Black Panther

Recommendation: YES

Spoilers spoilers here be spoilers

Full disclosure: 1) I am not white, 2) I am an immigrant, 3) there are people (myself included) who think I am a damn fool, 4) in general, the MCU has by and large left me bored to tears.

With all that out of the way, Black Panther is the god damned best thing to come out of the milquetoast factory that is Disney/Marvel’s MCU. To be fair, that isn’t a high bar to clear, but things in the MCU had taken a turn for the interesting recently with the similarly refreshing and politically switched on Thor: Ragnarok. I suppose we should feel blessed that within a short few months, the MCU has given us a delightful romp through a nation disintegrating while confronting its horrific colonial past… starring SPACE VIKINGS, and an incendiary critique of the way powerful nations, both white and non-white are complicit in the systemic dehumanisation of entire races of people. There’s more going on under the surface of Black Panther to be sure, and for the most part it muscles past the Marvel house style to remain engaged in its musings for almost the whole runtime.

But yeah, I am happy, giddily so, that the MCU has produced a movie that is a prime example of the value of mainstream “safe” cinema. In the right circumstances, pop entertainment can be a validating and/or confronting conversation with popular culture at large. It can discuss topics that are important to the culture and the people living under it in an intelligent way. And in the best of circumstances it can still be excellent entertainment. And gosh, Black Panther is a damn good entertainment with actual thoughts in its head about race and history and a culture of theft and degradation, whatever its flaws may be (they are choppy, sometimes illegible action and rather poor CGI).

It is important to note that Black Panther is not the first movie to feature a black superhero (Blade 1-3, Catwoman, Steel, FAN4STIC, Iron Man 2 and 3, Captain America 2 and 3, etc). At least one person has also told me that Black Panther is not a film about real life exceptional Black people. To be fair, this conversation arose as a means to question why Black Audiences cared about Black Panther and not biopics of significant Black figures… which is… wrong?? It also arose out of a desire to dismiss the importance of Black Panther. After all it is just another dumb super hero movie, right? But that presupposes that the only legitimate works of art and media are ones that distance themselves from “lower” forms. It’s already a fairly common argument that genre films and animation aren’t worthy of considering as important cultural artefacts (unless they are from specific sources). This ignores the potential of genre films to be ABOUT SOMETHING (e.g. Gojira, the Romero zombie movies, Get Out, Under the Shadow, Snowpiercer etc.). It also unnecessarily limits the avenues for minorities and the issues they face to be depicted in the wider cultural context. It would be a sad state of affairs if, for example, Wonder Woman did not exist because the only legitimate place to tell stories of exceptional women and the power of compassion was a biopic. There is something legitimising about having a group of peoples be represented in the mainstream rather than specific niche genres. Their stories are important enough to be shared and consumed widely. It allows for cultural exchange on a level beyond what a high art or prestige movie would. And there are all sorts of classist implications in insisting the truly important cultural artefacts are those produced for consumption by an elite white tertiary educated audience. Fight me.

Black Panther picks up soon after the events of Captain America: Civil War. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the secretly wealthy and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda after the death of his father, the late king T’Chaka. All things considered, the succession seems to be going well for both T’Challa and Wakanda, until it comes to pass that Wakanda’s public enemy number 1, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has resurfaced. Seeing an opportunity to bring a murderous plunderer to justice, it is decided that T’Challa, his ex Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and the leader of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all female special forces, Okoye (Danai Gurira) set off. In the process, they unearth skeletons from the late king’s closet and things start to get complicated. As it turns out, Wakanda deployed spies to multiple nations to develop a vast intelligence network. One of said spies was none other than T’Chaka’s brother, N’Jobu, who was deployed to the United States, only to be radicalised after witnessing the plight of the Black peoples of America. He is then killed by T’Chaka when he is confronted for assisting Klaue to infiltrate Wakanda and make off with valuable vibranium. It is the consequences of this killing and T’Chaka’s subsequent choice that fuels most of the conflict in Black Panther.

With Black Panther, Ryan Coogler has taken the musty old origin story formula and bent it to his will. The narrative familiarity afforded by the origin story template allows Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole to focus more screen time on developing the world, characters and politics of Black Panther. The movie is an absolute triumph of aesthetic. It presents the audience with an excellent and predominantly Black cast inhabiting a world that extrapolates how an East African nation with abundant natural resources would fashion itself with nil contact from violent European colonial powers. Wakanda is a gorgeous fusion of African elements and design queues with near future technologies. The movie presents a rich palette of cultures, all richly research and lovingly displayed. This rich cultural influence permeates the score, which is genuinely the best and most thoughtful and thematically resonant film score in all the MCU, melding percussive and vocal elements with a more traditional western film score to represent Wakanda, while sneaking hip hop beats in edgeways for any musical cue to do with the half American half Wakandan Erik “Killmonger” Stevens/N’Jadaka (Michael B Jordan).

Black Panther starts off interrogating what it takes to be an effective leader of a country that has as much to gain as it does to lose if it opens its boarders and engages with foreign powers. It then goes a step further to ask how such an advanced African nation could sit idly by while it is privy to the horrors of violent colonialism. It is heavy stuff, and it only gets heavier as the film goes on, baking this thought experiment into the very fabric of the film’s drama.

As much as I was enjoying the movie, it wasn’t until a specific point that I truly fell madly, head over heals in love with it. Early in the film, T’Challa ritualistically drinks of the heart shaped herb, a plant infused with vibranium that grants him the powers of the Black Panther. He is transported to a spiritual realm, rich in colour and wonder and populated by the spirits of his ancestors, where he communes with his father about his duty to his country and upholding its ideals. Later in the film, Killmonger partakes in the same ritual, only to be transported to the mundanity of his Oakland, California apartment, peaks of the rich purple sky of the ancestral plane only evident out the windows. It is here that he is greeted solely by his mournful father. There is so much going on in this scene that it would take a while to unpack it all. Killmonger’s appearance shifts to that of a stern faced child, putting on a brave face, symbolic of the still festering trauma and anger driving him, only finally catching up to him when he reverts back to his adult self and openly weeps. This scene is a perfect visual representation of what it is like to be a child of an immigrant, having a vague connection to and yearning for your motherland and culture that is intermingled with the present of your new home in a foreign land. This scene is what gives a beating heart to Killmonger’s previously intellectually driven call to revolutionary violence.

Each character in Black Panther has something to say or contribute to the film’s themes of racism, identity, cultural theft, and revolution. And each character says or contributes these things in big and small ways. The opening narration about the history of Wakanda, for example, is told by N’Jobu to a young Erik, deepening his sense of disconnect from his culture being a second generation immigrant. Ulysses Klaue’s character, delightfully hammy as he is, is constructed around the various forms of theft he, a white South African, perpetrates on successful Black cultures, stealing vibranium and hip hop in equal measure. Shuri (A delightful Letitia Wright) embodies a forward thinking attitude of constant striving for improvement, something that rubs off on T’Challa as he confronts the secret history of his nation. Likewise, Nakia insists on actively aiding foreign populations wherever possible, not wanting to be holed up in a secretive and isolationist nation when there is suffering abroad. Killmonger, himself is an embodiment of righteous fury, challenging the Eurocentric view of western/White cultural, intellectual, and technological superiority. An early scene in a museum has him quizzing a curator as to the origin of various African artefacts before challenging her knowledge and the museum’s right to ownership of ostensibly stolen cultural goods, for display to a predominantly white audience. Coming from a disadvantaged background his emotions are raw and his motive is violent revolution. In opposition is T’Challa, a Black man from a privileged socioeconomic and cultural upbringing, free from the burdens of living under the thumb of a racist country with racist policies. He is a man who can afford the distance to offer a peaceful alternative. Killmonger cannot, and importantly, the film cannot bring itself to wholly condemn him for his drive toward violence, implicating the US military and CIA’s training for the grubbier, more all destroying edge to his actions. After all, it is the conflict that Killmonger brings to Wakanda that spurs T’Challa into positive action, confronting his ancestors and ultimately mobilising Wakanda’s wealth and technology to empower disenfranchised minorities world wide.

It would be disingenuous to disown the anger simmering under the surface. Killmonger may be a hyperbolic embodiment of this, a killing machine honed by military and CIA training to slaughter enemy combatants and destabilise foreign governments for the insertion of a US friendly regime. One need only look at #killmongerwasright to see how this movie struck a cord with audiences. I feel a lot of this has to do with how true the film is to the personal experiences of a young director Ryan Coogler and his friends in Oakland.

I too was angry once, but I grew to be merely tired and sad. Black Panther was a flash of inspiration that worked past my defences and made me feel alive again.

It may be a “stupid superhero movie” but it is the most important superhero movie to be released in recent times.


Bewitching Funny Animals

Over this Easter Long Weekend, I have seen two movies on drastically different poles. The first being a funny animal message movie from the House of Mouse, the second being The Witch.

I have also been listening to The Idle Weekend, a podcast I would recommend if you have any interest in Video Games, and this has got me thinking about “rating systems” and their utility. I feel like it would be an exercise in helping me derive my thesis and have it show in the text of my articles if I adopt a simple Yes/No system. Why is it that I say Yes, this is worth watching, or No it isn’t? Numbers have always seem rather arbitrary to me, unless you’re someone like Tim Brayton, in which case more power to you.

With that in mind, I shall debut this system here for these two movies.

1) Zootopia.


First thing’s first. Zootopia is super duper ultra adorable, and that instantly won it a lot of points with me (Full disclosure: I adore cute/adorable things). It also has beautiful production design and strong vocal performances.

Zootopia is a funny and witty funny animal take on the Buddy Cop genre, pairing the city’s first Rabbit Police Officer on an impossible mission with a Fox con-artist. Needless to say, the two of them learn there’s more to each other than surface level characteristics, and one of the film’s great strengths is its setting up and subsequent subversion of these stereotypes to fulfill the dual purpose of getting laughs and digging at character truth. The mystery they set out to solve is ultimately rather predictable, but their character interactions and various approaches to solving it serves as the main driving force of the narrative and provides Zootopia with its heart.

As mentioned before, it is a message movie, and it strives hard to talk about prejudice and its damage, particularly racial prejudice. The world of Zootopia consists of a society run and governed by Predators, with a majority population of unequally disenfranchised Prey animals.

It does have some mature things to say about the nature of prejudice, and how even well meaning people can bring great harm to particular groups of people through ignorance and spreading misinformation.

Zootopia is not without its flaws, though. A particularly big one being the way the world has been conceptualised. It sets up Predators as the animals in all positions of power, yet ultimately positions them as victims of prejudice. The film makes specific mention of the fact that the City’s population is 10% or less predators, and its use of this specific language shows a lack of awareness as to the signifiers being used, and the power/class differentials in real world prejudice. Zootopia comes dangerously close to fighting in the corner of privileged groups and suggesting that they have it as hard, if not worse off than genuinely alienated groups in our societies. This is a dangerous message for the film to send to its child audience, or even its adult audience for that matter.

Lesser grievances I had with Zootopia revolve around how it feels more like a movie produced by Dreamworks Animation than Disney. It relies quite a bit on pop culture references for its humour, rather than sticking to its much stronger character motivated gags. You are sure to find references to The Godfather, Speed, and Breaking Bad among others, and it feels like a crutch to make the film seem relevant to this time, rather than acting as a timeless piece, confident in its central thesis and characters to carry it. It even ends on a dance party.

Interestingly, a secondary thematic arc flows through the movie; that of women struggling to be taken seriously in typically male dominated fields, with both the main Bunny character, and a prominent secondary character struggling to make it in their chosen vocations. The film, however, foregrounds its faulty race metaphor and this secondary theme feels more like incidental flavour than a genuine attempt to explore another dimension of prejudice and privilege.

But when Zootopia explores its central characters and their relationships. and the struggles of its female characters, it shines. It is not a great film, but saying its botching of privilege and power relationships renders it incapable of having any intelligent insight into the workings of discrimination would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It also happens that Zootopia is an adorable and often funny family adventure film, and I would take an ambitious animated film over one that tries to coast along any day.

2) The Witch


The Witch is a difficult movie. It is a slow burner that gradually builds tension while the world unravels for its characters, and it is simultaneously deeply invested in being authentic in its construction of time, place, and character. It runs the risk of being alienating to horror fans and people interested in costume dramas. But by god does it do these two things well. So well, in fact that the one could not exist without the other. So entwined is the horror in its world building, and its world building in its horror that to favour the one over the other would be to rob The Witch of its potency.

I have listed this film as YES, so if any of that sounds appealing, please go track it down. The less you know about the particulars of the movie, the better. 

It is clear a lot of research has been conducted for this film, with dialogue even being lifted from source texts. The details from dialect to set dressing and costuming to the presentation of Puritan customs and lifestyle, lends the film a verisimilitude that informs the way the viewer reacts. This verisimilitude is aided by a stretch at the beginning of the film dedicated to setting up the world, the key players, their situation and beliefs, before spending the rest of the runtime challenging those beliefs. 

The basic premise is such; a family has been exiled from their community due to their patriarch’s prideful insistence that he and his are the most Puritan of all. First time director Robert Eggers shows his handle on formal elements by never allowing the viewer a clear look at the community. You see the family and the judges, and the most you see of the settlement is from the midst of the family, showing a narrow and mostly eclipsed view of the main path receding away until the gates are shut on them. 

With this the audience shares in the alienation from the one potentially comforting and safe location in the film’s world. Another thing to note, the first image of the film serves to establish a point of view character while also sowing seeds of doubt in the viewer. To say much more would venture into spoiler territory. 

The Witch is a film about the horrors faced by people in a certain time and place, be they natural or supernatural. It is a testament to the strength of the film’s construction that it can immerse the viewer in a potentially alien belief system, and mine its horrors from it. In that way it is similar to The Exorcist, though not as profane or overt. I understand it is heretical in some circles to say this, but I found The Witch to be all together more affecting and disturbing than The Exorcist, as a person outside of the Faiths presented in both movies. 

Watch it if you want to be transported to a time and place unlike ours to be unsettled by what you find there.