Oscar Nominations 2019 – FILM REVIEW: Black Panther (2018)

Dir: Ryan Coogler

Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Editing.

Score: ★★☆☆☆

The merits of Black Panther as a watershed moment in cinema have been espoused endlessly since the film’s release, but nonetheless it bears repeating that Black Panther is unquestionably a landmark film because the Hollywood studios finally have their evidence that a major tent pole movie in THE major money making genre of recent times (superhero movies), can be populated by a predominantly black cast, where even the lead players are black actors and still make an absolute shit ton of money. More than just ‘commercially viable,’ its $1.347 billion dollar return at the box office utterly shattered the seemingly industry wide false logic that a ‘black film’ wouldn’t be a big money spinner with the general public. But this positive story aside, the issue that lies behind this leap forward for race representation in cinema is that this is still ultimately a commercial superhero movie, which frankly are generally not that good even by the standards of popular entertainment, let alone from a cinematic standpoint, and as far as superhero movies go, Black Panther is not an especially great one when compared even to examples of it’s own albeit very commercial mostly substandard genre.

Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman, & Letitia Wright.

These days it’s commonplace for some people to consider superhero movies as high art, or especially culturally significant. This is the sort of mass delusion that comes with movies that are this wildly popular, but the time when we could fool ourselves about the significance of superhero movies has passed, the reality is these are the major studios’ cash cows, mechanised on an industrial scale purely with the purpose of making money through box office and beyond. Some have even opined (sadly quite accurately) that superhero movies are now just two hour long adverts for the purpose of marketing superhero branded merchandise/toys/costumes etc. And of course adverts for possible sequels. Aside from the undoubtedly big positive cultural shift that means young black kids can now finally see themselves represented on the big screen as heroes (which cannot be understated), Black Panther is just another relatively sub standard paint it by numbers superhero flick that doesn’t offer anything especially fresh or thrilling. Of course if we are considering this movie’s credentials as a progressive piece, it’s true to say that superhero movies are largely predicated on the idea that conflicts should be resolved by violence, and additionally this movie is (despite some claims to the contrary) decidedly un-feminist, then it’s effect on young black boys may be a mixed blessing. But outside of these issues which are not unique to this one film, Black Panther has several problems that go further than it just being part of the never ending wave of mindless superhero production line movies aimed at padding the pockets of movie execs.

Michael B. Jordan & Daniel Kaluuya prepare for war.

The story is filled with the usual nonsense of this thing being important, or that thing being important for one arbitrary reason or another, but hey as I say this a Marvel movie… so that sort of silliness is par for the course. In the end, the plot actually boils down to the newly crowned king T’Challa who must save the secret, technologically advanced kingdom of Wakanda from the threat of a powerful enemy. Saying more than that might be classed as a spoiler, although the ‘twists and turns’ in the movie are pretty darn obvious throughout, and generally feel pretty meaningless when they do happen. The new king of Wakanda and the film’s central character played by Chadwick Boseman is exceptionally dull. Boseman is almost completely charisma free except when he is in the mask of the Black Panther which is mostly a CG creation. Across the board the characters are treated only as chess pieces to move an (at times) unnecessarily meandering plot along. None of the characters give us any insight into who they are at any point, save maybe the odd ‘comedy’ line which are, pretty unfailingly not funny throughout. But as with most superhero movies the plot and characters are just a framework to hang some spectacular action set pieces on. Sadly the action sequences are not up to much either.

Battle commences in Black Panther.

When you go to see a big new superhero / CGI heavy buzz movie, invariably these days the film will contain a messy and off putting series of action sequences that contain so much on screen whizzing around they become devoid of all emotion and meaning. Despite this, producers always seem to have thought of some new bit of razzle dazzle that leaves you thinking “oh, I haven’t seen that before”, or at least not quite in that way.  Here, nothing you haven’t seen before happens. Fight scenes are pretty much phoned in and quite often the special effects look amazingly dated. Marred by poorly designed and unoriginal sequences, the often unnatural looking and antiquated CGI further downgrades the experience. The film does have some pretty wonderful costumes (with a few crap ones too), that draw on African culture. They are richly designed and look wonderfully dazzling onscreen, but too often for a film largely set in Africa, which is a golden opportunity to create some stunning visual landscapes, the costumes and characters are put against some god awful CGI backdrop. The rather tiresome and silly “ritual combat for the crown” scenes are particularly bad and have all the CGI wizardry of a kids ITV show from 2003.

Michael B. Jordan – shirt off.

Forest Whitaker, Martin Freeman and Angela Bassett all whip out cringe-inducingly bad accent performances. Despite this impediment, Bassett is very good in what little role she has. Daniel Kaluuya on the other hand displays acting talents that are more in line with the cast of Eastenders as opposed to being among the ranks of legit movie stars. Michael B. Jordan is so charismatic in his role one wonders why on earth he wasn’t cast as the central hero? He is a fantastic villain despite being given some overly formulaic villain stuff to do. The movie’s soundtrack is easily one of it’s most appealing elements. While some of the score is a bit out of place and trite, the soundtrack songs are dynamite and really help make the movie seem less dated and dull, and importantly has helped drive a young audience from MTV to the cinema. The plot does touch on a few salient and relevant ideas or ‘hot topics’ that compliment the film very nicely. Elements like the return of ancient artifacts violently stolen from other countries during Britain’s colonial past for museum display, that should perhaps be rightfully returned to their country of origin for example.

Michael B. Jordan – shirt on.

Despite all its credentials as a step forward for black actors box office viability, some elements of the movie are a little outdated in terms of it’s race view, be it the tropes of the super-powered, perfect, noble, one dimensional African female or the idea that whilst the black Africans are entirely forces for good, the film’s key enemy is a angry violent black guy from an impoverished black U.S. neighbourhood. Whilst commonly the prevalence of black on black violence in cinema has been something many would like to see the end of, in some ways the whole point of something like Black Panther is to have both a black hero and a black villian, it just seems a shame, if we are holding this up as a beacon of Hollywood hope in the Trump era, that the black African king should be so virtuous and the angry threatening villain of the piece should turn out to be an American black guy from the ‘hood’. Another glaring issue is the idea that this exceptionally technologically advanced, enlightened science-fiction-like race still decides the fate of its rulers through a system of aristocracy and class along hereditary bloodlines of exclusively male heirs that can only be challenged through ritual combat to the death (by others of noble blood) out on the top of a waterfall using spears. This seems to undermine their progressiveness, and makes them seem awfully primitive as a society. As Kenyan writer Patrick Gathara of The Washington Post put it, The Wakandans “still cleanly fit into the Western molds [of] a dark people in a dark continent”. See more of his appraisal here in his article: ‘Black Panther’ offers a regressive, neocolonial vision of Africa’.

Even strong Wakandan women are subservient to a king.

For all it’s problems, this is after all, a big commercial super hero movie and that means that it is expected to be dumb fun. It’s certainly pretty dumb at times, I just wish it was a bit more fun. Ryan Coogler had fast become one of my favourite directors. His debut, the outstanding Fruitvale Station is as assured, meaningful and beautiful a piece of cinema you could imagine from a first time director. Coogler’s next film Creed was an astonishingly brilliant re-invention of the Rocky franchise. Exceptionally beautifully shot, packed full of soul, and an actual mainstream movie that presented recognisable, real, living, breathing black characters in an accessible movie that was still very much a work of art, it was one of, if not the best movie of 2015. It’s clear to see why movie execs might feel assured or even eager to put Coogler at the helm of such a big superhero movie. But for Coogler,  it feels like the creative constraints of making such a commercial movie that is part of a heavily protected and branded series of movies like one from the Marvel Universe has gotten the better of the artist in him. But on the other hand, what an achievement to have the record for the highest grossing movie ever directed by a black person? Sadly this means we might see a resulting avalanche of black-centric productions that are just big silly commercial movies. My hope is with talent like Coogler, he might be able to take the ground broken by Black Panther, and claim it for some movies of real worth which he has proven before he can deliver and then some. It’s entirely possible given his next project Jesus Was My Homeboy is about (rather fittingly) Black Panther party member Fred Hampton. That’s the next project but as for this superhero style Black Panther is it a ground breaking moment for representation in cinema? Yes. Is it a movie worthy of Best Picture at an award ceremony ostensibly designed to turn decent bits of art into commercially viable prospects, thereby catapulting actual cinematic art (of the accessible kind) into the blockbuster arena? I think not. It’s made its money, it’s broken the glass ceiling, but let’s not pretend it’s good art (and further limit the air time given to films that truly help advance the craft itself) when what it actually is, is a film that just helps break down the barriers so previously unrepresented groups can now front movie studio big business. In the final analysis I will say, although this is just a superhero movie and superhero movies are by their very nature rarely if ever great, the fact this big mainstream movie is so unashamedly black and African inspired is truly something to be celebrated, and for that reason alone it will be rightfully assured it’s place in history.

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