The action in Black Panther begins in Sambisa forest, a large swath of landmass that has been considered ground zero for the Nigerian army’s war on terrorist group, Boko Haram.
Art is imitating life as some students have been kidnapped in what is clearly an ode to the missing Chibok girls. Sexy spy, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) – all grace and smoothness, sinew and empathy – is on a mission, disguised as a victim, to hunt down these tormenters of regular black folk.
The titular hero, played with effortless grace by American actor, Chadwick Boseman, is on his own personal mission. Accompanied by members of the Dora Milaje, his all-female team of formidable bodyguards led by the General, Okoye – a gloriously formidable Danai Gurira, the Black Panther, recently bereaved, has come to take Nakia, his love interest home with him.
Chadwick Boseman reprises his role as T’Challa, a fellow whom apart from moonlighting as the sleek suited up superhero, is actually the crown prince of Wakanda, a fictional, prosperous African country untouched by colonization.
The source of Wakanda’s wealth isn’t merely the absence of the white oppressive gaze though; Wakanda is powered by the world’s largest deposit of vibranium, a valuable natural resource that has been put to judicious use. Wakanda is an African utopia, a game changer, in that for once in a Hollywood mainstream film, an African country is depicted as a formidable power as opposed to the boring single stories of war and strife and violence.
Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) was handed a $200 million budget (unheard of for an African American director) by the hugely profitable Marvel Studios to bring to life his vision of Black Panther, and of Wakanda. He went to town with it, creating a fictional world that is as lavish and spectacular as anything that has been depicted on film. Marvel isn’t a stranger to creating worlds – think the Thor and Guardian of the Galaxy films – but Mr Coogler’s Wakanda, is on a whole new fabulous level.
The breathtaking view from the top as T’Challa and his entourage break the wall that hides Wakanda from the rest of the world is merely a primer of what is to come. Coogler and his crew – one that includes Rachel Morrison, the first woman to receive an Academy award cinematography nomination and veteran costumier, Ruth Carter, take a pan-African approach to imagining Wakanda and the result is a land that is both futuristic, yet deeply rooted in traditional African heritage.
There are high-speed trains, bloodless surgeries and bracelets that act as more than fashion accessories, but the costumes, are influenced from all over Africa. Queen mother Ramonda (a regal Angela Basset) rocks a headgear that is inspired by the Southern Africa Zulu tribe. Forest Whitaker’s Zuri is clothed in Nigerian agbada and T’Challa himself has his pick of various kaftans that could come from anywhere between Ghana and Mali. The women all rock natural hair in various glorious expressions – Okoye is incensed when she has to wear a wig as a disguise – and the River tribes wear lip plates similar to those worn by the Mursi and Suri of Ethiopia.
The Wakanda characters mostly speak Xhosa, an official language of both Zimbabwe and South Africa, but to play the Jabari mountain tribe leader, M’Baku, scene-stealer, Winston Duke leans into Nigerian Igbo. An early scene where all the five tribes of Wakanda come out on a rock, by a waterfall to watch T’Challa claim his crown after first going through a duel is expertly rendered that the production design and costume departments deserve automatic entries into the Oscar conversation next year.
T’Challa is soon forced to reckon with Erik Killmonger, an adversary that hits close to home. Because this is a Ryan Coogler film, Michael B. Jordan plays this adversary. Jordan’s performance and Coogler’s complex writing of the character as a symbol for centuries of black oppression has inspired many sympathisers, some even going as far as naming him the ultimate Marvel villain.
Perhaps, only a person of colour could have directed Black Panther as realised by Mr Coogler. The film is an experience that doesn’t just celebrate black excellence or black pride or black magic, it plumbs the depths of the African American psyche and grapples with the angst of colonialism, slavery and institutional racism and lays the blame equally among the many sides.
Such percolation of ideas makes Black Panther the least basic Marvel movie yet. It entertains splendidly – one on one combat scenes, car chases, cutting edge technology, humour, plus the sheer pleasure of watching Gurira’s Okoye knock out a few men – but the tensions are almost Shakespearean in their intensity.
Viewers across Africa have received the film with arms wide open, unsurprisingly so, but the ‘motherland’ isn’t quite the film’s primary audience. Strip away the elaborate dressings and the celebrations, and Black Panther is a story as American as pie.