Home > Reviews > Thoughts on BLACK PANTHER (spoilers)

Thoughts on BLACK PANTHER (spoilers)

I finally got around to seeing Black Panther yesterday, since I have a bit of money coming in and figured I could spare a few bucks to see the phenomenon while it’s still in theaters (and before Avengers: Infinity War comes out). I never got around to seeing Thor: Ragnarok in theaters — I’m in the hold queue for the DVD at the library, but there are about 1350 people ahead of me at the moment — but this was a film I had to see, given its rave reviews and its larger importance.

Usually when I go to see a film this late in its run, and in a matinee showing, I’m one of only a few people in the theater. For this film, though, the theater was fairly packed. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with an audience that was so emotionally invested in the film — with people who said “Oh, no!” when a supporting character was about to be killed or applauded when the hero made a grand entrance. For once, I wasn’t annoyed when people talked in the theater, because I was interested in the way people were reacting to this movie and engaging with it.

I don’t really want to go into detail about the plot and specifics of the film, since it’s all pretty terrific and it’s all been talked about really extensively elsewhere. I thought it was fascinating on a lot of levels. I loved the portrayal of Wakandan technology and architecture, of African designs and sensibilities extrapolated into modernity and futurism without colonial influence. It made for something really fresh and intriguing to see. And I love it that the film didn’t just depict an Afrofuturist utopia, but made it textured, with its own internal problems and conflicts and mistakes, and also confronted what it would mean to black Americans — both the sense of hope and empowerment it offered, and the harsh question of whether they had the right to maintain their utopia by abandoning others in need. Killmonger is certainly the richest, most sympathetic villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had since Loki, if not ever, since he had a legitimate viewpoint to offer, even if his methods were too violent. He was right that his people deserved liberation, but wrong to think that just adding more violence and oppression to the world would achieve that. I could tell from very early on that the film was likely to end with T’Challa realizing he needed to open up Wakanda to the world and offer its benefits to others, to make amends for Wakanda’s past through peaceful outreach and support rather than armed conquest. I’m very interested in seeing the answer to the question T’Challa is asked at the end of the mid-credits scene.

The cast was really solid, excellent all around. Michael B. Jordan is a standout as Killmonger, bringing enormous charisma while still being a credible threat. Chadwick Boseman is effective in the lead. Lupita Nyong’o is very good as Nakia, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. (This is the first movie of hers I’ve seen where I could actually see her face.) Letitia Wright (who had a recurring role in Humans season 2 as a troubled schoolgirl pretending to be an android) is lots of fun as Shuri, and I love it how the film just takes it for granted that their resident Tony Stark-meets-Q is a teenage girl. (She has the kind of vast high-tech underground playroom that I dreamed of having as a teenager.) I was impressed by Person of Interest‘s Winston Duke as M’Baku, a character who had to be handled very, very carefully to skirt the offensive implications of his comics counterpart, the villain called “Man-Ape.” He had to start out as a convincing antagonist and then reveal a more admirable side, and he pulled it off well. Martin Freeman did his usual excellent work as Everett Ross, going from a smugly clueless American to a stalwart ally who slipped comfortably into a supporting role, rather than trying to dominate the narrative. (I’ve seen this movie compared to a James Bond film, so I guess that means Ross would be Felix Leiter.) Andy Serkis was unexpectedly impish as Ulysses Klaue, who we initially were led to think was the primary villain but who ended up being secondary to Killmonger. In the comics, Ulysses Klaw was the murderer of T’Challa’s father, but Captain America: Civil War gave T’Chaka a different fate, so that arc was transferred to T’Challa’s friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), motivating him to turn against T’Challa and aid Killmonger. W’Kabi is a minor antagonist, but one who has a well-drawn arc and understandable motivations for doing the wrong thing.

One thing I found a bit distracting was the music, but that’s not really the movie’s fault. Before the movie, the theater showed a trailer for Spielberg’s Ready Player One, scored with a partly orchestral arrangement of the 1984 pop song “Take On Me.” (I don’t know pop music well, but I heard that song constantly on the PA at the UC Bookstore when I worked there.) Then the film came on, and the orchestral theme used for the Black Panther was exactly the same melody as the first six notes of “Take On Me”‘s refrain. So because of the trailer, every time I heard that leitmotif, I was reminded of the song. Otherwise, though, the score by Ludwig Göransson does some fairly interesting things blending African rhythms and styles with conventional orchestral movie scoring.

When I first heard that there’d be a Black Panther movie, I was concerned about how an American-made film would portray Africa, since there have been so many stereotypes and misconceptions about it in past films and TV shows. Some of the Marvel animated TV productions that have depicted Black Panther and Storm (of the X-Men) have been deeply rooted in ignorant stereotypes about Africa, tending to portray it as a single monolithic culture consisting of nothing but thatched-hut villages surrounded by wilderness. The ideal that I hoped for but wasn’t sure we’d get was a film that avoided all those assumptions and cliches, that did the research about modern Africa and portrayed it authentically. And this film essentially did fulfill my hopes. It’s certainly well-researched and rooted in real African culture rather than Western preconceptions, and it satirizes those preconceptions by contrasting them with the reality of Wakanda. Although its tight focus on the fictional nation of Wakanda means that it didn’t necessarily counter preconceptions about what the rest of Africa looks like. It would be nice, in a sequel, to see more exploration of Wakanda’s neighbors on the continent now that it’s not hiding from them anymore. Let’s see some major African metropolises like maybe Lagos, Nigeria, which is one of the largest and fastest-growing cities on Earth.

Still, that’s a minor note. Even if Black Panther doesn’t do all the work itself, its success will hopefully bring more attention to African-American voices and African culture, and perhaps other films can follow in its footsteps. (Pawprints? Sneaker prints?) That’s a change that’s long overdue, and I’m glad to see it starting to happen. Even aside from the importance of equal representation and diversity, it’s just good to have a wider range of ideas and perspectives informing popular culture, making it richer, inviting more people into the tent both as fans and creators. And it’s really satisfying to see an audience really engaged and excited by a movie like the folks around me in the theater yesterday. Black Panther, like Wonder Woman before it, was a movie that needed to knock it out of the park in order to dispel Hollywood preconceptions about what kind of films could succeed. And like Wonder Woman before it, the film met that challenge and surpassed it, and hopefully has opened a door that will never close again.

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