Thursday, February 22, 2018

Our Black Panther MVPs [Contributors: Alisa, Chels, and Jenn]

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Black Panther has made a difference in the lives of so many moviegoers around the world already. Black men, women, and children can see themselves represented in a film that honors them as fully-realized characters who are both the anchors and supporting structure of the story. They are the whole story, honestly, from start to finish. I loved seeing kids in awe of the life-sized poster cut-outs at our theater because finally, they see heroes who look like them in front and center roles.

And a few of us wanted to give shout-outs to the MVPs of the film. Let's be clear here: We could have easily picked every single actor in the movie to talk about and it would have been deserved. But these are the actors who stole mine, Alisa, and Chelsea's hearts during Black Panther.

NOTE: Spoilers for the film below. Read at your own risk.

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Jenn’s MVP: Letitia Wright as Shuri

Why she’s the MVP: I saw Black Panther twice in 24 hours. I’m not usually a movie person (mostly because I live in a city where it costs $13 for a normal, non-IMAX/3D movie and that’s just too much), but friends of mine encouraged me to attend the 10:15 showing with them — as close as we could get to a “midnight premiere” of the film. And it was amazing. So amazing, in fact, that I went with another friend the following evening. There are a lot of things to love about Black Panther. But one of my absolute favorite parts of the film — if not my favorite — was Letitia Wright’s performance as Shuri.

It would have been easy to relegate Shuri to the archetype of “adorable little sister” or “comedic relief,” but while she was both of those things, Shuri was more nuanced and layered than that. She’s the most intelligent person in the Marvel universe at this point, and Wright delivered a fantastic performance. Shuri was relatable, funny, and also inspiring. The way that she understood the different facets of Shuri’s character was important, mostly because at her heart, Shuri is still a teenager. She still gets excited about the potential to go to Coachella or Disneyland. She still teases her big brother and disobeys her mother.

In addition to having the fun of youth, Shuri has immense responsibility too and is constantly willing to change. Wright’s energy is palpable throughout the entire film, honestly.

Wright understood this and incorporated a beautiful sense of both playfulness and ferocity to Shuri. I absolutely loved her and cannot wait to see Shuri interact with characters in the future. And if Marvel should choose to do an entire Shuri spin-off film... I wouldn’t even be a little bit upset about that.

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Alisa’s MVP: Winston Duke as M’Baku

Why he's the MVP: If you’re one of the few people who haven’t seen Black Panther yet, you might not know the name Winston Duke. But you will. From his IMDB page, Duke is fairly new on the Hollywood scene, first popping up in 2014 on Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit — the show were so many now-famous actors got their start. Duke’s had recurring roles on Person of Interest, The Messengers, and Modern Family, but since I don’t watch those shows, I hadn’t seen him before his unforgettable role as M’Baku in Black Panther — his first ever feature film role.

M’Baku is leader of the Jabari tribe, a rebellious faction that chose to separate from the other Wakandan tribes and live high up in the mountains in isolation. We meet the character early on and it’s difficult not to be impressed from that first meet-and-greet. At 6'4", Duke is hard to miss and he fills up the screen (both literally and figuratively) when he comes to challenge the newly-crowned T’Challa for his thrown.

M’Baku is set up as a villain to T’Challa — and possibly all of Wakanda — from that first scene, but there’s more to M’Baku than meets the eye. In every scene he’s in, we learn a little more about the Jabari and their motivations, and when the movie reaches a climax where all hope seems lost, it is M’Baku who saves the day with wisdom and grace.

This is a character that could have easily been forgotten had a less talented actor been cast. After all, there is a bigger, badder villain named Killmonger played by the much more famous (and also amazingly talented) Michael B. Jordan, who grabs our attention and pulls at our heartstrings as we empathize with his origins and pain.

The truth is, we learn next to nothing about M’Baku’s personal backstory in this movie, which is why Duke’s performance deserves even higher praise because he created such an unforgettable character with so little. He steals each and every scene he’s in, despite the big name actors he’s sharing the screen with. Duke adds layers and nuance to M’Baku through subtle body language and facial expressions, and absolutely perfect comedic timing.

He and Letitia Wright (another name I didn’t know before this movie) were by far my favorite actors in Black Panther. They were hilarious, surprising, and unexpected — and they created insightful characters full of genuine warmth and light that infused this already important and impressive movie with that little extra something. Even though I didn’t know their names before, I sure do now, and I’m so excited they’ve both been cast in Avengers: Infinity War. I hope they get some scenes together because I’d love to see these two talented actors play off one another again.

Chelsea’s MVP: Danai Gurira as Okoye

Why she's the MVP: It was so difficult trying to recognize just one performer from this film when they’re all so deserving and live up to every bit of the hype. While our leads Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan commanded the screen and brought the single best hero vs. villain story to the MCU, I’m going to talk about Danai Gurira as Okoye — leader of the Dora Milaje and scene-stealer extraordinaire.

Seeing Danai on screen leading these beautiful warrior women was a sight to behold. She wasn’t just a “strong female character” where they flipped the gender. She used her femininity and wit in battle to take out enemies in Korea, giving us one of Marvel’s best fight sequence and the single greatest action beat in the MCU when she used her wig as a weapon. More than that, her heart and love for her country and people help turn the tide of the final battle and brought the Wakandian nations back together on the field. She’s loyal to a fault but her loyalty is why you’d want her on your side.

Her character is going to resonate with children everywhere, and become one of the staples of what a true “strong female character” should look like. My only regret is that Marvel chickened out and made her character straight after filming an “exclusively gay scene” with her and one of the other Dora Milaje women. They still have plenty of sequels and MCU appearances to show her character’s queerness but I don’t want to hold my breath with Disney and Marvel. One progressive, well-represented film doesn’t fix a decade of missteps, but Black Panther is a good film to chart a new course for Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

Who was your favorite actor in Black Panther? Sound off in the comments below!


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