Monday, February 19, 2018

MOVIE REVIEW Black Panther

When Wakanda And Its Predicament Equals USA, 2018

Daniel Kaluuya, Chadwick Boseman, Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright in Ryan Coogler's superhero fantasy sci-fi drama "Black Panther".
Marvel Studios  


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, February 19, 2018

"Tell me a story," we hear a young boy say at the very start of the gripping, intense and gloriously beautiful "Black Panther", Ryan Coogler's towering and inspiring Marvel superhero drama that revolutionizes and eclipses the genre.  The boy's father tells a story.  Vibranium is a natural resource that has empowered the African continent, specifically Wakanda, a fictional nation that feels real.  The African language the Wakandans speak, I later learned, is a real African language.  A seminal Black Panther emerges as king to rule Wakanda's five once-warring tribes, one of them living secluded in the mountains.  We later learn who the boy and the father are.  This opening sequence is not a throwaway. 

The connection of Oakland, California (the director's hometown and the birth of the Black Panther Party in 1966) to Wakanda is no accident.  Mr. Coogler makes his most personal (and the film's most successful) connections and in-roads through Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an Oak-towner and alluring anti-hero who swaggers his way from London to Wakanda and then some.

Things aren't what they seem in "Black Panther".  The bond between fathers and sons and other intra-familial/extra-familial entanglements can be superceded by loyalties stronger than blood.  Mr. Coogler weaves the complexity of family and allegiance throughout "Black Panther".  Ethics and righteousness mean something in superheroland and they certainly do on the African continent.  Boundaries, however?  Those are another matter.

Mr. Coogler's film, at its very best in IMAX (no 3D, thank you very much) hews to comedic cleaves, some savage, others sublime.  When a museum exhibit becomes an all-out action scene a couple of one-liners by the malevolent Klauwe (Andy Serkis, gleefully delirious) are priceless.  The film flashes its wickedness in crude comic bursts and pulse-pounding drama in equal measure. 

A man with few moments to laugh because the weight of Wakanda is on his shoulders is T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a figure of compassion and bravery.  Though "Black Panther", given the history and invaders it chronicles, has every right to be otherwise, it too is an incredibly generous, open-hearted and humane vehicle.  Not that it shouldn't be, of course - but anyone expecting something more harsh will be disappointed.  Rachel Morrison's fine cinematography softens some visceral scenes but the impact is no less felt.

More than anything though the atmospheric and rooted-in-earth "Black Panther", a film with a powerful sense of location and origin, is buoyant, proud and bursting with richness, color, dazzling costumes and an excellent, fully-committed cast.  Numerous actors are phenomenally good including Forest Whitaker, Mr. Jordan, Letitia Wright (a Q for the African age), Winston Duke (as a tribal king in seclusion), Lupita N'yongo and the supremely great Danai Gurira in a stunning, magnetic performance as the general of Wakanda's women warrior army. 

Women -- and there's more than one wonder woman here -- are front and center throughout "Black Panther", as in African history.  The women fight vicious battles, orchestrate strategy, rescue men, devise weaponry and technologies, prompting a white male character to gape in mild disbelief.  He (and many American audiences by extension) have seen or known no movie or reality like this.  But the history is there to be studied.  In a small yet significant way "Black Panther" is part of that larger history offscreen.

Mr. Boseman, admirable to a great degree as the film's hero, brings every bit the regality required in his role as T'Challa, who has become king of Wakanda after fighting off a very stern challenger in a brutal ritual battle.  Mr. Boseman, an intellectual actor more so than many I've seen in a number of years, has the physical heft to be Black Panther, an agile superhero who takes one heck of a pounding for two-plus hours.

Mr. Coogler whose balanced, focused and precise vision harnesses what could have been an unwieldy exercise, expertly mines traditions and trajectories.  He knows well the sacred ground "Black Panther" treads on.  He's keenly avid in maneuvering and avoiding many filmmaking conventions.  As with other talented and wise filmmakers the director's influences show.  There's a touch of 007 in at least two scenes, a touch of Kurosawa, and others here and there. 

"Black Panther" glories in careful procedure with libations and praise of African ancestors.  The majestic Wakanda is a nation everyone steals from.  For that reason it has remained secluded, isolationist and protectorate.  The film's historical references about colonial British invasions and thefts are grounded in truth and fact.  And "Black Panther" is a film steeped in an acknowledgment of politics and power -- be it the politics of family or the politics of power and ownership. 

Inevitable comparisons or contrasts to the America of 2018 will be made while watching "Black Panther".  When someone speaks of "a monster of our own making" you hear Donald's name ringing in your ears.  When one character vows to grab all the arms of Wakanda's vast resources and riches and disperse them to freedom fighters around the world to fight oppressors, a U.S. policy of "regime change" may be the elephant in the room for some.  There are other references to what feels like a look at the U.S. in the guise of Wakanda.

Mr. Coogler's alternately warm and bracing film will undoubtedly make Black moviegoers proud.  It did me.  I believe Black women will be particularly inspired and proud.  Women of darker hues are well represented.  We've not seen a film like this in the superhero genre, one that speaks so unabashedly, directly to and identifies with Black people and the African diaspora as strongly and affirmatively as this one does.  In this special, singular way "Black Panther" is resplendent and refreshing, a decorous feast.  Its distinctly African heartbeat is unmistakable. 

"Black Panther" is the best Marvel film there ever was.  At times it sticks deep in the marrow with its cavalcade of roller-coaster emotions.  You experience the gamut.  You experience its greatness.

Also with: Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Florence Kasumba, Isaac De Bankole.

"Black Panther" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture.  The film's running time is two hours and 14 minutes.

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