Directed by Ryan Coogler (2018)
by Jaime Davis, The Fixer
Once upon a time, a young boy in the faraway land of Oakland walked into his local comic book shop. He'd already devoured all the typical superhero stuff, white men in tight bodysuits saving planets, traveling to exotic worlds in other dimensions, facing civilization's extinction over and over, saving it time after time. He absorbed these stories, believing in his own version of fairy tales. Yet, this boy wanted something different. He wanted to see titular heroes, not just folks on the fringes, who looked like him, who were black. One day he mustered up the courage to ask the shop employee if such a title existed. He was handed an issue of Black Panther.
Later, in college on a football scholarship, our hero took a required creative writing course. In one exercise, he wrote about his father almost bleeding to death in his arms. His professor called him into her office. Our young man was worried - was he in trouble? He didn't want to lose his scholarship. Instead, the professor asked him what he wanted to do with his life. "Become a doctor. Make a difference in my community," he said. The professor urged him to become a screenwriter instead - she told him he could have a greater impact that way.
After leaving one college for another, he pursued a finance major while taking as many film courses he could, falling for movies and filmmaking in the process. A professor told him about USC's film program, and so he took a gamble and journeyed to LA. I am thankful to those professors who saw the talent within Ryan Coogler. He's a genuine creative force to be reckoned with, and one of my filmmaking heroes. Yes, T'Challa is the king of both comic and movie versions of Black Panther, but the real king to me is Coogler.
I first took notice of the writer/director after crying my way through Fruitvale Station. I was initially drawn to the film because of the rumblings of a breakout performance by one of my fave tv actors (at the time), Michael B. Jordan. His performances in both Friday Night Lights and Parenthood had me shook - his talent was evident, yes, but there was something I couldn't quite put my finger on with MBJ. I saw him as a star who hadn't yet shown all he could do. Fruitvale cemented the abilities of both MBJ and Coogler for me. I told anyone who would listen that he was my new fave director (and no one really listens to me, so...).
When the Rocky reboot, Creed, was announced with Coogler attached, I was worried af. First, did we really need A N O T H E R movie with Stallone movin' and shakin' as Rocky Balboa? I mean, bro is O L D. Plus I live in Philly and like omg if one more tourist runs up to me and tells me they ran up "the Rocky steps" after eating a wiz wit cheesesteak from Pat's followed by a soft pretzel from Wawa, I'm gonna hurl myself belly flop-first into the Schuylkill after drowning my stomach in water (pronounced "wooder") ice from Rita's. That's a lotta Philly inside baseball for ya, but you get my drift. Why did this movie need to be made? And why waste Coogler's time and talent? But then the movie came out, Philly fans were down, and I slowly came around to seeing it in the theater. It's now earned a solid place in my heart, mostly because it features the most Philly moment onscreen ever. Forget that scene where my wife Tessa Thompson explains the word "jawn" to MBJ because, like, infuriating. Nah, I'm talking about the training montage part where MBJ be runnin through the streets of Philly and kids on dirt bikes and shit follow him (starting around :44 seconds in). Watching that in the theater made me insanely proud to live in this crazyass (adopted) city of mine. And then like, well, I hate to go there and mention it, but have you seen MBJ with his shirt off? Dude can ser-ious-leeee get it. Like, get it MBJ! (Side note: I want him to get together with Tiffany Haddish so. Freakin. Bad. Power couple alert!)
With Black Panther, Coogler has achieved so much more than I ever anticipated from a Marvel film. Yes, the story was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as a response to black repression and African colonization - what if there was a place and a people who resisted all of that? Who had great resources and advanced technological power and successfully maintained their strength and avoided oppression? Somehow Lee and Kirby managed to create the world of Wakanda and its people firmly rooted in Afrofuturism, more akin to the sci-fi works of Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delaney than their previous titles. But Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole have updated Wakanda for today's audiences, referencing the continued disenfranchisement and oppression of black and brown people. MBJ's line near the end of the film is telling: "Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors. They knew death is better than bondage."
All of the components of spectacle are here: amazing scenery, art direction, effects, costuming. But it's the cast that makes Black Panther freakin beyond; I can't fangirl enough about it and if you've read any of my other "writing", you know this bitch can fangirl the fuck out. The amount of acting talent in Black Panther could fly a ship from planet Kree-Lar to Wakanda and back, approximately 27.4 times. Chadwick Boseman. Danai Gurira. Lupita Nyong'o. MBJ. Daniel Kaluuya. Sterling K. Brown. Angela MF Bassett. Forest Whitaker. Letitia Wright. Relative newcomer Winston Duke straight steals scenes away from everyone he's featured against. Boseman as T'Challa, Nyong'o as his love Nakia, and gettin' it MBJ as baddest baddie Erik Killmonger are a solid lead trio, no doubt. But, really guys, it's Gurira's movie. Her facial expressions, intensity, and general badass-ery O W N the film. Some of my favorite movies feature casts consisting primarily of actors who look different from me: The Best Man, The Best Man Holiday, Coming to America, Jumping the Broom, The Wood, Brown Sugar, Monsoon Wedding, Girls Trip, Boomerang, Love & Basketball, The Joy Luck Club, Waiting to Exhale, Love Jones, The Brothers. But those were all marketed to so-called "niche" audiences (with the exceptions of Girls Trip and The Joy Luck Club, for the most part). It's about GD time we have films with primarily non-white casts marketed to everyone. Later this year Crazy Rich Asians, featuring an all-Asian cast, hits US theaters. Sweet lort in heaven, please don't let this be just another trend Hollywood suits gonna fuck up, like when they all of a sudden thought maybeeee women could be universally funny and started making female-driven comedies for all. It started out fuckin great (Bridesmaids) but dissipated into pure pandering drivel (Fun Mom Dinner).
Speaking of comedy, Black Panther is not all consciousness wrapped up in a slick, shiny, Marvel bow. Coogler et al. have thrown in some funny because, y'know, it's the newly established Marvel way. It seems the studio has perfected their formula for greatness (Jaime's not-so-scientific estimation: 22% comedy, 36% action, 13% beefcake, 29% seriousness) thanks in part to the massive success of both Guardians entries - if you doubt, reference the tone of Thor: Ragnarok for confirmation and then come and check me. There are two lines uttered by MBJ that made audiences lose it, but my fave would have to be, "'Sup, princess." As mentioned, MBJ can get it. He's practically trademarked it.
I also feel the need to mention that T'Challa, aka Black Panther, has the most amazingggg all-black outfit in a scene near the end that takes place on an important Oakland basketball court. I spent approximately 2.6 hours looking for a still of it and came up empty-handed but all I have to say is: I NEED THAT OUTFIT IN MY LIFE. I could seriously get it in that outfit. And then MBJ and I could go out to some bars or clubs together or whatever and pick up the ladieZ - I mean, I could probably meet so many women if I was hangin with MBJ! But that is a dream for another day. And another article.
NOT SO IMPORTANT UPDATE: I FOUND A PIC OF MY DREAM OUTFIT (pictured on Boseman, below)!
A friend of mine who hasn't seen the film yet said to me, "We need to see more black and brown heroes in media - it's time." Sure is. In a final scene between T'Challa and Killmonger, Killmonger reflects on his less-than-ideal childhood. "You got a kid from Oakland believing in fairy tales," he utters. It's a moment that hit me hard, and a line that made me immediately think of Coogler. I don't know what dreams he had as a child in Oakland, or what dreams he has for the future, but I can't wait to see more of his fairy tales come to life. See you at the movies, Coogler.