Few superhero movies have been as buzzed about as ‘Black Panther’ … and the socio-political climate may be the biggest factor
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
When it comes to social activism in the arts, TV and pop music, especially hip-hop, are the leaders. TV hosts like Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Sam Bee, and musicians like Kendrick Lamar, can turn out their product with enviable speed, instantly capturing a mood and a moment and expressing it for the masses.
But cinema — especially big-budget superhero tentpole films — is less nimble than television and music. Movies just can’t follow social trends as easily.
Sometimes, though, a movie can precede a trend, or even establish it. Sometimes, the real superhero is timing.
That feels like the case with Black Panther. This cat has claws.
It was already the most pre-sold film in Hollywood history before a frame had been screened by anyone, and that ain’t just marketing. And as far as the pantheon of superheroes goes, Black Panther simply doesn’t (didn’t?) have the cache of a Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Iron Man or Captain America. Star Chadwick Boseman isn’t a household name (yet). So how did the new film, out today in 3,800 theaters, become a sensation, sight unseen?
The answer might lie at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Or on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.
Black Panther is, simply put, the movie of the moment; but even more, the cultural touchstone that people have demanded without even realizing it. In tone, look, story and style, this is everything we never knew we all needed.
Last summer, Wonder Woman benefited from similar confluences of the Zeitgeist. Even before the #MeToo movement got underway, the defeat of what seemed a shoo-in for the first female president in a corrupt election to an incompetent windbag primed the pump for a woman who got her way by the force of her convictions. Diana Prince was royalty who left her homeland (which was hidden from the world by bits of alchemy) to protect the world at large from forces only she could fathom.
That is, essentially, the same plot of Black Panther, in negative. Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) inherited his country’s throne upon the assassination of his father (we saw that play out in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War). Wakanda is a nation of untold wealth, but with the use of secret technology, a force field has hidden that from the outside world. To the United Nations, Wakanda is a third-world nation of destitute farmers; under the dome, it’s a vibrant utopia that looks like Blade Runner without the rain. Wakanda has maintained its culture by staying out of worldwide involvement — it makes Switzerland look like Putin’s Kremlin — though it sends spies to monitor the goings-on around the world. One such spy turned on his homeland decades ago when he witnessed the infestation of drugs, oppression and violence leveled on people of color across the globe, but especially the U.S. His treachery was uncovered, though, before he could put his plan into action. Now, 30 years later, his business partner (Andy Serkis) and a mysterious commando known as Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), are poised to bring about a change in policy, through Any Means Necessary. And T’Challa vows to do what it takes to keep Wakanda an informed but neutral party.
If that sounds vaguely like the conflict between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., then you have caught on to the inherent drama — and the current cultural boiling point — that has set this film ablaze. T’Challa vs. Killmonger: spy vs. assassin, diplomat vs. soldier, reason vs. emotion, leadership vs. demagoguery. The cognitive dissonance is that both are correct, and neither are. Erik’s behavior is brutal, but his aim is justice. Anger drives him more than compassion and patience. Wakanda allowed the slave trade to take place as an observer, and Erik won’t let that happen again.
If that doesn’t resonate in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, then you ain’t woke.
Director-co-writer Ryan Coogler’s genius is making a case for both sides while casting two actors of such diverse styles as to draw the tension into sharp relief. Boseman is studied, elegant, mature; he walks down the halls of his palace like he’s strutting into a club. Jordan, on the other hand is an actor of presence, of fiery eyes and overdeveloped muscles. He’s physically imposing and a little scary — more so than inspiring, which is one of T’Challa’s gifts. He’s Richard III in a bodysuit. And for a while, he displaces T’Challa with his greater display of strength and ruthlessness. The the second half of Black Panther plays out so that it could be subtitled How T’Challa Got His Groove Back. (Angela Bassett is even on hand!)
Coogler also commingles other elements. Ludwig Goransson’s score combines tribal instruments with orchestral bombast (it’s amazing); T’Challa’s first mission is put together as is he could be the next James Bond, with a Q-like recitation of weaponry and an elegant sophistication between action set pieces, then morphs into a war picture; and the theme of family adds emotional resonance to the whole affair.
But it may be the mythmaking where Coogler & Co. achieve their transcendence. At a time when racial divides are more frustrating than ever precisely because our institutions flog false narrative of post-racial society, Black Panther empowers us by showing strong, smart, rich people of color as leaders, not warlords. The film’s coda brings it all back home to remind us that we are all part of the same family, and we owe everyone our best. Only fools build walls; the wise build bridges.