Wakanda! Land of pastoral futurism, where herdsmen wave cheerfully at spaceships zooming above the umbrella-thorn acacias, and earth-toned skyscrapers rise from the savanna like David Adjaye versions of the Watts Towers. Wakanda! Rich and peaceful land of unbroken spiritual traditions and ancient African high tech, kept secure by its invisible force-field border and the self-satisfied ignorance of white colonialists.
Here, cleverly concealed across the ocean, is the dream of so many African Americans: a beautiful homeland of wise kings, strong women warriors, and market streets that are at once charmingly old-fashioned and bustlingly hypermodern—much like the ones in Blade Runner, you’d think, except for being sunny, well-kept, and frequented exclusively by black people.
Several generations of Marvel comic books featuring Wakanda and its superhero king T’Challa have now given rise to the Disney release Black Panther, the most recent pop movie that is said to have Changed Everything. To the studio marketers, op-ed writers, and puff-piece journalists who have been making this claim, it’s all a matter of positive images and relatable characters. Except for Will Smith in Hancock, and Samuel L. Jackson as Frozone in The Incredibles, and of course Halle Berry and Anthony Mackie in other Marvel Universe pictures, plus Wesley Snipes in Blade (if you want to press the point) and Robert Townsend in The Meteor Man (which should not be forgotten), there simply have been no black superheroes in the movies. Not enough, anyway, even if you count Muhammad Ali starring as himself in The Greatest and When We Were Kings. Now black audiences have a special-effects blockbuster all their own, set mostly in Africa, which, I admit, is newsworthy—although it’s not the most interesting aspect of Black Panther.
What’s really intriguing is the way that an Africanist myth invented in 1966 by two Jewish guys in New York, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and later elaborated upon by the likes of Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates, has now been taken over by Ryan Coogler, the writer-director who previously made the very good social-realist drama Fruitvale Station and the first-rate genre-revisionist Creed. With the help of his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, Coogler has thought to delve into the deep sorrow implicit in this fantasy: the nagging idea that the Wakandans, those happy people across the ocean, could have rescued America’s Africans but instead abandoned them, leaving them poor, traditionless, and playing basketball on concrete lots.
The feelings of loss and envy running through the film—feelings of anger and betrayal as well, which a representative of black America directs squarely at the inhabitants of this imagined homeland—add a level of emotional complexity to Black Panther beyond anything you might reasonably have expected. Certainly you couldn’t have predicted this trait as easily as the standard-issue plot (the usual stuff about smugglers, superspies, and madmen bent on revenge), let alone the checklist of fistfights, spear fights, gunfights, chase scenes, and scenery-wrecking battles. Coogler has met these requirements in full and then some; but also, astonishingly, he has brought an identifiable personal touch to the film, despite its zillion-dollar budget and obligatory cameo appearance by Lee.