The Black Panther experience is magic. Characters, costumes, effects, music, plot, are crafted into a very coherent and really thoughtful film. The characters are fully realized, with authentic voices and depths and desires. They don’t exist in a fairytale world of absolutes — this is a world of complexity, of ambiguity, of gray areas. The film poses hard questions with loaded contexts and obscure answers. At its core, Black Panther focuses on Black American identity and the complexity of living in a country built on the stolen labor of African slaves. It doesn’t shy away from addressing racism, colonialism, and isolationism and it doesn’t try to simplify or tone down their weight. All of the characters are imbued with a social understanding of the reasons and ramifications of their actions.
Black Panther, or T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is the ruling monarch of the land of Wakanda, a county in Africa that has profited and protected itself with an abundant local substance, vibranium. Their technology surpasses, or at least competes, with the other fictional Marvel universe technologies and the people of Wakanda protect themselves through isolation and concealment from the rest of the world. As king, T’Challa struggles to bridge the gap between tradition and progress. The villain comes in the form of an American, Erik (Michael B. Jordan), with Wakandan lineage, who has been abandoned and cast out by his people. Both hero and villain are empathetic characters who learn and grow from their interactions, not just through fighting but through conversation.
The women in this film are incredible to watch. They’re strong and smart and autonomous. They exist for reasons beyond plot device and sexuality. They make choices and contribute and are respected by the male characters and the camera lens. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is T’Challa’s driven ex-girlfriend who strives to bring Wakanda’s prosperity to other parts of Africa. She acts as a moral compass for T’Challa and the audience, arguing for charity and unification. Danai Gurira’s Okoye is an equally strong character who fights for Wakanda traditions but not at the expense of humanity. She is physically powerful and mentally perceptive. T’Challa’s sister Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, easily steals the show as the perfect intersection of brains and badassery. She manages and innovates Wakanda’s technology, the cornerstone of their culture, and she’s super fashionable.
The visuals of the movie match the ideological themes in an incredible way as the cultures of the world’s first people pairs with 21st century futurism. In addition to the stunning, colorful costumes, the African-inspired fabricated world of Wakanda is unlike anything that has been depicted in futuristic imaginings. The city buildings and streets are at the same time ancient, modern, and timeless. The music similarly treads the line between tradition and innovation with the African drums and horns incorporated in the score to the songs by Kendrick Lamar, The Weekend, & SZA.
Part of Black Panther’s magic is the in-theater experience. The audiences on opening weekend are more diverse than I’ve ever seen, with people dressed in Wakanda-inspired outfits and a palpable excitement in the lines for sold-out showings. The appeal of this movie transcends race, age, and class because it is compelling, beautiful, and novel. And this is why representation in Hollywood matters. This is not the first Black superhero movie or the first movie about Black identity, but it is the first Hollywood blockbuster of this scale that has been promoted to the masses, written, directed, starring, and about Black people. Black Panther is a contemplative, beautifully packaged platform that addresses racism, classism, and isolation and poses hard questions about humanity’s role in making this world a more tolerable and compassionate place.