(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Black Panther, a Marvel film that finally tries to be honest about American politics)
Black Panther is a sprawling superhero epic, the likes of which American cinema has never seen — or heard, for that matter, given the prominence of its African accents, treated anywhere from average to heroic; a far cry from the usual villainous or derisive framing of non-western voices in Hollywood. The film is one of the most important pieces of the Marvel puzzle, not necessarily in terms of long-term narrative (it’s relatively isolated from its 17 predecessors) but rather, as a potentially landscape-shifting benchmark for mainstream filmmaking. It was also the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
It’s hard to measure the full scope of film’s legacy just a year after its release. However, it’s safe to say that no American film since Marvel’s own The Avengers has had this seismic an impact. Black Panther flew past all critical and financial expectations, shattering the long-held Hollywood myth that Black stars couldn’t open films internationally. It also completed Marvel Studios’ third act turn of stepping outside the norms of Western storytelling — as seen in Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok — albeit more substantially. Though, like several other Marvel films, its framing of American power is occasionally questionable.
Black Panther is pop filmmaking at its finest, but its success is owed, in large part, to the creative lens through which it’s told.
In his 1994 essay Black to the Future, cultural critic Mark Dery, in conversation with several prominent Black voices in criticism and science fiction, coined the term “Afrofuturism.” It describes a creative philosophy that prioritizes stories, aesthetics and central themes drawn from African influence, as opposed to simply having these influences be window dressing, as is often the case in western sci-fi.
The Oscar-winning costume and set designs of Black Panther are entirely steeped in this philosophy. The film builds on the visual and thematic language of Marvel movies past and injects them with new meaning. It’s the result of a studio placing its trust in a creative team uniquely suited to the story — the film’s most impactful line, “Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage,” is one director Ryan Coogler was encourage not only to keep, but to build the story around — and it could very well lead to other studios taking similar risks, redefining who gets to hold the megaphone of mainstream cinema.
The film feels new to most Western eyes, and to most eyes in general, because of the degree to which it steps outside Hollywood’s traditionally backward depictions of African cultures. The film lets Black creators craft a Pan-African tapestry that speaks, first and foremost, to members of the African diaspora, many of whom in America were robbed of their languages, names and specific cultural origins thanks to colonial slavery.
In crafting the film’s design, Marvel Studios let director Ryan Coogler bring on creative heads familiar to him, each of whom brought a sense of grounded familiarity to the fantasy of Wakanda. Coogler was joined by several of his Creed and/or Fruitvale Station cohorts: cinematographer Rachel Morrison (the first woman cinematographer nominated for an Oscar, for her work on Mudbound), composer Ludwig Göransson (a frequent collaborator of rapper Childish Gambino), and production designer Hannah Beachler, who also worked on Lemonade and Moonlight (both Göransson and Beachler were awarded Oscars for Black Panther).
Coogler also sought a who’s who of high-caliber creatives he hadn’t yet worked with, like The People vs O.J. Simpson writer Joe Robert Cole, and legendary costume designer Ruth E. Carter (Selma, Malcolm X), who was also given the Academy Award for her work on the film. Not only was this an immensely talented roster with which to kick off the production, it was also a group whose artistic focus, at one point or another, had been the telling of Black narratives.
In the process, Black Panther is imbued at every turn with unique visual and aural authenticity, remixed to create something new. For instance, the costumes and accessories of Wakanda’s various factions, which take their cues from real African cultures: Suri for the River Tribe, Masai for the Mining Tribe, and Ruth E. Carter’s own Basotho for the Border Tribe, led by W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya).
Wakanda, an African superpower walled off from colonial influence, saw technological innovation evolve hand-in-hand with African tribal art & symbolism. The film presents technology and tribal culture as one and the same, as opposed to their usual western depictions as mutual exclusives. In addition to the aesthetics of Afrofuturism, Black Panther also leans into the philosophy’s core thematic purpose: exploring the world — past, present and potential future — through a lens of Blackness.
The film also understands, however, that Blackness is not a monolith.
A Clash of Perspectives
Wakanda represents the best and worst of modern America. While its unfettered progress yields unapologetically Pan-African designs, the nation stands locked in debate over the refugee crisis outside its borders. Shortly thereafter, an insurrection threatens to lead Wakanda to foreign invasion, which in turn leads to civil war.
The recent change in leadership, from the late King T’Chaka (John Kani, Atandwa Kani) to his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has left the kingdom in a state of mournful reflection. In Captain America: Civil War, Wakanda’s attempts to open up to the world led indirectly to deaths of its citizens in Lagos, and directly to the murder of its monarch. “The world is changing” has been the mantra of several Marvel characters, from T’Chaka, to The Vulture (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and beyond, but various factions in Wakanda disagree over how to adapt to that change.
T’Challa is at the center of these warring ideas, a new king figuring out how to balance being a good man with being an effective leader. Like “Phase 3” heroes Thor (Thor: Ragnarok) and Star-Lord (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), T’Challa shoulders both a divine legacy, as well as the lies told by his father to maintain that legacy. A rotten foundation keeps each of their kingdoms standing.
For T’Challa, the lie in question was T’Chaka murdering his brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) and abandoning N’Jobu’s son Erik (Michael B. Jordan) in order to keep Wakanda a secret. When Erik, later “Killmonger,” returns to exact vengeance, T’Challa must not only consider Erik’s outlook on Wakanda and its refusal to provide aid, but the outlook of everyone around him.
T’Challa is the central point linking all of Wakanda’s ideological conflicts, each articulated by a uniquely alluring character who comes off in the right in some form or another. T’Challa’s duty is to decide which parts of these conflicting ideals to consider before making his decisions. His responsibility is to compromise; a difficult position for a new leader of a global superpower, especially when the forces around him are defined by their clashing perspectives.
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