An AMC Confessional

Before it reached over $1 billion dollars in global box office sales, before the hilarious M’Baku impersonation videos trended enough to become officially known as the M’Baku challenge, before the movie became a phenomenon with kids and adults everywhere chanting, “Wakanda Forever!” I’m not afraid to admit that I was among a fraction of moviegoers that was uncertain, fearful even, of what to expect when watching Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.

My first confession: Looking back, I’m a tiny bit embarrassed by this fact. After all, I was already a fan of Coogler’s work. Fruitvale Station and Creed count among my favorite movies of the last five years. But I didn’t want to attend the movie on opening weekend. I yearned for the safety of public opinion—“Yes, the movie is great. Go see it”—instead of risking disappointment. I was holding my breath hostage without even realizing it. Why?

Because I’m a writer, and a part of me wished I was Ryan Coogler. I connected the movie’s success to my own future success. So my fear was simple: what if the movie’s bad? I pictured reading all the bad press, imagined the terrible reviews, and envisioned Hollywood (and whoever provides all those millions of dollars to make movies) less willing to risk telling diverse stories with diverse casts. Before I even entered the theater, I was thinking: If Ryan Coogler, who is clearly a more talented writer than I, couldn’t pull it off, how could I ever hope to?

I feared the worst on opening weekend. I thought viewers might say the movie was racist because of a nearly all black cast. I thought the movie would have all action and no real storyline or emotional depth. I thought the characters would be used mainly as props to generate even more action.

But then I saw the movie, and it surpassed all of my expectations and lived up to the hype—as demonstrated by the tickets sales, popularity, and critical acclaim.

Whew. Maybe there was hope after all.

My second confession: This is hard for me to admit because, like I said, I’m a writer, but even after thinking about Black Panther for days, I had no concrete ideas of why the writing was so successful. In some ways, this is the highest compliment that can be paid to an artist besides actually paying them. Being an artist is a bit like being a magician; deception is key. The goal is for the audience not to see how the art is being created. But I’m a writer; that’s not supposed to work on me. I’m supposed to be able to see up the magician’s sleeves. So I went back to the theater with a plan: I was going to take notes through the movie to learn exactly why it was so good.

What did I learn? I learned the importance of narrative questions. Nearly every character in the movie is grappling with some mystery or struggle. In fact, the movie starts with Eric Killmonger as a little child asking his father why Wakanda separated itself from the rest of the world. Also, within minutes of the movie starting, Nakia, who T’Challa is clearly in love with, asks why Wakanda isn’t doing more for the oppressed people around the world. Later, after losing his throne to Killmonger, T’Challa asks his father how he could have just left that little boy behind. For each character, the narrative question is what spurs them into action.

I also learned how to introduce doubt into the beginning of scenes. I could never quite get comfortable because most scenes began with a seed of doubt. There’s the scene where T’Challa tells his father that he’s not ready to be king, and that one line resonates through most of the movie, hanging over much of the plot like an uncertain fog. Additionally, when T’Challa is telling Nakia about the boy his father left behind and mentions very subtly that his father may have created a problem that might be too big to contain, Killmonger arrives in Wakanda.

I also learned (and this is sometimes a dirty word in literary circles) that plot is always a good idea. This is sometimes a difficult thing for writers to grasp. Sometimes our focus is on nouns and verbs and adjectives so much that it’s easy to forgot to throw some blood in there.

What I mean is, Killmonger wanting to avenge his father’s death made the movie feel like a run away train. As did the time Nakia, when she thought T’Challa was dead, wanted to avenge his death by starting a revolution to overthrow Killmonger. And then, at the end, T’Challa wanted to avenge his father’s legacy and take back Wakanda. In short, having characters that want to avenge something not only builds strong character motivation, but is great for entertainment.

My third confession: I didn’t know that humor could actually deepen a movie, that it could be the secret ingredient that humanizes the experience. Most scenes in the movie, even the battle scenes, have a line or moment that makes the audience laugh. Though it is difficult to do well, I learned that using humor as a tool allows viewers to let their guards down, to relax, and to be more open and receptive, and that ultimately allows for a more intimately human experience.

Which leads me to my last (and most sobering) confession: By the end of the movie, while Kendrick Lamar’s and SZA’s “All the Stars” played as the credits rolled, I felt less like I watched a movie and more like I wanted to simply live and be around people like those on the screen. The characters felt real, Wakanda felt like a real place, and the experience engaged all of my senses and emotions.

What does that mean? In the end, I doubt I’ll ever write a movie as great as Black Panther. Sometimes everything can just come to together and feel like a ball of magic that is somewhat beyond explanation. But here’s what I can say. Coogler’s movie inspired me to keep working on my craft, to keep perfecting my storytelling abilities. And it taught me that the world still cares about great art—whether it’s books, plays, artwork, or even comic book movies. And for a writer like me that’s no small thing. That’s everything.

Kenneth Fleming

Kenneth A. Fleming is a fiction writer and editor living in Maryland. He holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. His short fiction has been a top finalist in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters and Pleiades's Experimental Writing contest. He has work forthcoming in the Delmarva Review. He is also an associate editor for the Potomac Review.