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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Black Panther

It seems that superhero movies are now doing the work of social justice (why not--baseball did it seventy years ago). Last year Wonder Woman struck a note for female empowerment, and now Black Panther has given the sub-Saharan African diaspora a movie that is about them, with people who look like them. There have been plenty of movies made by and starring black casts, but none of them made 200 million dollars in a weekend.

What is common to Wonder Woman and Black Panther is that they are extremely well made and intelligent. It helps to make history with a film when it's actually good. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler takes a fifty-year-old comic book character and makes him fresh and interesting.

In a short prologue, we learn that the nation of Wakanda has benefited from two things--an meteorite full of vibranium, the world's hardest metal (that's what Captain America's shield is made of) and a flower that, when consumed, gives one the power and speed of a panther. For a thousand years they have remained shut off from the rest of the world, and even have put up a force field that hides their technological advances.

The idea that an African country can be technologically advanced is so audacious considering the world we live in today. A country like this would be called a shithole by Donald Trump (or was it shithouse?) so I can only assume how proud it must be for those of African descent to see a country with brilliant people.

Anyway, the king of Wakanda (one thing I'm wondering about is whether a monarchy is the best form of government) takes on the role of the Black Panther. The previous king died in Captain America: Civil War, so in this film the new king, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is coronated. However, in a long-observed ritual, he has to take on any challenger by fighting in a pool water overlooking a waterfall.

Boseman goes around the world doing superhero things, like rescuing young girls from a group that looks like Boko Harum. There we meet his ex-girlfriend, Lupito Nyong'o, who is a spy for Wakanda. Here's something else wonderful about Black Panther, it is very forward thinking about gender. Nyong'o and one of a squad of tall, bald women, Danai Gurira, kick butt every bit as much as a man, and Boseman's sister, Letitia Wright, is some kind of scientific genius. Girls, white or black, can get behind this movie.

Black Panther also has the best villain of the MCU, Killmonger. Played wonderfully by Michael B. Jordan (an early Oscar contender, I hope), he hasn't been zapped with radiation or fallen into a tank of electric eels. He is a self-made man on a mission. He is Boseman's cousin, though he grew up in the U.S., and comes back to challenge for the throne. He wants Wakanda to reveal its success to the world, and use to it to take over. Part of his argument actually makes sense, which makes him so complicated.

There are only two white characters in the film. One them, Andy Serkis (nice to see him play a human being) is pure evil, and the other, Martin Freeman as a CIA agent, is kind of useless except when he shows off his video game skills. This is a film that dares to presume that a movie can be about black people, and that black people can solve their own problems. There is no white savior.

Black Panther is not perfect. The structure is a bit creaky, as we have to be shown something so we can see the same thing later. Also, a character makes an about-face at the end of the film that is unexplained, and makes for a cliched "here comes the cavalry" moment. Though this is a long film, I would have liked a few seconds for someone to ask, "What changed your mind?"

That's just quibbling, though, as Black Panther transcends the superhero genre. Believe the hype.

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