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The Universal Appeal of Black Panther

This is a reaction piece, not a full review. It will be most sensible to those who have seen the film, but only low spoilers due to some things just should not be spoiled.

I went to Black Panther determined to write an objective review. This isn’t one. Within a few minutes of the film’s start, I had tears on my eyes, and when King T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returned home to Wakanda, they just started streaming down my cheeks.

The sets, costumes, and city are a great example of “show, don’t tell.” Though there is plenty of exposition of the nature of “as you know” or flashbacks and visions as well.

I have read a lot of reviews saying how this is a black movie, and it is, through and through. But it is more than that. Black Panther pulls you in and I felt like this was my family, my people, my African nation as it should have been without colonization and neocolonialism. This isn’t the world as it is, but in some sense, a vision of the world as it could be.

The fictional nation of Wakanda, being the most technologically advanced nation on Earth, shares many of the dilemmas which the US faced when it was technologically advanced compared with other nations. “If we allow in immigrants, they will bring their problems with them,” as one character tells King T’Challa. Similarly there are issues of arms exports and bringing justice through superior firepower. An interesting and thought-provoking mirror.

Erik “Killmonger” Stevens is certainly the best of the Marvel villains, an area where they have been notably weak in characterization and motivation in the past. A Shakespearean family drama ensues. As well as Killmonger and T’Challa acting as proxies for the African diaspora v. mother Africa.

It’s funny how critics run in packs. I’m curious why the neoliberals aren’t screaming about cultural appropriation because this movie is all about that.

Wakanda is supposedly in East Africa more or less where real life Rwanda and Burundi are today. But people speak isiXhosa, a South African language. And the hairstyles, fashions, and architecture and textiles are a mishmash from all over the continent. All overlaid on what is now retro-futurism dating back 50 years to Jack Kirby’s illustrations for the comic.

Of course, Wakanda doesn’t exist in the real world, and more’s the pity. So they had to use inspirations from somewhere. And everything is so beautiful and awe-inspiring that I guess every reviewer in the world is giving them a pass on this and I’m no exception. Of course I tend to be a “world citizen” and “all one people” person so I am prone to want to encourage people to learn and use and do the best of everything, and to make it their own anyway. But that’s another story.

Wakanda is kind of a Pan-Africa melting pot and hodepodge in the way it is portrayed, even though it is presented as severely isolationist. The backstory for this in the comics is that the Rift Valley where Wakanda is situated is the Ur-seat of all human civilization, and African civilizations in particular.

Very strong cast. Chadwick Boseman seems to be channeling a young Nelson Mandela in his regal bearing as a newly-crowned king, his accent, his cadence, and his badassness (Mandala was a hereditary prince of his tribe, and a boxer as well as a lawyer before he was imprisoned on charges of murder and terrorism.) His nemesis, Killmonger, played by Michal Jordan is a Shakespearean anti-hero who almost steals the movie.

There are many strong and independent female characters. Notable is Leticia Wright as T’Challa’s snarky younger sister and master of Wakanda’s vibranium-based technology, Shuri. Danai Gurira as Okoye, general of Wakanda’s Royal Guard, the Dora Milaje, is ferocious as the guardian of the throne. And Angela Bassett brings a regal presence to the role of Queen Mother Ramonda.

There were a couple moments which were immersion breaking for me. One early one which I will spoil involves CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) interrogating South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, having great fun chewing all the carpet in sight in his own skin instead of mo-cap), who replies with questions of his own. I suddenly realized I was watching a game of riddles between Bilbo (Freeman) and Gollum (Serkis). As a meta-callout this is amusing but also distracting for me. The second weakness is some rather sloppy CGI which would frankly be better served with Wuxia-style wirework or even simply cutting those few seconds.

The third act suffers from too much action, falling into the typical problem where every Marvel movie has a setpiece battle where they try to top all the previous movies. Not up to the standards of Civil War, but special bonus points for (spoilers) armored rhinos! Remote piloted space ships! Personal force-shields and sonic blaster vibranium spears! Heel-Face Turn and The Cavalry. All in one rather chaotic battle. The narrative and characterization is somewhat lost in the festival of badassness which ensues. But this is a genre standard and the movie can be praised for opening so many new avenues it can be forgiven for the rather predictable final battles. I’d say more but big spoilers there.

Overall, a most lovely movie which will stand the test of time, better than I expected after reading 30+ positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and a rollicking good time. The movie seems too short at 2:14 so I am looking forward to a director’s cut and one hopes, one or more sequels, including perhaps a spinoff for some of the interesting secondary characters. Wakanda Forever!

5 of 5 stars. Bring a friend so you don’t talk your Lyft driver’s ear off as I did on the way home. :)

Copyright © 2018 Henry Edward Hardy


16 February, 2018 - Posted by | Andy Serkis, Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, media, Michael Jordan, scanlyze, Wakanda | , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Some of my further thoughts on Black Panther from an online discussion:

    There’s an element of “King Solomon’s Mines” here… discovering a “lost tribe” in “deepest darkest Africa” sitting on a mountain of precious metals…

    The character M’Baku in the film, in the comic was a villain called “Man-Ape” and he was a lot more obviously bestial, and evil.

    The afro-futurism and vision of Wakanda as the most technologically advanced civilization on earth comes from the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby vision of Black Panther in 1966. However, Marvel took some bad decisions with the character for about 25 years, playing into a lot of racist tropes and also trying to make him more “streetwise” and “relevant” with some really clunky “hip” dialog which really made no sense for someone who grew up in an isolated Shangri-La and not in an America ghetto, even having him replace Matt Murdoch as Daredevil in Hells Kitchen, NY for a while.

    The main inspiration for this movie comes from Christopher Priest’s run of Black Panther in the ’90’s, which establishes a self-consistent culture for Wakanda more than “techno-savages in generic Africa” and a lot of the supporting characters who appear in the film. The current run of the comic with Ta-Nehisi Coates writing is also pretty great.

    I give Marvel high marks for not just walking away from a lot of these racist tropes, but exposing them and in some cases, inverting them. That was a lot braver decision than simply giving us a politically correct character who was the Black Panther of the comics in name only as so many film adaptations often do.

    I was surprised that M’Baku was in the film, and more surprised that the ape-totem tribesmen were in there.

    But for me, when they got to M’Baku in his throne room, I loled and thought it was glorious. Good writing and great character acting by Winston Duke as a gruff but good-natured and honorable troll king of the mountain worked for me to reconstruct this aspect as an inversion of the racist tropes that whole backstory in the comics drew from.

    Comment by scanlyze | 26 February, 2018 | Reply

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