I watched Black Panther as the only woman in a cinema full of men, which is a pity, because, on leaving the screening, full of joy, I realised that I’d forgotten to count the female actors, or to consider how the women were being portrayed. (A dreary game women have been playing for years.) There were so many women in the cast, so many women in leading, active, strong roles that concerned strategy, politics, espionage, leadership and technology, so many women dominating the action scenes (so MANY action scenes), that my Bechdel alarm didn’t go off. I could just sit there loving all the strong human acting. I relished the equality, and wished more women had been in the cinema with me to love it too.
(There will be spoilers in what follows, so be warned.)
The king’s general (Danai Gurira) is a woman; the king’s household guard is an all-female fighting unit; the chief spy is a woman (Lupita Nyong’o); the king’s chief scientist (Letitia Wright) is his younger sister; the king’s council of five advisers includes at least two women, one being his mother (Angela Bassett); the elders of two of the five tribes of Wakanda are women. There were at least three good parts for women aged over 50. I mean, how much better could this representation have been? But Black Panther is not the focused celebration of female strength and parity the way that Wonder Woman was, because the world that has evolved the Black Panther has not included misogyny and the oppression of women. Women and men are people, and the people of Wakanda are not white, just as they are not Western. It’s an elegant solution to avoid diluting the main ethos of this film, which is not feminism, but anti-colonialism, and posits that a black African state can save the world.
The plot had me thinking about myth patterns, and semiotics. I’ve forgotten a lot of what I used to know about the structure of the traditional tale, but I think the Black Panther script is mapped onto several storytelling patterns. The film begins with a beautifully rendered Wakandan origin myth, all dark velvet figures sparkling under the moon, and moves in to pick up when and where we left off after Captain America: Civil War. In that film, King T’Chaka (John Kani) was killed in an attack that the Avengers failed to stop, and his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has become the new king of Wakanda. Black Panther takes us through T’Challa’s proclamation as king, the challenge to his title, his coronation, his discovery that he has a cousin who also wants the throne, and of the fatal flaw in his father’s past conduct that brings the crisis of the film to its climax. These are all from Shakespeare’s tragedies of kingship and authority: King Lear, Hamlet, and probably Macbeth as well. The semiotics comes in handy if you think about the characters as moveable pieces on a board whose arrangements and relationships create the tale. The king’s general is married to the king’s political rival (Daniel Kaluuya). The queen mother is a priestess of the magical vibranium flower. The chief spy and war dog (a much better job than Ophelia’s) is the king’s former girlfriend. The king’s uncle (Sterling K Brown) had a son whom no-one knew about (Seth Carr, Michael B Jordan). The old king’s advisor was his secret spy (Denzel Whitaker, Forrest Whitaker). The king’s first challenger becomes his loyal supporter (Winston Duke). And so on.
All the actors are fantastic. They are compellingly unconcerned with being loved or hated by the audience, and performed their roles with passion and commitment. The script is astonishingly good. I only spotted two clues being laid early on; the jokes were easy, natural and funny; nobody was earnest for no good reason, and the tone could be turned on a word with consummate ease. The costumes were complex and coded, so much to look at and be distracted by, through symbols and colours. Body modifications were also strong, particularly those of the gentleman in the sharp green suit with toning lip and ear discs. Michael B Jordan’s torso practically had its own script: his ritual scarifications looked like something off the Rosetta Stone.
However, I do think Martin Freeman (for whom I have a lot of affection) was badly cast in his role (too short for an ex air force ace, and too recognisable a face and acting style). Any US character actor could have played that CIA agent role, and would have been more believable by being more anonymous. On the other hand, that other familiar white face, Andy Serkis, goes for gross in his delightfully vile rendition of Ulysses Klaue, the most unattractive of his roles that I’ve seen him act, Gollum included. He doesn’t rely on familiar patterns of physical acting the way that Freeman does, and gives a better performance.
Wakanda’s city (its only city?) was a marvellous and beautiful construction, of course, and its technology was fascinating: this was the one time Freeman’s character sounded sincere, when he was enthusing about the monorail’s efficiency. But, what about the economy? The whole point about Wakanda is that it does not trade or exchange with the outside world, so who is buying those gorgeous hemp baskets? How many hospitals and law courts does the national population need, in all those skyscrapers? What does the local population do to circulate and generate the Wakandan GDP? And with vibranium being a sustainably produced and harvested source of energy and magical powers, how much internal trade is actually needed? I’m happy to accept that Wakanda is a model city state but I’d like to know a lot more about who keeps its sewage and waste recycling working.
There is some pretty blatant evidence of Wakanda borrowing from the outside world. Their earlier architects had been to Timbuctoo, and their earliest myths seem to have integrated other belief systems: Bast is an Egyptian cat goddess, and Hanuman is Indian. The five tribes of Wakanda seem to come from different African cultural groupings, which is perfectly fine, but how? The anthropological record needs completing.
But these are quibbles you can ignore. It’s a marvellous film, firmly in the category of superhero worlds that have the futuristic technology to perform very useful wonders, yet the epic disputes always end in a fight that Neolithic man would have recognised. Fisticuffs all round, ladies and gentlemen.