' ' Cinema Romantico: Black Panther

Monday, April 23, 2018

Black Panther

Superhero movies tend to be defined by simple binaries, such as the old standard Good v Evil, so much so that even fascinating characters like “Iron Man’s” Tony Stark still find themselves subject to these easy to define two parts. In filtering questions of black identity and black culture through the machinations of a superhero movie, however, “Black Panther” manages to muddy up those binaries even if director Ryan Coogler frustratingly must also pay fealty to his Marvel Overlords, emblemized in an out of place Stan Lee cameo. As such, “Black Panther” is both exhilarating and uneven, brought home in its principal villain, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a character of such a morally complex binary that he, frankly, is too big even for the biggest movie in the world.

Black Panther is the nom de guerre of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who inherits the throne of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda from his father T’Chaka (John Kani) who has perished in a sequence that while eventually glimpsed in flashback apparently actually took place at the conclusion of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.” That unfortunate bug of so many superhero movies, where stories bleed between one another, causes a choppy introduction. Still, “Black Panther” makes up for it with an impressive display of world building, even if you sometimes wish Coogler lingered more on the plentiful images of his Afrofuturistic spectacle like Denis Villeneuve did with his version of Los Angeles for “Blade Runner 2049.”

Landlocked in eastern Africa, Wakanda appears third world from the outside, employing elaborate holograms to disguise its technologically advanced reality created on the back of Vibranium, some sort of souped up metal expounded upon in a 007-ish sequence where T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) walks him through an assortment of multifarious gadgetry. This mystical natural resource evokes an Africa untouched by the ravages of colonialism even if it simultaneously suggests both the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s isolationist stance. If Wakanda’s refusal to share this resource has kept it free of blemish, it also demonstrates how the kingdom has turned its back on Africans exiled across the globe in bondage, one evoked in the movie’s Oakland-set prologue where a few Wakandians seek to go rebelliously rogue. And in several scenes, T’Challa wrestles with these contradictions, an external angst rather than the internal kind typically defining superheroes.

Yet despite such angst, T’Challa rarely seems torn, more subdued. He is described, simply, as a good man, and Boseman seems to take that as his cue, not only coming across less than conflicted but never really imbuing any regal awe that the part might suggest. Such awe is more present in Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o as, respectively, Okoye and Nakia, sort of aide-de-camps to the King, each female actor holding the screen with a fiery presence that Boseman cannot match. And even if T’Challa’s ascension to the throne is simply taken from the comic, it’s still hard not to see the emphatic dignity of Angela Bassett as Ramonda, Queen Mother of Wakanda, and wonder why she isn’t fit for the throne.

Indeed, as forward thinking as Wakanda is, it hews close to its warrior-king monarchal mentality, glimpsed in the scene’s most riveting action sequences when T’Challa, as ritual allows, is twice challenged for his throne atop towering, thundering waterfalls. The drama of these scenes lies less in the actual action than in the cuts to the characters watching along, suggesting there is less at stake physically than civically and emotionally. That trickles down to the big concluding set piece too, which is merely aesthetically serviceable, CGI spectacle, paraphrasing Clausewitz, as continuation of politics by other means.

The second watefall challenge is delivered by Killmonger. In a feint to those of us unfamiliar with the comic, he initially comes across as mere accomplice to Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms trader who has long been a thorn in the side of the Wakandians, and who steals a piece of Vibranium from a museum. If this sounds like the genesis of a basic supervillain scheme, the sequence begins with Killmonger jabbing at cultural theft by calling out the conspicuously British voiced curator on how her museum acquired the piece. And if so often black characters are mere pawns in a white man’s movie game, “Black Panther” indelibly switches those roles by mercilessly ripping Klaue of his chief villain status and handing it off to Killmonger.

Killmonger stands side-by-side with Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul of “Batman Begins” in the cinematic supervillain canon. If the latter sought order through chaos then Killmonger seeks something closer to justice – nay, liberation, seeking to reclaim the African motherland by claiming the throne of Wakanda and using its resources to liberate black people around the globe. It is revolution juxtaposed against T’Challa’s more conservative calls for diplomacy, bringing to mind the dueling quotes of MLK and Malcolm X advocating, respectively, peaceful protest and something a little less pacifistic.

Of course, those two quotes can and have resulted in sometimes simplifying each man, and in adhering to its blockbuster code, “Black Panther” ultimately simplifies too. If the film was mere escapism, perhaps such complaints would be overly critical, but in a movie where the word ‘reparations’ is floating, always, through the air without actually being uttered, such simplification feels insulting to the character of Killmonger. And even if his outrage helps brew T’Challa’s elixir, and even if we are led to believe that Killmonger was steeped in white culture through his service in the American military and studies at MIT, he is ultimately less an emancipator than a violent autocratic in service of his arc which imbues his denouement with extra unintentional tragedy. He might come to see Wakanda as more than a mere fairytale, but the movie itself, no matter how politically germane, is not anything more than one.

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