I am not a die-hard Marvel fan. I don’t even know the names of half of the superheroes, let alone their superpowers. I delayed watching Black Panther even when it received both commercial and critical success. And even when multiple friends told me to watch it. I watched it, regrettably, after the death of Chadwick Boseman.
How should I review a commercial, superhero flick? Poetic words or flowy language which I employ to an “art film” would sit artificially here. So let me begin with the one title that the movie aimed at achieving, and deserved it as well — it was thoroughly entertaining.
The mythical country of Wakanda (a name that comes from the Wakamba tribe of Kenya, also known as the Kamba), was a fresh, almost liberating alternative to the posh cities of America where Marvel superheroes typically reside or at least begin their journeys. The design approach for the film was keeping the costumes rich with African customs, merging the whole continent and a wide range of people, elevating it to reflect the fantastical elements inherent in the mysterious country and culture.
The African culture was, thus, not integrated into the film from the top to be used as a liberal statement or a symbolic gesture or worse, a decorative item. The story of Black Panther emerges from the continent of Africa, from the bottom — its soil — as a celebration of its varied and rich heritage. It was done without romanticising or exoticising the country or the culture, just narrated as it should be (think how we in India detest Slumdog millionaire or Mira Nair movie, but identify with a Gully Boy, to understand this).
The movie also had a predominantly African American cast, the first Marvel film to have so. In a famous anecdote out of the many associated with the film, Martin Freeman in response to being asked what it felt like being one of the only few white actors on set (and sometimes the only non-black actor on set), said, “You think, ‘right, this is what black actors feel like all the time?“
One more remarkable thing in this movie was that there were not one, but three leading female protagonists in the film along with Chadwick Boseman. They had their own roles in the plot, their separate narratives removed from T’Challa’s (Chadwick’s) story. Nakia, for example, is T’Challa’s friend and love interest and also a rebel leader for oppressed people in the more impoverished regions surrounding Wakanda, with her own thoughts and opinions.
What’s more is that our hero is comfortable to share his space and his glory with the three women. Nowhere does he condescend or step back/aside to make room for them, he is there and they are there, all together creating a badass, kickass, un-gendered club.
Because the story is grounded in the history and culture of Africa, references to its history of slavery by Western Colonisers and continued discrimination faced by people of colour all over the world are replete in the movie.
Its Director Ryan Coogler compares the Wakanda Vibranium mines to the real-life situation of the Congo mine, where the valuable mineral Coltan (used in manufacturing digital products, found only in the Congo region) is mined by Corporate companies. The possessiveness of the Wakandans towards Vibranium, the attempt of outsiders to extract the resources and their perceptions of the Wakandans as a dangerous tribe, and the demands of Killmonger (and Nakia to some extent) towards Wakandans to lead the battle against poverty and violence against their people are debates which are relevant in the burning, real-time world.
The best part of the film is that these questions are not left hanging or for introspection alone, it works its way towards some solution or at least a beginning of a solution. The central theme here is not merely reflection but responsibility and identity.
In Ryan Coogler’s own words: “What do the powerful owe those in need? What value is strength unless you’re using it to help someone? Wakanda pretends to be just another struggling African country, but some of its neighbours are struggling for real. If Wakandans don’t stand up for themselves, who will? But if they stand only for themselves, then who are they?“
Towards the end, when T’Challa starts the community outreach centre in the very place where the whole conflict started, we know that Wakanda (signifying the empowered section of the historically marginalised communities) is finally reaching out to their left out peers. Black Panther, thus, metamorphosises into the Black Lives Matter movement — for, the rights are won, but the battle to claim and use the rights have still to be fought.
No wonder the movie broke so many box office records and snatched so many Oscar awards. “Snatch” is the word I use here because of the treatment other Marvel movies receive at Oscars — they are considered to be like Salman Khan flicks in India — entertainment without real merit. Black Panther, strictly in terms of story (predictable), cinematography (amazing, but the usual) and acting (good, but not moving) was no different from other Marvel movies.
The point is that the movie made a difference. It changed the game for the filmmakers as well as the audience. It created space for oppressed people to reclaim their own stories and put it out to the world, the whole world, and not just a niche audience. They got the damn approval and praise they deserve.
Because this review is also a tribute to Chadwick, I would like to share two anecdotes about him. When Chadwick Boseman won Best Hero at the 2018 MTV Movie and TV Awards, he invited James Shaw Jr, who is dubbed the Waffle House Hero by the media, up to the stage and gave him the award as he felt that he deserved it more. Shaw subdued a gunman at a Waffle House in Nashville, Tennessee. The gunman killed four people, yet, Shaw was able to prevent any other people from getting killed. Shaw was humbled by Boseman’s acknowledgement.
A native of Anderson, South Carolina, Chadwick bought out a showing of Black Panther at the AmStar Stadium 14 theatre in his hometown. He screened it for underprivileged African American kids who were invited to the showing. The idea was that when these kids go to school they can be a part of the conversation in the halls and on the playground and not have to feel left out as their friends are talking about the movie.
It’s also cool that the actor did this in his home state. This not only allows these kids to see their representation on screen but also in real life, as someone from their community became successful enough to return to his hometown and share in that success.
Chadwick Boseman was two years into his four year battle with colon cancer when this film came out and, thus, is a living testimony to the fact that one can live life to its fullest and the best even as it is slipping away.
I cried twice while watching the film. First time when Killimonger says, “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage“. I felt anger at the past and continuing violence against the marginalised communities and sadness that some people leave the world before seeing the change.
The second time when the movie ended because I also felt like his countless fans are feeling, that Chadwick Boseman is truly irreplaceable. I wonder if a second part can be made without him, though I also don’t want this, something so path-breaking, to stop.
I also wonder when India will have its very own Dalit Lives Matter movement, thrust much into the mainstream — hoping that we reach that turning point soon, where commercial Art seeks out to address the many movements that are going on in the country. It will happen when it has to happen, I guess.
Let us till then take a cue from this film and bring the conversation on #dalitlivesmatter, #womenslivesmatter, #minoritylivesmatter, #queerlivesmatter, #naturelivesmatter, etc. into mainstream spaces. Let us start making it sound cool so that the likes of Yashraj would want to invest in it.
Rest In Power Chadwick Boseman, the Avengers Will Assemble.