I know I’m late to the party. The keg is empty, most of the guests have left, and there’s nothing on the dance floor except for confetti. But—since I spent its reign at the box office catching up on Oscar movies instead—I wanted to throw my praise to Black Panther as a roundabout way of addressing the career, now three films old, of director Ryan Coogler. Because as much as we might romanticize or expound upon some ideal notion of an “independent filmmaker”, working on a small scale outside Hollywood’s system and unbound by its idioms and convention, Coogler strikes me as one of those talents who has come into his own by making movies inside the belly of the beast.
Coogler picked up the top prize at Sundance with his first feature, Fruitvale Station. Shot for less than $1,000,000 and midwifed in part by Forest Whitaker’s production company and the San Francisco Film Society, it was about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a black East Bay native who was shot and killed, prone and unarmed, in Oakland by the BART Police in 2009. The story of Oscar Grant is an all-American travesty, one that we’ve seen play out countless times in the decade since. With a subject like that and an actor as good as Michael B. Jordan, it’s impossible not to have an effect. But as it made the festival rounds, Fruitvale Station also struck me as thin. It offered little insight into how such travesties occur and the system that sustains them, even in a place as ostensibly progressive as the Bay Area. The film did nothing more or less than present us with a sympathetic human being and watch them get killed—which is certainly not untruthful, but barely scratches the surface of what 90 minutes can do. And as for the filmmaking itself, it leaned hard on the kind of cinematic shorthands that make me wish for a good documentary instead of an above average docudrama.
Then Coogler entered the world of Hollywood franchises with a surprise: Creed, a seventh Rocky movie that none of us realized we wanted, with Jordan back (and brilliant), Sly Stallone tasting Oscar hype, a standout boxing match shot all in one take, and the shrewd showmanship of holding back on playing “Gonna Fly Now” until just the right moment. It was a fine night at the movies, full of vitality, far better than anyone expected from a series that had already “ended” more than once. It was also, uncoincidentally, the sort of material where a little movie-world stylization and melodrama are exactly what’s called for. It pegged Coogler, in an appealing way, as a filmmaker whose natural inclination wasn’t to shake movie cliches but find ways to flavor them.
All of which brings us to Marvel’s Coogler’s Black Panther, in which issues of on-screen and off-screen blackness are put in the service of a mega-budget tentpole with superheroics, gadgetry, banter, and a synergistic tease for the next movie. “Wakanda forever!” cried fans on the internet, in praise of the mythical, technologically miraculous African nation ruled by T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), aka the Black Panther, who faces threats from without and within. The film is, by any standard of blockbuster storytelling, near the top of the Marvel corpus. The plot zips along with intrigue, the cast has chemistry, and Coogler shows off his taste for tracking-shot action scenes. It is the sort of movie that invites you to intellectualize it to a certain point and no further, and the way the adventure leans proudly into an Afrocentric focus is fruitful. It presents black identity as a multitude. It handles colonialism, diaspora, mass incarceration, and militancy vs. reconciliation in ways that are not necessarily deep so much as meant to offer a cinematic feeling of release. And in the process, it has Marvel’s first interesting villain (Jordan again), and thus a rare showdown where something more resonant is at stake than merely “saving the world.”
As Black Panther sits pretty among Hollywood’s biggest box office hits, a critic might argue that surely it owes a large part of its success, the title and a few visible Public Enemy posters notwithstanding, to being non-militant. That is, it sets itself up to be joyously pro-black without having to risk the controversy of being (or seeming) anti-anybody. The riposte is that it is political precisely to the degree that it’s packaged for mass consumption. We’ve certainly had black action heroes and superheroes before. (Remember Blade II? It was fun). But I can’t think of another American movie to be made or succeed on this scale while showing such little interest in tempering or balancing a community of black heroes with white teammates, partners, or sidekicks. If nothing else, it puts the lie to the idea that a cast of almost entirely non-white protagonists is inherently a niche movie. (The “almost” belongs to Martin Freeman, as an agog CIA agent who gets pulled in later in the game to be the token chip-in).
For the finale, Coogler returns the film to his native Oakland. A Wakandan airship descends and is met with dropped jaws, as a group of black schoolchildren stop, stare, and come to meet the visitors. It’s the type of scene that’s been happening in superhero movies as long as I can remember—the brief on-screen encounter of the comic book idol and the type of child reader that’s most likely to take their stories seriously. Only here, the child is a racial minority, and the epic hero he is gazing up at looks like him. It is a small coda for such a large spectacle, self-reflexive in its understanding of how, within the film’s genre maximalism and franchise obligations, there’s a desire to stake a claim. If Black Panther is by no means radical, it doesn’t feel insincere either. The closing shots register as uncommonly personal for a series that has been so often marked by uniformity.
Clout in hand, Coogler’s next project is reportedly a film about a testing scandal in Atlanta public schools, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’ll be attending with interest to see how he returns to what might be called “ordinary lives”—it may very well be that Coogler’s strength and usefulness is more as a cinematic crowd-pleaser or myth-maker. The most genuinely stringent political movies deny the kind of unambiguous release that Coogler has proved so adept at delivering. But he has craft and dramatic instincts. He isn’t the first director to come out of Sundance and alternate between the world of movies and the world of our own—and, by all indications, he realizes how the two are more linked than they let on.
Black Panther is now on home video. The virtues are plentiful, but it’s still hard to get used to Martin Freeman with an American accent.