Sunday, 18 March 2018

REVIEW: Black Panther

Now that I finally find time to review the latest Marvel blockbuster, I can agree that yes, it is very good indeed. It's no masterpiece, but it is a very fine superhero actioner with a lot to recommend it. A tad overlong, maybe, but exciting, intelligent, surprisingly funny and hugely entertaining. However, there is no way that I, as a white man, will ever be able appreciate this film in the same way as black audience members. While Black Panther is far from the first superhero movie with a black lead, but it is the first one with a predominantly black cast, the first one set largely in Africa, and the first one that looks seriously at African and African-American concerns. I've seen a lot of blockbuster movies filled with people that look, more or less, like me. Black people haven't. I'm also a 34-year-old, not am impressionable youngster that these films are arguably designed for. It can't possibly have the same effect on me as it would on a black kid.

That said, while I'm perhaps not the right person to fully critique the movie, I recognise and appreciate just how important a film it is. Black Panther isn't simply set in Africa, it's set in a powerfully positive view of Africa. The fictional Kingdom of Wakanda hides its incredible wealth and technological power behind a sort of cloaking device, pretending that their country is just another poor, third-world collection of farms that most people would have trouble finding on a map. Although there is no African nation with the technological prowess of the Wakandans - the Marvel universe is a few years ahead of our in progress, and Wakanda a good fifty years beyond everyone else - it serves to reflect the predominant view of Africa by white and Western people. We look at Africa and see the third world. We don't see the cultural, industrial, and economical richness of the continent unless it's pointed out to us.

 However, the film doesn't shy away from criticising the Wakandans. As a powerful economic force, they have the capability to help their neighbours and those further afield, but they choose to keep themselves hidden away, for the safety of their citizens. The twin threads of the film are King T'Challa's understanding of his strength as the Black Panther, and his acceptance of his role in the world at large, both of which he needs to come to terms with in order to truly become a great king. It's important that his final victory against his enemies isn't simply his superior fighting skills, his special powers or his technological prowess, but his decision to open Wakanda to the wider world.

Chadwick Boseman builds on his initial appearance in Captain America: Civil War, making the Black Panther into a noble, mystical, yet very human and relatable character. He balances the character's roles as king, warrior, superhero and charismatic lead extremely well, dominating a very strong, varied cast. It would be easy for a lead actor to become lost amongst so many memorable co-stars. Boseman never does. There're almost two many memorable roles to choose from in the film if we want to single out a particular actor. Lupita N'Yongo is classy, formidable, likeable and exceptionally beautiful as Nakia, and undercover spy and fighter. She's T'Challa's love interest throughout the film but this is never her defining role. Other remarkable women in the film include Danai Gurira as Okoye, the finest warrior from the all-female special forces unit of Wakanda, who is as likeable as she is intimidating; and the great Angela Bassett as the Queen Mother, Ramonda.

One of the strongest elements in the production is the utilisation of various African nations and tribes to produce a varied and believable Wakandan culture. This extends not only to the complex visual and musical character of Wakanda, but also the characters who populate it. The various tribes that make up the kingdom all have their spokesperson, although only some have significant roles to play in the plot. Daniel Kaluuya is very good as W'Kabi, the head of the Border Tribe who is torn between his loyalty to his kingdom, his role in his tribe, and his friendship with T'Challa. Equally memorable is Winston Duke as the M'Baku, the towering chief of the Jabari. In the comics, M'Baku is known as Man-Ape and dresses as a gorilla, and wisely, Marvel opted not to use these deeply questionable elements in the film. Instead, the Jabari worship gorilla gods (as the Border Tribe worship rhinos and T'Challa's people worship panthers), and keep things on the respectful side of the cliche of the powerful African warrior tribe from deepest, darkest Africa. (In a nice touch, the Jabari speak the Nigerian language of Igbo, while the rest of Wakanda speak the southern African language of Xhosa. Neither is particularly likely to be spoken in the region of Africa Wakanda is supposed to be found, but it does add variety and believability to the cultures).

The favourite, though, has to be Shuri, T'Challa's younger sister, played with infectious positivity by Letitia Wright. Rather than just a princess in the usual movie mode, Shuri is the chief weapons and defence designer for Wakanda, a skilled scientist and engineer. She's like a tiny, adorable Q to T'Challa's Bond, kitting him out with ingenious supersuits and a remotely driven car, among all manner of other gizmos. Letitia Wright's performance has seen her become a firm fan favourite already, and I'm very pleased to see that she will be reappearing in Avengers: Infinity War. The character is a remarkably positive role model for young women, particularly young black women, and has the brains and confidence to challenge the cocky male superheroes with whom she'll be sharing the screen.

There's a serious flaw in this pro-black, pro-African narrative, however, in that the two major American characters threaten to derail the film and take over. Martin Freeman's CIA man Everett Ross (who previously appeared alongside T'Challa in Captain America: Civil War) spends much of the film convinced he's the one in the position of power, only to be taken to Wakanda for his own good and rudely stripped of his presumptions. Then, however, he gets in the cockpit of a Wakandan flying machine and defends the country from its invaders, a white Western guy swooping in to save the day. While it's presumably intended to show cooperation between people from different cultures, it looks a lot like another American soldier shooting a lot of brown people. Equally, Michael B. Jordan's turn as T'Challa's lost cousin, N'Jadaka aka Erik Stevens aka Killmonger, puts the power once again in American hands. Jordan is exceptionally good as Killmonger, but he represents another American influence toppling a foreign nation. While he is of Wakandan birth and embraces his heritage, culturally he is American, and in spite of his clear skill as a soldier and assassin, it's hard to accept that he can just walk into Wakanda, beat T'Challa in ritual combat and take over the kingdom. It weakens the Black Panther's character.

It's a pity that Killmonger is such a transparent villain, because his reasons for hating T'Challa and wanting to take over Wakanda are sympathetic. Having been abandoned in Harlem after his father was killed by the former king and his right-hand man, N'Jadaka has grown up in a culture that systemically suppresses and abuses black people. This is an exceptionally important issue to be exploring in film, especially with the political situation in the US getting worse all the time, and making the character so utterly evil takes away from the validity of his viewpoint. Let's not forget that the term Black Panther is still primarily associated with the Black Panther Party of the mid-to-late twentieth century, a movement that began with noble goals of emancipation before it became corrupted by crime and violent spokesmen. While Shuri's aid programme in Harlem at the film's close represents the best of the Black Panther movement, Killmonger's violent crusade against the West represents its worst excesses.

In some ways, Andy Serkis as the repellant Ulysses Klaue would make a better central villain. With his rapacious desire for wealth, disrespectful sense of humour and hatred of the "savage" Wakandans (plus a thick South African accent), he represents the colonial forces that Killmonger despises; the white man coming to the old world and plundering its resources (no coincidence that his greatest crime is not just killing Wakandans, but being the only person to successfully steal from their supply of miracle ore vibranium). On the other hand (the non-mechanical one), he's such a weak and pathetic character, for all his posturing, that he could never stand equal to T'Challa the same way Killmonger does.

Black Panther isn't perfect, then, but it is a vital new image in superhero cinema. An expansive, global, sci-fi, mystical, cultural adventure, it stands apart from the bulk of superhero and comicbook movies in its desire to speak from a different place, and on those terms it is largely a success.

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