We all love to bestow titles. The number one this. The first to do that. Best Actor! Player of the Year! MVP! Life is a perpetual contest. Crowning someone is part of American culture, but it’s rarely decided upon unanimously.
Often, there is conflict. (Jacquees is the King of what?)
But sometimes, we can all agree. Cutting across gender, race and culture—there is sometimes a clear standing ovation for one person’s year, especially in film.
How does one lock down an entire year? How do you get to stare out from magazine covers and home-pages as The One?
For me, you have to be formidable, physically and emotionally. You have to wear a tinge of a smile on your face at all times even when you’re about to kill. And at the same time, you have to elicit smiles, confusing all, including your enemies.
My vote for Man-Person-Thing-Hearthrob-Concept-Villain-Everything of the Year is a hybrid. He is both a fictional character and the one who plays him. Together, he forced me to re-watch his brilliance dozens of time since his first appearance at the top of the year in Black Panther. Let’s recap.
In the opening minutes of Black Panther, we meet M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari tribe. It is Challenge Day, the moment when anyone in Wakanda can vie for the throne.
(Please note: Actor Winston Duke, a Yale graduate, is a complete unknown at this time.)
M’Baku, sporting a white gorilla mask, barks his way from the mountains of Wakanda to the ceremonial area for T’Challa’s coronation.
His mask is peeled off. And we meet the character who stole Black Panther away from the entire cast—in just a handful of scenes. (Seriously. Check out the theatrical poster. M’Baku is nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t supposed to catch wreck like this.)
Now, a question. What can you accomplish in 60 seconds? I can do one push up. I can wash a single dish, maybe drink a glass of water. Anything else is going to take more time.
M’Baku’s opening soliloquy is exactly 60 seconds long. That one minute will join the annals of cinematic lore, with those classic know-every-word moments like Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire or Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting.
Before he begins speaking, his eyes alone set the stage. He makes it clear that T’Challah and his entire tribe can catch these hands from the first moment he speaks.
“We have watched and listened from the mountains,” he says, walking toward young Shuri. He dismisses her and her technological advances. He moves toward her like she’s an adult warrior, pointing her weapon, leaving her shaken. He hasn’t even spoken to T’Challa yet, and he’s already threatening his younger sister! In front of their mother!
M’Baku is a villain. This is what villains do. But I actually appreciated M’Baku coming for Shuri. He understands (and clearly respects) her work—even if he doesn’t agree with the way she "scoffs at tradition!"
M’Baku owns the space he’s in, filling it with not just his formidable height, but the intensity of his body language and eye contact, and he goes from dismissive to uproarious in mere seconds. And then, by the time he turns to T’Challa, he’s taunting and mocking him.
Two particular lines lock M’Baku in as one of the best to do it. “Now you want to hand the nation over to this prince,” he says, spitting it out like the word prince is a slur. And then he teases him for not being able to stop the death of his own father. M’Baku spits out a heavily accented fada that will be forever impersonated. (The "M'Baku Challenge" ruled the kingdom.) And follows up the line with a questioning hmm that threatens the legacy of all your faves.
This is a man who rocks white fur accessories, daring PETA to say a word.
This is a man who threatens to have someone eaten. And then reveals with a laugh that his people are vegetarian.
And yet, this is a man who has equal parts of respect and disdain for his enemies. He also has true compassion. M’Baku melted me when T’Challa asked for protection for his mother. M’Baku hit his chest and gave his word. (And the,n minutes later, outright refuses to help T’Challa.)
What more can you ask for in a The Reelest Man of the Year?
I know M’Baku is not interested in being fawned over like this. He doesn’t care about how I feel or this title he’s receiving from me right now.
There is a scene where M’Baku waits off-camera for T’Challa and his team to make a plan.
M’Baku gives off an exaggerated yawn just as the feel-good music swells.
Are you done?
I’m done, M’Baku. Glory to Hanuman.
Photo Credit: Marvel/Disney