Black Panther
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o
Rated PG 13 for prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture
2 hrs. 14 mins.

There is no shortage of classic African American films with black actors and black directors representing the black experience. From Shaft to Boyz n the Hood to 12 Years a Slave, the tradition of entertaining African American films stretches back decades.

But a big-budget Marvel Studios release (with an estimated budget of $200 million) about a black superhero, an African king from a highly advanced civilization called Wakanda? That is something unique in both vision and style. It’s the reason that watching Black Panther is like witnessing a new chapter in filmmaking, one in which African themes grab center stage.

Black Panther opens in 1992 in Oakland, where King T’Chaka (John Kani) discovers that his brother, Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), is assisting black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) with stealing the rare metal vibranium from his home kingdom of Wakanda.

When N’Jobu’s partner, Zuri (Forest Whitaker), confirms T’Chaka’s accusations, T’Chaka kills his brother and leaves behind N’Jobu’s son, Erik Stevens.

Flash-forward to the present. After King T’Chaka is assassinated in a bomb blast, his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda for his coronation. Before he can ascend to the throne, he must fight and win a royal battle with M’Baku (Winston Duke), leader of the Jabari Tribe, to inherit his father’s kingdom and title as the Black Panther.

When T’Challa is finally crowned, he learns that Klaue is still trying to steal vibranium. King T’Challa sends his best general, Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his ex-lover, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), to foil the plot in South Korea. What he doesn’t realize is that N’Jobu’s son, Eric Stevens, a special-ops pro nicknamed Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), has tagged along.

Killmonger has partnered with Klaue and intends to take over the kingdom of Wakanda. Eventually T’Challa and Killmonger engage in battle and Killmonger throws T’Challa over a great waterfall. Proclaiming himself king and panther, Killmonger seeks to make Wakanda’s technology and culture the center of the world.

T’Challa’s family escapes and learns that T’Challa has been rescued by his old foe, M’Baku. Once T’Challa’s family brings him back to life, they plan to take back Wakanda. While it’s true that Killmonger controls the vibranium, it’s also true that T’Challa has friends in high places.

This movie has its roots buried so deeply in the African continent, you can practically smell the soil and feel the heat. Director Ryan Coogler literally went to Africa to create this story and painted his experience on the screen.

The problem with Black Panther is that if you haven’t read the comic series or seen the latest Avengers movie, you’re going to be a little bewildered. This is a complicated creation about a civilization similar in nature to Lord of the Rings. So be prepared to speed along, play catch-up, maybe go back for a second viewing.

Marvel has spared no expense with the film’s dazzling special effects, but the energy comes from its performers, particularly Danai Gurira as General Okoye and Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa. Call them fire and ice. Together they create nuclear fusion. And get a load of Andy Serkis as Klaue: Gollum no more. Beefed up and amped up, he’s the perfect villain.

It takes a while for this film to gel, but gel it does, and part of its success is its ability to turn a superhero film into a story of human drama. The sin of the father haunts the son. Another son has a justified grievance against his family. Even powerful, well-intentioned people make mistakes.

Still, it’s a superhero film. Not to be taken too seriously, it’s an explosion of comic book imagination — over the top, chaotic and sometimes just plain beautiful. If you go, prepare to be dazzled and bewildered. More to come, I bet. I’m ready for it.