Abe Beame doesn’t want to spoil your fun.
The release of Black Panther was special for many reasons. It’s an all-black, big budget superhero tentpole that may become Marvel’s biggest grossing film of all time. It’s a critical hit that is likely going to go down with classics like The Dark Knight Returns and Guardians of the Galaxy as the gold standard for what a superhero film can be. And come this time next year, like another black-helmed genre masterpiece before it, it could be in the running as the first Marvel film up for Best Picture. But its greatest lasting accomplishment may be the coronation of its 31 year-old writer/director Ryan Coogler, who now joins the stratosphere of elite Hollywood creatives.
Coogler has a once-in-a-generation fluency with film in any genre, on every budget level. He’s not just a great visual filmmaker, but a great writer and thinker who has taken different styles and made them his own: the micro budget, ripped from the headlines, day in the life indie; the underdog boxing narrative, and the largely rote and lifeless structure of the superhero film. In his hands, each is affecting and personal.
Black Panther subverts and breathes life into what had become a paint-by-numbers Marvel model. He finds inventiveness, intrigue, and even moral ambiguity in every beat. Despite having made three films completely disparate in genre and ambition, a common spine has emerged in Coogler’s work: he’s interested in stories about fathers and their absence.
Coogler’s debut, 2013’s Fruitvale Station, is a dramatic recreation of the last day of Oscar Grant’s life, culminating with his tragic murder at the hands of police in Oakland, where Coogler grew up. In its slice of life ambition and construction, Fruitvale Station is very much in the vein of a standard sleepy indie. It’s the beginning of what is already one of the great mind melds between director and leading man of all time, with Coogler’s Scorsese to Michael B. Jordan’s De Niro.
The film won Sundance’s Jury Prize and Audience Award. It’s imperfect as a film and performance by a not quite ready Jordan, but notable in its injecting of color into what is historically a painfully white field—the hyper realistic, small scale issue movie by way of biography.
As we follow Grant through his final day, Coogler strives to present Oscar as a flawed but ultimately decent person and slowly that decency takes the form of his relationship with his daughter, Tatiana. Grant drops his daughter off and picks her up from school. In a flashback to a stint in prison, he’s seen relating to his mother (Grant’s father is absent from the film and was in jail throughout his son’s life) with a father’s loving dismay over his daughter’s precociousness. As he dies in the emergency room in Highland Hospital, we see what we can only assume is Coogler’s projection of Grant’s last thoughts: It’s a wordless flashback to him running down a residential Oakland street with his daughter on his back, smiling, laughing and happy as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean.
The final shot of the actual film is Melonie Diaz, playing the role of Oscar’s baby mother, in the shower with Tatiana. She looks up at her mother, eyes wide and asks, “Where’s Daddy?” As a pre-end credits series of texts relate the aftermath of Grant’s shooting, we get a kind of obituary with Grant’s time of death and age. Coogler chooses an image of the real Grant holding Tatiana to go along with the obit.
In many ways, Fruitvale Station is an origin story, to borrow from the parlance of superhero vocabulary. It is the making of a fatherless child. The film reserves its punch and its heart for the moments of tenderness between father and daughter, and it’s his role as a father that humanizes Oscar in the film’s eyes, that sands his rough edges. Fruitvale Station argues that Grant was killed, needlessly and tragically, by a system set against him. If he had been given the chance, Grant very well may have figured it out and become the person and father he wanted to be. In his stead, his partner and daughter paid the price for his absence.
2015’s Creed begins Coogler’s look at the children of abandonment. We meet young Adonis Creed (whose father died in the ring) beating a kid’s ass in a youth detention center in Los Angeles. For the last ten years, Coogler has worked in a San Francisco detention hall as a youth counselor, which is how his father makes his living, and you can feel that experience hanging over Creed.
The film brilliantly reimagines the language of the Rocky franchise. Much like Rocky III, Adonis is viewed as an underdog because of his privilege. Adonis grew up wealthy after Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Played by Phylicia Rashad) rescued him from the detention center and raised him in affluence. He’s known as “Hollywood,” and struggles to have trainers and competition that take him seriously, resorting to unlicensed back alley matches in Mexico to cut his teeth as a fighter.
Throughout the film Adonis is presented as raw and humorless, single minded in his pursuit of boxing legitimacy. His struggle can be seen as one against himself, as is alluded to multiple times. He resents the outside world discounting his struggle and hardships because he fell into wealth as an adolescent. The movie ostensibly is a romantic comedy; not between Adonis and his love interest played by Tessa Thompson, but between Adonis and his recast father figure, Rocky Balboa.
Creed is a film full of graphic haymakers, hooks and crosses, but its most devastating gut punch comes at its conclusion. Just before the bell ending the 11th round of a climactic fight Adonis has no business being in, he’s knocked down and knocked out. A series of images flash before his eyes. The last is his father in the ring, shocking him back to his feet to survive. Between the 11th and 12th rounds, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa wants to throw in the towel as Adonis’ left eye is swollen shut. Adonis begs him off, saying “I have to prove it.” Balboa responds, “Prove what?” “That I’m not a mistake.”
This simple statement recontextualizes the film. While Adonis is fighting so hard to prove his worth to himself, as we are meant to understand, he is also fighting to prove himself to the specter of the father he never knew. It’s a deft work of thought and empathy on the part of screenwriter Coogler and his collaborator Aaron Covington. A lesser film would’ve left Creed’s drive as self fulfillment. Coogler locates the scared kid with a chip on his shoulder in juvie and brings him out at the apex of the film.
Adonis barely loses the match on decision and as the ring is flooded he’s interviewed by Max Kellerman. He hammers home the point, “Adonis, I know you never met your father but if he was here tonight what would you want to say to him?” Adonis replies, “I would just tell him that I love him. I know he ain’t leave me on purpose and I’m proud to be a Creed.”
Creed shows us how the loss of a father can be motivation for achievement and positivity (given extremely favorable circumstances). In Black Panther, we see a very different vision of what can happen to the child who has lost their father in the form of Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger (*SPOILER ALERTS, PLEASE WATCH THE MOVIE BEFORE READING, AND EVEN IF YOU KEEP READING PLEASE GO AND WATCH THIS MOVIE).
It will probably take years and multiple viewing to determine where Black Panther ranks in the pantheon of Marvel films, but I feel confident immediately awarding the distinction for best ever Marvel villain to Killmonger. He is the soul of the film’s surprisingly ambiguous morality and he “wins” the movie in several ways. He’s the charismatic light and presence in comparison to the stolid, moral character of King T’Challa (who Jordan blows off the screen with every interaction). He brutally beats Chadwick Boseman within an inch of his life in their first showdown, and though he ends in defeat, accomplishes his ultimate goal of ending Wakanda’s isolationism and bringing their resources to the aid of black people the world over.
Killmonger is the son of Prince N’Jobu, T’Challa’s uncle who was sent on a mission to Oakland in the ’90s and became convinced, bearing witness to the misery and poverty of the black people in the city he was embedded in, that Wakanda needed to reach out to distressed and oppressed black communities around the world to lend aid. Because he knew he wouldn’t be able to convince his conservative brother of this principle, he committed an act of betrayal to smuggle Wakanda’s precious resource out of his homeland; a treason for which his brother murdered him and left his nephew behind on a basketball court outside the rundown apartment complex.
Killmonger discovered his father’s corpse and much like Adonis Creed, was motivated to go out and maximize his talent and ability to avenge his father and prove himself. He attended M.I.T. and became JSOCC special forces, a wrought iron killing machine, literally covered in scars, with the singular purpose of attaining rule over Wakanda and saving a world full of fatherless black children like him from his sad fate.
One of the many brilliant inventions of the film is a ritual in which the king of Wakanda is fed liquid vibranium and buried to recuperate from injury. In a hallucinatory state, the king visits a spiritual realm where it is possible to commune with the generations that came before him. For Boseman’s T’Challa, this takes the form of a picturesque African plain. For Killmonger, it takes the form of the humble Oakland apartment where he discovered his father, the type where you’d expect to find an actual Black Panther executed by cops. The contrast is striking and heartbreaking.
Black Panther is Coogler’s darkest vision of what growing up black without a father can result in. Killmonger is an ideologue with his heart in the right place, a hero in another movie, but the trauma of his loss and abandonment turns him into a fascist, misanthropic monster. He is hellbent on his goal like Adonis Creed, but it’s a perverted funhouse image of that ambition. At the conclusion of Black Panther, King T’Challa buys the condemned building in Oakland his uncle, and Killmonger’s father, was murdered in. Kids shoot hoops around him as he takes the cloaking device off his ship, revealing the technological wizardry and affluence of Wakanda to the world, and to the poor young children like Killmonger he’s surrounded by on the court outside the project building. It’s a tragic but ultimately hopeful vision of black solidarity, a righting of wrongs, a fathering of children, however wistful.
Coogler’s pursuit of the lack of black fatherhood in America and the toll it takes on its children is novel. It’s a subject we rarely get to see tackled in dramatic film, let alone genres like the sports movie or the superhero blockbuster. He’s shown us the making of a fatherless black girl, and two boys who respond to their circumstances very differently. With his father’s work with troubled youth, as well as his own, Coogler clearly has a perspective and an imperative to convey the importance of strong father figures on his characters, to warn us of what happens in their absence. As he bleeds out on the Fruitvale Station platform, Michael B. Jordan’s critically injured Oscar Grant, killed by a system callous to his circumstances and his family’s subsequent plight, repeats the same four words over and over: “I have a daughter.”