Monday, April 16, 2018

Black Panther film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 135 plus films later, here is the review for April 2018.

Black Panther
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Black Panther is breaking box office records. Five consecutive weekends at number one leave the movie poised to become the highest grossing superhero film in American history. Commercial success is being accompanied by a wave of critical praise for the way the movie portrays people of colour. This includes the portrayal of Africans as culturally diverse and technologically superior and a dialogue in which white people are named as colonisers.

It is worth repeating: a superhero character gaining critical acclaim for advancing cultural diversity. In other words, the representations of pop culture are deemed to carry culture-making power.

The Black Panther has a past. Marvel Comics cartoonists Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the character in July 1966. The first superhero of African descent in mainstream American popular culture, the comic hero possessed super powers. The Panther’s powers – of strength, speed, stamina and sensory perceptions – were enhanced by access to advanced technology, a mystical precious metal, vibranium, available only in the fictional African nation of Wakanda.

The Black Panther as a Marvel comic character lasted through six volumes. Many of the key characters from the first four volumes are skillfully woven into Black Panther the movie. These include the Black Panther/ T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his technologically gifted scientist sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). They also include his enemies, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the first attracted by his greed for vibranium, the other by an unresolved grievance with T’Challa and the leaders of Wakanda.

This means that alongside the super hero action scenes and the visual richness generated by the rich palate of African cultures is a plot that explores a rich set of essential ethical questions. One involves the consequences when grievance remains repressed. A second is the question of who is my neighbor. Wakanda has vibranium. Yet if you have resource, do you arm the oppressed? Or do you enact social compassion. Hence a final scene, in which Africans begin doing social outreaching in America. Which generates a final ethical question. Can money and technology be deployed in ways that reverse colonization?

The questions generated by comic and cinema popular culture are given an edge by the real time American history being referenced by the Black Panther title. Some five months after Marvel introduced the comic character, a real life Black Panther Party was founded in California. Co-incidence? Or another example of popular culture creating culture?

The Black Panther Party began by enacting social outreach, including free breakfasts for school children and community health clinics. In time, it sought to take up arms against an oppressor and was linked to police fatalities in 1967 and 1968. Hence the big screen movie conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger echo real time questions about black consciousness and how the oppressed might seek liberation.

The result is a movie to be enjoyed, whether you are seeking action, cultural complexity or social debate. And a reminder: that the pop culture world of comics and movies is a powerful culture-maker, busy addressing real time realities.

Posted by steve at 02:30 PM | Comments (0)

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