The nominees this time were (alphabetically):

  • A Star Is Born
  • BlackKKlansman
  • Black Panther
  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • Green Book
  • Roma
  • The Favourite
  • Vice

As usual, I’ve screened them all and write how they stack for me. All star ratings should be considered as my assessment of each film’s merit to win the Oscar, not whether they belong among the nominees. Each is well deserving.

In an odd twist, there’s not The Gay Movie this year. But half the films at least touch upon LGBTQ themes in at least one scene apiece. Meanwhile, the #OscarsSoWhite issue that plagued the Academy three years ago seems a distant memory (though why “If Beale Street Could Talk” was not a ninth nominee has me wondering).

Edits in italics are post-Oscar results and reflections.




When I first saw the trailer for this black and white period piece about a young woman who works as a domestic during 1970s Mexico, I thought I’d get an epic example of gorgeous filmmaking. It certainly has some powerful sequences, but this film mostly succeeds at being supremely boring with a story told in the margins. Every scene and shot is held too long for too little payoff other than the showy camera work. Disappointing. 2.5 stars.

“Roma” won Oscars for cinematography, foreign language film and direction.




Sort of “Driving Miss Daisy” in reverse, this latest white savior movie to be recognized by the Academy is actually pretty good, if you go in ignorant of how the “based on a true story” misrepresents its black co-protagonist (according to his family). But even if you’re aware, “Green Book” can win you over with its recounting of a racist New Yorker who chauffeurs genius pianist Don Shirley across the Jim Crow South. Mahershala Ali should be a lock for Supporting Actor and Viggo Mortensen is awfully good as well. 3 stars.

In addition to Ali indeed winning a second Oscar, “Green Book” also won Best Screenplay and Best Picture. 



Like “Green Book,” this biopic about the rise of legendary rock band Queen and its frontman Freddie Mercury apparently suffers from certain inaccuracies. But as a casual Queen fan, I wouldn’t notice — and didn’t. This movie is a celebration of the man and the music that edged to No. 6 on my ranking on the strength of Rami Malek’s career-making performance. 3.5 stars.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” won awards for Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Best Editing and, of course, Best Actor for Malek.




Longtime auteur Spike Lee tells the based-on-true-story of how black detective Ron Stallworth infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado during the 1970s. This sort of movie is right in my wheelhouse. I enjoyed it thoroughly, even if I don’t think it’s quite the director’s best film (1989’s “Do The Right Thing”). 4 stars.

“BlackkKlansman” was awarded Best Adapted Screenplay — Lee’s first (and overdue) Oscar win.




After 2015’s “The Big Short” surprised me with its deft combo of truth-telling and wicked wit, I was looking forward to this take on former Vice President of the U.S. Dick Cheney. I wasn’t disappointed, especially with that great fake scene in the middle.  4 stars.

“Vice” took home the Oscar for Best Makeup because OMG Christian Bale absolutely transformed into Cheney.




Having never seen any of the other three versions, I went into this remake about a young performer (played winningly by Lady Gaga) discovered by a declining superstar (Bradley Cooper)  cold and came out moved. A somewhat saggy middle act drags the movie from the top spot and maybe first-time director Cooper hogs the spot a bit too long at times, but when a musical makes me forget that A) I don’t really like them and B) manages to not actually be a musical … well, it’s a feat worth noting. 4.5 stars.

The movie’s signature number, “Shallow,” won Best Original Song.




I’ve written plenty enough already. But for emphasis: There’s no other film this year that does so much this well across the board in such groundbreaking yet classic fashion — it’s in every way the positive answer to “The Birth of a Nation.” 5 stars.

“Black Panther” was awarded for Best Costume Design (a first win for a black woman), Best Production Design (a first for a black person) and, most gratifyingly for me, Best Musical Score. WAKANDA FOREVER!



I went into this Oscar season with a clear favorite but expected that my own biases were interfering with my judgment and that some if not several of the other Best Picture nominees would objectively be better than “Black Panther.” But NONE of them blew the superhero masterpiece away, not even this one starring Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz as dueling 18th-century courtiers ingratiating themselves with the Queen of England (Olivia Colman). The fact that the film is super-engaging despite it not being in my wheelhouse (though I’ll watch anything Emma Stone does) and supremely well-made in addition is enough for it to stand just a wig hairpiece taller than BP in this ranking. 5 stars.

“The Favourite” won Best Actress for Colman.


More post-Oscar reflections:

My No. 1 in this annual screening party has never taken the Oscar for Best Pic.

  • 2015: “Birdman,” No. 2 of 9
  • 2016: “Spotlight,” No. 2 of 9
  • 2017: “Moonlight” No. 6 of 9
  • 2018: “The Shape of Water” No. 3 of 9

But the win by “Green Book” is probably the first time I have utterly disagreed with the result. It simply wasn’t especially exceptional outside of Ali’s arresting performance and Mortensen’s transformation (from noble Aragorn in the “Lord of the Rings” films to “AraGOON” here). If “Roma” had had a more engaging story, it would have left “Green Book” squarely in last place on my list (and probably won as Best Pic).

That aside, I have no quibbles with the overall winners. Colman made me a fan (“This isn’t how I wanted it to go,” she hilariously said to fellow nominee and now-seven-time-nonwinner Glenn Close in the audience during her speech). “Roma” won all the awards it should have. Lee FINALLY got his statue.

And “Black Panther”? It got almost all the awards it should have. But watching last night’s ceremony, I was absolutely struck by how fantastic the film looked next to the rest of the nominees on all levels.

It wasn’t as pretty as “Roma” but had a much more engaging story.

It was superior to “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” in every way except for their respective Oscar-winning acting performances. (And yeah, I gotta be real: Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger was not quite on that level of the other nominees)

It was cinematically more amazing than “BlackkKlansman” and, to be honest, had more to say (although Lee’s film also did a fine job of showing what good white allyship looks like).

The contrast in quality between “BP” and remaining nominees “Vice,” “A Star Is Born,” and “The Favourite” is markedly less extreme. But each of those other film projects sort of built on long histories of similar type films to similar levels of excellence. To put it bluntly, their cinematic language was already set. (Hell, one was a full-blown remake.)

“Black Panther” invented much of its language from whole cloth (literally, looking at Ruth Carter’s unprecedented costuming), while existing in a genre not known for producing high art. So yeah, it could have — and maybe should have — won Best Picture.

But whatever. As I said, my pick never wins anyway. 🙂



prince returns

Back in my February 2018 pro review of “Black Panther,” I declared, “…This movie stands in every manner as both a rebuke and redemption of the standard set a century ago by D.W. Griffith’s racist “The Birth of a Nation.”

I stand by it. The 1914 Griffith film was a milestone of the art form and pretty much every movie since owes a debt to the technical ground it broke. But it also had an effect on the culture of America, leading to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and further poisoning white peoples’ attitude toward blacks for the better part of the century since.

So in a real way, “Black Panther” makes the opposite statement, with Ryan Coogler using the film skills taught to the industry by Griffith and his successors to tell a much better, more positive story. And with the film being nominated for a number of the industry’s top artistic awards, it is clearly a great piece of art.

That’s why it’s weird, in the months since, that I’m noticing a bizarre backlash against the film, where some people claim the film is NOT great art.


They’re wrong, but OK, whatever.

Some claimed to have held their opinions because they were afraid to appear racist. Only now, when it appears they weren’t alone in their feelings, are they feeling safe to share those feelings about the film.

Look, I get it. Not everyone has to like a movie. Never mind that the movie is objectively good, one of the most highly reviewed by critics for the whole year. Critics like a lot of films that regular filmgoers find poor viewing.

But the fact that some were scared to look racist for not liking it is as much a symptom of our society’s deep-seated white supremacy and their own resultant fragility as anything.

One anecdote that stands out:

There was a fellow in a superhero gaming group on Facebook who was a latecomer to the whole Marvel Studios thing. He said he watched a number of the films last year and generally liked most of them. But some he thought were mediocre and “Black Panther” especially poor. When asked why in the Facebook thread, he was particularly critical of the “magic, do-anything metal” of vibranium.

So wait. In a fictional universe of:

  • teens who stick to walls
  • ashtray-sized fusion reactors
  • sentient tree-beings
  • enchanted hammers
  • inter dimensional immortal demigods
  • particles that shrink buildings to the size of briefcases,
  • invisible aircraft carriers…
  • ….that fly!
  • genocidal sentient robots,
  • folks who skip across dimensions by wishing hard enough,
  • men transformed into hulking abominations by chemicals and gamma radiation
  • fanatical interstellar genocidal despots (yes, plural)
  • cosmic jewelry that warps the space-time fabric

…the idea that a nation could fully utilize an extraterrestrial metal, given centuries to figure it out, is somehow a bridge too far?

Even in the real world, lithium is used as building metal, as a power source and as medicine.

This fellow backed off a bit from his opinion of the film being poor, because it clearly ISN’T. But the strength of his initial denunciation is … weird.

Other strange objections:

“It’s just The Lion King”

That’s like saying Star Wars is just Star Trek with laser swords. The only thing the 1994 animated classic has in common with “Black Panther” is that both are set in Africa and have to do with a royal usurper. Everything else is different. EV-RY-THANG.

I know it’s simpler to just lump them together as one because Africa is all one country, but come on.


“They only liked it because they were black”

My response: “…AND?” Why is that a problem?

The real question is: Why don’t YOU like it because the cast is black?

Because here’s a key point: It seems they can’t accept that YES some of the movie’s acclaim is indeed due to its groundbreaking cast and setting. This has NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE in a Hollywood movie of this scale, let alone this well. But they can’t accept that aspect alone as being exceptional.

I suspect these people don’t actually know why.


It’s not only (presumably) white viewers who are responding negatively. Here’s a remark from a Black Panther fan group on Facebook, followed by my reply:

HIM: “Black Panther was a great moment for the culture. The costumes and action was great. The cast was great. The movie was POOORLY WRITTEN tho”

ME: “I mean, I’ll grant that I got a tad annoyed at the first challenge during my first screening, thinking, ‘Why are we wasting time with this? Let’s get on with it.’ Things finally got more interesting once M’Baku showed up.

“But when Killmonger’s challenge happens later, I saw that it doesn’t have half the effect without that protracted earlier scene. The second challenge stands out as a warped reflection of the first BECAUSE we’ve seen how it’s SUPPOSED to work, in all its detail.

“Or take KM’s reveal of his MANY scars during his betrayal of Klaue. It’s a moment that would be more shocking if not nestled in the midst of much more shocking events in the brief scene.

“Forward again to the second challenge scene, when he takes the shirt off and we see SO MANY MORE SCARS to let the viewer (but not the characters) know T’Challa is in even more danger than anyone else on screen realizes.

“The script is doing this kind of subtle foreshadowing and call backs constantly. That’s good writing, not the other kind.”

I have had a few DM chats with my friend Dawn Burkes about all this, and she said it well: “Most of [these] fans aren’t into [subtlety]. They just didn’t get it.”


My “favorite” objection is folks saying T’Challa’s motivation was weak, that he was the least interesting of the characters.

“What did he WANT?” someone posted on Facebook.

Notwithstanding the fact that in this genre, it’s always the villains with the strong motive, but did these people ask the same question of Steve Rogers in 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” widely considered one of the best two or three Marvel Studios films? Or did they accept at face value that Cap, like most heroes, was primarily driven by protecting or restoring the status quo?

So why doesn’t Black Panther — an ACTUAL KING who is deeply invested in the status quo that makes him a ruler — get the same acceptance as Steve Rogers?

In fact, the subtlety of T’Challa’s arc in the film is also cited as a weakness. But that is a wrong conclusion. Flat wrong. Let’s look at it in detail.


It is no accident that the first time we see the Black Panther, it’s not T’Challa but a younger T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani).

The opening scene sets up a great deal more than just the eventual plot revelations, but also T’Challa’s motive and the mark and standard for which he’ll be aiming the entire first half of the story.

It’s also no accident that our first sight of T’Challa is of him brooding over a news report of his father T’Chaka’s recent demise. (In another crack bit of filmmaking, Coogler delivers, in thirty seconds of exposition, both T’Challa’s origin story AND his surface motivation.)

It’s more than just a son’s grief happening here in the film’s early going but also a certain amount of guilt.. We get the clearest picture of this (if we hadn’t already seen the scene from 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War”) when he’s rebuked later in the first act by M’Baku as a princeling “who could not keep his own father safe.”

Then, during the ensuing fight, after being exhorted by Queen Mother Ramonda to “Show him who you are!” T’Challa’s response is that he is his father’s son. And that’s what he thinks is what gives him the strength to turn the tables on the bigger, stronger M’Baku and forcing the Jabari leader to yield.

(But even in this scene, we’ll find, he is NOT his father’s son. I’ll circle back around to it later.)

In the beautiful Ancestral Plane scene, we get flashbacks to “Civil War” detailing T’Challa’s last moments with his dad (refreshing and clarifying the son’s grief for viewers) before their brief reunion in the afterlife. T’Challa’s first reaction is purely emotional, as he breaks down from his guilt at not being able to protect his baba, whose own reaction is rather firmer than we might expect.

T’Chaka: “Stand UP. You are a king.”

It’s a powerful moment in which it looks like T’Challa is truly assuming his new role. But in reality? He’s only doing what his father says and believing what his father tells him, and uncritically so.

In truth, he’s so overwhelmed with having this time with T’Chaka that he misses the lesson that his father tries to indirectly relay to him: that T’Challa cannot be T’Chaka, no matter how he tries: “You’re a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king.”

When T’Challa awakes, his only takeaway was that he talked with T’Chaka.

“He was there. He was there. My father.”

Of course, we miss the takeaway as well. We need to see T’Chaka as T’Challa does: as a great king.

The very next scene starts the process of challenging T’Challa’s idea of his ideal kingship. His love Nakia (the divine Lupita Nyong’o) thinks Wakanda should aid refugees; his friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) thinks Wakanda should clean up the rest of the world. Neither direction is one T’Chaka would take, and so T’Challa doesn’t think it his way, either.

The film’s whole next sequence again centers on T’Chaka’s kingship as his son seeks to fulfill the old king’s “greatest regret” of not capturing Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). And it culminates with

  • T’Challa spying a ring that shouldn’t exist around Killmonger’s neck, which raises troubling questions for the young king;
  • T’Challa taking a first real step into deciding who he actually is by saving an outsider, Agent Ross (Martin Freeman);
  • W’Kabi bitterly calling T’Chaka’s kingship a failure, and now T’Challa as well.

And now we come to the pivotal scene of the movie, when T’Challa confronts Zuri, his final link to his father.

“Leave us!” — both T’Chaka in 1992 and T’Challa in present day … both during scenes with Zuri in the room as the king demands an account

Zuri tells T’Challa the awful truth about his father’s worst day, and T’Challa’s entire goal and motivation — to be just like his father — crumbles. And from this point until his defeat at Warrior Falls, T’Challa is a shadow.

I suppose this is what people are reacting to when they see that T’Challa can’t fend off Killmonger’s challenge, only being able to make noble-sounding rationalizations in the face of Killmonger’s righteous-sounding fury. But these viewers aren’t seeing — or appreciating — the inner conflict clearly established in his mountaintop talk with Nakia, one that is not remotely resolved. It’s why he has the debate with Killmonger in the first place, why he gets almost blindsided by N’Jadaka’s claim until it’s too late to cut it off. It’s why he can’t muster his full fighting prowess in the duel to come.

And when Zuri dies, he’s completely broken. The boy who first lost his father, then his idolization of his father, now has lost the last connection to his father.

Queen Mother Ramonda could again shout “Show him who you are” but the result would be the same — him getting thrown from the falls.   

Everything about T’Challa’s character and arc is tied to his relationship to his father. To miss that is to miss him. And a number of viewers did.

The rest of T’Challa’s arc is him leaving aside his previous motive of being T’Chaka (“You were wrong to abandon him”). He rebukes previous Black Panthers on the ancestral plane (which, in a subtle touch, is now set at dawn instead of twilight, because it’s the true awakening of T’Challa’s kingship, not its sunset). He reaches out to M’Baku after his revival (“I cannot speak for past kings”).

The seeds of this turn were planted far earlier in the film, though. See his second-act rescue of Agent Ross. Where his father abandoned even his own nephew for Wakanda’s sake, T’Challa brings to Wakanda a foreign intelligence operative because simply because they’re friends and he can help the wounded American.

Even in the first act, during Challenge Day, T’Challa is not his father’s son, as he spares M’Baku’s life in direct opposition to the ruthlessness we eventually learn T’Chaka unleashed on his own brother.

In the end, T’Challa, just by being who he really is, is able to almost redeem even the monstrous Killmonger. He alone can see the kid from Oakland believing in fairy tales. And without even knowing it, T’Challa fulfills the dream of N’Jadaka’s father to one day show his son the most beautiful sunset in the world.   

He still has room to grow, of course: Perhaps a more seasoned T’Challa could have stopped N’Jadaka another way (as some who compare the similarly themed DC blockbuster “Aquaman” have complained — though they completely overlook the woman character who’s key to that different ending), but nevertheless he is poised to become a greater king than his father — and a greater man.

All this is going on in a superhero film. And if it seemed all too subtle for some viewers when compared with the richness of the rest of the cast, well, this little DM exchange with Dawn sums it up:

ME: We need to see T’Chaka as T’Challa does: Flawless.

ME: To miss that is to miss T’Challa’s whole arc. And I think a lot of people did

DAWN: I agree. That’s where that notion comes from that the movie belonged to others more than it did to him.

ME: Of course, the other reason people got that notion is because they ain’t used to the support characters being fully realized with full ass arcs of their own


DAWN: Hahaha! More facts!

I could write this much about every other significant character in this film. You don’t usually get characters this well-drawn even in the sort of period dramas the Oscars usually honor, much less in this sort of genre material.

But here we are. And that’s why it’s among the best pictures of 2018.


This fairly concludes my lengthy musings on “Black Panther,” though I could write SO very much more.  I’ll be writing a coda either on, just after or just ahead of Oscars night this Sunday, Feb. 24, as I consider BP among the other Best Pic nominees in my annual Oscar Screening Party.

The rest of the series:

Intro —

Wakanda —

Blackest Film Ever? —

The Women —

Killmonger —

The Score —

And an epilogue: My Oscar Screening Party 2019 —

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 8.30.08 AM

I love movie scores, ever since seeing The Empire Strikes Back as a lad of 9. One of the things about that soundtrack that leapt out at me even then was composer John Williams’ excellent use of leitmotif.

Black Panther composer Ludwig Goransson isn’t quite the master that Williams is (EDIT: Although now he, like Williams, is a Grammy and Oscar winner). But he really did something in this film.

Some film music aficionados hold the position that if a film’s score is noticeable, it’s doing it wrong. But in this case, THEY are wrong. This is a score that means to be noticed because it’s constantly telling the story.

It is times like these that I wish I actually knew musical terms. But I can only expound on this work of art as a layman. For a deeper dive into the Swedish composer’s Black Panther score and some sheet music of the themes, see this amazing analysis:

Here’s my inexpert short version:

There’s T’Challa’s theme, a combination of a deceptively simple rhythmic motif played frequently on the talking drum (a shoulder-mounted instrument) and, occasionally more boldly with staccato brass statements. This motif is often mated with the Black Panther/Wakanda theme, an ascending series of three-full-note phrases most notably heard in the track “Wakanda” as the royal Talon fighter flies into the nation’s capital (which really does never get old. That music does so much for the power of that moment for me).

There’s the gorgeous Ancestral theme, whose most powerful statement is in the Ancestral Plane scene with T’Challa and his father. Though of course most associated with that central relationship as T’Challa’s chief motivation — and, later, his internal conflict — this theme shows up everywhere and is much more than the beautifully sentimental tune it appears at first to be.

And, of course, there’s the menacing theme for Killmonger, the first theme that actually made me sit up and notice. Like T’Challa’s themes, it’s comprised of multiple themes, motifs and cues. It’s first notable in that its trap music beat is the only hip hop sound in Goransson’s score (aside from his orchestral arrangement of the rap song “Opps,” heard during the S. Korea car chase). It’s representative of the fact that the villain, like the musical form, is thoroughly American in origin.

Meanwhile, the key theme of eight rising notes (N’Jadaka’s Theme) builds tension every time it plays, and it’s often bookended by a statement of the lower four-note Killmonger’s Cue. But musically minded listeners will also notice that nearly every use of Killmonger’s theme also contains every note of the Ancestral theme (though, notably, only ever played with a single instrument, usually a flute), a key musical story point underscoring the truth of Killmonger’s origins.

And that’s what’s special about Goransson’s work here. His score isn’t just mood-setting music or smart performance composition. It’s thoroughly a storytelling device. Let’s look at one track, “Killmonger’s Challenge,” which underscores the first conversation between the villain and the hero. Follow along by buying the track from iTunes or Amazon or just find a YouTube video of the piece. I’ll wait.

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 8.24.27 AM

“Killmonger’s Challenge” opens briefly with T’Challa’s themes (0:00-0:17) as the angered young king and his royal guards stride into the captured Killmonger’s face. But the music swiftly moves to the first full statement of N’Jadaka’s theme since the film’s first act — complete with its low flute version of the Ancestral theme — as he dominates the conversation (0:15-1:10). Black Panther’s theme re-emerges at 1:05, but it’s a muted, almost cowed version that is cut off almost immediately at 1:12 by N’Jadaka’s theme again, this time played on an almost child-like sounding bell instrument as the outsider presses his argument. Meanwhile, a slow, synthesized bass beat comes in at 1:22.

The instrumentation is key here, as the bell symbolizes the villain’s inner child motivating the action while the beat maintains the threat. At 1:38, the bell trails off into echoes toward silence as T’Challa turns away and attempts to end the conversation, but Killmonger’s Cue (1:42-1:45) dashes the king’s effort and leads into a full-throated version of N’Jadaka’s theme as the outsider finally reveals, to all present, his true identify as a royal son of Wakanda.

But this version of the theme (1:43-2:04), while using the same rhythm as ever, hits different, almost dissonant, notes than the actual theme we’ve heard throughout the film so far. Goransson is musically showing how severely this revelation shakes the natural order of Wakanda. And then, of all things, it’s an almost soothing statement of the Killmonger cue (2:04) that settles the chaos — because, after all, his claim is legitimate. It’s also a story cue that Killmonger is in FULL control here.

Ascending strings transition into the Ancestral theme at 2:16, the first time it’s not played by flute in association with his own theme, because, of course, now it’s also reflecting T’Challa’s now-tarnished view of his father. Another soft statement of the Killmonger cue (2:27) leads descending strings into T’Challa’s Black Panther theme at 2:36-2:50, as T’Challa accepts Killmonger’s challenge.

The next minute of music is more atmospheric, a reprise of polyrhythms heard during the first challenge day scene as the Black Panther is depowered, but this time with sinister reverb vocals bookending the sequence. Then the flute and bass beats associated with Killmonger makes a reappearance as he makes a final speech in the final minute before the duel.

So that’s one of the key spots where this score exemplifies the best in musical storytelling, and it does so in a masterful meld of Western and African musical traditions.

One more example before I wrap on this:

In the mid-credits scene, as King T’Challa addresses the United Nations assembly, we get a coda to the whole story in score form in the track. Essentially, it’s built on a soft statement of the the Black Panther/Wakanda theme, punctuated by the talking drum motif for T’Challa. But what’s interesting is that in addition to these, there’s a reworking of N’Jadaka’s theme, halved from its old 8-note form into fours and played in in a more major key.

The music is reminding us that Wakanda is now half in the world that made Killmonger, but that perhaps that world is not entirely without merit or hope.

A final observation of this tune: No hint of the ancestral theme is present. T’Challa is truly his own man now, no longer simply his father’s son.

For some fascinating looks at the score in progress, check out this video:


A final bit and a lead-in to the next installment

I bought this score on iTunes about a year ago when I couldn’t find a CD version (which I don’t think was made) and wrote the following review after giving it a couple of listens:

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 11.37.19 AM

I’m going to toot my own horn here a bit: It’s the best non-paid review of the album on iTunes. (Feel free to go there and read and compare. You’ll see.)

But there’s also this review on the score there:

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 11.36.23 AM

Wow. Not only is this a terrible review, it is also a TERRIBLE REVIEW. It’s barely coherent. For one, its criticism of the score having “the same notes” is ludicrous because repeated themes is HOW MOVIE MUSIC LEITMOTIF is SUPPOSED TO WORK.

It’s like ridiculing a car for having wheels.

And note that dude says the score is mediocre, but rates it a poor 1 star out of 5 because he hated the movie so much for some reason. Like he couldn’t separate the two. It’s unbelievable.

I’ve noticed this sort of reaction to the film and the acclaim it’s received. It’s bizarre. It’s unwarranted. And I’m going to spend the next and final post taking this trend apart.


The rest of the series:

Intro —

Wakanda —

Blackest Film Ever? —

The Women —

Killmonger —

Yes, this is a king of a picture —

And an epilogue: My Oscar Screening Party 2019 —


As successful as “Black Panther” was overall, nowhere did it succeed so much as in America, to that staggering $700 million domestic box office total. And a good portion of that is because of Black America.

That’s partly because of the film’s complex antagonist. There’s at least one moment, for every Black American who saw the movie, when we really, really felt for Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (played with apex-predatorlike menace by Michael B. Jordan).

One of the ways in which the film reveals its majesty on repeat screenings is with its opening line. The first time you hear it, it simply sounds like a Wakandan boy requesting a bedtime story that happens to double as the background for the bigger story to follow in the next two hours. But of course, even now the film is subverting the expectations it’s setting up: While the father’s voice is clearly African, the boy sounds American.

The next time you see the film, you know the truth from the start: The boy is indeed American and the full tragedy of N’Jadaka is realized.

But we don’t know any of this at first. We only see a boy playing night basketball in 1992 Oakland, Ca. Just as his is the first voice we hear, his is also the first face onscreen.

In a very real sense, “Black Panther” is Erik’s story. But it’s more still for us whose ancestors were brought captive from West Africa on ships.

You see, Erik IS the black American experience embodied.

He’s orphaned like us.

By the time we meet him, Erik is already being raised in a single-parent household. His mother is nowhere to be seen in the film. (The bitter irony, revealed by director Ryan Coogler in commentary elsewhere, is that Erik’s mother is imprisoned and the operation we see his father, N’Jobu, and “uncle James” planning is a prison break to free her.) And, of course, by the end of the scene, he is truly abandoned.

Similarly, we black Americans are marooned in a hemisphere an ocean away from our ancestral homeland.

The later scene where Erik meets his father in the Ancestral Plane is laden with multiple layers of meaning.

N’Jobu: “…I fear you still may not be welcome [in Wakanda].”

Young Erik: “Why?”

N’Jobu: “They will say you are lost.”

Young Erik: “But I’m right here.”

N’Jobu is actually speaking of both himself and his son, but Erik either does not see (he’s young here) or simply won’t accept the full truth of his father’s words — that their time in America has changed them both in deep, deep ways.

Erik’s response could also well be the cry of the African American, wanting to be recognized and connected to the motherland but not really comprehending that the motherland has too many of her own wounds to heal to nurture us the way we desire.

He’s persecuted like us.

During the film’s introduction to the adult Erik, we see him being shadowed in a museum of historical artifacts. There doesn’t appear to be a reason for him to have so much security paying him such mind. And yet, there are a couple of guards closely hanging about simply because he’s there. (That he actually does represent a threat in this case is immaterial, especially since his plan DEPENDS on their racial bias.)

Black people everywhere recognized the HELL out of this scene. Most of us have either experienced it or know someone else who has.

And since the film’s release, we have seen a number of instances where white people harass or call authorities on black people for little or no reason. Remember BBQ Becky, who called 911 on black park-goers having a cookout? Or Poolside Paul, who doubted black pool-goers belonged? Or my friend’s encounter with who she called “Airport Andy,” a man who tried to blame her for HIS impatience and dropping of his phone (camera footage showed his fault)?

I could go on and on. So we get Erik, here.

He’s Americanized like us.

In that above scene, Erik plays on the implicit bias of the museum curator with his African American Vernacular English (also formerly known as “ebonics”) mode of speaking to keep her focused on him as the threat to be removed instead of, oh, I don’t know, maybe getting medical attention because she’s been poisoned. But once the poison takes full effect and the woman collapses, he switches to using more standard American English, now manipulating the remaining security into no longer paying him any attention.

This is called code switching and it’s something we black Americans have had to become very adept at to be successful in this society. (Those who can’t are demonized as unintelligent or “ghetto” — note how Obama’s rise was peppered with comments of his being “well-spoken,” something we take for granted from white candidates. Or did before the elections of Bush II and Trump.) So we certainly saw ourselves in Erik Stevens there in that scene.

Speaking of which: What a great heist scene. It delivers all we need with a minimum of fuss and bother. Ryan Coogler is very good at this. (In contrast, DC superhero film director Zack Snyder would’ve belabored with dramatic slow motion shots and extra brutality or needless diversion. Look at the “heist” scene with Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince in “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Sure we got the fun banter from the boys, but that Lex Luthor meltdown or whatever the actual hell that was derailed it completely. Bu I digress).

Later in the film, Killmonger’s professional background as a blacks ops pro is further detailed, showing again just how Americanized he has become. Although he uses his Wakandan heritage to gain access to his ancestral home, his actions are guided by the skills and grievances he learned from his ACTUAL home. Which leads to the last way Erik is like his African American tribe:

He’s self-destructive due to his trauma

Unfortunately, Erik is us in the bad ways as well. Although he’s very controlled in the heist scene, he’s also prone to impulse, as when he takes the extra mask on the way out. For most of the movie, he’s disciplined and driven enough to overcome this character flaw, but in truth, the flaw corrupts his entire ideology and dooms him to failure, even if the Black Panther had not succeeded in retaking the throne. And his trauma goes deep, as we see.

It’s a similar case with the African American tribe. Studies have shown that extreme trauma may have the potential to rewrite DNA, so if true, the traumatic legacy of slavery literally remains in every cell of every descendant. As strong as we are and as much as we’ve survived and occasionally thrived, that trauma — whether indeed internal or simply manifested in the generations of oppression whose effects reverberate into the present — has held back much of our tribe.

And so we ask: Was Killmonger right?

There is a righteous sort of rage that is a common response to this injustice. And we see it onscreen first with N’Jobu, Erik’s father, and then with Erik himself. Unfortunately, their rage leads each from righteousness into sin.

Yet there are black folks who agree with this approach. They want to call Erik Killmonger a hero, just one who’s willing to do the proverbial “any means necessary.”

But he absolutely is not a hero. Not by any means.

Sure, he talks a good game about bringing justice, shaming the Wakandans for hiding the nation’s excellence and aid, and about beating the colonizers at their own game. But it’s mostly a sham.

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 10.52.44 AM

Because of Linda. Remember her?

She’s the female accomplice to Klaue and Erik in the first half of the film — and Erik’s squeeze. She’s in every way the distorted (Americanized?) reflection of the women in Black Panther. She’s clearly highly intelligent and capable (it seems plain she poisoned the museum curator and electronically foiled the museum’s surveillance systems) but she only has two lines.

Her hair is also a weave.

(OK, that’s a low blow. The more I look at it, I think her hair is all natural, just straightened in the Western style.)

Still, all we see of her is what Erik sees:

  • an accomplice
  • a sex doll
  • and, ultimately, an impediment.

She gets unlucky when the canny Klaue reacts instantly to Erik’s sudden betrayal by taking her hostage.

“It’s gonna be okay,” he tells her, comfortingly. And he immediately shoots her.

It’s amazing how many viewers who later said “KILLMONGER ISN’T THE VILLAIN BUT A HERO” saw that scene and forgot about this cold, unfeeling murder along the way to his quest for revenge. It speaks to how deeply the hurt done to our people lies, and how great the rage burns.

But we can’t let that rage run or ruin us.

There’s a term, “toxic masculinity,” that has come into vogue. Some don’t believe it’s actually a thing, that it’s just either a slam of masculinity in general or should be considered just bad behavior.

But I submit that Killmonger IS toxic masculinity, all hurt and violence that cannot show vulnerability.

burn it all

It’s why he burns the garden of the heart-shaped herb. He can’t consider the world that will be after he’s gone. He doesn’t care. He can’t LET himself care.

“The world took everything away from me! Everything I ever loved!” he says in a rare burst of actual emotional honesty, before the mask of rage again tries to hide the underlying pain of loss that’s driven his every action since 1992.

That is, until his end.

I opened this essay with a declaration that every Black American feels great sympathy for Killmonger at least once. For me, it’s a final scene line of his that gets me in the feels every time I see this movie. Mortally wounded by T’Challa, all the rage drains out from Erik and he’s just the vulnerable child again. And after he says that his father promised to show his son the beauty of Wakanda one day, he turns to his cousin, his enemy, saying:

“You believe that? A kid from Oakland running around believing in fairy tales?”

UGH. I’m tearing up just writing this.

Because in the end, despite his villainy, despite his standing as scarified poster child for toxic masculinity, he really is just a traumatized boy who wants to believe in the fairy tale that was stolen from him.

In the very end, though, he’s just too damaged to accept the chance to live some of that dream. T’Challa offers to save Erik’s life, but Killmonger is defiant:

“Why [save me]? So you can just lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean … with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. ‘Cause they knew death was better than bondage.”

It’s a fierce line that resonates with every African American whose forefathers were chained aboard those slave ships. But like in so much else in his rage, he misses the truth: Our ancestors were the ones who SURVIVED the Middle Passage, then bondage and isolation in this hemisphere, then the systematic oppression after the Civil War, then the systemic effects enduring long after the civil rights movement.

Death may be better than bondage. But life and growth is better than both.


The rest of the series:

Intro —

PART 2: Wakanda —

PART 3: Blackest Film Ever? —

PART 4: The Women —

PART 6: The Score —

PART 7: Yes, this is a king of a picture —

And an epilogue: My Oscar Screening Party 2019 —

The moment I knew I was going to probably love this film came in the third minute.

Fearing a raid from authorities, as the Oakland 1992 duo plan what we think is a heist or somesuch, N’Jobu and James check a knock at the door.

James: It’s … these two Grace Jones-lookin’ chicks. They’re holding spears.
N’Jobu: Open it.
James: You serious?
N’Jobu: They won’t knock again.

dora in 92

Right then, you know those women more than just mean business: They ARE the business.

The women characters in this movie were so inspiring, similar to the Amazons of “Wonder Woman.” But a criticism of the 2017 super heroine film was that Robin Wright’s character of Antiope should have been Phillipus, who is the lead general of Themyscira in the comics. Phillipus is a black woman. My friend Sherin of Geek Girl Riot ( rightly says Philipus (and other people of color) were effectively erased and shoved to the background as usual to give white women their shine.

There’s no erasure here in “Black Panther.” Every single heroine in this film is full of agency. There’s not one damsel in distress (save one for about 10 seconds of screen time, and that’s only because she’s going toe-to-toe with the movie’s villain in the final act).

Take the film’s opening action sequence. On its surface, it looks like T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is embarking on a rescue mission to save Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from some Boko Haram-esque militants in Nigeria — the classic hero saving the damsel in distress. And that’s how it goes for the next minute or so, until:

  1. Nakia appears to rescue herself.
  2. And then she rescues one of the militants, merely a child soldier with a gun forced in his hands, from T’Challa’s attack.
  3. And then T’Challa freezes.
  4. And then both he and she get bailed out of a jam by another Wakandan woman, General Okoye (Danai Gurira).
  5. And then Nakia complains to T’Challa about him ruining her mission.

She was never in distress.

The kicker, though? It doesn’t come until deep in this first act.

Ostensibly, T’Challa has retrieved Nakia (and ruined her mission) so she can witness his coronation. They are old friends/lovers and it seems he just wants to celebrate with her. But the truth is that part of the Wakanda coronation is Challenge Day, when any of the five tribes of Wakanda can choose a champion and wrest the throne by ritual combat.

Nakia is the chosen champion of her tribe.

So T’Challa hasn’t just sought her out for selfish reasons; he’s done so knowing that she might have a chance at becoming the Black Panther. Far from a damsel in distress; she’s a rival warrior*.

(And a lover. And a friend. And a spy. A patriot. A confidant. An agent of change. One rarely sees fully realized female characters like this in the superhero/action genre.)

Here’s the other great thing about Black Panther, both the film and its titular hero. T’Challa is willing to risk a battle with Nakia to have her by his side — not for anything as basic as he likes the way she looks (although let’s face it, Lupita Nyong’o is pretty much the most beautiful woman in the world. FIGHT ME). Rather, he needs her perspective on the world. He values her wisdom. And we see him (and the film) greatly value the strength of the women around him.

* A cynical viewer might say T’Challa was simply trying to stack the odds in his favor in case he had to fight her in the duel. But in the film’s closing act, Nakia alone is able to disarm Killmonger in solo combat, something even five Dora Milaje working together couldn’t quite accomplish. “I’m not a Dora,” Nakia protests in an earlier scene. But that’s clearly because it’s not what she wants, not because she’s unqualified.

Okoye. Shuri. Ramonda. I could deconstruct these heroines’ roles as I did Nakia’s, showing how this film respects each in her own power, and share multiple favorite moments involving each. I could talk about just their HAIR as power. But that would double the length of this post, easily.

(And you know what? This is my blog and no one’s giving me a word count but me. So LET’S GO)



So, first of all, I love Angela Bassett and have ever since her small part in 1991’s “Boyz N the Hood.” And here again, she does SO MUCH with another relatively small part. Like the queen mother she plays — and actually is in real life, let’s be honest  — she manages to low key rule every scene she’s in.

Like, the first moment she speaks in this film, I was at first amused by Bassett using this accent we’re not used to hearing from her. But within seconds, I stop seeing and hearing Bassett and she’s become the Queen Mother Ramonda.

Key queen moments/quotes:

“…Shuri!” — Ramonda to Shuri as the girl delivers a rude gesture

She doesn’t even have to turn and look to know her youngest child (who’s flipping off her brother) needs a scolding. And all it takes is this one word to correct her. QUEEN. MOTHER.

“Show him who you are!” — Ramonda to T’Challa as her son duels M’Baku

This exhortation to T’Challa during his first challenge absolutely gave me [strongexpletiveforemphasis] CHILLS and THUG TEARS the first time I heard it. Not only is it representative of a woman’s ability to call a man into his potential, it is also, as it happens, another core line to one of the movie’s themes — identity (and T’Challa’s character arc. We’ll delve into that in Part 7).

And of course, she is absolutely instrumental in bringing T’Challa from the brink. It’s she who opens the appeal to M’Baku and who closes the deal with her knowledge of the Panther ritual.



Somewhat the opposite is teenage SHURI (Letitia Wright), who gets some shade thrown at her during M’Baku’s challenge as he derides her as “a child who scoffs at tradition.”

It’s a bit unfair to single her out (and in truth, M’Baku is calling out the rest of the tribes), but Shuri at this point is indeed still childish. Look at her rude gesture to T’Challa. Her silly corset quip (that even makes an actual child embarrassed). Her giddy excitement at joining in her brother’s adventures, even (especially) remotely. She’s constantly talking back to everyone except her mother (QUEEN!) and scary M’Baku.

But there’s also a wisdom to her well beyond her years. She’s speaking one of the film’s core messages when she tells her brother, “How many times do I have to teach you? Just because something works, doesn’t mean it cannot be improved.” And of course, there’s the fact that she’s an wunderkind inventor whose genius outstrips even T’Challa’s (a shift from the comics, where she is the one playing catch-up).

In the final act, Shuri is instrumental in bringing the fight to Killmonger, first tactically, then up close and personally. The girl who was once cowed at M’Baku shouting at her now stares death in the eye, defiant and unbowed.

And we can’t leave out the ones who impressed me in the first place, the DORA MILAJE.

dora milaje

Their body language and discipline alone speak to their power. Note, for instance, that during the Warrior Falls duel, the slim Dora are matched against the burly Jabari guards, and no one bats an eye.

And consider this: a mere score or so of Dora, along with the Black Panther, are enough to battle almost to a stalemate a far greater force of Border Tribe warriors during the climactic Great Mound battle.

Of course, if one mentions the Dora, you gotta talk about their general: OKOYE (Danai Gurira).

okoye on car

Oh, Okoye. So many of my favorite moments in the film are her moments. Here are just five of them.

1. “Hmm.” — Okoye

In their first scene, T’Challa has just told Okoye that he won’t need her help. It’s not her line here but her facial expression that is perfection — it’s a mix of surprise, pride in her prince but also skepticism because SHE KNOWS HIM. She immediately goes to the literal heart of the matter when she exhorts him not to freeze in Nakia’s presence.

In just this exchange, we learn so much about Okoye.

  • She is completely confident in her abilities and her role.
  • She is highly respectful but unafraid to speak up when she thinks a friend might be about to mess up.
  • And she is very wise and perceptive.
  • But she does not have a great poker face at all.


2. “[I want to] get this ridiculous thing off my head. … It’s a disgrace.” — Okoye, on wearing a wig

Now, it’s a treacherous thing to talk about black women’s hair, but I said I was gonna talk about hair and this my blog so I’m gonna do it.

One of the grand things about “Black Panther” as a project was that the usual hot combs, presses and other hair-straightening processes that many black women use in Western culture were completely banned from the set. Because these are never-colonized Africans, there would be no pressure, social or otherwise, to attempt to emulate the straight hair of Europeans.

Consequently, for the story, it becomes necessary for Okoye, whose head is shaved bald (and tattooed, showing it’s her longtime hairstyle), to blend in better at a South Korean underground casino by wearing a straightened-hair wig — the aforementioned “ridiculous thing.” Nakia says the wig looks nice on Okoye and it does. But Nakia also tosses in a sarcastic quip about the general whipping her new hair “back and forth,” a universal beauty gesture in other cultures that is difficult at best to achieve with short African hair.

I love, love, LOVE what the film is doing here in this scene. It’s subverting the usual makeover tropes and symbols of beauty imposed on us Africans by the Western world and calling them WHAT THEY ARE: ridiculous and disgraceful. And so when Okoye later flings the wig off into an opponent’s face, black women cheered the move worldwide as a blow struck for them.


3. “Can we please focus? …Thank you.” — Okoye, to T’Challa and Nakia

Also during the S. Korea scene, over hidden mic, the general attempts to keep the new king and his beautiful spy on task instead of flirting with each other. It’s really low-key flirting, but Gurira’s delivery of the lines telling them to cut it out never, ever fails to put a smile on my face. She’s all business and discipline.

And yet it’s Okoye who winds up blowing the team’s cover, as her frustration with the slightly loose-cannon Nakia boils over. She’s not perfect — there’s that lack of poker face again — and one of the movie’s best action set pieces ensues.


4. That lack of perfection shows up during the following car chase, when the general seemingly recklessly climbs onto the roof of her car (ostensibly exposing herself to gunfire, but seeing as she’s JUST said that guns are “so primitive,” she clearly has some Wakandan tech that makes her have zero fear of it), and takes out the nearest vehicle with one of her vibranium spears.

And then she has this absolutely feral smile, the grin of the lioness pursuing a slow antelope, in probably my favorite shot of the whole film.

Might there have been a better way to handle their foes? Sure. But would it have been as fun for either Okoye or for us watching? Doubt it.


5. “For Wakanda? Without question!” — Okoye, on whether she’d kill a dude.

She speaks the above line to her beloved husband, W’Kabi, during the film’s closing conflict, after he’s asked if she would battle him to the death. To W’Kabi’s credit, he looks about and realizes that his is a losing cause and that this is not the future for Wakanda he wanted.

More importantly, he is belatedly asking the question Queen Mother Ramonda posed during the film’s bleak middle: “What has happened to our Wakanda?”

He might’ve saved himself and the nation some trouble by listening to the women instead of his own rage.

For in these women and the royal guard, the Dora Milaje, we see how the strength of Wakanda and the Black Panther is bound up in the black woman. And so it is with us in the real world.

They are like Nakia, the stubborn, independent queens speaking truth to power, urging us to do it better.

They are, like Ramonda, our elder advisors, reminding us who we are and urging us not to walk into traps.

They are like Shuri, our genius youth, teaching us anything can be improved.

They are like Okoye and the Dora Milaje, our fellow warriors and often our generals in the struggle.

They are the servants and saviors of our nation.

And so I quote: “PHAMBILI!” (Onward!)


The rest of the series:

Intro —

PART 2: Wakanda —

PART 3: Blackest Film Ever? —

PART 5: Killmonger —

PART 6: The Score —

PART 7: Yes, this is a king of a picture —

And an epilogue: My Oscar Screening Party 2019 —

tchalla lo

There’s been some talk of this not being the first black superhero film, that “Blade” in 1999 or 1995’s “Spawn” (or that terrible Shaq vehicle “Steel” in 1997) were first. Such talk is ridiculous hair-splitting. There’s never been ANYTHING like “Black Panther” in this genre — where the lead and the supporting cast alike are black.

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but this movie changes everything. For young people to see a cast like this where we’re not the tokens, where we’re not the first people to die? If you’re brown or black and you’re looking up on a movie screen and seeing yourself as a central character driving the story? That’s a game-changer.”

So I said when my old Atlanta Journal-Constitution colleague Richard Eldredge, founder and editor of, came calling to get my take (along with others’) on “Black Panther” in the leadup to the film’s release in February 2018. But I really did not quite understand just how much this film would shake the paradigm.

The significance of this manifests in a number of ways. First, dark-skinned actors are central for once. There’s no tokenism. There’s no Magical Negro to help the white hero grow. There’s no Black Vacuum Law of Science Fiction (where the black character has well under 50% chance of survival). There’s no white savior.

Also, unlike virtually every other film featuring a bunch of us, we have actual agency. This is no “Detroit,” no “12 Years A Slave,” no “Selma,” no “Green Book,” in which to so much as raise one’s voice against a white character invites severe consequences up to and including death. This is a movie where a black man can literally shout “YOU CANNOT TALK” to a white figure and that character just has to


The [expletive].


That’s refreshing as hell.

And with a nearly $200M box office in its first three days and an eventual domestic take of over $700M (only the third film ever to do so), it should put to absolute death the notion that a mostly person of color cast can’t succeed financially. It helps that the Marvel Studios franchise is “colorblind” but, unfortunately, American society by and large is not.

By and large. But not entirely. Though America has made enormous strides in the area of race, it remains an ocean of white supremacy in a lot of ways that aren’t immediately obvious.

An interesting set of anecdotes illustrate this.

  • Take my friend “Jane.” Jane is a white woman who loves Black Panther as a character. She was one of the first who flat-out loved my BP cosplay at a Halloween event — and this was well ahead the character’s 2016 screen debut. She’s what I would call a white ally to black folks in various issues. And she also loved the film “Black Panther.” But despite all that, she still had to admit with candid embarrassment that after seeing the film, she did not quite identify with anyone in it.
  • Or take Michael Clark, the regular film reviewer for my newspaper, who also wrote his review for “Black Panther.” Although a generally positive review, at one point he said the white character of CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) is indispensable to the narrative.
    Don’t get me wrong: I love this take on Agent Ross. I actually think he’s an important character in certain ways. But he’s not vital, not to the narrative. Not at all. He’s just the one that Clark could identify with.
  • A 60-ish white woman at my third screening said, with some surprise and relief, that the film was simply a rousing story, and that it wasn’t anti-white. I was amused. Why would she assume it was going to be?
  • Another friend, “Joey,” said that although he liked it, he found the fact that he didn’t know any of the characters held him back from fully identifying with the cast.

All these folks have swum in this American culture that is white supremacy for so long that the overwhelming blackness of “Black Panther” leaves each a little bit adrift, especially Joey, who’s something of a victim of the fact that said culture has marginalized people of color for so long that he never got the chance to discover these similarly marginalized characters. That anonymous white woman went to “Black Panther” expecting her people’s sins to be laid bare the way MOST black-cast stories tend to do (because historically, the only such films that have black casts tend to tell black people’s struggle stories — and those often aren’t a good look for white people). The self-aware Jane recognized how the culture affected this aspect of her film-going experience and sat in the discomfort. Clark, on the other hand, clung to the one familiar thing — a sympathetic white character onscreen —and elevated him to a level of importance that he doesn’t deserve.

But let’s talk about Agent Ross a bit, and the level of importance he DOES deserve.


Usually, the white guy in this sort of unusual cast is the Everyman, and Ross is just that — with a twist. He’s every white man when encountering black folks. His early arrogance is born of his American privilege, and as such he is, at first, an impediment to our heroes, much as white privilege is problematic in white people’s dealings with black folks.

But “Black Panther” turns the tables in a number of ways here.

  1. He’s not central. This isn’t surprising, given the nature of this film’s cast. What is surprising is…
  2. He’s not the viewpoint figure. Frequently when introducing a fantastic world like Wakanda’s, a story would put us in the shoes of a character like Ross to ask the silly questions that people from outside that world would ask. But “Black Panther” requires us to come alongside the Wakandans first, to identify with them and then watch Ross try to catch up. Which leads to the next point…
  3. He’s out of his depth. Ross is constantly having to tag along and ask questions just to keep up with native Wakandans. But this new humility serves him well, because…
  4. He learns to trust and not be in control. As a CIA guy, he’s never been able to trust anyone. It’s an occupational hazard. Now, with the Wakandans, he finds himself with no choice but to trust the experts.
  5. He becomes a true ally. In the end, he’s instrumental in helping the heroes win with his knowledge of American systems (and, later, his piloting skills). And then he sits back and quietly smiles without taking credit later.

Ross is a near-perfect picture and allegory of white allyship in the real world.

He knows he has something to contribute, and white folks definitely have a lot to offer. But he knows he’s not the center: He shuts up and listens when told to and never tries to center either himself or his privilege (in the movie, being American; in real life, being a “colorblind” person) in the conversation, nor does he attempt to appropriate the fight for Wakanda into a fight for the world. White people aren’t used to not being in control, especially in the context of living around people of color. But Ross accepts this non-central role, and by listening to the experts in this unfamiliar world — and as a white person in a black culture, he is decidedly not the expert — he is well positioned not to save his new friends, but to save the world alongside them.

The short of it: He doesn’t go “all lives matter” when the fight is for the fate of Wakanda — even if all the lives ARE at stake.

I’ve often said that one of the chief realities of American history is this: In the story of racial justice, white people are not and have never been the heroes. Most of the time, they are either the villains or the oblivious bystander who doesn’t want to get involved. At best, they can be the indispensable sidekick who saves the hero at a key moment — like Agent Ross.

But that’s not a bad thing. Be like Agent Ross.

This allegory of allyship is only made possible by the overwhelming melanin onscreen. And that’s what makes this film such a cultural watershed. It’s indeed one of the reasons “Black Panther” has received a worthy Oscar nomination as Best Picture (and maybe should have won).


I opened this with a quote regarding the future, post-“Black Panther” reality. Let me close this installment with a personal anecdote about the potential effect of this cast’s blackness.

Back in the 1980s, I began creating my own comic book characters after long years of pretend adventures and story lines with my younger brother. At first, the characters were all anthropomorphic animals, but gradually, I began to incorporate human characters.

Now well into my adulthood, a few years ago I decided to scratch my artistic itch and do a themed sketchbook. It was a chronological look back at all the women characters I’d created as a teenager and young man, one per page. And I saw something a bit striking.

Ethnicity/Race of my own characters (female):


























Native/Indigenous American
















































Native/Indigenous American


Native/Indigenous American






In my younger years, though I had always ensured there was a black man on most of the superhero teams I created, it was literal years before I added my first woman of color superheroine.

My second? She was a super VILLAIN.

I was raised in a household by proud black parents who taught me to never be ashamed of my heritage. Yet I seemed to have gotten with the program of white supremacy and misogynoir by default any damn way, because my influences — Star Wars, 1980s X-Men comics, anime — were steeped in those things in spite of themselves.

I had to become intentional in diversifying my cast to essentially deprogram myself.

That’s why “Black Panther” is such an important film. Now, there are millions of kids of all backgrounds who saw one of the best movies of the year for whom that level of black representation will be NORMAL. They won’t have to deprogram themselves the way I did; they’ll start from a more diverse starting point.

That, as I told Mr. Eldredge last year, is truly a game changer — for the better.


The rest of the series:

Intro —

PART 2: Wakanda —

PART 4: The Women —

PART 5: Killmonger —

PART 6: The Score —

PART 7: Yes, this is a king of a picture —

And an epilogue: My Oscar Screening Party 2019 —

So this certain woman Candace Owens has gained some notoriety in recent months for her turn from running an anti-Donald Trump website during his 2016 campaign to becoming one of the loudest Trumpets in the president’s corner. Leaving aside her motives for doing so (because I simply cannot figure them), this early August 2018 tweet came up:

“Inconvenient Truth: Slavery still goes on in Africa today. America was among the first countries that abolished the trade.

The present state of Africa proves that blacks in America are among the luckiest in the world.

Disagree? Tell me which African country you want to live in.”

Hoooo-boy. I could take this tweet apart for a whole dang post. But I will focus on one bit and answer her stupid question:

I want to live in an African nation that overcame tribalism (one of the continent’s only actual native-brewed weaknesses) and didn’t get duped into selling its then-present strength and future potential across the Atlantic into an even worse form of human slavery than that practiced in pre-colonial Africa.

I want that nation to have been untouched by the European colonial powers — powers that were only extant because a millennium of Christianity had finally muted their own tribalist bent.

I want that nation to be completely and utterly untainted by white supremacist ideals and uninfluenced by the World Bank or International Monetary Fund.

I want to live in Wakanda, Candace.

But you came here to read about me and “Black Panther,” so let’s get to it.


Candace, like most of us “lucky Americans” who saw the film, probably would’ve felt at home with the movie’s initial presentation of Africa. The first action scene of “Black Panther,” in which the hero makes swift work of a band of Boko Haram-esque militants in Nigeria, is a dark, brutal affair. While it’s cathartic to see these terrorists get theirs in a way that is uncommon both in the real world and onscreen, it’s also all too familiar — a depiction of an Africa in chaos. This is the continent as we here in America are used to seeing it.

It’s really smart of the film’s director and co-writer Ryan Coogler to open his movie’s real-time narrative (the preceding scenes both being flashbacks) this way, because now the viewer is thoroughly set up for the counterpoint that the film will spend the rest of its running time presenting.


BOY: “Baba?”
FATHER: “Yes, son?”
BOY: “Tell me a story.”

It’s no accident that the initial story of Wakanda is told as a bedtime story to a young boy. That boy is us here in Black America, wanting to hear a story about home.

There’s a moment about 10 minutes later in the first act that really highlights this longing.

We see the Black Panther’s royal Talon Fighter soaring above an unspoiled Africa at dawn, with its raw, natural beauty, wildlife and people.

It’s the other side of Africa we expect and hope to see. It’s a wonderful contrast to the violent darkness seen in the previous scene and, in all truth, my heart ached as I watched these fleeting shots. It’s a look we aren’t often shown in our Western media that usually only focuses on poverty and chaos and tragedy overseas.

It indeed felt like home.

(Literally, my film professional friend Angela told me, because the movie was shot in suburban Atlanta, Ga.  But, of course, plates of sub-Saharan Africa were also included in those shots as well, so my point stands, too.)

Then T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) says that line: “This part never gets old.” And the Royal Talon Fighter flies into the thick rain forest cover to reveal the hidden capital city of Wakanda, a magnificently modern metropolis unrivaled on Earth.


It’s the Africa we’ve never seen. The Africa that maybe we could have gotten, lived and thrived in, if not for the twin afflictions of the slave trade and colonialism.

It’s the fantasy of “what if.”

What if Europe had never decided in the Berlin Conference of 1884 to carve up the second largest continent in the world like a pizza pie for exploitation?

What if African people had realized the trap they were walking into when they sold rival tribes into chattel slavery across the sea, leaving themselves too depleted to resist the likes of Belgian King Leopold’s regime over the Congo that slaughtered an estimated 10 million and brutalized even more?

What if Africa had been allowed to truly become great?

“Black Panther” makes the dream visible.


Not only do we get to see that great approach shot of the high-tech city, but also tantalizing glimpses of everyday street life. It’s astounding how much of a world Coogler and his Oscar-winning production team led by Hannah Bleacher were able to build onscreen with only a few quick scenes — just shots, really. A lesser visionary might’ve belabored the point more conventionally (most likely through a classic outsider “viewpoint” character) but Coogler gets it done with a minimum of fuss, simply showing Wakandan culture at a glance and letting us gape at the screen long before any outside character does.

It’s one more way which Wakanda shows it’s not beholden to our Western frame of reference or approval.


As I was getting set to write this piece, though, a member of a Facebook group I’m active in made a point:

…[We could] consider Wakanda as an analogy for the United States, which has famously presented a face of isolation to the world, but never being truly separate from it.

I’m not sure I want to go as far as that analogy. But there are some key comparisons.

  • Neither have been conquered. Wakanda is clearly much older than our not-quite-250-year-old republic that only guaranteed full voting rights to all its citizens for the past 50. But both countries have managed to maintain their autonomy.
  • Neither have ever been truly isolated. Oh, sure, America has played at isolationism, to her detriment. But from its start, the nation has depended on foreign aid and trade. And, of course, now the United States has meddled in any number of other nation’s affairs, notwithstanding the isolationist leanings of the current president.
    Wakanda’s involvement in the outside word is murkier. But as Killmonger says, it has spies embedded worldwide, and at least one, Nakia, isn’t afraid to make “a bit of a mess” of outsiders’ affairs. To wit:
  • Both propose peace through strength. As a nation of warriors, Wakanda certainly seems to value power, even if it uses it only when absolutely necessary. The U.S. of A. can’t claim such lofty restraint, being an imperialist power like the rest of the West, but our nation tends to at least talk a little better game than many.
  • Both have competing visions of the nation and outside world in its citizenry. Wakanda has its traditionalists who would rather the nation remain hidden in plain sight (T’Chaka, Okoye, M’Baku) and others who would deal more directly with the outside world (Nakia, W’Kabi, N’Jadaka). It’s similar enough to America that even some conservatives attempted, in February and March 2018 think pieces, to say that Wakanda’s refusal to take in refugees made it more like Trumps’s America than not.
  • Both are threatened by a disruptor of its traditions.  Speaking of the 45th president, his election was either a failure of America’s traditions or a deft hijacking of them, and, regardless of your political wing, his actions in office have been that of a disruptor. Similarly, Erik Killmonger thoroughly subverts Wakanda’s tradition to gain power over the country and is enabled by a discontented plurality (the Border Tribe, not a majority), leaving the rest bound by honor to either serve or resist.
  • Both are fairly convinced of their own rightness. We see this clash early in the second act when both T’Challa and American CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) state their intentions for dealing with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis).

With all these parallels, it’s not hard to see why “Black Panther” resonated so well across so many audiences in the U.S. It was kind of our own story.

Still, Wakanda remains more fantasy than reality. But that fantasy bears more truth than meets the eye.

My lovely friend Latoya (@royaltycosplay on Instagram) had a great observation during  the Wakanda revelation scene: For her, the rolling hills and Wakandan rain forest is what everyone else sees of us black people on the outside. We’re beautiful, sure, if you’re into that sort of thing — but raw and primitive and messy, in their eyes.

But the true us — every ONE of us — is like the Golden City beneath the disguise the outside world sees. It, and we, are full of black excellence and innovation and glorious potential untold.

I agree entirely. Hold on to the Wakanda within.


The rest of the series:

Intro —

PART 3: Blackest Film Ever? —

PART 4: The Women —

PART 5: Killmonger —

PART 6: The Score —

PART 7: Yes, this is a king of a picture —

And an epilogue: My Oscar Screening Party 2019 —


screen shot 2019-01-22 at 2.16.32 am

As the ending credits song “All The Stars” pumped through the theater speakers at my advance screening, I, somewhat in a state of shock, had the following thought:

“Was … was that movie actually better than ‘Avengers’ and ‘Winter Soldier’ …?”

Until this point, those two movies were my clear favorites in the Marvel Studios canon. As much as I liked it, Black Panther’s MCU debut movie, “Captain America: Civil War,” was a distant third behind them.

But here I was, trying to convince myself that I was simply biased in favor of this movie because I liked the character. Also, I was at the screening for work and needed to write a fair review for audiences who, unlike me, might not be fans of the superhero or the genre. Still, I couldn’t deny: This was top-notch in the genre at minimum, as my eventual spoiler-free pro review indicates on Feb. 13, 2018:

In case you don’t want to click through, here’s a key paragraph or two:

… “Black Panther” is more than just a comic book film. As noted earlier, Coogler has crafted a slyly political commentary here on all levels. From the almost entirely African or African-descended cast to the king’s female-led royal guard to the running commentary on the never-conquered Wakanda to the motives of Jordan’s character to even the Afro-rhythm-tinged musical score by Ludwig Göransson, this movie stands in every manner as both a rebuke and redemption of the standard set a century ago by D.W. Griffith’s racist “Birth of a Nation.”

It also asks bigger questions: Does might make right? Or, perhaps, should might make right? And what happens when tradition fails and the wrong hands use that might? Coogler uses the superhero genre with a degree of sophistication not seen in these films since “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “The Dark Knight” in 2008.

Four out of four stars on that professional scale doesn’t indicate a perfect movie. And as mentioned in my opening, I wasn’t initially willing to favor BP over my two favorite MCU films, 2012’s “Avengers” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier” in 2014.

But then I saw “Black Panther” again later that week in a normal screening with film professional Angela, an old friend from college I hadn’t seen in more than 25 years. And not only did the film hold up under the repeat screening, but I found that certain moments of the film were now far more affecting than before.

Killmonger’s exit moved me the first time I saw it. This time, I ugly cried.

(Silently. I did not want to embarrass myself in front of Angela. 😀 )

“Black Panther” has proven to be more than just a comic book film. As I noted in my review, director Ryan Coogler has crafted excellence here on all levels and many layers. So I wanted to go in a bit of depth on some of those layers and levels:

I’ll be posting all month until the Oscars, when we’ll see if Black Panther won in the categories it was nominated for honors:

  • Best Picture
  • Original Score
  • Original Song (“All The Stars”)
  • Costume Design
  • Production Design
  • Sound Mixing
  • Sound Editing

And I’ll be arguing that it SHOULD have been a candidate for

  • Best Director
  • Adapted Screenplay
  • Supporting Actor
  • Visual Effects

Hope you’ll bear with this highly self-indulgent look at an excellent film and its effect on one black man.

(Post-Oscars and series mea culpa: OK, I did a lot less arguing about the above.)


The rest of the series:

PART 2: Wakanda —

PART 3: Blackest Film Ever? —

PART 4: The Women —

PART 5: Killmonger —

PART 6: The Score —

PART 7: Yes, this is a king of a picture —

And an epilogue: My Oscar Screening Party 2019 —


A casual look at my blog postings will show that “Black Panther” has been on my mind a little bit during the past year. That’s not surprising, given that I’m a big Marvel Studios film fan. But it’s interesting to look back at this now decade of MCU films purely on one level: How many times I saw each in theaters.

Each initial viewing was just ahead of or during opening weekend for the first screening

  • Iron Man (2008): 2
  • The Incredible Hulk (2008): 1
  • Iron Man 2 (2010) 1
  • Thor (2011): 2
  • Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): 2
  • Avengers (2012) 2 (both during opening weekend)
  • Iron Man 3 (2013): 1
  • Thor: The Dark World (2013): 2
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): 2
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): 2
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): 1
  • Ant-Man (2015): 1
  • Captain America: Civil War (2016): 2
  • Doctor Strange (2016): 1
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017): 1
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017): 1
  • Thor: Ragnarok (2017): 1
  • Avengers: Infinity War (2018): 2
  • Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018): 1

I’ve since seen all except “Infinity War” and “AM&TW” at least one additional time on home video. But it’s pretty much a rule that even when I really like a movie, I do not see it more than two times in cinemas.

I saw Black Panther FIVE times.

So yeah, I really liked “Black Panther.”  And I always knew I was going to write about it in this space and I knew it would be a big deal. But as I’ve also said before in this space, I need to see these sorts of films twice before I can settle my thoughts on them. And “Black Panther,” more than many films, is one that is layered and does not reveal its true power until repeat viewings.

As such, this film defied my attempts to write just a single article as I did with its immediate predecessor in the MCU, “Thor: Ragnarok.”

Therefore, in similar manner to my Life Lessons retrospective of my other favorite film, “The Empire Strikes Back,” I’m going to write a series of posts about Black Panther’s meaning to this black man. And with Oscar nominations to be announced today, I’m sure I’ll be talking a lot about its potential place among the best films Hollywood looks to honor.

Hope you’ll read along. But please see the film first, if you haven’t. Spoilers will abound.

Part 1: Introduction and initial reaction

PART 2: Wakanda 

PART 3: Blackest Film Ever?

PART 4: The Women

PART 5: Killmonger

PART 6: The Score 

PART 7: A king of a picture

And an epilogue: My Oscar Screening Party 2019 


Stan Lee, 1922-2018.

Stan “The Man” Lee is dead.

I’ve been bracing myself to write those words for years now. The effusive frontman of Marvel Comics and co-creator of most of its most enduring heroes had been ailing for the past year and finally, at age 95, he left this life.

To say he affected my life is something of an understatement.

My first comic book that I can remember owning is The Amazing Spider-Man #198 (vol. 1) in the late 1970s. Nearing his milestone 200th issue, the hero appeared to be running a gauntlet of sorts, having just been beaten senseless by the Kingpin. After a brief recuperation at a hospital, he continued his quest to get to the bottom of his Aunt May’s death (!) only to run into the villain of the month: Mysterio, master of illusion.

Thus began in earnest a lifelong love of the comic book artform (one that my mom regrets to this day. But sorry-not-sorry, Ma — there was no way I was ever NOT going to be a comic book fan. “The Electric Company” saw to that). And although Lee didn’t write this comic — he hadn’t been a hands-on scribe of Spidey for nearly a hundred issues by then — it was his creations and, more importantly, his vision that captured my imagination.

Though Lee goes down in pop-culture history as the creator of Spider-Man, Black Panther, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Thor, the Hulk and more, it’s more accurate to say he co-created them, with artist collaborators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko bearing at least equal credit for their respective hands in the characters’ genesis. Some argue that they were responsible for nearly all of it and Lee simply took the lion’s share of the glory.

I wouldn’t doubt that’s true. But what Lee brought to it all was his new brand of sophistication to superhero comics that turned then-upstart Marvel Comics into the industry leader that forced the older, more established DC Comics to up its game in a rivalry that continues to this day.

Here’s a key passage from that very first Marvel Comic that made such an impression on an 8-year-old Khari:

I do believe this was the first time I ever encountered the words “anonymous” and “anonymity.” But more than that, the doctor’s speech introduced the concept of justice and troubled times, things with which I, in my rather idyllic home life, was unconcerned.

Stan Lee’s successors (in this case, series writer Marv Wolfman) had completely bought into his vision of creating fantastical stories with clear connections to real-world themes and problems. And so the genre and medium only grew more sophisticated.


For more than half my life, I wanted to be a comic book creator. Now well into my adulthood*, although that dream has subsided almost completely, I remain a great lover of the art form and of vast universes of comic book creations. And I will remain so into I slip into eternity to meet the creator of the real universe.


* (my alleged adulthood, if trollmeister Bill Maher is any authority. Maher gained a bit more notoriety for suggesting that we’re all fools for mourning Lee and that we should have outgrown comic books ages ago. But what Maher doesn’t have a clue about is how comics, superhero or otherwise, have grown up along WITH us. And Stan Lee’s influence is fairly directly responsible for sparking the medium’s march to maturity.)