Me and ‘Black Panther’: part 7 — Yes, Black Panther is a king of a picture

2019/02/23

prince returns

Back in my February 2018 pro review of “Black Panther,” I declared, “…This movie stands in every manner as both a rebuke and redemption of the standard set a century ago by D.W. Griffith’s racist “The Birth of a Nation.”

I stand by it. The 1914 Griffith film was a milestone of the art form and pretty much every movie since owes a debt to the technical ground it broke. But it also had an effect on the culture of America, leading to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and further poisoning white peoples’ attitude toward blacks for the better part of the century since.

So in a real way, “Black Panther” makes the opposite statement, with Ryan Coogler using the film skills taught to the industry by Griffith and his successors to tell a much better, more positive story. And with the film being nominated for a number of the industry’s top artistic awards, it is clearly a great piece of art.

That’s why it’s weird, in the months since, that I’m noticing a bizarre backlash against the film, where some people claim the film is NOT great art.

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They’re wrong, but OK, whatever.

Some claimed to have held their opinions because they were afraid to appear racist. Only now, when it appears they weren’t alone in their feelings, are they feeling safe to share those feelings about the film.

Look, I get it. Not everyone has to like a movie. Never mind that the movie is objectively good, one of the most highly reviewed by critics for the whole year. Critics like a lot of films that regular filmgoers find poor viewing.

But the fact that some were scared to look racist for not liking it is as much a symptom of our society’s deep-seated white supremacy and their own resultant fragility as anything.

One anecdote that stands out:

There was a fellow in a superhero gaming group on Facebook who was a latecomer to the whole Marvel Studios thing. He said he watched a number of the films last year and generally liked most of them. But some he thought were mediocre and “Black Panther” especially poor. When asked why in the Facebook thread, he was particularly critical of the “magic, do-anything metal” of vibranium.

So wait. In a fictional universe of:

  • teens who stick to walls
  • ashtray-sized fusion reactors
  • sentient tree-beings
  • enchanted hammers
  • inter dimensional immortal demigods
  • particles that shrink buildings to the size of briefcases,
  • invisible aircraft carriers…
  • ….that fly!
  • genocidal sentient robots,
  • folks who skip across dimensions by wishing hard enough,
  • men transformed into hulking abominations by chemicals and gamma radiation
  • fanatical interstellar genocidal despots (yes, plural)
  • cosmic jewelry that warps the space-time fabric

…the idea that a nation could fully utilize an extraterrestrial metal, given centuries to figure it out, is somehow a bridge too far?

Even in the real world, lithium is used as building metal, as a power source and as medicine.

This fellow backed off a bit from his opinion of the film being poor, because it clearly ISN’T. But the strength of his initial denunciation is … weird.

Other strange objections:

“It’s just The Lion King”

That’s like saying Star Wars is just Star Trek with laser swords. The only thing the 1994 animated classic has in common with “Black Panther” is that both are set in Africa and have to do with a royal usurper. Everything else is different. EV-RY-THANG.

I know it’s simpler to just lump them together as one because Africa is all one country, but come on.

 

“They only liked it because they were black”

My response: “…AND?” Why is that a problem?

The real question is: Why don’t YOU like it because the cast is black?

Because here’s a key point: It seems they can’t accept that YES some of the movie’s acclaim is indeed due to its groundbreaking cast and setting. This has NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE in a Hollywood movie of this scale, let alone this well. But they can’t accept that aspect alone as being exceptional.

I suspect these people don’t actually know why.

 

It’s not only (presumably) white viewers who are responding negatively. Here’s a remark from a Black Panther fan group on Facebook, followed by my reply:

HIM: “Black Panther was a great moment for the culture. The costumes and action was great. The cast was great. The movie was POOORLY WRITTEN tho”

ME: “I mean, I’ll grant that I got a tad annoyed at the first challenge during my first screening, thinking, ‘Why are we wasting time with this? Let’s get on with it.’ Things finally got more interesting once M’Baku showed up.

“But when Killmonger’s challenge happens later, I saw that it doesn’t have half the effect without that protracted earlier scene. The second challenge stands out as a warped reflection of the first BECAUSE we’ve seen how it’s SUPPOSED to work, in all its detail.

“Or take KM’s reveal of his MANY scars during his betrayal of Klaue. It’s a moment that would be more shocking if not nestled in the midst of much more shocking events in the brief scene.

“Forward again to the second challenge scene, when he takes the shirt off and we see SO MANY MORE SCARS to let the viewer (but not the characters) know T’Challa is in even more danger than anyone else on screen realizes.

“The script is doing this kind of subtle foreshadowing and call backs constantly. That’s good writing, not the other kind.”

I have had a few DM chats with my friend Dawn Burkes about all this, and she said it well: “Most of [these] fans aren’t into [subtlety]. They just didn’t get it.”

 

My “favorite” objection is folks saying T’Challa’s motivation was weak, that he was the least interesting of the characters.

“What did he WANT?” someone posted on Facebook.

Notwithstanding the fact that in this genre, it’s always the villains with the strong motive, but did these people ask the same question of Steve Rogers in 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” widely considered one of the best two or three Marvel Studios films? Or did they accept at face value that Cap, like most heroes, was primarily driven by protecting or restoring the status quo?

So why doesn’t Black Panther — an ACTUAL KING who is deeply invested in the status quo that makes him a ruler — get the same acceptance as Steve Rogers?

In fact, the subtlety of T’Challa’s arc in the film is also cited as a weakness. But that is a wrong conclusion. Flat wrong. Let’s look at it in detail.

———

It is no accident that the first time we see the Black Panther, it’s not T’Challa but a younger T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani).

The opening scene sets up a great deal more than just the eventual plot revelations, but also T’Challa’s motive and the mark and standard for which he’ll be aiming the entire first half of the story.

It’s also no accident that our first sight of T’Challa is of him brooding over a news report of his father T’Chaka’s recent demise. (In another crack bit of filmmaking, Coogler delivers, in thirty seconds of exposition, both T’Challa’s origin story AND his surface motivation.)

It’s more than just a son’s grief happening here in the film’s early going but also a certain amount of guilt.. We get the clearest picture of this (if we hadn’t already seen the scene from 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War”) when he’s rebuked later in the first act by M’Baku as a princeling “who could not keep his own father safe.”

Then, during the ensuing fight, after being exhorted by Queen Mother Ramonda to “Show him who you are!” T’Challa’s response is that he is his father’s son. And that’s what he thinks is what gives him the strength to turn the tables on the bigger, stronger M’Baku and forcing the Jabari leader to yield.

(But even in this scene, we’ll find, he is NOT his father’s son. I’ll circle back around to it later.)

In the beautiful Ancestral Plane scene, we get flashbacks to “Civil War” detailing T’Challa’s last moments with his dad (refreshing and clarifying the son’s grief for viewers) before their brief reunion in the afterlife. T’Challa’s first reaction is purely emotional, as he breaks down from his guilt at not being able to protect his baba, whose own reaction is rather firmer than we might expect.

T’Chaka: “Stand UP. You are a king.”

It’s a powerful moment in which it looks like T’Challa is truly assuming his new role. But in reality? He’s only doing what his father says and believing what his father tells him, and uncritically so.

In truth, he’s so overwhelmed with having this time with T’Chaka that he misses the lesson that his father tries to indirectly relay to him: that T’Challa cannot be T’Chaka, no matter how he tries: “You’re a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king.”

When T’Challa awakes, his only takeaway was that he talked with T’Chaka.

“He was there. He was there. My father.”

Of course, we miss the takeaway as well. We need to see T’Chaka as T’Challa does: as a great king.

The very next scene starts the process of challenging T’Challa’s idea of his ideal kingship. His love Nakia (the divine Lupita Nyong’o) thinks Wakanda should aid refugees; his friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) thinks Wakanda should clean up the rest of the world. Neither direction is one T’Chaka would take, and so T’Challa doesn’t think it his way, either.

The film’s whole next sequence again centers on T’Chaka’s kingship as his son seeks to fulfill the old king’s “greatest regret” of not capturing Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). And it culminates with

  • T’Challa spying a ring that shouldn’t exist around Killmonger’s neck, which raises troubling questions for the young king;
  • T’Challa taking a first real step into deciding who he actually is by saving an outsider, Agent Ross (Martin Freeman);
  • W’Kabi bitterly calling T’Chaka’s kingship a failure, and now T’Challa as well.

And now we come to the pivotal scene of the movie, when T’Challa confronts Zuri, his final link to his father.

“Leave us!” — both T’Chaka in 1992 and T’Challa in present day … both during scenes with Zuri in the room as the king demands an account

Zuri tells T’Challa the awful truth about his father’s worst day, and T’Challa’s entire goal and motivation — to be just like his father — crumbles. And from this point until his defeat at Warrior Falls, T’Challa is a shadow.

I suppose this is what people are reacting to when they see that T’Challa can’t fend off Killmonger’s challenge, only being able to make noble-sounding rationalizations in the face of Killmonger’s righteous-sounding fury. But these viewers aren’t seeing — or appreciating — the inner conflict clearly established in his mountaintop talk with Nakia, one that is not remotely resolved. It’s why he has the debate with Killmonger in the first place, why he gets almost blindsided by N’Jadaka’s claim until it’s too late to cut it off. It’s why he can’t muster his full fighting prowess in the duel to come.

And when Zuri dies, he’s completely broken. The boy who first lost his father, then his idolization of his father, now has lost the last connection to his father.

Queen Mother Ramonda could again shout “Show him who you are” but the result would be the same — him getting thrown from the falls.   

Everything about T’Challa’s character and arc is tied to his relationship to his father. To miss that is to miss him. And a number of viewers did.

The rest of T’Challa’s arc is him leaving aside his previous motive of being T’Chaka (“You were wrong to abandon him”). He rebukes previous Black Panthers on the ancestral plane (which, in a subtle touch, is now set at dawn instead of twilight, because it’s the true awakening of T’Challa’s kingship, not its sunset). He reaches out to M’Baku after his revival (“I cannot speak for past kings”).

The seeds of this turn were planted far earlier in the film, though. See his second-act rescue of Agent Ross. Where his father abandoned even his own nephew for Wakanda’s sake, T’Challa brings to Wakanda a foreign intelligence operative because simply because they’re friends and he can help the wounded American.

Even in the first act, during Challenge Day, T’Challa is not his father’s son, as he spares M’Baku’s life in direct opposition to the ruthlessness we eventually learn T’Chaka unleashed on his own brother.

In the end, T’Challa, just by being who he really is, is able to almost redeem even the monstrous Killmonger. He alone can see the kid from Oakland believing in fairy tales. And without even knowing it, T’Challa fulfills the dream of N’Jadaka’s father to one day show his son the most beautiful sunset in the world.   

He still has room to grow, of course: Perhaps a more seasoned T’Challa could have stopped N’Jadaka another way (as some who compare the similarly themed DC blockbuster “Aquaman” have complained — though they completely overlook the woman character who’s key to that different ending), but nevertheless he is poised to become a greater king than his father — and a greater man.

All this is going on in a superhero film. And if it seemed all too subtle for some viewers when compared with the richness of the rest of the cast, well, this little DM exchange with Dawn sums it up:

ME: We need to see T’Chaka as T’Challa does: Flawless.

ME: To miss that is to miss T’Challa’s whole arc. And I think a lot of people did

DAWN: I agree. That’s where that notion comes from that the movie belonged to others more than it did to him.

ME: Of course, the other reason people got that notion is because they ain’t used to the support characters being fully realized with full ass arcs of their own

ME: Like EVERY ONE

DAWN: Hahaha! More facts!

I could write this much about every other significant character in this film. You don’t usually get characters this well-drawn even in the sort of period dramas the Oscars usually honor, much less in this sort of genre material.

But here we are. And that’s why it’s among the best pictures of 2018.

———

This fairly concludes my lengthy musings on “Black Panther,” though I could write SO very much more.  I’ll be writing a coda either on, just after or just ahead of Oscars night this Sunday, Feb. 24, as I consider BP among the other Best Pic nominees in my annual Oscar Screening Party.

The rest of the series:

Intro — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/01/22/me-and-black-panther-part-1-intro/

Wakanda — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/01/29/me-and-black-panther-part-2-wakanda/

Blackest Film Ever? — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/05/me-and-black-panther-part-3-blackest-film-ever/

The Women — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/me-and-black-panther-part-4-the-women/

Killmonger — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/16/me-and-black-panther-part-5-killmonger/

The Score — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/19/me-and-black-panther-part-6-the-musical-score/

And an epilogue: My Oscar Screening Party 2019 — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/24/personal-oscar-screening-party-2019/

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