Black Panther – A Review

This weekend, pretty much everyone in the United States and I went to see Black Panther. I had been anxiously awaiting the release of this film ever since the Black Panther character made his triumphant debut in Captain America: Civil War. My anticipation was whetted further with the news of the all-star cast that they had assembled for Black Panther and the fact that director Ryan Coogler would be behind the camera. Though Black Panther would only be Coogler’s third full-length feature, based on his previous work I was confident that he was the man to oversee this important and historic film. The fact that Kendrick Lamar was curating the soundtrack was really just icing on the cake – all the ingredients were there for Black Panther to be something very special.

Of course, what looks good on paper doesn’t always match up to the final product. Coogler and company had to execute for Black Panther to be a success. And while I was confident, part of me was also a little concerned. There’s a lot of pressure inherent with making a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Black Panther is not your average Marvel movie. By being the first major superhero movie that featured not only a black main character, but an almost exclusively black cast, Black Panther had a level of expectation and responsibility attached to it that perhaps no superhero movie other than Wonder Woman has had to endure. Would the hype of Black Panther be too much to live up to?

Thankfully, Black Panther totally rose to the occasion and more than exceeded expectations. Thanks to uniformly outstanding performances, thrilling action sequences, and a well-thought out story, Black Panther is arguably one of the best Marvel movies to date. I’ve been thinking about the film a lot since I saw it on Saturday, which is unusual for one of these blockbuster popcorn movies. Black Panther sticks with you and gives you a lot to think about and unpack – yet still manages to be a hell of a fun ride.

Black Panther picks up after the events of Captain America: Civil War, as T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the African nation of Wakanda to become king after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani). Though Wakanda is a country of amazing technological advances and reserves of the metal vibranium, it has remained hidden from the rest of the world. As he ascends the throne, T’Challa must defend Wakanda from outside forces as well as the consequences of a family secret.

One of the smartest moves that I think Marvel made with the character of Black Panther was to introduce him in another movie and get some of his backstory out of the way. We didn’t learn everything about Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, but we learned enough that Black Panther didn’t have to spend a lot of time unpacking his origin story. Black Panther already has a lot to do, in that it is introducing a bevy of supporting characters as well as introducing the world of Wakanda; having to introduce the character from whole cloth in this film would have been almost too much to do.

Because the basics have already been established, Black Panther basically can hit the ground running. The movie opens with a beautiful primer on the history of Wakanda and then continues to do its world building as the movie progresses. As a result, even though this is the first time that the viewer has spent much time in Wakanda, the country feels fully realized and lived in. Unlike some of the other foreign places where Marvel movies have taken place, Wakanda feels like an actual place that we’ve known about forever – and it fully embraces its African heritage. Though the film does move to other locales, the time spent in Wakanda with its royalty really makes all the difference.

I think it’s a credit to Black Panther that the titular character is perhaps among the less interesting people in the film. That is no critique of Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal, which continues to be great, but rather speaks to the deep bench of secondary characters that the film introduces and who feel like old friends by the end credits. This movie has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to actors and in more than one occasion I am pretty sure that we are watching a star being born.

Much has rightfully been made about the importance of Black Panther for its black representation, but this film is also crucial in its depiction of women as well. The strongest, smartest, and most bad-ass characters in Black Panther are all black women; Dora Milaje, the Special Forces team that protects the king, is made up exclusively of women warriors. I was already a fan of Danai Gurira from her work on Walking Dead, but she is so spectacular in this movie that she almost stole the whole damn film as Okoye, the greatest warrior in Wakanda. There is a fight scene in a casino where she is simply elegance in motion; the cinematography of her kicking ass in a beautiful red dress is seared in my memory. Relative newcomer Letitia Wright gives a breakout performance in her role as T’Challa little sister Shuri, who also is the head of all technological development in Wakanda. She gets some of the biggest laughs of the film and just lights up the screen. Lupita Nyong’o is obviously an amazing actress, but she gets to throw down with the best of them as Nakia, a Wakanda spy and T’Challa’s ex. Angela Bassett always makes everything better and Black Panther is no exception; she has a small role as Ramonda, T’Challa and Shuri’s mother and former queen.

Of course, the men in Black Panther are no slouches either. The internet has fallen in love with Winston Duke, who plays M’Baku, head of the Jabari, Wakanda’s mountain tribe, and they aren’t wrong for doing so. He’s both terrifying and hilarious, which is a pretty hard balance to find. He easily got some of the biggest laughs and cheers during the screening I was at. Daniel Kaluuya continues to do excellent work as T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi. Andy Serkis gets to step out from behind his usual motion capture performances to be on-screen as bad guy Ulysses Klaue. Black Panther is basically its own stand-alone movie and there are very few attempts to tie this film into the larger MCU. The one exception is the presence of Martin Freeman, who reprises his role as Everett K. Ross that he originated in Captain America: Civil War. He isn’t a central part of the narrative, but he provides the minimal connective tissue to the wider Marvel universe.

Black Panther has an embarrassment of riches, including having the best Marvel villain of all time (take that Loki). As Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan gives Marvel perhaps the first bad guy that you not only sympathize with, but who has a legitimate beef. Most of the time in Marvel movies, the villains are kind of cartoonish in their quest for an infinity stone or world domination. There isn’t much method to their madness – they just want power. With Killmonger, Black Panther presents a very nuanced depiction of T’Challa’s foil. On more than one occasion when Killmonger is laying out his complaints, you can’t help but think he has a point. Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler bring out the best in each other – Black Panther marks their third collaboration – and this film is no exception. There are heavy issues at play in the conflict between Killmonger and Black Panther with plenty of shades of grey to consider. Their clash is almost Shakespearean and Jordan is clearly having some fun with the role. Killmonger has a swagger and wardrobe that makes you pay attention to him. Killmonger isn’t 100% right, but he isn’t 100% wrong either; viewers will be forgiven if they temporarily forget who their allegiance is supposed to be with. Jordan also has a scene with Sterling K. Brown in the movie that brought more than a few people to tears.

As much as I enjoyed Black Panther, I don’t know that I’m ready to say that it’s my favorite Marvel film. Part of that is fatigue with the genre – for all the things that Black Panther does to innovate and challenge expectations, it is still a superhero movie. There were some twists and turns that I thought were somewhat predictable, given how many Marvel movies in particular, and movies in general, that I’ve seen. While it was visually dazzling and had strong performances across the board, there were some pacing issues where I thought things moved a little slow. I ride hard for the Captain America films and I have a soft spot for all things Guardian of the Galaxy, but while I don’t know that I can say Black Panther is my favorite Marvel film, it is certainly in the conversation.

Some other random thoughts:

  • There are two post credit clips in Black Panther, so make sure to stay all the way to the end.
  • I sincerely hope that Shuri and Tony Stark cross paths at some point so she can clown on his tech.
  • There is so much goodness in this movie that I didn’t even get to discuss the rhinos!
  • I cannot overstate how beautiful this film is. I know Wakanda isn’t real, but it would be a gorgeous place to visit.
  • Also – this may seriously be the best looking cast ever assembled. Everyone is so good looking – I had to look up to see how old Michael B. Jordan is to make sure he was age-appropriate. Also related – what’s up, Winston Duke.


  • Donald Glover gave some notes on the Black Panther script and there were a few places where I definitely think I felt his influence.

I am so happy that I saw Black Panther is a packed theater with a diverse crowd. There were a lot of families at the screening I was at, and knowing that some of these children were seeing people that looked like them for the first time as superheroes made my heart full. It also made me happy that some boys (and their parents) who may have opted out of Wonder Woman because it was “too girly” were tricked into seeing a film that provided plenty of examples of strong women. Black Panther could have buckled under the weight of expectation and responsibility, but instead it raised the bar for the whole damn genre while making history. With the runaway success of both Black Panther and Wonder Woman, hopefully this changes the conversation about what kind of movies can be successful.

Black Panther is currently in theaters nationwide.

Get On Up – A Review


At some point during college, my friend Matt started referring to me as “the hardest working (wo)man in show business.” I can’t pinpoint exactly when it started and I have zero idea of the context; on the surface that nickname isn’t all that relevant to me. I may have been a budding pop culture maven back then, but I certainly wasn’t associated with show business. Frankly, I didn’t work that hard in college either; while a few classes were challenging (International Economics in particular), I really didn’t have to put in that much effort for most of my classes. I wasn’t even a James Brown fan – I knew who he was, obviously, and knew his hits but I didn’t have any heightened interest in him or his music. My best guess is that Matt said this once because he thought it was funny, I laughed and it became a running joke. He’d occasionally mix it up and call me the “Godfather of Soul,” which really confused people. This is still going on over 15 years later; I am pretty sure the last time I saw him he made some sort of James Brown reference. It still cracks me up, so it hasn’t lost its charm.

Because of this moniker, I’ve always had something of an affection for James Brown, even if I didn’t know all that much about him. So when the biopic Get On Up was announced, I saw it as a learning opportunity. Though there is always an issue of how accurate biopics are and a question of whether they whitewashed some aspects of a person’s life, I figured that Get On Up would at least provide me a starting point for learning a little bit more about Brown and his significance. The James Brown that I was most familiar with was the older Brown, who had been imitated so many times that his authentic self felt a little bit like a parody. With his sequenced jump suits and his crazy hair, I honestly wasn’t too sure what to make of him when I was a kid. So I was hoping that Get On Up would be both an entertaining and educational experience.

Unfortunately, the movie didn’t quite fulfill what I was looking for; though Chadwick Boseman did an excellent job in conjuring up the spirit of Brown in his performance, the story just doesn’t give him the material to work with for a truly transformative performance. The film’s unnecessary jumping around in time and more cursory look at the musical legend doesn’t provide much insight into the performer behind the dancing and theatrics. Get On Up is more of a list of things that happened to James Brown, without telling us much about James Brown. It fails to pull any layers back to give the viewer any idea of why he was so important or an in-depth look at who he was. The failure of the film to have a tighter or more insightful narrative wastes Boseman’s terrific performance, which is a real shame. Given better material, this could have been his Ray and possibly given him a shot at some nominations.

It’s something of a daunting task to play a legend, but luckily Boseman has some experience in this area. He was great in last year’s 42 and did an excellent job of bringing baseball icon Jackie Robinson to life. On the one hand, playing Jackie Robinson might have been a little easier since we don’t know as much about him as a man; part of what made him so special was Robinson’s reserved demeanor in the face of tremendous adversity. Robinson the persona doesn’t much exist; he didn’t have a trademark look that had to be captured. On the other hand, Jackie Robinson is beloved by generations of sports fans so there was intense pressure to do right by the man’s legend. The opposite is true for portraying James Brown – it’s much more about getting his persona right first and then telling the story second. While most people couldn’t pick Jackie Robinson out of a lineup, pretty much everyone recognized James Brown. Brown also has a more complex backstory and while he is culturally significant, he is a less heroic story. It’s a testament to Boseman that he was able to handle these two very diverse challenges so well. His depiction of Brown was authentic without becoming a caricature. He had down Brown’s tendency to mumble-speak, though that also meant that I didn’t always 100% understand what he was saying. Boseman also did an excellent job with the performances; he lip synced to Brown’s music, but he certainly was convincing. When he played the older version of Brown, it was especially believable; at one point, I had to remind myself that Brown had passed away and that it was Boseman up on the screen and not the actual James Brown. He was extremely convincing and could play the different moods of Brown seamlessly. The entire cast did a good job; I am only really familiar with Nelsan Ellis’ work on True Blood as Lafayette (one of the only high points of that trainwreck of a show), so it was interesting to see him do something very different in his depiction of Brown’s best friend Bobby Byrd.

Boseman’s dedication to bringing James Brown to life it not met by the same dedication from the screenwriters and directors. The narrative that comprises Get On Up is too undercooked and haphazardly presented to really tell an adequate story about Brown. The screenwriters choose to use non-linear storytelling and while that can be an interesting devise when deployed properly, it is not employed for optimal effectiveness. In fact, their use of jumping back and forth in time is downright confusing in some instances – one minute you are watching Brown in the middle of his success and then the next you are suddenly getting a glimpse at his childhood. This would work if there was a clearer connection between the two events, but the transition is often abrupt and seemingly unrelated. It remind me of a child telling a story, where the facts are jumbled and they just insert things as they remember them. “So James Brown was performing on this TV show and was worried that he was selling out and, oh yeah, he was abused and abandoned as a child.” It just didn’t work under the poor use of the technique undercuts the flow of the story and its cohesion.

A side effect of all the narrative bouncing around is that the story never really spends much time on the significance of any of the events or what they mean about Brown as a man and his legacy. With all the moments that they chose to illustrate, Brown learning music isn’t one of them. He can just suddenly sing – other than a short moment where he enjoys hearing his father sing, there’s no discussion of how his talent was cultivated or why he would think he was talented. No moments are really allowed to breathe or be cultivated for their significance. Get On Up subscribes to the tell not show school of storytelling; with a more focused story that has moments more developed, I might have a better idea of who Brown was. The film doesn’t even do an adequate job of explaining why Brown was such an important and iconic figure. They figure if they just tell the viewer that he is, that’s enough. It isn’t.

Because there isn’t more time spent on looking at who James Brown was, rather than just checking off a list of events from his life, Get On Up winds up being a fairly two dimensional look at the man despite all the effort put in by Boseman. Brown actually doesn’t come out of this story looking all that great – he’s a tyrant with his band and abusive to his wife/girlfriend (that relationship is never made clear) at seemingly the drop of a hat. It doesn’t necessarily skip over his negative qualities, but because there isn’t much development those are the things that are most memorable about the film. I assume that wasn’t the intent, but if they were trying to provide a well-rounded look at a complicated man, they failed at the job. They do gloss over his drug abuse – there is one drug fueled incident, but because of the time jump, it isn’t clear at first the role that drugs played and there is no further discussion of when he started using or how frequently. Even VH1’s Behind the Music always makes sure to annotate the drug use of the performers that they are chronicling. Since they don’t do a good job of monitoring his drug use, it is hard to tell how much of his behavior derives from being under the influence. It would explain some of his more irrational behavior.

Some other thoughts:

  • Craig Robinson and The Roots’ Tariq Trotter have small parts as members of Brown’s band.
  • Dan Aykroyd also stars as Brown’s manager. Octavia Spencer is completely underutilized as Brown’s Aunt Honey. Viola Davis is given slightly more to do as Brown’s estranged mother.
  • The camera work in the film is a little odd – I don’t know if they didn’t have confidence in Boseman’s ability to sell the lip syncing, but they make odd cuts or focus on everything except for Brown. During one scene, they must have panned to every person in the audience and I found myself thinking “why are we looking at a bunch of smiling faces when we could be watching James Brown?’ Whether they were right to pan away from Boseman or they erroneously lacked confidence in that part of the film, it was distracting.
  • The movie picks an odd jumping off point for the narrative – Brown shooting off a gun because people used the bathroom at one of his buildings. It’s tremendously confusing as to what is going on, which I guess they are doing to prepare you for the rest of the movie.
  • At least they got the soundtrack right with a solid collection of Brown’s hits.

While I really enjoyed Boseman’s performance, Get On Up actually left me with more questions about James Brown than answers. I can’t really say that I have a better grasp on the man or why he was important to popular music. It was nice to be reminded of all of Brown’s great music, but if I want to know more about the man I’m going to have to look elsewhere. Get On Up was a disappointing glimpse at a music legend; it was more interested in listing events rather than digging deeper to examine what those events meant. A more focused and nuanced story would have greatly improved this film; instead, the poor focus and development undermined one of the more interesting performances of the year. Frankly, the man that I share a nickname with deserved better.