February 18th, 2018

The Enterprise

To Wakanda, a Dream Country

I didn't honestly think I was going to like 2018's Black Panther. The trailers didn't look good, filled with lousy cgi, and I thought Chadwick Boseman's portrayal of Black Panther was the dullest part of Captain America: Civil War. But the film I saw on Friday was pretty enjoyable, largely due to an excellent supporting cast, particularly Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright. The story's central political conflict, though it owes a lot to the first Thor movie, was also engaging and provided an interesting commentary on contemporary American politics.

This is the shot I especially hated in the trailer. It's so clear every grouping of people on all the little outcrops aren't really there. The movie's shots of Wakanda, the fabulous secret high tech city, generally made me long for the gritty realism of Coruscant in the Star Wars prequels. The film would've benefited a lot from some actual African shooting locations.

I really don't understand why this film was shot entirely in Atlanta and South Korea. It wasn't long ago that Mad Max: Fury Road, a film shot largely in Namibia, was a smash success. My guess is Disney's insurance wouldn't cover African locations. The 1950s and 60s were filled with Hollywood films with real African locations, from 1950's amazing King Solomon's Mines to John Huston's classic The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Ironically, the period so associated with soundstage exteriors has a more authentic location feel than this 2018 film.

But Black Panther is really a fantasy about the United States. Michael B. Jordan is another excellent member of the supporting cast, playing the villain Killmonger. His rise in the Wakandan government, overthrowing the anointed ruler T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), will remind more than a few people of Donald Trump for Killmonger's ruthlessness and for the way the mechanisms of government and tradition compels people to automatically follow him. In fact, Boseman himself has pointed out similarities to Trump's election. To be fair, though, Killmonger seems like he's more capable of empathy than Trump. I suppose it's a bad sign when a guy named "Killmonger" comes off as more sensitive and altruistic than the U.S. president.

But the resemblance adds an interesting dimension to a plot otherwise strongly reminiscent of Kenneth Branagh's Thor. Arguably, both films are drawing on the Edgar/Edmund subplot from King Lear. One could very naturally give Edmund's "Why bastard?" speech to Killmonger, who is made T'Challa's illegitimate brother for the film:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me?
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? With baseness? bastardy? Base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth within a dull stale tired bed
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops
Got ’tween asleep and wake?

Oddly, Boseman's uninteresting performance actually makes him seem a bit more like royalty. Listening to his flat line deliveries reminded me of listening to Prince Harry and thinking, "This guy's supposed to be important?" It's also not unlike how Thor was meant to be sort of a good natured but simple minded fellow in the first movie before filmmakers decided to emphasise Chris Hemsworth's comedic talents. When the much better trained and charismatic Killmonger challenges T'Challa, a lot of the tension comes from how difficult it is to see why T'Challa deserves to be king instead of Killmonger. I would have really liked if the film included montages contrasting the upbringing of Killmonger and T'Challa, showing how Jordan struggled on the streets of Oakland before beginning the hard military training that led to him becoming a Navy Seal while T'Challa was doing . . . whatever a Wakandan prince is brought up doing. One suspects it's nowhere near as rough.

Since Wakanda doesn't exist, its isolationism and hoarding of its superior technology and resources as a country that was never colonised makes it more reminiscent of the United States than any African country and Killmonger's plight, coming from an impoverished lower class, gives his conflict with the Wakandan elite a resonance more like the poor working class who voted for Trump as, Michael Moore observed, a "fuck you" gesture to the paralysed Washington political machine.

The first part of Black Panther is a bit tedious, though, concentrating on ceremony and airless banter, like that moment in the trailer where T'Challa insists he doesn't "freeze". This stuff is finally replaced by a fun film when Letitia Wright is introduced as Shuri, T'Challa's sister, a tech genius who provides her brother with gadgets in a role very much like Q in the James Bond films.

Her teasing him drew the first genuine laughter from me. This is followed by the other highlight when Okoye (Danai Gurira), head of Wakanda's female militia, and Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), a spy for Wakanda and T'Challa's love interest, join the Black Panther for his mission to South Korea, their personalities easily eclipsing his. I would so love to see a buddy cop movie starring Gurira and Nyong'o. Throughout the rest of the film, any time none of these three women are onscreen, I found myself impatiently waiting for their return. More than anything else, they're the ones that truly make this movie work.

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