start, most of Black Panther is set in Wakanda, the hero’s African homeland. As an animated prologue tells us, Wakanda is built on a mountain of “vibranium”, a metal that has all sorts of fantastic properties I couldn’t quite understand. This metal has enabled the country to make huge technological leaps – although not much more huge, admittedly, than those made by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner elsewhere in the Marvel universe. Anyway, Wakanda hides its wonders from the rest of the world. As far as outsiders are concerned, the country is a poverty-stricken backwater populated by hut-dwelling goatherds. But, beneath a holographic dome, its capital city is actually an ultra-modern utopia in which sleek anti-grav vehicles zip between gleaming skyscrapers draped in lush greenery. Ask yourself: when was the last time any feature film, whether or not it was made by a Hollywood studio, posited that an African country might be the happiest, most prosperous and most scientifically advanced place on Earth?
The sheer number of distinctive and proactive female characters make it a game changer
The film takes extraordinary delight and pride in its African-ness, from the colourfully patterned fabrics of the costumes to the tribal chants and drumming on the soundtrack to the Xhosa language which the characters sometimes speak. And while the actors are American and British rather than African, they are almost all black. Lupita Nyong’o plays T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend: after years of lending her voice to digital animals (The Jungle Book) and aliens (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) in Disney-owned blockbusters, she finally gets to be seen in one. Danai Gurira plays T’Challa’s bodyguard, Angela Bassett plays his mother, and Letitia Wright steals all of her scenes as his cheeky sister and weapons boffin. Quite apart from the ethnicity of the cast, the sheer number of distinctive and proactive female characters would make Black Panther a game changer. But there are a few men around, too, including Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as Wakanda’s head of homeland security, and Forest Whitaker as T’Challa’s mystical mentor. Again, when did you last see an American film with as many black actors – and not a single one of them playing a crack addict or a gangster?
Coogler wasn’t content to make an Afrocentric superhero movie, either. He’s also made an Afrocentric Bond movie. When the newly crowned T’Challa hears that an Afrikaner mercenary named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, merrily munching the scenery) is selling a chunk of vibranium in a South Korean casino, he and his posse rock up in sharp suits and tight dresses. What follows is a sequence modelled – maybe too closely modelled – on the casino showdown in Skyfall, among other Bond movies: spies mutter to each other via micro-radios, metal suitcases are packed with diamonds, and the hero bumps into an old CIA associate, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman).
Once the 007 homage is out of the way, Black Panther becomes a science-fiction fantasy, its futuristic imagery culminating in a Star Wars-style dogfight. But it is also a weighty geopolitical drama. Klaue turns out to be in league with Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan, the star of Creed), a hulking American black-ops veteran with a connection to Wakanda – and he has his own ideas about the country’s foreign policy direction. In among the explosions and the car chases, the film debates whether or not sovereign nations should get involved in each other’s affairs. And, unlike Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther actually has a civil war in it.
Coogler has taken every genre in which black characters are traditionally sidelined, and then, with considerable flair and boldness, he’s combined those genres and put black characters right at their heart. The one genre which he doesn’t quite nail, ironically, is the superhero genre. The choppily-edited, CGI-heavy action set pieces are never very thrilling, and T’Challa is better at standing around looking noble than anything else. When a superhero has a film of his own, you expect him to have some witty lines, some ingenious plans, some breathtaking stunts – anything to inspire hero worship, or superhero worship. But the Black Panther is a blank panther. For all of the abilities he derives from his sister’s gadgets and his mentor’s herbal remedies, he is a surprisingly passive bore who is all too adept at losing fights and letting villains escape.
When the sequel comes along, it would be nice if the charismatic Boseman had more to get his claws into. But if T’Challa doesn’t achieve much in his own movie, Coogler has achieved a phenomenal amount. As a Marvel blockbuster, Black Panther is vibrant, deftly assembled fun. As a step forward in the representation of black people in cinema, it’s a staggering triumph.
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