Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Ryan Coogler’s Strikingly Personal “Black Panther”

This post won’t focus very much on the significant cultural, sociological, or political aspects of the release and reception of the new Marvel film, Black Panther, which have been set out by a number of writers for other publications in South Africa (and, indeed, across the world). My position of privilege in this regard notwithstanding, I had my own reasons to be excited for the movie when I heard about it: Having seen Ryan Coogler’s previous film, Creed, I judge him to be one of the finest directors of his generation, and I was tremendously eager to see what he would do with the hundreds of millions of dollars that Disney was willing to give him — since other fine filmmakers, such as Peyton Reed and David Lowery, had done wonderful things with similar amounts, and I’m excited for Ava DuVernay’s upcoming A Wrinkle in Time for the same reason.

It’s no news to anyone who’s seen it — nor to anyone who’s heard from anyone who’s seen it — that just what Coogler did in fact do with it is something fantastic. I surmise that it’s particularly difficult for a director to make a strikingly personal work of art within the ultra-budget blockbuster strictures of a studio (and I have no idea whether having made two smaller works previously would make it any easier or more difficult), but Coogler has managed it, and offered up a terrific entertainment together with it.

The plot is integral to the substance of Black Panther; yet, because much of it is well known by now, and because readers who have not yet watched the film should go along and see it unfold for themselves, I won’t set it out here, but give brief notes of my personal reaction to the film, with little context.

First, to risk too negative a beginning, I note that the script (written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole) overtly introduced black radical views to its political themes (such as a pan-African philosophy somewhat resembling that of Malcolm X), yet made even more overt an effort to counter them with the development of the drama. I don’t know whether it was the studio or Coogler’s own inhibitions that reined in these sentiments, but I don’t think it clearly reflects his own views. There is a clear, resounding resonance, both in the script and as performed by Michael B. Jordan, to Erik’s speeches about what black people all over the world have suffered and how urgently redress is required. Coogler even seems to suggest his own affinity with Erik, who is played by a three-time collaborator (and Coogler has only directed three films) and who comes from Oakland in California, which is where Coogler grew up. In fact, even as I watched Coogler’s Creed in 2015, I understood it to be a pained cry for the many young black men and women across America who weren’t being saved as Adonis Creed had been. A ruthless reality of Hollywood is that, with $200 million, you don’t get to propagate what is seen as your radical politics (and the bland dramatic and political resolution of the main character’s speech at the United Nations is exactly what fits into a global entertainment’s schema); Coogler had to sublimate his characters’ battle of ideologies to a more conventional battle of physical strength and character. The contest is deliberately stacked against Erik, whose actions and intentions are contrived to repel audiences’ sympathies, even as Coogler worked to give his position some allure — through his sympathetic motives, his fortitude, and his swollen pectorals.

Coogler abandons traditional western pop-mythology archetypes and symbols (the wonder resource vibranium used by the nation of Wakanda in just about everything isn’t an analogue for nuclear technology, as it may have been in previous Hollywood blockbusters) just as he turns to unfamiliar African aesthetic and cultural elements. Together with the production designer, Hannah Bleacher (who has worked on Fruitvale Station, Creed, Lemonade, and Moonlight), and the costume designer, Ruth E. Carter (who has worked on Amistad, The Butler, Selma, and most of Spike Lee’s movies), Coogler has assembled a Wakandan visual culture from many different African heritages which were previously omitted from any Hollywood depiction of Africa, its people, and their cultures. Most of the sources for the costume and set designs were instantly recognisable to the audience I saw the film with in Pretoria, as was the distinctive touch the filmmakers gave them to adapt them for their setting of heightened fantasy and pop-mythology. It’s admirable, it’s extraordinary, and it’s particularly heartening for African audiences, yet it only skirts the surfaces of the vast cultural wealth on the continent. The only way for something good to come of it would be many more opportunities in the future for the deeper cinematic exhibition and adaptation of more specific cultures and their distinguishing elements. Many South African filmmakers passed by chances to do this in the past in order to make something more like what American and European filmmakers were doing; I hope they’re now encouraged to develop a more perceptive and idiosyncratic art here

As for the politics of Black Panther, Coogler uses the same fantasy construct of Wakanda for different purposes. He argues against the notion that Africans were at all dependent on western forces for development and innovation, and that colonialism and its effects are the main reasons the third world has not been able to reach the stature and capabilities of its more developed counterparts. Then, with Erik, he challenges Wakanda as he confronts the shame of official institutions and well-resourced government operations that neglect the many people around the world — or even in their own communities — in need, specifically the black people who have suffered centuries of racist oppression. The Marvel movies are often used by filmmakers to play out political fantasies and to present their own ideas on particular political views, refracted through the brightly coloured spectacle of a comic entertainment. But none previously had the bright light and burning heat of Coogler’s rousing extravaganza, which has the clear sense of having been forged under immense pressure, for both the artist and the many people his work hopes to represent.

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