The cinematic reclaiming of characters who were originally written by oppressors as condescending objectifications of the oppressed continues in Marvel’s “Black Panther.”
It happened last year when a woman, Patty Jenkins, got to call the shots as the director of “Wonder Woman,” able to shape the depiction of a character who had originally been brought to life through the male lenses of William Moulton Marston and H. G. Peter.
Now, a black character that had been created by white men Stan Lee and Jack Kirby is shepherded to the screen with wisdom and care by a team of black filmmakers, and the result, like in “Wonder Woman,” is something that will be talked about as groundbreaking, and — most importantly — is also a thoughtful, effective piece of genre filmmaking.
It’s not that men cannot write about women or that white people cannot write about black people. But there’s an irreplaceable dynamic that comes when filmmakers bring the weight of their own experiences — or in another word, “perspective” — to a film.
My point may be illustrated by going through promotional material for “Black Panther” and seeing the comments of creator Stan Lee (who appears, to the great credit of his likability, as the gamest man in superhero movie-making, his cameos having been fun Easter eggs all throughout Marvel’s long cinematic history).
But in one interview on YouTube, for example, Lee talks about his enthusiasm for the Black Panther character and the new film by pointing out that “first off all, he's not the typical way you'd write about a black guy. He seems like a regular native in the jungle, but he's really the head of a nation which is hidden under the ground, and they're all geniuses, scientific geniuses, and this guy is a scientific genius, and nobody knows the story.”
A couple things strike me in that quotation. First is Lee’s obvious affection for his work, and for how his work was adapted in the new film. But I also can’t help but wonder what Lee thinks “the typical way you’d write about a black guy” would be, and I have a feeling it wouldn’t be the same way that director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, who is black himself, would do it.
In Coogler’s hands, as well as those of co-writer Joe Robert Cole, the full potential of the Black Panther character is unlocked, and the result is the most intelligent, thoughtful and nuanced Marvel movie to date.
The movie has important things to say about race, which one might expect from a movie called “Black Panther,” but which would not have necessarily been inevitable, considering that while both the character and the political party of the same name debuted in 1966, the character predated the party’s founding in Oakland by three months.
In other words, Kirby and Lee were not necessarily making a bold political point in 1966.
But Coogler isn’t afraid of the broader political context, and the new film opens in, of all places, Oakland. That can’t be a coincidence. The thematic interest in the commodification and objectification of black humans in America and throughout the West does not get buried deep in subtext or lightly hinted at in dialogue — it is a driving element of the plot, looked at from a variety of politically nuanced angles by heroic and antiheroic characters of varying views on the matter on both sides.
From Oakland, the story heads to the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a secret Utopia that colonizers throughout history never found, despite the fact that it is “hiding in plain sight,” as a line from the film says.
Wakanda is a paradise that has everything that oppressed black people in colonized nations have had stripped from them originally and then systematically kept from generation after generation: comfort, wealth, security and the freedom to advance their minds and create. This makes “Black Panther” a solid entry in the Afrofuturism genre, which utilizes science fiction to imagine worlds where the oppression of black people can be remedied.
The world of Wakanda, as it appears in the film, is as immersive and breathtaking as any planet in “Star Wars.” It is full of invention and creativity, and it is a joy to discover on the big screen.
The film’s imperfections mirror those of the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe: It has a few too many characters (though, they’re all great), and its story can feel a bit bloated as it is establishing itself. This problem would be tough to avoid, considering the story sort of kicked off already in “Captain America: Civil War,” where audiences first met Chadwick Boseman as the title character, a prince of Wakanda who succeeds his father after he is killed in the events of that film.
But after a surprising turn of the plot — which, let’s just say involves Andy Serkis in a villain role also set up in previous Marvel entires — the overstuffed story irons out, leading to a smooth ride to the finish.
Fortunately, despite being set up in previous films, “Black Panther” is totally successful as a standalone entity in and of itself, and it contains a coherent, subjective perspective that begins a thought and then has the miraculous accomplishment (for a Marvel film, at least) to be able to finish it.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Andy Serkis
Running time: 2 hours, 14 min
Rating: PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture