Oakland’s Ryan Coogler Reimagines Power Structures With “Black Panther”
It’s a ringing affirmative; “Black Panther” has revived a stertorously breathing formula for creating superhero cinema.
While surely there will always be a place for the Spidermans, the Supermans, and the Batmans in the world, they’ve had their day. And for the love of all things super, their day was profoundly long. What proved absent from their world was diversity, color, multidimensional villains, and visions of power structures unlike those which rule us in everyday life. Movies are meant to inspire after all, aren’t they? To see the same figures rescuing the same distressed victims proves redundant; what point is the future if it appears to be precisely like our less than perfect present?
Enter Black Panther, a film that not only casts a stellar ensemble of black actors into a reborn, complex superhero narrative, but is also helmed by a director relevant and understanding of the story’s roots.
While the most diehard fans of Marvel movies would perish at the thought of admitting it, the franchise has grown stale. With an aggressive amount of movies hitting theaters every year, it’s difficult to garner a fan base while inundating audiences with content. I mean, they’ve overshot the whole give the people what they want strategy to the point where it isn’t even what they want any longer. Marvel franchise movies have lost the very superhero kick-punch snappiness they’re beloved for and have come to fall into a specific, overwrought formula: Powerful hero. One dimensional villain. Some yawn-worthy dad jokes. Fade to black. Roll the credits. Extra scene at the end. Call it a day. The point is, for while now, there really hasn’t been anything super about their output at all.
But then Black Panther comes along. It succeeds in creating new, dynamic characters while staying loyal to the franchise that made the film possible. T’Challa is a strong, powerful man with heart, but not so macho that he fears being led by women. Not so foolish that he appears weak-minded or without conviction. As for the women of Wakanda, they are fierce yet feeling. They invent, they inspire, they work hand in hand with those around them.
Aside from the obvious ceilings shattered in regards to African Americans single-handedly carrying a wonderfully futuristic film, there are undertones in the movie that speak to our broken world. Perhaps we should pay mind to their message as well, should we not? Killmonger, the righteous villain whose sole aim in life has been to reach Wakanda, kill T’Challa, and bring a reign of long-deprived power to blacks across the globe, is no ordinary villain. He does not just want to watch the world burn. He does not merely love aggression and violence for the sake of it. Instead, he is the product of a long broken system. He is the wronged son of a movement that has been beaten and battered, silenced and enslaved. He has been raised at the hands of loss, trauma, and brutality. He supported himself off of an operation that killed, depleted, and scourged societies across the globe. He found the only way that made himself feel validated, was to scar his own body with the lives he himself took. What kind of man—what kind of person—does such a life create? Diplomacy and collaboration will never be an option for such a person.
Cinematically, the filmmakers helped us understand this. Look at the difference in how T’Challa reacts to the heart shaped fruit versus Killmonger. One, steadily and lovingly raised to be strong and understanding, takes the experience and gains strength from it. The other, raised in a neglectful spiral of violence, awakens from the experience in a state of panic and trauma. Introspection sends him into fits of night terrors. The reality of who he is, is even more terrible than he can stand.
As a (hopefully) right-minded audience, however, we see that he’s no villain at all. He is the only one who knows the burden and has witness the cost of Wakanda’s non-interventionist policy. Surely he goes about correcting generations of blindly withholding assistance to those desperately seeking aid in the wrong way, but when exposed to the life he has been exposed to, could anyone imagine another natural reaction other than anger?
The genius of director Ryan Coogler in representing such things is evident. The power of art, and film more specifically, in displaying the wonderful possibilities of what a collective people has been deprived of seeing for generations, is clear. The beauty of “Black Panther’ is that we can all, regardless of color, love and gain inspiration from it. But like Wakanda, it belongs quite specifically, to those that have been loyal and waiting for it for so very long.