BLACK PANTHER (2018, Ryan Coogler)
Ignore the number rating for the most part, since the qualities that make this good or bad aren’t really relevant to what’s important about it. (And hopefully by the end of this long review I’ll have tamed the sure-to-be roaring fury from my dear, lovely aunt on Long Island who likes to give me a tongue-lashing when I don’t fawn over Marvel product). It’s hard not to feel a sense of pride, joy, and inevitability about this thing — a black movie about black people who exist without any sort of relation to whiteness (in the way that many great black films from SCHOOL DAZE to MOONLIGHT have done, apart from Hollywood-sanctioned black films that are saddled by the burden of race relations). It is pro-Africa and partially anti-African-American (in that its villain is the prototypical literal African-American), although it offers up a dialogue about isolationism vs. globalism, and cultural appropriation as it relates to sociopolitical advancement.
So with that baggage, Coogler delivers exactly what millions of thirsty viewers have been yearning for, and that explains its obvious (did anyone doubt it?) box office success. Add to that a pulsating energy about current geopolitics, and you’ve got dozens of ideas battling it out against a CG backdrop. When T’Challa and Nakia are strolling through downtown Wakanda (or whatever the capital city is), there’s a strong whiff of Barack-and-Michelle to their date, which makes Killmonger the Trump in this equation — violently stealing the throne with a minority of support and threatening destruction in his wake. There are certainly lots of conversations about this — LOTS of conversations, talking and talking and more talking — but credit to Coogler for giving his murderous, psychopathic villain a point of view that could generate empathy in a more benevolent skeleton.
Other things to enjoy aside from the healthy portion of food for civic thought are the performances of women like Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright, the latter of whom gets most of the big laughs on screen. Some other actors get a bit lost in the tapestry: Boseman acquits himself from the disaster of his appearance in CIVIL WAR, but is still too bland, while Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, and Daniel Kaluuya are nearly smothered by the costumes, makeup, accents, and plot that are crammed down our eye sockets. (That said, production designer Hannah Beachler deserves a massive amount of credit for world-building, even if her world dominates the people inside it).
So what’s not to like? Well, the movie isn’t any fun. The action scenes are horribly put-together, edited with sandpaper and pocket knives, and without any remote sense of spatial geography or choreographed motion. The dialogue is consistently underwhelming — when it needs to have pizazz, it has cliché. Take for example the line Danai Gurira has to deliver upon the intrusion of bad guys: “Looks like someone… didn’t get the memo!” Really? You guys just typed out the first thing that came to your mind, closed the laptop and went to Chipotle?
So, from a formal standpoint, as a comic book motion picture, BLACK PANTHER leaves a lot to be desired. Like many MCU films it’s too long, has a bloated, ear-splitting climax with parallel action, and looks like a big-budget TV show. But as a cultural moment, which is how it really should be appreciated, it’s great. And it does something that feels all-too-underserved these days, which is give a voice to minorities that don’t have them in many spheres. Let me go on a bit of a soapbox tangent. One of 2017’s great films is THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, destined to win at least the Best Original Screenplay Oscar this Sunday. Yet if you spend enough time online, you’ll come across a wicked backlash to it, decrying it as everything from un-woke at best to straight-up racist at worst. It took me far too long to realize that all of those criticisms I had read were written by… white people. When The Hollywood Reporter finally interviewed Oscar voters of color, they revealed that THREE BILLBOARDS was getting unfairly maligned, and wasn’t offensive at all — in fact they were praising it. But guess whose voices drowned them out? White critics who were telling people of color what films to be offended by. (Not that there aren’t valid reasons to dislike the movie, or that there aren’t people of color who object to it). It’s a sad realization, which makes it all the more terrific that Coogler is here to make one of the biggest blockbusters of the year with a nearly all-black cast, with a black co-writer, and dozens of black crewmembers below the line. In short, don’t listen to me, or any other white person, tell you what to think about a big moment in black entertainment. Let the black voices themselves speak louder.