BLACK FILMMAKERS CORRECT THE NARRATIVE WITH POWERFUL STORYTELLING
In Shakespeare's The Tempest, when Prospero's daughter Miranda meets the visitors to their enchanted island, she says, "How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't!" Her father replies, "'Tis new to thee."
I think of this as I watch the rapturous critical and popular response to the mythical nation of Wakanda introduced last week to millions outside the world of comics by writer-director Ryan Coogler in his masterful film, Black Panther.
It is not just that the title character was created in 1966. A sleeping giant, awakened, soon remembers her strength. The long Western reduction of Africans to conquered primitives, and of their cinematic descendants to mostly subservient and pathological roles, stems not from the continent to which humanity traces its origins but from a white colonialist gaze. Ultimately, willful blindness is no advantage.
Coogler and his collaborators give us an advanced African nation that has never been colonized; with a ruler who seriously confronts the tension between tradition and innovation; where a child's expectation is success.
Black Panther is at once a triumph of filmic storytelling and a lesson in the folly of neglecting black audiences and squandering black talent. The success of this $200 million project (a big change from Coogler's $900,000 first feature, Fruitvale Station) is another step in the rough journey from exploitation to collaboration between black artists and a white-dominated industry.
It is emblematic of our age that a real-world president reduces grave national issues to cartoonish simplicity, while a comic-book king brings statesmanship, complexity, and empathy to his job. As America slides into tribalism, T'Challa strives to overcome it.
The strong presence of women in Black Panther has roots in women warriors in places like Dahomey, Ghana, and Nigeria. The film also boasts talented women behind the scenes, including production director Hannah Beachler, cinematographer Rachel Morrison, costume designer Ruth E. Carter, hair department head Camille Friend, specialty jeweler Douriean Fletcher, and first assistant director Lisa C. Satriano.
Provocateur alert: Breitbart, a Russian bot of a website, reports that some are objecting to the lack of a lesbian moment between two warriors in the Dora Milaje. Gee, and I thought the movie was plenty gay because I dreamed of being stuck in an elevator with Killmonger and T'Challa.
I am sorry, but picking fights over things that are not in a particular story reminds me of a late friend who could hardly watch a movie without finding something to piss him off. We might just as well demand a scene set in Cartagena. I go to movies rooting for the moviemakers to succeed. Part of embracing diversity means enjoying other people's stories without insisting that they cover everything. This movie has an ambitious reach and succeeds beautifully, and I for one am celebrating it. There will be sequels.
People of all races are flocking to theaters to visit Wakanda in the aftermath of another mass shooting that displays government impotence in the face of unchecked greed. They hunger for leadership and inspiration. Thanks to Coogler and his extraordinary assemblage of artists, I see children dancing for joy. They long to see themselves reflected in power onscreen. Their vibrant spirit is the vibranium.
As T'Challa's antagonist Killmonger observes, colonialism left a bloody trail across Africa. In early 1961, America helped assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the post-colonial Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher called Nelson Mandela a terrorist for acts that would have been lionized if committed by white men in Lexington and Concord in 1775. Today in America, descendants of the Middle Passage are still targets of vote suppression and legal lynching by police officers as white nationalism is stoked from the executive mansion.
In short, we have been a long time waiting for Wakanda. Ryan Coogler, an engaging and self-assured man devoted to making movies with a social impact, is a proven blockbuster director and film auteur at age 31. He is joined by directors like Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, and a host of actors and craftspeople at the vanguard of a new era in moviemaking. Call it the Wakandan Renaissance.