This was recently brought home to me after Julie and I and a friend of ours attended Black Panther. I wanted to see it in the theater for the same reason I went to see Wonder Woman on opening day last summer. Representation matters, and I wanted to be part of sending Hollywood a message. Give us an awesome female superhero, and we will come! Give us a superhero movie with an awesome Black cast, and we will come!
Unless you’re a troll, that’s not the part where I’m annoying. That part comes after I watch a movie, because for me, part of the whole experience is the post-viewing analysis. Annnnd… I’m a tough critic. But the thing is, I enjoy the analysis! And just because I have critical things to say doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the movie, too. A movie has to rise to a certain level of substance and quality to be worth discussing in the first place.
Anyway, the first thing out of my mouth, post-Black Panther, was something to the effect that while it was a beautiful film and I loved the Afrofuturist rendering of Wakanda, it was a messy narrative. And my friend said, “You always say that! I knew you were going to say it! I knew it last night!”
Now, I stand by my assertion. I love and admire all the things that the movie did well. I’m delighted by its success. To the extent that I and my lifetime’s worth of white privilege are capable of appreciating its significance, I think I do. As a member of the LGBTQ community, I have some understanding of the effect of erasure, and the awesome transformative power of seeing that erasure fucking erased. Yeah, I choked up at the fierce rallying cry of “Wakanda forever!” along with the rest of the theater. For me, one of the most powerful racial flip-the-script moments is when sort-of-rebel leader M’Baku and his Jabari tribesmen begin barking like mighty mountain gorillas to make Martin Freeman’s character, a white Western authority figure going into full-bore mansplaining mode, just shut.the.hell.up.
So many layers, so much context one could unpack in that scene.
And the women! Yes, it was glorious to see so many vivid female characters brought to life and given agency in various ways. Too bad that doesn’t appear to include the possibility of ruling Wakanda, an honor for which only hot, shirtless men are invited to contest, but hey, patriarchy notwithstanding, the women kicked ass. Shuri is the STEM-inspired bomb diggity and Leticia Wright is a revelation, Lupita Nyong’o is a luminous presence with a conscience, and I am literally following Okoye’s Wig on Twitter, because I laughed and cheered so hard when Danai Gurira flung that motherfucker off.
But, but, but… I’m sorry, the narrative was messy. Some plot points, like the whole museum heist and the subsequent sale-gone-wrong, didn’t make a lot of sense if you looked past the whiz-bang action sequences. Some emotional beats were lacking. T’Challa’s father was killed… why? By who? Well, you can find one answer in the canon of the Marvel comics and another in the canon of the Marvel movie universe. If it exists within the actual Black Panther movie, a movie explicitly dealing with a son’s struggle to take up his father’s mantle, I must have blinked and missed it.
Perhaps, however, I might be more sensitive to the fact that not everyone enjoys the process of critical analysis to the same extent that I do. It may put a damper on their afterglow. And it’s quite possible that there are times when my friends would like to gorilla-bark in unison at me, Jabari-style, to make me just shut.the.hell.up.
A couple of days later, I watched Hidden Figures, and the trope of the brilliant mathematician analyzing a complex problem struck a chord with me. I feel that compulsion about storytelling; except you can’t solve someone else’s narrative. But I can’t help but see the flaws in their narrative math.
If you’re wondering if I’m this way with books, oh hell, yes. Just ask members of my long-time book club, who have probably been tempted to gorilla-bark me into silence on numerous occasions. But I’m less comfortable discussing a book’s flaws in a public forum. Most books are the product of one author’s singular vision (with a healthy assist from a good editor if they’re lucky). Calling out a book’s flaws carries implicit criticism of the author. To be clear, this is absolutely a valid thing to do and provides a valuable service to readers. It’s just not something I’m comfortable doing to fellow authors. I’d rather leave it to book reviewers, professional and amateur alike.
A movie, especially a big Hollywood production, is the synthesis of a multitude of people’s visions—and also subject to considerable outside pressure. Many scripts go through multiple drafts, sometimes with input from multiple screenwriters. A lot gets left on the cutting room floor. Frankly, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an early draft of the Black Panther script that addressed his father’s death in a more clear and direct manner, or a sequence that was cut because some studio executive said, “Yeah, sorry, but we’ve got to get the run time under two and a half hours.” Case in point, this scene between Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuyu that got axed. I think it would have aired right around the time I was scowling at the screen in perplexity and saying, “Wait a minute, aren’t those two supposed to be a couple? Why aren’t they having a conversation about this?”
These things happen.
Maybe it’s not fair, but it feels easier to offer criticism because it’s not the product of one single artist’s vision. So I critique; but I critique because I love. I believe in the power of narrative. I believe in the power of symbolism.
I just want every story to be the best it can possibly be. But if you watch a movie with me, be forewarned.