As the mother and father of two young boisterous boys, finding time for a date night is at a premium. Typically, when trying to go to the movies, we just decide to go at separate times. For my husband, it usually means seeing it immediately when it opens. For me it means seeing it when it finally comes on cable. But through some finagling of schedules, including the taking of a day off from work as well as the fortune of finding a 10AM showing, we dropped the kids off at their schools and embarked on a 20-minute drive on the highway to a remote theatre to watch the much-anticipated Black Panther movie. Fans of Marvel characters since birth, avid followers of the Avengers saga since 2008’s Iron Man, we have been waiting years for THIS character to come to life on the big screen.
Black Panther did not disappoint. As director and co-writer, the imaginative, clever and undaunted Ryan Coogler did his due diligence. The cinematography, costuming and choreography are just some of the hallmarks of Black Panther’s power. Yet what resonates, what had my husband and I sitting in the theatre long after the credits finished, long after clearing our dinner table and preparing the boys for bed, is the intricacy and humanity of the movie. The story arc and characterizations coalesce like a strand of DNA, as numerous nucleotides harmoniously work together so that the chromosome successfully expresses itself and functions effectively. Coogler, masterful like the quilters of the Sea Islands, builds a story block by block, successfully weaving into a sonorous concert both compelling themes and complex characters. In so doing, he builds for us as the eyewitnesses a grand canvas that illustrates the wonder and woes befallen the nation of Wakanda and the fitful evolution of its native son and king T’Challa.
The women of Wakanda defy convention, gender-based assumptions and typecasting. They are inventive, innovative, loyal, strategic, physically agile and scientifically mindful. In short, the sisters are BAD, portrayed as multi-faceted, multi-dimensional and multi-informed. There is the general, Oyoke, leader of the all-female Dora Milaje charged with protecting the king. The Dora Milaje are guardswomen, weapons of war that are dutiful and devoted. Exemplified by Oyoke, she is a leader emboldened by loyalty and logic. There is Nakia, a spry and noble spy, who immerses herself in danger, travailing in helping others less fortunate to harvest their freedom (note in the movie her rescue of the captives that mirrors the real life 2014 abduction of schoolgirls by the Boko Haram). Nakia is compelled by a higher calling and focus to serve a greater good, even to the delay of amorous inclinations toward T’Challa. There is the brilliant and sharp-witted Shuri, the younger sibling of T’Challa. She is talented in technological and medicinal arts and dexterous with words. Astute, she is protective and instinctive in thinking one-step ahead of what those around her need, creating inventions that speak to what they will need when times call for action. They are characters whose attributes are unique and well-integrated, which they each masterfully illustrate throughout various moments of conflict within the story. The casino scene and car chase set in South Korea is one supreme example.
The men of Wakanda possess complexity as well, even vulnerability. There is the typical depiction of manliness expected in any superhero action film, as death-defying stunts and combat sequences are well represented in Black Panther. True to genre and form, the male characters in Black Panther are strong, virile, combative and phenomenal in physical strength. However, their depictions are neither stereotypical or exploitative. These African and African-American characters are also remarkable in their counsel, mental agility and emotional fragility. W’Kabi is the leader of a shepherding tribe (shepherds to rhinos mind you) who is haunted by the murder of his parents: it is this haunting that will, later in the film, come to bear on whom he decides to align his allegiance when the right to the throne is tested. M’Baku, leader of an ostracized tribe in the mountains, comes to challenge T’Challa during the ritual ceremony where the next ascendant to the throne can be challenged in mortal combat. M’Baku is humiliated in his defeat yet will be an unanticipated ally and avenger when the soul of the Wakandan people is gravely tested. T’Challa exudes the attributes of a kingly statesman and honorable man, loyal to family and country, yet a man who when unforeseen challenges to his birthright occur, unveils a vulnerability that if not reckoned with will cause him to lose both his nation and his life. N’Jakada, also known as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, is T’Challa’s nemesis, hellbent on literally disemboweling T’Challa and the kingdom of Wakanda. Yet the reasons behind Killmonger’s intentions and actions are noble and speak to avenging afflicted people dwelling worldwide. Shunned and abandoned when young, he channels his hurt and chisels his personal pain into tools, tools that are toned less to avenge himself and the homicide that has left him to fend for himself, but, ironically, to soothe the suffering of those of African descent worldwide. The multi-dimensional aspects of Black Panther’s men are effectively and impressively explored and illustrated throughout the film.
In complement to Black Panther’s complex and richly layered characters, Coogler has created circumstances that do not just illustrate the good attributes of a character, but how his or her complicatedness comes to bear on the hard choices s/he must make and hard consequences s/he must face. Explored within the film are filial and fraternal ties that both bind and blind. The sins of the fathers (in this case, two brothers) are visited upon the sons (in this case, two first-cousins). This kink in inherited armor, the avoidable wounding and self-inflicted vulnerability that then consequently pits a bloodline against itself, is brought to bear on their shoulders and actions. Killmonger is a vicious and vindictive rebel yet with a noble cause and benevolent calling. He positions himself not fallen but in preparation for war-based advocacy for the less fortunate, preparing to employ Wakanda’s technological advances with all he has learned from previous military service and participation in deadly covert operations. He plans to steal and proliferate Wakanda’s advancements for a greater good, even if it means a worldwide war waged without Wakanda’s consent. While demonstrative of virility, vengeance and vindication, Killmonger is a complex character that brings his pain to bear on a greater good. Consequently, T’Challa mourns the unabashed hurt and affliction unfairly inflicted upon his cousin. But his cousin’s pain and its wrath place him in precarious positions where he must govern his guilt as well as his protection of family and country.
In Black Panther, characters are also wrought with a love of country that at times places them in opposition to one another. A thick yet conflicting love that brings brother against brother, subject against ruler, countrymen against countrymen, country against world. King T’Chaka (T’Challa’s father) kills his brother N’Jobu (Killmonger’s father) for betraying the country through the pillage of selling Vibranium on the black market. However, N’Jobu’s intentions in so doing was to help those afflicted worldwide through weaponry. Yet in an unforeseen and heated series of events leading to protecting a fellow countryman (Zuri, who later becomes a priest), leading “rightfully” to T’Chaka bringing judgment against N’Jobu for his betrayal of family and country, T’Chaka deserts and disavows his own nephew. Paradoxically, T’Chaka protects bloodline and country through the spilling of blood. However, the sins of the father are visited upon the sons. And it comes to pass that cousins must as progenitors address and answer for their fathers’ betrayals of one another. Coogler does brilliant and methodical work in unfolding and revealing how complex characters work through complicated circumstances.
It is a love of country for which each character reconciles how best to be in its service. For some like T’Chaka and T’Challa, it means to protect its own borders exclusively, to preserve the advancements and prosperity of Wakanda strictly for its own benefit. Those of this isolationist mindset believe Wakanda’s advancements in medicine, technology and harnessing of extra-terrestrial resources (Vibranium) should remain under Wakandan protection and oversight exclusively. Others, like Nakia and Killmonger, subscribe to the tenet that Wakanda’s advances should be harvested and harnessed for a purpose outside its own invisible walls and for the good of those less fortunate. Yet Killmonger, himself in some respect an outsider to Wakanda, also believes Wakanda’s advancements should be used to bring an unrelenting wrath upon historical enemies, succumbing them to Wakanda’s rulership.
The fight for the governance of Wakanda occurs not only on earth but also in the heavens. This brings us to yet another layer that makes up the beauteous quilt that is the Black Panther movie. The kingdom of Wakanda is not built by one man or from one man’s vision, but by the presiding of elders and ancestors. The governance of Wakanda and its leaders is revealed through allusions to Christianity. There is the theme of baptism by water, dying to the flesh as T’Challa does via being stripped of his supernatural powers before fighting opponents who challenge his position on the throne. There is the burial of the body that occurs to restore wounds to the flesh, as well as serve as a portal to commune with ancestors for guidance. The burial, done in colored sand, also harkens to the Christian belief of being raised from the dead, resurrected if you will. This experience occurs with both T’Challa and Killmonger, who each consult with their fathers, seeking counsel and consolation.
There are some movies that in their ambition to tell an intricate story built from many parts lose its own focus and therefore its way, and thus the audience in such ambitious reach. The movie is left underdeveloped, as characters are incoherent and disengaging, and sub-themes are seemingly disconnected from a larger one. Without a vision a people perish, it is said, and such can become the fate of even a big-budget film. Yet Black Panther is not defeated in its ambitious reach to tell smaller stories, to interweave multi-dimensional characters, to convey complex truths and unpack historical conflicts in service to a greater story, a greater good. It excels.