Black Panther

Black Panther ★★★★

A Sunday afternoon rewatch that's granted a little hindsight. 2018 was a landmark year in Oaklandcore filmmaking, giving us this along with the far less heralded Sorry to Bother You and the critically overlooked Blindspotting. This collection of films marks an evolving approach to the black cinematic experience, and something of a fork in the road. There are films which beseech the viewer that black folks are people too, proffering up Christlike suffering to various ends and taking a more passive approach. And then there are films like Black Panther, which are about not asking for power but taking it, a fitting theme for films hailing from the birthplace of the real-life Black Panthers. As someone who prefers the latter mode of empowerment, Ryan Coogler's arrival on the big budget scene has grown on me since it's come out.

It's still surprising to me that we got something that was not only a solidly Oaklandcore film, but also a firmly Afrofuturist narrative as a major Hollywood release. The superhero formula leaves me colder and colder as time goes on, but if it can serve as a delivery system for genres that would otherwise never see the light of day, keep on keeping on. I enjoy the presence of Wakanda as an aspirational vision, a place where geographic isolation and natural resource advantages (see: the United States) are used to highlight the better aspects of human nature. Instead of a rapacious late entrant into the Great Game of colonization, Wakanda is a place where rational governance is practiced, society's resources are distributed more or less fairly, and things are generally run for the betterment of its citizens. Afrofuturism is at heart a vision of society which has moved beyond its irrational internal divisions and is thus capable of focusing on advancing humanity in general, and to see it represented in such a high-profile manner is encouraging. Amidst all of the wallowing in failure and self-pity narratives that a good chunk of people have surrendered to, we desperately need reminders of what is possible, stories not to negate the reality of the messes we find ourselves in, but to show the other side of the equation by portraying ourselves as what we can be.

And within the more positivist, active stance that Coogler takes in his film, there are issues to be dealt with. Wakanda's isolationism is the main source of conflict in the story, showing that even utopias are still created and run by humans. The box office-conscious nature of Black Panther prevents it from fully grappling with the implications of Erik Stevens' (Michael B. Jordan) politics, but Coogler pushes things as far as they can go in a production funded by the Disney empire, giving the film's villain more sympathy than a black radical has ever received in a mainstream Hollywood feature, and giving him an irrefutable final line as he dies on his own terms at the end. T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) the conciliator is moved to a different course of national action by the actions of a militant revolutionary, which (not to belabor this point) is pretty unusual stuff for a major release.

None of this means anything if you don't bring the entertainment value too, which Coogler certainly does. The main story is standard issue superhero origin story, but the details that flesh out this particular iteration make for a good ride. The fight choreography is great, not only for the scenes with T'Challa but also the other characters, particularly Okoye (Danai Gurira), who is a wonderful example of why physicality in casting matters for both men and women. I get tired of being expected to believe 5'1" actors who weigh 98 pounds soaking wet can toss goons all over the room like rag dolls. Both Gurira and Lupita Nyong'o bring believable violence to their roles. Black Panther also features one of the better car chases in recent film, and great supporting roles like Shuri (Letitia Wright) and M'Baku (Winston Duke), who flex adeptly between comic relief and dramatic presence. That the cinematic delivery package is unabashedly fun makes the delivery of the heavier social stuff referenced above successful.

I'm not one to shy away from how utterly fucked humanity appears to be on numerous fronts. And I have an abiding respect for the ability to go to one's demise with honor and dignity. But I also don't think we're quite at the executioner's block just yet. When I saw this last year on opening night, the theater lobby was packed full of black folks in traditional African dress from various regions, and the energy of just how excited people were to be there was a notable point of positivity in the midst of all of the grinding day to day shit that's the normal state of affairs. Stuff like Black Panther, a fundamentally optimistic vision of what can be, without blind Pollyanna-ish foolishness, will always have my support.

Herb liked this review