After his father’s sudden death, the heir to the throne of Wakanda is crowned king, and must face the responsibilities of the leader of the most technologically advanced country in the world.
They say sitting on a throne is harding than taking one. T’Challa is the young man who emerges from the sudden death of his father, T’Chaka, who has hunted down the man responsible for his death. That story breathed and ended in Captain America: Civil War, and now, he must discover who he is amid the unexpected shift of power. Indeed, the film literally ends on the line, Who are you? as an American black boy looks up at the king in a poor community’s parking lot. And T’Challa is charged with not only mild dissenters within Wakanda, which still recognizes the four clans that formed the nation, but also the arrival of a rogue new force. Erik “Killmonger” brags an identity that as a black man has been shaped by entirely different forces. In what’s been dubbed a quasi-Shakespearean dichotomy of power, Erik also has royal blood, and poses a legitimate threat to the throne as the son of the late king’s brother.
Tell me what ya gon’ do to me, Kendrick Lamar sings on the poster track for the film with SZA, “All the Stars,” Confrontation ain’t nothing new to me. There’s something special about the film’s mirror image, where the villain is as compelling as the hero. The fact that they’re literally cousins is just the tip of the iceberg. T’Challa is a man of easy grace, whose life has been about training for the throne, living surrounded by the precious vibranium metal that has allowed the rise of the most advanced nation on Earth. Killmonger, on the other hand, grew up in the U.S. without a father, having experienced the warping power of poverty and discrimination against African-Americans firsthand. He wants the throne to open up Wakanda’s doors on the world, and empower black people by weaponizing them on every continent. T’Challa represents Wakanda’s historically isolationist policy, which has put up a front of being just another poor African country for centuries; Killmonger represents anger and action. Their stunningly beautiful vibranium suits follow suit, slick and black and sleek, the Black Panther and Golden Jaguar.
As are performances by their actors. As the Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman has the air of a natural-born leader, and the charisma of a king. Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger swaggers in with an entirely different kind of charisma. One of my favorite actresses, Lupita Nyong’o goes against the grain of Wakandan policies as the independent spy, Nakia, who is fiercely loyal not only to tradition, but her own head and heart. Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, is the indomitable leader of the Dora Milaje, the warrior women who serve the throne, who are based on the real historic Dahomey Amazons. She’s arguably the greatest warrior of Wakanda. But who many describe as the breakout star of the film is Letitia Wright, playing T’Challa’s 16-year-old genius little sister Shuri, the smartest person in the world who (wo)mans Wakanda’s dream-like technology, and slips witty, unamused millennial humor along the way. In a film about the rise of a king, the women arguably steal the show. By showing fierce, capable, multifaceted women with different personalities, in front of and behind the camera, Black Panther is truly ahead of its time.
The film is groundbreaking for many reasons. Not only is it a cultural milestone, but a financial one for Hollywood, with a smashing box office opening weekend to prove films about people of color do make money. And culturally, Wakanda is an African nation that has never been colonized. Slavery has never marred its psyche, and that they are also the most powerful nation on Earth is a chest-expanding feeling. It’s because they have the most valuable metal on Earth in abundance, after a vibranium asteroid crashed there. They’ve woven vibranium into their clothes, their city, their technology, in a way that verges on magic. Ever evolving, Wakanda’s world is a playground of glowing futuristic technology, that pulses light years ahead of even Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy philanthropist we know as Iron Man.
But Wakanda isn’t ignorant: various references are made to colonialism throughout the movie, like when Shuri calls Everett Ross “colonizer,” played hilariously by Martin Freeman, and Killmonger promises the sun will never set on the Wakandan empire he aims to build. Indeed, Killmonger’s greatest weakness is becoming his enemy. The movie hosts another theme, the divide between Africans and African-Americans. T’Challa and Killmonger are who they are because of where they were born. Killmonger’s also half-Wakandan, half-American--truly named N’Jadaka, son of N’Jobu--and brings the issue of race in a different light, alternately being called an outsider and an heir. The film is like nothing you’ve seen before. As costume designer Ruth E. Carter describes, she drew from Afrofuturism, as well as traditional African culture. Tradition rules that the person who rules Wakanda may be challenged; the winner is that of brutal one-on-one combat on the lip of a waterfall. And the removal of Eurocentric influences allows African beauty to truly shine, like the celebration of kinks and curls throughout the movie. The film will likely feel breathtakingly new to American audiences, whose culture reads and sees with western eyes.
Or if you want to stay clear of the politics, it’s just a great story. You almost forget it’s a superhero movie: a man searches for himself, all with the weight of a powerful nation on his shoulders. Incredible costuming, a beautiful cast, actors with charm and gravitas all tell a story paced with triumphant music that alternates between modern rap and traditional rhythms. The ending is tragic, gorgeous, and feels like a hit to the heart, ending finally with T’Challa approaching the UN with Wakanda’s new foreign policy. It’s rare for a film to live up to the hype, but for me, it was everything I’d heard about, and more. Long live the king. Wakanda forever!