Monday, February 26, 2018
What BLACK PANTHER can teach us about Storytelling: Conversation with Matthew MacNish
One of the things I've learned about myself recently is that I'm not much for movies. This became apparent with the advent of the Movie Pass, and the fact that both my wife and eldest son snapped them up. The two of them were giddy from going to movie after movie. What was I doing? Staying home and reading a book.
This is not meant to disparage movie going. Part of my reluctance to venture forth to the silver screen is probably because of my extreme introversion. I mean, getting in a car and driving to a movie theater and then being cheek and jowl with all those strangers: taxing! But my wife lost her job and we decided we were going to call this time of transition a 'sabbatical,' and we headed off to stay at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, where we could sit in the library and read all day to our two hearts' content.
The siren call of the movies gripped my wife even here. And so, in a small local theater on the Oregon coast, we watched the stunning Black Panther, which has taken the world by storm.
I loved the movie and found it fruitful for discussion. But, movie-amateur that I am, I realized I needed help in formulating my thoughts. I reached out to former Mayhemmer, Matthew MacNish, who is one of the cleverest guys I know. He can write entertainingly on everything from politics to music to sports to the literary life to movies. He gladly agreed to help out. Here is our conversation. Hopefully it will elucidate what Black Panther can teach us about storytelling:
I'm interested in the structure of the movie. It begins with a kind of prologue, where we don't exactly know what's going on, and the aftermath is kept from the viewer till later in the movie. SPOILER ALERT: SHADE YOUR EYES!!! (i.e. the king killed his brother.)
SPOILER ALERT MIKE! LOL. But in all seriousness, I really enjoyed the structure of the film, and the way Ryan Coogler (the director and one of two screen writers) revealed the plot. I especially enjoyed the pre-prologue, which describes the history of Wakanda, and the separation of the tribes, and also mimicked Shuri’s sand table. There’s a theme here, in which all the past kings of Wakanda have done what they believed to be right, to take care of their people, but they’ve behaved in a kind of nationalist xenophobic way, and T’Challa is awoken to the wrongness of this, interestingly enough, by his own cousin.
I'm also interested in the portrayal of the "villain." He has an agenda we can understand (revenge), plus he wants to use Wakanda's technology to help break black people out of the discrimination in which they're held. On some level, we can understand his motives and he is the hero of his own story. Was it necessary for him to die?
If you know Ryan Coogler, and follow his films, such as the masterpiece FRUITVALE STATION, and the surprisingly good CREED, you’ll know that he has a bit of a love affair with Michael B. Jordan--for good reason. Jordan is a fabulous actor, and he nails one of the most sympathetic “villains” I have ever seen in a superhero film. His methods might be misguided, but you can absolutely understand his goals, and in fact, he sways the Black Panther to his point of view, in the end.
There’s a line at the end, when Killmonger says something like “Imagine that, a little boy growing up in Oakland believing in fairy tales." Understand that this is Ryan Coogler talking to the audience about his own life, and the dreams of storytellers. It’s a beautiful, tragic moment. I did kind of wish that Erik could have accepted T’Challa’s offer to heal him, but I understand the decision to let him go, as sad as it was.
The other thing that gnawed at my consciousness was that Wakanda, for all its technology, was very African (or something I accepted as African). The street scenes didn't show gleaming roads or superhighways, but sort of dirt roads and a bazaar-like feel. On the other hand, they had amazing aircraft, kind of like spaceships. And the superstrong metal, vibranium. What did you feel about Wakanda making this decision to keep its technology hidden from the outside world?
This is two subjects, kind of. I really appreciated the production design in that it did show a Wakanda, especially on the street level, in which economic inequality was starkly apparent. Even between the rancher/farmer tribe of W'Kabi, and T’Challa’s tribe’s ivory towers it was clear that some people in Wakanda did not live the same kind of life as others. It was subtle, but Nakia very clearly touches on the fact that it is her calling to take care of the underprivileged.
As for Wakanda keeping its tech hidden from the outside world, you can certainly sympathize with T’Challa’s father and the kings who came before him, but the world is indeed getting smaller, as the film points out, and this kind of tribalism is going to become a thing of the past one way or the other. I thought this was an incredibly contemporary theme, and was brilliantly portrayed in the film.
I really liked the role of strong women in this movie. And it was incredible to see so many black actors and few white. Was the CIA pilot absolutely necessary to the success of the story? What if he'd been black?
I’ve seen some articles claiming that this film is too male gazey to be properly appreciated as a social justice vehicle. I have to completely disagree. Yes, technically it was written by two men, and certainly it was directed by a man, but the real strength of this film, at least in my opinion, is all the strong women of color who quietly and with dignity learn to endure the hegemony of colonial imperialism. Yes, in the long run, T’Challa is the king, and he must see the light, but he would never be the man he became without his mother, his general, his love, and even his little sister, who was my absolute favorite.
Having Martin Freeman as the one white ally did not bother me. Films have inserted token black sidekicks for decades. Sure, he could have been black, and that would have been great too, but I didn’t have a problem with his casting. There’s a great moment when M’Baku silences him in the throne room, showing that they will make their own decisions, regardless of what the colonizers want them to think or know.
I'm sure we could have gone on and on, but this blog post is long enough already! Thanks, Matt, for being my go-to film guy. Q to everyone else: if you've seen Black Panther, what are your thoughts about any of the topics touched on above--or any others? Thanks for reading Project Mayhem!