Thoughts on Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther (2018), despite its many merits, is limited by its Marvel pedigree. Groundbreaking? No doubt. An absolute unmitigated triumph? Time will tell, but from where I stand, not quite.

The story is a 007-inflected Lion Panther King and also resembles parts of Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Its central moral conflict, though grounded in a legitimate debate, is derailed by painting Erik Killmonger (a swaggering yet pointedly juvenile Michael B. Jordan) in such an evil light. And the actions of Agent Ross (Martin Freeman), though perhaps inevitable for both commercial and universe-continuity reasons, are borderline cringe-inducing. There are some other issues with the film, having to do with the ideology of its world-building, but I’m not in a position to expound on them (though I can say that Armond White takes these valid quibbles, sprinkles in factual inaccuracies, and elevates/denigrates the entire viewpoint into blatant Democrat-baiting. Reading it was fun in the same way that watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) was—perversely).

What I am qualified to comment on is the apparent consensus from viewers in Mainland China that the film was too darkly lit. Racist? Yes, but of the ignorant and not malicious variety. China is a huge place with its own complex cultural ecology, where the vast majority are Han Chinese; in other words, the “consensus” is coming from an ethnic group that occupies the same structurally dominant position as White people do in the West, but Han Chinese have even less exposure to minorities, mainly due to government-promoted nationalism and fond memories of the time just before Western imperialism when the Qianlong emperor could say with a straight face that China doesn’t trade because it had everything it could ever need or want.

Sitting in the fourth row, I had no problems with the lighting. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison seems to have long resolved the infamous “black skin” problem, a problem caused by lack of experience filming Black actors; despite the misleading Wikipedia pull-quote, the reason she describes lighting as her “biggest problem” is because of the scale of the film and its visual effects. That level of dedication is reflected in every facet of the production: the committed acting, comprehensively researched Afrofuturistic set design, lovingly blocked and edited scenes, mesmerizing visual effects, painstaking costumes and makeup, heartfelt score (only sometimes manipulative), and, last but certainly not least, the “sneakers” pun. My face was dry, but I was weeping inside.

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