All hail the King

Marvel’s lat­est block­buster is an imag­i­na­tive over­turn­ing of re­ceived Hol­ly­wood wis­dom and a multi-lay­ered, Afro­fu­tur­is­tic cel­e­bra­tion of the world’s first Black su­per­hero

Fortean Times - - Reviews / Films -

Black Pan­ther Dir Ryan Coogler, US 2017 On UK re­lease

It’s not of­ten that a movie feels like a cul­tural event, but for all the me­dia hype on the one hand and the in­evitable nay-say­ers on the other, the pal­pa­ble sense of ex­cite­ment around Mar­vels’s

Black Pan­ther is real enough. Cer­tainly, there have been other black screen su­per­heroes – from the pre-MCU Blade films star­ring Wes­ley Snipes to Will Smith’s

Han­cock – but with the genre’s sub­se­quent as­cent to box of­fice dom­i­nance, the stakes, in terms of rep­re­sen­ta­tion as well as cash, are now im­mea­sur­ably higher; and this is why peo­ple are at­tach­ing so much im­por­tance to what is, to the lit­eral-minded – whether cul­tural snobs, an­t­i­cap­i­tal­ist hand-wringers, alt-right idiots, DC fan­boys or bone­headed ras­cists – just an­other big-bud­get crowd-pleaser from the Marvel su­per­hero sausage-fac­tory.

But Black Pan­ther was al­ways about mak­ing a point as well as mak­ing a splash: when Civil Rights con­scious Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in­tro­duced the world’s first black su­per­hero in 1966, in is­sue 52 of The Fan­tas­tic

Four, they knew ex­actly what they were do­ing: even the re­li­ably cyn­i­cal Ben Grimm was im­pressed, at least by the African leader’s in­te­rior dec­o­rat­ing skills (“Wow! Wotta pad!”).

T’Challa was no spear-wield­ing sav­age, no­ble or oth­er­wise, from the fevered imag­i­na­tion of a pre­vi­ous age of pulp fic­tion, but the canny ruler of a tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced African na­tion that had man­aged to stay off the radar of the colo­nial­ist West and de­velop in glo­ri­ous iso­la­tion. He had the same kind of sci­en­tific smarts as Reed Richards or Tony Stark, but was also bet­ter look­ing than Sid­ney Poitier and proudly African to boot. Ever since he first head­lined his own comics in the 1970s, Black Pan­ther has been a po­lit­i­cal ti­tle, whether we’re talk­ing Don McGre­gor putting him up against the Klan or drop­ping him into Aparthei­dera South Africa, Christo­pher Pri­est’s fre­quently hi­lar­i­ous de­con­struc­tion of ‘African’ tropes or Ta-Ne­hisi Coates’s ex­plo­rations of gov­er­nance and monar­chy in the ti­tle’s lat­est in­car­na­tion.

Black Pan­ther’s first solo film out­ing trans­lates many of these el­e­ments – the sense of em­pow­er­ment and won­der, the Afro­fu­tur­is­tic themes – into cin­e­matic terms with nearcom­plete suc­cess. While it was fun to wit­ness the char­ac­ter’s in­tro­duc­tion in 2016’s Cap­tain

Amer­ica: Civil War, the real ex­cite­ment here is see­ing where he came from – the fic­tional king­dom of Wakanda, which of­fers up a heady mix of tra­di­tion and fu­tur­is­tic tech, cut­ting edge sci­ence and some­times prob­lem­atic trib­al­ism. It’s the vis­ual equiv­a­lent of a Sun Ra al­bum or a P-Funk stage show – EMP-driven mono­rails, saucer-like fly­ing craft, cos­mic mys­ti­cism and a riot of Afro­cen­tic dec­o­ra­tion. Wakanda is also, though, an hered­i­tary monar­chy (there are some supris­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties to Net­flix hit The Crown here) whose newly-an­nointed King has to bal­ance the con­flict­ing pulls of iso­la­tion­ism and in­ter­ven­tion in the wider world.

This be­comes more than just a ques­tion of geopo­lit­i­cal the­ory with the ar­rival of Erik Kill­mon­ger, an em­bit­tered yet tragic fig­ure whose Wakan­dan her­itage was stolen from him when he was aban­doned as a child to grow up on the mean streets of Amer­ica. Kill­mon­ger is one of Marvel’s most com­plex and mem­o­rable bad guys – one who has a real and im­por­tant point to make about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween na­tion­hood and the Black di­as­pora – and Michael B Jor­dan’s per­for­mance is a pow­er­ful and heart­felt one. It’s a stand­out, but just one among many. Chad­wick Bose­man’s T’Challa is frankly ir­re­sistible, just as he should be – re­gal, soft­spo­ken and cool as a cu­cum­ber, with a sly sense of hu­mour lurk­ing un­der all the grav­i­tas.

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