How Black Panther Will Change Cinema Forever
Recently, I took a friend to see Captain America Civil War. Like many other moviegoers, she loved the film. Afterwards, she asked me about the Black Panther character. She wanted to know if he was created as a representation of the Black Panther political party, founded in the 1960’s. This got me thinking. Recently, Marvel Studios announced a solo film featuring Black Panther, to be released in 2018 (during Black History month). This would be the first Marvel film starring a black character. There have been other superhero films starring black characters (the acclaimed Blade series with Wesley Snipes and the abysmal Steel, starring Shaquille O’Neal, are some examples) but very few, if any, have depicted a hero of African descent. I came to realize that between the Black cast, the presence of African heritage, the rich superhero mythology and some other other factors, Marvel’s Black Panther is poised to be one of the most original “black” films Hollywood has ever seen.
Black Panther Will Depict the Beauty of Africa and its People
There have been several black films over the years that have earned the respect of film fans and critics alike. Classics like Amistad and The Color Purple were milestones in American cinema. Most recently, films like Selma and 12 years a Slave garnered the attention of the Academy and racked up several nominations. Movies like Beasts of No Nation and Blood Diamond were exciting, well directed films that were actually set in Africa. The glaring problem I have with these films is that they all embrace heavy themes of black suffering. Stories of black slavery, war, genocide and hardship are deep-routed in most of the American-made black films that receive widespread attention and acclaim. I loved Hotel Rwanda but it was another film set in Africa, depicting Africans as being oppressed or made to suffer.
There is one strange exception to this rule… Egypt. Egypt is a unique country geographically because it lies above the Saharan Desert. Logistically, many people consider Egypt separate from Africa and more closely related to the Middle East. Historically, Hollywood has been fascinated with stories of Egypt, the massive Pyramids and ancient Egyptian culture being a focus of many movies spanning decades. For some reason, it seems that filmmakers have been comfortable casting non-blacks and non-browns as Egyptians. In 1963, a film about the great Egyptian Queen Cleopatra was filmed. Who would represent this ancient beauty of legend? Elizabeth Taylor. Granted, most Egyptians are light or brown skinned but I think we can all agree that Taylor was an atrocious miscast. This tradition continues today with movies like Ridley Scott’s Exodus, Gods of Egypt and Arronofsky’s Noah. Why it is so difficult for Hollywood to cast African or Middle Eastern actors as Egyptians?
Black Panther will be set in the fictional country of Wakanda. In the comics, Wakanda is the most technologically advanced country in the world. The great nation strives with advances in science, technology and medicine. In addition, Wakanda sits atop a huge deposit of “Vibranium” (an ultra-rare mineral with extremely valuable properties). Now let’s be honest here, Wakanda doesn’t exist. The concept of such a country is purely fictional. Recently, Marvel Studios’ head, Kevin Feige, revealed that the Black Panther cast will be 90% black. A film depicting civilized, educated, dark-skinned people doing amazing things with science and technology, in Africa, is something that I’ve almost never seen in a movie and am eagerly anticipating.
Creed was Black Rocky and Ryan Coogler is Hollywood Gold
I recently overheard two older men discussing last year’s boxing film, Creed. Judging by their accents, I could tell that the gentlemen were possibly of Italian descent. One of the men was remarking on how Creed was the “Best Rocky film since the first one.” He lamented about Sly Stallone’s Oscar-nominated performance and how well the film connected to the rest of the Rocky mythology. In fact, every bit of praise this man had for Creed centered on Sylvester Stallone and the character of Rocky. Surely he must have witnessed Michael B. Jordan’s angsty depiction of Adonis Creed or Tessa Thompson’s graceful performance as the girl-next-door. How about Ryan Coogler’s amazingly accurate portrayal of boxing maneuvers (including an impressive single-take fight scene in the second act)? One could argue that if you changed the name of Stallone’s character and stripped the film of its Rocky mythology, Creed would stand on its own as an excellent boxing movie, independent of the Rocky name. Then, it occurred to me. These two men didn’t realize that they had just watched a “black film.”
I use the term “black film” very loosely. Any movie that features black people can technically be considered a “black” film. The reason I reference Creed in this regard is because the film deals with many themes that are very relevant to black American culture today. The movie opens with a young Adonis Creed in juvenile detention. He doesn’t know his parents and is adopted by his deceased father’s widow. Many young black men in America face a similar destiny. The nuclear black family in America has been compromised by the prison industrial system. Many young black men have limited or no relationship with their biological fathers and often times succumb to the prison system or worse. This concept is a central theme in Creed, as young Adonis fights his way to reclaim his father’s legacy.
The relationship between Tessa Thompson’s Bianca and Jordan’s Adonis was also very refreshing, in comparison to the cut-and-paste romances Hollywood usually serves up. The love story felt natural, never forced. Their interactions were reminiscent of movies like Poetic Justice, Love and Basketball and other acclaimed black love stories. Ironically, both Jordan and Thompson have been cast in upcoming Marvel films, Jordan in Black Panther and Thompson in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.
When Ava DuVernay, celebrated director of Selma, was in negotiations to direct Black Panther, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t imagine a better choice for director. When she eventually turned down the film due to creative differences, my heart sank. I worried that Black Panther was now doomed to fall into the hands of a director that might be able to make a serviceable action film but ultimately, would be unable to capture the details of African culture as it relates to superhero fiction. Then I saw Creed (after seeing Fruitvale Station). Then Marvel announced Coogler would be helming Black Panther. Then I rejoiced.
Marvel is Having a Historic Run
Hollywood is in a very interesting place right now. TV is threatening to reshape cinematic storytelling as people immerse themselves in the “golden age of television.” In today’s world, a 2-hour story is now stretched across 13 episodes. Streaming services are pulling people away from movie theaters and back into their living rooms. Studios scramble to make every movie property a franchise. After 13 films, Marvel Studios has asserted itself as the first production house to properly craft a cinematic universe.
Now, there are other cinematic universes but let’s face it, Marvel is the only successful one. They have systematically constructed a narrative that has been executed over multiple films. When the final story of Hollywood is one day written, people will look back at Kevin Feige and the MCU as one of the great cinematic accomplishments. Every Marvel film is anticipated by moviegoers, regardless of the featured character. Unknown characters like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy went on to make $1.25B collectively. My point is, people are going to be lined up to see Black Panther, simply because it is the next installment in the Marvel Cinematic storyline. Much like audiences went to see Creed because they were thirsty for a new Rocky movie.
Recently, at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel Studios announced the expanding cast of Black Panther. The cast list now includes prestigious actors such as Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira. Many of these actors have been nominated for Academy Awards in the past and will no doubt contribute to the quality of the film.
Black Panther was the best part of Civil War
Now I know what you’re going to say, “Spider-Man was the best part of Civil War!” Hear me out. Spider-Man is my favorite comic character of all time. I loved Tom Holland’s depiction of the web slinger. I will agree that it was the best representation of Spider-Man we’ve seen thus far. Therein lies my point, we’ve seen Spider-Man before; he’s had five movies (two of which were actually quite good). After five films I would expect the character to finally get his just due. I think nailing Black Panther was a much more difficult challenge. Black Panther was unknown to cinematic audiences and is a foreign character with a foreign accent. The storyline given to Black Panther was separate from the rest of the plot yet it connected in a very interesting way. I felt that Spider-Man was awesome but ultimately not essential for the execution of Civil War. Black Panther was more like the scoop of chocolate in your ice cream sundae, while Spidey was more like the cherry on top. Panther’s distinct storyline was both unique and personal to the concept of the character. T’Challa wasn’t presented as a superhero, he is a king. Chadwick Boseman gave a performance that was both regal and fierce, while sporting a believable African accent to boot. Don’t get me started about that suit. Good lord, that costume…
Black Panther is now an A-list Comic character
As a big fan of Marvel Comics, I’ve noticed a trend in the Marvel Comic Universe. The role of the Black Panther has been elevated. Once a second or third tier character, T’Challa is now regularly featured in story arcs with Iron Man and Captain America. He joined the enigmatic Illuminati, the secret brain trust that covertly makes all the big decisions in the Marvel Universe (unbeknownst to the rest of the Super-hero population).
**Spoilers if you haven’t read Marvel’s Secret War**
Recently, in the pivotal Secret Wars storyline, Dr. Doom reshaped the Universe to his liking. Panther was front and center during the final battle. It was especially badass when, armed with the Infinity Gauntlet, T’Challa faced the God-like version of Doom. I feel that in the past, such a heroic act would be given to top-ranking heroes like Stark, Cap or Thor. In today’s Marvel Universe, the Panther has much more clout.
Recently, Marvel Comics released a new Black Panther #1, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze. The issue was the top selling issue of April 2016. It’s becoming apparent that interest in the character is at an all-time high. Coates is a celebrated journalist for the Atlantic and is new to the world of comics. I was very impressed with the second issue and the direction in which he’s taking the King of Wakanda. I would expect this success of the Panther comic to continue until the release of the film in 2018 and beyond. Marvel’s entire comic line is expanding in diversity. Characters like Miles Morales and Kamala Khan are excellent examples of Marvel’s new take on diversity.
Comics are changing. Publishers are recognizing the diverse fan base that comic fiction services and are responding accordingly. Films are following a similar trend, offering up a more varied array of ethnicities and themes for moviegoers to enjoy. The character of Black Panther is perfect for this new age of comic book cinema. With Marvel Studios behind the property, look for 2018 to be the year that movies are changed forever.