Black Panther thrills and inspires. Since the 2014 announcement, eager fans have waited with great anticipation for director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. I won’t bury the lead: the film merits the hype and the record-breaking advance ticket sales. It is terrific in so many ways, enhancing the conventional superhero dichotomy of good and evil with conflicting loyalties in three-dimensional, culturally grounded African characters. The conflict and surprises (no spoilers here) begin in Oakland, California, 1992 on an outdoor basketball court before moving indoors to a small apartment.
Even this simple setup has a strong payoff, contrasting dramatically with the astonishing, high tech world of Wakanda, that fictional African country headed by Prince T’Challa, King now that his father has died. Wakanda citizens have prospered thanks to vibranium, the strongest metal on Earth with energy transforming powers, and thanks to isolation from the colonizing world.
This is the world of Afrofuturism, a term used since the 1990s to describe a heady mix of Afrocentric science fiction, fantasy, and arts. The mythic Afrofuturistic story posits an alternative utopic future, not without profound conflict in stories infused with relevant social critiques, notably use and abuse of power. This may all sound philosophically esoteric. Enter then The Black Panther that thrills and inspires in every scene, making vivid and enthralling the personification of these ideas.
The engrossing characters are complex. Even the admirable men and women have competing loyalties, to family and country. As a result, difficult choices play out as combats ensue. The acting is superb, with Chadwick Boseman, proud and dignified, as T’Challa, i.e. The Black Panther, anchoring. A stellar cast of young and veteran actors hold forth: Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi, Angela Bassett as Ramonda, Forest Whitaker as Zuri, and Martin Freeman as out of his element C.I.A. agent Everett Ross. Snappy dialogue energizes exchanges, and the equal involvement of strong women in an array of roles is marvelous: a love interest, a sister, a mother, and formidable warriors with brains and power.
Super weapons exist but are not fetishized—they’re tools. Alan Hook’s great art direction extends to jewelry, masks, fabrics and color choices, baldness, and painted bodies. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is breathtaking, intimate when it needs to capture powerful emotion and expansive, capturing landscapes, waterfalls, and futuristic environments. The costumes (realized by St. Louis’ Kevin Mayes, Normandy High School graduate), are stunning, a reason to see the film again just to feast on them. Firmly rooted in African and African American culture, Black Panther is both escapist and relevant, thrilling and a monumental achievement in superhero entertainment.
Diane Carson KDHX 88.1 FM, St. Louis