Weekend Movie High: Black Panther Movie Review

18 Feb

I waited to give this review until after the weekend, so everyone can watch it without having to be inundated with spoilers.

*The following article may contain a few spoilers.

Black Panther brought together many elements to the cinema experience this weekend, elements both familiar to the current cinema experience and new experiences. The movie combines Marvel’s larger-than-life heroism and story-telling, the movie magic and money-making design of Marvel Studios and Disney, the perfect team: Ryan Coogler, Kevin Feige, and Kendrick Lamar, and messages that fit with today’s social climate and rings closely with Black History Month—all combined to make a perfectly successful movie.

Breaking down everything I witnessed in this film, I have mostly positive things to say. I do have some minor critiques (which I’m certain I’ll get eaten alive for), but it’s not something that takes away from the film overall.

Usually, I’m not the type to be all over a movie just because of the hype. I support black representation in cinema, but I care more that the movies being produced actually PROPERLY represent black people.

I can tell you right now that this African American woman loved every moment of this film, for what it was worth.

Let’s break down what made this movie so fantastic.

Sense of Heroism

Even when the movie began, I could feel that this movie was leading us into the Marvel universe, a universe that focuses on drama, tragedy, strength, and ultimately victories. It was a superhero flick at heart. Yes, the very distinct fact being the superhero was black. But truly, it was a super hero movie. And because of that, I got there were many things one could expect in this movie. Don’t get me wrong, there were many plot twists to keep me interested. Yet, we knew who was going to win in the end and we knew how: through an epic showdown. Of course, this movie did break some Marvel traditions that usually come with the epic showdowns, but all in all, it did it in standard Marvel flavor.

Overall, it’s the traditional storytelling that works…and always will. Why? Because we all hope things work out in the end. No one wants to leave a movie sad and depressed, feeling as if there was no closure or feeling the movie was all for nothing. Some justice has to be served. So movies with this formula will always be successful. This formula is what keeps super hero movies breaking the Box Office. Despite any heavy themes or messages, the fact that the hero is always there to protect others and save the day inspires hope in people and brings them a sense of courage, making this a positive movie for the family overall. This is why having a black super hero is important for black youth. Having someone in cinema inspire the type of hope and courage no other figure can makes all the difference in shaping the mind. This is the power the cinema can have. But it’s important than the inspiration comes from a character that is generally deemed good overall, moral in character and just.

Marvel Heroism and the Black Panther

That sense of heroism is a staple of Marvel. Marvel brought about a black character who would fight honorably, without resorting to killing his brothers, something rare in films with black men as leads. The main character cares about people, is reasonable enough to admit his failures and where he went wrong, and is loyal enough to his culture, land, and tradition to defend it against all odds. This character is both tough and sensitive, making him an ideal figure for audiences. After all, heroes are expected to be ideal. They must live up to all expectations.

That weight was carried well by Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa). He was able to beautifully deliver the hero of heroes (as is common with Marvel). He conveyed inner strength more than brute strength, a sense of purpose, a clever mind, and the ability to reason and forgive. Marvel’s characters often have that effect. The characters always inspire their audience with heroic qualities combined with a sense of earthiness.

The best thing about the Disney/Marvel dynamic movie-making teamwork is that they can focus more on characters, not the stars who play them. With that in mind, we are not watching a film because “this famous actor is in it”. We are watching the film because this film has a great character and story, and these “stars” were the best fit to bring the story to life. That is the ingredient that creates great films.

A lot of news articles are saying that this movie broke Box Office expectations. I can’t see how the success of this was surprising or how anyone expected this movie to be unsuccessful. There really hasn’t been a movie about black super heroes from a major brand to even know how they would do at the Box Office. I suppose it’s the fact that Hollywood assumed black culture and people don’t sell well to people overseas, who have been European-washed and have come to see black people as “inferiors”. I suppose they assume that’s why the other movies didn’t sell very well. From my experience, it’s mostly been because the movies starring black people weren’t neutral in their content or were just bad overall. Other than that, I can’t see how anyone would think this would flop when Disney is in charge, the Marvel brand is lending a great character, and social media has the tools to promote any message and agenda it wants to.

Disney did mention they didn’t think a movie with a character that isn’t so familiar in the Avengers universe would sell in a stand alone movie, which is a reasonable doubt. However, I think having a stand-alone movie first is what made it better. After all, Spider Man, Iron Man, and Hulk all got that treatment, which was why we all were able to attach ourselves to the characters and their stories long before Avengers played on the screen.

A hero flick has the makings for success, especially when the production team and modern equipment are in place. How can the success of this movie be shocking? If Hollywood wasn’t full of old farts, they wouldn’t have been shocked. They would’ve been more in tune with today’s social climate and trends. They would’ve realized what was in demand. A black hero from the 21st Century has been in demand for a long time. Marvel is still in demand.

Girl Power

While we’re on the subject of Marvel and its sense of heroism, we can’t miss talking about the leading fierce ladies in this movie. Cinema really doesn’t have many black female heroes. And that became apparent when I saw how gracefully the women shined in this movie. Particularly, three ladies stood out the most.

Okoye (played by Danai Gurira) was definitely a stand-out character. A warrior and leader of her own group of female warriors, she was strong, fierce, and no-nonsense. She showed many different layers, though. She wasn’t just your one-dimensional “strong” female character. She could be humorous when she wanted to be, she could be sensitive, and then she could be loyal and graceful at the same time. Her strong loyalty to Wakanda and tradition was evident in her character. Still, she broke our very normal traditions, especially when it comes to her appearance. She was unashamed of the way she chose to wear her hair (really all of the women had the hair of their choice). Thankfully, she chose to wear her hair in a style honored by many African tribes.

Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o) served as the “reasonable one”, connecting Wakanda to the rest of the world. This character was a spy for Wakanda. She was also strong, but she had a sense of inner strength. She was loyal to her country, but she saw more of the world than other people in her kingdom and wasn’t afraid to present ideas that deviated from tradition. She had a lot of street sense. Her sense of compassion, her cleverness, and her diplomacy really helped save the day.

And then there’s Shuri (played by Letitia Wright). She is, by far, my favorite among the leading ladies. Shuri loved technology. Her lab was her playground. Yes, I’m happy that there were women in this movie doing many different things, from being warriors, lovely spies, to operating technology with powerful resources.  This character was cool, easy-going, funny, and intelligent. She brought in the humor and made the experience less intense. The actress herself is an example of how representation is important. She said that after seeing Akeelah and the Bee, she knew she wanted to be an actress. And look at her now! You never know how one person can inspire another person.

My only critique of this is one scene where all of the ladies, while climbing a mountain to escape, were trying to figure out who would take the herb to become the Black Panther (when they thought T’Challa was dead). I couldn’t understand for the life of me why none of those women stood up to take the responsibility, as strong and as powerful as they were. Nakia’s excuse was that she didn’t have an army…neither did T’Challa anymore! And yet, he still suited up and took down the kingdom. He dug into his courage. I felt Nakia showed a weaker spirit in that moment.

I’m not surprised Shuri didn’t step up. Shuri was obviously younger and weaker physically (no offense) and wasn’t a warrior. Nakia WAS a warrior. It would’ve made sense for her to take the herb.

Aside from that one bit, I fully connected with these ladies and actually would like to see more of them front-and-center.

The Movie’s Team and Magic

<> at Chivas House on May 18, 2013 in Cannes, France.

Everyone in the background who worked to make this movie a success has to be honored.

Director and writer Ryan Coogler delivered in really bringing this story full circle. He helped in properly portraying black people with a story that relates to black people. And based on the Box Office success, possibly a lot of other people too! I think we all can relate to the themes in this movie. Many people understand the damage of colonization, many understand the fight between holding on to tradition and becoming modern, and many more people understand the challenge of trying to overcome the damage done by one’s ancestors-something that can’t be undone so easily. Ryan seems to have a good sense of his own history as well as the people he is delivering his messages to.

Kendrick Lamar was the curator over the music. I was skeptical at first because…to be honest, I wasn’t all over “All the Stars” when I first heard it. But after seeing the movie, the song grew on me and I saw the relation. It sounded really good with the movie. The rest of the soundtrack though! My goodness. Kendrick really made this a film that fit with black culture overall. I really liked Erik Killmonger’s theme. It suited his wannabe-tough image and style.

The music gave us the feeling of this movie from the beginning. We knew it was going to be honoring the great black cultural aspects the audience was about to experience onscreen.

And I will give a nod to Kevin Feige. At first, I wasn’t sure what he added to this movie. Basically, he just funded it, as far as I was concerned. I had to research what a producer does to really get a good idea of what he contributed (to all the Marvel movies really). Time magazine says that a producer is someone who “finds the literary property (a novel, play or original script), shapes the idea into a viable film, raises the money, hires the director, chooses the cast, oversees production and post production, masterminds the marketing, negotiates the worldwide rights — be a movie’s begetter and first, demanding viewer.” With that being said, I would like to thank Kevin for seeing the value in this story enough to actually push it through. While other Hollywood producers have been sleeping on supporting proper representation, and haven’t had the guts to dive into a story with a black person as the lead, this producer decided to take a chance. And while it even took him too long to realize how needed this character was, the fact is he helped in funding this project and brought it to life.

I also want to give him a thumbs up on the casting. Everyone mostly delivered. I’m glad he realized a majority-black cast was needed to make this film a success, and he chose the right people for the job. I’m sure he worked closely with Ryan to make sure everything went smoothly.

Finally, the cast. These people really delivered their roles! Without them, this movie wouldn’t have been anything. Angela Basset was even a glorious goddess in her role, in the few scenes she was shown in. Everyone brought such fire and passion, humor and love, weakness and vulnerability, it really made the movie a gem. I was a little skeptical about Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Erik Killmonger at first. I liked his character, because I do believe many young black Americans have picked up that behavior, but later he was able to come out and show more depth.

The settings were awesome. Beautiful scenery in Wakanda. And then a trip to the modern city of Busan, South Korea, which is right on trend right now as a great destination spot. It definitely helped make this appealing to the Eastern movie market (which I’m thankful, because we know how they feel about darker skinned people over there…). It turns out this movie did really well in South Korea.

Message

Finally, one of the biggest gems of this movie is the messages it sends. It sends these messages in so elegantly and naturally, that one may overlook how powerful they truly are.

This movie was great because it wasn’t just a superhero flick. It was a super hero flick that meant something and said something important to many of the viewers who watched it, whether intended or not.

Representation

This movie has shown us why representation is so important. In other movies, usually, there are a handful of black characters in them. With so few black characters, the movie isn’t able to show a diverse range of people, with various interests, feelings, ideas, and abilities and gifts. In this movie, we see men of different backgrounds, feeling differently about life, offering many different versions of the black male experience. We also see women from various backgrounds, having different abilities and offering their own special gifts to their motherland. Having these different people represent black people around the world can be the start of people having a different view of black people (if the people of the world give this movie a chance).

Even while watching, I found myself relating to so many characters, and it got me thinking how I haven’t seen so many black people with as much diversity in a long time.

Keeping that in mind, the success of the mind comes from the fact that it appeals to the core Marvel fanbase while it draws in an outside audience that just appreciates the cultural aspect associated with it.

Themes of Colonialism, Motherland

Obviously, this movie would have this theme. It’s well-known that Africa’s resources have fallen into others’ hands when Europeans arrived on the continent and took the resources for themselves. But overall, many African nations allowed this open trade, which proved to be their undoing. Wakanda, on the other hand, isolated themselves from the rest of the world, so they were able to maintain their wealth and technology. They never experienced colonialism or oppression. This serves as a central plot point between the main character and the villain. Because the villain’s story resonates so closely with the African American experience, it left most American audiences caught between the hero and villain. But more importantly, it made us ponder the greater effects of colonialism and how it has changed African Americans’ relationship with their own motherland.

Even though most African Americans are proud to acknowledge their African roots, most don’t know what those roots are. Even if they did, they would be disconnected from it. Erik Killmonger echoes that in the movie. His whole purpose was to get to Wakanda, the land of his father, but when he arrived in the kingdom, he almost seemed lost in a foreign country. The “challenge ceremony” that happened in the movie seemed to confuse Erik, and he hardly showed respect for the actual culture and tradition of a land he wanted to rule. This was a very sad, but real fact. And this mirrors the damage colonialism and the African Slave Trade brought upon African Americans.

The Complexities Between African Americans and Africans

Bouncing off from what I said, the movie brought to the fore a very complex issue among African Americans and Africans. Because African Americans have African roots and are black people living in a colonial society, they long to attach themselves to a rich culture and they are constantly searching to connect more with Africa. And yet, they are American, raised in a Europeanized society with Europeanized values. This almost puts them at odds with their roots and other people of Africa.

This creates a sort of divide between real African cultures and African American cultures. African Americans have adopted other cultures from England, France, Spain, and the various Central and South American countries. This makes their experience with life more complex.

The title character in Black Panther has a rich culture and history. He can be proud of himself and his resources. He can feel “diplomatic”. He has something to protect and fight for. Erik Killmonger has nothing to fight for or protect. He knows little about where he comes from, but he knows how his people are living now in the USA. This drives him to find Wakanda. This gives him purpose.

I am wrestling with Eric being written as a “villain”. Truly, is he a villain? It’s hard to say. I would say the way he went about getting what he wanted was bad for others, as was written, but his intentions (to share some of the resources with fellow black people around the world who lacked in resources and manpower, to avenge his father who was murdered) wasn’t really so bad. Of course, he was just a victim of a broken system. That complexity made his role as a villain very interesting. It challenged the viewers’ thought process.

Because I question Erik as the villain, I question T’Challa as a hero. Yes, he was kind and good and cared about his people. But why does he have to show more honor and normalcy than a black American? Yes, colonialism has done a number on black youth, but we aren’t all damaged goods. We still carry a sense of pride and honor, even if we don’t live on the continent of Africa.

At the same time, the way Erik was written, I find him mirroring some of the attitudes found in much of the rap out there. Erik does reflect a very real attitude in black communities, even if it isn’t a reflection of everyone. Erik himself, as a character, was ruthless in getting what he wanted, and that shouldn’t be honor. T’Challa sought to make up for his mistakes. As a character, he is just and the right fit.

But in reality, it’s not that simple. Africans overall aren’t truly more honorable than African Americans. African Americans aren’t as damaged as believed. If anything, they are most aware of the evils of the world, which makes them stronger and wiser. Both groups have their strengths.

But with this character, he was damaged. Just clearing the air here.

Homogeneity and Isolationism V.S. Multiculturalism and Open Trade 

Finally, I want to talk about this complex message. This is actually a popular topic in today’s social climate as well, with so many fighting for ethno-states and so many others fighting to maintain cultural and racial homogeneity.

The theme brought up some pretty controversial messages regarding it, and it’s hard to know which path is right.

Wakanda isolated themselves for years, which helped them maintain their homogeneous society. While this helped them maintain their beautiful land and culture, as well as their wealth and technology and resources, they continued to neglect the horrors of the world, even horrors being done to their own people. They withheld their knowledge, knowledge that could’ve helped many people around the world. The extent that even T’Challa’s father went to protect his kingdom, just because he didn’t want anyone to know about Wakanda, showed how fighting to keep a society free from the influence of the world can prove more disastrous than giving in and sharing what one has.

On the other hand, if Wakanda had been as open, they would’ve been like all the other countries, filled with racial tensions, cultural destruction, and a lack of resources. They would’ve been overpowered and oppressed.

Which is right? Can a balance be achieved? I certainly think sharing medical knowledge and some technologies wouldn’t harm the Wakanda kingdom. But they should find a way to protect and hide their manpower. They shouldn’t completely give up all of their resources and power. They could allow some people to enter and live in Wakanda, provided the individual assimilates to the culture and accepts the traditions of the land. At the same time, the process should be difficult. The visitor should prove their loyalty to the kingdom.

But this brings up a greater topic about immigration overall. What do you readers think?

In conclusion, the movie brought honor to the Black Panther comic and the Marvel brand overall. It hyped up comic book fans and tickled the ears and eyes of the inner African and African American soul. It left an impression, that’s for sure. It also poked a giant hole through that tired saying inserted with any minority “Well, [insert minority] just doesn’t sell well at the Box Office”. This movie has grossed $192 Million at the Box Office to date. It surprised people, people who thought this movie wouldn’t sell overseas, especially in Asia.

This movie proves that you don’t need a popular Hollywood star to drive a movie to worldwide success. All that’s needed is a good story line, themes people can relate to, action and excitement, and a popular brand. All that’s needed is a focus on characters and stories, not star power. If only producers and directors had been smart enough to understand this sooner. Maybe Ghost in the Shell and Gods of Egypt might have been saved, or at least would’ve been without backlash. If only they would’ve been more in tune with the social climate and trends they might have had a few more viewers.

Hopefully, we continue to see movies that depict characters as written, envisioned, and as they way they are meant to be presented. After all, Black Panther shouldn’t be looked at as the last good movie with a black-lead and majority-black cast. It isn’t the first, and it shouldn’t be the last. In fact, it is only the beginning of a new era in Black cinema.

 

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