Black Panther has made a big impression, both here in the States and abroad. The numbers are staggering: it’s grossing nearly 1.2 billion worldwide, and recently became the most tweeted about movie to date. According to Rotten Tomatoes it has set and broken several records, such as Best-Reviewed Live-Action Superhero Movie, Highest-Grossing Solo Superhero Movie, Best Holiday Weekend Opening of All Time, First Movie to Go Five Weeks at #1 This Decade, and the First Superhero Movie to Go Five Weeks at #1 in 40 years. That’s a mouthful, but there are even more records that this movie has smashed to bits.
Even more impactful, however, is what it means for us culturally. Yes, there have been movies written by Black directors before. Yes, there have been Black superheroes on the big screen before (Hancock, Blade, Meteor Man, to name some of the very few). And yes, there have been movies with predominantly Black casts. What director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther does that makes it so different is break away from the stereotypes that are often used when it comes to Black characters. Also, it answers the question: “What would an African nation look like if it had never been colonized? If it’d been allowed to progress on its own, using all the resources it had at its disposable?” The answer is this: That nation would look pretty amazing.
So what aspects of this movie made it the hit it is now? First, one can look at all of the research that was poured into the film, as it made direct connections to real African countries, traditions, and groups. The Wakanda dialect was based on John Kani’s (who plays T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka) real-life Xhosan dialect, found in the country of Zimbabwe. Ruth E. Carter, the costume designer (and a Springfield native), created over 1,000 costumes, all inspired by nations in Africa. According to Buzzfeed, she used “Afrofuturism, Afropunk fashion, and traditional African tribal garments” as inspiration, researching African history to make believable costumes that could create the culture of Wakanda. And the fierce Dora Milaje, a group comprised of female warriors who protect Wakanda, were inspired by real life too. They were taken from the famous all-female African military corps of Dahomey, West Africa, who would serve as the last line of defense for the king.
Second, one can look at the characters themselves. Far too often Black people have been type-casted in very stringent roles. The men are angry without cause, thuggish and dumb. The women are ghetto, loud, and clueless. If not that, then they’re long suffering slaves and/or civil rights activists (and while there’s nothing wrong with roles like that, it’s been done a thousand times over). But in this movie, every single character played an important role, not once falling into any of the age-old tropes that have been used so often in the past. T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) is the leader of Wakanda, the single most technologically advanced nation in the world. He shows level-headedness, always putting his country first. But he’s human enough to make mistakes, and when he does, he admits it. But even more amazing is the way he defers to the women in his life. This includes his mother (played by Angela Bassett), his younger sister Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), his love interest Nakia (played by Lupita N’yongo), and the leader of his all-female army, Okoye (played by Danai Gurira). Instead of taking the backseat in the movie as women (including non-POC women) tend to do in films, they’re front and center. They’re smart (especially his younger sister, who designs all of the tech for Wakanda, down to the Black panther suit). They’re genuinely funny. They have minds of their own (like Nakia, who has her own goals, and doesn’t let even T’Challa get in the way of them). T’Challa shows that it’s in no way emasculating to ask women for advice, and to actually listen.
Thirdly, one can’t discuss Black Panther without looking at the message. Without ruining the plot (although, if you haven’t seen it yet, that’s a huge issue), Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) comes to Wakanda to take over as king. Why? Because he’s seen first-hand what Black people have been through, not just in America, but everywhere. And to him, the idea that a Black nation as advanced as Wakanda has done nothing to help them is inconsolable. With this being his motivation, the movie manages to avoid one of the aforementioned, often used, tropes used for Black characters: unjustified anger. Killmonger’s anger is rooted in something very real (although his actions are, to say the least, awful). And throughout the movie, the issue of colonization, and the way it’s affected Black people, even until the day, is repeatedly addressed.
This movie has done something that many never truly thought could be done. It took an all-Black cast led by a Black director and allowed them to break the mold that had been set for them. It addressed racial issues without one shot of people picking cotton or staging sit-ins at a diner. More than that, it showed that a movie that lets Black people be people instead of worn-out stereotypes can be successful. And yeah, the special effects were amazing as well. Wakanda forever.