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We Were Once Kings: Black Panther Review

Dir: Ryan Coogler

Starring: Chadwick Boseman Michael B. Jordan Lupita Nyong’o Danai Gurira,  Angela Bassett   ForestWhitake An

The great director Ryan Coogler’s third feature film is, all at once, a call to re-think, interrogate, investigate, and maintain, and protect what makes up you.

 Black Panther is an extravagant journey of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) Prince of Wakanda, his journey to become king, exacting revenge on Wakanda’s oldest enemy Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and carrying on missions as the Black Panther and finding his true identity as the future King.  Klaue has taken some of Wakanda’s powerful resource, Vibranium, the source of Wakanda’s strength, and the source of the Black Panthers suit and power, and arming bad guys around with the world with it. Upon T’Challa’s appointment of King, he must tend to the urgent business of tracking down Klaue and return him to stand trial before a group of elders and an over eager general W’Kabi,  (Daniel Kaluuya) seeking revenge– and it is important that T’Challa deliver–and T’Challa aint playing. Through the film T’Challa battles with fears of being guideless, changing the nations’ traditions, and thinking about what kind of leader he wants to be. Wakanda is known for closing itself off to the world, not accepting aid from foreign countries, and not giving out aid to others—which becomes outside of Klaue T’Challa’s biggest issue.

Boseman plays the role of T’Chilla with the same energy and a bit of humanity he gives to every character he plays (Jackie Robinson, James Brown) to give them life and make them memorable. You remember Boseman as the Black Panther and that is all. He gives the film what it need: a legend–a sort of staple that the film can lean on which gives the film the space to have other characters come in and present issues. He is conservative yet flexible, like the kind of blackness he represents, that will ultimately be challenged.

T’Challa is rarely seen in the movie without his personal body guard Okoye (Danai Gurira), known as the greatest warrior of Wakanda, and Nakia, (Lupita Nygnao) they are embodiments of black femininity, black womanhood, and strength, and alongside the king, who are major parts of his life, and enhance his strength. Okoye and Nakia have their own political leanings: Okoye wants Wakanda’s borders closed, unlike her husband W’kabi, and Nakia believe the borders should be open in order to help those in need. Okoye and Nakia’s appearance, as does everyone’s deepens the large issue of the film: What would one do in order to maintain the look? The two women give the film its conscious by providing these questions at the outset of the film.  One of the many things that makes this film exciting, intriguing, and is a testament also to the filmmaking that film can be both entertaining while pulling you into what feels like an intellectual seminar, is that the film does not solely belong to the Black Panther but to everyone, from Romanda, T’Chilla’s mother (Angela Basset) to Mbaku Winston Duke) a neighboring ruler of a tribe at odds with Wakanda, to N’jabu (Sterling Brown)  Prince of Wakanda, who gives the film its emotional crux at the start when we see him arguing for his choice to betray Wakanda, and Zuri an elder (Forest Whitaker), all who have different opinions about what Wakanda is and should be to the rest of the world.

The importance on people becomes a theme in this film. This shows in many places in the film, from when Nakia and T’Challa reunite when T’Challa must apprehend mercenaries smuggling refugees into Wakanda, and spares the refugees, after Nakia’s protest, to a scene in where N’ajabu informs T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani) of Black American’s suffering.  In one scene in particular is when we first are introduced to Eric Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) the star of the movie,  a theif, and mercernary,  collaborating with Klaue,  looking to get closer to Wakanda, as he is framed, in a wide angle shot, back toward us, standing in a museum facing a glass case full of African artifacts. As an African American gazing upon African art, in a British Museum, who then minutes later steals the art for his own gains and later we’ll see what he has in store, Killmonger, or at lest the audience has to think, why is the art on the wall? In a shot following Killmonger surveying the artifacts, schooling, and plotting on the museum curator,  he comes upon a mask and when he looks at it, it looks like he is looking at himself or something he can relate to.

Another scene in the film which is one after T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia track down Klaue in Korea and after a breathtaking bar fight, the choreography and action sure to make the scene classic, pursue Klaue through South Korea. Once Klaue is caught, shoved up against a car, Klaue taunting T’Challa, about his dead father and in a few minutes are surrounded by bystanders filming the event on cell phones, Okoye and Nakia advise T’Challa to think about who may be watching. The event further complicates T’Chilla’s mission and brings up the major theme of the movie: how do you wish to be seen? How does one want to be remembered? What is at stake when you must right wrongs? It is everyone’s struggle. Killmonger more so already knows the stakes. Later on the film we find out that Killmonger is a war dog— an international spy and mercenary, who act like individual, human embassies for Wakanda. They are people in place in all parts of the world ready to move on Wakanda’s behalf and spy on what’s going on the world. In a In a scene where Killmonger kills Klaue as a source for entrance into Wakanda, Killmonger reveals to Klaue that he his Wakandan by pulling down his bottom lip to show a war dog tattoo, and the traditional scars on his body. The scars represent the many people Killmonger has killed in his days as a Navy seal, but the scars are traditionally African as well and are on the body of person not considered by what we see in the film to be Wakandan– let alone African. Killmonger scars himself to be accepted. He feels this is the only way to prove he his Wakandan, that he is worthy, that he is like the African Artifacts he looks upon in the museum: a priceless piece of art work, a trophy, and gift to the world, and also like the Vibranium plants, that has been lost and can be used and molded for other people’s wishes, but can also be used to empower those who may feel like they have no power. The film is about how we treat our people, how it is so easy to buy and sell, people, as culture, and literally, and how they can be used by others, how we mistreat people who were close to us, who we love, who deserve to be loved. Black Panther is about what does it mean to be African, in an African country, and an African American country. Is it a person, a skin color, an article of clothing, a cultural artifact, a dance, what? The issue of opening borders becomes so crucial when one starts look at the importance of human lives.

One of the saddest parts in the film is when Killmongers psychosis and pain get revealed, when he shoots Klaue, played with just enough tightness and control by Jordan, one of few of his best scene in the movie.  A scene cuts from clay to Killmonger, framed in close up shot, where he looks on the verge of tears—previewing a scared, vengeful, hurt boy, as the mask becomes unraveled. The film asks the question: What will one do to take back life? Give up resources, give up your people?  The film also, what makes up an identity? What makes up you? What is more important to you? A belief in aesthesis or what knowing the truth can do? Killmonger’s presence pushes these topics and for T’Challa and Wakanda, challenging the idea of what it means to be Wakandan, What it actually means to celebrate Wakanda. What does it means to be African? What is the importance of how you are to the world? and how you look to the world?

Black Panther is fun, exciting, and dark. It is also technically not that good. This is expected when one works under the allotments of a Hollywood formula and for Marvel studios. And even with Coogler’s personal touches—like the regional dialogue, camera angles in the beginning of the movie, even the sound of the BART in the film, or the themes of manhood, fatherhood, destiny, and place’s influence over the individual (and now, in Black Panther, you can add culture)— just some of the many things that make Coogler, one of the few auteurs working in Hollywood, and the only black one— don’t take this film past the level that it could have been, or having it have the incredible depth of this story. One wonders, if it was made outside of Marvel like Blade would it be better? But some of the best scenes are when people are just giving information like the integration scene of Klaue where Black Panther and Okoye are waiting for their turn at the villain or when Wasabi,  played amazingly by  Kaluuya and T’Challa are on a farm discussions border control and breaking tradition and show themselves  to world, or the action packed scene of The Prince, Okoye, Nakia, and comedic savant and hilarious Sarait, T’Challa’s sister (Letitia Wright) chasing Klaue through the highways and byways of South Korea. It is everlastingly entertaining, and one of the most complex, rich, and dark films in Marvel’s cannon, since Spiderman 2. It is one that likens to either one of films of the Dark Knight Trilogy emotionally, intelectuacully, and depth wise. This film goes well beyond being a Marvel movie, into something far greater, far more emotionally challenging, and more human.

One of the things that makes Black Panther special, memorable, but ultimately a downfall is that is presents a world where black people live, and elect new kings, yet at the same time the world is quickly seen. It seems, that most people  are caught up in the things that they see in Wakanda, the costuming designed by the legendary, phenomenal Ruth Carter, the space crafts, the language, the representations—the blackness. Are people starving for this because it hasn’t been scene on screen before or because we’re still unsure what black means and can be, in the U.S.? What makes showing the world important, in Black Panther more important than say, Themesacara in Wonder Woman (I wanted that so bad) brings up the question of who are these people? In a world like Wakanda, asks the question what is it that is at stake?

Black Panther gives audiences a sense of freshness, newness, in look, story, and issues rarely dealt with or even thought about in film. Wakanda, and Wakadans, and in this film are not something to hold onto. But the dream of a place like what Wakanda could be like, of an Africa is struggling to become, and one could simple travel to, can be had. I will say, that instead of holding onto Wakanda, you should hold on to this film instead.


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