If any film is regarded as fantastic, it’s probably because it was a fantasy to begin with. They say Hollywood buys and sells genres, not movie stars. Marvel Studios’ Black Panther does both, in an imaginary tale performed by star-studded actors of the highest aptitude. Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), the rising thespian Michael B. Jordan (Creed), Oscar nominee Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do with It), Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Oscar winner and fan favorite Lupita Nyongo (12 Years a Slave) bless the screen with their talent, its filmmakers tell a highly advanced allegoric story. That’s exactly what co-writer and director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) did when translating this 1966 Stan Lee superhero comic into a tantalizing film and making it personal. In the world’s history of storytelling, myths and fairytales are known to be the most popular forms. When legends and fables are combined with an ensemble cast, you will have a film that is likely to be a global hit, which is exactly what we have with Black Panther.
Ryan Coogler was raised in the east Bay Area and is a native of Oakland, California, born in 1986. Oakland is the city we are taken to in the film’s set-up, as the globe spins from its focus on the continent of Africa then onto the United States of America in a rapid zoom into northern California with a superimposed titlecard informing us that we are in 1992, Oakland. The first images we see are the authentic portrait of young boys hooping on the basketball courts outside of what looks like the projects. Oakland has always been known as the city that bleeds the black & silver of its former Raiders football team, but, since the Raiders were playing out of Los Angeles in ’92, we get our first dose of Coogler’s attention to detail when we notice one of the young boys playing ball wearing a green & gold Athletics jersey in representation of Oakland’s four-time World Series winning baseball team. Why is the young boy not wearing a Golden State jersey, one might ask? Only true Bay Area natives can answer that question. In a stellar representation of authenticity, Ryan Coogler knows that in 1992, nobody dared to where Golden State Warriors apparel. The team was a lackluster embarrassment with consecutive losing records in the NBA. With that minutiae of detail and authenticity in the opening minutes, we know we’re in the hands of a master storyteller.
The native citizens of Oakland are incredibly proud of their hometown and don’t be surprised if you find them giving earsplitting cheers if you happen to see Black Panther at a theater in Oakland when they see the name of their city superimposed upon the screen. San Francisco is the glorious city by the bay, but, it’s the town across the Bridge that serves as the backbone of the area. San Francisco can’t be the big brother if it doesn’t have a menacing little brother for support.
Ryan Coogler brings passion to this tale of revolutionism by using advanced storytelling techniques: Heroes learn from villains and villains learn from heroes. Allies turn out to be foes and foes turn out to be allies. The hero is presented with challenging events and creates progress while overcoming bigger obstacles and he even fails when complications arrive at higher stakes forcing him to briefly retreat, only to return at an attempt for triumph in a climactic battle with the villain. These elements and more are apparent in Coogler’s finely honed craft of contemporary storytelling in Black Panther.
Black Panther takes place after the events of its fellow dream-team/mythical film Captain America: Civil War, where after the demise of his father, King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, 42), the Black Panther, comes home to the isolated-from-the-world, technologically-advanced fictional nation of Wakanda, to serve as the successor to the throne. But, first, tradition calls for T’Challa to drink an elixir that removes his superpowers and offer a challenge to any conflicting tribe of Wakanda who wishes to claim the throne, in a larger-than-life battle at a mountain-top, on the edge of a massive waterfall.
When his adversary, Erik Matthews “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan) collaborates with the notorious criminal Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, Planet of the Apes saga) to steal an ancient Wakandan artifact from a museum in London (in an unrealistic theft and breach of Museum security), the Black Panther partners up with C.I.A. Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, The Hobbit) and units from Wakandan Special Forces to stop a proposed World War, in which, for Killmonger (nicknamed for his body count in the Navy Seals), is justified in his point-of-view for waging terror on nations that oppress African immigrants.
Killmonger is not your typical superpower villain. He’s a human being hellbent on seeking revenge for the injustice he’s experienced in his hardship of youth and he validly builds a case for the 2 billion people of color around the world that he claims Wakanda has left behind while they advance in their first world technologically superior nation. King T’Challa, the Black Panther, even gives Killmonger the benefit of the doubt countless times throughout the film, in blaming this villain’s hatred on the fact that T’Challa’s father, the former King, wrongfully turned Killmonger into an orphan by not bringing him back to Wakanda, in hope of saving his own reputation because he was forced to do the unthinkable act of killing his own brother, Killmonger’s late father.
Even though King T’Challa secretly agrees with Killmonger’s argument, he refuses to allow the throne to fall into the hands of a man with so much hatred in his heart. Justified hatred, nonetheless. Killmonger uses this hatred to fuel his fire in waging war on the world by using Wakanda’s treasured resource of Vibranium (inspired by the mineral Coltan that’s only found in Congo), a mineral that spread throughout the plant life in Wakanda centuries ago when a meteorite stuck from outer space. Vibranium is the magical resource that consumes the ancient artifact stolen by Killmonger and Ulysses at the museum in London, who jet-off to Korea to sell the artifact to the arms dealer, Ulysses. King T’Challa, accompanied by his ex-girlfriend and warrior Nakia (Lupita Nyongo), travel to Korea to stop the deal from going down and retrieve the weapon. When the Black Panther disrupts and infiltrates the trade in Korea, Coogler uses another impressive one-take shot for the action showdown, similar to the way he did in Creed when Adonis fights in a boxing match. There is a false victory at this point in the storyline when the mission doesn’t go as planned.
Meanwhile, back home in Wakanda, T’Challa’s mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his wise Uncle Zuri (Forest Whitaker), his best-friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and his younger sister Shuri (Leticia Wright, who steals the Black Panther show with hilarious one-liners amongst comedic moments of relief throughout the film) await T’Challa’s return to the kingdom, only to find Killmonger has arrived bearing gifts and a proposal to overthrow Wakanda and claim himself as King. But, first, he must propose a rightful challenge, and, that he does, resulting in a fight scene with swords and shields and strikes filled with technical kickboxing and jiu-jitsu submissions on the glorious mountain-top waterfall that will make you drop your jaws and bug-out your eye balls.
There is a lot of wisdom and maturity in the writing by Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler. “You’re a good man with a good heart, and it’s hard for a good man to be King.” Says T’Challa’s father, in a philosophical statement to his son. The subtextual dialogue is cleverly used. When T’Challa visits his sister in the laboratory, she teases him for his ‘elderly’ style sandals in a line delivered with a hilarious high-pitch only the African cultural flare can make sound funny. When she forces him to remove the sandals, she throws him a pair of auto lace sneakers “…Like the old movie Baba used to watch.” Any cinephile will notice this subliminal line of dialogue as a clever throwback to Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future Part II, where Doc Emmett Brown throws Marty McFly those classic power lace Nike kicks.Ryan Coogler is smooth and he knows he doesn’t have to be on-the-nose with his dialogue and he’s aware audiences are smarter than filmmakers think.
The cinematography by Rachel Morrison (Dope, Mudbound) is directed with techniques relative to the character’s its capturing. There is a stunning shot where Killmonger takes the Wakandan thrown for the first time and the camera is upside down, gradually transitioning upright as he sits, declaring himself King. This technique subliminally suggests the nation of Wakanda is upside down with an impostor as its leader. The film is filled with magnificent compositions of sunset backdrops giving the entire film a whimsical feeling of dream states, most notably when T’Challa and Killmonger enter the “ancestral plane” to revisit long-lost fathers in seeking wisdom to serve as guidance when they awaken into reality to make their choices on how to rule the kingdom.
Despite its profound theme of oppression and injustice, the film has a giant sense of humor. The African accents and culturally specific attitudes in the performances will inevitably cause the witty one-liners to evoke uproarious reactions of laughter in the audience. Even in the climax, where Black Panther returns home, howling Killmonger’s name. To which, Michael B. Jordan brilliantly captures the Bay Area tone when he smiles wryly, tilts up his head, “Wassup?” Audiences will snap their fingers, clap their hands and howl from their mouths at this glorious picture.
Though this is a superhero film from the Marvel universe filled with a great amount of computer generated imagery, one wonders if Ryan Coogler will ultimately turn out to be a commercial box office director or go back to his lower budget dramas. Does Ryan Coogler have any filmmaking roots to return to? When it comes to filmmaking, his feature debut in Fruitvale Station was an indie where he made a film in the Bay Area with very little money and a minimal crew, nonetheless, winning awards at the renowned Sundance Film Festival. His sophomore feature Creed still felt like an extension of Fruitvale in terms of its dramatic style even though it was a spin-off of the Rocky saga, containing the powerful presence of writer/director and actor Sylvester Stallone portraying his iconic role as Balboa. His third film, Black Panther, is grand in its 200-million-dollar budget and it would behoove one to neglect from comparing these three feature films to each other, and to categorize Ryan Coogler as a certain type of filmmaker. All three are very different films made with distinct techniques that serve the purpose of its own story. Regardless of what kind of filmmaker he becomes known for, the future is bright for the Bay Area native, USC film school alum and I can’t wait to see what he does next with Black Panther II.
This isn’t the first time where we’ve seen a black superhero on the silver-screen kicking ass. Writer/Director David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy) introduced an unknown comic book superhero to the world in his Blade trilogy starring Wesley Snipes. But, Black Panther delivers more on what it promises. It’s not just a badass superhero film where the protagonist takes down the villains. It’s an African story about oppression, isolation and selfishness, consisting of a noble hero that portrays dignity and grace amid his combative spirit. Black Panther balances the spectacle of ambitious CGI sequences in conjunction with the substance of highly advanced storytelling, which is why it makes for such an incredible film.
There is an outstanding piece of theme music composed by Ludwig Goransson (Creed, Fruitvale Station) replaying throughout the film that attempts to stroke your soul. And the mind-bending juxtaposition that pins an African-American from the Bay Area, against Africans in Wakanda, is a sight to witness. It’s mentally stimulating to hear Killmonger speak in American English with California swagger throughout a film filled with characters speaking English with African enunciations. The hero learns from the villain with profound lines like “…bury me in the ocean with my ancestors in the ships, because they knew the that death was better than the bondage.” The fictional Wakandan Africans in the film live in a first world country filled with luxuries and privileges that were neglected from their own people who were taken on ships to America. This attention to detail is incredibly profound and is what makes Black Panther so thought provoking and intense, all the while maintaining its PG-13 rating in a Marvel Universe film filled with a giant sense of humor. It’s evident that the film is personal to Ryan Coogler and that he uses it as a vehicle to express his voice on both African as well as African/American culture. Stay in your seat after the end credits because you’ll be treated to a fictional scene grounded-in-reality, where King T’Challa gives a speech at the United Nations calling for unity in the world, and, declaring it with conviction.