Saturday, 17 February 2018

IN THEATRES: Black Panther

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the newly crowned king of Wakanda, is forced to contend with the appearance of an outsider, Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), the American son of T'Challa's uncle. Not only does he contest T'Challa's right to the throne, he reveals a secret that forces the king to reconsider everything he has believed about his family history and Wakanda's place in the world.

If Fruitvale Station was Ryan Coogler learning to fly, Creed was him breaking the sound barrier. Black panther is Ryan Coogler landing on the moon. This is a massively budgeted Hollywood movie, part of THE mainstream franchise of our time, starring a largely black cast and every aspect of the movie is about what it means to be black in the world, both in the past and today: colonialism are white supremacy not alluded to, they are front and centre. It is unbelievably audacious.

Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger will be the focal point of this review, because he is the vehicle for the  film's most pointed criticism. Though he is the son of Wakandan royalty, Erik grew up an orphan in America. Coogler lets the viewer fill in the blanks, but Stevens (or Killmonger) has grown up within a society and a system designed to exclude and oppress people like him. Not only has he lived in that environment, but he has done so with the knowledge that there is a place out there in the world that never felt the impact of European imperialism, where he could be safe. A place that abandoned him, and has isolated itself from the struggles of the people who share the same continent - and their descendants around the world.

Stevens' return to his ancestral home is not just a reconnection with his roots: it is vengeance. Not just against the forces of white supremacy, but against the people with the power to stop it. 

To boil it down, his motive makes complete sense, and Jordan is amazing. There is a righteous fury underpinning every action he takes. Every line of dialogue is a razor blade that cuts deep. This is no comic book placeholder bad guy. Stevens feels like the protagonist of his own story.  

Killmonger is the reality of the African diaspora crashing into Wakanda's utopian image of a world where Africa never suffered under the yoke of European colonialism. His desire for violent revolution and T'Challa's belief in Wakandan isolationism is the central conflict of the movie, and it gives Black Panther a level of depth and moral complexity that you hardly ever get in a mainstream action movie. The movie is dramatically well-structured that it feels mildly aggravating every time someone brings it up as a part of the MCU. This is a movie that feels of a piece with itself.

Phew, there is so much to talk about. I think the portrayal of T'Challa is great. He is not some stoic action hero. Boseman's characterisation is thoughtful, has a sense of self-awareness, empathy and - this extends to the rest of the male cast - emotional vulnerability. I mean this is a movie where men are allowed to cry - there's one scene between Erik and his dad which includes one of the quietist and most devastating moments I have seen in a movie in recent memory ('No tears for me?').

Another thing I really liked was how his character fitted into the story, which is to say, it was his story. There was no white character around with an arc about learning about African culture and blah blah blah. In this movie, the black characters are not supporting players in their own story.

The female characters are also, pound-for-pound, terrific: Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurrira and Letitia Wright deserve all the kudos in the world. I don't want to spoil things so I will focus on the essential things I liked. 

Lupita Nyong'o and Letitia Wright
Danai Gurrira
They all have agency, they all contribute to the story and there is no point where - for plot purposes - they lose that characterisation so that the male protagonist can get spotlight. There are also no damsel-in-distress moments (For variety's sake, I would have liked to have seen a female character who was badass but not a closeted action hero. I live and breath for women kicking men in the face, but it seems to be a default for powerful female characters that they can beat people up).

Shuri (Letitia Wright)
The one who steps the furthest out of this archetype is T'Challa's sister, Shuri (played by Wright). A brilliant scientist responsible for her brother's gadgets and suit (in addition to a bunch of other things that keep Wakanda going). Supper-smart, super-funny and willing to jump into the fray, Wright is probably going to be the most talked-about character in the movie. Here is hoping executives in Hollywood give Wright some big roles in other movies. I am basically an ignoramus about Black Panther in the comics, but I've heard that Shuri eventually succeeds her brother as the Black Panther. Well, here's hoping that happens because on this evidence Wright would make a great lead. 

Black Panther is a great movie that will hopefully have its ripple effects in Hollywood, both in terms of pulling in minority filmmakers on either side of the camera, and in terms of the stories that are made for a mainstream audience. 

There is one thing I did not like about the movie and it is a preference thing. It is the same gripe I have had almost every action movie from the last decade or so: gravity-defying computer-generated fight sequences. The scenes in this movie are filled with great details, great character beats and comedic punchlines. For a large portion of these scenes I didn't feel anything.

When I watch an action movie, I want to feel the stakes, and I want to fear that the heroes are not going to make it. The two scenes where I was totally invested where the ritual duels that T'Challa has to earn the right to the thrown. No super powers, no suits or tech. Just two guys with swords and spears on the edge of a waterfall. 

I do not hold this against the movie. It's an aspect of modern-day blockbusters that is expected, and I'm not into it. It is a testament to the strength of the story-telling and the performances that this is a very minor criticism.

That aside, go see Black Panther. It is awesome. It is important. And it is also boatloads of fun

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