For a long-time Marvel enthusiast like me, it doesn’t take more than the news of a new Marvel movie to get me excited. As I have understood over the past few months, “Black Panther” is more than just a movie. It is a phenomenon. It is the first superhero movie with a majority black cast. It is seen as uplifting the significance of black lives in America as well as their portrayal in Hollywood. Thus, the movie’s release garnered immense support from African and African American communities around the world.
Set in Wakanda, a hidden, futuristic and technologically advanced African nation, “Black Panther” is the story of a new king’s ascension to the throne. The new king, T’Challa (aka Black Panther), faces the hard choices of protecting the anonymity of his nation as well as opposing his long lost cousin N’Jadaka’s (aka Erik Killmonger), who makes claims to the Wakandan throne.
Director Ryan Coogler does a great job of introducing an entirely new era in the Marvel cinematic universe while exploring significant themes such as African spirituality and the differences between being African and being African American.
The roles of T’Challa and N’Jadaka are important not only because they are the hero and villain respectively, but also because their characters portray distinct differences and cultural divisions through history. Being born to the same family, both Black Panther and N’Jadaka would have had similar experiences and upbringings. But as N’Jadaka was left behind in America as a child, he grew up as an African American. While the nostalgia for family and blood ties can be seen in the actions and thoughts of T’Challa and N’Jadaka, their differences become apparent in their understanding of Wakanda and Black Panther’s place in the world.
The film also addresses the topic of African spirituality very eloquently. From the beautiful sunsets of Wakanda to the rites of passage for ascension, even to the Dora Milaje (Black Panther’s elite personal guard) and the headdress worn by Queen Mother (similar to those worn by Zulu women in South Africa), the movie is richly textured with spiritual ceremonies and symbolism. When the newly appointed king is buried, it is symbolic of him leaving his old life behind. So when T’Challa is thrown into the water by N’Jadaka during their challenge, water is seen as a symbol of rejuvenation and thus that is where T’Challa must come back to life.
Another major win for the movie is the team of fierce, strong and empowered women in it. The story supports a cast whose main characters are female and powerful. The group of women consists of Dora Milaje, Nakia (Black Panther’s love interest who chooses to be an undercover spy instead of T’Challa’s queen) and Shuri (a 16-year- old technology-creating genius and princess of Wakanda).
That being said, a bone of contention black communities still have with Hollywood movies is the claim that the industry believes that without some white characters in the movies, a predominantly African American cast cannot earn big. An example of this is seen in the movie in the role of Everett K. Ross, played by Martin Freeman. His character is of minimal significance to the plot of the movie, but in true Hollywood fashion, he sticks out like a very sore White thumb in many scenes.
All in all, Marvel brought together a movie which is of great social and political relevance in today’s age while not hesitating to showcase the African and African American realities of today’s generations.