At the Cinemark
In 1968, at the height of the Black Power movement in America, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their clenched fists into the air on the Olympic podium in Mexico.
Fifty years later, Marvel’s “Black Panther” raises those black paws into the sky again in an exuberant celebration of black history, black culture and black talent.
“Black Panther” has executed a thrilling barrel ride through the curl of a giant cultural tide -- blending the identity politics of multiple movements.
“Panther” is not just another comic book superhero movie -- it’s simultaneously politically charged and artistically elegant. In some ways, “Panther” does for minorities what “Wonder Woman” did for women -- although “Panther” also was a strong feminist message.
Let’s dispense with the shortcomings first.
Yes, it’s a formula superhero film in many ways, with the obligatory villain Killmonger threatening to dethrone T’Challa the ruler of Wakanda, son of a legendary and beloved king.
“Panther” also has far too many frenzied action scenes, presumably inserted to assuage the Hollywood’s 21st century obsession with pow and boom.
And, finally, “Black Panther” does not dig deeply enough into racial politics to rise to the artistic level of “Moonlight” or “12 Years a Slave,” for example. “Panther” is still a Marvel comic book movie, which values entertainment more than illumination.
But then the Wakandans arrive, fully costumed in gorgeous historic African attire accented by stunning face art. They stand upon the rock cliffs as if placed there by an installation artist. They chant rhythmically in honor of their new king, who stands below them on a platform suspended above the edge of the sea.
And, at once, we are swept away. Quickly, we forgive and forget the foibles of the franchise.
The brightly colored costumes, jewelry and body art alone are a reason to see “Black Panther.” One byproduct of the film is that at some early screenings, audience members chucked their T-shirts and blue jeans.
“Screenings were held across the country Thursday night,” reported CNN. “And fans showed up dressed in their finest African attire or their interpretation of such in tribute to the film.”
I’m hoping, but not expecting, that those beautiful outfits might one day adorn Helena’s Cinemark Theatre. Perhaps our community should stage just such an evening showing, inviting guests to wear the most glorious “costumes” of the world. Moviegoers could dance to the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo before the film began. Quite white Montana would never be quite the same again.
Pride in the film is spreading. Actress Octavia Spencer bought out some screenings in Jackson, Mississippi.
"As promised I have purchased screenings of Black Panther this weekend," she wrote. "If you know of families low on funds, please spread the word!"
The cast is splendid, with the lady warriors ultimately overshadowing the black ruler. Yes, the ladies bow down to their king, but they do so with a wry smile and a wink. Wakanda is a kingdom free from colonization and exploitation. The glass ceiling has been shattered.
The story, a sort of game of thrones episode about who will succeed the dead ruler, is secondary to the compelling characters. This time, we actually care about many of them, rare in a comic book movie.
My favorites were the ladies: Super spy (and former lover) Nakia, played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, and the king’s brilliant sister scientist Shuri, played with attitude by Letitia Wright. Fans are already clamoring for Nakia and Shuri to headline a film of their own. Perhaps “Lady Panther?”
“Shuri, T'Challa's 16-year-old sister and badass princess of Wakanda, deserves to be crowned queen of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe,” writes Alisha Acquaye in a celebratory article in “Teen Vogue.”
Normally, I’d plot along at this point to share the story.
But I’d rather return to the costumes, the face art and the artistry of “Black Panther.”
Articles are already appearing acknowledging the artists who took great care to root the look of the film in authentic African history.
“Every fictional tribe in the movie was paired up with real tribe in Africa,” said makeup artist Tym Buacharern in an interview for Acquaye’s article. “For the River tribe, we based their looks on the Tsami and Suri tribes of southwest Ethiopia and Wagenia fishermen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
Every artist connected to the film shared that same passion for faithfulness to African history.
“We chose facial painting designs of the Masai (Maasai, Tanzania, and Kenya), Turkana (Kenya), and Nuba (Sudan),” said makeup direct Joel Harlow in the same article.
I’m not sure why the “face dots” and “face art” captivated me, but they did. The make-up work was simply stunning.
Clearly, all the filmmakers, no matter their role, were on an inspired mission. The team doesn’t talk about creating a popular movie, but about celebrating African heritage.
Of course, “Black Panther” is fantasy, not reality. The blend of science fiction with historical reality does not recreate history -- that’s not its intent.
What “Black Panther” does intend is to pay tribute to both black power and femme power on many levels -- personal, cultural, political. The crew and the cast are predominantly black and the story celebrates African culture, a rousing cinematic rejoinder to the disturbing cultural suggestion that black lives don’t matter.