“Black Panther” succeeds for multiple reasons. Just like “Wonder Woman” hit the mother lode with a female director (Patty Jenkins) and starring a heroine as opposed to a hero, “Black Panther” dares to challenge cinematic history by bringing us a Marvel/Disney film with a black director/screenwriter and a nearly all-black cast. The film touches a raw nerve that left many in the audience applauding as it ended.
Let’s begin with Director Ryan Coogler, who previously brought us “Fruitvale Station” (2013) and “Creed” (2015). With “Black Panther,” Coogler departs from traditional Avenger territory by focusing his story on how black history only became African-American history because of slavery.
Ironically, the storyline plays second fiddle to a large group of magnificent performances. With the death of his father, Chadwick Boseman excels as T’Challa, forced to become king of Wakanda, a hidden country in Africa. As king he becomes the Black Panther, and Boseman demonstrates the talent and charm previously shown in his roles as Thurgood Marshall in last year’s “Marshall”, the legendary singer James Brown in “Get on Up” (2014) and as Jackie Robinson in “42” (2013).
Wakanda can exist as an African version of Hong Kong because of its ability to use a super metal known as vibranium. Danger unfolds when a tattooed, wise-cracking white terrorist known as Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) steals some of the vibranium and seeks to sell it on the open market. Serkis once again commands your attention as he did playing Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films as well as the legendary Caesar in the “Planet of the Apes” films.
However, the film captures its magic with the appearance of Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger, an angry, bitter associate of Ulysses who intends on eliminating T’Challa and taking control of Wakanda. You have previously seen Jordan in both of Coogler’s films mentioned above, and here he is a black man who was abandoned as a child in California for reasons that I don’t dare reveal. Mr. Jordan’s Killmonger prefers dying to living in bondage just as some imprisoned black inmates jumped overboard centuries ago rather than face a lifetime of servitude away from a home they would never see again.
And that is precisely what makes this film resonate on such a meaningful level. Yes, it is as uniquely entertaining as both the recent “Thor” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, but it has a meaning that will deeply resonate with nearly all black members of the audience. The bottom line is that they are living in a country as the descendants of slaves, and this movie provides a glimpse of a fictional homeland that will bring many to tears.
However, one of the reasons this film set box office records on its opening weekend is the performance of a female cast that elevates the role of women in Marvel films even beyond the recent “Wonder Woman.” To begin with, Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, a spy and love interest of T’Challa who helps him maintain his focus when he nearly loses his life. Nyong’o is a terrific actress and you simply need to hunt down her performances in “12 Years a Slave” (2013) and “Queen of Katwe” (2016) as proof.
Additionally, Danai Gurira gives a powerful performance as Okoye, the devastating leader of the military defenders of Wakanda, and you can only imagine who could possibly win a friendly fight between her and Wonder Woman. And while Angela Bassett expectedly succeeds in a small role where she plays T’Challa’s mother, you will never forget Letitia Wright’s plucky role as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri. Inspiring and funny in multiple scenes, you welcome her presence whenever she appears on screen to assist her brother.
While there are other enjoyable moments provided by both Martin Freeman as a CIA agent trying to help T’Challa and Forest Whitaker as Zuri, Wakanda’s Keeper of the Sacred Code, the magnificent interaction of these characters evolves in a fashion seldom seen in a Marvel film. The wildly hypnotic scenes taking place on a sheer cliff surrounded by a waterfall where you see multiple Wakanda residents dancing and chanting to Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack rivals the music and choreography that dominated “The Greatest Showman.”
On top of that, Coogler has his film face one important question: If an African country excelled on the world’s stage in the same fashion as the United States or China, wouldn’t they have an obligation to try to help the millions of struggling residents in the States who still bear the ugly scars of a sadistic slavery system that only ended approximately 150 years ago?
Director Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” is as profoundly dull as his previous film “Ex Machina” was inventive. The only thing they have in common is that Oscar Isaac is in both, though “Annihilation” drains this gifted actor of his talent.
The film centers on a foglike, colorful mist spreading down a coastline in the States. The cause is unknown and anyone who enters it fails to return. Mr. Isaac is an exception, and returns to Lena (Natalie Portman), his wife, only to be quickly hospitalized with no memory of his experience.
Thereafter, Lena joins a team of five women who enter this unknown cloud in search of answers. The movie devolves into one foolish incident after another, and I predict that most of you will be left shaking your head long before the film ends.
Portman is accompanied by associates played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny. While all of them are accomplished actresses, one after another is killed by nasty creatures ranging from large crocodiles to extraordinarily large bears. At that point the film resembled aliens taking over Disney World where Goofy, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck became cannibalistic marauders.
In any event, if you want to see these fine actresses in a decent film, then go see Portman in “Jackie,” Jason Leigh in “The Hateful Eight” and Thompson in last year’s “Thor: Ragnarok.”•
• Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or the office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.