Arts & Leisure

“Black Panther” is a cultural touchstone

“BLACK PANTHER” is the latest Marvel offering, and is garnering critical acclaim and big box office.

By Jim Tortolano

“Unhappy is the land which breeds no hero.”

“No, unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

That bit of wisdom from Berthold Brecht comes to mind when watching “Black Panther,” the sumptuous hit film from Marvel. With a nearly all-black cast, the story of an African superhero and an African superstate has been embraced by many as a breakthrough in diversity and role-modeling.

As a film, “Panther” is just a pretty good movie. As a cultural touchstone, it is much more. At a time and place when and where black people are mostly ignored by the American national government and suffering from poverty and tyranny in Africa, this story comes as a welcome tonic of hopefulness and self-reliance.

The premise is this: T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) a prince of the fictional central African nation of Wakanda, succeeds to the crown when his father dies. He defeats a challenger and then – by drinking a magical substance which looks a lot like grape juice – takes on the powers of the Black Panther: speed, stealth, strength, etc.

All of this is set in a nation which, in keeping with the comic book tradition, has a secret identity all its own. Looking from the outside, Wakanda appears to be just another dusty third-world country. In reality, the advanced science of Wakanda allows it to conceal a technologically advanced civilization centuries ahead of the rest of the world.

What makes this nation special is the presence of a rare metal, “Vibraniam,” which has a lot of wonderful properties.

Of course, all is not perfect in paradise. A usurper, N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan) poses a threat, and there is a lot of fighting and such, along with some wisdom.

The screenwriters, Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, have written a fast-moving, lively film that imagines an interesting world which offers a unique view on a possible African future. Some nations on that continent have powerful natural resources of their own – mainly oil – but have been unable to turn it into peace and prosperity.

In a nod to the white folks, a white American CIA agent (played by Martin Freeman) helps out the good guys who, as you know, finally triumph.

Boseman, who portrayed Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall in earlier films, has essentially embodied a black Batman/Superman combination which may become a cultural icon for people of color on more than one continent.

Expect to see a lot more of him. We certainly need some heroes.

“Black Panther” is rated PG-13 for violence.

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