In general you might say there are two ways to review a movie. In its cultural and historical context, and as a movie. Often it’s hard to disentangle the two. It can take years. Decades.
Take Wonder Woman, a perfectly good action movie, that falls apart in its final act, with a pretty silly villain. A solid three-star movie, that entertains and offers heaps of fun. But, as a long-overdue cultural “happening” its importance as a female superhero movie led to many critics heaping praise that in retrospect likely owes more to the woman at its centre than to cinematic wonder.
Another case in point is Black Panther. On Monday 19th February, after the movie smashed various US domestic box office opening records, former First Lady Michelle Obama Tweeted:
“Congrats to the entire #blackpanther team. Because of you, young people will finally see superheroes that look like them on the big screen. I loved this movie and I know it will inspire people of all backgrounds to dig deep and find the courage to be heroes of their own stories.”
Five stars for relevance. But is it a good movie? In a word – yes.
Fun, exciting, fresh (in terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe at least) and downright entertaining. But, solely as a movie, it’s over long, unnecessarily repeats key scenes (the waterfall fight sequences being a stand-out example) and contains more than its fair share of wonky CGI (yeah, armoured rhinos, I’m looking at you!)
But, it has arguably the greatest “villain” (Michael B. Jordan fantastic as Killmonger) since the bad guy in Captain America: Civil War, a rounded three-dimensional human being with relatable motives, if questionable means to achieve his ends.
Best of all, it’s not a solo movie about one central protagonist, it’s a team movie with an ensemble cast, and it’s actually about something more than superhero punch-ups and CGI explosions.
Taking up his mantle as new king of Wakanda, following his father’s death in Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is surprisingly one of the least interesting characters in a film that introduces not just a full cast of supporting characters, but a whole new world.
Yeah, ok, Wakanda veers between a lively, less-dystopian version of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner cityscapes, a colourful utopian version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The subtext ain’t too hard to see here. Imagine an Africa free from history, an Africa without slavery, white imperialism and colonial rule.
Director Ryan Coogler presents an Edenic vision of a free, science-driven culture that has embraced its tribal heritage and fused the two, with the fictional ‘Vibranium’ replacing oil as the economic driver.
Coogler has moved from the riveting drama of Fruitvale Station, to the surprisingly superb Rocky spin-off Creed, and now delivers on the blockbuster front. With a slow, evenly paced first act, leading to the action pay off of the second and third climactic battles, Black Panther is blockbusting popcorn entertainment with a brain, and the chief villain in its sights is colonialism.
Black Panther, King T’Challa, at first supports isolationism, wanting to keep Wakanda secret and safe from the outside world. By the end of the movie, his position has changed and the new King wants to share his people’s advances with the world, much as the first Iron Man ended with a press conference and Tony Stark’s frank admission: “I am Iron Man,” so Black Panther ends with an outstretched hand.
The supposed villain, Killmonger is all for taking the advantages of Wakandan science and using them to climb to the top of the World-power pile. His vision is nothing short of an uprising of the poor, the oppressed and the progeny of the formerly enslaved.
Explicitly at one point he says he wishes to be buried in the sea, where so many of the stolen people of Africa died at the hands of slave traders: “Bury me in the ocean like my ancestors that jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage.”
Too political? Not if you read the original Black Panther comics and remember not only the context in which they were created, but take a few seconds to think about the title. Black Panther. Yeah, Killmonger hails from the Californian city of Oakland, where the Black Panther Party was established in 1966.
It’s this subtext that makes Black Panther so important. In all other black superhero movies the black hero has ultimately been reliant on, or a side-kick to, a white hero. In Blade, Wesley Snipe’s Daywalker vampire relied on Kris Kristofferson’s Whistler, his white friend and aid. In Captain America and Iron Man, Falcon relies on Tony Stark’s suit technology for his power and on Steve Rogers to lead the team. Heck, even Samuel L Jackson as Frozone in Pixar animation The Incredibles played second-fiddle to a white hero.
Reading too much into it? Ok, well what about all those references to James Bond’s gadget shop, in which this version of Q is a young, black woman, Shuri (played by Letitia Wright) Wakanda’s chief of technology and T’Challa’s cheeky younger sister, who says, when surprised by Martin Freeman: “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!”
Yup, throughout Black Panther, women of colour are represented as strong, independent and highly skilled. Danai Gurira rocks as General Okoye, and there’s a lot of fun in the line about Wakanda’s “Grace Jones-looking” all-female militia. The costumes, make-up and art direction for Wakanda and its inhabitants are fabulous – vibrant, colourful and simply stunning to see on the big screen.
Yes, Wakanda is a fictional city, because Africa’s is a history interrupted and invaded, but in Black Panther Ryan Coogler and his team of top-notch collaborators have created a fiction capable of not just entertaining, but inspiring.
If that’s not worth an extra star I don’t know what is.
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