Black Panther ★★★★

#52FilmsByPOC 2018 pt. 8.

For anyone who's spent time on the African continent, the cinematic realization of Wakanda is going to be puzzling. It's ostensibly in central Africa, but the terrain and architecture are obviously South African. The language spoken is Xhosa, and several characters prominently wear distinctive Basotho blankets (incorrectly, fwiw). But there are other cultures on display: some characters wear the red body paint and dreadlocks of Namibia's Himba people, some character costumes are modeled on Maasai from east Africa, and one wears a lip plate of the type seen in Ethiopia. The characters' accents when speaking English range from southern African to west African and everything in between, sometimes in the same performance (Daniel Kaluuya, I'm looking at you).

I'm not sure what this mishmash of incongruous cultural elements was meant to achieve. If I'm being glass-half-full about it, I could say that the fictional locale of Wakanda is meant as a love letter to all things African, a sort of fantasy continental United Nations. More cynically, I might say that it's crass Hollywood producers throwing a bunch of "African" looking elements around without much thought as to whether they go together. Knowing Ryan Coogler's integrity as a filmmaker I don't want to believe that's the case, but I also know that Disney corporate exercises very tight control over their properties, and I'm not sure how much Coogler was hamstrung by them.

Cultural questions aside, this is a well-told story with exhilarating action and incredible performances by everyone, with Jordan, Gurira, Serkis and Wright deserving special mention. (Serkis's slimy Afrikaaner accent and attitude is a subtle touch, but certainly not lost on me.) And it's refreshing to see a mainstream Hollywood superhero movie dealing so frankly with postcolonial political concerns. I found myself agreeing with the bad guy almost every time he opened his mouth, which is challenging and interesting in a movie like this.

And the black love was so real in the theater on opening night, and that's a very special thing.

Cf. Wonder Woman

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