I went to see Black Panther last Sunday, mostly excited but also a little nervous. Not so much on the “Hollywood-fucks-up-black-representation” front; reviews had been pretty overwhelmingly positive about that. In fact, save for a few racist trolls saying the kinds of things you’d expect racist trolls to say, reviews on pretty much every front had been overwhelmingly positive–
–Which, yeah, was pretty much why I was nervous. Despite the name of this blog, I really didn’t wanna be the Meh Girl about this one, like, I didn’t want Black Panther to be my Arrival of 2018, you know?
Happily for me, I enjoyed the hell out of this movie.
There won’t be any big spoilers for BP until the pretty clearly marked Spoiler Section, but any previous movie in the MCU (especially Civil War) is fair game.
After his father’s death
two years ago, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) officially ascends to the throne of Wakanda, a secret, isolationist country in Africa with extremely advanced technological resources. Before T’Challa can decide which direction to take his country in, however, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) arrives on scene, planning to use Wakanda’s resources for sympathetic but ultimately nefarious purposes.
1. Black Panther is a hugely significant movie for a lot of reasons, most of which I’m not gonna try and explain myself because I’m a white girl who’s probably gonna miss stuff, but also because–and I don’t know if you’re aware of this–Black Panther is kind of a big hit right now. If you’ve been anywhere on the internet in the past two weeks, you’ve probably already seen a thousand reviews/essays/think pieces about BP’s importance; if you haven’t, may I recommend Princess Weekes over at The Mary Sue or Alex Brown with her excellent SPOILER-FILLED review at Tor.com. Also, take three minutes and watch this interview with Sterling K. Brown (AFTER you watch the film), would you? Because that grin on his face when he talks about how important this movie is? I mean, it’s just goddamn endearing, is what it is. Brown’s excitement is so palpable here, and while in some ways it’s disheartening that it took this long for a movie like Black Panther to be made . . . if you watch this video and still can’t understand why BP is important, I really don’t know how to help you.
(An aside, but God, I hope Sterling K. Brown is as nice as he seems. You never know with Hollywood, of course, but he really comes off as super sweet, and I’ve liked him since back in the days when I still watched Supernatural. It’s one of the reasons I was delighted when he showed up in Black Panther; dude’s winning all sorts of awards for TV nowadays, but y’all know I don’t watch the kind of TV that wins awards, right?)
2. I do need to talk about something, though, and I don’t care if everyone in the world has already praised them, cause, like. The women, people. The women in this movie.
I’ve talked a lot, a lot, about female characters in action and/or superhero films. And you know, there are some really awesome ladies in these movies, especially in recent years, and I’m not all that interested in knocking these women down to boost new women up. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t valid criticisms that can be made about past feminist triumphs.
Like, Wonder Woman, right? Seriously, fuck any of you who tries to take the experience of seeing Wonder Woman away from me; it was a big goddamn deal, finally seeing a lady superhero headline her own damn story, given that the last attempt was a clusterfuck back in, what, 2005? But I can have that experience while simultaneously acknowledging that improvements could still have been made: it’s a bummer the Amazons are left behind after the first fifteen minutes or so; the cast is very short on WOC, and don’t even get me started on the disappointment that is Dr. Poison. These criticisms don’t mean Wonder Woman was a feminist failure; it’s one significant victory in an ongoing, back-and-forth, often maddening battle for representation. And kind of like Shuri says in BP: “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.”
Black Panther makes serious improvements to the ongoing fight for good lady rep.
For one, it has three important female characters, all WOC: Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri. (Most action movies absolutely max out at two. Plenty, of course, have one or none.) Each character has significant screen time. Each character has different values, desires, and skill sets. Even the love interest, Nakia, has motivations that don’t primarily revolve around getting her man and/or being rescued by her man. In fact, her goals are initially much more aligned to the antagonist’s than the hero’s, which is fascinating. Meanwhile, Okoye’s loyalty to Wakanda above any one Wakandan citizen makes her a wonderfully complex character, not to mention she is unspeakably badass.
And Shuri, besides being hilarious, is also important: it’s not unprecedented for women to play funny nerds now, but it’s still far, far more likely on the small screen than on the big screen (think Garcia on Criminal Minds, Felicity on Arrow, Abby on NCIS, or Claudia on Warehouse 13), and, in either case, are basically always white and rarely fill a Q-esque role, like, they usually provide tech support, not weaponry. It’s cool to see that Shuri gets to do both. She’s an incredibly intelligent young black woman, and that’s a seriously underrepresented group in Hollywood. Plus, she gets to actually fight with those weapons because she’s a badass on multiple levels.
There’s also the Dora Milaje, who–unlike the Amazons–aren’t essentially abandoned to the prologue. It’s just so fundamentally awesome to watch these women kick all kinds of ass. Black Panther is empowering, especially and intentionally for black women, but all women should feel good about the female representation here. And if you’re a white lady and you don’t, you might need to ask yourself why.
3. I will point out, however, that Black Panther, like basically every other superhero movie, brings absolutely nothing to the table when it comes to queer representation. Here’s an article describing the missed opportunity, as well as a thoughtful essay from Briana Lawrence on why, as a queer black woman, she didn’t feel betrayed by the exclusion of this specific scene. For as much as my thoughts matter here, I’ll say that I’m disappointed because Marvel and Disney seriously need to step it up with LGBTQIA representation, but also that I agree with Lawrence: we need a whole lot more than just some single, non-explicit, vaguely flirty scene. Don’t Star Trek Beyond me here, folks; I want an actual romance, not blink-and-you-miss it Gay Stuff.
I will also say, in regards to female rep, that I kinda wish Angela Bassett had more to do. It’s not a particularly serious criticism, considering everything I said in Note 2, but still. It’s Angela Bassett. Ramonda looks regal as fuck, and that’s awesome, but I’d have been a little happier if she actually did something.
4. My main problem with the film–and I’d say it’s a mild-to-moderate one–has to do with one of the side players, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). I take issue with his character motivation, something I’ll discuss further in the Spoiler Section.
5. I don’t, however, take any issue with our Big Bad’s motivation, though, because holy shit, Erik Killmonger is a damn good villain.
I mean, has the tide finally turned? Has Marvel finally figured out how to consistently create interesting bad guys? (Or at least how to hire directors and screenwriters who can create dynamic bad guys?) Cause I think this is the third one in a row now that I’ve actively enjoyed.
I’m reluctant to say too much about Killmonger before the Spoiler Section. What I will say is this: his rage comes from a very real place, and his end goals are incredibly sympathetic. What makes him a bad guy isn’t necessarily what he wants, but how many people he’s willing–and in some cases eager–to hurt along the way. That, in and of itself, isn’t a wholly original concept, but not every sympathetic villain works. Killmonger works. He is an exceedingly powerful character and an important part of T’Challa’s journey in deciding which direction he wants to take his kingdom and what kind of king he wants to be.
6. It should be noted that there are only a couple of white characters in Black Panther, and they both play small, supporting parts, as they should. If I’m being honest, Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue is actually a bit over the top for my liking, but he serves his purpose. Martin Freeman, meanwhile, works very well as Agent Ross.
Meanwhile, if you’ve noticed I haven’t said much about Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa yet, it’s probably because I don’t have to much to say. Boseman’s great; I just don’t have much to add about his performance that I didn’t already say in my review of Civil War: regal, dignified, badass. (He’s also a little funnier here, which only makes sense, considering his dad bit it in the last movie). And, okay. It should probably be said that as much as I like T’Challa–and I do–he gets a little overshadowed by all the awesome women around him. People. They’re so good.
7. Finally, this movie is pretty great in so many different aspects, most of which I don’t really have the vocabulary to properly discuss. The soundtrack is awesome. The fight scenes are badass, like, I’m just gonna say one word, and you’ll know why if you’ve seen the movie: WIG. And the costumes are so colorful and varied and beautiful. Like I said, my fashion vocab is limited here, but if you want to hear more from the actual costume designer, look! Another link!
Meanwhile, some of my favorite looks? Well, definitely Ramonda’s white dress and magnificent hat, for one. Also, the Dora Miljae’s uniforms. I mean, I love the red, and hey, they wear pants! Also, I’m not gonna lie: our first glimpse of Erik, with his dreadlock-bangs and glasses? Yeah, I was here for it.
That’s about all I have to say for this section. Moving forward.
I’m not going to recap the whole movie today, but there are a few more things I’d like to address. So continuing our random notes:
8. So, W’Kabi. He’s T’Challa’s BFF, Okoye’s lover, and the leader of the boarder guards. He also ends up siding with Killmonger, even after T’Challa shows up near the end, all, “Dudes, I’m not dead yet. You’re serving a king who hasn’t earned the throne.”
You might reasonably be wondering why W’Kabi backs the dude who supposedly killed his best friend and usurped his throne; well, turns out that Ulysses Klaue murdered W’Kabi’s parents some time ago, and W’Kabi wants revenge. T’Challa’s dad never managed to get the job done, though, and T’Challa promises this time will be different–but after a failed attempt to capture Klaue, W’Kabi loses faith in his king’s promise and ultimately picks Killmonger, the dude who comes to Wakanda with Klaue’s dead body in tow.
On paper, that mostly works. I mean, I’m sorry, revenge or not, if I’m T’Challa and I survive this whole ordeal? No way W’Kabi’s my BFF anymore. Seriously. But what really bothers me here is that the whole reason T’Challa doesn’t bring Klaue back with him? It’s because Killmonger rescues his ass from a holding cell after T’Challa already captured him. I mean, “rescue” may not be the right word since he also swiftly murders Klaue, but my point stands: dude was in custody. T’Challa being cast aside in favor of the man who prevented T’Challa from keeping his promise in the first place is sort of problematic for me. Of course, W’Kabi doesn’t know any of this because, apparently, no one thought to tell him? I mean, come on.
And look, I get this is a relatively minor point of contention, and it’s nowhere near ruining the film for me . . . but the boarder guards follow W’Kabi’s lead, right, which means they only support Killmonger because W’Kabi does, and that is a big deal in the movie. Cause if W’Kabi followed Okoye’s example and switched sides when she did, then there really wouldn’t be a Big End Battle at all. It would basically just be a whole country gunning for Killmonger. So, yeah, I find that frustrating, at least on a first viewing.
I also really wish that Okoye and W’Kabi had another scene or two together. The fact that they’re lovers on opposite sides of the final battle ought to be dramatic, but it’d be a lot more effective if we’d actually seen them interact with one another for more than five seconds. I don’t want to cut their relationship, exactly, because Okoye telling W’Kabi that she’d kill him without hesitation is probably the most badass moment in the whole movie, but I also wish I cared even a little about them as a couple. (Apparently, there’s a deleted scene where Okoye and W’Kabi discuss their respective POVs about the two contender kings . . . but that’s the thing about deleted scenes. If it’s not in the movie, well. It’s not in the movie, period.) As is, despite the fact I’m whole-heartedly rooting for Daniel Kaluuya to win Best Actor for Get Out, I mostly find W’Kabi rather petulant and one-note here.
9. OTOH, M’Baku (Winston Duke) is absolutely the unexpected scene stealer of this movie.
So, prior to Civil War, my only knowledge of Black Panther came from cartoons, specifically, Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. M’Baku is a character in this cartoon; he’s a bad guy primarily known as Man-Ape.
I’d like to think we can all agree that Ryan Coogler made the right call here when he axed that aspect of this character.
To my great surprise, M’Baku isn’t actually a villain in this movie. He’s an antagonist initially, sure, challenging T’Challa for the throne. But he also helps save T’Challa’s life after his ass gets shoved off a waterfall. (Which, sure. That’s survivable. If it’s anything action movies have taught me, it’s that a person can survive any fall as long as there’s some form of water underneath them.) And M’Baku does come, albeit reluctantly, to
Gondor’s aid T’Challa’s aid in the final battle, because he’s kind of the Theoden in this movie, except less of an asshole. Also? He doesn’t die! It’s pretty great.
M’Baku is a surprisingly fun and original character, and I’m excited that he’s going to be in Infinity War, Part I, although honestly, who the fuck isn’t going to be in Infinity War? More importantly, I was glaring at this dude for, like, half the movie, thinking, I know you. Goddamn it, I know you and your distinctive, manly jawline. WHERE ARE YOU FROM? And finally it clicked: he played Dominic on Person of Interest. POI alum for the win! (Not for nothing, but Sterling K. Brown also guest-starred on that show.) I’d happily see much more from Winston Duke.
10. I’m starting to wonder if Forest Whitaker has found a new niche in Needlessly Martyred Mentors. I mean, it’s okay here. I get why Zuri did what he did, even though it super obviously wasn’t going to work. Other movies, which will remain nameless, do not work nearly as well . . . but I’m letting that go because I’m growing, or anyway, I’m grabbing some Pringles and attempting to roll the indignation out of my shoulders.
11. I’d planned to talk some more about why Erik Killmonger is such a great villain, but every time I try to, I find I’m having trouble articulating my thoughts and end up feeling like I’m trying to explain African diaspora, which, maybe not? So, here’s a link to David Betancourt at the Washington Post talking about why he believes Killmonger is the best Marvel villain of all time (FWIW, I don’t agree with every comparison Betancourt makes here, but I agree with much of his argument.)
11a. Also, T’Chaka kind of sucks. I’m just saying.
11b. ALSO, Killmonger’s last line? I mean, damn. That’s one of the most powerful lines I think I’ve heard in a movie, like, ever.
12. Finally, speaking of dialogue, this line: “A man who has not prepared his children for his own death has failed as a father.”
It’s interesting. As a writer, I’m like, Yeah, that’s a good line, and as an over-analytical bastard, I’m like, Gosh, that’s such an interesting bit of dialogue when you consider T’Challa’s relationship with his father and Erik Killmonger’s relationship with HIS father. But as a woman who lost her own dad just a little over a year ago now, I’m like, No. There’s no preparation for that. Death hurts, down to the bone. Death is immediate, even when it’s not.
There’s no real criticism in any of that, BTW. I’m just throwing it out there. Spaghetti, wall. That’s how we do. (Except it’s not actually how we test spaghetti in this house cause seriously. Just eat the noodle. I don’t even get that.)
Shuri: “Did he freeze?”
Okoye: “Like an antelope in headlights.”
Young Zuri: “It’s these two Grace Jones looking chicks.”
Shuri: “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!”
Shuri: “This corset is really uncomfortable, so can we all wrap this up and go home?”
M’Baku: “If you say one more word, I will feed you to my children . . . I’m just kidding. We’re vegetarians.”
T’Challa: “Delete that footage.”
Okoye (about wig): “I want to get this ridiculous thing off me.”
Ross: “Does she speak English?”
Okoye: “When she wants to.”
Erik: “Hey, Auntie.”
T’Challa: “If you weren’t so stubborn, you would make a great queen.”
Nakia: “I would make a great queen because I am stubborn–if that’s what I wanted.”
T’Chaka: “You’re a good man with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king.”
W’Kabi: “Would you kill me, my love?”
Okoye: “For Wakanda? Without question.”
Shuri: “Great! Another broken white boy for us to fix.”
Ross: “Please don’t make me listen to your music.”
Shuri: “When you said you’d take me to California for the first time, I thought you meant Coachella. Or Disneyland.”
Shuri: “Guess what I call them: sneakers.”
T’Challa: “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”
Erik: “Nah, just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.”
An excellent film all-around, and one of the rare superhero movies that I actually think is worthy of being nominated for Best Picture. I mean, it won’t be. But still, it’s a well-shot, well-acted, hugely significant cultural film. This is an awesome superhero movie. It’s also a lot more than that, too.
Shit, this is hard. I think I’m gonna go with Michael B. Jordan for this one, but Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira are right alongside.
The ends don’t always justify the means.
Heroism can’t be merely defined by what good you do for your people and your people alone. True heroism cannot be exclusive.