Second Sight: The Majesty of Black Panther

Each generation in America has been defined by monumental films.  They criticize, question, expose, and ultimately challenge the romanticized notions of school textbooks and political rhetoric, shining the spotlight on injustice, violence, and triumph.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a cultural phenomenon, using 18 films to rewrite Spielberg's Jaws blueprint of a blockbuster, showing that lighthearted, repetitive spandex mayhem is the recipe for sky high dividends.  Ryan Coogler's Black Panther is a rarity, a larger than life experience that subverts the tried and true formula to present a thought provoking dissertation on African American identity in a world gone mad.  This film's existence is a miracle.  It's presentation a blessing, and its ramifications are game changing.

King T'Challa is the Black Panther, superhuman protector of Wakanda, a technologically superior African nation that hides behind a wall of illusion, fearful that their advancements would either be usurped by imperialism or irrevocably change the course of humanity.  His rule is challenged by a dangerous killer, Erik Killmonger, whose ties to Wakanda will change the fabric of not only the wondrous nation, but T'Challa's personal ethos.  Coogler and Joe Robert Cole's script is perhaps the weakest element, taking its hero through expected victories and defeats before a resplendent finale.  Black Panther is a manifesto more than a traditional superhero bonanza.  The formula is the delivery method, while the payload is the undertones, fusing the beloved (and often misconstrued) ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X into a battle of ideals that happens to be settled with brawn.  Chadwick Boseman does an adequate job as T'Challa, but he is easily, purposefully eclipsed by Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger, a product of both environment and ethical malfeasance.  The layers are both obvious and subtle, balancing expected tropes with unexpected implications.  The symbolism of a child raised by a single mother who is both a noble and an iconoclast is not lost, bringing to the fore the film's true conflict: The battle for agency in a landscape of exploitation and rage.  It's easy to cheer for Jordan as he swaggers through each scene, tearing down convention after convention, but Panther's greatest attribute is its condemnation of both philosophies, begging for a merging of approaches to a problem that sadly, shouldn't still exist, and yet reminds of us its presence every day on social media and the news. 

The cast is filled with extraordinary talent.  Winston Duke's performance as M'Baku, chief of a rival clan is one of the film's greatest surprises, simulating both majestic pride and unexpected humor.  Sterling K. Brown's pivotal cameo as Killmonger's father is both poignant, defining, and soul crushing.  Martin Freeman does a surprisingly good job with his supporting turn, demonstrating a thoughtful, careless, and most importantly learning ally.  Motion capture legend Andy Serkis's Klaue is a fantastic foil, harnessing the very essence of cultural appropriation and greed to deliver one of the most despicable villains in the MCU pantheon.  However, Black Panther truly belongs to the women.  Icon Angela Bassett's royal matron is flawless while Letitia Wright's Shuri debuts a heroine every young woman can aspire to.  Her Shuri is smart, unbelievably capable, and most importantly, fierce in her convictions.  Lupita Nyong'o's Nakia is a living symbol of poise and celestial beauty, delving into both action and intrigue with grace and confidence.  Danai Gurira's Okoye is the film's most powerful performance, a warrior whose devotion is astounding.  Her practiced choreography is jaw dropping, particularly in the film's unbelievable "single take" centerpiece.  

Ruth Carter is a near mythological costume designer, and her presence in this film is felt in every single frame.  It's not only testament to her unparalleled talent, but a brilliant reminder that costuming is an essential part of a film's anatomy.  Wakanda is a paradise, but also a cultural touchstone, made real with every intricate costume that graces the screen.  Hannah Beachler's production design is the perfect complement, creating a living, thriving world of fantastical ideas and heritage untouched by colonialism.  Wakanda is also a dream; a place of possibilities, and Carter and Beachler's presentations fully realize its potential, so much so that awards gold is most likely in their future.  Everything is captured by Rachel Morrison's patient cinematography.  The temptation to indulge in endless wide shots is apparent, yet, T'Challa's journey is presented as a focused, Shakespearean sojourn with vivid close ups and kinetic action sequences, displaying Morrison's potent command of the lens at every turn.  The casino fight scene, dream sequences, and the presentation of Wakanda itself are portals, ripping the viewer from their seat and displacing them into Coogler's fully realized Afrofuturistic utopia, and the journey is sublime.

There is the more than fair criticism that at face value, Black Panther is nothing more than a retread of the gilded formula, and while this is true, it is also a criminal misunderstanding of the stakes.  Coogler was hired to do this film in perhaps one of the most divisive times in American history.  His subversion of the entire process, his rebellion in between the lines is what matters.  His heroes enter a casino adorned in the colors of the African Nation flag.  His villain is sympathetic, tragically complex, and real.  His characters are beautiful, his world building is delicate and sensitive.  The underpinnings are both a condemnation of the status quo and a plea for evolution, two ideals that are amaranth in a time that would make Harrison Bergeron cry.  Regardless of the quality of the plot, the presentation, social relevance, and undeniable splendor of the final product cannot be denied.  This is a masterful piece of art that will be decried, dissected, and venerated for decades to come.  

In theaters now, Black Panther is not only the greatest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is a stunning example of the power of art.  Walls and blockades are built every day, with digital hills being erected in pointless comment threads where friendships are broken and strangers wage wars of the spoken word; wars whose results don't matter.  This film matters.  It criticizes respectfully and accuses pointedly, reminding even the staunchest resister that change is inevitable and the right to exist is inalienable.  Forged by violence and concluded by hope, this is the movie experience of a lifetime.  

--Kyle Jonathan