Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Black Panther (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: After the death of his father, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is set to take his place as the king of the hidden African country of Wakanda. However, frictions within his own inner circle begin to present themselves, largely connected to the continued presence of arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) as well as the arrival of former U.S. black ops soldier Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), both of whom seek to disrupt Wakanda even more. T'Challa, donning the mantle of Black Panther, must save his people and come to grips with what he must do to be a true king.

Boseman, to put it simply, plays the kind of black empowerment figure that those audiences have deserving for a long time. At once cool, collected and willing to trade verbal barbs with whoever he wishes, he not only molds himself into the character seamlessly but, as the film carries on and its true purpose makes itself known, he becomes a cultural paragon fighting for the worthiest of causes. Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright as members of T’Challa’s inner circle make for some of the most striking performances of the entire MCU, between Nyong’o’s embodiment of human compassion, Gurira as the epitome of feminine strength and Wright as the rather cheeky tinkerer who serves as the Q to Black Panther’s James Bond.
Forest Whitaker as a Wakandan elder fits in very nicely, Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother lives and breathes maternal authority, Winston Duke as the leader of a rival tribe makes for one of the more subtly complex characters found here, and Daniel Kaluuya as one of T’Challa’s advisors continues his track record of portraying strong-willed black characters in absurd sci-fi settings (see also Black Mirror and Get Out).

And then there’s Michael B. Jordan, and knowing how disastrously his last foray into superhero fiction went, it is somewhat surprising that he represents yet another high mark for the MCU as far as villains go with this one. Michael Keaton in Spider-Man: Homecoming may have had a definite moral greyness to his motives that gave him an edge, but Jordan here goes even further, managing to create a genuine competitor to Boseman both in presence and in morality. With comic book lore involving a lot of morally-dubious heroes and anti-heroes, Killmonger serves as not only as someone the audience legitimately has to think about as far as being an actual “antagonist” but also provides a crucial piece to the thematic puzzle here, making that possible agreeability fit into the overall narrative perfectly.

Of course, we have a couple of token white actors in the supporting cast as well, and I specify “token” because not only is this a very predominantly black film but their respective purposes in the film very much echo the reverse sentiment of token black actors that Hollywood has been using since… well, forever, really. Serkis gets some good moments in, but he’s still basically the sub-boss compared to Killmonger’s Big Bad. As for Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett K. Ross, while his American accent is still slightly jarring, it feels weirder knowing how sardonically British and quietly anti-colonial Freeman’s stock character is; it would’ve fit in rather well with the main themes of this story. Still, as the white token of the main cast and the main comic relief, he fits in nicely and even gets a proper moment of badassery to his name.

Even though this technically isn’t the first black superhero movie (since it has almost-prehistoric competition with the likes of Blade and Spawn, and even that can easily be contested), it is most certainly the most proudly black superhero movie we’ve seen yet. Serving as a nice retroactive back-hand to the “You know Wakanda isn’t a real place, right?” retorts that white killjoy conservatives have been clapping back at this movie with, the film in all production aspects shows a lot of acknowledgement of true African culture. The visuals tap into the same sense of computer-generated grandeur as the rest of the Marvel cinematic canon, but it also incorporates numerous elements of tribal African culture into the costumes, props and the realisation of Wakanda itself. Through the juxtaposition of more rural cultural customs with the hyper-futuristic setting of Wakanda, it creates an Afrofuturistic blueprint that is certainly worthy of that larger tradition.
Same goes for the music courtesy of Coogler regular Ludwig Göransson, combining tribal drum circles and vocalisations, modern hip-hop and trap-influenced production, and even some more traditional blockbuster orchestration to create a cultural singularity, a showcasing of past, present and possible future touchstones to add texture to the comparable visual aesthetic.

Of course, visuals are one thing; handling of theme is another, something that Coogler and American Crime Story scribe Joe Robert Cole show a great understanding of. Starting from the casting down, the film shows eerie ease in how it manages to characterise the main cast, applying liberal amounts of genuine humanity combined with individual perspectives on themselves, their peers and their culture to flesh everyone out superbly. I say “eerie ease” because this is the kind of film that makes the utter lack of this much visible black representation on the big screen seem even more foolish than it already does. Hell, the simple fact that this is a mainstream blockbuster featuring a predominantly black cast, predominantly black creatives behind the scenes and a fictional setting comprised of predominantly black cultures, is a sign that this is something not only different but necessary. As audiences discovered last year with Wonder Woman, there is not only a certain need for equal media representation but that it can also an incredibly lucrative practice. Hard to make money when you exclude core parts of that prospective audience.
With this in mind, even with the occasional cringey joke (like the references made about the ‘What Are Those’ meme and even a possible mention of Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair), this is a film that could’ve served well enough on its own through the characters alone, whether they’re conversing, collaborating or kicking eight kinds of arse aboard attack rhinos. Yeah, this observation might get lost in the shuffle but the action scenes are glorious.

As a white suburbanite who largely learns about other cultures through the medium of film, I feel somewhat at odds when it comes to discussing black culture at any great length. I may consider myself an ally of the oppressed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I know all the ins and outs of that oppression. Hell, from my own perspective, the idea of racist subjugation literally does not make sense to me. However, looking at this film’s story and the main conflict between Black Panther and Killmonger, I can definitely see a major parallel: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Black Panther is the would-be-peaceful ruler, the one who wishes to unite his people through compassion, not violence, while doing all he can to protect his own culture. Killmonger, by contrast, is the vengeful aggressor. Trained by ‘the enemy’ while serving in the American military, his understanding of both Wakandan and African-American treatment makes him want to lash out against his oppressors. Show them what ‘Black Power’ really means.

This dichotomy of protecting one’s own culture vs. fighting off those that would oppress it is at the heart of a lot of racial activism, especially nowadays in the age of Black Lives Matter. And in their own way, both sides have a point. Wakanda has the means to help people all over the world, but knowing how white colonialism has treated People Of Colour in the past, you can see why they would want to be kept out of their line of sight. Wakanda has the means to fight off those that who want to plunder their land for its resources, but if left unchecked, the oppressed could take the place of the oppressor to get it done; they would be reduced to the level of their enemies, a common fear in just about any activist initiative.

Between these two, we have a showing of the internal struggle that I can take a reasonable guess as being integral to the movement. But it also highlights something else in the process, echoing similar sentiments from Thor: Ragnarok: The idea of the enemy within. In Ragnarok, that manifested as a look into Asgard’s colonial past and how those involved in it didn’t want the aggressors to forget their sins. Here, it manifests as an ideological war between two valid but diametrically opposing ideas, the conflict between which has resulted in a fair bit of friction in the real world. As the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger goes on, and we get more showings of their respective worldviews, we are shown how easily a noble cause can be poisoned by the very people who seek to fight for it. This is a notion that barely anyone is willing to discuss at great length, since admitting to enemies behind your own lines is so often taken as a sign of weakness, but it’s one that needs to be addressed.

Every ideology has its turncoats, those who end up perverting it from the inside, while the majority are too busy fighting external threats that they don’t even notice the snakes in their own backyard. With how much this mentality has infected a lot of current-day political discourse, shifting individual perceptions for the worst in most cases, seeing a mainstream superhero story address it with this much salience is immensely gratifying. It is because of this that the central conflict is as engrossing as it is, and it is because of this that Black Panther’s acknowledgement that (again, much like in Ragnarok) the culture has to change for the times gives this film a genuine push. Considering popular white narratives about slavery usually give all the credit to Lincoln, ignoring the slaves’ own efforts to liberate themselves, this notion of a black nation saving its own society without the help of external white influences? Now that is empowerment, the likes of which we hopefully will be seeing more of in the coming years.

All in all, knowing how overhyped pretty much all superhero films can get nowadays, this is honestly one of the most impressive efforts I’ve ever seen from this sub-genre. The acting is incredible, highlighting a lot of prime black talent, the production values take the lofty pedigree for spectacle that Marvel has garnered to create a living, breathing and vibrant landscape with the nation of Wakanda, and the writing not only acknowledges a lot of Africa’s past and present, but also sets in place a blueprint for how it push forward into the future. Add to that some truly amazing music and some of the most complex characterisation the MCU has seen yet, and you have a film that is worthy of all that hype and then some. It’s one thing to welcome this film on the basis of highly-visible media representation, which this certainly is; it’s quite another when this film does its own cultural roots this much justice in the process, making it representation with bona fide purpose and worth. And to make all this even better, this is easily the most accessible entry in the MCU full stop; you can step into this never having touched the previous films and still keep up with everything just fine.

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