Friday, September 21, 2018
OSCAR WATCH: Black Panther
When Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" released on February 16 this year, few could have predicted the cultural juggernaut it would become. 7 months later, it still sits comfortably atop the year's box office and critics' charts, a position it will likely hold for the rest of 2018. With this level of success, it's unsurprising that the blockbuster became embroiled in a debate over the validity of the Academy's hastily announced new category for Best Popular Film. Thankfully, that ill-advised idea was subsequently scrapped, allowing Disney to refocus its awards campaign strategy to once again take aim at the Best Picture race. Of course, the ongoing fall festival circuit is providing many other alternatives. Therefore, I felt it would be an appropriate to reassess the film's merits.
"Black Panther" takes place in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a prosperous nation untainted by the colonial exploitation. Thanks to an omnipotent mineral called vibranium, its people have experienced considerable wealth and technical advancements which have allowed them to stay hidden from the rest of the world. Sustaining that level of independence and affluence is the primary concern of its heir apparent T'Challa, destined to ascend the throne following the untimely death of his father. But Wakanda's secret is under serious threat, as outsiders plot to harness the vibranium for nefarious means. With his nation under attack, T'Challa must call upon his allies and his own powers - obtained by a heart-shaped herb - to defeat these infiltrators and protect his people.
T'Challa's story has been a long time coming, as one of the newest members of the wildly popular superhero team called the Avengers to make the big screen. And to our relief, the resulting film was worth the wait. Delivering action-packed entertainment with a potent undercurrent of black power and struggle, "Black Panther" elevated the Marvel Cinematic Universe to new heights of sociocultural relevance.
Indeed, the film's "blackness" plays a large role in the film's success. Directed by Ryan Coogler in only his third outing as a director, the film is the rare Marvel film that feels driven by a distinct voice. Blending the poignant social commentary of his debut "Fruitvale Station" with the big-budget showmanship of "Creed", this film is the natural progression for his ascendant filmography. Like both of those films, "Black Panther" puts black faces front and center, showcasing both their inherited trauma and resilient glory.
What makes "Black Panther" so special is the way it addresses a topic rarely explored in cinema before. Namely, the diasporic tensions between Africans and African-Americans. In that regard, the film introduces a compelling villain in the form of Erik Killomger (played with dangerous swagger by Coogler's muse Michael B. Jordan). His resentment of Wakanda's self-serving apathy towards the struggle of their African diaspora makes him an empathetic figure, despite his bloodthirsty mentality.
While Killmonger's morally complex philosophy and intense conviction may garner Oscar attention for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor, it is actually this aspect that forms the source of my only critique against the film. Understandably, the film ultimately plays it safe in putting Killmonger's revolutionary plan in motion. As such, it left me wishing Marvel had taken a bolder narrative risk, which they actually did in Avengers Infinity War two months later.
Nevertheless, Coogler more than makes up for it with the exhilarating spectacle of the filmmaking, so richly infused with the aforementioned elements of "blackness". From the thumping hip-hop beats of the soundtrack, to the real-word parralels of its Pan-African plot, to the dazzling production design and costumes, the meticulous world-building is truly a sight to behold. And for pure thrills, its Busan-set action setpiece is easily one of the most impressive of the year. Oscar nods for Best Director, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing would be well deserved.
As the long awards season progresses, it's quite possible that Academy voters may ultimately dismiss "Black Panther" as just another Marvel movie. But if you place close attention, you'll realize that the film stands out on its own, offering a complete story that challenges as much as it entertains. Maybe the superhero glut at the cinemas isn't so bad after all.