I was nine years old living in Montreal and my first real exposure to African culture came during 1967 when the World’s Fair, Expo 67 came to town for Canada’s Centennial.
There were school trips to Expo, our family visited Expo a couple of times and it was a glorious summer to be a nine year old and be soaked in all this culture and science.
We sang that vapid “Canada” song over and over again with fervour. I’m still sick of it 51 years later and I’d poke out my eardrums with knitting needles before subjecting myself to it again.
There were 62 countries participating and while African nations weren’t presenting individually, the Africa Place Pavilion represented 15 of the tropical African countries while the Saharan countries were represented in the Arab Countries pavilion.
What struck me in the African Pavilion was the explosion of color represented in the tribal clothing and art that was on exhibit and the displays of tribal dance that were put on at regular intervals.
This was unexpected. Africa was black and white. U+p to that point, my only exposure to Africa had been through the TV series Tarzan which was watched on a black and white television set. The riot of lush color to which I was exposed as a child of nine at the World’s Fair was fully on display in Black Panther in spectacular fashion and I felt like a kid again.
The movie opens in the simplest manner. A shot of a stars in space and a child asking his Baba to “tell me a story.” Opening a movie with a long, expository sequence is taking a risk, but director Ryan Coogler hooked me immediately with a dynamic “sand table” presentation which is so kinetic that I was pulled along helplessly enthralled. Disbelief suspension accomplished, I was all in for the rest of the ride.
In the world of the film, there is a country in Africa called Wakanda in which a meteorite made of “vibranium” fell aeons ago. Vibranium, apparently the strongest substance in the universe, also had an effect on the local plant life. This resulted in the “heart shaped herb,” which would grant the individual who consumed it with super strength, speed and instincts. The warrior who discovered this fact became king and we’ll leave the internecine politics of Wakanda aside for now.
Suffice it to say, Wakanda saw what was going on in the rest of the world and decided uh uh, this wasn’t for them and concealed themselves from the world through the incredible technological edge that came along with the possession of vibranium. The rest of the world believes Wakanda is a poor, sparsely populated country due to the fact the main city is concealed by a technological force field/dome which only reveals countryside to the rest of the world.
The plot is essentially one of “regime change.” A contract killer named Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) shows up to evict King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) from the throne. That’s about all I can say without giving substantial plot points away, but it’s a fun if twisty road to the end of the film. I did find myself occasionally lost as to the plot, but the brilliant way the characters were rendered and the lush visuals and effects kept me engaged and forgiving in that respect. It came together in the end.
Not having read the original graphic novels, I can’t speak for the accuracy of the characters but what I will say was I certainly enjoyed all the performances. There’s a quiet dignity and assurance that consistently underlies all the Wakandan characters despite differences in personality, an almost regal bearing no matter of the circumstances in which the character was engaged. I think this is enhanced by the Xhosan accents adopted by the cast.
Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger came close to stealing the show. There’s an underlying smouldering rage that bursts forth at the end and it was hard not to pay attention when he was on screen. He’s the personification of danger. Chadwick Boseman carries the movie nicely as King T’Challa with cultured assurance.
This being said, what made this movie all the more refreshing were the strong performances of its female cast. Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, the king’s former lover, Letitia Wright as Shuri his sister, Danai Gurira as Okoye, Captain of the king’s bodyguard and Angela Bassett as Ramonda, the king’s mother.
They all play critical roles and each brings something different to the plate. Shuri and Okoye are particularly fierce roles when called upon. This is surprising in Wright’s case as Shuri because she’s typed early on as the comic relief among the characters.
This is a movie where everything came together for me. It’s great to see a blockbuster action movie which actually actually celebrates African culture and also has such strong, female characters and it’s long overdue.