At the time of writing this review, I was deeply conflicted about Black Panther and its representation issues. Don’t get me wrong: Black Panther is a great black superhero film from Marvel and every scene is fantastic and beautiful, almost like director Ryan Coogler was showing off. Queer erasure, as a valid issue, kept me from writing an immediate review since I saw the blockbuster on premiere day, all the while reading different perspectives on Africa, black women representation, and white saviourism.
Now where do I start? Black Panther is populated with a lively, ebullient cast that made the Wakanda nation seemed even more real. Some might not have heard of Danai Gurira before now, the indefatigable General of the Dora Milaje known as Okoye, but fans of the zombie show The Walking Dead (including myself!) weren’t surprised at her badassery on Black Panther. In fighting pesky zombies as Michonne, her weapon of choice is a katana which she wields effortlessly, coupled with a sharpened sense to detect danger and passable combat skills. I couldn’t have imagined anyone else to play Okoye. Towards the end of Black Panther, Wakanda erupts into a war zone and, spoilers, this pits Okoye against her lover W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), Wakanda’s chief of security and loyal friend to King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman).
W’Kabi has shifted allegiance to the Wakandan usurper Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), and orders Okoye to surrender in the heat of battle. She doesn’t even flinch. Her paramount loyalty is to Wakanda and, in her eyes, W’Kabi is just another obstacle. And she makes this explicitly clear to him. What was enjoyable and striking about this unexpected face-off is Okoye’s resolve, and, by extension, the portrayal of women outside of subservience and weakness, wounded up in emotions that it clouds their judgement.
Another pleasant surprise in the Black Panther cast rollout is Winston Duke, who plays the mountain-residing, tough-looking, hypermasculine M’baku, who first challenges T’Challa for the Wakandan throne. M’baku is the leader of the Jabari tribe, who bellows out “Woof! woof! woof!” to silence a white coloniser and throws in a vegetarian one-liner. At first, I couldn’t figure out why I found his mannerisms and speech cadence so familiar until someone shouted “Igbo man!” appreciatively in the theatre.
It made sense. Mbaku’s precise way of talking stood out from the accent cacophony on Black Panther, and this enjoyably resonated with Nigerians. “With M’Baku’s penchant for laughing at his own jokes, a strong sense of self and a distinctly Igbo accent, it’s not hard to see why Nigerians have gravitated towards him so much – he is very likely to remind you of your favourite Igbo uncle.” writes Daniel Orubo for Konbini.
Black Panther’s action scenes are mesmerising. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) taking down hitmen in the casino fight scene (and wearing a dress!) and Okoye flinging off her wig will forever be precious. Wakanda, as a vibranuim-rich African nation, puts its alien metal resource into good use. In tribal, military garb, the stunning beauty of W’kabi’s men hemming a cluster of Dora Milaje warriors with their vibranium-powered shields. Or Shuri (Letitia Wright) with her self-made blaster guns. Or, surprise, Erik Killmonger transforming into fight mode with a replica Black Panther suit. Black Panther greatly exceeded the hype, and, by the time you are reading this, I’m already back from the theatre for a second viewing.