Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Black Panther Goes Back to the Future

I don’t pretend to be a connoisseur of superhero movies. And, though I worked on the “lost” Roger Corman version of Fantastic Four (and even briefly met the estimable Stan Lee), I  don’t have any special insight into the Marvel Universe. But the cultural conversation aroused by Black Panther—which is now the all-time third-highest-grossing movie at the U.S. box office and is approaching $1.3 billion in ticket sales worldwide—made me eager to see what all the talk is about.

And, yes, Black Panther is well worth talking about. For one thing, it’s a triumph over Hollywood’s usual racial expectations. Here’s an African-American director (Ryan Coogler of Fruitvale Station) given a massive budget to shoot an epic that features an almost all-black cast, none of whom play conventional gangbangers. Women are well represented on screen, not just as love interests but also as brainy scientists and fierce warriors. (If I were being held captive, I’d certainly trust Wakanda’s tough-as-nails all-female military force to spring me.) The movie’s staggering global ticket sales may reflect the pleasure taken by many around the world in seeing people of color kick ass. But Black Panther’s international appeal may also relate to the fact that it’s a truly international production. The imaginary African kingdom of Wakanda may be its chief locale, but an important section of the movie is set in (and shot in) South Korea. The credit roll at the film’s end also mentions locations in Munich and other German cities, as well as Argentina’s spectacular Iguassu Falls and (for interiors) Pinewood Atlanta Studios in Fayetteville, Georgia.

 I’m also struck by the fact that so many of the actors come from afar. The British-born Andy Serkis (on-screen, for once, instead of using his famous motion-capture skills) plays a memorably rollicking bad guy. Many of the film’s African characters are not African American but instead have more unusual pedigrees. In major roles there are Letitia Wright (as the brainy scientist character, from British Guyana), Danai Gurira (the feisty female warrior, who grew up in Zimbabwe), Daniel Kaluuya (the Get Out star, from England), Florence Kusumba (from Germany), and the venerable John Kani (once an important stage presence in the works of Athol Fugard, from South Africa). And, of course, the female lead is the impossibly beautiful Oscar winner, Lupita Nyong’o, who hails from Mexico and Kenya. 

Somewhat like last year’s DC superhero film, Wonder Woman, Black Panther combines storybook exoticism with futuristic derring-do. But the effect here is far more striking because the juxtaposition of African folk art (animal masks and statuary) with a high-tech city of the future is surprisingly seamless. Kudos to the film’s design team for making disparate elements work so well together. It’s also terrific to see a movie that takes African culture seriously. I was charmed by 1988’s Eddie Murphy flick, Coming to America, but that outrageous movie played African royalty for laughs. Here we’re intended to take the fate of Wakanda’s royal family seriously, and we do.

Coming to America traded on the culture clash between regal Africa and inner-city USA. Black Panther too has something to say about daily life in an African-American ghetto, and it’s hardly treated as a joking matter. To give the film even more contemporary resonance, it ends with a plot twist that can well be called anti-Trumpian. Spoiler alert: the rulers of Wakanda, casting off centuries of secrecy, decide to benignly share their advanced technologies with the rest of the world. No more “Wakanda first” isolationism for them! Who can argue with an idealistic ending like that?

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