Monday, 5 March 2018

Black Panther | review by Rafe McGregor

Coogler’s third strike is as complex and compelling as his first two.

I was worried about watching this film – almost as much as Blade Runner 2049 (reviewed for TQF here) albeit for entirely different reasons.  I wanted to like Black Panther, but the odds seemed stacked against me. I wanted to like it because I admire Ryan Coogler for his artistic genius and for the way in which he has extended both black consciousness and consciousness of anti-black racism in his previous two films, Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015).  Merely releasing a film with the title Black Panther, which recalls the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense of the 1960s and 1970s, in the era of Black Lives Matter, heightened racial tensions in the US, and Trump’s New Nationalism constitutes a political statement in itself.  The Alt-Right countered with attempts to sabotage the success of the film via social media, but their efforts proved spectacularly unsuccessful when Black Panther broke several opening weekend box office records.  I felt this took a little of the pressure off me because regardless of what I write now the film is already a commercial and critical achievement by Coogler.  Why did I think the odds were stacked against me?  Despite many attempts, I just can't get to grips with superheroes as protagonists, with superhero narratives, or with the superhero aesthetic in general. I can’t even manage a second viewing of The Dark Knight Trilogy, which is by one of my favourite directors. Black Panther is a Marvel Comics character, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966 (coincidentally, the same year in which the  Black Panther Party was founded), and Black Panther is the eighteenth film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The film is also the second of three in which Black Panther appears, after Captain America: Civil War (2016), and before Avengers: Infinity War, due later this year.

I solved my ethical-aesthetic dilemma by approaching the work from the perspective of the Afrofuturist rather than the superhero genre.  Alondra Nelson, a sociology professor at Columbia, characterises Afrofuturism as a movement that uses technical and creative innovation to make statements about black life and history with the aim of representing the Afrodiasporic experience in new ways.  Popular examples include Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (1979), Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (2010), and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015, the first book in her The Broken Earth series).  Taking these three books as a guide, the following features of the genre are apparent: strong female leads, a deeply-embedded environmental ethic, the assertion of shared humanity through black experience, a seamless blend of tradition and modernity, and the reconciliation of the destructive and beneficial aspects of technology.  With the exception of the first, these are all present in Black Panther. There are several strong female characters – most notably Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (played by Danai Gurira) – but the lead roles are all male: Chadwick Boseman reprises his role as T’Challa, the Black Panther, from Captain America: Civil War, and fights first Ulysses Klaue (played by Andy Serkis) and then N’Jadaka (AKA Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens, played by Michael B. Jordan).

The plot is very straightforward: T’Challa’s succession to the throne of Wakanda is usurped by N’Jadaka, his estranged cousin. In keeping with his previous films, however, Coogler exploits this simplicity as a means to the end of exploring extremely complicated themes.  The first of these concerns the ethics of isolationism. Wakanda is a hyper-prosperous country in central Africa that makes use of its superior scientific development to hide its technology from the rest of the world, including its neighbours, many of whom are beset by political, criminal, and social turmoil. T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, was opposed to any engagement with the rest of the world, but others – such as N’Jadaka and Nakia – believe that Wakanda should end its sequestration. For N’Jadaka, Wakanda’s duty is to lead a global African uprising that will turn the tables on the legacy of European colonialism and create a new world order where Africans (led by Wakanda of course) are masters and Europeans slaves. Nakia has a more benevolent goal, in which Wakanda takes a leading role in the UN and exports its science and technology to the world. T’Challa is torn between T’Chaka’s isolationism and Nakia’s internationalism, between tradition and modernity, respect for his father and admiration for his lover. The second theme is the appropriate response to colonialism and postcolonialism. T’Challa is opposed to reinforcing the oppressive hierarchy by simply inverting the power relation between white (Europe) and black (Africa) and aims to subvert the whole structure, to take the lead by example not force and to influence the rest of the world through existing international organisations. Coogler has already been criticised for the conservatism of his vision of black empowerment, but given the political context in which the film has been released (mentioned above) and the complexity and significance of the issue at stake, I think the critique fails to recognise the sophistication and nuance of his response. Part of the subtlety of Creed, for example, was the way in which Coogler was able to tell Adonis Creed’s story such that it showed what was missing in the representations of Rocky Balboa in the 1970s without undermining the importance of Balboa’s own story.

The richness of Coogler’s exploration of these themes and their relevance to the real world make it an outstanding example of Afrofuturist cinema and my guess – based on the box office results – is that it’s a pretty good superhero movie as well. Notwithstanding, there are a couple of flaws, which is why I haven’t awarded a fifth star. I noted above that the lead roles are all male and Black Panther is, furthermore, a traditional story about men, by men, and for men – not only must T’Challa fight Ulysses Klaue and N’Jadaka, but his kingship must be secured by ritual combat and there doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgement that the toughest guy in the kingdom might not make the best monarch. Second, given that Jordan has played the lead in both of Coogler’s previous films, I was hoping for a lot more screen time for him and for more of his character’s backstory to be revealed. I don’t know how much of either of these criticisms can be put down to what I imagine are major artistic limitations imposed by Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I do know that this film is worth watching – even if you care as little about whether superheroes live or die as I do.****

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