By Lyle V. Harris
Children need heroes to emulate, in real-life and in the world of make-believe. As a kid, l always admired my heroically hard-working parents but I also desperately wanted to be like Superman, the superhero I watched on TV. Although I looked nothing like the lily-white Man of Steel, that didn’t stop me from “flying” around the house with a red bath towel knotted around my neck, scrawny arms outstretched, ready to fight for truth, justice and the American Way.
Now, more than 50 years later, the groundbreaking release of Marvel’s “Black Panther” movie represents a game-changing social phenomenon for a generation of young people — especially young African-Americans — whose mythology and identity will likely be shaped by a fictional hero who’s more relevant and revolutionary than Superman ever was, or could be.
Slickly made, highly stylized and propelled by a pulsing hip-hop soundtrack, “Black Panther” isn’t just another superhero movie. It’s a brilliantly rendered, fully dimensional experience that elevates the trite good-vs.-evil formula, challenges stereotypes about Africa and Africans and promises to have a profound and lasting impact on our culture at-large.
Mind you, as a lifelong comic book nerd, I don’t consider “Black Panther” to be the best Marvel-based superhero movie ever made. I still reserve that distinction for the heart-breaking genre-busting “Logan” released by 20th Century Fox in 2017. But “Black Panther” easily transcends that film and most other cinematic superhero outings that have preceded it. Hands down, this is one of the most powerful and politically astute popular films produced by a major studio in years.
Although the movie shares a name with the 60s-era pro-social activist movement, the titular superhero’s barely noticed appearance as a sideline character in the Marvel comic books actually predated the real-life Black Panther Party by several months.
The movie centers around the ascent to the throne of the mythical nation of Wakanda by Prince T’Challa (the infinitely charismatic Chadwick Boseman) who is obliged to assume his kingly obligations after his beloved father is assassinated. Among T’Challa’s royal duties is assuming the legendary mantle of the Black Panther, the costumed protector of Wakanda who gains super strength and reflexes from imbibing an indigenous plant imbued with metaphysical powers. Hmmm.
The CGI-kingdom of Wakanda is itself an epic, eye-popping vision. This African society faithfully celebrates its folkways, embraces technology as a tool to uplift its citizens and fiercely protects its natural resources, including vibranium, one of the strongest and most versatile minerals on earth. (As a publicity stunt, Delta airlines briefly advertised flights to the fictional country.)
On the surface, the movie’s central conflict involves ruthless mercenaries seeking to steal precious vibranium from T’Challa’s ultra-secretive homeland. To safeguard Wakanda’s treasures, T’Challa/Black Panther must confront Erik Killmonger (the always-excellent Michael B. Jordan), a vengeful killer-for-hire whose true motives are more complicated, and tragic, than than they first appear.
The inevitable showdown between Black Panther and Killmonger is richly layered and downright deep. In subtle but moving ways, the characters’ on-screen battles reflect the tortured history of disillusionment and abandonment that has long existed between many African-Americans, whose ancestors were brought to this country in chains, and our African-born kin. That abiding sense of estrangement is rarely addressed and remains unresolved, neither in film nor in reality.
One of the movie’s most compelling stories involves the Dora Milaje, a group of elite, all-female warriors led by a General Okoye (the fearsome Danai Gurira who plays Michonne on AMC’s “The Walking Dead”). Beautiful, bald-headed and bad-to-the-bone, Okoye is such a powerful character that she deserves her own standalone feature.
Okoye’s battles, and the technological mastery of T’Challa’s baby-sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), are sturdy and entertaining anchors for the movie. Director Ryan Coogler artfully weaves themes of female strength and empowerment into “Black Panther” without being preachy. It just is. And speaking of weaves, the fight scene in which Okoye comments on her hirsute disguise is easily one of my favorites.
Coogler has assembled a first-rate cast that also includes A-listers such as Angela Bassett as the widowed queen mother of Wakanda, Forest Whitaker as Black Panther’s mentor, Martin Freeman as a CIA agent, Andy Serkis as nutcase/villain Klaue, tribal leader Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) and the luminescent Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, a freedom-fighting spy who’s the hero’s fiercely independent love interest.
There’s so much to love about this movie even if much of it is symbolic and intangible. It’s spiritually uplifting, intellectual stimulating and, of course, it’s great fun to watch. “Black Panther” also offers welcome, and perfectly timed antidote for Americans living under a president who fatuously and insultingly refers to other nations as “s***hole countries.” Without spoiling the ending, Black Panther confronts this ugly, anti-immigrant fervor, proving that class always trumps crass.
Onscreen and off, we need more heroes like Black Panther, now more than ever.