Tuesday, February 20, 2018

ALL HAIL THE KING!!: a review of "Black Panther"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Screenplay Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole 
Directed by Ryan Coogler
**** (four stars)

I have said it before and I am more than compelled to say it again...representation means EVERYTHING!

To any of you dear readers out there who happen to be Caucasian, I sincerely ask of you to please do take a moment and just imagine a world that whenever you happened to watch a television program or attend a feature film, the faces that you happened to see most of the time for most of your lives looked absolutely nothing like your own, regardless of style, genre or even the era in which the art in question had been created.

Now, this is not to say that you never saw anyone that looked like yourself or that the art which did not feature representations of yourself were not of artistic or entertainment value but typically, and aside from existing as the best friend, supporting character, sidekick or most often as a form of villainous threat if at all, stories were not created necessarily for you, nor did they feature you or were even about you. Furthermore, the characters that did look like you were rarely featured within the same three dimensional canvas as those starring your racial counterparts. And so, to fit in whatsoever, you had to accept what was being given to you in order to try and assimilate into the art in question, in order to find some semblance of yourself somewhere, somehow, even though no one, absolutely no one looked like you.

As a film enthusiast of color, African-American specifically, I have had an entire lifetime of loving movies of all styles and genres, therefore gaining a passionate appreciation of cinema as art, all the while rarely seeing representations of myself, especially in the films that I loved the most. I was really nowhere to be seen in "The Wizard Of Oz" (1939) or "Flash Gordon" serials. I could not be found within "Charlie Brown" comic s trips or television specials aside from the rare appearances of Franklin. I was nowhere on the plethora of Saturday morning cartoons except for "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids."

In the movies, I was not seen in George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977) or Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" (1977). There were maybe scatterings of faces like mine in the rock musicals I loved but only Sidney Lumet's "The Wiz" (1978) vibrantly, enthusiastically showcased them from end to end exclusively. Moving into adolescence, what of my beloved John Hughes? Even Molly Ringwald herself, when I met her at a book tour signing years ago, asked me if the lack of representation in his films bothered me, especially since it bothered her as she was making those films. As a adult, and aside from Spike Lee's multi-layered, complex, defiantly artistic, unapologetically controversial filmography, where are more filmmakers of color who have had the opportunities to create as he has and also for his longevity of over 30 years? He is only one man and certainly cannot speak for us all, thus necessitating the need for more representation behind as well as in front of the camera. 

I think you get the picture.

Don't get me wrong. I firmly believe that artists should make their art in any way they wish to, especially filmmakers. I have no need for directors to place faces of color into their films out of any sense of obligation, because that level of in-authenticity would be obvious. That being said, I, and also for generations of people of color, show after show after show and film after film after film for year after year after year, we are misrepresented if we are even represented at all.

While one film could not possibly serve to correct every single wrong in this particular arena, the arrival of Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" could not be more paramount and thankfully, rapturously, the resulting film is an exceedingly great one. Essentially serving as the 18th feature in the expanding Marvel Comics Cinematic universe, Coogler has not only delivered its finest film to date without question, it is the first Marvel themed film to willingly and passionately shoulder itself with a greater purpose and artistry than just presenting another escapade of super heroes and villains. In short, this is really the first Marvel film that is about something and frankly, the level of representation concerning Black people, in and of itself, is simply the beginning in regards to the sheer excellence of this film.

I will keep my plot description as brief as possible as to not spoil. First introduced cinematically during Director Joe and Anthony Russo's "Captain America: Civil War" (2016), Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" stars Chadwick Boseman as the titular hero whose alter-ego is T'Challa, the new King of the African nation of Wakanda, an honor bestowed unto him after the assassination of his Father, T'Chaka (John Kani).

Wakanda, much like the magical world of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, is hidden from the remainder of the world, appearing only to outside eyes as an impoverished Third World nation. In actuality, Wakanda is an African locale of advanced technology superior to the rest of the world and powered by the metal vibranium, which first arrived to the nation centuries prior and giving origin to the first Black Panther, the guardian over Wakanda and its four tribes, excluding the isolationist Jabari tribe who reside within the Wakanda mountains.

At the start of the film, T'Challa returns home to reunite with his Mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his sassy technological wizard younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), best friend and leader of the Border Tribe, W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), the Wakandian special forces leader Okoye (Danai Gurira) and finally, the secret Wakandian spy as well as T'Challa's ex-lover Nakia (Lupita N'yongo).

As he assumes the Wakandian throne, a severe threat to his reign, the future of Wakanda and the world itself arrives in the form of Erik "Killmonger" Stevens (a sensational Michael B. Jordan), who clearly has his own ideas of how Wakanda has been and now, should be ruled.

Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" holds all of the high quality standards that we have now come to expect from any Marvel film, but this time, the state-of-the-art sleekness serves its characters and story as never before, as Coogler has armed the proceedings with a socio-political urgency and an  impassioned love of its people. In doing so, this film is the third triumph in a row for Coogler, after his outstanding "Fruitvale Station" (2013) and soul stirring "Creed" (2015) as he has ensured that "Black Panther" exists as a personal statement as well as existing as a first rate blockbuster that deeply deserves to be recognized this time next year during Oscar season.

Again working with his excellent collaborators, including Cinematographer Rachel Morrison and Composer Ludwig Goransson in particular, Coogler's vision of Wakanda is breathtaking, and to multi-purposed degrees. Initially, it does share a certain fantasy, dream world aesthetic as seen in George Lucas' "Star Wars" prequel trilogy (1999/2002/2005), which serves "Black Panther" brilliantly as Wakanda is indeed a fictional nation, an African dreamscape, so to speak. But here is just one of many areas where Coogler's socio-political vision speaks volumes.

It is clear that a filmmaker of Coogler's depth and skill is more than painfully aware of how Black people have been regarded upon the screen, in both television and film. To me, it is difficult for me to think of terribly many films where the lives and stories of the African-American experience take place without the prism of Black suffering, either in the distant or very recent past. It is as if, Jordan Peele's "Get Out" (2017) notwithstanding, that Hollywood is not interested in making films about Black people in the present, or that our stories should be relegated to the past. "Black Panther," by contrast, is a tale of Afro-futurism, a "What If?" scenario that speaks to the very core of the Black experience in America circa 2018.

Coogler has created an African vision within "Black Panther" that absolutely demands to be seen several times, if only just to regard the level of detail placed into the iconography contained in the film regarding symbols, clothing, music, languages, customs, tribal markings, rituals and dialects. Your senses will be luxuriously embraced from start to finish as this is a film resplendent to behold.  Most importantly, however, what we are witnessing in Wakanda is an African nation that has never been colonized, therefore, enslavement has not existed. Because of that specific element to the film, I found myself forced by Coogler to really think about what my race would have become if we had never been colonized, if we had not ever been stolen, enslaved, murdered or had our bloodlines diluted through rape. What would my race have been if we had not ever been stripped from our culture, and left in a world where we did not know our own ancestry, therefore we are unknowing of our own potential?

"Black Panther" is a film defiantly about Black excellence and nationalism, where the pride and inspiration of who we are as a race is found in a dream vision of our own ascension, which makes this a film of exceedingly crucial importance during a period where the vilification, dehumanization, and murder of Black people is paramount, where the self-explanatory statement of "Black Lives Matter" has the need to even be expressed at all, and yet it is still met with a derision that has extended itself to be compared to a terrorist organization. and the President of the United States himself recently referred to African nations as nothing less than "shithole countries." To be continuously beaten downwards and made to feel less than 3/5 of a human being, even in the 21st century, is defeating enough. So when, the ancestral vision of T'Chaka says sternly to his kneeling son T'Challa in an afterworld plane of existence, "Stand up!! You are a KING!" I spontaneously burst into tears.

What Ryan Coogler has accomplished with "Black Panther," and even through the lens of fantasy, is to deliver a vision that showcases the very best of ourselves to ourselves in a landscape that we can still try to make a reality because we are indeed a brilliant, beautiful people. To that end, I applaud Coogler for proudly challenging the Hollywood and cultural beauty stereotypes and standards by showcasing a collective of brilliant, beautiful, DARK skinned Black women in major roles, none of whom are sexually objectified and every single one of whom are extolled for their bravery, loyalty, intelligence and nobility.

Speaking of nobility, as T'Challa, the Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman exudes that specific quality effortlessly, therefore grounding the film with a level of strength that is undeniably graceful. Granted, T'Challa undergoes the mythological hero's journey, as we have seen time and again from King Arthur to Luke Skywalker and others. But aside from any conceptual similarities and despite all of the plentiful action sequences contained in the film, what I deeply appreciated was the thoughtful nature of T'Challa. Yes, he is a man of action. But he is a King of a nation first and foremost, with the safety and longevity of his homeland and people to think of and carry along with him, meaning that he must be more methodical in his pursuits. Coogler and Boseman inject a most cerebral quality to this character that elevates him from existing as a mere "superhero," and truth be told, he is more  James Bond than Superman anyway.

In an odd yet superbly satisfying way, the superheroics of the film might actually be the least interesting aspects it  has to offer, despite Coogler excellent presentation, for he has so much, much more on his mind than CGI bombast. Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther," among other issues, is the story of T'Challa not wondering if he should become King but rather devising precisely how he should reign as the King of Wakanda, whether as a humanitarian, isolationist, or even as a militant. Regarding his process, as witnessed through the relationships he holds with his closest compatriots, his family, his ancestors and his kingdom, is the true engine of the film, especially as the narrative grows to the largest quandary of whether Wakanda should remain isolated from the rest of the world or if they should fully reveal themselves, offering solidarity and companionship with European based societies, while elevating Black people around the world in the process.

And so to that, enter Killmonger.   

The character of Erik "Killmonger" Stevens is easily the best, most complex, and again, multi-layered villain to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and even so, it could be vehemently argued if he is even truly a villain at all (that is aside from the fascistic tendencies and plans of mass genocide). If the nation of Wakanda represents the dream of an un-colonized African landscape, fully independent of the outside world, culturally, financially, politically and through technological superiority, then, as played to searing perfection by Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger fully represents a painful reality of the Black experience, including the divide between Black Africans and Black Americans.

Without producing spoilers, Killmonger is the embodiment of the Black American experience that has been removed from its own culture through the very colonization, enslavement and eradication that Wakanda has never experienced, therefore his fury is as self-righteous as it is rightful. His first scene in the film, set within a London museum as he verbally spars with a White, British archaeological expert is indeed a blistering critique of cultural appropriation and the lies continuously told in order to keep Black people cut off from our own history and ancestral legacy. W hat is he supposed to make of T'Challa and the homeland of Wakanda, of which he has been denied in its fullness? Killmonger is the full representation of the hurt, anguish, loss from being unable to access what is his ancestral birthright, unlike his racial counterparts and the Wakandians, therefore, fueling his malevolence as well as his militancy. 

On a strictly comic book level, one could compare the dichotomy of T'Challa and Killmonger to that of the polar opposites of "The Uncanny X-Men" in the characters of Professor X and Magneto. Yet again, Ryan Coogler delves deeper and ensures that his representations of T'Challa and Killmonger represents differing ideological viewpoints regarding the future of Black existence. In fact, what I thought of the most were the two opposing quotations attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, which concluded Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" (1989).

And just as the real world figures of Dr. King and Malcolm X were exceedingly more complex than soundbites portray as Dr. King was very much a radical and Malcolm X embraced a certain universality later in life, Ryan Coogler gives that same level of complexity to both T'Challa and Killmonger, and both Chadwick Boseman and especially ichael B. Jordan are equal to every grand gesture as well as intense nuance. Believe me, Jordan's final line of dialogue as Killmonger in the film will reverberate LONG after the end credits, and after you return home from the theater, only complicating this figure even moreso. 

Even further that what is precisely upon the screen, there is indeed the matter of the representation behind the camera in the person of Ryan Coogler himself, for being a Black filmmaker given the opportunity to command a motion picture of this scale and with a budget of this size, is a rarity to say the least. I am writing this posting just five days after the film has been released in theaters and has already amassed a box office haul that was reportedly double than its projected take. The critical response has been high and the audience's approval perhaps even moreso. And with this success for him, it represents another source of inspiration and representation for what we as Black people can achieve if we are given the means to believe. Director Ava DuVernay is just about to enter this specific arena with her adaptation of "A Wrinkle In Time," and if she succeeds as well, I can only imagine what it could possibly mean for Black filmmakers and hopefully for female directors and filmmakers of additional ethnicities. 

Now, I know. We have been here before. The cynical side of me tells myself that this song and dance of a "Black Film Renaissance" has been uttered time and again to no avail and perhaps, we are just at this moment again. But, I sincerely hope not and I wonder if possibly, this time might be different. Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" has powerfully set itself apart from the remainder of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's characters and films simply by existing as something that transcends its own world of super powers, heroes and villains. This is a film about cultures, real and imagined, lost and found, subjugated, humiliated, desecrated and yet, maintained, sustained and poised for the fullness of ascension formulated through a reciprocal connection between individuals and their families, tribes and ancestors. Coogler has created a superhero film where the least powerful aspects of the film rest within the superheroics.

Where "Black Panther" succeeds at its greatest beyond being a superlative slice of pop entertainment is how Ryan Coogler has helmed a soul stirring epic where the odyssey of T'Challa, Killmonger, their families, friends and enemies represents considerably more than a simple battle between good and evil. It is a story of the Black experience itself and how we view ourselves to ourselves, and how only then will we be able to fully connect with our pasts as we navigate towards our future. And still we rise...

Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" is a triumph and to think, the first major release of 2018 is already one of the very best!!

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