Ryan Coogler Helms A Smart, Entertaining 'Black Panther'
Marvel's latest film is one of its best
"Fruitvale Station" (2013)
"Mudbound" (2017, for Rachel Morrison's cinematography)
The character of Black Panther was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, a pair of white dudes, back in 1966 for Fantastic Four Issue #52. T'Challa (the Black Panther), lured the Fantastic Four to Wakanda, the African nation he ruled over, where he forced the team to split up so that he could defeat each individually, proving his superior strength and intellect. Only when they regrouped as a team could Fantastic Four corner Black Panther.
Black Panther's comic book origins
I think it’s important to remember Black Panther’s origin as we welcome the new film. His appearance came just a couple years after the Civil Rights Act was passed and just a year after Martin Luther King’s Selma-Montgomery March, the Watts Riots and the murder of Malcolm X. So a comic that depicted a black superhero that could best the white superheroes, that came from a technologically advanced African nation and that ruled over his own country as king was groundbreaking. Black Panther was Marvel’s first superhero of African descent and the first black superhero in mainstream American comics. Marvel Comics would later give us the Falcon (1969) and Luke Cage (1972).
Black Panther was not named after the political activist group The Black Panthers, which came into existence just months after the superhero debuted in Fantastic Four in July of 1966. Marvel even briefly tried to renamed him the Black Leopard to avoid the political connection but the Black Panther moniker stuck and maybe the unintentional link to the revolutionary black activists revealed something about how the character could be perceived as social commentary. Black Panther demanded attention and respect.
Black Panther in a context
Keithan Jones, founder of KID Comics and creator of “The Power Knights,” wasn’t born when Black Panther first appeared in Marvel comics. So the superhero seemed very old school to him and he was more interested in Spider-Man. And there was another factor keeping the black superhero at arm’s length.
“I thought he was a cool character but I am African-AMERICAN, so my experiences are here in America and Black Panther is an African character from that continent,” Jones explained. “So even though I see that he’s a black character there’s a little bit of a disconnect as far as experiences go in the real world so I guess I related to him superficially just because we shared the same skin color.”
Jones said that as a kid he wasn’t aware that Black Panther was created by white men and he didn’t really care. But what did draw him to the character in recent years were the new artists and writers brought in to move the comic forward.
“Black Panther as a character recently inspired me in terms of being a comic book artist and that’s more so because of the people behind the character. I’m actually more inspired by the people who write and draw these things. So when I see that it’s a brother, a black man, drawing or writing these things it’s inspiring to me because it signals to me that I can do this also, I can make a profession out of this also with black characters.”
Highlighting these black artists and creators is what Jones hopes to do with the first Black Comix Day in San Diego on Saturday. The timing of the event with the opening weekend of “Black Panther” seems perfect and Jones was one of the first in line to see the film last night.
“This might be the first movie going experience where the wait in line was just as entertaining as the film itself,” Jones said. “The anticipation of finally seeing ‘Black Panther’ was palpable. Everyone in line looked like fidgeting children waiting to open their presents on Christmas morning. And the elated faces of folks leaving the theater only added to the synergy. Throw in all the folks who came in full African regalia and the level of expectation reached even higher than the already impossibly high level set by the near perfect scores by a majority of movie critics praising the film as a Marvel milestone.”
Jones said the film broke now new artistic ground but, "made it’s mark by way of cultural impact. What I mean by that is it told a story of social relevance through Afro-Futurism. Science-fiction action adventure in a daishiki. It flipped the script unapologetically and in natural form, where the Africans and Black-Americans occupied 95 percent of the story and the white characters are relegated to barely supporting roles. The protagonist, played by Chadwick Boseman, is clearly African and the antagonist is clearly African-American. And that is the part that intrigued me most about the story. Politics of racial screen-time aside, the story really came to life for me whenever Kilmonger’s world view was juxtaposed to T’Challa’s. Kilmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, represented the conflicted, isolated and culturally compromised, African-American. Colloquially referred to as the angry black man. This being a superhero movie, Kilmonger’s anger is at a homicidal level. T’Challa is the more balanced soul: a black man, an African, raised by a doting father and mother. Someone who knows his heritage, native tongue and what it is to be loved unconditionally. He is devoid of the insecurities and prejudices most Black Americans battle with daily. I believe those insecurities are brought to the surface in the form of tears or elation by many black audiences when they watch this film. They see, ‘home.’ They see how it could or should have been for us Black Americans. I’m getting a little emotional just now saying that. And that is what I mean by the film having cultural impact. It’s a milestone in how it taps into our dreams of who we are, who we were and who we should be. It’s a virtual trip home.”
Broad appeal of 'Black Panther' film
The film has had record setting pre-sales according to the online ticketing company Fandango. According to a Fandango press release, “Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ reigns supreme at the top of Fandango’s Fanticipation Buzz Index with a royal 99 out of 100 points, easily crushing all competitors in Fandango’s weekend sales… ‘Black Panther’ has taken its place among Fandango’s Top 5 Presellers of All Time.”
Only the “Star Wars” films surpass it and it does boast the top pre-sales of any Marvel title.
One of the reasons for this is that the film appeals not only to a male audience, as Jones typifies, already inclined to watch comic book movie but also to women and people who do not have a particular interest in pop action films.
Jade Hindmon, who recently joined KPBS as a general assignment reporter, doesn't consider herself a fan of comic book movies and notes the first “X-Men” movies as the only one she’s seen. But Jade was very interested in seeing “Black Panther” because of its cultural significance as a black superhero film.
“The images were so powerful and important for all people to see, especially women,” Hindmon said. “To see women with rich melanin and tightly coiled hair in roles that are diverse and empowering is a beautiful thing. My hope is that people walk away embracing the beauty, intelligence and courage in each one of the heroines.”
'Black Panther' film review
All this brings me to the film itself and to director and co-writer Ryan Coogler. Coogler gained attention for his first feature, “Fruitvale Station,” about Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old man who was fatally shot by a white BART police officer, who was later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Coogler cast Michael B. Jordan as Grant and has worked with the actor on all his subsequent films. Their second film together was “Creed,” a reinvigorating and re-imagining of the “Rocky” franchise that tapped a new and more diverse generation of viewers.
Now Coogler casts Jordan as the villain in “Black Panther” and proves once again that he is an incredibly smart filmmaker. I give Coogler much of the credit for “Black Panther’s” success. He brings the character to the screen with a savvy awareness of how to balance Hollywood’s demand for a marketable product with his own personal vision as an artist. He proved his skill at walking this tightrope with “Creed” in 2015 and now he delivers one of Marvel’s best entries.
One key to the film’s success is the balance of power among the characters, almost all of whom are black for a change. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa/Black Panther is smart, powerful, and contemplative but he’s also flawed and unsure how to assume the throne. That means there’s room on screen for some powerful women to step up to advise and support him. He has his mother Ramonda (Angela Basset), sister Shuri (Letitia Wrigh), General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and possibly future queen but current social activist/spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). And yes, a male director can successfully create strong female characters in a usually male-dominated world.
Finally “Black Panther” has one of the best villains of any Marvel film in Jordan’s Kilmonger. The reason Kilmonger is so good is what Keithan Jones alluded to in his comments. He’s a complex villain whose motives are understandable. We see where his anger comes from and while we may not condone his extreme methods we can still empathize with him and his point of view. He’s been wronged and he’s angry that T’Challa and Wakanda have not put any of their enormous resources into fixing some of the problems facing black people around the globe.
It’s interesting and again a smart move for Coogler to cast the hero of his past two films as the villain in his new one. It gives them both something fresh to tackle and Jordan can bring a humanity to Kilmonger that Coogler knows the actor has. Jordan’s Kilmonger is central to making the film feel richer and more multi-layered than past Marvel films.
I can find a few things to nitpick about the film. I think he could have shot and cut some of the action scenes better and with less frenetic energy. He does best with a fight in a casino where the camera follows the action from one character to another with exciting fluidity. Elsewhere the fast cuts and reliance on CGI make the action solid but unoriginal.
If the largely black cast is noteworthy in front of the camera, then check out the diversity behind the scenes with women in key crew positions. Rachel Morrison as cinematographer, Debbie Berman and Michael P. Shawver as editors, and Hannah Beachler as production designer all excel at their crafts.
“Black Panther,” rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture, is the superhero film we need now, one that mixes entertainment with social awareness. It serves up a powerful but flawed hero, a villain we sympathize with and strong female characters. At a time when the President of the United States categorizes African countries as “shithole countries,” it’s great to see a different — even if it is fictional — view of an African country as advanced, peaceful, and economically sound. Comic book movies don’t get better than this.