Some movies reach beyond what they project on screen to reflect many worlds. While Black Panther is, certainly, a marvel of a movie, its power isn’t limited to its imagery, characters or narrative. This film would be special simply for its accomplishments as a piece of cinema. But its impact as a cultural event extends beyond what works in a movie to capture what matters to people.
Yes, on screen, Black Panther fires on all cylinders to deliver a thrill-a-minute story of a superhero from a small country who risks everything to save his people. On its own, this tale may sound simple, you know, another boy meets country, boy leaves country, boy saves country saga. But what the narrative of this film delivers, as entertaining as that may be, is not, necessarily, what the movie may be about. This is as careful and sensitive a study of a culture as it is a celebration of computer-generated visuals and heart-stopping action. And that’s a reason to celebrate its arrival.
As a movie, Black Panther works for many reasons. Its screenplay expands the comic book framework of its source without letting too many plots compete with each other for attention. Unlike the recent Star Wars film — a movie that felt like a collection of everyone’s favorite sequences rather than a connected plot — Black Panther knows what story it wants to tell from its opening frame. We are there as the narrative unfolds, as characters first appear; as conflicts initially surface. Screenwriters Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole never forget that, for us to enjoy this ride, we need to track the fundamentals. They keep the basics of the tale simple enough so we know what we’re watching and why it matters to the film.
But Coogler, who also directed, is too ambitious a movie maker to limit his vision to the journey of a superhero. On top of what already works on screen, he adds layers of cultural mystique, character reality and confrontational tension, making Black Panther as much about the ways people today relate in our world as to how various groups of people converge is this imaginary one. As the director accomplished in his forgotten gem, Fruitvale Station, Coogler helps us realize that the people in the story fight the same fights that people, on the streets, fight every day. And, without superheroes to reach for, we each have to find the power to resolve within ourselves. By placing these messages within a magical entertainment, Coogler never lets what the film says get in the way of how the film entertains. And that makes us even hungrier for every bit of wisdom he offers, especially in the hands of such commanding performers as Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan and Daniel Kaluuya.
Yes, some movies reach beyond what they show to become touchstone moments for an audience. In a world too focused on what divides, Black Panther reminds us what people can be when they know what dream they willingly defend.
Film Nutritional Value: Black Panther
- Content: High. Moviemaker Ryan Coogler creates magical moments when the good that happens on and off screen can come together.
- Entertainment: High. Without being trapped by its story, Coogler creates a visually fascinating film that takes us on a wild movie ride.
- Message: High. While entertaining as a movie can be, Black Panther has a lot to say about the choices people make and the cultures they defend.
- Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with children about the reasons behind actions can be an absorbing and meaningful conversation.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After having a wonderful time sharing this film with your children, take time to talk about how they see the heroism in everyday people.
Black Panther is rated PG-13 for “prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture.” The film runs 2 hours, 14 minutes. Five Popcorn Buckets.
What Black Panther makes me want to see
A movie as special as Black Panther makes me want to do a few things.
I want to learn about cultures I may not fully understand and reach into my movie memory to remember other films that may tell one story while describing something different.
My first thought is John Houston’s The African Queen. Yes, The African Queen, that jungle adventure starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.
Why? Because meeting new people can be a real adventure. And we meet many new people in Black Panther. Each time we dare to reach out to someone we don’t know, we may experience something new. That may be one thing these films have in common. The other may be that both involve confrontation with a powerful enemy. Ultimately, both tell us much more than their storylines might suggest.
Picture a small village in the middle of the wilderness in German East Africa, in 1914, as the Germans and the British fight in World War I. As The African Queen begins, the Germans burn a missionary outpost and leave its minister to clean up the damage. After he dies from exhaustion, his sister realizes her only way to safety is to navigate a frightening jungle river. But the only available traveling companion is a down-on-his-luck boat captain who drinks too much and impresses her too little.
At first, these two opposite souls do not get along. He is coarse; she is refined. He is cynical; she is optimistic. He avoids politics; she wants to get into the middle of the fight. When she suggests the two of them try to sink an enemy gunboat, he thinks she’s crazy. But he is fascinated that a woman can be this strong, this determined. As director John Huston lets the relationship simmer, the captain becomes enamored by his passenger’s persistence as she grows impressed by his bravery. Together, they fight off an attack from a fortress, risk drowning in the rapids, and survive threats by water animals and bugs. Most important, they learn to look beyond first impressions to learn how to trust each other.
Of course, The African Queen is too smart a film to let such important lessons get in the way of fun. Huston never slows the action to deliver a message or dilutes the adventure for the sake of a moral. Instead he uses the natural setting to authentically observe how two people learn that each has more to offer than they think possible. The director takes time to let the relationship evolve, never rushing the characters to commit more than what seems right for the moment.
Adding to this authenticity is Huston’s decision to take the cast and crew to shoot most of the film on location in a real jungle in Africa. This simply didn’t happen in the early 1950s when most films were made within the protected walls of Hollywood studios. Huston knew, to get the film he wanted, he had to go where the story would take place. This reality gives the film a natural energy that adds urgency to the relationship.
Imagine, for a moment, you see this film for the first time in 1951. As the credits roll, you sense something special is about to begin. And, when you discover you this is Africa, you know you will travel to a place you have probably never experienced.
I may never get to travel down a jungle river. But, thanks to The African Queen, I feel I have been there. Just like Black Panther makes me feel.
The African Queen would now be rated PG for thematic elements, some violence, and smoking. It runs 1 hour, 45 minutes, and is available online.