Saturday, June 9, 2018

Black Panther (Walt Disney Productions, Marvel Studios, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched one of the most overwhelming recent films we’ve seen: The Black Panther, the mega-hit from Walt Disney Productions and Marvel Studios — let’s just say that I’m not so sure anymore that the 1989 Tim Burton Batman with Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton is my favorite film based on a comic-book superhero. The Black Panther had its origins, both on paper and on film, as part of the “Marvel Universe,” the interconnected group of comic books with superhero characters Marvel started in the 1960’s (though the company, under its initial name “Timely Comics,” had been around since 1939 and at least two of their most iconic characters, Captain America and the Human Torch, had been introduced in the 1940’s). The Black Panther first saw the light of day in a Fantastic Four comic published in June 1966 (the publicity for the film took pains to note that this was two months before the formation of the real-life Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, though the black panther as a symbol of Black nationalism and assertive racial pride had first been used in Alabama by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in 1965, and that’s where the Oakland Panthers got it from — and there’s an even earlier cultural reference to the “Black Panthers” in the 1950 biopic The Jackie Robinson Story, in which the Negro League team Robinson played for before he joined the Dodgers was changed from the real-life Kansas City Monarchs to the fictitious “Black Panthers”!). He got his own comic book in 1998 and made his screen debut in Captain America: Civil War as a supporting character in a “civil war” of Marvel characters in which Captain America and Iron Man ended up fighting each other. There had been sporadic attempts to put the Black Panther on screen before this, notably an attempt at Columbia in the 1990’s with Wesley Snipes in the part, but after positive audience response to the Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War the “suits” at Marvel and Disney decided to do a whole movie based on him. What they didn’t bargain for was that they would get not only a blockbuster hit but a masterpiece, thanks largely to their choice of director: Ryan Coogler, an auteur who also co-wrote the Black Panther script with Joe Robert Cole and created a movie with far deeper emotional resonances than your average comic-book shoot-’em-up (or blast-’em-up) movie. The Blu-Ray edition of the film is prefaced with a brief talk from Coogler in which he makes the predictable comment that he’d collected comic books as a young man but searched in vain for ones about people who looked like him; he also said he particularly wanted to create strong women characters instead of the usual femme fatale super-villains or bland damsels in distress most females in comics or comic-derived stories are. 

The film opens with a prologue that explains that millions of years ago a meteorite landed in the middle of Africa (one trivia poster said the location was southern Sudan, but in the animated sequence showing it it looked like the Congo to me — and if that was the intent, it was a typical bit of Coogler subtlety to link the story to a real-life African country that has been plundered again and again, by Africans as well as Europeans, for its mineral wealth) containing a super-powerful element called vibranium, which not only is an energy source but also a material for making invulnerable armor and super-weaponry. (The opening reminded me of the 1936 Universal film The Invisible Ray, directed by Lambert Hillyer and starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, which also features an animated sequence of a meteorite containing a super-powerful mineral landing in Africa.) A recent New Yorker article joked about the tendency of modern-day superhero and science-fiction movie writers to posit these incredibly powerful elements and said that, in reference of Alfred Hitchcock’s term for the object the spies are after in a thriller plot, which the characters care about but the audience doesn’t, they should call them “MacGuffinium.” Anyway, in the plot the meteorite, containing earth’s only known source of vibranium, lands in a fictitious African principality called “Wakanda” over which five tribes have been fighting a civil war. The prince ruling Wakanda uses the power of vibranium to unite four of the tribes under his rule, but the fifth, the Jabari (also known as the “gorilla people” because of their tendency to spray themselves with gray powder to look like gorillas — or at least like the legendary grey gorillas of Edgar Rice Burroughs and other racialist writers who tapped Africa for stereotypical adventure tales — and worshipers of the Hindu monkey got Hanuman, whereas the other Wakandans worship the ancient Egyptian cat goddess Bast), decide to stay outside the confederation and be the odd tribe out. (According to, the original idea was to have the Jabari live in a rain forest, but Coogler thought that was too clichéd and moved them to a barren mountain range instead, which gave him far more interesting visual possibilities for depicting them.) 

After giving us that bit of the backstory, Coogler gives us another slice in a prologue set in Oakland, California (Coogler’s home town and the setting of his first film as director, 2013’s Fruitvale Station — the title is one of the Bay Area Rapid Transit stations servicing Black Oakland) in 1992, in which we see a group of kids playing basketball in such impoverished conditions they don’t even have a proper net on their goal, just a plastic milk crate with the bottom cut out of it (recalling the peach baskets with the bottoms cut out James Naismith used when he invented basketball in 1895, and from which it got its name). One of the kids goes home to his father, who’s planning some sort of sinister-sounding enterprise with a friend, and two exotically dressed Black women with shaved heads show up at their door. One of the people says they look like Grace Jones — the legendary disco singer who shaved her head (and had a huge following among Gay and Bisexual men in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s) — and indeed shaved-headed women become a major motif in this film. The two women shoot the young boy’s father and leave the boy alone, and it’s also established that both dad and the kid are Wakandan — you can tell because when a Wakandan pulls down his or her lower lip, the inside of their mouth glows blue, signal of their exposure to vibranium. Then the credits come up, and the film reaches present-day New York, where a terrorist attack has just blown up the United Nations building and among the victims are the king of Wakanda. This means that the next in line to the throne is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), only he has to return home to claim rulership and he first has to undergo a ritual, strikingly similar to the Vulcan marriage rite depicted in the “Amok Time” episode of the original Star Trek series, in which any one from the royal lineage of one of the five tribes that originally coalesced to form Wakanda can challenge him to a duel, which lasts until one of the contestants either gives up or gets killed (and the duel is held in a pool on the edge of a waterfall, so if you can just throw the other guy off the waterfall you can kill him easily), and one of the Jabari challenges T’Challa but loses. 

T’Challa duly takes over Wakanda after some more rituals, including drinking a decoction made with ground-up vibranium as its major ingredients that gives him the super-powers of the Black Panther (like the Phantom, the Black Panther is an hereditary superhero whose powers are passed down from father to son) and then bathing in red sand that allows him one last ghostly communication with his father, sort of like Hamlet, before dad passes on completely. Meanwhile, a white scumbag named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, for once playing a part as a normal human being without some other identity or appearance grafted onto him with CGI) organizes a robbery of the British Museum to steal a seventh century African weapon that supposedly came from Benin but was really a bit of vibranium, which somehow got lost from Wakanda and ended up in Benin. The Wakandans have maintained a strict policy of isolation from the rest of the world, mainly because their kings have realized that if the rest of the world knew they were literally sitting on top of a mountain of super-material of incalculable value, the rest of the world would attempt to seize it from them and either they’d get it or the Wakandans would have to forget their higher, more pacifistic values and get a bloodbath going to safeguard it. (Right after we finished watching the movie, Charles noted the lobby card from the 1937 film Lost Horizon on our wall and pointed out that Black Panther is essentially a remake of Lost Horizon: a super-secret outpost in the Third World that has access to an incredible technological resource but conceals it from the rest of the world because its leaders know the rest of the world would misuse it.) The Wakandans learn that Klaue is going to sell the vibranium he’s stolen in South Korea, and T’Challa and his girlfriend go to South Korea to recover it There they encounter the only other white principal character, a CIA agent named Everett Ross (Martin Freeman — since both he and Serkis had been in the Lord of the Rings movies, they joked to each other that they were the “Tolkien white cast members”) who’s on a similar mission. The big confrontation takes place in a casino right out of Josef von Sternberg’s delightfully decadent 1941 movie The Shanghai Gesture, and Klaue gets killed and delivered to Wakanda but they don’t get back the vibranium. 

We also meet Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan — obviously he uses his middle initial to avoid confusion with the basketball player who’s been in movies), who at first we think was merely the lookout in Klaue’s robbery of the British Museum but turns out to be the boy from Oakland who was left behind when the Wakandan kill squad took out his dad, grew up as a poor African-American street kid with all the discrimination and oppression that came with that, and now that he’s learned the secret of his own identity — that his father was the brother of the Wakandan king and therefore he’s T’Challa’s cousin and the next in line for the Wakandan throne — he’s participated in Klaue’s plot but his real agenda is to go to Wakanda, take over and export vibranium weapons to Black people all over the world so they can fight back against their oppressors, conquer their countries and form a worldwide Black-ruled confederation with Wakanda as its central authority. He shows up in Wakanda, establishes his royal lineage, challenges T’Challa to a duel and wins, throwing T’Challa off the waterfall — and once he’s in charge he starts acting like a Black version of Donald Trump, burning the garden that symbolizes Wakanda’s heritage and norms and ordering the army to load Wakanda’s flying vessels with vibranium weapons and send them to other countries to foment Black revolutions. (I can’t help but think at least part of this plot line was inspired by the Nation of Islam and its belief that Blacks had originally ruled the world and the point of their movement was to mobilize them so they could do so again.) Of course, T’Challa isn’t dead at all, and his women friends (including his sister, who seems to be the only member of the female half of Wakanda’s 1 percent who gets to have hair) sneak him over to the mountain redoubt of the Jabari tribe (ya remember the Jabari tribe?), where the Jabari king who previously challenged him agrees to give him asylum but not to commit any of his troops to invade the rest of Wakanda and restore him to his throne — though he has second thoughts about this and eventually, just as the good guys are about to lose the Wakandan civil war, the Jabari come in like the Seventh Cavalry and save the day. There’s a typical post-credits (for a Marvel movie) sequence in which T’Challa attends a session of the General Assembly at the new United Nations building, which has been relocated to Vienna, and announces that he’s decided that Killmonger was right about something: that Wakanda should export its super-technology and use it to help the oppressed peoples of the rest of the world. 

Black Panther is the sort of movie I didn’t think they were making anymore, a commercial blockbuster that is also a film of real quality and complexity — the sort of thing that in the eras that produced Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia regularly swept the Academy Awards, and deservingly so — and though the featurette on the disc we watched right after the movie stressed its connections to the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe (or “MCU,” as it’s unfortunately abbreviated), it’s a film that transcends its “MCU” origins and its overall comic-book heritage as thoroughly as Citizen Kane transcended all the other movies Hollywood was making about newspapers then. It’s an extraordinary achievement in a disreputable genre, and one that uses the much-maligned comic-book superhero genre to make real statements about oppression and resistance, about family loyalties and whether a nation can remain isolated or will have to deal with the rest of the world. It also seems a far stronger anti-Trump political statement than Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which in one of the more bizarre manifestations of the Right-wing political/media machine was accused of being deliberately anti-Trump propaganda (one of the weirdest “fake news” stories was that Rogue One had deliberately been pulled from release after the November 2016 election so its makers could write and edit in even more blatant anti-Trump propaganda); Killmonger’s attitude as soon as he takes over Wakanda (in an undemocratic but socially sanctioned process!) that he’s going to throw out all the old wisdom and do things his own way is obviously Trumpian (and profoundly anti-“conservative” if you define “conservative” in Edmund Burkean terms that there are certain patterns, institutions, beliefs and norms a society develops over time and, even if those don’t make “sense” and aren’t the way you’d design things if you were starting over de novo, they’ve acquired their own logic, people have come to rely on them, and any attempt to change them by administrative or legislative fiat will only make things worse). 

And yet Killmonger isn’t your typical crazy superhero villain; he’s a man whose bitterness has been shaped by his background (and at least possibly his racial history; Black Panther doesn’t come right out and say Killmonger’s mother was white, but we get that impression subliminally if only because Michael B. Jordan is lighter-skinned than Chadwick Boseman — in some ways Black Panther reverses the iconography of the 1930’s “race movies,” in which lighter-skinned Blacks were the heroes and ingénues while darker-skinned ones were the villains or the comic relief — reflecting the weird internal racism that permeated the African-American community then; throughout Black Panther the darker-skinned characters are physically, intellectually and morally superior to the lighter-skinned ones) and whose motives are at least understandable, if not forgivable. Black Panther is also a beautiful movie to look at; early on I was worried that Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison were going to go for the overall brown tonality that’s annoying in all too many movies today (and, as I commented when I watched Selma, even more annoying in a movie whose protagonists are Black because it’s simply harder to pick them out from all that brown in the background!), but the Wakandan coronation/duel ritual was appropriately colorful, the African sunsets spectacular (even though the “African” scenes were shot in Georgia — the U.S. one, not the former Soviet republic — and only background process shots were actually made in Africa) and the film overall is a visual treat. 

Black Panther is a movie that evokes its cultural precedents but wears them lightly enough you don’t get the impression of a director and/or a writer using bits and pieces of other movies just because they don’t have the imagination to create something new, and it’s also blessed with a fine musical score by Coogler’s usual collaborator, Ludwig Göransson, which may seem like a weird credit to see on a movie about powerful Blacks in Africa but who did his homework and drew mostly on South African sources for his overall sound (just as the language of the Wakandans was based on KwaZulu, not any of the indigenous tongues of central Africa). The film even featured two songs by Kendrick Lamar, which I dreaded because I hated his contributions to the 2016 and 2018 Grammy Awards (I was incensed that the Pulitzer Prize committee, which never gave an award to Duke Ellington, just gave one to Kendrick Lamar), but whose two contributions here are surprisingly lyrical and free from the relentless ugliness, viciousness and meanness I’ve heard from him otherwise (and from all too many other rappers, which is one reason I basically dislike the genre). All in all, Black Panther is a groundbreaking movie, a film that transcends its comic-book superhero origins and achieves greatness, and as I wrote after the last Academy Awards ceremony (and after the Academy gave no nominations to Wonder Woman, which as a film was hardly at the level of Black Panther but did break ground with a woman protagonist and a woman director at a time when Hollywood is being forced to grapple with its long history of exploiting and discriminating against women both on and off screen), “Let’s see how many nominations all these Academy members who are prattling on about ‘inclusion’ give to Black Panther next year.”