Reflections On Black Panther

Now that we’ve all seen it, Echoes Deputy Editor, Kevin Le Gendre has some thoughts on the significance of the year’s most talked-about movie.

Pre-release hype is mostly tedious, but occasionally instructive. The build up to Black Panther, ‘the most anticipated Marvel film ever’, created such a media glare it risked obscuring the celluloid itself in a dark shadow. Among the planetary blitz of spoilers and interviews there was one particular moment that captured both the meaning and misunderstanding of Ryan Coogler’s film, a blockbuster in the true sense of the term, whose $200m budget has been handsomely offset by a box office of $786m to date.
On BBC One’s drive-time magazine programme The One Show,  Jeremy Kyle could hardly contain his excitement when he made this startling observation to the film’s lead Chadwick Boseman. “It is overwhelmingly a black cast.” The actor marked a studied hesitation, a pause long enough to put some upper case apostrophe marks in the air, before cracking a smile.’ He drew breath and said what needed to be said.
“Yeah, I guess that is very striking.” Cue audience laughter caught between awkward bonhomie and prickly irony. “It’s weird because I’m used to it now, having been on this film for over a year. It’s sort of a normal thing, like I don’t go to work every day, saying ‘wow, I’m around all these black people.” More comfort grins and clench-the-teeth chuckles, with Boseman’s affable demeanour at the height of professionalism.

Indeed the whole phenomenon that is Black Panther can very easily fade to Black, as in the Black cast, the Black movie, the Black moment, the Black thing. Discussion of the storyline, plot twists, locations, costumes, production values, characters and themes are thereby zapped with more potency than the precious raw material vibranium, a key driver of the fantastic tale, when the focus on race is all consuming.
Identity politics, especially when sketched out in broad rather than brush strokes, tend to do that in the best of cases. But Coogler’s movie is particularly prone to these kind of reductions because its profile is so high, its promotion so effective and visibility so great. None of which changes the fact that he made a genre movie, first and foremost, which can tie us into troublesome semantic knots where every nuance really matters.
The film has black superheroes. But it is also a superhero film with black characters.
Which means that Coogler was tasked with providing mainstream entertainment to satisfy the fanbase of a behemoth franchise as much as he was making a statement to the betterment of the race. Needless to say there is something infinitely empowering about seeing a work with such impressive visual panache, with lead roles filled by ‘ethnic minorities’, be greeted by queues around the block at multiplexes the world over. But it should not be forgotten that, as well written and directed as Black Panther is, it does not escape what are really Hollywood’s rules of engagement.

One of the most potentially interesting areas of discussion, the complex relationship between the fictional African state of Wakanda and the black Diaspora, isn’t effectively developed, with Kilmonger, the African-American who sits between the two, disappointingly defined by violence. The fact that the most prominent white character is a virtuous operative of the CIA, an agency with a long history of persecution of blacks and murky interventions in foreign states that are seen as un-American, especially if they have precious resources, makes that offkey.
In one scene there’s a split-second glimpse of a poster of Huey Newton, the other Black Panther, in iconic ‘spear and gun’ pose. Striking as the portrait is, the resonance feels somewhat muted, as the whole subject of freedom fighters in a specific age and circumstance is too big and shocking a subject to shoehorn into 12A classifications.
The film’s white baddie, who is an effortlessly appealing confection, is killed off way too early, leaving the saga somewhat lopsided, boiling things down to a clash of the titans, when the early stages of the piece hinted at more challenging sub-plots involving the iniquities of capitalism, exploitation and globalization. But that would have meant less choreography and C.G.I-macking. It’s a superhero extravaganza.

Inevitably, compromises had to be made. There is much fine humour in the film, some of which also stems from the balancing act Coogler has to pull off. When two members of from Wakanda’s fearsome imperial guard turn up in America they are described as ‘Grace Jones looking chicks.’ The audience at Peckhamplex, south London, creased up at that line. The dialogue is perfectly pitched.
On reflection that was not the best cultural reference, though. The two shaven-headed, body-suited enforcers were deadringers for the powerhouse Beninois singer Angelique Kidjo, who rocked that look 20 years ago. But had her name been heard far fewer cinemagoers – outside of Africa – would have clicked. So a standard-bearer of African music loses out to one for western pop. Chances are that more middle class whites would cotton on to Kidjo than working class blacks.
Which is exactly where race and the whole black cast question pales, at least temporarily, into insignificance. Aside from diversity in the film industry there is an equally pressing enquiry to make about segmentation in the music business, and why an artist of Kidjo’s stature isn’t as rooted in popular consciousness as Jones, and by extension, whether Kidjo’s categorization as a purveyor of World Music has closed as well as opened doors for her in some way. In opting for Jones over Kidjo, Coogler made exactly the right call for a Hollywood flick, but the detail serves to remind us of the deep stratification of the world in which we live, and the enormous array of manifestations of black culture, some of which are lost on certain blacks. If there had been a nod to the Afro-futurist aesthetic of Sun Ra, there are people of colour who may have been left in the dark, all the more so if mention had been made of Congolese artist Eddy Kamuanga Bunga whose dazzling canvases feature figures with sleek silhouettes not light years from the ornate costumes in Black Panther.

Coogler’s 2013 debut Fruitvale Station was a superbly sobre depiction of an individual, with the most human of flaws, caught in tragic, dehumanizing circumstances, that shone a light on race relations and police brutality in modern day America. Black Panther is the arena show to that chamber piece. It makes statements on European colonialism and African independence but they are beholden to fast-paced action that, again with mainstream audiences in mind, invokes the spirit of a Bond move in no uncertain terms. Letitia Wright’s Shuri delivers some choice one- liners about the drudgery of ‘another broken white boy for me to fix’ but she is essentially a zestful iteration of Q, an endearing gadget geek who can also kick ass.
Which is entirely logical given that ‘minority audiences’ relate to glitzy big budget franchises as much as any other demographic. And that any staple can be refitted with a black cast, whether it’s a musical such as The Wiz or a western like Posse.
‘A black movie’ should not be restricted to a movie with black people. It is a story that black people feel a need to tell, and that doesn’t always have to feature black people in order for it to be absolutely relevant to the lives of black people.
British director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was a vital adaptation of testimony by a Negro held in bondage, but if that strengthened his credentials as a black filmmaker then it also made perfect sense for him to tackle subjects as varied as the hunger strikes by Republican prisoners in early ‘80s Northern Ireland [Hunger] and alienation and sex addiction in the internet age [Shame]. Most wouldn’t classify these works as black movies, but that misses the point. They are the fruit of a creative black man who has a passion for many historical as well as contemporary issues.
Lord knows there is a need for people of colour, be they in film or music, to have a presence, but beyond that there remains the question of the gamut of interests they are allowed to pursue, the cultures they define that will challenge rather than fulfill anybody’s expectations, and whether they follow their muse wherever it may take them. Although audiences are already brimming with excitement for the return of the character of Black Panther in Infinity War it will be equally important, beyond any gargantuan profits made, to see what director Coogler and actors such as Lupita Nyong’o, given her breakout role by none other than the aforesaid McQueen, do next.

In that memorable One Show moment with Chadwick Boseman, Jeremy Kyle made a bid for clarity after his initial fumble. “Did you feel you were part of a cultural change here or not?” said the presenter. “This is an extraordinary moment,” stated Boseman.   “Maybe it shouldn’t be extraordinary,” quickly interjected Kyle’s co-host Alex Jones.
“That’s the point I’m making,” he went on. “I think we have to see what happens as far as black film goes…. every decade there is a period of time where there are black filmmakers… and we’re all excited about it so it becomes a trend. I would hesitate to call it a renaissance, but we don’t know what’s gonna happen in the future…. we need ten more years to look back and see if the industry actually did change.”

Kevin Le Gendre