Black Panther: Afrofuturism's Coming of Age Moment (Spoiler Review)
Table of Contents
Characters and Actors
Black Panther does a lot of things right, the characters are deep and layered. The actors and actresses are top-notch. Even the characters that are underwritten are important in their own way. This is the strongest cast of any MCU film, which is why it has such a high score on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Black Panther/T'Challa - Chadwick Boseman
Chadwick Boseman brought his A-game with another strong performance as the new King of Wakanda who takes the throne following his father's assassination in Captain America: Civil War. In 'Black Panther' however, we see a man who has to grapple with his duties as King vs. what it means to be a man sitting on a mountain of the most powerful metal on Earth.
T'Challa is a stoic character full of honor and respect for tradition, but he is faced with the realization that his father did some terrible things that he was unaware of. At the beginning of the movie, we see the reverence he has for his father because he feels he could do no wrong when he was living. By the end of the movie, we see T'Challa force his father, in the Djalia (spirit realm), to answer for his actions which lead to the creation of Killmonger.
People will be analyzing T'Challa/Black Panther as a character for a long time. What it means to be King and the ruler of a nation and how you balance tradition with progress. T'Challa represents the change in society. He's a young King coming into power in a country steeped in traditionalist expectations and assumptions. Some of those assumptions about how to act and react are not always good. Black Panther is a very interesting character to analyze. Where Killmonger represents authoritarian rule by force, T'Challa represents a noble and benevolent ruler that can be pushed to change.
Okoye - Danai Gurira
For many viewers, Okoye is their favorite character and I can understand why. Danai Gurira, who most know from the TV series 'The Walking Dead,' portrays a powerful General who leads a group of warrior women known as the Dora Milaje. The sole job of the Dora Milaje is to protect the Black Panther and therefore the throne of Wakanda.
The Dora first appeared in the Christopher Priest run (Black Panther Volume 3) in 1998 and they resemble actual groups of women that once existed in Africa such as the warrior Amazons of Dahomey (modern-day Benin) who served a similar role as the Dora Milaje.
It's not just that Okoye (and Nakia, Shuri, etc) is a powerful woman who can hold her own on the battlefield, but the casting is a great move for dark-skinned women of color who so often are ignored and glossed over in films. Danai Gurira is not by herself, she's not the lone dark beauty used as a backdrop against an otherwise all-white cast. She is joined by a unit of equally powerful and self-sufficient black women and for young black girls that an important thing.
We can try to play down the impact of images all we want, but at the end of the day how you are depicted in cinema matters very much. The Dora Milaje
Nakia - Lupita Nyong'o
Lupita Nyong'o plays a Wakandan spy who infiltrates foreign governments to keep the secrets of her nation safe. Her character as she is portrayed in the film is slightly different from how Christopher Priest depicted her in Volume 3. Changes between mediums are to be expected however and you won't find a single MCU movie that depicts the heroes and villains the exact way they were depicted in the comics.
Nakia isn't just a spy, she's also T'Challa's love interest and former ex-girlfriend. Lupita adds credibility to a cast already full of it, but her character is not always in line with the King. Being that she's not a member of the Dora Milaje, she is able to be more independent in her agenda. When Killmonger dethrones T'Challa, she insists Okoye aid her in overthrowing the usurper. Okoye rejects the idea and goes along with Killmonger's rise to power because her calling is different from that of Nakia's.
I originally thought Lupita would be cast as Shuri, but I like this decision and love how layered the women are in this film. 'Black Panther' accomplishes what 'Wonder Woman' did and takes it to another level.
Erik Killmonger - Michael B. Jordan
Killmonger is the best villain to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I am not alone in my opinion. But why though? Well for starters, the MCU has had known problems with how their villains are portrayed. The villains are sometimes the most under-developed characters in the entire movie. Some Directors have done a better job than others such as the Russo Brothers who directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War.
Both The Winter Soldier and Baron Zemo are made to appear sympathetic. The Winter Soldier is an assassin who has had his brain scrambled so many times that he doesn't know who he is and we see him going through shock treatment in Cap 2. Baron Zemo in Cap 3 is a victim of The Avengers in many ways because his family died in the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron when Sokovia was destroyed.
Many have pointed to Loki, who I think benefited from the fact that he's been in more movies than most MCU villains. Loki has been in all 3 Thor films as well as the first Avengers film where he was the main villain. Most of the villains of the MCU are one-shots, meaning they only appear in one film and then it's a wrap for them. If there is one downside to Killmonger in Black Panther, it's that I think they killed him off too quick.
Killmonger has something that none of the aforementioned villains have, he has an arc that is not only believable - but you will find yourself agreeing with his agenda. Maybe not the ways by which he wants to execute his agenda, but the idea of using Wakandan technology to help Blacks of the diaspora immediately makes him a character that many viewers will gravitate to. This concept is elaborated on more down below under the 'Deeper Meanings' headline.
Shuri - Letitia Wright
In Black Panther: Volume 5, Shuri becomes Black Panther and ruler of Wakanda. It was a short-lived run containing only a handful of issues before being canceled but it's an idea that I believe we will see play out at some point in the MCU. For starters, Letitia Wright is a delight to watch on camera and she's perfect for this role. At the real-world age of 24, I can definitely see her carrying the mantle of Queen in 6 years or so as she approaches 30. That's when I can envision Black Panther 3 releasing and Letitia Wright will be older and grown into her role even more.
I think the character of Shuri is the best conduit for Afrofuturist themes in this series. She's a young scientist and lead engineer in the kingdom who we see developing T'Challa's new suit that he uses in combat which has a number of features making it more than just bulletproof.
The relationship between T'Challa and Shuri is not antagonistic and we don't see them trying to undermine each other. There is something to be said about the power of a functional family unit which we've seen black families depicted this way before, but never in a fantasy/heroic environment. Shuri is really smarter than T'Challa in many ways because after all, it's not T'Challa creating his weapons and armor.
Some of the best scenes in the movie are those that involve Shuri. She's written in a somewhat comedic way, but unlike past MCU films, the comedy isn't forced or out-of-place. I look forward to seeing more of her in future films.
Ramonda - Angela Bassett
Ramonda carries the title of Queen Mother and represents the feminine essence of the mother and caretaker. She's the mentor who is always there to lend support and help lead T'Challa through his trials as King. She knows what to expect given her marriage to the former Black Panther T'Chaka, so it's no surprise that it is she who aids a broken T'Challa in the domain of M'Baku towards the end of the movie.
Played by Angela Bassett, Ramonda isn't in a lot of the movie, but her presence is felt in every scene she's in. She's easily the most clearly regal character in the film. Many people wanted Angela Bassett to play Storm back in the day and even though that opportunity has passed, Ramonda will have to do.
In many ways, Ramonda is also the bearer of secrets much like Zuri. They both represent Mentor figures who are part of the old guard and the traditional way of doing things. However, neither character is trying to hurt Wakanda or T'Challa and Ramonda especially only wants the best for her nation. She reminded me a lot of The Oracle from The Matrix.
M'Baku - Winston Duke
M'Baku was the character I didn't know what to expect out of going into the movie. I'm familiar with his character from the Black Panther comics, who is often antagonistic towards the Wakandan throne. I didn't expect to enjoy Winston Duke's portrayal of him as much as I actually did. At first, he is portrayed as an adversary, but by the 3rd Act, we see that he's not so much an adversary as much as he simply has problems with the Panther cult...being he's from the White Gorilla cult. He literally worships a different deity altogether from that of the people who follow the Black Panther.
He's not in much of the movie but plays a critical role in saving Wakanda from Killmonger the Usurper. I can't wait to see what Marvel decides to do with his character going forward. Not only in the comics, but in the films.
W'Kabi - Daniel Kaluuya
W'Kabi is T'Challa's step-brother and biological son of Ramonda and T'Chaka. He is 2nd in line to assume the throne if anything were to ever happen to T'Challa. Which makes his decision to side with Killmonger that much stranger. I could tell there was more to the story that didn't make it in the final cut of the feature film and I'm ok with that. I would've liked to have seen more of what may have motivated his actions.
They allude to a relationship between him and Okoye, but it is never really developed in the movie due to the limits of film versus a medium like Netflix and a 10-episode series. I'd imagine that W'Kabi had his own plot and only sided with Killmonger to momentarily evade his attack. Then when he wasn't paying attention, he'd attack him and try to claim the throne for himself. That's how it plays out in my head anyway.
As I alluded to in the video at the top of this article, W'Kabi is in more of this movie than I expected. Much like M'Baku though, I didn't know how his character would be portrayed in the film. Daniel Kaluuya does a good job and this is his first film since 'Get Out' which he has been nominated for.
Zuri - Forest Whitaker
Zuri is an important character, but is largely overshadowed by other characters and his portrayal in the film is the most radically different from how he appears in the comic book where he is less mentor and more of a protector of T'Challa. Forest Whitaker is a good actor, but I didn't expect him to be killed off in the movie. I mentioned in the video above that he's killed to show how dangerous of a man Killmonger is. Given a name like that, you have to show him killing someone that is important to T'Challa.
I don't think we see enough reaction to Zuri's death though in the movie. Which again, it's a time constraint issue. We've all been spoiled by Netflix series like Luke Cage and Daredevil. There are certain plot points that can't be included in the film and I think it hurts Zuri the most out of everyone (but it also impacts W'Kabi too).
As mentioned above, Zuri represents the old guard and he struggles to maintain the secret about what T'Chaka did to Killmonger's father back in the 1990's. I think given more time, the relationship between Zuri and T'Challa could've been expanded more.
Ulysses Klaue - Andy Serkis
Klaue (pronounced Klaw) represents colonial imperialism and greedy Western opportunism on the continent of Africa. There's no other way to describe it. That's not just an MCU thing either, that's how his character is depicted in the Black Panther comics. He was originally introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron where we find out that he has stolen vibranium and ends up getting his arm chopped off by Ultron.
They played down the colonial angle a bit to be honest, they didn't go heavy in that direction. However, the Wakandans have a way of describing white visitors to their land - they call them 'colonizers.' That is hilarious and shows you how aware Wakanda is to what has taken place on the continent when non-Africans have become too involved in local affairs. The colonizer jab shows you why Wakanda has been underground and off-the-radar for as long as it has been though.
Played by Andy Serkis, known mostly for his motion capture work, Klaue is not the main villain in the movie. He's mostly there as a stepping stone for the real villain who is Erik Killmonger. I expected slightly more out of his character though, but given the fact that he's mostly a glorified thief, I don't know what else could've been done with his character.
Everett K. Ross - Martin Freeman
For some people, Everett Ross is going to be a somewhat divisive figure in this movie. He plays a CIA officer/agent which is different from his role in the comics. I might have to go back and double-check, but I don't remember him being CIA specifically in the Black Panther comic. He was featured heavily in the Christopher Priest run and is even shown as being heroic at times throughout Volume 3.
Some don't like the positive role he plays in the film in relation to an independent African kingdom like Wakanda due to the agencies historic problematic and at times completely antagonistic relationship with the continent. I think there's something to be said that Killmonger is practically a CIA agent that the CIA created to topple governments and this agent takes over Wakanda. Not because Ross directed him to or anything, but it's interesting to see that dynamic play out. How black Americans can be trained and used as weapons to subvert black leadership abroad.
Wakanda is a glorious world - the mythic vision of an African nation so powerful that it has technology light years ahead of even the United States. I was so wrapped up in Wakanda as a civilization that I wanted to see more. I have been dreaming about what other regions of Wakanda might look like since we were given a small glimpse into the world itself.
With a world like Wakanda, there's so much you can do with it. We can assume that the main city they showed in Black Panther was Birnin Zana, or The Golden City. They never actually name it, however. I say that because we briefly see what I also believe to be The Necropolis. This is where they kept the heart-shaped herb that was liquified and given to T'Challa to allow him to travel into the Djalia. The Necropolis is called the City of the Dead and it is where all of the former Black Panther's are buried. So that whole sequence in the film where we see T'Challa speaking with the spirit of his dead father had to have been in the Necropolis. It even had an underground feeling to it.
They even had the ceremonial aspect of it where the person who drinks the herbal substance has to be buried under whatever he is lying on. At times it is dirt, another time it is snow. I don't think what they're buried with matters, just as long as they are buried, then "reborn" on the other side in the spirit realm.
'Black Panther' does what Thor 1 failed to do and that is world-build Wakanda. Thor 1 spent way too much time on Earth and ran away from Asgard and turned Asgard into this far-away place that was simply teased to the audience and leaves you wanting more. They show just enough of Wakanda to wet your appetite, while at the same time making it so interesting that you want more.
The Power of Afrofuturism
Afrofuturism is here in all its glory. Black Panther gives us a platform to fantasize about what Africa could have been like had it not been for slavery and colonial imperialism. It's a potent idea with a uniquely black aesthetic that has not been properly tapped into and never on such a massive scale as this film presents it on.
Afrofuturism gives black people the ability to tell our own stories that don't involve whips and chains and the murder of our revolutionaries. It means we can also tell stories that go beyond modern-day struggles of being black in America. It's time black storytelling breaks out of the narrow boxes it has been placed in for so long.
The character of Shuri represents this perfectly. She's technologically brilliant and can use her STEM knowledge to engineer items to defend herself and her nation. Films like 'Hidden Figures' tapped into the desire to see more black technologists on the silver screen, but 'Black Panther' takes it to another level because it adds the science fiction element. So this story isn't constrained by real-world limitations in the way Hidden Figures was.
We should allow ourselves the ability to dream. To be visionaries who can imagine amazing and far out things - even if what we imagine is not possible. I feel black storytelling (specifically in America) has been too heavily influenced by our very real struggles in America. So when we tell stories, all too often, we tell them in ways to fictionalize our sorrow and synthesize our pain. So black sci-fi and black fantasy is something that comes off as alien to many of us because we don't see ourselves in fantastical ways - that must change.
We deserve our far-flung and strange lands with beautifully deadly mythic creatures and powerful empires. Black people can invent magic systems too and use those systems to tell stories of powerful beings who can manipulate matter and achieve things normal men and women can't achieve. I know there are black authors currently working in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, but they are a small group in a mostly white-dominated industry. Afrofuturism can be the vehicle that changes that...and I think Black Panther has shown us what it looks like when that power is properly used.
The people are clearly hungry for something new.