3 Stars – Thought provoking
Sitting beside four African-American university students as we viewed Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, enhanced my appreciation for his work. As both writer and director of this film adaptation of the Marvel comics character, the racial and cultural references to the “colonizers” were imbedded within this work in such a way as to bring cheers from these fellow patrons. But that is not to say it is a story about this racial history. It is a story about moral choices, national responsibility, international relations, tribal conflicts, family dynamics, religious and political traditions, ancestral worship, all set within the supernatural world of science fiction.
The theme is a familiar one for sci-fi fans: a meteor made of mystical and powerful vibranium landed in the center of Africa in the land of Wakanda where five tribes were in an endless struggle. Discovering the power of this metal, a truce was made between four of the tribes and a religious/political tradition was formed with mystical ancestral worship. The royal leaders of this tradition have cultivated the heart-shaped herb that the meteor caused by mutating the surrounding flora giving them supernatural strength. Additionally, the vibrations of vibranium have unlocked technological knowledge that has created not only a highly advanced civilization but the ability to create a Black Panther suit that absorbs energy only making it stronger.
Afraid of the outside world taking their precious metals, for centuries the Wakanda rulers have created an illusion of an impenetrable rain forest covering their futuristic city and civilization. This illusion causes the world and the United Nations to see them as a third-world country with an antiquated king.
This chapter of the tale focuses primarily on the death of King T’Chaka (John Kani) and the transfer of power to his son, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). The tradition is clear with ritual challenge and mystical experiences set upon a primitive stage juxtaposed to their advanced technological culture.
The villains of the tale are complex which allows the story to explore a variety of political and moral issues. The isolationist policies of the rulers have caused them to turn a deaf ear to the suffering of their black brothers and sisters around the world. The ability to arm their brothers and sisters of African heritage with unparalleled weapons is explored. The secret parricide by King T’Chaka leaving an abandoned prince explores family responsibilities and rivalries. The tribal loyalties and animosities reveal both their strengths and sorrows. The discovery that the ancestors did not provide true and moral leadership undermines the ancestral worship tradition. The reality that technology can be used to build bridges or barriers is explored. And of course, simple greed to take the precious metal and sell it has it’s appropriate villain.
One strength of the film lies in its empowerment of both people of Africa and women. The women warriors of Wakanda are fierce as is the woman T’Challa’s loves, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o). Nakia is not satisfied to live in the opulence of Wakanda when black people around the world do not have the resources to fight their oppressors. Embedding herself into the dangers of the world in order to set people free is a powerful moral influence on T’Challa. The affirmation of women is also seen in the technological and scientific genius of T’Challa’s sister, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright).
We won’t spoil how all of this plays out but it is a wonderful adventure into the human condition from a powerful perspective. As the two clips that play during the credits set up the film for future chapters, it is expected that this important hero within the Marvel Universe has much more to teach us about culture and life.
- When you are in a multicultural, multiracial setting how do you humbly learn from those of other cultures and races?
- The secret within the royal family came out at their most vulnerable time, the transition of power. Why do you think that is?
- The loss of faith in his ancestors leads TChalla down a new path abandoning the one his royal family had followed for centuries. The choices of international involvement by a leader are many: from isolation in order to only care for one’s own nation, to forceful liberation of the oppressed in other nations, to empowering education, to technological sharing, to diplomacy and unity. If you were the King or Queen of Wakanda what would you do?