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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Review: Black Panther

Black Panther (2018): Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, directed by Ryan Coogler.  Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker.  Running Time: 134 minutes.  Based on the Black Panther comics series created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. 

Rating: 4/4

            It’s taken far too long for us to get to this point, but here we are at last- a major superhero blockbuster, financed by one of the biggest production companies in the world, made by black filmmakers about and starring black characters.  And although there’s no excusing how long it took, the wait was worth it- Black Panther is not just great “for a Marvel movie,” it’s a great movie period, an immediate cultural event that can and should dominate our cultural conversation through 2018 and beyond, and like last year’s Wonder Woman, will also hopefully serve as a harbinger of a more pluralistic future for both cinema and human culture in the years to come. 

            Picking up in the aftermath of his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is preparing to take over the mantle of King of the hidden, super-advanced African nation of Wakanda.  The nation has existed in isolation for centuries, but T’Challa now faces a difficult choice over whether or not to end this isolation, and under what conditions.  His former flame, the spy-warrior Nakia (the ever-magnificent, ACADEMY AWARD WINNER Lupita Nyong’o), lean towards opening the country benevolently to share its wealth and technology with the world, especially the poverty-stricken African nations surrounding them.  Others, most notably the film’s main antagonist, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, finally granted cosmic mercy after suffering through the latest Fantastic Four reboot) want to end the country’s isolation as well, but take it to the further extreme of wanting to export weapons to cells throughout the world, sparking a massive African uprising to literally upend the racial hierarchy of the world through the same violent methods Westerners used to establish it. 

            This film is a staggering accomplishment on so many levels.  There are technical nitpicks to be had, if you must; several scenes are held back by some dodgy CGI, and yes, the plot does follow much of the same “hero’s journey” beats every major blockbuster follows.  However, like last year’s Wonder Woman, this is a movie that rises to such epic heights in its best moments, and achieves such potent cultural meaning in this particular day and age it was made in, that the sort of regular criticisms applied to other movies just aren’t ultimately relevant here. 

            Much of this is due to how explicitly and thoroughly the movie delves into the most potentially troubling and/or uncomfortable questions its basic premise raises when you pursue it to its logical end.  In most other Marvel movies, you could squint and pretend that the whole affair was taking place in an alternative Earth without all the baggage of our history, but Black Panther blows up any remaining chance to pretend that’s so.  This film clearly establishes that colonialism, the slave trade, and the depravations that followed happened, that Wakanda deliberately chose to shut itself off from the world and (more or less) ignore it all, and that it might be time for the Wakandan people to ask themselves some hard questions about what their responsibilities in an increasingly globalized world should be. 

            Permeating it all are questions about what the sudden reveal of the most advanced nation in the world being an isolated “third-world” country (the film walks right up to the “shithole” line in one of its best scenes) could mean for oppressed minorities throughout both the Marvel world and our real one.  As a white person, I feel it’s not my place to try and stake any ground in that particular discussion, but the varied and passionate responses (from both African-Americans and others) that have been filling the internet since the film’s release, examining the movie and its premise from dozens of different angles have been truly amazing to behold, and are well-worth digging into and pondering no matter where you approach the film from. 

            Even though some of the action fails to stand out from the rest of the Marvel pack, this is one of the most visually-arresting comic book films ever made.  The sets and costumes on display are lavish in their uses of colors of every shade- this movie continues the streak started by Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok of Marvel movies becoming increasingly colorful, bright, and daring in their production designs.  Ruth Carter’s costumes are such exact creations that I almost felt I could see the fabrics pushing through the screen, and Best Costume Design just one of many categories where this film should be considered an immediate nomination favorite come the next awards season. 

            What makes the film soar, of course, is how the remarkably layered script by Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler is brought to life by one of the most powerhouse black casts ever assembled.  Chadwick Boseman is solid and steady as T’Challa and Michael B. Jordan remains one of the most gifted rising actors in the business, and their dueling goals, ideals, and personalities make the film arguably the deepest one to yet enter the MCU.  Daniel Kaluuya and Winston Duke provide effective contrasts in their ideas about how Wakanda should change, and Andy Serkis, at last, is on screen in-person as Klaue, and oh my God, does he grab every second of screen time he gets and wrings it for all it’s worth.   

            Where the film sings the most, though, and where it stands to potentially have the greatest real-world impact, is its depiction of women.  Everyone knew Nyong’o as Nakia would be amazing, but I don’t think the world was quite prepared for the Earth-shattering awesomeness that is General Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the all-female Royal Guard (imagine a dozen Rey’s and you’ll be on the right track), and Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and a technical genius/smartass to match, and quite likely to exceed, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner combined.  Oh, how I can’t wait to watch Stark’s mouth drop when he inevitably gets shown up at a key moment in Infinity Wars. 

            Seeing this film, and just thinking about it on and off after my screen, makes me so, so happy, almost giddily so.  There is an inescapable sense in the air of a movie mattering to people in real ways that hasn’t been felt there for a long time.  With Duvarnay’s A Wrinkle In Time just around the corner, the already-staggering success of this film on the heels of Wonder Woman could very well be remembered as a key fulcrum in cinematic history, where the old cultural power structures built by and for white men passed the proverbial tipping point, and finally began to crumble into true irrelevance. 

            The best part of all this came when I realized that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I or any other white critic or viewer has to say about this movie, because black audiences are already using it, interpreting it, and giving it meaning that no one else can touch or stop.  There are many white people in the world who sense this and choose to take it as a threat to their own existence.  In fact, though, it’s liberating, for all of us.  The time is fast approaching when the white man will no longer be able to decide the fate of the world.  And thank GOD for that. 

-Noah Franc  

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