As the hype-train for ‘Black Panther’ continues its world-tour, breaking box-office records in the process, Jack Brindelli examines whether the film is as radical as its billing suggests.
Reviews of Black Panther have mostly fallen into one of two categories. Either those who hate it because they are, ultimately, racists trying to dress themselves as comic-book fans; or those who love it unconditionally because it gives a much-needed recognition to a marginalised, exploited, and often demonised group of people.
Now before I go any further, I should make it plain, I’m thoroughly on board with what Black Panther tried to do as a stand-alone film. The creation and filming of a story which not only aims to represent black culture, but gives black actors, writers and directors a larger slice of the Hollywood pie is inherently a good thing, both materially and ideologically.
The film has been a critical and financial success, while capturing the imagination of audiences, to the extent that “Wakanda forever” has become an unofficial slogan of black pride – even used by Jesse Lindegard and Paul Pogba to celebrate the scoring of a vital goal for Manchester United. The film has been latched onto, in the same way as Wonder Woman last year, it allows for a diversity of representations of black culture. For too long, representation in the blockbuster has been a bolt-on, with all the sincerity of the inclusion of Token in South Park. Perhaps even less so.
In Black Panther, people can be strong and or weak willed, intelligent yet fallible, and above all, they are conflicted, three-dimensional characters. That’s great – that’s exactly what the world needs to see more of in its popular culture, especially with a thriving cast of actors like this. Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira (who has long been the best thing about AMC’s The Walking Dead) all shine here – with their character arcs carrying along the audience in a way few Marvel movies have actually managed.
And yet, in this allegedly watershed moment, I feel like one of the greatest achievements of films like this will be that one day, we can look back on Black Panther, and admit just how mediocre it is. It’s not bad, sure, and like I said, the characters are likeable enough that I’d invest time in watching a sequel. But let’s be fair, it isn’t at all consistently executed, and – perhaps thanks to it being an indirect product of Disney – it largely shies away from contentious political matters, existing in an apparent vacuum disconnected from the disappointment of the Obama Presidency.
But before we get to that last point, let’s talk about the theme at the film’s core, an exploration of what it means to be “African”. Director Bryan Coogler, whose most note-worthy work before this was the sleeper hit Creed, told Rolling Stone magazine that as soon as he was confirmed to helm Black Panther, he made a pilgrimage to the continent, having never ventured there before.
He went on to say that the trip was “life changing”, and to an extent you can see the role this adventure played in the making of Black Panther, with the film’s morally grey antagonist, Killmonger, making a similar journey to his father’s homeland of Wakanda – with a particularly clichéd intent to watch a “beautiful sunrise.”
If I sound like I’m rather cynical about that, that’s only what such a lazy trope merits, especially when it is executed so half-heartedly. For a film which is so keen to wax lyrical about the natural majesty of Africa, even in the highly developed metropolis of Wakanda’s capital, a green-screen sunrise atop a CGI mountain is frankly not going to cut it.
To this end, the film is thoroughly synthetic; a repeat offender which is determined to tell us of how amazing the world we exist in can be if only we look, only to fall back down uncanny valley the moment filmmaking gets difficult, or requires the least bit of discipline.
Similarly, the opening scene, where a man we later learn is the King’s brother regales his son with tales of their homeland, we are treated to a very synthetic, sanitised CGI creation story. And I don’t want to sound like I’m saying everything African has to be ‘organic’ and ‘natural’, because that’s a problematic generalisation in its own right – but if Hollywood intends to give prominence to traditional African culture, it should stop trying to do it with computers.
Drawings, puppets, anything would be preferable to this. Partially this may be because again, thanks to Pixar, Disney is now allergic to hand-drawn animation, however in line with the rest of the film, my gut instinct tells me this was just an easier way to pump out another addition of the Marvel cinematic assembly line in record time.
To call this filmmaking ‘utilitarian’ would be generous. Would it have been so difficult to actually be there, with the actors, to catch the sun rise over a real vista? Could it have been such a drain on the bloated resources of a massive studio blockbuster to do something more traditional with the opening scene? No. It’s lazy, and elements like this somewhat undermine Black Panther’s examination of African culture.
As an aside, the underused stealth element which the character’s name implies was also a missed opportunity to show a black African hero as anything other than being an athletically superior stereotype. A Black Panther should not only be strong, but stealthy, and intimidating. He should lurk in the shadows and strike fear into his foes – like Batman, but without the libertarian neck-beard overtones. Again, building stealth in this manner requires discipline, whereas a hero who can charge through a hail of bullets to get from plot-point A to plot-point B is the easier option.
The biggest problem the film has, however, relates to its unquestioning understanding of power structures. The people of Wakanda are extremely advanced, technologically, mentally and spiritually. As far as we can see, they don’t exist in an economy based on monetary interactions, and they are all more than capable of making informed decisions.
And yet they exist in an absolute monarchy, which if you disobey, tends to want to kill you. The film’s solution to this? Not to radically distribute power among the masses, but for the individuals in charge to be more responsible.
I know what you are thinking; is that really such a big deal, is that so different from all the Marvel canon? Yes and no.
The ending implies that if black people, in Africa or in America, want to live with dignity, they can ultimately rely on those who obtain power to supply them with it. In other words, it completely negates class politics of any kind – something which in the wake of the Obama administration is surely not something that holds true.
Certainly, Trump’s current presence in the Whitehouse makes the 44th President of the United States look like a saint, by comparison. However the Obama government cannot escape its fair share of the blame for Trump’s rise to power – having essentially demotivated swathes of voters whom the Democratic Party had ultimately failed over the 8 years it held the most powerful office in the world.
#BlackLivesMatter came to prominence during Obama’s time in charge – while Treyvon Martin, and a host of other poor, black civilians were gunned down by white vigilantes, or those over-zealous guardians of class society, the police.
Did having a black President change that? It did not, not any more than having a white President is currently benefitting the millions of poor white Americans living in squalor across the United States.
In this respect, it’s worth bearing in mind that Black Panther is not actually even the first Marvel film to feature a black protagonist. Blade did this 20 years ago, and boasted a markedly more interesting examination of working class life, as well as black life, in the modern inner cities of America.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, seek it out. It is probably the best understanding of vampirism as a cultural fear that I have seen since Martin. Blade is a vampire slayer, in a city governed by an unseen cabal of vampires, who control civil society and the police. You could write this off as conspiratorial popcorn fare, but I wouldn’t feel so secure if I were you. Every day your boss creams off the profits brought in by the exploitation of your labour, your energy, your literal life-force, and should you try to do anything about it, the police exist to preserve his ‘right’ to that private property.
Interestingly, Blade is also a (half) vampire. Does he seek to lead them? To make vampires more socially responsible toward humans, to those they depend on? No. Instead, he snarls, absurdly, “Some mother-fucker’s always trying to ice-skate up-hill,” before dispatching his foe, who had been attempting to make himself all-powerful, as if his existing advantage were not enough.
In contrast, it feels like Black Panther’s (rushed) conclusion was drafted according to Starbucks’ Corporate Social Responsibility policy; reinforcing a belief that privileged elite can make a great difference, and justify their governance of those they rule over, if only they put their minds to it and act nicely.
All in all then, I don’t want to write this film off out of some ultra-leftist fervour for class war at all costs. However, I don’t want to deify it for addressing the issues it purports to, so half-heartedly. This is, after all, a film produced in order to make a steadily dwindling number of all-powerful (and almost exclusively white) tycoons very wealthy, even after they were complicit in the marginalising of black culture for so long.