Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Film Review: Black Panther

This hardly seems like a movie I need to hype or praise, as it's getting a great deal of such from just about every corner, everywhere. But given just how monumental and distinct this movie is, I feel like it's worth talking just a bit about how much of a milestone in film making Black Panther really is. (I'll try to avoid spoilers.)

It's not just that the movie's cast is 95% African and African American...

It's not just that the movie has a shockingly powerful cast of black women in positions of power and responsibility...

It's not just that this movie identifies with a sort of mythic representation of fantasy African culture in a manner highly consistent with how fantasy has done it for ages now with European myth and folklore (this movie does for Africa what the Thor films do for Scandinavia, I'll put it that way)...

It's that it does all of this, and more, and defies genre expectations in some fascinating ways while still managing to be a relatable, distinct comic book movie. I mean....this is possibly the best and most unique Marvel film to date, and it leverages the years of prior films to produce something that just wouldn't have been possible only a few years ago...hell, a few months ago!

Somehow, Black Panther manages to be a rite of passage movie, a spy movie, an action movie, a massive affirmation film and a comic book super hero movie all at the same time. And probably some other things I haven't yet identified. It compellingly sets up and then leverages the concept of a hidden super-science empire in the middle of Africa, makes it "make sense" (in the comic book use of the term, mind you) as to how it is there, why it is there and why it has chosen to remain a secret place (and how they do that).

I really do feel like this film is a benchmark for future films, and it shows that it is possible and indeed desirous to make a positive, exciting fantasy film with non-western thematics, an almost entirely non-white cast, a focus on how this is all good, interesting, exciting and frankly as amazing as you could imagine without relying on any of the underlying tropes, conceits and implied restrictions that Hollywood normally places on a film focused on black actors.

Okay, now for a few comments with spoilers!

First, I thought it was extremely interesting that the one character who is most "in line" with conventional Hollywood presentations of black characters, the usurper Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) is also the bad guy, the literal and symbolic nemesis of both the characters in the film and the metaspace of the movie itself. Killmonger's a destabilizing presence, a man who has survived in the rough ghetto culture of America but with knowedge of a faerie land told to him by his father...which he spends decades preparing to find, usurp, and essentially drive in to chaos and destruction on the principle of revenge against the world. T'Challa's nemesis is a man who has learned hatred and self loathing from the survivor society of slave culture in modern America.

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) himself is the caretaker of a culture which watched it's neighbors fall victim to European slavery and quietly worked to hide themselves from discovery, knowing how much they stood to lose. And yet in the end, he sees Killmonger for what he is, realizes that there was a grain of truth....the need for rehabilitation, not destruction, hidden in his story. Fascinating stuff.

I liked how Agent Ross (Martin Freeman) was here essentially as a token white guy, in almost every sense imaginable and very much in a manner consistent with how in most historical Hollywood traditions you usually have the reverse: a sea of white guys, and a token black sidekick or secondary hero. Despite how clearly this was being done, it only added to the story, and Ross as a character proves to be a valuable ally.

Meanwhile, we have T'Challa's technologically gifted sister Shuri (Leticia Wright) who's technological savvy is clearly equivalent to or greater than Tony Stark's, the loyal general Okoye (Danai Gurira), and Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), Black Panther's flighty love interest with a greater desire to help the helpless than to be his queen. This movie had not one but three fascinating and deeply powerful and well developed female characters, and not even Nakia is specifically there to be the one who swoons to T'Challa.

I predict that in twenty years this movie will be seen in film classes as a seminal milestone how how fantasy and film are not restricted to European origins and expectations. As I watched this movie, I was moved very much by the notion that maybe, just maybe, we can see a future full of interesting science fiction and near future films with a positive message aimed at demonstrating just how great African and African American culture is, and can be destined to be. We don't, it turns out, have to restrict our films to a constant regression on the past: follow Wakanda into a very, very positive future (at least, until Avengers: Infinity War!)

I want to see a Blade Runner type cyberpunk future set in Africa. I'd like to see a far-future starfaring empire grown whole cloth from African origins. How about a hardcore sword & sorcery film that is entirely African in thematics and mythology?

There are so many possibilities I feel like Black Panther has demonstrated are entirely possible, and very desirable, and something which this film demonstrates has been sorely lacking from the superhero genre up to now (in film, anyway; let's not forget that as a character Black Panther has been around since 1966!) I really hope this movie leads the way for a brilliant future in films which fight for a more worldly, broader perspective, with a sense of conviction that stands with the best of them.

I'm sure it goes without saying, but I loved this (as did the family). A+! Just when I wonder if Marvel's hit their apex, they knock it out of the park again.

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