Monday, 7 May 2018

Black Panther

Ryan Cooglar, USA, 2018 

A lot was riding on this because, you know, An African Superhero and so on and because of its potential contribution to representation. Trying to discuss this film upon its release without this point would be to undervalue its relevance. And although fan boys were eager, the superhero genre had become rote for a wider audience. And then, of course, it was a massive success because it was good. The genre had been broadening itself on the fringes and then into the mainstream by showing that it could incorporate a scruffy attitude and be funny with ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy’, and that it could be 18 rated and also funny with ‘Deadpool’. The funny certainly made ‘Spiderman: Homecoming’ a delight and improved ‘Thor: Ragnorok’. Oh, these superhero films always had amusing moments, but there was certainly an air of calculation about them: a one-liner here and there. The strident sincerity of Nolan’s ‘Batman’ – or even ‘Chronicle’, ‘Unbreakable’, ‘Defendor’ – was no longer the only approach in town and things were now stretching out (and didn’t have to go to the camp of Schumacher’s ‘Batman & Robin’ either). And the genre had been pushing at the edges of representation all over; maybe playing it too safe at times, but it seemed to be trying. ‘Black Panther’ came to show how taking-this-silliness-seriously with effortless humour could be at its most organic. It successfully keeps both the po-faced seriousness and excitement constantly in play so that it proves fun but not frivolous, earnest but not preachy. 

In its approach to representation, ‘Black Panther’s treatment of gender is also so casual and balanced – perhaps radically so – that it surely bests the much heralded but somewhat pedestrian ‘Wonder Woman’ on this issue (there’s Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o and Angela Basset just for starters). Here, there is no doubt that women are, intellectually and physically, equal if not superior. They always seem to have the wit and the playfulness that gives them the upper hand. Ryan Cooglar says,

I really wanted to have women who speak to the themes of the film, who personally had their own arcs in the film, and who really speak to the fact that a society – an African society or any society – doesn’t function without women carrying tremendous weight. T’Challa is a great king, but he can’t be that without women in his life. So that was kind of my perspective.^

And this attention to both gender and race only serves to make ‘Black Panther’ full of winning inclusivity that goes to making it a fuller meal than perhaps these films sometimes offer. Well, more than just popcorn.

There’s also a noteworthy similarity between ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ in that the heroes in both films are ostensibly killers. With Wonder Woman, there is no doubt: not only does she kill but she kills the wrong guy and this doesn’t lead to much reflection on the film’s part, surely leaving a problematic lacuna. But when Black Panther (Chadwisk Boseman) seemingly defeats Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) and lets him die, it feeds into themes that have been running throughout the film: Killmonger chooses to die, citing it as the same choice that his ancestors made when they jumped off of ships to their deaths instead of accepting slavery. This provides a counterpoint to the constant refrain to ancestry that permeates Wakanda’s culture, a refrain which is positive but narrow. So when T’challa defeats Killmonger, he gives his nemesis the respect of choice: they could heal him in an instant, but T’challa is not unsympathic to Killmonger’s motivation and lets him choose his fate.

I have heard a criticism that this is the first superhero based in black culture but that the fact that it is based in tribes and trial-by-combat is negative and stereotypical; but I have read a lot of comments to the contrary, that many appreciate the representation of a variety of different African cultures.* Indeed, Wakanda as a utopian vision is also quite radical when dystopias are so in vogue, and can seen as a riposte to the limitations of constant doom-mongering.  Further one of T’challa’s arcs is that he comes to reject the ancestors as faulty, his own father as hypocritical, and that this leaving the past behind allows his forward-thinking. If Vibrabium is a symbol of the strength of black culture, when T’Challa smirks at the end when questioned as to what Wakanda can offer, it is surely an analogy for the feeling that that culture – which is of course many cultures – must be feeling as if they know and have something superior that white culture can only guess at. They don’t want the doom-mongering.

There are diversions into James Bond territory and Andy Serkis provides a more obvious scenery-chomping bad guy, leaving Killmonger to be more complex, and all of this is very entertaining. But the real achievement is that, like ‘Get Out’, ‘Black Panther’ is part of movement showing genre films can also address the American race issue with the language of entertainment and amusement, not just and only with neo-realist seriousness – unless you are averse and prejudiced against such things, of course. Indeed, in the screening I intended, a decidedly mixed audience laughed mostly at jokes rooted very much in the black perspective (the line about another white boy to fix and a character being called a colonialist; indeed, Martin Freeman is the token white). It feels full-blooded in detail even though it adheres to the familiar super-hero genre structure and strictures. The greater accent on greater diversity and representation reaps rewards – both culturally and economically – and continues to touch on certain areas of drama and humour previously not-so drawn upon, especially in the mainstream. 

In Ta-Nahisi Coates’ ‘Black Panther' Comic (issue #170, April 2018), the character Tetu gives a speech criticising the binary way of seeing matters when a circular vision is more beneficial and correct: 

“But Wakandans are trapped in the binary. So Strict. So Western. Boxes where there should be circles.” 

He’s villainous so he also adds, 

“Stasis when what we need is revolution”^

But this call for more fluid thinking is striking, offering an alternative to a rock and a hard place, to one or the other, against extremism. With mainstream entertainment reaching further and showing that, hey, a wider selection of viewpoints makes money, a this-or-that approach is belatedly but hopefully going to look old-fashioned sooner rather than later, even with the current resurgence of far Right Wing political reaction to the success of alternative thinking and agendas in the mainstream.** The sheer range of representation in ‘Black Panther’ is surely a triumph: but that it is done so well is important. Or as Davika Girish summarises,  

…but what makes Black Panther truly unique is that this “dystopian” present is juxtaposed with a (stunningly realised) utopian vision that is wholly steeped in the black experience – in its history, iconography, and culture. In doing so, Black Panther gives blockbuster science-fiction its new vocation: a grounded and inclusive reflection of reality that isn’t closed off by mass spectacle, but instead – in the tradition of Afrofuturism – allows for radical reimaginings of both the past and the future.***

But putting aside its place in this discussion about race and gender, it is a fun, well-measured and well-made film – this cannot be underestimated and this will be the foundation of its longevity. Yes, it has that typical third-act showdown and it doesn’t really relinquish genre norms, and Black Panther’s unique attributes are bound to go on to be subsumed and diluted by his inclusion to ‘The Avengers’ universe, but for now its perspective gives it relevance and grit. A superhero film with one eye on David Simon’s ‘The Wire’, perhaps. One can only hope that, now the bottom line has shown that such inclusivity is a money-maker, that the doors have truly been kicked open. Perhaps it is apt that entertainments so rooted in wish-fulfillment like superhero films are making headway in the way in the mainstream – both quietly and bombastically.

^ ‘Black Panther’ (issue #170, April 2018)
* Indeed, I read one social media comment where someone reported that his sister cried throughout the film because it was full of faces and characters that were familiar to her experience.
** At its most basic, the election of President Trump can be seen as a retort to President Obama; indeed by his own tweets and policies one could easily frame the argument that Trump himself treats it this way.
*** ‘Film Comment’ March-April 2018

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