Friday, 2 March 2018
Black Panther hinges on the promise of Wakanda, a geologically remote African country that has grown up around a mountain of all-powerful metal, becoming a self-reliant, hermetically sealed utopia. Wakanda's story, while not necessarily one of peace, is one of unity. The five warring tribes who shared the lands suffused with vibranium came together under the leadership of the first Black Panther, a man who had consumed the fruit of this mountain becoming superhuman, to share the country's treasures rather than pointlessly battle over them. It's a small detail, delivered in the kind of pre-action prologue usually used to burn a couple of minutes while latecomers shuffle into the cinema, but Black Panther has immediately skewered the cultural hegemony of white, western cinema.
Over the course of Ryan Coogler's film we see vibranium used in every conceivable context, always for the betterment of those who wield it. Vibranium is used to power fantastical weapons; futuristic train networks run on it; even grievous spinal injuries are nothing when set against the might of this extraterrestrial metal. Vibrainium is magic as a tangible, seemingly infinite resource. Rather than spill out into the world and bring weaker nations to heel, Wakanda has closed its borders and thrived. They have enough living space, they do not wish to conquer. This rugged isolationism briefly recalls a pre-Second World War America, the country as a modern, forward-thinking individual above the squabbles of the old European world, before the film assures you that no-one in Wakanda is exploiting their internal harmony to export ruin. Basically, Wakanda is too evolved for a General Motors or an IBM.
Set against other, modern big-budget fantasy films, Black Panther's approach to its MacGuffin is refreshingly classic - it's a boon with no obvious downside. Consider an archetypal, British fantasy series like The Lord of the Rings, those books, and their film adaptations, propose objects of power so intoxicating that even characters with transcendental, angelic aspects cannot resist the urge to seize and control them. At second one, the people of Black Panther have moved beyond these petty limitations, unifying under a flag and God that has allowed them to evolve to a technological level that is almost alien to the rest of mankind. Writer-director Ryan Coogler and screenwriter Joe Robert Cole propose a culturally nourished society in touch with their identity and refreshingly free of animus, ruled by compassionate, selfless Kings who believe in the dream of their nation.
It's an intoxicating idea, particularly at a point in time where every real country is experiencing financial meltdown and/or some form of exclusionary nationalism. As far as the film describes, Wakanda works for its citizens. There is no poverty or need, no shameful imperialist legacy, and the country's women are not treated as subservient, second-class citizens. The film underlines this latter point with a sequence set in South Korea that explicitly recalls a similar stakeout in Skyfall. In that film white alpha male James Bond took centre-stage, quipping with female handlers who are bracketed off from the central action. Here the highest authority mucks in and frets about innocent bystanders. Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa is flanked by two expert women, both equally capable of fighting at the level dictated by their King. Another, his sister, is off-site offering fantastical tech-support. Black Panther, the film, consumes the language of explicit colonial fantasy then re-purposes it towards healthier, if less crudely exciting, ends.
Since T'Challa's kingdom is insular, the threat to her identity comes from the outside. Michael B Jordan's Erik Killmonger is an American with distant ties to the African country's crown, born to a father who engaged with black militancy and taught his son the gospel of a paradise called Wakanda. No mother is seen or mentioned. When recounting Killmonger's story, CIA agent Ross focuses on Erik's adulthood as a special forces solider who has toppled governments and killed hundreds, wilfully obscuring the dire emotional situation that drove Killmonger towards this kind of service. As an orphan, Erik fits the bill for your archetypal boyish operative looking for something, anything, bigger than himself to dedicate his soul to. Ross talks about Killmonger as a tool rather than a man, a weapon tempered by the American imperial machine who has subsequently had the audacity to think for himself.
Calling Killmonger a villain seems reductive, his grievances aren't so much understandable as inevitable. If an African superpower exists, why doesn't it help downtrodden black people around the world? Why shouldn't their technology be used to equalise, at least, the yawning disparity between America's black working class and their white ruling class? This feeling of camaraderie is borne out by how Coogler and Cole use the character. Erik isn't simply a crisis point for Black Panther, he's an axis that shifts the film's structure and perspective. When Erik seizes Wakanda's throne he fills the void left by an apparently dead T'Challa. Killmonger infects and steers the film, both in terms of organic three-act flow and non-diegetic affectation - heroic characters are swayed by his hammering rhetoric while transitional music changes from Djembe clacks to electronic beats. Killmonger is instantly elevated to the position of a lead character, afforded the kind of interior landscape denied second-tier characters like Letitia Wright's Shuri or Danai Gurira's Okoye.
When Erik eats the vibranium fruit that transmits the powers of the Black Panther, we're transported not to the ancestral planes of T'Challa's visions but back in time, to a frozen moment in an Oakland apartment where Killmonger can talk with a father he has both unconsciously modelled himself on and consciously distanced himself from. Jordan's performance is the pulse that drives Black Panther, the actor delivering moments that blaze far hotter than the rote, murky action that surrounds them. When T'Challa and T'Chaka commune they do so as peers, one king to another. T'Challa challenges his father's decisions and retreats from the oblivion he offers. Erik enters his father's orbit then punishes him, pushing him away, telling him that his death meant nothing. Erik's avatar in these moments fluctuates between himself as an adult and Seth Carr playing him as a youngster. Crucially, a tear that the child denies appears instead on Michael B Jordan's face, wiped away by a king overwhelmed by feelings that do not track easily into either violence or subjugation.