Directed by Ryan Coogler
So here’s a question? Why did it take a hundred years of Hollywood to give the world not just an African hero, but a view of an African civilization as advanced, strong, and utopian as the one we see in “Black Panther”? Seriously. Putting filmcraft aside for a second, wtf? I didn’t even realize how much I wanted this, and I’m a white male. But sitting in an IMAX theater with an audience 75% filled with people of color (and mostly African-American), I thought, “if this is a new experience for me, what must it be for them”? This was quickly followed by feelings of shame, anger, and excitement: Shame because I have been a willing participant in not demanding this kind of imagery. Anger because it’s so evident why it has not been made. And excitement from watching the eyes of those around me as this new cultural existence unspooled. Been a long time since the mere creation of a cinematic world did all that.
And what a world it is! Director Ryan Coogler has put together an incredible group of talent and let them do their thing. Normally I would simply mention the cinematographer and production designer…and they deserve mention for sure (Oscar-nominated Rachel Morrison and “Moonlight” production designer, Hannah Beachler, respectively)…but this is a new kind of world…realistic, futuristic and both culturally illuminating and instructive! So here is your design team: Art Direction supervisor Alan Hook; Oscar-nominated costume designer, Ruth E. Carter; Oscar-nominated set decorator, Jay Hart; Oscar-winning makeup designer, Joel Harlow; and lead hair stylist, Camille Friend. We’ll be hearing some of their names next January and February for sure. If there was no story or script, I still would have found the film mesmerizing.
But there was and there is. Avoiding MOST of the superhero/Marvel pitfalls, Coogler and Joe Robert Cole have crafted a superhero film that examines our most notable cultural failing – and not just how White America views people of color (although it certainly does that – and accomplishes the mean feat of making a privileged audience root for that which it regularly disdains), but perhaps more importantly (and more directly within the plot structure) juxtaposes what it means to be an African-American, with its accompanying cultural, legal and societal drawbacks, versus what actual freedom and equality might look like in their ancestral home. This is not a “we must save the world” superhero film, because lord knows, we’ve had enough of them. No, this is a struggle for power, survival and for the simple request to be treated with respect. To accomplish all this they have given us a “bad guy” (Michael B. Jordan) who embodies the African-American struggle. And by the end, you realize he’s not a “bad guy” (although he has done some terrible things), he is merely demanding his freedom FROM the chains of his American existence…a Black Panther in the mold of Malcolm X. As a result, there are moments and lines in this film that are exquisitely placed, incredibly moving, and I’m quite certain, experienced very differently by a black audience – especially in the final scene of the third act.
And I haven’t even got to the part where the “super-power” is forged from intelligence and innovation…and not from some spider-bite, failed experiment or governmental interaction. In fact, “Black Panther” is the anti-Iron Man. Tony Stark’s smug, rich, misogynistic persona is utterly reversed by the inclusion of a society filled with fiercely independent and strong women. There’s the very human, culturally-connected Shuri, Boseman’s sister, played with brilliance and humor by Letitia Wright. She acts as the brains informing T’Chala’s (Chad Boseman) brawn, while never being placed in the “nerd” category. Our love interest, Lupita N’yongo’s Nakia, is in no way dependent on the lead character. She is fierce, courageous, feminine and capable of showing the excitement of love without being beholden to it. Danai Guirra is the ultimate bad-ass as the general of Waukanda’s armies, Okoye. Reminiscent of the Themyscira’s warriors in “Wonder Woman”, but possessing a three-dimensional presence, she is not afraid to find the humor in her own actions or in the actions of others. I’d pay for a ticket to see Okoye get her own film.
The men fair just as well, although, if honest, much less memorably. Boseman’s Panther suffers from the actor’s penchant for playing action and not attitude. He has a real presence to be sure, but there are more than a few moments when he becomes lost in the force of the film’s women. Jordan, however, is exceptional. Even if playing anger most of the film, it is rooted in frustration, loss and love. A terrific performance. Daniel Kaluuya and Forest Whitaker aren’t written well enough for them to stand out, but they certainly add to the proceedings. A special shout out to Winston Duke. His M’Baku is great work in what could have easily been a minor role. Oh, the white guys are fine if a little predictable. Andy Serkis is appropriately evil, and Martin Freeman is appropriately…Martin Freeman, though neither do anything very imaginative with the roles.
Finally, Ludwig Goransson’s score…a score that, while I watched it, was not terribly impressed with. Or, rather, not terribly impressed with the typical Hollywood-style film music. The African side of the score is masterful beginning to end…especially his use of the kalimba. Not sure if it’s a sample or played live. I only suggest it might be a sample because its intonation is almost too perfect – the kalimba is a notoriously difficult instrument to tune to western orchestral standards. And the various talking drum music is equally outstanding. But, I have to say, the more I’ve listened to the score, the more enamored I am of those Hollywood bits. Ever-so-slightly reminiscent of Abel Korzeniowski’s “Nocturnal Animals” score, it’s adequately dramatic, fitting for the scene work it is in, and not too over-the-top (with the exception of the gigantic title music that seems as if it came from a different Marvel film).
Speaking of over-the-top, it IS a Marvel film, and thus there must be one or two bits of ridiculousness in the CGI of its ultimate fight scenes, and it is no different here. But, thankfully, the script always brings it back down to a human level immediately after. In other words, the fight is a by-product of character relationship, not world domination. This is a giant step away from other Marvel films where the ultimate fight is the reason for the film (other than “Spiderman: Homecoming” – which also makes the final battle personal). If Coogler teaches Marvel anything, I hope it is that this is not only doable in a large tentpole film, but much more satisfying for us, the audience. Even the prerequisite post-title scene (at the U.N.), is better and more biting than other Marvel films. It’s a well-written postscript that will make certain that the least white privileged-aware audience member will get the film’s message. (And, yes, there’s ANOTHER scene after the final credits roll – a Marvel Universe clue – that one only needs to stay for if one is a hardcore fanboy or girl.)
Listen, you’ve all already seen it, I’m sure, but if you haven’t…get to it. And if you have, be assured that “Black Panther” will, along with “Dunkirk”, be one of the best reasons to upgrade your home theater you will ever find. And, much more importantly, will be playing in schools for years to come due to its unique message of hope and cultural pride. Can’t say that about many superhero films.
Yeah, I pretty much loved it.
Written on 3/13/2018