Don’t damn “Black Panther” with faint praise
A new Marvel movie means a lot of familiar things at this point in the company’s tenure. Perhaps Kevin Feige is interviewed by Vanity Fair about just how amazing it is that this is all happening. Someone else, maybe Entertainment Weekly, asks the stars about donning a goofy suit for the, as they put it, umpteenth installment of the most successful film franchise of all time.
The tone and tenor surrounding “Black Panther” is decidedly different, and for good reason. It boasts a predominantly black cast, is directed by a black man (Ryan Coogler) and is co-written by Coogler and another black man (Joe Robert Cole). The cinematographer is a woman (albeit a white woman, Rachel Morrison), and the production designer, Hannah Beachler, is a black woman.
That’s absolutely significant, as is the vast quantity of black faces that make up the cast, crew, heart and soul of “Black Panther.” Naturally, as the reviews (let alone the pre-film coverage) celebrated the film as a game-changer, in no small part because of this fact. Here’s an excerpt of a self-identified positive review from the Chicago Reader: “The identity politics provide a fresh spin to the genre's increasingly tedious narrative formula.”
Then there’s this from IndieWire: “You believe in T'Challa, you believe in Wakanda, and you believe - maybe for the first time - that the MCU actually matters.”
You get the idea. The flavor of these sort of reviews is that finally the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a film worth talking about. That’s an opinion a human being can hold, of course, it’s just a puzzling one. At least, puzzling if Marvel’s poor representation up to this point is what has been holding you back (I can’t speak for the above two reviewers, but I’ll go out on a limb and say, it isn’t.).
It’s also worth noting that while “Black Panther” is an incredible moment, it’s worth being skeptical of Marvel until this becomes a trend rather than a one-off. A film does not make a movement, and this is not a movement yet. 17 films without a person of color (18 without a woman) in the title role isn’t a great track record, and the company has a long way to go to even the score.
But these problems are not unique to Marvel, far from it. Look at the ensemble casts of the nine films nominated for best picture at the Oscars this year, and tell me how many come close to accomplishing what Coogler and company did with his third picture. This isn’t to provide a scapegoat for a comic book company turned production house — my point is that “Black Panther” isn’t a watershed moment for Marvel, it’s a groundbreaking moment for the movie industry.
It’s not just a great comic book film, it’s one of the best movies released in the past decade. I’m not surprised, I suppose, that critics play this game. Every film released in the MCU boasts something between a 97 (“Black Panther”) and 66 percent (“Thor: The Dark World”) on Rotten Tomatoes. I know that’s not a perfect rating system, but I feel comfortable saying most critics claim to enjoy these films when they’re released.
So why, then, do we have to deal with this bullshit every time they’re released? This is the boring sort of superiority complex that causes parents to leave you on read. It’s lines like: “Black Panther isn't a film about battling a giant robot or chasing magic stones. Instead, it explores issues of power and privilege, taking us inside a country torn apart by questions about whether to share its riches,” from Eli Glasner of CBC News that drip with the sneering attitude so many rightfully resent about movie critics.
How about a dose of reality for those who think the heavy themes of “Black Panther” were only a wake up call to superhero movies. The Academy was ready to hand over the Oscar for best picture to “La La Land” a year ago, and the universally praised “Baby Driver” didn’t exactly get the job done with heady discussions of what it meant to brave the world with a hearing impairment (but it does have an almost all-white cast in an action movie!)
“Black Panther” is an incredible film because it forces T’Challa to reconcile with demons of both his own, and his country’s making. It’s an incredible film because he’s surrounded by women who are multifaceted and amazing every time they’re on screen. Coogler, Morrison, Beachler and every other talented person on the Panther crew put together one of the best films I’ve seen in years. Saying it’s just a standout Marvel film is bullshit. This is a pinnacle of movie making, because white people aren’t making films like this, and you know it just as well as I do it. Have the courage to write that next to your sneering criticism of robots and magic rocks.