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For the Love of Black Panther (2018)

February 18, 2018

*This post contains spoilers. You should only read this if you have seen the film*

The experience leading up to and concluding my screening of Black Panther has been one for the books. Never before has the African diaspora had a film of this budget or this stature, with a predominately black cast (not all-black, mind you) about a story told from our origins that goes into the damning effects of colonization on our people. Black Panther, as a film and an event, is a first for members of the African diaspora, and I can’t imagine another piece of work coming together in my lifetime that will have the same impact. But the success of it all makes me overjoyed at what the future may hold for black-oriented cinema. Before Black Panther, we’ve never been able to see ourselves glorified on screen in our varying shades of melanin looking amazing, kicking ass and being diplomatic leaders on this scale. If for nothing else, Black Panther is a sight to behold for providing this experience to the black community.

The resulting clamor and excitement around Black Panther has been electrifying. For the past month or so my friends and I were passing memes back and forth on how we planned to roll up to the theater together. Outfits and dashikis had been planned in advanced and tickets were bought weeks ahead of the film’s opening. When I finally showed up to theater Friday night, it was an emotional experience to see how all of it came together. I stared in awe at the throngs of black people gathered together laughing and chattering in unison having either just seen the film or leaving from it. The women in the crowds were decked out in vibrant head wraps or with their hair in its most natural state, and every man I saw looked oh so fresh and so clean. Everyone in the crowd had on some type of African inspired print that peppered my line of vision with a rainbow of beautiful colors. It was a magnificent sight to see, and I grinned in my own colorful dashiki the whole way to my seat.

Everyone in the theater buzzed with excitement and lively chatter until the movie started. Gasps and scattered claps happened on and off for a few minutes in between loud shhs at the noise during the opening sequence. These reactions were the results of pure fandom at play and it mirrored the reactions I’ve noted from classic movie fans whenever I attend a film festival: for example, at the most recent Noir City Festival in San Francisco. Fans of the noir genre show up to these festivals in droves, dressed to the nines in their best vintage 1940s gear. They clap when the title credits reveal the names of the production company and the director, and various levels of cheering takes place whenever the name and first appearance of particular actors grace the screen (Elisha Cook Jr. consistently gets the loudest claps). This reaction has always been limited to white-oriented films, where if a black character is present they are servants or workers relegated to a few lines. So, naturally it’s an overwhelming experience to see my people get the chance to partake in this ritual for people that look like us with stories related to us.

Following Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong), and his loyal Wakandan people was an absolute pleasure. I loved being sucked into the world of Wakanda: a rich, technologically advanced African city cloaked to appear like an improvised country to the outside world. Even better was how Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s script allowed us to get to know Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), the film’s “villain”, who turns out to have a viewpoint on life much more thought provoking and worth exploring than T’Challa’s. See, T’Challa is a Prince whose father is killed, so now he must rise to the ranks of King in spite of feeling unequipped to do so. Wakanda is in flux with some of its people wanting the country to spread its wealth to surrounding parts of Africa, while others want to keep their wealth to themselves. “If you let refugees in, you bring in their problems,” T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) warns. Erik is an outsider who stands for the former argument and plans to use Wakanda’s wealth for his people by any means necessary. Why should Wakanda have all these resources and not spread it to its people outside of the Wakanda walls? Therein lies the battle of the film in its simplest form.

Coming out of Black Panther—after the laughs had been laughed, the cheers had been experienced, and the energy simmered—I mused on the two hours that just took place. I enjoyed every bit of Black Panther but there three main gripes I just couldn’t get past:

  1. The cinematography: Every technical aspect of this film was breathtaking: the set design, production design, costumes and makeup, hair, special effects, and its dope ass soundtrack (all hail King Kendrick)! But the cinematography was its weakest element. I say this in regard to the handful of night scenes, most notably the first few minutes of the film. Rachel Morrison’s lighting of black skin during darkly lit scenes is disappointing, especially when comparing it to James Laxon’s beautiful work in Moonlight or Toby Oliver’s in Get Out. It’s possible my theater did something “wrong” when projecting the film, but barely being able to see action and faces during darkly lit scenes was frustrating.
  2. The defeat of Erik Killmonger: Arguably the best character in the film, Erik is intelligent, passionate, and doing his cause for the good of his people. T’Challa’s fight is for Wakanda. Regardless of ideologies, by the end of the film Erik is given two options, prison or death. His decision to take death reminded me of the bad guys in the classic Hollywood period who have to pay for the crimes because the Hays Code was in place. It felt like Erik had to die because Disney ultimately owns this film and its story…which made me question whose lens is this film really being told through, Ryan Coogler’s or the almighty bank of Disney? It didn’t make sense that T’Challa, who just spent the last half of this film distraught over the fact that his father’s selfishness is ultimately the reason Eric is hellbent on destruction, would allow this man to die or even be enslaved without an attempt to rehabilitate him. My frustration over Erik’s death was largely because he was such a wonderful character (shout out to Coogler/Cole’s meaty script), but also because of the shelf-life other Marvel villains of Erik’s intelligence possess: Thor’s Loki and X-Men’s Magneto in particular. It felt like Erik had to be punished because he was too radical. T’Challa ultimately ends the film announcing that Wakanda will share their resources with the world, never mind that most of the world he’s addressing is already wealthy, developed nations. There are no reparations or specialized aid given to those who suffered the most from colonialism. T’Challa wanted diplomacy and to share Wakanda’s resources with everyone, so he’s the good guy. Erik wanted black liberation and black power, so naturally he’s the bad guy. I didn’t particularly like that they couldn’t somehow work side by side, that one ideal had to defeat the other. You can have black liberation and power without colonizing others based on race, but that wasn’t the discussion to be had here because…well Disney.
  3. Everett Ross: Am I the only one that felt super uncomfortable with how big of role this character had? Everett (Martin Freeman) is a CIA agent who becomes a key puzzle piece in the story that without, T’Challa can’t succeed.…i.e. a white savior. This character was originally only supposed to be present as comic relief. It’s evident in many of his earlier scenes and Wikipedia told me. But then you blink and he’s a major player in the story and ultimately a hero. Again, it felt like a larger studio hand trying to appease certain moviegoers. But how many action films have people of color given our money to over the years just to see ourselves as mere background fillers, if we are even present at all? Even 1940s all-black films stuck to the major players being all black.

Nevertheless, I’m not saying that these gripes make Black Panther any less of an amazing spectacle with an engrossing story and great performances. It’s still an incredible film that I can’t wait to revisit again! These gripes are just constructive criticisms and a means to always demand that creators of these types of stories get full control and say over all aspects of it. I recognize that although politics are laid on heavily in Black Panther, it’s not up to this film to fix everything wrong and questionable in our society. Coogler definitely deserves the credit and celebration for trying though. Of all the super hero films I’ve watched over the years, this is among my favorite for its story and aesthetics, as well as seeing hairstyles that I can try, colors that are flattering for my skin tone and scenarios I that I can put myself in. One of the simplest joys of movie watching is being able to see yourself in a picture for means of escaping into that world. Thank you, Black Panther, for letting us get to do this!

SEE IT. For the culture. 

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