Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba & Michaela Coel
Release: 11th November 2022
How do you move forward after an insurmountable loss? That is the overwhelming question that surrounds Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. For the 30th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the death of Chadwick Boseman weighs a heavy burden. Throughout the short time he shared on this Earth, Chadwick’s presence in the MCU and in films like 42, Get On Up and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom transcended the culture in how Black characters are represented on screen and the power of Black stories. The body of work speaks for itself, and yet, there will never be enough words to articulate the pain and devastating heartbreak of a life that had so much more to offer.
Wakanda Forever would never replicate the euphoria of 2018, where Black jubilation rode an empowering wave of emotions. The sequel was always going to be a different experience. But in the most painful circumstances, the most powerful art is created, and Coogler accomplishes the impossible.
Truthfully speaking, the film is not without its faults. Its ‘rough around the edges’ execution reflects not only Marvel’s ‘connect the dots’ formula within its infinite storytelling arsenal but the respectful navigation of honouring Chadwick’s legacy with the deserved sincerity it needs. By going big (both in scope and runtime), Wakanda Forever delves more into the fantastical elements of its comic book history, contrasting with its self-contained endeavours from the first film. But when it’s on form, allowing to exercise the deeper roots of its themes and connections, Coogler delivers an emotionally poignant film on Black grief and healing – and there will be no dry eyes in sight.
As with Coogler’s previous films, there’s much to digest and emotionally unpack. The script written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole unshackle themselves from the Westernised cultures of remembrance to grant itself permission to mourn and feel the weight of those difficult emotions. In paying tribute, they tie into the elements that resonated so powerfully for the Black community – a celebration of our African heritage. Wakandans dressed in white as a symbol of peace and rebirth illustrate how death is but a door – our loved ones may be gone, but they are never forgotten.
But like how grief operates, it’s the aftermath that hits the hardest, and Coogler uses the opportunity to explore the gravity of that absence. With their protector gone, Wakanda is left in a vulnerable state. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) rules over Wakanda in the absence of a Black Panther while her daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright) buries herself in her technological work. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) has left Wakanda to re-settle in Haiti. Okoye (Danai Gurira) – still the traditionalist – protects the remaining foundations of the country she loves. Wakanda is also embroiled in a political battle, continuing the thematically-rich discussions embraced from the first film. Despite T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) overtures of nations working together “as if we were one single tribe”, the dismissiveness of the western world towards African countries shows how little attitudes have changed when their racial biases can’t accept a self-sustaining powerful nation. And in one brilliantly orchestrated scene, Queen Ramonda reminds the world how you don’t mess with Wakanda!
With life imitating art (and vice versa), what resonates deeply throughout Wakanda Forever is how it reinforces the value and importance of female voices. In allowing the female contingent the time, space and eloquence, Black womanhood takes centre stage to redefine Wakanda’s new path. Encapsulated by their raw and visceral performances from its leading stars, Blackness is not a monolith in expressing the various degrees of how grief is managed, and the film’s use of silence becomes its most powerful weapon in articulating loss and absence felt when challenges arise.
The film’s most profound moments come through Shuri. Her emotional arc echoes the feelings I exhibited towards my mother’s passing in 2016. There’s a loss of innocence that makes you grow up faster than expected, that feeling of powerlessness and injustice that blames the world while simultaneously internalising the pain of not doing more. It is a reflection of the psychological pressures of what the mind undergoes. Like Wakanda’s connection to the sea with its tides ebbing and flowing from shore (captured beautifully by female cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw and Rihanna’s ‘Lift Me Up’), grief never sits still, always shifting and moving as the sea fills up with questions that are sadly beyond your control. The risks the film ultimately takes shake up the foundations, identities and relationships we lovingly know to devastating effect. Black Panther made a case point on the importance of representation and why it matters. Here, it takes on a greater significance in humanising Black characters throughout the many different shades of their nuanced personality – however ugly or vulnerable it gets.
Wright does an outstanding job in bringing that spectrum into the light. When the path to healing is tackled across the generational divide, It’s the mother/daughter relationship anchoring its emotional pull, and Angela Bassett’s performance not only brilliantly complements but is an award-recognition highlight.
While the pacing lacks the smoothness of Coogler’s previous films, the time spent with Namor (a brilliant performance by Tenoch Huerta) ensures he’s given the necessary space to build into the film’s larger themes. Like Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Panther, Namor’s updated backstory incorporates Mexican/Tlālōcān history to highlight another culture whose narrative has been marginalised by the history books. Their tales of subjugation and enslavement further enhance Namor’s fears of the outside world and emphasises the shared empathy between cultures with a common use over Vibranium. The grievances with their oppressors is fuelled by the same outrage, and yet – as Coogler and Cole’s screenplay understands – how intersectional conflicts play into the ‘divide and conquer’ strategies that the white colonist world has advantageously ruled for generations.
The film is, however, not absent of joy and humour. Winston Duke’s M’Baku and Gurira’s Okoye remind its audience of the film’s loving chemistry and spark with some of the film’s best lines. Ludwig Goransson’s return as Coogler’s go-to composer ensures the score soars while retaining the emotional arcs at play.
In what has been an experimental and risk-taking venture of the MCU, Wakanda Forever closes phase 4 as one of the best films in its chapter. In overcoming the odds and occasional stumbles, Coogler’s profound film is both heartfelt and spiritually rewarding as a fitting tribute to Chadwick Boseman and the resilience of Black womanhood. By universally tapping into the human frailties of heartache and sorrow, like the collective power of cinema so often reminds us, we never face these challenges alone.
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