Black Panther is a movie about why representation matters

This weekend, Black Panther finally arrived in theaters. I say ‘finally’ because the film has felt omnipresent for months. The hype surrounding Black Panther has been fervent ever since the first trailer dropped eight months ago. A burgeoning thinkpiece economy has produced an abundance of articles asking What It Means to the movie industry to have a nearly all-black cast heading a major studio release with so much buzz. Long before any of us ever had an opportunity to see Black Panther, it felt as if we were culturally obligated to have an opinion on it.

This hype is ultimately a positive for the film’s success, but this cycle of reaction and counter-reaction can also drown out the conversation about the actual film. The Internet gets so quickly bogged down by the conversation around a movie that we lose sight of the movie itself.

That’s not an issue with Black Panther, though, because the conversation about the movie is synonymous with the ideas the film is exploring. The hype is the movie. Black Panther takes on representation as its guiding force. It makes it pretty easily the most high-minded Marvel movie yet, and probably the best.

Unlike most other Marvel movies, Black Panther is allowed room to breathe. It feels like much less of a chore meant to progress the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because it exists in its own time and space. (For similar reasons, it’s why Wonder Woman has been the lone bright spot in the DC universe.) Black Panther, though, still has the look and feel of most other Marvel movies, the overwhelming sameness that allows the heroes to join together in later films.

Despite this sameness, Director Ryan Coogler uses the film’s spatial isolation to do some glorious world-building. Wakanda, the African nation over which King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) rules, is a fully realized, fantastically imaginative backdrop. It’s rich in detail, with costumes and landscapes presenting a deep reverence for African culture. Coogler brings the film higher than any other Marvel movie by doing what any great sci-fi film does: not just presenting a world that is different than our own, but imagining an alternate possibility to what we already know. With Wakanda, it is the possibility of a world not just of blackness, but of blackness untouched by whiteness.

T’Challa’s reign over Wakanda is challenged soon after he ascends to the throne. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an alienated Wakandan who grew up in America, returns to his native country to claim his right to be king. Killmonger’s arrival ruptures disputes within Wakanda about what the nation’s global responsibility is, and a civil war soon threatens to tear Wakanda apart.

The brilliance of Black Panther largely hinges on its depiction of its antagonist as an enemy within. Killmonger is not an opposing force to Wakanda. He is a challenge to the idea of what Wakanda should be. And ultimately, his villainy is a function of a lack of representation. In a crucial moment between Killmonger and T’Challa, Killmonger laments his American upbringing and his vague conception of Wakanda: “Can you believe that? A kid from Oakland walking around and believing in fairy tales.” It’s a painful moment, because it’s apparent that with a Wakandan upbringing, he would have been a different person. It’s a layered character, and easily the best Marvel villain ever. Jordan gives a very comic book performance, snarly and full of pulp in all the right ways.

Jordan is the standout, but it’s the women that carry much of the film’s action. Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira give fierce performances, and I was particularly enamored with relative newcomer Letitia Wright, who plays T’Challa’s sister Shuri. The casting itself is a lesson in representation, demonstrating how black women can carry a film if studios give them a chance to do so.

The final pre-credits scene in Black Panther finds T’Challa and Shuri in Oakland, where Killmonger grew up. T’Challa explains to Shuri how he is investing in the neighborhood, and then lands a Wakandan spaceship on the basketball court where some kids are playing. The kids are awestruck at the site of this African king with what they describe as a “Bugatti spaceship.” It’s the realization of the alternate reality Killmonger never had, one in which a black kid in Oakland has the possibility of seeing what he can be.

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Black Panther is a film that knows representation is important, and its success will, hopefully, show movie studios that it’s also profitable. For far too long, what we’ve seen on screen hasn’t aligned with what we know America to be. Hip-hop culture is American culture, and the genre has been dominating charts for years. Straight Outta Compton far exceeded box office expectations three years ago, and yet it took studio heads three years to think that maybe Kendrick Lamar should curate a soundtrack. The soundtrack is headed for the top slot on the Billboard chart, and will likely do even better than initially anticipated.

It’s no coincidence that the Black Panther soundtrack and Straight Outta Compton both “exceeded expectations.” There is a consistent underestimation of how well films with diverse casts will do. Three of last year’s biggest successes were also said to exceed expectations: Get Out, Wonder Woman, and Girls Trip.

Why weren’t these films highly valued in the first place? The 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report showed that films with diverse casts consistently outperform those with less diverse casts. According to the report, there is a “curious disconnect between Hollywood industry production choices and market realities. That is, the industry produces an inordinate number of low-performing films and television shows year in and year out that are not very diverse, while the films and television shows that actually perform best, on average, better reflect the diversity of America.”

This underestimation has continued with Black Panther. On Friday afternoon, Variety reported that the film was tracking to make between $172 and $198 million. Less than 24 hours later, Variety reported the film was tracking to make $210 million. My guess is that it will be even higher than that.

Of the top 10 grossing movies of 2016, 47 percent of the opening weekend audience were people of color. That’s up from 2015, and will likely continue to rise. Perhaps the immense success of Black Panther will wake the film industry up to the reality of its audience composition.

But for now, we can simply revel in the film’s hype and success. Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the most recent iteration of Black Panther comics, said on the most recent episode of the podcast Still Processing that he thinks the hype doesn’t take away from the film, but adds to it. “I usually get annoyed at hype,” Coates said. "But the possibility of this deserves the hype, I think...the type of excitement is different...the hunger for a mythology among black people is strong.” The hype, in his eyes, is not a distraction from the movie. It’s a manifestation of why the movie is essential: an unprecedented imagining of an alternate possibility.

3.5 stars