Sunday, February 18, 2018

Movie Reviews: Black Panther

Black Panther
directed by Ryan Coogler
I didn't know if this film would be good or not before deciding to see it. I was interested in seeing it in part because black heroes in mainstream movies are rare. It's also rare for a studio to take a financial risk on a big budget movie with a predominantly black cast. The writer, musicologist, musician, civil rights activist, and photographer Julius Lester recently passed away. Lester moved around the political and religious spectrum quite a bit in his life, from Christian integrationist to black nationalist to Judaism convert and later vociferous Zionist. That's neither here nor there. As a child I remember reading a story in one of Lester's collection of Black folk tales. I can't remember the exact story name, but at the end of the story a newly freed Black man (can't remember if he bought his freedom, physically defeated his previous slave owner or heard about the end of the Civil War) decided to leave the plantation and walk down the road to seek his fortune as a free man. His previous master, mistress and their children watched in seething impotent rage. Unable to hinder his progress they started yelling to the black man to remember that no matter what, he was still a n*****. I mention all of that because that's what a lot of the initial conservative response to this movie's concept felt like. Many conservatives racists were offended by the very idea of Black excellence or Black people being happy. That's some really sick s***. The movie could be good or bad but being upset that black people are excited to see heroes and heroines who look like them shows just how invested some people are not just in hating black people but demanding that black people hate themselves. Twisted.

Fortunately I can say that the movie was good. Not great but very good indeed. It also had a very strong Lord of Rings/Hobbit vibe not just because of the inclusion of two key actors from that franchise and similar framing of battles but because like those movies Black Panther engages the question of whether using the enemy's methods to defeat the enemy is possible or for that matter, morally desirable. Can you take up Sauron's ring?

It is a historical fact that what is today called the West i.e. Europe and/or Western Eurasia once had a technological advantage in most aspects over most other world cultures. This advantage was evident as early as the 1400s and may have reached its zenith in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

Although the honest imperialist Kipling wrote a poem celebrating the courage of the "fuzzy wuzzy" Sudanese who broke a British square, the stark fact of the matter is that no matter how much heart the Sudanese, the Zulus or any other indigenous Africans had, in the long run spears, swords, clubs and shields were no match for rifles, battleships, cannon and machine guns. By the turn of the 20th century Ethiopia and Liberia were the only African nations that hadn't been conquered and/or colonized by Europeans. Liberia was a American colony/protectorate in all but name. Ethiopia fought off or bought off European invaders for years but would eventually fall under brief Italian control during the early part of World War 2. 

Black Panther imagines a world in which the African nation of Wakanda is the most technologically advanced nation on the planet.  That is a revolutionary idea. Ironically of course in a time when there is so much brouhaha over terms like "cultural appropriation" it is probably worth pointing out unironically that the original comic book was created by two white Americans; the film was directed by a black American; the actors include black people from Africa and the Diaspora. The look of Wakanda is a mashup of Afrofuturist looks and reinterpretation of African styles from across the continent. 

After his father's assassination T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) the heir, returns to Wakanda to be crowned king.  T'Challa intends to continue his father's policy of Wakandan secrecy, non-engagement and misdirection. As far as the outside world is concerned Wakanda is just another Third World s***hole as President Trump might say. Although Wakanda is a hereditary monarchy it has a tradition that only the strong get to lead. 

During the transitional period when a new king is about to take the throne anyone of royal or noble blood may challenge the newly ascendant Black Panther/King who will be stripped of his powers to make the fight fair. This challenge is usually empty symbolism, like the point in a wedding where the priest intones if anyone has any reason that this couple should not marry let him speak now or forever hold his peace. This time however the leader of a remote tribe of boisterous bruisers, M'Baku (Winston Duke), decides that he's obliged to take his shot at the throne. He doesn't think T'Challa has the stones to lead. M'Baku loses the fight but isn't killed, something that will be important later.

T'Challa, now crowned king, decides that his number one priority is to capture South African arms dealer Ullysses Klaw (Andy Serkis, Gollum from the Lord of Rings/Hobbit franchise). Serkis seems to be having a smashing good time in his villainous role. From what I can tell he got the South African Afrikaans accent right. Of course I don't know too many Afrikaaners. Klaw has stolen vibranium, the near magic metal upon which Wakanda's technology is based. Klaw knows too much about Wakanda to be allowed to operate freely. In this task T'Challa will be assisted by many women. These women include:
  • Okoye (Danai Gurrira), T'Challa's loyal (and bald) top general and head of his personal protective detail. 
  • Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), T'Challa's former lover and ranking spy. Nakia is also impatient with T'Challa's isolationist stance.
  • Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) T'Challa's little sister and head of special tech operations.
But the Wakandans aren't the only ones after Klaw. US CIA Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman from the Hobbit franchise) would like to get his hands on Klaw and this special metal Klaw claims to have. And Ross doesn't see why he should defer to Wakandan interests on this matter. One of the members of Klaw's gang is enigmatic former US Special Forces/Black-Ops Erik Stevens aka Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan who evidently really hit the weights hard for this role). Go and do likewise gentlemen. Go and do likewise. Killmonger has a secret past and purpose that gives this movie a special sort of pathos. In fact Jordan brings so much energy to his role that one wonders if he and Boseman shouldn't have switched parts. Angela Bassett provides her customary regal interpretation to the role of T'Challa's mother, Queen Mother Ramonda. Daniel Kaluuya (from Get Out) is T'Challa's best friend and fiercest advocate for the mission of capturing or killing Klaw, who killed his parents. Forest Whitaker is Zuri, a religious leader and top adviser to the king. Zuri has a lot of secrets, some of which he intends to take to his grave.

Black Panther hits most of the Marvel comic book genre's fan pleasing conventions, casino shootouts, sardonic humor, energetic car chases, women beating up men, a hero who faces death and doubt, fraught family and father and son relationships, tech so advanced that it's akin to magic, acrobatic one on one showdowns, last stands, plenty of explosions, betrayals and heroic deeds that make the audience cheer, clap and pump their fists. 

There's even a freaking rhino charge. Where Coogler really shines is in bringing forth the Tolkien approved idea that nothing is evil in the beginning. Evil may be understood as good that was tarnished or broken. And evil doesn't die. It comes up again and again and again. As T'Challa hears his father tell him, "It's hard for a good man to be king".  Decisions that make moral sense on an individual level are the wrong things to do when you have an entire nation to protect. And sometimes even the bad guys have a good point here or there.

You may have some truly wonderful ideas for how society should be run, ideas that are objectively superior to concepts pushed by less intelligent people or less experienced people. It may be tempting then, to use force to make people do what you want them to do, for their own good of course. 

We have no problem with this logic as applied to animals or young children. Most people agree that beings in those categories do not have full rights to self-determination. But today at least most of us get queasy when such logic is applied to competent adults or entire ethnic groups. 

Just because you're stronger or smarter than someone doesn't mean you get to tell them what to do. And yet as one character points out to a snooty museum director, her ancestors had no problem stealing things from his ancestors, based solely on superior capacity for violence. Surely she can't object when he returns the favor.  Coogler touches on the differences in perspectives and histories between Africans and the peoples of the African Diaspora. He doesn't dive too deeply into it;  this is an entertaining mass market movie; not a sociological treatise. But there can be feelings of betrayal and contempt on both sides. How do people get past that? Can or should people get past that? 
Africans are not the same as Black people in the Diaspora. It is foolish to pretend so. There are different interests, goals, nationalities, languages, religions, and heritages. And yet it's also foolish to pretend that many of the struggles are not related. South African Apartheid would have lasted longer without agitation from Blacks across the Diaspora; the Black American Civil Rights movements of the fifties and sixties wouldn't have worked as well without the increasing decolonization of Africa. How Coogler resolves or doesn't resolve these questions is something worth discussing.

This movie is full of colors which virtually drip off the screen, especially the reds preferred by the Black Panther's all female bodyguard force. Obviously there is violence but for the most part, this not being a rated R movie, it isn't explicit or emphasized. Again, Michael B. Jordan really stole the movie. Letitia Wright is simultaneously an occasionally annoying but always protective little sister who is totally comfortable in her skin as both a bubbly princess and modern woman. I'd watch a spinoff with her as the star. Black Panther was worthwhile entertainment. Coogler also directed Fruitvale Station and Creed.

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