Saturday, March 31, 2018

Black Panther: Watch the Throne

Danai Gurira and Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther.

Ryan Coogler elevated the debased Rocky franchise with his 2015 Creed, injecting intelligence as well as brio into the narrative of the second-generation fighter who finds a mentor in Rocky. Creed was an exciting boxing movie, a moving coming-of-age story and a satisfying romantic drama with the talented and stunning Tessa Thompson as a bracing match for Michael B. Jordan’s charismatic Adonis Johnson. It was a first-rate entertainment – and Coogler coached a fine performance out of Sylvester Stallone that refurbished his reputation, too.

Coogler’s follow-up to Creed, the Marvel adventure Black Panther, is every bit as good. The Marvel pictures are often mash-ups of comic-book and classical mythology; Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole, adapting the Marvel Comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, mix in a little James Bond, a little J.R.R. Tolkien by way of the Peter Jackson movies, and cleverly seed in some contemporary political references. The story begins by reprising, from last year’s excellent Captain America: Civil War, the death of T’Chaka (John Kani), the king of a small African nation called Wakanda, in a U.N. bombing. Following tradition, before he can succeed his father T’Chaka’s son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must best any challenger. He triumphs over M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of the mountain-dwelling Jabari tribe, who feels T’Challa is callow and untried. But then another opponent announces himself: Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a.k.a. Killmonger, the abandoned son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu – killed in a skirmish with T’Chaka and his best friend Zuri in Oakland, California (where he was working undercover). Erik was raised in America and trained as a black-ops agent, and now he demands his right to fight T’Challa for the Wakandan throne. The issue that divided T’Chaka and N’Jobu was isolationism. The discovery of a metal called vibranium has permitted Wakanda to make staggering technological advances, but it has been the country’s policy for years to maintain absolute secrecy about them and have little contact with other nations. N’Jobu urged his brother to join the world and offer to share its vibranium. Erik wants to use the substance to make himself an unprecedentedly powerful leader. Both he and T’Challa have supernatural powers as a result of a forest herb, so in Marvel terms they’re also fighting to carry the name Black Panther.

The James Bond element is provided by Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s kid sister, a wizardly technological designer who suggests Q raised to the rank of a major player in the narrative. I’d say that Coogler and Cole got their inspiration from the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the complex moral setting of Black Panther, where the good characters struggle to make reasonable decisions in a fraught, murky world. Erik’s appearance on Wakanda brings into the light one terrible decision that T’Chaka, who was a good man and a good king, made nonetheless: leaving his nephew behind in America after the unintentional death of his father, in order to bury N’Jobu’s efforts to lead their nation into diplomatic interaction with the rest of the world. In The Last Jedi, writer-director Rian Johnson shifted the Star Wars series from its fairy-tale predecessors, with their carefully delineated good and bad characters, into the equivocal moral realm of the Lord of the Rings pictures; the result was a revelation, and the best entry in the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back. (It was also a complete surprise: nothing in Johnson’s previous films had prepared us for a movie that you could talk about alongside one directed by the great Irvin Kershner.) Black Panther isn’t quite in the same category as The Last Jedi; it’s more like Creed – gorgeously assembled and richly entertaining.

I’m not just referring to its considerable visual pleasures, for which Coogler shares credit with the cinematographer, Rachel Morrison; the production designer, Hannah Beachler; the costume designer Ruth Carter; and the editors, Debbie Berman and Michael P. Shawver. I’m also talking about the cast. The movie is practically a Who’s Who of gifted actors of color who also happen to be mesmerizing camera subjects. As well as Boseman (brilliant as James Brown in Get On Up) and Jordan in the leads, distinguished stage actor John Kani and the lesser-known – I suspect not for long – Letitia Wright and Winston Duke, there are Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s once and future lover, Danai Gurira (of TV’s Treme and The Walking Dead) as T’Challa’s chief of security, Forrest Whitaker as Zuri, Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s royal mother, Sterling K. Brown (Christopher Darden in American Crime Story’s O.J. Simpson arc) as N’Jobu, and Daniel Kaluuya, Oscar-nominated for last year’s Get Out, as T’Challa’s old friend W’Kabi. Coogler tosses in a couple of white guys, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, who bring their own wit and stature (not to mention an official association with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit), as CIA man Everett Ross and black-market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. Both are terrific, and like the rest of the cast they look like they’re having the time of their lives. So, evidently, is the audience; at this writing, a month and a half after its release, nothing has managed to shake Black Panther from its front-line position at the box office. It’s earned every damn dollar.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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