Black Panther

Year: 2018
Production Co: Marvel Studios
Studio: Disney
Director: Ryan Coogler
Producer: Kevin Fiege
Writer: Ryan Coogler/Joe Robert Cole
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Guria, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Sterling K Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker

Inclusion. Diversity. #MeToo. Being on the right side of history. Though nobody in Hollywood wants to admit it, A Wrinkle in Time – an artefact tailor-made for the deployment of slavish fealty to the political and sociological mood in the movie industry – flopped, possibly because the biggest segment of people that affect Hollywood (the audience) don't really care about all the hashtags, marches and movements as much as those who work in the industry do.

In all the fawning praise about Black Panther and how it's a watershed moment in advancement for filmmakers and actors of colour, there was a story that got little attention where an actress named Amandla Stenberg (who played the female lead in Everything, Everything) walked away from a part in it because she was bi-racial rather than black – she literally decided against the role because she wasn't black enough. Was Stenberg trying to avoid a storm of controversy because the black movie blacks could all finally be proud of would be whitewashing?

Here's what I thought as I watched it; the actors and filmmakers might all have been black enough, but how about being African enough? Were there any Africans among the cast, or where they all Americans doing the same silly, Al Jolson-like accents Hollywood always uses to depict Africans? Absolutely none of the work on the production was done in Africa, it was all shot in Atlanta, Argentina and South Korea.

In America, where blacks have always been treated terribly, it undoubtedly felt like a great leap forward for representation of their race on screen – and deservedly so. For what felt like the first time blacks were portrayed as scientists, warriors, inventors and statesmen rather than sidekicks. Even the main hero was black. There's an undisputable element of 'if you can see it you can be it', just like the one so many women and girls reacted to about Wonder Woman – and the power of that can't be overstated. If it makes a traditionally put-upon race, gender or class feel proud, I'm all for it.

But I'd be interested in asking a real African what they thought. All those colours, styles of dress and customs that made Black Panther so visual were co-opted from tribal belief systems and traditions because some Hollywood production designer and costumer thought they looked cool without any thought to what they mean in context to the people who espouse them. It was a mishmash of homogenous 'African-ness', the same way the West has always viewed that continent.

Or does it 'not matter' because it's 'just entertainment'? I might be playing devil's advocate and I might be satirising the righteous rage that always swirls around these debates, but what if I wrote a story or made a movie that featured the chains or floggings black people endured in the antebellum slave era and portrayed them just as costume artefacts, excising or trivialising all the political and racial weight they represent? Isn't that what the rest of the world has been doing to African people and customs since the colonial era?

I'd also be interested to ask what a white South African thought about it. Amid the white guilt, wish fulfilment circle jerk that a place like Wakanda exists, Black Panther subscribes quite happily to the age-old and lazy stereotype that South Africans are all greedy, mercenary cutthroats. Look no further than Nazis, who are all portrayed as being essentially racist, dehumanising and bloodthirsty monsters no matter what Stanley Milgram's experiments taught us.

The marketing around Jordan Peele's hit Get Out tried partly to sell the film on the basis that if you don't like it you must be racist and in this day and age, it's a mood that holds a lot of power among the chattering classes. The checkboxes Black Panther ticks (representation, race, diversity, blockbuster) puts it squarely in the sweet spot of everything we're told we should be remaking the world into, and if there's any hint of racism or whitewashing today you might as well try and defend Harvey Weinstein while you're at it.

More than anything, I'd like to know what black activist firebrands like Spike Lee think of it, maybe fictional White Hatin' Coon author Hooper X from Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy.

Because after all that, here's the real kicker. Despite what you might imagine from the billion-dollar-plus box office and all the headlines about how it's now the biggest superhero movie in US domestic history, it's not that great a movie. I'm the only one who thinks so because cinemagoers are still eating up this superhero movie soma in their squillions, but where Thor: Ragnarok added an extra dimension to the formula in its broad comedy or Doctor Strange took striking visuals to the next level, Black Panther is straight back to the same beat-for-beat superhero origin story.

The CGI is awful at times, none of the digital characters or visual elements having any real weight or impact in their surroundings. There were too many colours and flashing lights, full-blown cartoon visuals that made similar movies like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Jupiter Ascending almost unwatchable. Take away all the political weight of skin colour in front of and behind the camera and it's just another ride on the same old Marvel roller coaster.

Inasmuch as you're interested, the story deals with the return home of the Wakandan prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) after the events depicted in Captain America: Civil War. He's there to claim the throne after the death of his father (and has there ever been so un-American a thing that's so often depicted in commercial American cinema as royalty and rule-by-birthright?), and is determined to rule with fairness and love while continuing to hide the ultra-advanced civilisation away from the rest of the world behind its energy shield.

He tentatively romances old flame Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), now a government spy, tries to honour his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), work with the head of his royal guard, Okoye (Danai Guirira) and puts up with the good natured sibling rivalry with his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who's the chief engineer developing Wakanda's incredible technology.

Two threats arise against Wakanda's security. The first is arms dealer Ulysses (Andy Serkis), who steals a Wakandan artifact from a London museum and threatens to expose Wakanda by selling it to the CIA. At the same time, Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) – whose story plays out from the opening coda set in early 90s California – reveals that he has the right to challenge T'Challa for the throne. He wants to reveal Wakanda, sharing its gifts and technology with oppressed black people the world over.

It makes for a slightly interesting if overly simplistic common trope where the villain has a good point but still has to be stopped to maintain the status quo. To be quite honest, Africans the world over do deserve to rise up and take over after the way centuries of colonialism have treated them.

The up-to-the-minute social politics around the film overshadow everything in it, and not just because of the media hysteria but because the sights, sounds and story inside it are kind of empty and tired.

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