The Marvel machine has been running full steam for the past half decade now, building momentum for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War showdown. With every release, the anticipation gets kicked up another notch.
Even with all of that, the standalone Black Panther film was a special case. At a time when the push for greater diversity is at an all-time high, all eyes were on this film. A predominantly black cast? An African story? Would it do justice to the culture and politics without taking away from the entertainment value? Would the story bring something new, or rehash the Marvel formula?
Finding myself in Nairobi with time to kill, the chance to put a loaded #wakandaforever status was too good to pass up, so into the theatre we went.
Having come away from the Avengers movies feeling, if not disappointed, a little less than satisfied, I was prepared for more of the same. It was a pleasant surprise when Black Panther exceeded all my expectations and lived up to the hype surrounding it.
Our arena of choice was Century Cinema at Junction Mall, a modest theatre with both 3D and 2D movie offerings. As with everything else we noticed about Nairobi, there was a chill, languid pace here – no jostling ticket queues, no harassed ticket checkers, no stern ushers. We got our tickets and water, waited for the showtime, walked into the spacious hall, and found our seats. A quick round of trailers, all aired at a soothing volume instead of blaring at us (take note, Star Cineplex), and then the main event.
Just in case you haven’t seen it yet, the film set is right after the events of Avengers: Civil War, where T’Challa/Black Panther made his first appearance, and takes us to Wakanda, the secret vibranium-rich African utopia apparently hidden in plain sight. With his father, King T’Chaka, dead, the grieving T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must now ascend the throne and formally take over the Black Panther mantle. While his family is expecting a smooth transition for the reluctant heir, there’s trouble brewing on the horizon, in the form of challengers to the throne, and a few skeletons in the Panther’s closet. And that’s as spoiler-free as I can get.
It was pretty evident from the film that director Ryan Coogler had his finger on the pulse of the viewers. Taking a few broad strokes from history, from colonialism in the African continent to #Blacklivesmatter in the US, he managed to weave the complex political and social issues into a plot that offered the flash and the fights that a ten-year old could enjoy. It helped that the visual details – from the Afrofuturistic Wakanda, to the clothes – were stunning. The fights scenes, which were well-choreographed, had a gorgeous, kinetic quality to them. Having spent some time in and around Nairobi by then, it was easier to identify that the show-runners had done their homework. Of course Wakanda, like Civil War’s “Sokovia”, is a fictional country, but the production and costume designers had dug deep into authentic African cultures and topography to create a world that was believable – as far as a film about alien technology can be believable.
What ultimately sold the film to me, and to “woke” audiences worldwide, however, were the well-rounded characters and the powerful performances by the actors that portrayed them. While Boseman’s T’Challa was suitably regal, the strong female roundup, be it the stunning Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, the fierce Danai Gurira as Okoye, or Letitia Wright’s irrepressible Shuri, all maintained a solid presence without hijacking the plot (we’re looking at you, Fury Road). Michael B Jordan’s Erik Killmonger is being called the best supervillain since Heath Ledger’s Joker, and it’s not hard to see why. Jordan delivers a nuanced performance, tempering his ambition with radicalized compassion and using his efficiency and sass to dominate every scene he’s in.
Coogler and crew have taken the Marvel machine and used it to create a superhero flick with brains and heart. Whether this was a one-off, or hopefully the start of a new trend, only time (and maybe Infinity War) will tell. For now, this is a film that’s worth all the hype.