The African bodily adornments in the new super hero blockbuster “Black Panther” rival a decade of National Geographic photo ops. Take for instance the lip plates of Ethiopia, the Igbo ceremonial masks, the Zulu headdresses, the Basotho blankets, and the Ndebele neck rings. With the beading, the fabrics, and the body paintings, “Black Panther” furthers the premise that black is beautiful. Designer Ruth E. Carter proves it.
Director, Ryan Coogler, of “Fruitvale Station” ( 2013) fame, has created a fantasy African utopia that reminds us that slavery is not the king of African history. Our secret place is Wakanda. Plateaus of waterfalls cascade and green forests thrive, and loping animals frolick. Purple flowered nectar holds hallucinatory powers. Xhosa is the language spoken in the kingdom. Wakanda is the marvel of Africa.
While not a fan of superhero marvels, at seventy, I saw “Wonder Woman”, and enjoyed it. “Black Panther” has more depth and has its super women, too. Letitia Wright is the brainy techno-whiz, who exudes confidence in her gadgets and medical artistry. As Shuri, sister of the Black Panther King, she uses the Wakanda’s unique resource, the metal vibranium, to both protect and strengthen the community. Another rival to Wonder Woman is the General of the Palace Guard. Here, Danai Gurira is impervious to any threat to the king or kingdom. Her eyes flash and her stare withers. Her battle prowess commands the screen in sword-wielding savvy. Nakia is the beautiful Letitia Nyong’o, the king’s love interest. Angela Bassett is Queen Mother in all her splendor.
Then there are the men. Chadwick Boseman leads the almost all black cast in this superhero spectacle. As the Black Panther he is nuanced and evolving. As T’Challa he gets to hear advice like: “Your father’s mistakes can not define who you are.” Still ancestors are praised. A tree of black panthers is one of the arresting images in the film. Statements like: “I can not rest while the monster of our own making reigns” dot the film. Superheroes, remember, change the world.
The anti-hero is Eric Kilmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, who has been in every one of Coogler’s films. He plays an angrier man, who wants to get back at African colonizers. He believes that the world is getting smaller and that there are only the conquerors and the conquered. White mercenaries are present, as is a CIA operative, and an arms dealer. Forrest Whittaker is the be-robed spiritual shaman who contributes to the subtext.
The themes are many, but colonial ravages and self-interested nationalism are equally rebuked without stopping for retribution.
The structural setting of “Black Panther” is interesting. It sandwiches the story between Oakland, California and our African paradise with one jaunt to the British Museum.
The film begins with a small boy’s voice, “tell me a story”. We hear of an asteroid, five tribes, and a super power that was hidden in plain sight. Suddenly, we are in Oakland, California with its basketball courts, assault rifles, thick, gold chains, and “ Grace Jones-looking chicks”. Then we are back in Wakanda as the new king is ceremoniously inducted. Ancestors are praised and physical challenges to the newly inducted king are made. Only the cave dwellers scoff at tradition.
There are dizzying air craft descents and car races that leave nothing left of the cars, and girls get to drive. There are mechanical rhinos and cool communication devices. There is funny dialogue and teasing about “ old school shoe wear” and the anathema of having to listen to someone else’s music. There is international intrigue as a CIA operative tries to keep Asian purchases at bay. And the hand to hand combat is intense. The sparks just keep coming. Rebel cries distinguish between serving your country and saving your country.
I have seen all of Coogler’s films, and I am a fan. ( see “Creed” review on http://www.filmflamb.wordpress.com. Jan. 2nd , 2016). He got a nuanced performance from Sylvester Stallone when he was 28. At 32, Coogler is helping rewrite curriculums around the country. Black History has a fun, new, more positive beat. One that holds advanced civilizations with a responsibility to enlighten the world. Anyone who was smart enough to stay as the last credit rolled by, will know that Ryan Coogler will have a lot more to offer the world.