Black Panther

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whittaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole


This is a groundbreaking film for Marvel, and for superhero movies in general, and it’s not just because Black Panther is the biggest, most expensive film to be written and directed by African-Americans and to feature a predominantly black cast. It is also the most politically ambitious film Marvel has ever produced as it seeks to speak openly about the struggles of black people, both historical and modern-day. There are obviously limits to what a film such as Black Panther can accomplish in this regard. It is a work of fiction that can only incorporate so much conflict in its two-hour runtime, it is an American production that, despite being set in Africa and drawing much inspiration from its culture, incorporates a decidedly Western viewpoint, and it is a mainstream blockbuster that cannot afford to make its politics too radical for fear of alienating audiences (including white ones). What the movie can do is reflect on the turmoil and experience of black people living in the world today and convey them in a personal and emotional way that speaks to the audience. That is exactly what Black Panther does and it works wonderfully.

The film is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the home of the Earth’s only source of vibranium, the strongest metal known to man (it is the same metal used in Captain America’s shield). To protect themselves and the world at large from those who would use the metal and its immense power for destructive purposes, Wakanda has kept itself in isolation for centuries and today poses as a third-world nation with little to offer in trade. In truth Wakanda is the most technically advanced civilisation on the planet. There the people live in a metropolis of space-age skyscrapers, holographic computers and magnetically powered monorails. Culturally it is a society of an unmistakably African heritage. This is evident not just in the high-tech spears and shields used by the Wakandan army and their armoured rhinos (I don’t think I can emphasise this point enough: this movie has armoured rhinos!), it is also evident in the art, fashion, and architecture. It imagines a pure, utopian version of Africa that never saw the interference and devastation of European colonialism.

Following the death of King T’Chaka (John Kani) in Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must assume his place both as king and as the Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda whose strength is enhanced by ingesting the Heart-Shaped Herb. Through the process of his inauguration as performed by Zuri (Forest Whitaker), a Wakandan elder and the people’s spiritual leader, we learn a few things about T’Challa. We learn that has great affection for his late father, his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and that he still harbours a flame for his former girlfriend, Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). We learn that he is a strong but noble-hearted warrior, as we see when he emerges victorious in the ritual combat challenge for the throne and persuades his foe to yield rather than kill him as an example. We also learn that he feels a strong sense of duty to his people and nation and that his main priority as king will be to follow his father’s example and maintain the status quo. Thus, upon receiving word that the arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has stolen a Wakandan artefact and intends to sell it, T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the country’s greatest general, set out to South Korea to stop him.

The trio get there and learn that the deal is with CIA operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). A series of chases and firefights results in the disruption of the deal, the escape of Klaue, and the grave injury of Ross. T’Challa decides not to pursue the arms dealer and instead takes Ross back with him to Wakanda, where they have the technology to heal him, thereby letting the CIA officer in on their secret as a technologically advanced civilisation. His decision is strongly opposed by many of his people, most notable his friend and head of security W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). In the middle of the rift that emerges, Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) enters the scene. A former black-ops soldier who more than earned his nickname, Killmonger reveals himself to be the son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) who was killed in Oakland. He challenges T’Challa for the throne, which he sees as his birthright, making clear his intention to use Wakanda’s power and technology to unite their black brothers and sisters all over the world and lead them in a global revolution against their oppressors.

Killmonger falls under one of the most interesting categories of villains, those who are so sympathetic and relatable you could argue that they are not villains at all. At first Jordan wins you over with his swaggering charisma and playful viciousness, making Killmonger one of those villains you love to hate because the glee he gets from being evil is so infectious. But then we learn a bit more about him and the tragedy that shaped him into the man he is today. More importantly the movie takes his arc and creates parallels and contrasts between him and T’Challa, making them two sides of the same coin. They both live in the shadows of their fathers, both are driven by a desire to achieve something great, and both feel a strong sense of duty to their people. The difference is that T’Challa desires peace while Killmonger desires war. But it’s not as black and white as that. True, Wakanda has endured as a peaceful and prosperous nation and has kept the world safe from the harmful potentials of vibranium, but by isolating themselves from the rest of the world and failing to use their technology for the global good of mankind, they’ve been at best neglectful and at worst culpable in some of the world’s worst atrocities including the slave trade and the two world wars. That Coogler, Boseman, and Jordan are able to take this larger conflict and express it on such a personal level makes it all the more complex and compelling.

This movie isn’t just about T’Challa and Killmonger though, they have an entire ensemble supporting them with no less than three women who each deserve their own spotlight. There’s Nakia, the skilled fighter whose heart is more temperate than that of her ex and who teaches him that it is compassion and not strength that makes a great king. There’s Shuri, the child genius who is exactly the right amount of imaginative and reckless to invent the weapons and gadgets that T’Challa uses to fight and is just itching for the chance to use them herself (goodness knows what kind of mischief she’d get up to in Tony Stark’s lab). Best of all is Okoye. T’Challa may be the strongest warrior in Wakanda but even he wouldn’t disagree that Okoye is the fiercest. She is a soldier who serves Wakanda above all else, including her lover W’Kabi, and might very well have the most gripping arc of all. Sworn to defend the throne, whoever may sit on it, much of the drama hinges on whether she will uphold her oath to the death or whether her duty to her country compels her to rebel.

Visually, Black Panther is up there with Marvel’s best. Wakanda is a stunning realm of rich colours and imaginative designs, again all drawing heavily from African culture. (As someone who lived in Lagos for a few years, I can tell you that there is plenty of Nigeria to be found in the fashion, art, and accents). Coogler, who already proved in Creed that he knows how to shoot a great fight scene, keeps the combat small so that it never gets too cluttered, enabling him to keep things personal and intense. Even in the climax when things get a little bigger, his expert command over the geography of his scenes means that you never lose track of who is where at a given time. Add in the clearly defined progressions and turning points in the plots and the well established motivations and you have fight scenes that are all the more enjoyable because you know who everyone is, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

And yet, even with all that going for it, it’s the social relevance that really makes Black Panther stand out. It offers a villain who stands as a symbol of black radicalism in opposition to white supremacy and, without endorsing its violent means and inescapably violent ends, allows us to understand and sympathise with the oppression and turmoil that drive this kind of rage. In the end the Wakandans do of course reject the path of revenge, but not in favour of a return to isolation. Instead they choose the path of compassion and improvement. Black Panther is a movie which acknowledges that times change and that what made sense and worked before may not be right anymore. The way forward then is to grow and change with the times and to try and create a better future. The alternative is Killmonger’s way and there are only two possible outcomes, either the hate destroys you or you become the very thing you want to destroy. T’Challa says it best in the line that speaks most directly to the world as it is today: “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers”. We need more movies like this.

★★★★★

Advertisements

Get Out

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield, Catherine Keener

Director: Jordan Peele

Writer: Jordan Peele


Get Out is one of those movies that works on so many levels in so many different yet complementary ways that it defies any easy categorisation or labels. It’s a comedy, but not in a laugh-out-loud sense. You can hardly bring yourself to laugh because of the horror of it all. Yet it’s not the kind of horror movie where you get an escapist thrill from the scares, because the story is far too relevant to the world we live in. It is a social commentary, but it is a wildly entertaining one that expertly delivers its message without beating us over the head with it. It is a movie made by a director with a deep understanding of the state of African-Americans in the USA today and talented enough to present that point in a way that is both enjoyable and terrifying. The most prevalent and iconic image in the film is that of a young black man crying. The film weeps for the world that made a movie like this necessary, and while watching it you won’t know whether to laugh, cry, or scream.

The movie follows Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a black photographer, who has been dating his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) for some months. He reluctantly agrees to accompany her on a weekend retreat at her suburban childhood home to meet her family, uncertain of how warm his welcome will really be. There he meets her neurosurgeon father Dean (Bradley Whitford), her psychiatrist mother Missy (Catherine Keener) and her brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). Together they make a liberal, left-leaning white family who continuously make awkward comments about how totally cool they are with black people (“If I could, I would have voted for Obama for a third term” says Dean). Chris however starts to get the sense that something is really off about this place when he meets the family’s black employees Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), both of whom seem eerily compliant with their roles of servitude. Chris shares his concerns with his best friend Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery), who is convinced that something twisted and sinister is going on, and the longer Chris sticks around the more he starts to agree.

The premise then is that Peele has taken liberal, suburban racism, and turned it into a horror film. As a director he exhibits a fluent command over the language of horror cinema and is able to convey an uncanny sense of terror and paranoia in this seemingly innocent, vanilla setting. It’s in the way that the camera lingers on some people and things for just a little too long. It’s in the imagery that is just sinister enough to make us feel like something is definitely off about this place but is also subtle enough that we quite cannot quite put our fingers on it, like with the row of black cars full of white people arriving at the driveway. It’s in the downplayed, natural performances delivered by the actors that somehow make their characters seem all the more menacing. It’s the air of ambiguous dread that echoes movies like Rosemary’s Baby and The Innocents, where there is just enough peculiarity for Chris to be suspicious but enough doubt for him to think that he might be imagining it all. Then there’s the ‘Sunken Place’, an image that brings to life our protagonist’s greatest fears and anxieties and as nightmarish a symbol of suppression as there’s ever been in cinema.

The horror of course stems from racism in America, but here it isn’t all just the overt, conservative, aggressive brand of racism that has already been much explored in films by and/or about African-Americans and that has sadly received much publicity in the year since the film’s release. Here it extends to other facets of racism including that of society’s progressive, left-leaning side, which goes far beyond awkward white people trying to make innocuous conversation with black people to show them how open-minded and tolerant they are. Even when Chris is welcomed into his white girlfriend’s family with open arms, he can never feel at ease there because their behaviour and attitude towards him is founded on stereotypes and political correctness and, as he later learns, his situation is a precarious one that can be taken away from him against his will. The film also explores such themes as the representation of African-Americans in media and culture, black masculinity, racism’s roots in history and many others with such wit and creativity that it never for a second feels forced or banal. The way Peele is able to present the plot in an engaging way and interweave symbols that build on the story and characters while still connecting with something larger and relevant to out world is nothing short of masterful.

Get Out is such scary film, not only because of the larger implications of its story but also in light of all that has occurred prior and subsequent to its release, that it seems rather misleading to label it as a comedy. But that is what it is, just not in the same way as Life of Brian or Ghostbusters. Get Out is more like an episode of Black Mirror where the initial concept, once you fully realise what it is, seems absurd and laughable at first until you give it time to really sink in. There is very little in this movie that will make you laugh outright (apart from Howery’s much needed comic relief), but there are many that will give you the nervous, knowing kind of humour where you cannot bring yourself to laugh for fear that you might cry. Get Out is not just a wonderfully made, thoroughly absorbing, insanely clever film, it is a film that needed to be made exactly when and where it was made. It captures a snapshot of contemporary society that is so horrifying and uncomfortable you will not be able to look away from it any more than Chris can look away from his window into the outside world from the Sunken Place.

★★★★★