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“Black Panther” is a provocative achievement

| Thursday, February 22, 2018

Diane Park | The Observer

Across the current landscape of film, “Black Panther” is unique. Even on the surface, a superhero movie with a majority-black cast set in Africa that demolishes box office records is a rarity. Yet, “Black Panther” exceeds these superficial markers. It is a cinematic event under sky-high expectations that emerges exhilarating, smart and powerful. “Black Panther” is an explicitly political fable about colonialism and oppression filtered through a blockbuster lens, expertly delivered by one of the most exciting directors currently working.

“Black Panther” begins with an animated prologue, explaining the mythical origins of the story’s setting, the fictional African nation of Wakanda — a tenuous alliance of tribes ruled by a king known as the Black Panther. Thanks to a supply of the earth’s strongest metal, Wakanda evaded colonialism and hides from the rest of the world, disguised as a third-world nation. The narrative begins with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assuming the throne vacated by his deceased father, “rescuing” his spy ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) — with help from Okoye (Danai Gurira) — and using gadgets made by his genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). Elsewhere, a thieving gang comprised of Ulysses Klaue (a scene-chewing Andy Serkis) and Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan, transcendent) tries to escape detection of Wakandan forces.

The premise might seem complicated and heavy, and that is partially true. The screenplay saddles the film’s first act with a mighty amount of exposition, mostly in service of later reversals and themes. The plot itself follows the standard Marvel beats, and the film sags when leaning into these formulaic plot points. Furthermore, some of the obligatory action scenes count among the film’s weaker parts. Poorly rendered special effects diminish the dramatic import of a final fight, which feels like a video game cut-scene.

Ultimately, however, these nitpicks don’t matter because “Black Panther” is still an immense achievement. The cast alone is astounding, attracting talented black actors for every role, no matter how small. Letitia Wright, a clear highlight, emerges as a magnetically hilarious presence through her performance as Shuri, a genius and prankster. Nyong’o and Gurira craft characters with defined perspectives and personalities. The driven and confident female warriors in this film nearly would have stolen the show if it were not for Jordan’s charismatic swagger — the most compelling superhero villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker. Lush production design and vivid costumes complement stunningly colorful images to build the expansive world of Wakanda, which proves integral to the story’s concern over the fictional nation’s destiny. The film’s stakes rely on the audience caring for its characters and its world. With this important, oft-neglected objective, director Ryan Coogler wildly succeeds.

But Coogler is not content to rest on his laurels. “Black Panther” is more than plot, characters and action. “Black Panther” is driven by ideas. The effects of colonialism and oppression on children of the African diaspora and Atlantic slave trade echo through the film’s mournful passages. Flashbacks to Oakland, California, in 1992 reveal the central ideological struggle at the heart of “Black Panther:” If Wakanda possessed this technology and wealth, why did they not help their black brothers and sisters across the globe? Killmonger, ostensibly the film’s antagonist, strives to distribute Wakandan weaponry to overthrow global oppression, while many in Wakanda favor a policy of isolationism. This dynamic expertly subverts audience expectations and challenges ideology with nuance.

In addition, the film smartly engages with the concept of Pan-Africanism, a movement that connects the struggles of people of African descent across the globe to the plights of their ancestors. Both T’Challa and Killmonger lose their fathers, much like the children of the African Diaspora, cut off from their ancestral land. People of African descent seek their roots back to Africa, searching for international solidarity against the horrors of today. “Black Panther” threads these ideas through its characters and becomes unlike anything previous — an explicitly political piece of art created by black artists under the sturdiest brand in entertainment and directed toward a wide audience. Stunning in its ambition and execution, “Black Panther” is an astonishing film that everyone needs to see.

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