Friday, February 23, 2018

BLACK PANTHER: new film from Marvel

 The premise of the comic book Black Panther, now a major motion picture from Marvel Studios, was to be an antidote to the racism found in such movies as the classic King Kong, or the countless Tarzan films, and Saturday morning serials such as Jungle Raiders, from Columbia Pictures. This was popular entertainment that Stan Lee must have eaten up when he was a youth, and which gave him the impetus to create an African superhero at a time of racial upheaval in his own country.

Racist America produced Skull Island, Kong’s domain: a place so backward that prehistoric monsters still ruled the land. That was the way the majority of Americans thought of Africa, if they thought of it at all.  And Kong himself, a kind of mutant giant ape was the perfect Freudian threatening view of a black man lusting after the blond white girl of his dream. “Blondes are scarce around here” is one of the memorable lines uttered by the white hunters when they survey the black tribe that worships the giant monkey. By contrast, Wakanda, the mythical African country where king T'Challa and his Black Panther alter-ego rule, is a technological wonder, decades ahead of any other country in the West, and hiding their advancements for reasons that are never quite made clear. The very idea of an advanced country being able to hide in the age of Google Earth is preposterous, but we must remember that Mr. Lee thought of all this when the very idea of the Internet was science fiction.

The film adaptation is visually quite stunning. The landscape of Wakanda is a cross between Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the city of tomorrow, and Disney, Marvel Studios's parent company. Quite impressive to look at, but the film, despite its Afrocentric point of departure, and African American actors and crew, cannot entirely free itself from an essentially phony "Disneyworld's Adventureland" approach to a distant place many of us know very little about.

Black Panther, the film, has shown to be very popular with black families, especially in cities like New York, Detroit, and Chicago. There were, as a matter of fact, many African American families in attendance at the IMAX 2D showing I attended today. I can't keep from thinking that this film might be 2018's version of blaxploitation, the 1970's ethnic genre of films made for black audiences by white filmmakers. Certainly many of the stereotypical tropes of blaxploitation regarding the portrayal of blacks and whites reappear in this film. Whereas the majority of the black characters are shown to have an innate nobility, the white characters in this film are either villainous caricatures (Andy Serkis) or well-meaning, but befuddled allies (Martin Freeman).

How are we supposed to internalize this film? There is more than a hint here that we look at Wakanda with the eyes of Marcus Garvey's utopian Pan-Africanism movement of the early part of the 20th century, where he urged American and Jamaican blacks to return to their ancestral land. Or perhaps we can come to grips with this film if we borrow political theorist Richard Iton's controversial idea that the black diaspora simultaneous causes African Americans to disown and at the same time to desire the continent of Africa. Certainly any African-American watching this film would feel a connection to a utopia in the African continent, even if this wonderful place only exists in the movies.

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