In his flawless comedy special “The Bird Revelation,” Dave Chappelle lays the truth bare like Moses parting the red sea: “Yep, ladies and gentlemen, these are dark, dark, dark times.”
Chappelle is right. These are frighteningly dark times, and“Black Panther” plants itself firmly within this shuttered-off place. Themes of colonialism and isolationism haunt the movie as much as they haunt the real African continent. And an early, fleeting reference to the Rodney King tragedy modernizes and localizes the film’s prophetic struggle.
But here's what separates the real prophets from the fakes — your Dave Chappelle from your Kevin Hart and Moses from the Willard Preacher: the ability to transcend the pain and light a fire to spite the dark, with your own blood as fuel if need be.
So which direction did “Black Panther” choose: prophet or golden calf? Its title calls to mind the infamous black liberation group. Just how liberating are you willing to get, BP?
Let’s put it this way: Marvel is 18 films strong into its cinematic universe and the bid to inject diversity into its action figure line beyond Chris Hemsworth and talking raccoons has worked. And how decently it has worked indeed, like a carpenter introducing his above-average shelf.
Look: Don’t believe the hype. The film didn’t travel back in time and personally end apartheid. However, “Black Panther” is still a damn sight better than the usual fare churned out by Marvel Studios, and it boasts a director and cast restricted by the machinations of Big Hollywood, not by their talents both natural and plentiful.
The setting is Wakanda, a fictional African nation that’s playing the world a fool. Among diplomats, politicians and citizens of other nations, the country is merely a stereotypical third-world pity party. In reality, Wakanda conceals a sprawling, generic cityscape: all sleek skyscraper and advanced technological marvel. It’s ruled by a monarch (the eponymous Black Panther), a position which is determined by a brutal brawl to the death. Apparently, “Common Sense” never made its way across the nation's interdimensional borders. But that’s Wakanda for you, blending waves of the future with the will of ancestors. As spaceships hover up above, basket vendors and buyers barter in garbs culled from the motherland.
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascends to the throne, fairly and democratically with his fists after the death of his father. The baddie of the movie, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) challenges his authority and the two duke it out in true “Lion King” fashion — a tale as old as time, and its age is showing.
Ryan Coogler, known for directing “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” works the camera like a masterful puppeteer attached to strings of his own. In some scenes, the camera swoons and dives and performs topsy-turvy twists. Such scenes are sparse, however, and it seems only a few directorial quirks gained the board’s approval.
Early in the movie, a Wakandian ship soars above some Oakland youths and leaves them behind. This is a fitting metaphor for Wakanda’s foreign policy, which follows a strict isolationist position. Poker-face secrecy is the norm and if the world thinks Wakanda’s main export is impoverished anguish, so be it. They can heal bullets to the spine with magical bandages — or so one assumes. The movie glides over the science because why wouldn’t it?
Killmonger lives up to his name: He kills and warmongers. He also poses Wakanda a grand reckoning. For years, the country has hid in safety and only applied its life-saving advancements to the lives of its own citizens. “Well,” Killmonger asks, “where’s the fun in keeping all these gizmos if they can’t be used to overthrow oppressors and maybe start the next world war?” An interesting question, if only the film further explored its implications.
As it stands, the fact Killmonger at least attempts an answer makes his character the most engaging. He's a more punkish and homicidal Prometheus, willing to give the gift of fire if only to burn the whole thing down.
Black Panther himself is a kitten without claws. Boseman works well with the material, so the real shame is the material’s insistence on stoicism — which will introduce you to its ugly cousin, boredom. I can’t fathom getting a beer with T’Challa, not least because I’m under 21.
Shuri (Letitia Wright) doesn’t have the same problem as her brother, luckily. She plays a geeky technological sage and sounds like a kid at the science fair when explaining Wakanda’s magnetic trains or flying saucers. In general, the female force is strong in this movie. Okoye (Danai Gurira) leads Wakanda’s Special Forces and Gurira plays the role so authentically that there’s no doubt she could kick my ass.
In some regards, “Black Panther” feels about as revolutionary as a mass-produced Che Guevara shirt, which is to say not revolutionary at all. To its credit, the movie portrays Africa as a land of powerful people and powerful places — of “ancient, dusky rivers” and souls similarly grown deep. If only the film’s soul was as deep as Hughes’ or the continent’s.
Did Hollywood solve the diversity question? No. But at least it pulled a Killmonger, followed FDR’s advice and tried something. And what a fine something it is!