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Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther is unlike any other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film prior. It’s unlike any other super hero film prior. Yes, there have been African-American leading men in comic-based movies, notably Wesley Snipes’ half-vampire-all-badass Blade. However, this is the first movie I can think of with this kind of budget, this kind of backing, and with this kind of ownership over its cultural heritage and the heavy burdens it carries.

We last saw T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War mourning the loss of his father, the king of the African nation of Wakanda. The outside world does not know that Wakanda sits on a vast supply of virbanium, the strongest and more durable metal in the world and the key to Wakanda’s impressive technology. Under a holographic cover, Wakanda is a thriving metropolis with flying cars, skyscrapers, and next gen weapons. T’Challa goes home and must earn the right to the throne. However, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a former top-level black ops solider, is looking for his own path into Wakanda and onto the throne. Killmonger teams up with arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), to force Wakanda to deal with being cut off from the world.

This is a movie populated almost entirely by black faces, notably black women (more on that later), and they are given a mainstream platform that celebrates its multitudinous African roots and traditions thanks to co-writer/director Ryan Coogler (Creed). This movie is proudly black, which will rankle some on the fringes of society, as if celebrating one’s own identity is somehow denigrating those who do not apply to that status. Black Panther is not an exclusionary movie because of its content and execution; this is a very accessible movie to a mass audience, even those who haven’t been paying attention to every nitty-gritty detail in the previous seventeen MCU entries. There are only two characters from other MCU films that appear, one as a post-credits cameo and the other an officious representative (Martin Freeman) of the outside’s clandestine organizations. This is a unique world isolated from the long shadow of colonialism. Wakanda has never known, to our knowledge, the depravity of the European and American slave trade. They have continued to develop uninterrupted by conquerors, slave traders, and the crippling aftereffects of racism. The Wakanda people could very easily be the conquerors themselves. They’re the most technologically advanced nation on the planet and hide as a “third-world nation,” utilizing the ignorance of the Western world to its security. The world of Wakanda is a fascinating, awe-inspiring, and defiantly independent nation.

The larger theme is over the responsibilities inherent to those with privilege. The nation of Wakanda is vastly successful by all conventional metrics. T’Challa must wrestle with whether to continue their exclusionary stance, ignore the plight of the larger world and say it’s none of their business or engage with the world, potentially putting his own kingdom’s peace and prosperity at risk. It’s a simple enough theme and yet it has tremendous weight to it especially when you account for those on the other end of the Wakanda borders. The character of Killmonger is a direct reflection of this. His experiences in Oakland are not the ideal pairing with the luxury of Wakanda. Killmonger sees Wakanda’s great influence as a way to protect beleaguered black citizens of the world and especially in the United States. It’s a way to prevent more senseless deaths from black citizens who were slain as a result of the fear of just being black (a powerful example was Coogler’s debut film, Fruitvale Station). It’s a pointed political statement that doesn’t get too heavy-handed (even though I would have preferred that). It questions the value of isolationism especially when suffering can be prevented. Killmonger works as a villain because you can understand his point of view. He goes beyond the need for vengeance. The wrongs he wants to right are larger and historical. Even Killmonger’s last line really attaches itself to this theme. T’Challa offers him a way out but with imprisonment. “No,” Killmonger declines, “My people were the ones who leaped over the sides of the slave ships. They knew death was better than bondage.” The emphasis is “his people,” not T’Challa’s, not Wakanda. His people were the ones who suffered from slavery. Could Wakanda have possibly prevented it?

Another wonderful surprise of Black Panther is its incredible all-female ensemble that provides expert support to their king. T’Challa has the good fortune of four strong women, each of them having a different and vital relationship to him. The standout will be Danai Gurira (TV’s Walking Dead) as the fierce chief of security, Okoye. She has a swagger that vacillates between being intimidating and being brashly enjoyable. Okoye has many of the best lines and she throws herself into every fight. There’s also a sense of duty that transcends a single man that challenges her loyalty. Letitia Wright (TV’s Humans) plays Shuri, the Q of this world, the top scientist and creator of many a gadget. She’s T’Challa’s little sister and their interplay is very competitive and teasing. She’s looking to be more involved in the action and a highlight is when she teams up with her big bro. Lupita Nyong’o (The Jungle Book) is Nakia, a former flame of T’Challa’s who comes in and out of his life as an undercover spy. All three of these women have a powerful sense of agency and are integrated in important and essential ways. Even though Nakia may slide into that romantic interest role, she still has a vibrant life outside whatever feelings she may or may not have for the hero. Then there’s T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who radiates strength and fortitude. These women gave me some of the biggest moments of entertainment in the entire 135 minutes of movie.

Now some careful readers might note that I haven’t done much to emphasize the actual action of the super hero action movie, and that’s for a good reason. Black Panther stands stronger on theme and character than it does its actual action sequences. Coogler had a wonderful sense of scale and verisimilitude with 2015’s Creed, relying on long takes to put the audience in the heightened drama of the boxing ring. With Black Panther, the action sequences can lose a sense of immediacy. Many happen at night or are filmed and edited in ways that diminish some of their impact, like hand-to-hand combat in splashing water where the splashes obscure the activity. Other scenes felt like a video game CGI cut-scene. Speaking of video games, Black Panther’s suit has a crazy ability to absorb the kinetic energy of weapons, which means the stakes take a dip when our hero can merely just stand and allow himself to get shot repeatedly. The payoff for this absorption is a giant energy shockwave but it plays out like a fighting game’s special feature. It’s an aspect that’s not really utilized in a satisfying or unique way. The final showdown between Black Panther and Killmonger feels too weightless in execution. It’s meant to even the playing field by nullifying their extra abilities, but if they both have the same “Panther powers” isn’t the field already even? The third act, the usual punching bag for MCU critics, is the best part of the movie from an action standpoint. It utilizes the characters in significant ways and allows for organic complications while still maintaining its wider sense of spectacle. Plus it’s one of the few action sequences that allow all the pyrotechnics to be enjoyed during the visibility of day.

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Boseman (Marshall) was an excellent choice for a stoic and too-cool-for-school character that can glide right on by. The ageless Boseman is at his best when he’s working off the other actors, especially his female posse. He has a couple of very effective emotional confrontations as he learns of his family’s secrets. As steady and soothing a presence as Boseman can be, this is Jordan’s movie. Michael B. Jordan (Creed) has been Coogler’s cinematic good luck charm and we’re still benefiting from that divine kinship. His character is at the heart of the central thematic question. While T’Challa is ultimately the one who has to decide, it is Killmonger who embodies that need for change and the desire to rectify the past. There’s a flashback with Jordan that got me to tear up, and this guy was the villain! It’s one of the film’s biggest mistakes sidelining Jordan for far too long. After his introduction, Killmonger is strangely absent for the next hour or so of the movie, ceding the spotlight to Serkis (War for the Planet of the Apes), a more antic and goofy scenery-chewing baddie who has a few regrettably “faux hip” lines of dialogue that land awkwardly. Serkis is having a blast but can feel like a holdover from a different film.

Much like last summer’s Wonder Woman, this is a movie that is going to mean a lot to a lot of people. It has a personal significance that I will not be able to fully tap into, no matter the expansive powers of empathy. Black Panther, as a long-awaited cultural moment, will have many ripples of inspiration. After my early screening, I sat back and watched an African-American boy, no older than seven or eight, walk out of the theater in a daze. His eyes were wide, his mouth agape, and he said in astonishment, “That was the best movie ever.” That kid has a hero he can call his own. That matters. Black Panther, as a work of art, is rich in topical themes and has a wide supporting net of exciting, robust, and capable women. I enjoyed how personal and relevant and political the movie could become, folding new and challenging ideas onto the MCU formula. Coogler is a marvelous director and storyteller showing rare acumen for being able to handle the rigors of a Hollywood blockbuster and deliver something hearty. The action has some issues and there are some structural hiccups that hold it from the MCU’s upper echelon (I enjoyed all of the 2017 MCU movies better). Black Panther is a winning movie when it features its sterling cast celebrating their virtues and solidarity and a still respectable enough action spectacle when called upon for big screen duty.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Creed (2015)

creedpostersmallCreed is a crowd-pleaser, an effective character drama, and a rewarding continuation into the Rocky franchise that brings greater relevancy to Sylvester Stallone’s acting muscles. Thanks to the talents of co-writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and star Michael B. Jordan, the franchise is given new life by mostly following the same tried-and-true underdog formula that Stallone helped cement long ago. Jordan plays Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son to the deceased boxing legend, and he wants to make his way on his own merits. Adonis tracks Rocky (Stallone) down and convinces him to be his trainer, and the two build a father-son relationship supplying the half the other was sorely missing. From there the plot is fairly predictable as the media discovers Adonis’ identity and he’s fast-tracked for a high-profile bout with the outgoing champ but the movie still hits the right notes to earn its emotional triumph. I was surprised at the careful attention Coogler gave his supporting characters, providing details to round them out and make them feel like legitimate people rather than stock roles. I enjoyed Tessa Thompson (Dear White People) being an actual character rather than an underdeveloped love interest. Coogler’s fluidity with the camera is also striking, and many of the boxing matches are filmed in long tracking shots that amp up the sports verisimilitude. Jordan gives a strongly felt performance that further confirms his star status. The real surprise is Stallone, whose legendary fighter is starting to break down physically. Rocky’s inability to fight an invisible enemy makes for great drama, and Stallone sinks into the meaty dialogue. He has a few genuinely affecting moments, and I didn’t even know Stallone was still capable of that. Easily the best Rocky sequel, Creed is an uplifting underdog tale that doesn’t reinvent the formula but brings added attention, reverence, and sincerity to a whole lot of punching people in the face.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Fruitvale Station (2013)

fruitvale_station_ver2_xlgIn the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was forcefully escorted off the Oakland transit system by armed officers. He was believed to be involved in some sort of gang-related scuffle on the train. Over the din of confusion, shouting, and anger, Oscar was shot and killed by a transit cop. His death sparked waves of outrage in his hometown and grabbed national headlines. Ryan Coogler was so passionate about Oscar’s death that he decided to write and direct a movie detailing the last hours of Grant’s life. He snagged Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer (The Help) to star, attached Forrest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) as a producer, and the ensuing film, Fruitvale Station, debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and won the top honors. Thanks to Coogler, many more people will have a chance to get to know Oscar Grant as a person rather than an unfortunate statistic.

Coogler creates a remarkable debut film for himself, one where the details of life feel richly realized and observed. Sure there are obvious symbolic metaphors introduced like boiling lobsters and a lost dog that dies in Oscar’s arms (yes, foreshadowing), but as a whole Fruitvale Station feels like real life transposed onto celluloid. Coogler also works hard to humanize all the participants in his film, save for the transit cops at the end. There is a refreshing lack of judgment throughout the film as people are allowed to be the ambiguous creatures we are. No more so than Oscar. He has moments that make you wince, but mostly we watch a man struggling to get his life in order. He’s terrific with his daughter, loving and naturally attentive; he puts his family’s needs ahead of his own when it comes to money; he even helps a stranger learn how flash fry a fish, though there’s a hint of flirtation guiding his actions. But he also can’t hold onto a job, has trouble being more actionable in his life’s decisions, and temptation is always banging on his door to lead him back to prison. He’s a complicated man and Jordan (Chronicle) masterfully brings the man and his complexities to life. This is a star-making performance by Jordan (as was his turn on The Wire) and I was stunned at how easily Jordan dissolves completely into his role. There isn’t a physical nuance or line delivery that feels false. It’s a sympathetic humanization and Jordan’s performance is a gift. Combined with Coogler’s deft handling, Fruitvale Station is engrossing.

fruitvale-station-traile%20660For much of the film I felt like I was attending a funeral. It’s hard to watch at times, especially watching Oscar’s family wait at the hospital for the news we already know is coming. It reminded me of 2006’s United 93, where the overwhelming sense of dread held over every scene, every innocuous moment held the extra weight that it would be the last time this person was doing this or talking to this person; the dread of waiting for the end we all know is coming. Coogler opens his film with real phone video recordings of the death of Oscar Grant, so from the first moment on we’re awaiting the horrible inevitability. I suppose it gives every moment an extra dimension of pathos, and to some this may be cheap and easy, but it all comes down to perspective. Surely if you knew the final day of your life, you’d likely find extra meaning in the simplest things, bidding goodbye in a thousand different subtle ways. This message isn’t exactly new; it was already old when Thornton Wilder hammered it home in his 1937 play Our Town. Carpe Diem, seize the day, live every moment like it’s your last, stop and smell the roses; you get the idea. And so, the entire running time of Fruitvale Station is a mournful examination on the contradictions, complexities, and connections of a single human life.

Oscar Grant is not lionized as a saint nor is he vilified as some mindless thug without redemption. Carefully, Coogler constructs a complicated man struggling to right his life. Through flashbacks we see he’s spent time in prison, and he’s got a quick flash of a temper that can lead him into impulsive and violent confrontations. It’s significant that we see this prison flashback to summarize completely the life Oscar is trying not to return to. The temptation is always present to fall back on old patterns of comfort, namely cheating on his girlfriend (he has a lot of girls’ numbers in his phone) and going back to selling drugs to make ends meet. Oscar’s ongoing struggle with personal responsibility has cost him his supermarket job (he was late far too often), and he’s kept this news to himself, choosing not to worry those close to him. But his options are limited as an ex-con, let alone a guy fighting his own demons, but he keeps fighting because the Oscar we see, the glimpses of what he could become, are one who wants to be better. He dumps his supply of drugs rather than go through with a sale. The gesture is noble but also partially self-destructive from a pragmatically financial way of thinking. He’s in a deeper hole, money-wise, but he seems committed to making the change. A late encounter with a kind stranger also provides the possibility of a new job, a new chance, one that seems all the more tragic because we know it is a promise that will never be captured. Oscar Grant was likely never going to be a man who changed the world. He was an ordinary man. But we still mourn the death of ordinary men, even those who have made mistakes and are fallible.

fruitvale-station-mainIt’s impossible to view Fruitvale Station without its relevant connections to the Trayvon Martin case of 2012. Both of these men were black youths deemed to be “up to no good” with quick judgment skewed by prevailing racial bias. Both men were killed for being viewed as threats due to their race and gender. However, unlike Trayvon, we have a litany of witnesses and video evidence documenting the senseless execution of Oscar Grant. That transit officer argued he mistook his tazer for his gun because, surely, a suspect who is already handcuffed, face down on the ground, and having his head pressed down with the boot of an officer, surely that man needs to be tazed just for good measure. That officer, by the way, served 11 months of a two-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter (justice served?). It’s senseless tragedy built upon miscalculated racial alarm, and the reason we have a movie, the reason there were riots in Oakland, is because this specific case had witnesses. How many other innocent young men die every year because someone wrongly and hastily deemed them to be “up to no good”?

Coogler isn’t trying to stir the pot of racial animus or deify Oscar Grant into some martyr for the cause. Fruitvale Station only follows the last day of Oscar Grant’s life but in doing so it becomes an illumination of a human life. Oscar was an ordinary man before he met so unfortunate an end, but Coogler wants us to remember him not simply as a newspaper headline, but as a person. It’s a worthy endeavor that succeeds heartily but may prove to be dull to many, including several of my own friends and critical colleagues. I can’t argue that the life of Oscar Grant is notable to follow beyond the sad final twenty minutes. But that doesn’t bother me, because with the talents of Coogler and Jordan and their indomitable sense of purpose, the film becomes a fitting portrait of Oscar Grant as a human being and a life lived, not just a life prematurely extinguished. It’s powerful, upsetting, brimming with emotion and fury, and it’s also eerily relevant to today and will, I fear, only continue to be more relevant as the next Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin captures the national spotlight. Coogler’s excellently realized film is a eulogy to an ordinary man, flaws and all, but also a call to do better.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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