Black Panther (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Blackness of “Black Panther” will rub some people the wrong way, for no good objective reason other than the personal variety, but it is exactly why I loved the film, both as a superhero film and as a picture that proudly represents persons of color, black or otherwise. Although superhero movies often feature action-packed sequences set in African or Asian countries, the sub-genre is often told through the white lens in order to appeal to the common masses. So-called representation is relegated to foreign texts on billboards of futuristic-looking cities or a black extra reacting to wild goings-on—often solely for mere comedic effect.
And so this is one of the central reasons why Ryan Coogler’s film is worth seeing: people of color and where they live are not utilized as decoration. Rather, they are placed front and center so that the audience is confronted by colored faces, colored lives, colored lifestyles. We get to taste the specific flavors of a fictional Wakandan culture. For instance: their rituals prior to and during the coronation of a new leader; how they relate to one another on personal and professional levels; what is important to them as individuals and as a unit; their opinions and goals regarding how to build a better relationship with the rest of the world given that the latter is less technologically advanced and leading nations have a tendency toward maintaining the cycle of oppression especially toward people of color.
Clearly a standout from other Marvel outings, I enjoyed how the film actively builds an aura of intrigue rather than simply going through yet another episode in which a special item must be acquired from the wrong hands in order to defeat the villain of the day. This is most apparent during the first act. It is interesting that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) already knows who he is with or without the Black Panther costume. And so we avoid going through the same beats and rhythms—thereby the same trappings—that have become the norm from the genre. Instead, characters worth paying attention to and understanding are introduced: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) the undercover spy, Okoye (Danai Gurira) the loyal warrior, and Shuri (Letitia Wright) the brilliant inventor. One can construct an argument that these strong individuals elevate the protagonist because they challenge him in their own ways.
There is beauty in color. For instance, notice articles of clothing and how they vary depending on each tribe of Wakanda. When there is cause for celebration, shades of red and yellow dominate coupled with ostentatious angular patterns. When there is a professional meeting, cooler colors like blue or green are employed. Patterns become less noticeable while finer textures move to the forefront. An exception, perhaps most appropriately because they are considered to be the outcast of the five Wakandan tribes, is the Jabari (led by M’Baku played with great charm by Winston Duke). Their costumes are dominated by more neutral colors like gray and brown. The styles and textures of their clothes lean toward more simple designs. The visual diversity is intoxicating; there is almost always something worthy to inspect.
But since the picture is an action film, does it deliver the goods? Indeed it does. While wall-to-wall action is not at play here, I found its restraint most admirable. It is equally capable of talking about ideas, at times relating to issues plaguing America today, and providing thrilling and entertaining sequences. A standout takes place in the streets of Busan, South Korea as Black Panther and his colleagues must get their hands on an infamous arms dealer (Andy Serkis, a joy to watch) and bring him back to Wakanda for trial. Meanwhile, our heroes have not yet an inkling that the real threat is the man, appropriately named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the arms dealer has chosen to align himself with.
“Black Panther” commands a freshness that numerous superhero films do not possess. It reminded me of James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” in how nearly every scene is intoxicating both in terms of content and visuals, its wonderful ability to balance humor and dramatic personal stakes, and how it opens up a world of possibilities. Credit to the writers, Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, for an intelligent screenplay. Notice how the essence of just about every scene manages to flow into the next one. It establishes a sense of cohesion. Ryan Coogler, a name to take note and remember because his resulting projects so far have been of high caliber. I look forward to what he can do next.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Fruitvale Station,” written and directed by Ryan Coogler, is based on the murder of Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan), who left behind a wife and a daughter (Melonie Diaz and Ariana Neal, respectively), in the hands of a transit officer while coming home from San Francisco after having welcomed the new year.
There is no easy way to tell Grant’s story but the writer-director proves up to the task. By narrowing the film’s focus within a few hours of the twenty-two-year-old’s death, he creates a sense of urgency and unease in just about every scene. The point of them, I think, is to create a panorama of an unfinished life. It makes the senseless killing all the more appalling and maddening.
The lead performance by Jordan and supporting work by Diaz and Octavia Spencer, who plays Oscar’s mother, command attention. What the three performances have in common is that they are immediately people we know or can relate with. This is important because there is no conventional character arc designed for us to notice how a person changes over time. We know how the story will end and so the trick is to fill in the gaps with as many relevant details as possible. The screenplay’s approach is to give us a big picture of how Grant relates to those he loves.
Scenes between mother and son are balanced with honesty, pain, and tough love. Particularly impressive involves a flashback to Wanda visiting her son in prison in 2007. Wanda clearly does not want to be there but wants to be supportive nonetheless. When she sees her son lose his temper in front of a fellow inmate so easily, she is disappointed and tries to reel him in—this is supposed to be their time, not anyone else’s.
Spencer’s performance is restrained but calculated in that she does not have to act tough to come off tough. It appears as though she has chosen to rely on the history of the characters—details that are never shown on screen—as a template for us to gauge the chemistry of what the mother and son share. Equally good is Jordan. Take the same scene. Notice the way his eyes switch from rage to shame—the same shot, in a span of a second, no tricks—when his mother advises that he calm down. It becomes clear that these performances rely on each other in order for the scene to work.
Being from the Bay Area, I attest that the picture has managed to capture the rhythm and wavelength of the dialogue superbly. In addition, it presents minute detail not only in terms of what people wear but also in how they wear the clothes. It even gets the BART details right—like the shrill sound it makes when it approaches and leaves the station. As a result, there were times when I felt like I was watching a documentary, not a polished film.
“Fruitvale Station” offers a few stylistic details, like foreshadowing involving a dog, that do not always work but, as a whole, the performances are fresh and Coogler’s direction—an approach that is confident and straightforward—is solid despite a familiar framework.