‘Black Panther’ shares cultural moment with moviegoers

Chadwick Boseman plays T'Challa, Wakanda's king and guardian in Marvel's "Black Panther." (Marvel Studios/Disney via AP)

By Didi Martinez | Digital Managing Editor

*This review contains spoilers

The box office numbers are in, and “Black Panther” has already earned its place among the second largest four-day gross in history, raking in $263,013,041 domestically.

Studio earnings, however, are a mere afterthought compared to the social buzz the film has created prior to and after its release. Featuring a primarily black cast, this superhero movie was faced with high expectations by crowds who saw it as the first film of its kind.

True enough, on opening night, many black moviegoers arrived wearing African or African-inspired clothing, positioning “Black Panther” as more than just a movie, but part of a cultural moment.

For those who have yet to see the film or unfamiliar with the series, the movie tells the story of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who assumes the kingship of the technologically-advanced African country of Wakanda following the death of his father. Shortly after assuming the throne, T’Challa’s reign as king and Black Panther is put in jeopardy by his cousin, who has discovered the death of his father at the hands of former King T’Chaka (John Kani) and is now seeking revenge. Picking up on his father’s mission to disperse weapons across the world, the film’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), overthrows T’Challa and attempts to kill him. T’Challa and his allies then battle to halt Killmonger’s plans and reclaim the throne.

Over the course of its two hour-long run, “Black Panther” was able to build a fantastical narrative founded on elements of reality. This is perhaps the most distinguishing part of the movie’s conception. Other Marvel Studio films such as “Captain America” or “Iron Man” include moments of reality, but clearly hinge on the suspension of disbelief for most of the film. “Black Panther” is different because in order to understand the characters and the problems presented in the film, the viewer must be able to draw on their own knowledge of colonialism, regime overthrows and racism.

Early film critics have called the movie “unapologetically black,” and that is exactly what it is. Applying lighthearted cultural references like Shuri’s (Letitia Wright) “What are those?” line and Killmonger’s “Hey, auntie” greeting, the film doesn’t shy away from references that only a portion of the audience would understand. But there are also moments when the film pulls no punches at critiquing aspects of the black experience today, such as Okoye’s (Danai Gurira) rejection of the wig she must wear to blend into the “outside world” and Shuri’s insistence on calling white CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) a “colonizer.”

“Black Panther,” for all the praise it has received for bringing black people greater prominence on screen, also elevates women in a big way. Women drive the film’s action in various moments throughout and serve as T’Challa’s primary allies when he returns to fight Killmonger. Characters like Okoye, who leads an entire tribe of female warriors, and Shuri, who is the mastermind behind Wakanda’s latest technology, give women significant screen time and character depth. Even T’Challa’s love interest, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), is primarily portrayed as the king’s friend and partner, not letting their former romance get in the way of their mission to save Wakanda.

No movie is perfect, and there is definitely one aspect of “Black Panther” that lacks a sense of resolution. Namely, the treatment and ultimate death of Killmonger. The film’s antagonist, despite his plans to create a racial revolution using Wakanda’s weapons, is a deeply complex character scarred by both personal and social experiences. Growing up in America, Killmonger repeatedly alludes to the injustices faced by black people within the country — a fact that T’Challa and company seem less than interested in empathizing with.

This is mostly problematic because the film’s very premise lies in a sense of pan-Africanism – that black people around the world are tied by a claim to Africa and therefore, can share a bond regardless of experience. T’Challa denies Killmonger’s demands because it could destabilize peace in the region, but it’s clear that T’Challa never fully understands the motivations behind Killmonger’s call for revolution. One of the most memorable lines of the film was Killmonger’s final words following T’Challa’s offer to save his life: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.” Even then, it’s unclear whether T’Challa ever fully grasps the vast degree of separation between his and Killmonger’s experiences in the world.