I’m not one to give films bonus credit for being “woke” – I thought Wonder Woman was awful, for instance, despite the importance of its female lead role. What can I say? I want a film to impress me on its own merits, not based on the racial/sexual identity of its cast.
That said, the majority black casting of Black Panther really is a radical step forwards, and don’t let any troll tell you otherwise. Marvel has been shy with black characters before – I can recall only a smattering across their so-called “universe” (oh the irony of that all-encompassing word). So to see an entire superhero movie that focuses on a history, culture, and skin colour other than Caucasian is refreshing. Its nearly all-black cast is undeniably a statement, a political one, that my African-American friends and colleagues have responded to with elation: one friend has seen the film 4 times and plans to go again, something that they’ve never done before, because of their feeling that this film is history, a turning point in representations of minorities in American cinema. And that means something.
Make no mistake that Black Panther only exists because of decades of committed activism from the African-American community, certainly one of the most successful minority groups in the world at expressing their fury at the social injustices perpetrated against them. If you don’t believe so, just try to imagine a Marvel film being released tomorrow with an all-Latino cast, or all-Asian, for instance. I can’t see it happening. These two large minority groups in America don’t have the same history of protest, at least not to the same extent, and so their representation in mainstream American cinema has been woeful – just think of all the Chinese guys with “funny accents” all over American comedies.
So yes, Black Panther appearing onscreen is a culmination of years of political agitation from African-Americans, you better believe it. As such, as a cultural totem in the future, it will likely be compared to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Is Black Panther as good as that remarkable album? No. And not just because Kendrick’s contributions to the film’s soundtrack are fairly disappointing by his standards.
Black Panther is lumbered with all of the baggage attached to Marvel productions. It needs to tie into the wider universe: which it does, rather clumsily, with Andy Serkis reprising a villainous role that should really have been excised. It needs to have a bland, tedious romantic interest: which it does, this time sadly wasted on the luminous Lupita Nyong’o. It needs to have several patience-testing actions scenes: which it does, although the twist this time around is that they’re sometimes shot engagingly.
I know, complaining about action scenes in a Marvel film is like complaining about cheese on a pizza. But you can have too much cheese. And they really do make the movies a chore for me, because they’re shot through with such little tension. I don’t care about who would win in a fight between X and Y, but I do want to care about the consequences of their fighting, the psychological implications. The way so often in which Marvel characters walk away from epic fights completely unaltered in any way, physically or mentally, makes me really not give a damn about seeing those fight scenes in the first place. It’s lazy, cynical storytelling.
Black Panther is less guilty of that than most, which is why I like it better. The action scenes tend to propel the plot forward rather than drag it down. When King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a.k.a. Black Panther, is challenged to ritual combat for the throne not once but twice in his native Wakanda, each time the stakes feel high, and that feeling’s exaggerated by the literal height of the setting – they fight on top of a waterfall, with dramatic cliffs and tense tribes encircling them. We know that Black Panther won’t die, of course, but the dizzying effects and swirling photography make our eyes dart across the screen, worrying for him, all the same.
A car chase scene in South Korea is played for laughs and is less effective – the otherwise impressive cast can’t really do comedy, not like Robert Downey Jr. or Ryan Reynolds – and the finale is about 5 minutes too long.
But still, this is by far the most enjoyable Marvel entry for a while. I count 3 good reasons for this:
- Writer/director Ryan Coogler. At only 31 years old he’s one of the freshest talents in Hollywood – Creed and especially Fruitvale Station were powerfully made, gripping yarns. I have no doubt that Black Panther’s aura of genuine radicalism and its respect for African cultural traditions come largely from him. Not to mention its visual imagination.
- The cast. This really is the most watchable group ever assembled for Marvel. Only token white guy Martin Freeman fails to do the best with what he/she’s given. Various supporting turns threaten to steal the show: Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, and particularly Winston Duke (the only one who can do comedy).
- Afro-futurism. The script looks to a future in which Africans and all of their diasporas will change the world through technology. This future is one in which they will manage to bring about an equality between all the races (because white folks sure won’t do it), but bring it about through intellect and science and not through violence. Yeah, this might be utopian dreaming, I hear all you cynics saying – are we ever really going to all “live as one”? But then isn’t the point of film for dreaming?
The figures speak for themselves: the film’s grossed a staggering $1 billion worldwide since its release, $242.1 million of that in its opening weekend alone. The excitement is there, the appetite for change. You can feel it in the air. You can feel it coursing through every frame of the film, like vibranium.
And I for one am relieved that the future it envisions is one of hope.