Directed by Ryan Coogler
In 2013, I had the good fortune to interview Sac State alum Ryan Coogler just as his theatrical debut “Fruitvale Station” was hitting theaters to great acclaim. In one of his closing comments, after a neat conversation about race, violence, and media (interview here), he remarked “…I’m very interested in telling stories that are close to my heart. And the stories that are close to my heart tend to be about characters that don’t often have a chance to have their stories told.” He was back at it this weekend, with the fifth largest opening weekend of all-time, as the director and co-writer of Marvel’s “Black Panther,” a movie that doesn’t just feature a black superhero (already a remarkable feat) but a uniquely African superhero, surrounded by other Africans, in Africa, looking African. Certainly not a story that’s often told and not something that he had a chance to see himself on the big screen while growing up.
And it’s a pretty superheroic transition for Coogler himself from the reportedly sub-$1million budget of “Fruitvale Station,” to the c.$40million of his sophomore feature “Creed” (reviewed here in 2015), to the c.$200million of “Black Panther.” Those aren’t easy increments, although they have become increasingly common as the industry grabs young (primarily white male) directors for big-budget sequels. But Coogler has handled the process and proven his worth as well as anybody, by writing (or co-writing) as well as directing his content.
“Black Panther” is primarily set in the fictional African state of Wakanda, a country with secret, mineral deposits that unleash phenomenal power and technological progress. It’s here that Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns following the death of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), to assume the dual mantle of power as both the new King and as his alter-ego Black Panther.
Wakanda, as depicted, is partly why the film is as good as it is. It’s shown as a country that incorporates both tribal cultures and agrarian traditions, while also channeling its unique resource into a cityscape that’s as futuristic as one might see in films as far-ranging as the “Star Wars” series back to Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis.” It might have been easy to focus on the characters and the fighting and not, for example, on the shapes of the buildings (which even in their futurism display African cues and influences), but the film would have lost much of its layered appeal in the process.
It’s also a film that shares the wealth, not just addressing and countering the lack of black heroes for kids to look up to, but also promoting women of all ages into many of the most significant, powerful, and intelligent roles in the narrative. The palace guard and their senior General (Lupita Nyong’o) are all women and the Q-like character, reminiscent of so many “James Bond” displays of technical prowess, is the smartest person in any room and T’Challa’s younger sister, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright). All of which is impressive, although the narrative does seem to have one small misstep, when it fails to allow for the possibility of Shuri stepping into a temporary power vacuum, even if only to recognize the option before advancing the chosen narrative.
The performances here are all solid, and Coogler re-teams with Michael B. Jordan (star of both “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed”), who plays the primary antagonist and challenger to the throne and title. It’s hard to find any weak links in a cast that also includes Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, and a relatively unusual turn by Andy Serkis in human form.
“Black Panther” is an all-around neat film that plays well as a stand-alone Marvel entry by maintaining an inward focus and thereby avoiding the clutter of other superheros and the inevitable white-hero tropes and accusations they would have brought with them. This is a Marvel movie for Marvel fans and non-fans alike – although perhaps only the former will feel the need to stay for the scenes during and after the credits. And it’s a wonderful film for all the young viewers who’ve never had a hero to look up to who looked like them – although, with that in mind, I hope at least some of them are looking up to Coogler and not just the Black Panther.
If superheroes aren’t quite your speed, this weekend also sees another leftover 2017 awards contender in the understated but quite lovely “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” playing exclusively at the Tower Theatre. And it’s just in time to be seen before Sunday’s BAFTA awards, where leads Annette Bening and Jamie Bell are both contenders. The story is based on the latter part of the real life of Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Bening) and her much younger lover Peter Turner (Bell), as recounted in Turner’s memoir of the same name. It’s reminiscent of “My Week With Marilyn,” in both sentiment and source material, and shares a common producer link with that film (Colin Vaines). And in a neat trivia twist for a film geek, having watched the James Bond-like scenes in Black Panther the day before, I noticed that it’s co-produced by long-time Bond producer Barbara Broccoli. “Film Stars…” also re-teams Bell with his debut film (“Billy Elliott”) co-star Julie Walters, who here plays his character’s mother, in a strong cast that also includes Vanessa Redgrave. It’s a dreamy film that drifts from scene to scene in a non-linear fashion, much like memories do, and a neat reflection on the unpredictability of love, health, and fame.
My personal disappointment this week was in watching “Early Man,” from Aardman Animations, producers of the Claymation “Wallace and Gromit” projects. “Early Man” re-imagines the clash between stone-age and bronze-age humans, in the form of a soccer match, but it relies on what seemed to me like too many very British jokes and puns for a young American audience. For example, one recurring appearance by a giant, prehistoric duck seems largely to exist to build up to a slang reference to police as the “Old Bill” as it grabs a villain with its beak. I even sat through the preview screening behind one tiny viewer who spent the first 15-20 minutes loudly incensed at the football references (“It’s not football, it’s soccer!” – many times over). It also has narrative weaknesses, for example in featuring teamwork as a strength (a good topic for a kids’ film) among a group that hadn’t previously exhibited that characteristic. And it’s the latest film to convince young kids that dinosaurs and men walked side by side. Not that we’re looking for historical authenticity in prehistoric sports films for children, but I’m often surprised by films for kids that could have done better on the details, like watching four-legged insects in “A Bug’s Life.” I had looked forward to this one, but it was a miss for me – albeit perhaps a somewhat stronger player in the UK.