Black Panther brings Afrofuturist spectacle to the multiplex
The first black-led superhero movie in the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther feels like an entity unto itself; a cultural monument that has only been gaining anticipation in the lead up to its release.
Thankfully, with extremely accomplished direction from Coogler, Black Panther shoulders this burden with ease. It’s a resounding success; an Afrofuturist spectacle that’s extremely thoughtful and empathetic about what it means to be a black person both in Africa and America.
The set design, costumes and Rachel Morrison’s photography are as breathtaking as the film’s cast, and helps to make the fictional technological paradise of Wakanda the most fully realised setting Marvel has ever had. It’s a beautiful marriage of otherworldly technology and real-world African tribalism – for starters, the all-female king’s guard, the Dora Milaje, wear Masai-influenced neck rings, but also pilot flying saucers.
What’s even better is that the film takes care in interrogating the very presence of Wakanda, the negative side spawning the MCU’s greatest villain in the tragic figure of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). But it’s not just Killmonger and our protagonist T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who get the spotlight: the film does absolutely right by its women of colour, figures like Shuri (Letitia Wright), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) getting as many moments to shine as Black Panther himself, in displays of strength that feel crucial and satisfying.
All put in powerful work, conveying the royalty of these characters in a way that isn’t often afforded black people onscreen. Boseman, while solid, is often outshone by Nyong’o’s quiet righteousness, Gurira’s unwavering strength and Wright’s playfulness and sharpness; Coogler does well to balance arcs and standout moments for all. Michael B. Jordan unleashes palpable rage as well as charm as Killmonger, in a performance unlike any of his before it. His character’s fury is so clearly borne of suffering that we can’t help but sympathise, this is compounded by the fact that a lot of the time, he isn’t entirely wrong.
Handling its world building, characters and plot with as much grace as its titular character, Black Panther is rock-solid proof of the richness that diversity can bring to blockbuster cinema.