A Dream Deferred
Black Panther promises much, but ultimately fails to deliver, regrets Phil Butland
It should be clear that it’s a marvellous thing that Black Panther has been made. A film with a black director and a largely black cast with a huge audience (cinemas have been full to bursting). I hope that it spawns a thousand sequels, and – more importantly – encourages Hollywood executives to finally throw some money the way of other black film makers and actors.
Black Panther is a visually stunning film – partly the whizz bang sciency bits, but especially the African landscapes. It features superb choreography, and looks sumptuous from start to end. Whether this is the result of on-site photography or computer generated hi-techery is largely irrelevant. Art is art and the scenes look fabulous, no matter how they were made.
All of which makes it even more sad to report that Black Panther is a mess of a film, both artistically and politically. Perhaps this requires a caveat – I am not the target audience, so what I think is largely irrelevant. I find the Marvel / Avengers / etc. franchises (are those the same thing?) cynical and exploitative, my favourite Batman by far was Adam West, and I‘m largely indifferent to films based around punch ups and car chases. Which is a bit of a shame, as there are a LOT of punch ups and car chases in Black Panther.
I feel that there is a fundamental problem with superhero films, which is that they almost universally lack any dramatic tension. It’s not really a spoiler to say that the Black Panther has a special suit which uses “kinetic energy” to deflect bullets, because that is just a variation on a theme used throughout the genre. It doesn’t matter how much the odds are stacked up against the Hero, because he (or ever so occasionally she) has the requisite superpowers to remain unscathed.
Which brings us to the second deficit of most superhero films, especially the large franchises. There is virtually no room for ambiguity. The good guy is unequivocally good, and the bad guy is the embodiment of evil, and there’s no way that this is going to change. Now, Black Panther is better than most in having a baddie who many people have found sympathetic (more of which later), but the film’s structure is so tightly constrained, that even this lacks the necessary aspect of rebellious jeopardy.
It doesn’t have to be that way – even in the strait jacket of genre film. Indeed Black Panther is predicated on a number of really interesting ideas. We’re in the kingdom of Wakanda – an outpost of Africa which has somehow avoided the predatory interest of Western colonialism. It has built an economy based on the miracle mineral of vibranium, and would be in a position to compete economically and militarily with the West. Instead, Wakanda has developed its own Black African society as an alternative to Western consumerism. This is a powerful message from a film emanating from a Hollywood that is still dominated by stories of rich white men.
This situation raises a number of ethical and political dilemmas. Wakanda may be hidden, but it is not unaware of what is happening elsewhere. Can a society of black people sit back and accept the everyday racism of other countries? Is there a case for developing military technology? Should the Wakandans export their egalitarian society, or would that just be as bad as liberal imperialism from the West? Such questions are briefly suggested, but quickly thrown away on the road to the next punch up.
Black Panther is part of a proud tradition of utopian films which imagine a better society, and yet we see very little about how this society actually works. Firstly, the slightest glance will show that the society is in fact a long way away from an egalitarian paradise. Wakanda is very much a “kingdom”. The only important people are big men of royal blood who are Good at Fighting. Sure, there are a couple of female characters who are allowed to be there (more so than in most other mainstream films). One is good at science, one is good at weapons or something. But any time there’s a real decision that needs to be made about changing anything, it’s back to the big men fighting.
At least the women are allowed to appear – and occasionally express opinions and ideas – in between the fight scenes. Hey, some women are even allowed to carry and throw spears. But the world outside the royal court is entirely absent. The economy may be based on vibranium, but we learn nothing of the hopes and aspirations of the people working in the vibranium mines.
This is very much the story of a privileged elite. Even the street fighter who grew up in the slums of Oakland is only really deemed interesting because of his royal blood. It is great to have a film which is unequivocally anti-racist, but it is still in thrall to existing power structures. It is also dispiritingly conservative on an artistic level, and dependent on very conventional, und unbelievable plot developments.
This is difficult to explain without specifically referring to the film’s contents, such as it is, so from now on HERE BE SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t know want to know what happens, stop reading now and come back later.
Let’s start with the stupidest “plot twist” of them all. Halfway through the film, the main hero dies. There’s no two ways about it, he falls down a massive waterfall with no chance of survival. Except surely no-one in the cinema really believes that he’s dead. We know they need him for the next film in the franchise. So, the way in which he recovers (oh, they’ve found his body, and he’s nearly dead but not quite, and look-ee we have some traditional magic potions to cure him) is profoundly uninteresting. He is revived because the accountants need him to survive.
Throughout the film – from the casino and car chase scenes in South Korea which are very reminiscent of Roger Moore era James Bond films, to the bit towards the end, when the blue blood rebels find a conveniently unattended fighter jet, coherent plot is thrown aside to enable a big fight scene. And this artistic conservatism walks hand-in-hand with an equivalent political conservatism.
This does not mean that the film takes no bold steps. At the start of the film, Andy Serkis is obviously having a whale of a time as the South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. For quite a while it looks like Klaue is being set up as the unquestionable villain. But without warning, he is unceremoniously killed off (presumably Serkis’s services are not required for any sequel), thus setting up a conflict between two black characters.
This move is potentially very interesting indeed. Equal opportunity for black actors means access to all leading roles – heroes and villains. And a conflict between two people with legitimate claims to authority brings with it the potential of much more moral ambiguity than a fight between a noble black prince and an evil arms dealer. The problem is that the film absolutely fails to deliver on this ambiguity and does not waver in its support for the old regime.
At the heart of the film is a battle between the young king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who wants to preserve Wakanda’s isolationism, and Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), who wants to use Wakanda’s financial and military power to support black liberation struggles in other countries (he even has a Public Enemy poster on his wall – way to go). And yet this discussion is never really articulated. T’Challa is never called on to defend his position, and Killmonger is exposed as a power-hungry egotist who is just in it for himself. Any idea of, say, linking up with the people fighting racism in the West isn’t worth a mention.
Ultimately, there is never any real doubt about who we are supposed to root for, and what could have been a revolutionary discussion about the responsibilities of power ends up solidly backing the status quo. The film continually encourages us to cheer on the King who is good at Fighting, and the Nice CIA man played by Tim from the Office. The ideas of challenging these power structures never come into the mouths of anyone who is not a pantomime villain.
Speaking of Tim from the office… Since his tv breakthrough, Freeman has made a career of playing sympathetic characters with whom the audience is most likely to identify. And it is a testimony to his reputation and his everyman qualities that we barely stop for a minute to ask “just wait one minute. How come a man who has spent his life destabilising other countries on the orders of the US government has suddenly joined the ‘good’ guys?”
Yet this is part of the film’s overriding politics – the idea that all change comes from above and that the only important people are the wielders of power. It’s kind of fitting that it’s the CIA black ops guy who shoots down planes sending solidarity to the victims of racism in the West. He may have changed his political allies, but his job is the same as it ever was.
Which brings us to the film’s final offer. Since we’ve ruled out the idea of standing up to racism, we’ll act as some sort of global NGO which will tell people to be nice to each other. And which forum will we use to do this? Well the general assembly of the United Nations, among the neoliberal leaders of the world (who have issued a guest pass to the CIA’s Bilbo Baggins). When the King who is Good at Fighting tells the UN bigwigs that “there is more that unites us than divides us”, he is saying much more than he thinks he is.
Does any of this matter? Probably not, as a good film does not have to be particularly coherent or believable – as anyone who has recently seen The Shape of Water can tell. But whereas The Shape of Water exudes humaneness and a passion for ideas, Black Panther never seems to break out of its own universe. In the end, it’s nonsense on stilts. Good that it was made, but please don’t make me go to the inevitable sequel.