Oscars 2019: Black Panther, Roma may be on opposite sides of the spectrum, but both stand true to their milieus
What sets the two Best Picture nominees at Oscars 2019 apart was the intent to not water down the cultural markers of the minorities/places they represent.
Ryan Coogler's superhero movie Black Panther and Alfonso Cuaron's neorealist slice-of-life film Roma will make history at the Oscars this Sunday as they are the first Marvel film and the first Netflix film respectively to be nominated in the Best Picture category. Both these films could not have been more dissimilar in terms of their scale and mainstream appeal, and that only proves the diversity of the nominees in the top category at the Academy Awards this year.
What Roma and Black Panther do enjoy in common though is positive critical reception for telling stories of the marginalised and staying true to their respective milieus. While the former is set in 1970s Mexico, the latter is a fantasy film set in the fictional country of Wakanda, located somewhere in contemporary Africa. While Roma revolves around Cleo, an indigenous domestic help in a middle-class family, Black Panther is a long delayed Marvel Cinematic Universe movie with a black superhero.
The protagonists of both films belong to communities that have faced oppression in society for decades. While there have been films made on the Mexican and African/African-American communities before, what set these two apart was not only the intent to not water down their traditional identification markers but also celebrate these through technical tools like cinematography and background score.
The primary achievement of Black Panther was to rope in a black director. Coogler is a founding member of the Blackout for Human Rights campaign, which works towards addressing racial human right violations across the US. He said he was aware that bagging a Marvel film could possibly imply that he turned into a sellout, so with Black Panther, he had to prove that it was a film "for the people". Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige echoed the same approach when he explained that Coogler could strike the balance between putting together an entertaining affair, and staying "true to his soul and being true to the questions he had growing up".
The next baby step at making an authentic black superhero movie was the right casting. Marvel scored brownie points there by casting Michael B Jordan as the antagonist Killmonger. It was an unconventional villain's role for a superhero film as Killmonger was often, particularly in the climax, seen engaging in dialogue with T'Challa/Black Panther. This detour from the superhero template further established that the idea behind the film was to "build bridges", and not "make barriers" like "fools". The all-black cast (besides a few exceptions) constituted three strong female characters in Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Shuri (Letitia Wright). While the women of Black Panther were criticised for merely hovering around the king, they doubled up as sidekicks who would often rescue the superhero and great minds who could make the most of advanced technology, reminiscent of the three black scientists in the Oscar-nominated 2016 period drama Hidden Figures.
The projection of Wakanda as a technologically advanced country with no traces of colonialism made the world wonder what Africa, as a continent, could have achieved had it not suffered in the throes of colonisation. Painting Wakanda as a global force to reckon with, realised the Afro-futurist dream that was conceived in the mid-1960s. Also, with the same move, Coogler consciously ensured that the superhero film is not another victim of 'Blaxploitation' — a film with superficial black characters subservient to or at the mercy of supreme white powers. Though the idea to enhance the geographical and cultural specifications of the black community was an intrinsic part of the script, it was achieved through detailing in the technical aspects of the film as well.
Rachel Morrison, the trailblazing Oscar-nominated female cinematographer of Mudbound, made sure the film is devoid of the white gaze that often dilutes representation in films with black characters. The lush green and wide expanses of Uganda and Zambia served as a refreshing detour from the concrete jungles of American cities that most superhero films are the epicenter of. Her vision was complemented by Ludwig Goransson's impeccable background score. Baba Maal's thrilling vocals were accompanied by Djembe beats and other traditional African musical instruments. These elements invoked a distinct image of Wakanda and what it stood for.
The style in which the action was choreographed was also a nod to the indigenous tribes of Africa. Though Wakanda had the best defense technology in the world to boast of, they took great pride in their traditional combat styles. Armed with swords, spears and shields, the duels to determine the king were carried out in conventional fashion. However, the most distinctive tool that allowed Black Panther to assert its identity was the characters' accent. At the 'risk' of alienating a wide section of audience, all the Wakandians proudly conversed in thick African-American accents. As the lead actor Chadwick Boseman pointed out, 'Wakanda Forever' had to be bigger than the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
While a lot was riding on Black Panther in terms of expectations of the black community across the globe, Cuaron took no such burden and told Roma in a rather intimate style. It is a semi-autobiographical film from his formative years in the 1970s Mexico. He was presumably one of the four children that Cleo, the protagonist, took care of (and presumably, rescued from advancing sea waves) in the capacity of a domestic help. Though Cuaron shifts the perspective from himself to Cleo, the prism through which the story is seen unfurl is that of a child.
The pellucid shimmery lens of Roma is similar to how a man who grew up in that era would look back at his childhood, fondly. The purpose of monochrome was not only to push the envelope in terms of the visual aesthetic, but to blend the mood and milieu, the time and space of the film, with its cinematography. Even the stillness with which Cuaron pans his camera throughout the film is demonstrative of the friction-less world Cleo aspires to inhabit. She undergoes numerous life-risking tragedies throughout the film but thanks to the cinematography, they are viewed with a Zen-like keenness.
Cuaron's familiarity with the environment he grew up in allows him to treat Roma with a gaze laced with empathy. Additionally, it also gives every frame the well-rounded details that make the narrative as much about the macro Mexican standpoint as the micro perspective of Cleo. Whether it is the house that Cleo works at or the bustling streets of Mexico, Cuaron uses long, smooth tracking shots to capture the milieu and time period his characters inhabit. There are also elements that Cuaron may be fond of in his childhood, like going to the movies, visiting his aunt at the New Year's and a picnic by the beach, that he weaves masterfully into Cleo's central narrative.
The implication here is not that Cleo's environment shapes her identity, but that the struggles of the nation go hand in hand with her personal issues. There is a fine balance between natural calamities/mishaps and sociopolitical concerns. While Cleo overcomes all the forces of nature (forest fire, high tide and earthquake), she is pulled down by the sociopolitical factors (class divide, poverty, betrayal by boyfriend, Corpus Christi massacre, failed childbirth). Cleo has the divine grit to avert natural disasters but struggles to rise above the man-made shackles. This observation would not have been evident had it not been for Cuaron's inventive technique to train the camera on Cleo's surroundings throughout the film.
The significance of technical aspects in helping Cuaron and Coogler realise their grand visions only proves how prudish it was on part of the Academy to relegate the technical categories to the commercials. Now that it has revoked its decision, there is more than one reason for celebrating the Oscars this year. Besides the diversity that Roma and Black Panther bring to the Best Picture, one must also celebrate what made these films equally enriching and groundbreaking, and give those technicians the spotlight they deserve.
All images from YouTube.
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