'Black Panther': A landmark film in the history of representation

15 Feb 2018 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

8 mins
Black Panther
Black Panther

Ever since the arrival of Iron Man on screens in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become a global phenomenon with seemingly every new release a pop culture event, and the films becoming commercially just about the surest thing in Hollywood today. However, up until now all 17 of their films have centred around a white male superhero. That has finally changed with the release of Black Panther, a film that features an almost exclusively Black cast, a host of strong roles for women, and an overall tone that feels both part of, but entirely different from, the MCU films that have preceded it. Black Panther now looks set to become arguably the most important, as well as one of the most successful MCU films so far. It may also come to be seen as a crucial milestone in the history of representation in mainstream cinema.

Black Panther first appeared in comic book form in 1966, the creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who wanted to create a character that their vast Black readership would be able to identify with. The Black Panther is an honorary title bestowed on the reigning monarch of the fictional African jungle kingdom of Wakanda, a role recently inherited by T'Challa, following the death of his father T'Chaka (events seen previously in Captain America: Civil War). To the uninformed outside world, Wakanda is seen to be a poor, undeveloped nation, but it is in fact a vast (if secluded) hypermodern metropolis which has for centuries been in sole possession of vibranium; a powerful, nearly indestructible element acquired from a fallen alien meteor. Concealing these riches has allowed Wakanda to become to most advanced nation on the planet. But when its secret is discovered, and plans are made to drain yet another African country of its resources, T'Challa is forced to don the Black Panther costume and defend his people from the outside world, led by a mysterious new villain with a complicated past.

As this storyline suggests, Black Panther, while predominantly a superhero fantasy, also references complex and often uncomfortable areas of history. To tell such a delicate story, Marvel enlisted Ryan Coogler, director of Fruitvale Station and Creed, two of the most acclaimed and discussed films of recent years. A long-term fan of the character, Coogler also co-wrote the script, including a series of important sequences in Oakland, California, an area very close to where he grew up and the setting for Fruitvale Station, a harrowing drama that dealt with the shooting of a young unarmed Black man by police officers in 2009. A pivotal early scene takes place on a run-down estate in 1992, the same period as the infamous Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, and Oakland itself is the location of the founding of the original Black Panther Party, an important activist civil-rights group in 1966. 

This lays the groundwork for a recurring idea in the film of incorporating a superhero story into real stories of the Black experience. Together with this, the story also touches upon complicated themes such as foreign aid, refugees, colonialism, natural resources, diplomacy and democracy. Wakanda may be the most advanced nation on earth, but an important part of the story deals with interrogating whether their isolationist policies are for the larger good or not, something particularly relevant for Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger, the film's villain, but a complex bad guy with important, provocative and often uncomfortable things to say.

Every aspect of the film, from its music to its language, clothing, production design and architecture is centred around the question of what it means to be African. It was crucial to hear authentic African voices and dialects on screen; a key scene involves T'Challa talking with his father in Xhosa one of the official languages of South Africa. Coogler later made the decision to have all five Wakandan tribes, bar one, speak the language. These creative decisions came about as a result of a long research trip conducted by Coogler and other members of the crew, including production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter to parts of southern Africa. The costumes are particularly striking, combining elements of African tribes with a futuristic look, referencing aspects of African culture and including objects found in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya by a team of over 100 buyers. Audiences should pay particular attention to the colour red and consider what it might represent in this context. 

Another important aspect of the film is its music. Produced by rapper Kendrick Lamar, who has also contributed a number of new songs of his own, the score includes South African and Senegalese drumming sourced during the same research trip, composed by regular Ryan Coogler collaborator Ludwig Göransson. The overall sound is vibrant, contemporary, political and traditional, whilst still maintaining the anthemic qualities demanded by a film of this scale.

Wakanda is also a land featuring many powerful women, where all citizens are encouraged to realise their full potential. With the exception of W'Kabi (played by Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya), T'Challa surrounds himself with an entirely female inner circle of advisers and protectors. These include Nakia (played by Queen of Katwe's Lupita Nyong'o), an operative of an all-female special forces group that act as bodyguards to T'Challa, and Letitia Wright's Shuri, a particularly strong character for young women to relate to, being smart, witty and incredibly tech-savvy. Set up as the Q to T'Challa's James Bond, she becomes a much richer character than that, one of the most intelligent, capable and relatable characters ever seen in the MCU. She is already being talked about for her own spin-off film. Inspired to act after seeing Akeelah and the Bee as a young child, it is easy to envisage Wright having a central role in future Marvel films, as senior members of the current cast begin to be replaced.

None of this will count for much if Black Panther was not also tremendous fun, and did not work as entertainment. Thankfully audience reaction to the film has been almost universally ecstatic, suggesting we are going to be seeing much more of these characters in the future. By placing issues of representation so firmly at the centre of their story, the makers of Black Panther have hopefully ensured that many more children and young people can grow up looking up to heroes on the big screen who look and sound like they do.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Curation Manager

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has been with Into Film (and beforehand FILMCLUB) since 2012. 

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