February 15, 2018

CINEMA | Marvel Fades to 'Black Panther' History Month

"I'mma burn it all!"
Chadwick Boseman Ryan Coogler | Marvel Black Panther

I once again join the Vertical Viewing Podcast (available on iTunes) for Episode 159 to review the latest superhero flick Black Panther and chat about the week in movies with Caucasian co-hosts Scott Willson and Jared Sargent. (1h26)

Filmmaker Ryan Coogler has easily made Marvel Studios' most self-contained and refreshingly original superhero entry about the iconic African superhero character in the enthralling Black Panther. Coogler adds a welcome sheen of Afrofuturism (and shades of James Bond) to the fictional advanced African nation of Wakanda. It really stands out.

Free of colonial ties but ruled by tradition and a hereditary monarchy, the setting of the eighteenth Marvel Cinematic Universe film explores the depth and history of African cultural identity, iconography, and political isolationism through popular cinema. Chadwick Boseman returns as the titular hero also known as T'Challa who struggles to establish himself as the new king of his hidden nation (see also Thor). Boseman is fine but he's sort of the least interesting part of his own film's mythology.

It's really frequent collaborator Michael B. Jordan as the out-and-out standout with such a meaty role as the de facto villain and defiant antagonist, Killmonger. It's a burning, fiery but complex performance, rooted in anger, personified as a ruthless American mercenary and half-Wakandan exile searching for a special kind of radical righteousness. His many well-developed motivations and multi-dimensional nature—adversely mirroring T'Challa—are completely thrilling. You somehow root for his revisionist storyline.

Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole provide a fairly nimble and straightforward story of sons and fathers wrapped in the consequences of colonialism and isolation. How the film creates conflict from Wakanda's lack of involvement in world affairs and its themes of black oppression within the context of African prosperity is superbly rich. Coogler's focus on characters first and building action around relationships and motivations make Black Panther such a dazzling treat of filmmaking and performances.

Michael B. Jordan Ryan Coogler | Marvel Black Panther

Among the mostly wondrous visuals (save for some sloppy looking action CGI), all of the detailed production design by Hannah Beachler and costuming from designer Ruth Carter are outstanding and pay homage to a pan-African culture while establishing its own sense of fictional historical style and tradition.

As for the cast, Lupita Nyong'o finally gets another powerful, worthy supporting role in line with her abilities and range as a self-assured Wakandan spy and T'Challa's former lover. As well, Danai Gurira is fierce and ferocious as Wakanda's lead general and warrior of women. An always smiling Letitia Wright truly shines as T'Challa's sister and chief technologist where she steals all her scenes with an undeniable charisma.

The rest of supporting cast of actors of mostly African descent, including Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Sterling K. Brown, make for one of the most exciting and dynamic ensembles ever put to screen. Meanwhile, Martin Freeman reprising his role as Agent Ross adds some amusing comic relief and one the film's few MCU connections. A bruising Andy Serkis hams it up big time, clearly having more fun than anyone else, in a rare live action role returning as the evil arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue. Both are virtually the only significant non-African characters featured on screen.

To further flesh out the mashup of African culture are the splendid array of original hip-hop and R&B tinged songs from accomplished rapper Kendrick Lamar. The film looks and feels like nothing else with its specific vision, sound, and viewpoint almost entirely outside of what Marvel has done thus far.

Black Panther builds a fearless sense of culture taking into account our history of African enslavement, nativism, and imperialism through its comic book setting. Coogler's direction and his impressive cast make the film so full of joyous energy. It builds an entirely unique world and society within an existing known universe. Never mind how truly great it is watching over two hours of black empowerment and casual female strength effortlessly put to screen. It matters.

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