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Black Panther: A Spoiler-free Blerd (Black Nerd) Review

By Marquise Griffin

For the next three weeks, Praxis Center will publish three different takes on the highly anticipated film Black Panther. In a Good Morning America interview, Chadwick Boseman was asked what he hoped people would take away from the film. His response was both simple and profound: you’ll get from the film what you take into it. In other words, each person will have a perspective that is unique to their background and position. In this spirit, we will be sharing three different perspectives—from a comic book geek, a filmmaker geek, and a black identity geek. All three writers are black and have particular ways of viewing and thinking about this film. We will start with Marquise Griffin, a self-described “blerd” (black nerd) and former student of mine, who entered the film with great apprehension as an enthusiastic comic book geek. Next week we’ll share a review from Christian Rozier, a filmmaker and film studies professor. After that, I will wrap up this Black Panther mini-series with thoughts on what the film offers to us on the issue of Pan-African black identity. —Stephanie Shonekan, Contributing Editor, Music, Art and Pop Culture

It was 2005. I was 12 years old and browsing through a public library when I stumbled across a Black Panther graphic novel. On the cover was a dark figure wearing a caped, all-black cat suit. His face was completely masked, his brow prominently furrowed and his body curved forward, as if he was prowling after prey in the high, brown grass. In the background were trees with wide branches reaching toward a bright sky. I thought the figure’s pointed ear mask and dark cape made him look like an African version of Batman. Intrigued, I picked up the book and started reading. It took just a few pages for me to realize Black Panther was something different. More than just a wealthy superhero, he was a king, warrior, and black in a way I had never seen in comics or any other medium. I was hooked.

I’ve been waiting for this film since I was 12 years old. I feared the hype would be overblown, but after viewing it, I can say conclusively—Black Panther does not disappoint.

The Plot
The story is well constructed with excellent pacing. Though Black Panther takes place within the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the plot launches from the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), viewers do not need to have seen all or any of the previous Marvel movies to comprehend it. The story starts with the assassination of T’Chaka (John Kani), king of Wakanda while he and his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), are on a diplomatic mission abroad. The basis of the plot revolves around the difficulties T’Challa encounters as he ascends the throne and returns to Wakanda. There are some outstanding elements of the film to consider such as cinematography, costumes, characters. The plot, while simple and comprehensible, also addresses important themes relevant to this political moment: colonialism, self-determination, and black futures.

The Visuals
One of the brilliant facets of the film is the juxtaposition of themes. Throughout Black Panther, there is a contrast between the traditional and modern, prominently seen through the architecture, technology, and costumes. Wakanda blends seemingly opposing forces. It is not only a hybrid between ancient traditions and futuristic advancement, it is a country that maintains a harmonious alliance with nature. Africa, as a continent, has some of the most abundant natural resources in the world, and the fictional Wakanda is even more endowed due to its vibranium deposits.

While the film spans several locations, including the U.S. and South Korea, most of the film is situated in Wakanda, which I could not get enough of. Wakanda is visually stunning and even alien in some respects. This futuristic-feeling African country functions as a character in and of itself, as every aspect of it demonstrates the synergistic relationship Wakanda has between its natural environment and superbly developed technology.

The film’s creators went to great lengths to assure that Africa was visually represented through everything the characters did, wore, or used. Take for example the aircrafts the Wakandans use. These vehicles are unlike anything we’re used to seeing in our Western world. The exterior is comparable to African masks, with large circles and lines resembling an exaggeration of the human face. The interior is even more striking. I know enough about the MCU to know that it’s far beyond any vehicle we’ve seen in the Marvel films thus far.

Okoye (Danai Gurira), T’Challa’s main bodyguard and captain of the Dora Milaje, flies the aircraft without any visible controls, not even holographic. She simply stretches her hands out in front of her with her palms curved downward as if she’s grasping something. If you didn’t know she was flying a vehicle, you’d think Okoye was meditating. It’s just one of many indicators of how the Wakandans blend their spirituality with their advanced technology, demonstrating that the two are not mutually exclusive as it’s so commonly thought.

The Characters
The exploration of opposites can be conspicuously seen through the characters. T’Challa seeks to solve his problems with peace first, before resorting to violence, whereas his nemesis, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is violent from his first scene. The only two white men in the film also come from opposing angles. Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a black market arms dealer, views Wakanda as something to be conquered while Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), a CIA operative who becomes an ally of T’Challa and by extension, Wakanda, views it as otherworldly. Ross says, “I’ve seen gods fly. I’ve seen men build weapons that I couldn’t even imagine. I’ve seen aliens drop from the sky. But I have never seen anything like this. How much more are you hiding?” T’Challa simply grins mischievously as if to say. “You have no idea.”

That grin was everything for me. It’s the sort of expression conveying a self-assured conviction requiring no outside validation, especially not from representatives of white supremacy. Wakanda is a self-contained nation that the outside world is largely unaware of. In the comics, it’s the only African country unconquered by any outside force, including Europe. Wakanda has never lost a war and so its people are black and proud without restriction.

The women in Black Panther are unparalleled. Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother Ramonda is perfect. There are a number of reasons why I’m excited that Bassett was cast. Firstly, she exudes the dignified appearance of a queen. Secondly, there is an enduring, sexist trend of Hollywood casting young actresses as the mothers of adult characters. Bassett is a welcome departure from this trend as she is old enough to actually be Boseman’s mother. All the women close to T’Challa, including his mother, sister, lover, and bodyguard are powerful in their own right and in their relationships with T’Challa, confirming my hopes that the film would portray his intimacy with his family. Ramonda tells him, “It’s your time” and Nakia (Luptia N’Yongo), his ex-lover, wisely advises him, “Only you can decide what kind of king you will be.” It’s difficult to determine who’s my favorite character of the film. Shuri (Letita Wright), T’Challa’s genius younger sister, is probably the top contender. Without Shuri, T’Challa wouldn’t have any of the technology that makes his panther suit so awesome. And the scene of T’Challa and Shuri doing an elaborate, warrior handshake just goes to show that handshake swag is a universal staple across black cultures.

Black Panther is affirming, cathartic, and edifying. Leaving the theater, I felt a conglomeration of emotions: joy, relief, and even grief. I desperately wished Wakanda was real and felt sad that I had to return to the real world. But I also felt convinced by the film’s message of using gifts to help others. Throughout the movie, there is an ongoing tension among the characters over what sort of nation Wakanda should be. There are some who argue that the nation should remain isolated from the rest of the world while others are adamant that it embrace the world stage to help the oppressed. The film calls on viewers to create our own personal Wakanda – to envision how we can collectively and individually strengthen ourselves and lift up others. This film is everything I ever wanted a black superhero film to be, and everything I never knew I needed.

Marquise Griffin is a native of St. Louis, MO and earned a Bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis on Literary and Cultural Studies at Kalamazoo College in 2015. He graduated with a Master’s degree in  at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2017. Marquise currently works as a mentor at New Life Centers Chicagoland. There he mentors marginalized students between kindergarten and 8th grade on educational preparedness, life skills, and leadership development.  

1 Comment

  1. Linda D. Chandlet

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this review. Marquise Griffin is an excellent writer.

    I saw Black Panther this evening for the first time. The feelings that Marquise writes about in this piece mirror my musings as I left the theater. I currently work at an organization that truly provides its staff the opportunity to be heroic uplifters of the community on a daily basis. After seeing the movie and receiving confirmation of my path through this writing, I look forward to arriving to the office tomorrow to practice what my heart and spirit preaches.

    Praises to each and every person that played a part in the conception and delivery of Black Panther.

    I look forward to part 2 & 3 of this mini-series of reviews.

    Signing off in wonder, Linda D. Chandler.