Black Panther isn’t a ‘black’ movie, says Oscar-nominated star Daniel Kaluuya. And, of course, he’s right – it’s a superhero film about men in tights fighting, one in the seemingly endless production-line of Marvel blockbusters (18 and counting).
But it’s so rare to see a film of this size – it has a $200m budget – with this many black actors that you can see why people are rushing to label it (the only white characters of note are played by Lord of the Rings veterans Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, who the internet have dubbed the Tolkien white guys).
It follows T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), introduced in the last Captain America film, as he takes the throne of African nation Wakanda following the assassination of his father. Virtually all the action takes place in this secretive country, and it’s a wildly different take on the African continent than any other big-budget Hollywood film has attempted. This is no poor, rural, war-torn place – Wakanda is an Afrofuturist utopia, a techno-megalopolis that draws inspiration not from western or far eastern architecture, but from Africa itself. Impossibly advanced buildings and automated transport networks rise from the savannah, integrated with tribal motifs and references to African fauna. It’s no slight on the excellent cast to say this thriving city is the film’s greatest achievement.
And while Black Panther may not be a movie about race, it isn’t shy in addressing the subject. The main antagonist clashes with T’Challa over their ideologies surrounding people of colour – should the vast wealth and knowledge of Wakanda be used to further the cause of black people across the world, or is it T’Challa’s responsibility to remain insular and protect his people?
Michael B Jordan’s Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, born and raised in the US by a Wakandan father, is all about righting historical wrongs, having seen those around him struggle against a loaded and uncaring system. He’s a charismatic foil to Boseman’s introverted hero, and the inevitable clash between the two is given weight by this intellectual conflict.
Since the wildly successful Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel has doubled down on the bouncy, irreverent tone that’s become the hallmark of its cinematic universe. Black Panther sticks to the script, with lashings of colour, plenty of knowing humour, and battle sequences that border on the absurd (the armoured rhinoceroses are probably a step too far).
Black Panther isn’t a game-changer – in fact, it’s an archetypal Marvel film. But it show a side of this universe that’s been ignored for too long, and it’s a better place because of it.