When was the last time you got dressed up to see a movie? If you are one of those rarities who teases their hair into tufts for Wolverine movies and paints their face blue to visit the planet Pandora, note that I don’t mean costumed. I mean dressed up: ready for a wedding, or a funeral, or some other occasion of spiritual import. And if you are one of those even rarer birds who still irons their Sunday best to sit in the popcorn-scented darkness: when was the last time you weren’t the only one?
This Sunday, in a sleepy suburban theater at a not-so-popular time for movies, I sat surrounded by people who were dressed the fuck up to see “Black Panther”, a superhero movie set in Wakanda, a fantasy African nation not eaten out of its substance by a rapacious West. Its newly minted king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), doubles as its spiritual defender, the Black Panther. Counselled by a coterie of female advisers, including his mother (Angela Bassett), ex-girlfriend (Lupita Nyong’o), mischievous younger sister (Leticia Wright), and trusted bodyguard (Danai Gurira), T’Challa is faced with a splintered tribal base and a timely conundrum: continue his late father’s defensive policy of strict isolationism, or risk exploitation by opening Wakanda and its high-tech riches to the world? It’s a good question that deserves plenty of chin-stroking thought; unfortunately for T’Challa, a brash challenger (Michael B. Jordan) is prepared to take the throne, and he would like Wakanda to come to the rescue of the less fortunate sons and daughters of Africa right now, please. If the measure of a villain is how close they get to becoming the hero of the story, then Jordan’s Erik Killmonger (sorry, but that is the character’s name) belongs in the pantheon of all-time great antagonists. Squint even a little, and you will find yourself seeing his point.
Surrounded by these high-powered actors, Chadwick Boseman underplays his hand, melting into the background of scenes he’s capable of dominating and creating a wide-open space in the movie for other characters to flourish. The result is an abundance of delights: Winston Duke, as mountain tribe leader M’Baku, whose impassive mask melts into sly humor. Letitia Wright as Shuri, crowing over her older brother’s unfashionable sandals. Daniel Kaluuya, fresh off the triumph of “Get Out” and scoring another direct hit to the heart as conflicted warrior W’Kabi. American treasure Forest Whitaker as wise elder Zuri. You want to get to know these characters better; to spend hours admiring the brilliant details of their world; in Shuri’s case, to buy her a drink and spill all your secrets. Knowing that they are fictional smarts; but the movie’s point is not to lament what Africa could have been. It is to celebrate, in dazzling saturation, the joy and complexity of what is. Wakanda walks among us daily. Put on something nice before you see it.