Black Panther roars, but this 'Baahubali with Black People' isn't the race revolution you're looking for
Why Black Panther sometimes feels like a Baahubali set in Africa.
Let's get this out of the way right off the bat.
Black Panther is an entertaining film, featuring beautiful sets and costume design. The characters — most of whom we'd never seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) — were fairly well fleshed-out with mostly clear motives and agendas, and performances were largely solid (if not always spectacular). The soundtrack was refreshingly different from what we've experienced in MCU films, without ever being distracting. And it added an important piece to the mosaic that is Thanos' long-awaited feature-length debut (cameo appearances in Guardians of the Galaxy and post-credit sequences notwithstanding).
Was it the greatest superhero film of all time? No
Was it the best MCU film ever? No
Was it the best film set in Africa? No
Was it the best film with a Black cast? No
Was it the best film starring a Black superhero? No
Unfortunately, and unless film review standards have slipped massively since the release of previous MCU offering Thor: Ragnarok, this appears to be lost on the internet, which is teeming with excessively adulatory reviews of this film. Of course, it would be ignorant and even a touch churlish not to acknowledge the importance of the film for more than just one community or race. Empowerment on celluloid isn't the same as real-life empowerment, it can and has been argued, but it's a starting point and to that effect, Black Panther was meant to be epochal.
One would have expected to see some of the adulation and hosannas to be tempered after people actually went and watched the film. But, that wasn't the case.
Understandably, it's easy to miss silly things like plotholes, clichés and convenient plot devices when you have Tyra Banks saying, "It's not a movie, it's a movement. It's a living organism. This is the self-esteem and the boost that my community not just needs right now but deserves." The world of 2018 isn't the world of the 1950s-60s and Rosa Parks, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X . It isn't the world of the 17th Century and the start of slavery either. But, there can be no argument about the fact that Africans and people of African origin have suffered over the centuries and continue to suffer, in different ways, today. To look at Black Panther, an MCU superhero film, as anything more than just that is to pay a massive disservice to Black people the world over. They deserve a better race revolution.
Let's swiftly run through some of the issues that make the film's 97 percent Tomatometer rating on Rotten Tomatoes for Black Panther appear more than a little generous.
First, it's worth looking at some of the logical and conceptual disconnects with the universe Black Panther inhabits. Captain America: Civil War depicts a UN conference in Vienna, where the Sokovia Accords are to be ratified. It is there that Wakandan king T'Chaka is killed, setting the hitherto gentle young T'Challa on a path of vengeance. Bear in mind that these events took place before the Wakandan debate (shown in the film) about whether to stay hidden and isolationist or integrate with the world at large, rendering said debate — that forms one of the major narrative drivers of Black Panther — somewhat moot. (Note: It's safe to assume the Sokovia Accords are deader than the city after which the documents are named, given T'Challa's wanton destruction in the streets of Busan).
Another disconnect comes in the form of the fact that in Ryan Coogler's film, it is noted that Ulysses Klaue is the only outsider to have entered the hidden Kingdom of Wakanda. Apparently, Captain America and Bucky 'Winter Soldier' Barnes (the man framed for the death of the Wakandan king, lest it be forgotten) being harboured in the kingdom as the post-credits sequence of Civil War depicts, never happened. Or they're not considered outsiders.
Slight digression since we're on the topic: Considering the ease with which N'Jadaka aka Erik Killmonger — someone who's never been to Wakanda — is able to waltz into the kingdom aided by nothing more than a little map, makes it seem like it's not that hard a place to find. So why has no one but Klaue (according to this film anyway) been able to find it so far?
Second, there's the problem with the MacGuffins, which in this case, are vibranium and the heart-shaped herb. The former on account of the known fact that magical one-size-fits-all substances often tend to allow laziness to creep into the writing. But since, that's what it is in the Marvel canon, we won't spend too long on (nor hold against the filmmakers) whether vibranium is a metal or some sort of super-powered stem cell that can form unbreakable armour, 3D simulations, bandages, act as a fertiliser to grow such magical plants as the aforementioned herb and do-who-knows-what-else.
It's the way the heart-shaped herb is handled that's problematic. References to it are made at least six times in the film, so it's clearly very important and tied to all the wonder and glory of the Black Panther. Why then does nobody think to sneak away more than one of those after Killmonger takes the shortsighted decision to torch the entire plantantion? Shuri clearly had the time to snatch up a whole bunch of them and knowing her scientific acumen, perhaps transplant them elsewhere. And what would've happened if M'Baku had decided to consume the herb and then pledge allegiance to Killmonger? That's a pretty big blind spot for these smart characters.
Third, let's talk about Killmonger. The amount of hype this character has received left me wondering if ol' N'Jadaka was actually that brilliant or whether it was because this was the first time the MCU actually featured a merciless, remorseless and dangerous antagonist, who wasn't computer-generated. Was this PG-13 Ramsay Snow/Bolton who behaved like Jamie Foxx's Dean 'MF' Jones in Horrible Bosses and in the greater scheme of the MCU, will only be a plot device, really that good? I'm not convinced.
Fourth, convenience and clichés abound. That M'Baku and his Jabari tribe, who seem certifiably insane the first time we see them (observe the raw, primal menace they exude) and hold the T'Challa in such contempt are more than happy to joke around and cooperate with his family seems strange. That power-hungry outsider M'Baku not only rescues T'Challa, but gives up a shot at the throne he so craved, is downright convenient. "Lucky us! Here's a guy who used to be an enemy, but now is our closest ally!" is a line that wasn't uttered in the film, but it may as well have been. Convenience rears its ugly head again in the rules of Wakanda. Apparently, coups are cool — Killmonger overthrows T'Challa and vice versa, but the four tribes don't really say or do much about it. Establishing the death of a monarch isn't even necessary before crowning a new one. (Another digression: Holding the challenge in a closed arena is probably more sensible than doing so on the side of a waterfall, when no one's going to even bother to check if a person who falls off is actually dead.) Regicide is also cool, apparently. At one point or another in the film,
three two monarch-killers (Update: A reliable reminder was provided that one of those was exonerated because he had been framed) have roamed freely in Wakanda. Let's move on.
A reluctant heir.
A love interest who's more radical in thoughts and guerrilla in actions than the protagonist.
Cousins/uncle-nephew rivalry that turns into war over a kingdom.
A principled enforcer whose loyalty to the throne overpowers any personal bonds.
A massive CGI animal capable of mega destruction.
A protagonist cast aside by his own people, who decides to raise an alternate army for the final battle.
Yes, the Baahubali films were a lot of fun, nearly universally hailed and also lauded as Indian cinema's shining moment on the stage of global moviemaking. They were also filled with a hell of a lot of clichés. Black Panther also falls into this hole and when looked at from afar, sometimes feels like a Baahubali set in Africa.
Fifth and final, problematic messaging abounds. It would be remiss not to appreciate the film's efforts at critiquing the present political climate in the US. The twin themes of Wakanda First isolationism and armed intervention are explored and debated. At the film's conclusion, T'Challa decides to reject the Donald Trump narrative and integrate with the world, offering to share technology, build an outreach centre and so on. Unfortunately, the topic of refugees — and the problems they bring with them — is touched upon over the course of the film, but never brought up again. Leaving this very divisive topic hanging betrays (wrongly or rightly) the filmmaker's lack of conviction about the crucial issue of refugees.
Then there's the portrayal of Wakandan politics, where in the world's most advanced society, feudalism and archaic customs reign supreme. It also appears that only the elite nobles have any say. Non-elites are rarely seen and even more seldom heard during the duration of the film. Maybe that's the way it was in the comic books, but if the makers of Black Panther were able to reshape aspects of the story to reflect today's world (see: Dropping M'Baku's regressive and downright racist original moniker, Man-Ape), it seems strange that a reform of Wakanda's internal politics couldn't be written into the story.
Pointing out issues is all well and good, but where does this leave us?
A few things are certain. Coogler has broken into the mainstream and will go from strength to strength even though his work on Black Panther pales in comparison to the directorial prowess demonstrated on Fruitvale Station and Creed. Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan and Letitia Wright (to name just a few) are bonafide top actors, who will also go on to greater things. The same goes for everyone associated with this film. The only thing that isn't a certainty is whether all the hype around the film will survive the test of time.
Unfortunately, the burden of expectation on this film to be a clarion call for a community, a war cry against oppression and so on, was far too much for those 134-odd minutes of film to follow through on. A lot of the positivity around the film is likely related to what the film represents rather than what it actually is.
In time, it is quite likely that Black Panther will be seen as an above-average superhero film and no more. All the excessive praise for this film threatens to set a low standard for future filmmakers seeking to make a statement, whether they be Black, White, Brown or any other colour. That Black Panther was made with an almost all-Black cast needs to be forgotten, because in time, its political discourse will fall by the wayside when compared to such films as even the Barbershop films.
Films like Boyz n the Hood, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Dead Presidents, A Time to Kill, Remember the Titans, Coming to America and the aforementioned Barbershop films, I dare say, are far more powerful films that pushed the dialogue forward. While having mainstream films featuring casts comprising largely minorities must become the norm and not the exception, it doesn't mean we need to go over-the-top about a film that is great because of the people making it rather than being great because of what it is.
The race revolution on celluloid deserves a more worthy film.
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