“Black Panther,” Cultural Moment and Cinematic Marvel

“Black Panther,” Cultural Moment and Cinematic Marvel February 22, 2018
Danai Gurira’s Okoye leads the fierce Dora Milaje.

Before beginning this review, I should say up front that I was incredibly excited for Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. I don’t believe in the idea of a “guilty pleasure,” but I do wish that superhero films – a genre which I generally enjoy – had more depth. It is becoming more difficult every day for studios to ignore the effects that social movements are having on their audiences. I am not yet jaded enough to suggest that Black Panther is a cash-in on a social justice issue; instead, Coogler has left the phoned in blast-fest with a plastic-wrapped message slapped on in hope of going viral to the likes of Michael Bay. The truth is that films which feature a diverse cast and crew, films that deal with issues of the time, and that are not afraid to not only look those issues in the eye, but to extend their implications to every character in their narrative, are inherently of a higher caliber than those that do not attempt these things. Audiences know this, and hopefully, after the critical and commercial success of Black Panther, films like this will become the norm, rather than the exception.

The role that Black Panther is playing in our culture on its opening weekend is enough to warrant every cent of its budget, but that does not make a film. It must also work mechanically. The narrative must have one foot in the spectacle that the genre demands, and its other in some sense of humanity or reality. In a superhero origin story, there is much exposition to be done. A new cinematic world must be created, and given a set of rules. If the film does not play by its own rules, it doesn’t ring true.

Every moment of Black Panther rings with truth and intent. You can see it in the faces of everyone involved. The characters are acted, and written, with an enthusiasm that is woven into every frame of the film. The chemistry between the film’s principal actors is electric. That chemistry, enthusiasm, and sense of purpose which permeate Black Panther more than make up for its minor lulls in pace and somewhat rubbery CGI, which are already minuscule when compared to some of Marvel’s other projects.

One of the most immediately striking things about Black Panther is its portrayal of women. There is an incredible variety of personalities, motives, fighting styles, and appearances in the female cast. Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, is the leader of the Dora Malaje. They serve as the Black Panther’s all-female royal guard. She shines with the confidence and ability of an expert of her craft. Her fight choreography is graceful and full of intention, but her femininity is allowed to smolder beneath all that physical ability.  Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, a Wakandan spy, is pragmatic and determined, while providing the moral center of the film. Undoubtedly the most memorable of these women is Wakanda’s princess, and T’Challa’s sister, Shuri. Letitia Wright brings a rebellious sense of humor and an exuberant intelligence to Shuri, who is the leading scientist and engineer of Wakanda. Her relationship with her brother is a joy to watch. Wright’s comedic timing is impeccable, and any scene in which the pair are on screen is bound to elicit laughs. It is, however, their mutual respect and love for each other that makes their relationship so natural and warm.

Coogler has said that one of his main goals with Black Panther was to build a cultural bridge between African Americans and African culture. A great deal of attention has been paid to the authenticity and celebration of African visual motifs, and the version of afro-futurism that results is a marvel to behold. Ruth E. Carter’s costume design is the most expressive and inspired work since Mad Max. Like the designs of Jenny Beavan, who won the Oscar for her work on that film in 2016, Carter’s costumes manage to convey so much about the world of the film, and the characters who wear them. Wakanda, the fictional African country untouched by the ravages of colonialism, is painted with vibrant explosions of color and sweeping elegant brushstrokes which marry the country’s advanced technology with its landscape in a stunning way. It is refreshing to see a sci-fi fantasy setting that is so celebratory in its inspirations.

T’Challa, the Black Panther, looks out over his afro-futurist homeland.

 

It is difficult to explain the success of Black Panther’s dense plot without venturing into spoiler territory. I’ve taken great care to be as general as possible, but if you haven’t seen it yet, and wish to avoid absolutely any information about the scenarios at play, steer clear of the rest of this article.

I was cautiously hopeful that the Black Panther’s first stand-alone outing would bring issues of white supremacy and the black condition in America to a mainstream audience. It is difficult for a film to address social issues with honesty and clarity while skirting the boundaries of what the industry considers safe for a mainstream audience. On top of that, T’Challa, the man behind the panther mask, is an African, not an African American.  I was curious how the divide between Africa and its diaspora would be bridged in the narrative. The relationship between the film’s villain, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, and T’Challa form the backbone of the film’s social commentary.

The arcs of these characters are bound together in a way that so few hero-villain relationships are. While they couldn’t be further from each other in disposition – Killmonger the result of righteous rage, T’Challa arising from an adherence to tradition and commitment to justice – their end goals are the same. Wakanda has kept itself, and its wealth, hidden away from the rest of the world. They watched from the inside of a bubble as the colonization of their neighbors left the rest of the continent in poverty and subjugation. Killmonger’s motives are so just that his actions seem logical, although his by-any-means-necessary approach frequently results in death. T’Challa is inheriting the mantle of Wakanda’s king and protector, the Black Panther. With this supernatural power also comes the burden of responsibility for the errors of all his country’s former leaders. The central tension of the film is between those who wish to continue Wakanda’s secure isolation and those that are steadfast in their conviction that the country has a responsibility to aid the world. This intricate plot grows in density as the film progresses and leaves a serious discussion in the lap of the viewer.

Coogler’s film owes some debt to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work on Marvel’s most recent Black Panther comic books. Although Coates probes the isolationist tendencies of Wakanda a bit more deeply than Coogler, Black Panther still manages to evoke the fraught realities of our own country’s struggle with white supremacy and far-right views on globalization. Several of Marvel’s recent films have turned their lens on society, most notably asking whether or not superheroes are just weapons of mass destruction with haircuts, but T’Challa and Killmonger bring an entirely new social conflict to the screen. As the countries of the world continue to become more integrated through social media and ongoing global conflicts, the effects of colonization, and the condition of the diaspora it has left in its wake, must enter our conversation as a culture.

The very title of this movie immediately brings to mind the Black Panther Party. Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Half-Time performance, in which she and her background dancers donned the Black Panther beret, caused quite a stir two years ago. It is impossible to forget Rudy Giuliani’s cowardly claims that a celebration of the Black Panther Party equates an attack on police officers. I wish I could relate the number of young black Americans killed by police in the two years since, but I would inevitably miss a few. Another name might get added while I’m writing this review. Although Coogler doesn’t reference the Black Panther Party specifically, it is impossible to divorce its central conflict from the party’s legacy. This is a film that begins in Oakland, California, birthplace of the Black Panther Party. This is where Killmonger is raised, and the same issues that drove Bobby Seal and Huey Newton to form the Black Panther Party in 1966 – institutionalized racism, inequality, police brutality, a corrupt prison system – are the issues that motivate Killmonger’s rage. With a plot as nuanced and complex as this one, it is hard to imagine another Marvel movie reaching the emotional and philosophical heights that Black Panther reaches.

The film means so much to so many communities that are starved for positive representation, but Coogler has provided more than that. This is not an easy film to parse. The protagonists are implicated in the suffering of innocent people, and partially responsible for creating the terror that threatens their lives. Killmonger’s intentions are heroic, he is fighting for the freedom of his people in the most direct way possible, but his methods threaten to burn the world down around him. While these ideas are churning in the background, the film also succeeds as an action film that tells the origin story of a hero through a tense family drama with Shakespearean complexity and tragedy. If this is any indication of the direction that Hollywood is moving after the #oscarssowhite and #metoo movements, we are in for a bright future.

5/5 Stars

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