Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 17, 2018 8:17 pm 
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Black Heroes Matter

Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman may have been a milestone in celebrating women super heroes, but Ryan Coogler's Black Panther is something more because it celebrates not only black super heroes, and black women, but Africa, Africans, and the African diaspora, and with a singleness of purpose rarely seen in a comic book blockbuster. If it is one: it is better at Afro-centric fantasy than at super hero action. But it does have a black super hero and it is full of attractive black people, whose negritude and African roots are celebrated.

You may ask if it is really desirable for any under represented group to gain admission into some mainstream category, if that category might be better avoided. I sympathize with Fran Lebowitz's point that it's deplorable, almost incomprehensible, that gay people want most of all in the world to be allowed to marry and join the military, marriage and the military being the two most confining institutions going. She has said being gay should be a good excuse not to marry, and being gay in the past was a way of avoiding military service. So shouldn't being black be an excuse not to have to be celebrated as a comic book super hero? But everybody wants to join the party, even if it's a party of boors or bores. A conventional venue, in the event, can be used in creative expedience as a place to say new things. And you have to have skin in the game. As a San Diego Comic-Con slogan said, "Black Heroes Matter."

This seems, at least, to be a movie Ryan Coogler was born to make. It starts off and ends up in Oakland, California - within a short distance of which, incidentally, I watched this movie with a rapt, sell-out audience - and where Coogler's debut is wholly set. That first feature, Fruitvale Station (2013) formally, one might say ritualistically, stated the young African-American filmmaker's sense of responsibility and purpose. It tells the story of the last day of the life of the 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, on the New Year's Eve a decade ago that ended with his senseless killing by a member of the Bay Area Rapid Transit police. This debut film counts as a cri du coeur of Black Lives Matter, which, as a matter of fact, was founded a fortnight before the movie came out. Coogler's second feature, Creed, again starred the charismatic Michael B. Jordan, this time in a demonstration of their collective ability to breathe new life into a movie franchise, in this case the "Rocky" one, with a black star. Black Panther does that, and more. It is a Marvel Comics movie about a black super hero. It's a black entry into a franchise that hitherto has been white, and an opportunity, however cliched its rituals, to celebrate blackness in a fresh and vivid way.

Jordan is back again for a third round, not as the lead but as Erik Kilmonger, the evil nemesis of T'Challa/Black Panther, the lead, played by Chadwick Boseman. Boseman was hired for the film reportedly without an audition. Why should you need to audition an actor who had already starred in dazzling succession as, first James Brown (Get on Up), next Jackie Robinson (42), and then Thurgood Marshall (Marshall). When an exceptional black man is needed, whether the Godfather of Soul, the pioneer of integrated big league sports, or the first African American Supreme Court Justice, Boseman is your man. He is talented, versatile, and above all audacious. This time he takes on an air of nobility, and an African accent.

Wonder Woman was DC Comics; this is Marvel. Do I know the difference? No, and I didn't try to write about Wonder Woman. But Black Panther is not only the most political superhero movie, but almost not a superhero movie at all. Through its fantastical depiction of the African diaspora and a complex African nation, it's more a glorious, beautiful celebration of being black. It has turned out to be box office magic, and justifiably so. We had to wait in line, at the cineplex on the edge of Oakland, California where I saw it, something like ground zero. Every iMax showing was sold out, every single seat gone for the whole weekend; I didn't know that ever happened and it rarely does. The young black woman behind me as we waited forty minutes in line to go in said she had been to see it yesterday, and was probably going to come back to see it tomorrow. When I saw it, I understood why. If I were African American and a fan of mainstream movies, this would seem an experience to revel in. The women! The clothes! The accoutrements! and the colors! And it is pleasing to learn that the cinematographer is Rachel Morrison, the first woman dp ever nominated for an Oscar - if for a movie I am uncomfortable with, Mudbound. I nominate Black Panther for its look, especially its "Grace Jones looking" shaven-headed, bad-ass women.

Since experiencing the mastery and brilliance of his Dunkirk, I have wondered whether, if I went back and rewatched Christopher Nolan's (DC Comics) "Batman" movies, they might yield up deeper meanings that eluded me at first. But I'm not sure that Coogler and his cowriter Joe Robert Cole have deeply reimagined the original fantasies of the Marvel Comics masterminds, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, for Black Panther. Nonetheless they and the whole new Black Panther team convey worlds simply by being there, on the screen, in living color. And the images do have a special bright tone (in contrast to Nolan's signature "Batman" murkiness). Oakland may be dark, but Africa is sunny.

T'Challa is the king of Wakanda, a fictional African country, who also plays the Black Panther, a crime fighting superhero disguised as a panther. (He may look to you simply like a muscular black man in a tight lycra suit.) Of course Wakanda is a utopian distortion of realistic geography, geopolitics, and anthropology - though Boseman has said in an interview with Peter Travers, who has written a rave review of the movie in Rolling Stone, that he had his "African DNA" done, resulting in his genetic makeup's being traced back to four specific tribes and the contemporary African countries where they were. As Black Panther, T'challa wears a costume threaded with the magical mineral vibranium, which he keeps hidden along with other scientific wonders of his country, which at the film's end he tells a body of world leaders he is going to make available. He and his relatives have a blue glow inside their lower lip, a sign of their specialness. The story is laced through and through, in other words, with the routine amount of hokum.

T'Challa and Erik Killmonger have a "ritual battle" in Wakanda presided over by an impressive and noble Forest Whitaker as Zuri, the King's spiritual mentor, while others look on and allow T'Challa to take a beating. These include Angela Bassett as Ramonda, T'Challa's widowed mother; Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia, T'Challa's ex love and a spy for Wakanda in the outside world; and Danai Gurira as Okoye, head of Wakanda's all-female Special Forces known as the Dora Milaje. These dynamic and glorious women exude the kind of power African American woman are noted for, and this scene is one of the film's most surprising and un-Marvel-like. It is violent, noble, and somehow restrained - compared to the usual blockbusters. Later on as T'Challa sits on a big round backed chair like Huey Newton's wicker throne, a voice refers to how, formerly, black political parties lacked adequate funds for weaponry - clearly a reference to the sixties Black Panther Party.

Armond White doesn't take note of moments like this in his condemnation of this movie in National Review linking the Valhalla aspects of Wakanda (certainly a fantasy whitewashing of the harsh realities of African politics) with "the faux-naïve heaven of the 1933 negro musical Green Pastures" that he notes "the radicalized sixties" "considered an outrage." The Christianity of Green Patures, White notes, has been replaced by "faux-naïve Afrocentricity" in Black Panther.

Instead of CGI special effects Coogler often seems rather to make use of quick switches of time and place that keep us on our toes, or just confused. The relation between Oakland, Wakanda, T'Challa, and Black Panther never seemed quite clear to me. But I enjoyed the movie's frequent sense of humor, exemplified by how T'Challa brings his lady to the Oakland ghetto highrise where he, or an earlier avatar, grew up, and she says, "When you said you could take me to California I thought it would be Coachilla. Why here?" Then he explains the high rise isn't for sale, because he, as king, and therefore well funded, has bought it and the other buildings around it to develop as outreach centers. Alas, small African nations aren't rich enough to provide community outreach in urban US ghettos, but isn't it nice to think so?

Armond White is right: guarded reference to Huey P. Newton notwithstanding, this movie doesn't tell young African Americans about the true political history of their people, the crime of slavery and displacement from roots, or the actual history of the sixties Black Panthers' political activism, substituting instead a fantasy country and a monarchy. But really, Armond, did you expect revolution in a Marvel Comics movie?

Black Panther, 134 mins., released in US theaters 16 Feb. 2018. In many other countries, including France (AlloCiné press rating a mediocre 3.1 showing mixed French reviews). Metacritic rating a very gushy 88%.



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