Saturday, February 24, 2018

Black Panther

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and drop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip
Skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised. 

Wakanda is a country that presents itself to the world as a country very much like large parts of Africa: a developing nation struggling with few roads and high illiteracy, made up mainly of farmers with unique clothes. Wakanda and its people, though, have a bit of a secret: their undisclosed technology, with alien-like ships and potent armour, makes them the world's most advanced, and yet they fear the consequences if the world finds out about their equipment and knowledge. This is to say nothing of the fact that their king is Black Panther, a reluctant member of the Avengers.

Originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and recently appearing in comic books written by Ta-nehisi Cotes, who will team up with Ran Coogler and Michael B. Jordan on a new film), we last saw King T'challa (Chadwick Boseman, who aside from this is most famous for playing notable black American figures like Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, and James Brown) was in Captain America: Civil War, when his father was assassinated and the young king was pitted against Captain America and his allies. Hype for the character was, I think, rather low, as fans instead braced for the much-anticipated return of Spider-Man and a big fight between Captain American and Iron Man. Fortunately, however, Black Panther, and Boseman's performance, ended up being a highlight of the film. Here, in his own movie, he's given so much more to do, and he's got a lot of help along the way.

Just look at this cast assembled here in Black Panther: Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis. You're not likely to find a cast that awesome for some time. But the break-out star of the film is, without a doubt, Letitia Wright. As the younger sister of T'challa, she is also a brilliant scientist and the Q to T'challa's Bond. I'm a big proponent of humor in these kinds of movies (one of the reasons why I liked Thor: Ragnorak so much last year), and she provides some of the movie's funniest moment. Also providing some humor is Winston Duke as M'Baku, one of Wakanda's great warriors. I won't give away the biggest laugh he got, but damn, was it funny. Kaluuya, fresh off his Oscar nomination for last year's Get Out, does a fine job as W'Kabi, a second-in-command to T'Challa. But the performance besides those of Boseman, Nyong'o, and Wright that has stayed with me the longest is that of Michael B. Jordan. Jordan, who also worked with director Ryan Coogler on very different projects--the real-life tragedy depicted in Fruitvale Station and the Rocky spin-off Creed--occasionally doesn't quite get the menacing delivery of the typical villainous lines out quite right, but one certainly gets the sense that he developed his character's look with great attention; every glare and strut has been given the methodical analysis of a master actor, which Jordan became long ago.

Here, Jordan is Erik Killmonger (yes, that's his name), a resident of Oakland who has links to Wakanda. Killmonger lives up to his name; he was a war machine in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and he's decorated his body every life he has taken. He's angry about the injustice towards black people around the world, and feels that Wakanda is not doing enough to stop it. It's a bit ironic that Killmonger is not the Black Panther himself, because his philosophy might make him welcome in the Black Panther Party. (He would certainly agree with party leader Huey P. Newton's argument that "an unarmed people are slaves or are subject to slavery at any given moment.") T'challa, though, takes a more cautious, isolationist approach, one that will likely have consequences for many and will set him up in opposition not simply to Killmonger but to other members of the Wakandan community.

Finally, it's also nice to see Freeman, as CIA agent Everett Ross, and Serkis, as villain Ulysses Klaue, together again, a duo the internet has brilliantly dubbed the "Tolkien white guys" of the movie (the two were opposite each other in The Hobbit). This is Serkis' third major blockbuster in a year (after War for the Planet of the Apes and Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and yet this is the movie in which he looks like he's having delicious, deserved fun. Nyong'o has also appeared in Star Wars, but she is given a much better part here.

Some moments in Black Panther don't work. The car chase through Busan, South Korea tries really hard and sometimes is successful while other times bland (though ending with a scene-stealing moment from Nyong'o). There are also battle rhinos, and I didn't need that, frankly. There are other banal moments that are beneath a director as talented as Coogler; its second act drags and is overly and overtly predictable. Still, it recovers.

I got to see it in West Africa at a cinema in which the energy the audience was giving off was beyond palpable. Applause took off as the credits rolled. I can't pretend that this is a movie directed towards inspiring people like me, but it's more than obvious that representation has not been Hollywood's strong suit since...ever. Hopefully, with movies like Wonder Woman and Black Panther, that will change. Black Panther shows that it's a good start.


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