The Real Problem with Black Panther (2018)


I have little or no interest in superhero movies. Nevertheless, there are  times, The Dark Knight Rises after the Aurora Colorado shootings, Wonder Woman after Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump,  when I almost feel as if it’s my civic duty to see the latest offering from Marvel or DC Comics. After Black Panther grossed a billion dollars, it became one of those times.

So, is it a good movie?

Absolutely. Black Panther is an entertaining film with terrific acting and special effects, and a script that while politically dubious, is lucid and tightly written. Somehow Ryan Coogler, who previously directed the low key, low budget Fruitvale Station and Creed, has made the transition to a blockbuster with a $200 million-dollar budget with little or no effort. Compared to the blockheaded, right-wing Dark Knight Rises, or the inconsequential Wonder Woman, Black Panther is a masterpiece.  Not only are Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright far better as feminist heroines than Zionist beauty queen Gal Gadot — women don’t quite get top billing in Black Panther but are vividly and sympathetically depicted — the film’s vision of Wakanda, a mythical African country in sole possession of the world’s supply of vibranium, a fictional metal that could represent gold, oil, uranium, brainpower, or just about anything you want, is a powerful evocation of the Africa that could have been had the continent not been despoiled by European colonialism.

But is it a great movie?

Sadly no. While Black Panther is aesthetically radical, it is also politically muddled, and even reactionary. To be more generous, let’s just say that, to paraphrase William Blake on John Milton, Ryan Coogler is the true poet, and of the devil’s party without knowing it. Michael B. Jordan’s villain Erik Killmonger Stevens is far more sympathetic than King T’Challa, the hero played by Chadwick Boseman. While he gives Killmonger an air of complexity and moral ambiguity that elevates him above Heath Ledger’s nihilistic Joker, Michael B. Jordan cannot quite break out of the two-dimensional superhero narrative. In a better film, Killmonger would have been the hero, and Andy Serkis’s Klaw, a man who never expresses any overt hostility towards blacks but whose accent, which evokes white South Africa, and “fashy” haircut make it all too obvious that he represents white supremacy, would have been the villain.

Chadwick Boseman, while a fine actor, labors under the handicap that King T’Challa, the Black Panther, is more Clark Kent than superman. I won’t give any spoilers, but try to guess who finally kills Klaw, the terrorist who murdered T’Challa’s father. T’Challa, or Killmonger? And I think this points to the real problem with Black Panther. Ryan Coogler, whether he’s overthought the genuinely moral nature of his hero, or simply because he wants to stick to the Hollywood blockbuster dictum that a film with a budget of $200 million dollars has to appeal to the widest possible audience, creates a mythical black nationalist kingdom, yet can’t quite bring himself to let its king be a black nationalist.

Instead, T’Challa is part black, bourgeois separatist, part Barack Obama. He is afraid to use the power that his sole possession of Vibranium would give him to uplift the world’s downtrodden third world masses, yet more than willing to enlist not only his country’s traditional African enemies, the Jabari, but a ridiculous CIA agent played by Martin Freeman, to get his throne back. Indeed, while Coogler suggests that Killmonger would wreak some kind of horrible vengeance against white people, Killmonger’s real hatred isn’t for Europeans, but for the black bourgeoisie who robbed him of his birthright and left him to grow up in poverty in a rundown Oakland slum. Compared to Killmonger’s vision of world revolution, T’Challa’s final act, to put his little sister in charge of an NGO that operates up a network of community centers in the United States, seems uninspired indeed.

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