Black Panther review

Wakanda can be real.

How do you review a movie like Black Panther?

When the Magic Johnson Theaters at 125th street first opened in 2000, the New York Times called it a “new hope in Harlem.” “It sends a message of upliftedness and a sense of pride and well-being,” the paper wrote, stating that the new cinema carried “vast symbolic importance” in the historically African-American neighborhood. 

According to the LA Weekly, the chain of theatres emerged during a period of increased investment in predominantly-black neighborhoods in 1992, following a series of race-related riots.

So I felt it was fitting to watch Black Panther at the Harlem cinema. I emerged from the A train on Sunday morning and turned the corner to find a small battalion of hawkers disgorging Black Panther memorabilia onto the pavement: Posters of Nakia and General Okoye, costume jewelry in imitation of T’Challa’s high-tech adornments, even graphic tees emblazoned with pop-culture nods like “Straight Outta Wakanda.”

The theater was packed. The line for tickets looped and whirled impossibly, a non-Euclidean geometric construct. Ushers implored us to try the ticket machines on the 2nd floor, most of which had run out of paper. Grandmas dressed in traditional clothing from various African cultures tugged 10-year-olds beaming with excitement. Teenagers in cosplay took selfies in front of the movie’s poster. The theater thrummed with excitement and vibrant energy.

Why do I mention these things? Why do I not simply stick with commenting on plotlines, special effects, acting, or even big, green butts? Because whatever you feel about its narrative structure or technical framework, it’s impossible to divorce Black Panther from the culture in which it’s embedded. It’s essential that we acknowledge Black Panther as a film that not only represents, but celebrates African culture, that glorifies the Black body as potent and worthy of admiration (for both its beauty and prowess), that draws histories, mythologies and even fashions not from the standard, often-hackneyed, Eurocentric “canon,” but from the diverse and colorful indigenous cultures of Africa. Characters dip in and out of the rhythmic clicks and chirps of the Xhosa language with nary a thought, don eye-catching lip-plates without comment, and speak in handsomely and heavily accented English (a far cry from the posh British accents commonly used to mark “otherness” in English-language films).

This attention to detail permeates the whole film. Costume designer Ruth Carter, for example, revealed to the Atlantic just how much research went into her designs, from traditional beading, hand-dying and textile production techniques, to contemporary designs from Ghanaian, Nigerian and South African fashion houses. All these meticulous minutiae, these subtle cues about history and culture and how people live, think, sing, dance, they achingly and adoringly ground  the country of Wakanda in the here and now, while simultaneously elevating it to a long-sought-after, idealized Afro-utopia. Jelani Cobb at the New Yorker comments on a Wakanda that rejects the Western, constructed vision of what “Africa” means, calling it a “redemptive counter-mythology” to white notions of the “Dark Continent”. The anti-colonial, techno-paradise feels authentic, and maybe even attainable. 

But the question of “what is Wakanda?” lies at the heart of the movie. Both in terms of clueless characters who know nothing about the advanced capabilities of the seemingly impoverished country, and in the central question that drives T’Challa and his antagonist, Killmonger. King T’Challa is torn between whether his nation should stay hidden and isolated from the problems of the world, or whether it should share its bounty, and in turn, take on greater responsibility. Killmonger, instead, insists that the country use its advanced knowledge to bring about revolution, to oppressed with weapons with which to overthrow their (once?) oppressors. Rarely has a Marvel film given us such a nuanced villain, a villain who has a real point.

If the villain is nuanced, so are the heroes. They effortlessly deviate from the white masculine norm of superhero movies.  Wakanda’s women arguably steal the show. General Okoye, Princess Shuri, Nakia and the Queen Mother not only embody powerful, intelligent women in their own right, but save the titular hero’s life numerous times. And as Ciara Wardlow notes in the Hollywood Reporter, perhaps it’s this closeness to admirable feminine figures that informs T’Challa’s own notions of masculinity. Chadwick Boseman portrays a superhero who’s unafraid to show affection to male peers, who treats women as equals, who doesn’t employ wisecracks or one-liners as a shield against emotional intensity. He fulfills many of the ideals of the Golden Age of Comics, to portray larger-than-life heroes that people want to emulate, that people should emulate. 

And it’s vitally important that Black Panther is, well, Black. Because representation matters. Richard Lawson in the New Yoker, writing though he is about queerness, sums up this search for heroic representation perfectly: “It matters to a child—and to an adult—to, yes, see some reflection of themselves. But also to have the faraway heroes, the almost impossible ideals. Maybe those unreachable gods somehow help clarify things here on Earth.”

“Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” a black character admonishes her white counterpart at one point in the film. The audience explodes in laughter. I can’t help it. I laugh too. I don’t claim African heritage but colonial imperialism was a real part of my grandparents’ lives.

How does one review a movie like Black Panther? It’s complicated. But I’ll start with favorably.

Verdict: Yes