“Black Panther”

The African bodily adornments in the new super hero blockbuster “Black Panther” rival a decade of National Geographic photo ops. Take for instance the lip plates of Ethiopia, the Igbo ceremonial masks, the Zulu headdresses, the Basotho blankets, and the Ndebele neck rings. With the beading, the fabrics, and the body paintings, “Black Panther” furthers the premise that black is beautiful. Designer Ruth E. Carter proves it.

Director, Ryan Coogler, of “Fruitvale Station” ( 2013) fame, has created a fantasy African utopia that reminds us that slavery  is not the king of African history.  Our secret place is Wakanda. Plateaus of waterfalls cascade and green forests thrive, and loping animals frolick. Purple flowered nectar holds hallucinatory powers. Xhosa is the language spoken in the kingdom. Wakanda is the marvel of Africa.

While not a fan of superhero marvels, at seventy, I saw “Wonder Woman”, and enjoyed it.  “Black Panther” has  more depth and has its super women, too. Letitia Wright is the brainy techno-whiz, who exudes confidence in her gadgets and medical artistry. As Shuri, sister of the Black Panther King, she uses the Wakanda’s unique resource, the metal vibranium, to both protect and strengthen the community. Another rival to Wonder Woman  is the General of the Palace Guard.  Here, Danai Gurira is impervious to any threat to the king or kingdom. Her eyes flash and her stare withers. Her battle prowess commands the screen in sword-wielding savvy. Nakia is the beautiful Letitia Nyong’o, the king’s love interest. Angela Bassett is Queen Mother in all her splendor.

Then there are the men. Chadwick Boseman leads the almost all black cast in this superhero spectacle. As the Black Panther he is nuanced and evolving. As T’Challa he gets to hear advice like: “Your father’s mistakes can not define who you are.” Still ancestors are praised. A tree of black panthers is one of the arresting images in the film. Statements like: “I can not rest while the monster of our own making reigns” dot the film. Superheroes, remember, change the world.

The anti-hero is Eric Kilmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, who has been in every one of Coogler’s films. He plays an angrier man, who wants to get back at African colonizers. He believes that the world is getting smaller and that there are only the conquerors and the conquered. White mercenaries are present, as is a CIA operative, and an arms dealer. Forrest Whittaker is the be-robed spiritual shaman who contributes to the subtext.

The themes are many, but colonial ravages and self-interested nationalism are equally rebuked without stopping for retribution.

The structural setting of “Black Panther” is interesting. It sandwiches the story between Oakland, California and our African paradise with one jaunt to the British Museum.

The film begins with a small boy’s voice, “tell me a story”. We hear of an asteroid, five tribes, and a super power that was hidden in plain sight. Suddenly, we are in Oakland, California with its basketball courts, assault rifles, thick, gold chains, and “ Grace Jones-looking chicks”. Then we are back in Wakanda as the new king is ceremoniously inducted. Ancestors are praised and physical challenges to the newly inducted king are made. Only the cave dwellers scoff at tradition.

There are dizzying air craft descents and car races that leave nothing left of the cars, and girls get to drive. There are mechanical rhinos and cool communication devices. There is funny dialogue and teasing about “ old school shoe wear” and the anathema of having to listen to someone else’s  music. There is international intrigue as a CIA operative tries to keep Asian purchases at bay. And the hand to hand combat is intense. The sparks just keep coming. Rebel cries distinguish between serving your country and saving your country.

I have seen all of Coogler’s films, and I am a fan. ( see “Creed” review on http://www.filmflamb.wordpress.com.  Jan. 2nd , 2016). He got a nuanced performance from Sylvester Stallone when he was 28. At 32, Coogler is helping rewrite curriculums around the country. Black History has a fun, new, more positive beat. One that holds advanced civilizations with a responsibility to enlighten the world. Anyone who was smart enough to stay as the last credit rolled by, will know that Ryan Coogler will have a lot more to offer the world.

“Creed”

Sylvester Stallone is no longer just “Rocky”: he is a boulder of stability and magnanimity. Blown away by his performance in Ryan Kyle Coogler’s film “Creed”, I can not say enough about his nuanced performance. Gruff, world-weary and grieving, Stallone delivers a tenderness and a wisdom that is moving and life-affirming. Who would have thought it !

The Director and co-writer of “Creed” is just shy of thirty.
Ryan Kyle Coogler is a name to remember. His 2013 “Fruitvale Station” offered us the last hours of a boy killed by the BART Police in Oakland, CA. Coogler has a gift which allows a work to balance high emotionality with thoughtful rationality. The understated script is like watching real life cut to the quick.

In “Creed”, Coogler directs Sylvester Stallone,Michael B. Jordan, and Tessa Thompson in a tale that begins in 1998 Los Angeles at a juvenile detention center. We meet the twelve year old Adonis Johnson whose group home trials do little to squelch his fighting forays. Alicia Rashad rescues him and tells him that her former husband the late, great boxer Appollo Creed was his father. Adonis thrives under his benefactor. He is educated, cared for, and excels. Then he quits his job right after he is promoted. He has the fighting gene, and more importantly, he wishes to prove to his dead father and to himself that he was not a mistake. Adonis Johnson was the product of Apollo Creed’s infidelity. And with both his parents dead, the anger of his abandonment is one of the driving themes of the film.

Fast follow to 2015 Tijuana, Mexico and we see Adonis’ hands being taped for the ring. He excels in jabs, upper cuts and ring rousts. His dad died in the ring and his father’s trainer now runs a restaurant in Philly. Curiosity and history call.

Stallone out of friendship and a certain amount of guilt agrees to mentor Adonis. Some of the best footage outside the ring is in this training. French Cinematographer Maryse Alberti is only twenty-five. She does amazing things with street scenes and architecture. The running sequence of Jordan with motor cycles revving behind him and encasing slow-motion antics to his right and left is memorable. We know who is being honored at the head of the parade. In the ring, her work is fresh and visceral. Brutal head punches,vomit and blood spray exist amid daily newspaper readings in the cemetery over Rocky’s wife’s grave. Some are not abandoned even in death. The meaning of family is equated with knocking on a door, and there is a lot of door knocking. The head shots and close-ups of the pumping-up sessions are perfect.

The music is beautifully pared with the script,too. Just enough rap and just enough of the original “Rocky” beat meld with soft whispered half tunes which flow nicely with the romantic interest and the nostalgia. The shadow-boxing and rope jumping and hen catching keep their own snapping beat. The score can almost include the sports announcers whose own rhythmed speech often sounded like the rap music. Kudos for the young Swede Ludwig Goransson (Ludovin)for the score.

Tessa Thompson’s role as songstress Bianca is deepened by her character’s progressive hearing loss and by her strong sense of self. She is warm and genuine and not into psychological gaming.Her drum beats for honesty.

This movie has so much to offer,and I haven’t even mentioned the Liverpool, England tryst for the light heavyweight championship of the world. As Adonis (Donny) fights the Pretty Boy Conlin, Stallone tells him that it is “you against you”: “get him out of the way.” The hard body punches made the audience gasp,brutal but somehow elemental. Twelve rounds and dramatic chest thumping has the crowd on its feet.

The ending is lovely as Donny becomes the trainer; and coach and student climb many steps to get a view of their lives. “When you get to the top ,you think you can fly” sounds as youthful as our film’s directors.

One memorable note to the film’s dedication:
Robert Chartoff ( 1933-2015) was this film’s producer and the producer of all Rocky Balboa films including the original 1976 “Rocky”, Raging Bull” (1980),and 2006 “Rocky Balboa”.