Black Panther is cinematic black liberation theology. I made a similar observation of Jordan Peele’s excellent Get Out, and while not wanting to reduce either film to limited categories, as they have distinct styles and agendas, I think the analysis holds merit. That filmmaker Ryan Coogler can create such a singular, vibrant filmic narrative with such rich characters and themes under the constraints of the machine that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is an accomplishment worth celebrating. The story follows the events of Captain America: Civil War as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) recoils from the death of his father and takes up the mantle as king of Wakanda, an African nation of five tribes who utilize the resource of vibranium. Supported by the fiercely loyal general Okoye (Danai Gurira), former beau and fellow Wakandan tribe leader Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa assumes the identity of warrior-king as the Black Panther, equipped with a vibranium suit and strengthened by a herbal vibranium cocktail. Upon learning that Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has stolen a Wakandan artifact from a British museum, T’Challa’s first act as king is to capture Klaue and bring him to justice for his past terrorist acts against Wakanda.
The world-building of Wakanda is wondrous; in contrast to Asgard in the Thor films, Wakanda feels lived-in and authentic, a place where actual people live out their lives. Still, the plot of Black Panther is strikingly similar to Thor: Raganork–with the death of the king, the superhero/prince protagonist finds himself in conflict with an estranged relative for the throne, ultimately being ousted and having to return to save the kingdom from destruction. Black Panther‘s middle act in the search for Klaue feels ripped from a James Bond film with its emphasis on gadgetry and infiltrating an underworld casino, culminating in a car chase sequence. The narrative then takes a significant turn towards the Shakespearian in the emergence of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American black ops soldier who has his own aspirations for Wakandan power and the throne. Following the rise of Killmonger and the internal political and familial conflicts which arise, the climatic fight sequence devolves into the signature CGI punchfest of the MCU. What makes Black Panther unique is its remarkable commitment to characters and relationships. There’s not a single underwritten persona; every single role is fleshed out, motivations are clear without becoming glaring, and not a minute of screen time is wasted. The internality of characters is revealed by both decisions and words, suggesting that perhaps it’s okay to both show and tell in cinema if done with care and direction. It is this care which shines through–Coogler clearly loves these characters, and the actors portraying them seem to love them too. In particular, Coogler and Jordan continue to bring out the best in each other. As their third director-actor collaboration after the taut indie Fruitvale Station and the inspiring drama of Creed, Black Panther is the natural blockbuster culmination built on their previous experiences. And they’re young too, which means we hopefully have many years of wonderful Jordan-Coogler projects ahead of us (their fourth collaboration has already been announced). Jordan’s portrayal of Killmonger is one of the more interesting and charismatic in the MCU, his American accent and posturing giving him a sense of alterity in the African regality of Wakandan politics.
Which brings me back to black liberation theology. Erik (and other Wakandans) continually refer to white characters as “colonizers;” his agenda is one of up-ending the power dynamics of global politics, where Wakanda helps the dark-skinned populations of the world show their strength in solidarity against white oppressors. The history of Wakanda until this point has been one of isolation and closed borders, literally hiding in plain sight and remaining aloof to international crises. Discussions about refugees, oppressed people groups, environmental issues, and legislation are just as present in Black Panther as fight scenes. The Wakandan religious traditions hold such sway as to be inviolable, which allows Erik’s challenge of T’Challa to remain uncontested. In this, Black Panther raises important questions of conservative vs. progressive politics and postures without giving simplistic answers–audiences on both sides of the political aisle can interpret the film in favor of their ideologies (e.g. a Breitbart “review” claimed the film’s hero is Trump and the villain is Black Lives Matter, a decidedly poor reading of the film) even as they may remain unsatisfied with where the film concludes. Such is black liberation theology and Black Panther, a decidedly complex approach to God and politics through the lens of black history–black theology in American is decidedly different than the UK or Africa, as well as the significance of womanist theology. Where Get Out finds its black protagonist surrounded by and breaking free from wealthy white villains, Black Panther effectively wrestles (literally) with the internal tensions within black communities and contexts about the right path towards progress. I am reminded of Kendrick Lamar’s song “DNA,” and his poetic celebration/critique of his black heritage. It’s apt that Lamar curated the soundtrack for Black Panther; both film and musician are poetic, prophetic voices in these volatile times.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1825683/