Long Read: “Who are these Grace Jones looking chicks?” Black Panther: a review

Iggy Pop, remarking on his early Michigan days in The Stooges circa 1967,  suggested American bands could not get arrested at home until the so-called British invasion happened. As Iggy put it,

The endorsement of indigenous African American music(s) – the Blues, Southern Soul – by the “parent culture,” in the guise of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, was essential before American critics and tastemakers could ratify responses by US Rock bands to the same influences.

In recent years, something similar appeared to happen with the Best Picture Oscar for Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. Once the Black director from the parent culture  invaded, as it were, distinguished himself with his treatment of American history, the way was cleared to thus prestige an African American sired masterpiece like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016).

Hip-Hop mogul, Jay Z recently mentioned his longing for a day when African American “firsts” would be no more. A Best Director Oscar awarded to an African American will be one such first. But what does it matter?

Shoring up the credibility of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a rigorous adjudicator of great cinema is hardly essential these days.

The “prestige” event has been privileging some of the most anodyne moments in cinema for years: rewarding Kramer VS Kramer (1979) instead of Apocalypse Now (1979); honouring Terms of Endearment (1983) in the year of The Right Stuff.

spike lee on the set of do the right thing - copywrite brightlight fims
spike lee on the set of do the right thing – ©brightlight films

We also know that Academy establishmentarianism placed grudging value in two of the greatest motion pictures on record: Spike Lee’s AFI 100/Palme D’or winning Do the Right Thing (1989) and John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991), winner of the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director. Lee, Singleton and Kasi Lemmons, like Oscar Micheaux before them, are now the forebears of a hard-earned film revolution.

This movie – like all blockbusters – exists to profit, but it does not necessarily follow that profit-seeking blockbusters are crafted without integrity.

Just as Will Smith’s living presence in the final scenes of Independence Day (1999) was an almighty shock to Black audiences accustomed to Black characters not surviving to the closing credits of blockbuster narratives, a predominantly Black cast in a major action picture is tantamount to a manna miracle; especially as the auteur presiding over the project – like the screenwriter – is a young Black male; the same young man behind Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar nomination for the film Creed (2015), and the 2013 Cannes Prix de l’Avenir d’Un Certain Regard/Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, Fruitvale Station (2013).

Moreover, to mock supremacist parlance, suddenly, these Blacks are everywhere: Ava DuVernay, Nate Parker, Antoine Fuqua, Barry Jenkins, Ryan Coogler, Steve McQueen, Jordan Peele, Lee Daniels, Tyler Perry, Dee Rees, and so on; more men than women, but this is still early days. Where, once upon a time, a major Black motion picture required a Spielberg at the helm, these new auteurs are bringing stories to a substantial, international, cinema-going sector: Black, comic-literate, film fans who have hitherto had recognisable experience erased, excluded, negated, misinterpreted or obfuscated by the movie industry. This is new. In Shithole Trump’s America, it is bloody magnificent.

No wonder Black Twitter is ablaze over the release: crowdfunded tickets, group expeditions, war against alt-right trolls bent on snagging the movie the lowest possible rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Black pupils gyrating on desks in an Atlanta classroom at news of a free cinema trip. This is a beauty of The Coogler moment: a significant section of his demographic need/want his film to be all things. The self-aware moment understands its importance, which is not to say that it has an inflated sense of it.

The director is a member of the starved audience described, with an aspiration/desire to make/see a film that has been missing.

It is a superhero movie that recalls the Ang Lee approach rather than that of a Jon Favreau or Joss Whedon. This is not a sleight: Lee’s Hulk (2003) was not for a comic fan audience per se – not really, but it was his absorbing, measured analysis of the soul of a superhero. Coogler’s film betrays similar concerns. Action sequences are subordinated to the tale told. At points, viewers will forget that they are watching a Marvel movie.

Overall, the picture is acquitted with impressively incisive, contemporary concerns: national identity crisis; surprise dictatorship; fomented women necessarily seizing the reins of a nation’s moral discourse; even a swipe at Boko Haram. Another major takeaway from Coogler’s essay is a sense of what an African nation could have achieved for itself with its own resources, minus relentless colonialist interference and systematic plunder.

A scarcity of White characters and a barely included western world have scant agency. A deliberate introduction to and exploration of an enigmatic, unspoiled African culture impresses with its diligence. The juxtaposition of obliterated knowledge of African American ancestries with uninterrupted African ancestry is devastating.

The prologue: delicate, glittering, to the strains of mellifluous kora strings; an animated ode to Afro-futuristic lore. Urban Wakanda: a secret city to rival the heaven of What Dreams May Come (1998); a city that recalls Cesar Pelli’s Kuala Lumpur experiment – gleaming architectural conceits, lofty continuums of ancient Dogon mud mosques, as entrancing as the pyramids in the Mayan city of Apocalypto (2006).

The American city of choice is not the hackneyed Manhattan Island or downtown Los Angeles, but Oakland; the director proudly establishing his East San Francisco Bay Area origins on the Marvel Universe movie map. The futuristic aircraft looks like an airborne stage set from which a transfigured Funkadelic or revivified Sun-Ra might suddenly return. The empurpled solar wind, late dusk azure, and ancient acacia of Djalia – the Wakanda afterlife – bedazzle. Sequences shot in a snowy mountain region ridicule Bob Geldof’s daft lyric, “There’ll be no snow in Africa this Christmas” anew.

Costume and makeup design are richly textured; tribal without being primitivist. Armoured hippos recall Peter Jackson’s oliphants. black-panther-movie-release-date-trailer-castAn uproarious action extravaganza shot in South Korea’s Busan could be a nod to Sam Mendes’ Skyfall. There is a sense that this is a movie to position alongside The Matrix (1999), Gravity (2013) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): a picture that must, at the very least, be recognised by gong distributors for its art direction and technological achievement.

Wakanda’s fierce spear maidens are not to be messed with. The threat of warmongering dictatorship is thwarted by a force of crack female sentries, led by a dynamic battle-warrior; a thrilling turn by black-panther-latitia-lupita-danai-angela-1Danai Gurira. Lupita Nyong’o is on electric form, liberated from her subjugated Oscar winning slave to characterise a fearless, super-stylish special-agent-viceroy. If the Bond franchise is not considering her for its next outing, it is missing a trick. Guyana’s Letitia Wright is a winsome treat as a wisecracking, Q like, tech-wiz princess. Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker bring the dual gravitas of earlier generation acting pioneers and Wakanda elders. Chadwick Boseman, the Panther, is an august, handsome, diplomatic chief-king. His nemesis, played by Coogler muse, Michael B. Jordan, michaelbjordanblackpantherretainerstory5a coarse interloper and autocratic menace, quickens the breathing with his awesome physical presence; Andy Serkis delivers a gleeful, slavering, weaponised, South African bastard. The typically affable Martin Freeman’s CIA agent seems a tad superfluous to the enterprise, but there is a scene in which he is silenced that is pure comedy gold.

At the time of writing, the IMDB rating is 7.8 out of 10 – an improvement on a pre-release 6.6, while Rotten Tomatoes awards the film a 97% rating. Those who habitually check in with those sites before viewing movies will appreciate that the IMDB rating means popcorn guzzlers are in a bit of a strop, and that the Rotten Tomatoes score means more discerning viewers are pleased. The overall Metacritic rating stands at 87%, which, all together, roughly translates as worth seeing.

If you like diligently crafted stuff, unforced action sequences, and sumptuous fantasy cinematography, the picture is for you. If, on the other hand, you took issue with Idris Elba’s ethnicity in the Thor movies, or found Ang Lee’s Hulk too artistic, frankly, who cares? Black Panther marries what has been starkly lacking for decades to a commercial rhetoric that feels absolutely up to the minute. As an accomplishment, it is an utterly astounding third feature from a director in his early thirties.

Finally, is it a film for White audiences? Was Avengers Assemble (2012) a film for Black audiences?

 


DM

David McAlmont

@davidmcalmont