Lost in the Movies: Black Panther (The Unseen 2018)

Black Panther (The Unseen 2018)

"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time (reviews contain spoilers). The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). Black Panther was #1 for 2018.

The Story: After a terrorist attack on the United Nations kills his father, T'Challa becomes king of the African nation Wakanda. Presenting itself to the world as a humble agricultural country, Wakanda is actually a bastion of advanced technology, secretly developing flying ships, weapons, and clothing like the highly responsive, skintight, bulletproof "Black Panther" uniform. The king wears this costume while engaged in battle or more smallscale combat, for example pursuing the ruthless arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to South Korea, allowing him to slip from mythology into the familiar superhero dynamics of the Marvel universe. Tasked now with ruling and defending this kingdom, T'Challa struggles with doubts about his readiness for the monarchy, discovers a dark secret from his father's past, and both loses and reclaims his throne, returning from near-death in the process.

If he is the central, title figure, the primary plot arc is nonetheless driven more by T'Challa's nemesis Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a Wakandan by birthright but an American by upbringing. Scarred by the poverty and persecution he saw around him as a child, orphaned at a young age when his father was killed, and radicalized by his father's belief that Wakandan technology should be used to help in the struggle of the oppressed, particularly those of African descent, Killmonger grew up to become a black ops combatant in the U.S. military, racking up kills and subverting governments around the globe. He assisted imperial conquest with the long-term goal of subverting the empire once he was trained enough to assume the Wakandan throne and lead a worldwide revolution. It is Killmonger whose family tragedy launches the film and whose needs and desires drive many of the narrative turning points - and he is the film's most striking, memorable character.

The Context:
Immediately upon its wide release on February 16, 2018, Black Panther smashed box office records left and right (eventually entering the all-time top ten). This was an unusual time of year to release a Marvel blockbuster, but the film was timed to coincide with Black History Month, and the film was both marketed and received as a massive breakthrough for black filmmakers and audiences. With an African-American director, writer, and cast (with only a couple exceptions in supporting roles), a celebratory attitude toward Africa, and even a fairly sympathetic (if still antagonistic) portrayal of radical black nationalism in Killmonger, the movie represented a dramatic break from most Hollywood tentpole films and its representation was applauded widely by critics and average viewers alike. The Academy Awards even created a new major category for the first time in decades, announcing the "Best Popular Film" award in a move that many observers read as a direct attempt to accommodate Black Panther's success; the ensuing backlash forced them to postpone this addition so that it wouldn't reduce Black Panther's odds of securing a Best Picture nomination (which it did).

Attendance became an event in many communities, with fundraisers to screen the film for schoolchildren and viral tweets mushrooming long before it had even premiered (eventually Black Panther would become the most tweeted-about film of all time). The film went on to earn over a billion dollars worldwide, joining some of its most successful Marvel brethren. Although the film's racial significance tends to outshine any other factor, its place in an ongoing cinematic juggernaut is also important to consider. Since 2008, Disney's stewardship of Marvel Cinematic Universe carefully crafted a prolific, interconnected slate of films, with Black Panther was the eighteenth title in this pantheon. Hence the scale of the celebrations: Black Panther offered black viewers an opportunity to see themselves centered in the movie phenomenon of its time.

My Response: Throughout the "Unseen" series, I'll review some surprising selections...surprising in the sense of "Wait, you've never seen this one before?" We all have our blind spots, but what's more surprising is how front-loaded my biggest blind spots are on this list (which, obviously, moves backwards). Naturally, even classic-minded moviegoers tend to be more conversant with the present than the past, going to new releases as a matter of course while making the effort to catch up with works released when they were too young or not yet born. That was certainly true for me initially, but the situation began changing in the mid-zeroes as my cinema attendance slowed down and my exploration of older films intensified. It's not a prioritization I regret by any means, but it does mean I'm out of touch with many current trends; by the mid-teens, my engagement with the current cinema, both popular and more below-the-radar, was barely on life support. This brings us to Black Panther, only the third Marvel movie I've viewed and the first since the disappointing Iron Man 2 in 2010. (That's right, I never saw The Avengers - tee up "The Unseen" 2012.)

From the outside, my impression of the growing Marvelization of the film industry has not been particularly positive; clips I glimpsed here or there didn't justify the hype, and the overall pop culture phenomenon harbored noxious qualities (over-reliance on another medium, slavish catering to an entitled fanbase, slick impersonal visual style drowning any potential for auteur innovation in corporate calculation). So I was curious what I'd think of Black Panther and the biggest surprise turned out to be how much I enjoyed it. Ryan Coogler is a talented director with a unique voice and sensibility; I have yet to see Fruitvale Station but appreciated his other innovation within a major film franchise, Creed. A few sequences in both blockbusters demonstrate the connection with relatively long takes and fluid camerawork (this charged momentum fits within, but largely improves upon, the "keep the camera pointlessly moving" aesthetic of twenty-first century action cinema). Admittedly, many of these flourishes are subsumed by more functional shooting and cutting, especially in the extended (too extended for my tastes) battle sequence, a now-ingrained blockbuster tradition that goes back at least to the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early 2000s, or perhaps the much-maligned gungun battlefield and space fight of The Phantom Menace in 1999 (itself a variation on Return of the Jedi's crosscutting battles).

But if Coogler's interests are represented in only a limited capacity through the film's mise en scene, they have a stronger presence in the screenplay (co-written with Joe Robert Cole, responsible for several episodes of the captivating The People vs. O.J. Simpson). They also shine through the performances, especially Jordan's (the charismatic star has clearly become De Niro to Coogler's Scorsese at this point). Surprisingly for a form which tends to blunt human stakes or historical trauma - just see all those casually decimated cityscapes - there's real conviction to Killmonger's fury, a poignant sense of loss and yearning as he straddles the gap between Oakland and Wakanda. In some moments, Black Panther even transcends its status as fantastical entertainment, teasing a more profound interplay between larger-than-life escapist myth and reality-rooted inner dream world. This is particularly vivid when Killmonger enters the ancestor's space to land in his childhood high-rise apartment, purple skies peeking through windows instead of dominating the savanna as they do for T'Challa on his own spiritual journey. The villain is even allowed to depart the film with poignant dignity, glimpsing what can probably only be glimpsed in a vision more relatable than the hero's triumph (particularly, I would imagine, for members of a forced diaspora, although it resonated even for me).

Of course, Coogler and Cole are working within a tight format. They've been given room to breathe but they still need to stick within certain parameters, not only stylistically and narratively but also ideologically (all three are intertwined). However sympathetically he's portrayed, Killmonger's status as the enemy can never truly be questioned. The film repeatedly acknowledges the history and even the ongoing existence of imperialism and exploitation, including by the U.S. government, but cheerfully assigns white CIA Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) the role of plucky sidekick, shooting down African pilots to defend a hereditary, relatively U.S.-friendly monarchy against an avowed revolutionary who wants to topple the international order. And T'Challa's final gesture attempts to thwart radical solidarity with top-down liberal "outreach," earning criticism even from some fans. For the type of film it is, I found Black Panther unexpectedly thoughtful and engaging, supplementing its genre pleasures and genuinely gorgeous color palette with more political nuance and authentic emotional grounding than expected...even as it remains, resolutely, "that type of film."

Despite being pleasantly surprised by much of its execution, I came to Black Panther quite well-acquainted with its premise, plot mechanics, and philosophical orientation. In fact, I was probably more prepared for the shape of this movie than any other in this upcoming series. The ongoing discussion of early 2018 was widespread and in-depth and as I conclude my own relatively brief thoughts I'd like to share three lengthy podcasts that explored the film extensively, mostly from a critical - and political - point of view (some skeptical, others downright hostile). The host of The Benjamin Dixon Show, a huge fan of the movie, debated Chris Lebron, one of its critics; Trevor Beaulieu, host of Champagne Sharks, launched his "Killmonger was Right" campaign with a meticulous takedown of the film's politics; and Mubarak, the host of On Mass, analyzed the movie's anti-revolutionary bent in the context of the international anti-imperialist struggle. These critiques are really worth considering and engaging.

Signs of the Times: This category will be easier to fill out as the series progresses, offering more of a contrast with the current moment. For now, we can observe the extensive reliance on CGI, the mobile camera and frequent cuts, and cultural touchstones like a Kendrick Lamar title track and the predominance of handheld communication devices as indications of Black Panther's place in 2018. Primarily I'd note that - as already mentioned - Black Panther is part of a larger superhero franchise in a way that we've come to take for granted. This isn't just a matter of sequels following one another in a direct line, picking up with characters and motifs we're supposed to be familiar with from earlier entries, but a more sprawling configuration. Actually, I was surprised (and relieved) that this film did function so well on its own.

Although some of these characters have appeared in other films (including T'Challa himself), few of the familiar Marvel faces turn up and the struggle between T'Challa and Killmonger exists quite independently of whatever other forces are struggling for the fate of the planet - or the galaxy. In fact, after I see more Marvel films it will be interesting to look back on this one, or possibly re-visit, and see if this film is an exception to a general rule. Nonetheless, we do get a post-credits tease of a character, referred to as the white wolf, being treated by Shuri (Letita Wright). As with all Marvel films, this wink and nod for fans sets up a future film. This quality - the idea of mega-movies that exist as part of a larger tapestry - is something relatively new. There were always serials and sequels, but if movies belonged to a larger meta-universe, it was to the idea of "cinema" as a whole. We'll discuss this more as we move back through film history.

Other Films of 2018: At the time of writing, the year is not yet over, but so far the highest-grossing movie is, in fact, Black Panther (followed by Avengers: Infinity War, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and Dead Pool 2). Of course these are all parts of a franchise, and mostly superhero films at that - in fact, among the entire domestic top ten, only the minimalist sci-fi movie A Quiet Place is not a sequel or spin-off. Other important films of 2018 include the Mr. Rogers documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor, YouTube personality Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade, Boots Riley's left-wing satire Sorry to Bother You, and Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, released on the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist rally at Charlottesville. As I'm writing this half a year shy of the Oscars, who knows what will win Best Picture? I do, however, have a pretty good guess what the Best Popular Film will be. (For reasons already noted, the Best Popular Film award was cancelled; controversially, Green Book - a film whose racial politics were heavily criticized - won Best Picture over Black Panther, BlackKkKlansman, and Alfonso Cuaron's acclaimed film Roma, about a young, pregnant indigenous servant. By year's end, other notable films included A Star is Born, First Man, Annihilation, Isle of Dogs, Can You Ever Forgive Me, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Incredibles 2, If Beale Street Could Talk, Spider-Man Into the Spiderverse, Deadpool 2, Aquaman, Venom, Vice, and Bohemian Rhapsody, among many, many others. Obviously, this will be the only "Unseen" entry to be published less than a year after its release year - from now on, the list of contemporary films will take on more and more of a retrospective tinge...)

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