A few months ago, I went with my family to U. Penn’s wonderful though somewhat dilapidated Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Unusually enough for Philadelphia museums, it was mostly local, West Philly black families walking around the museum on the day we went. When we walked through the African section, which leaned heavily on audience input- (“What Does Africa Mean to You?” in large letters next to a whiteboard where visitors could select “Music,” “Culture,” “History,” and so on) I noticed a young woman leaning over a display of Ethiopian Coptic Crosses and then stand up, beaming, and remark to her boyfriend, “I just love this, cause everyone always says, you’re just a Christian because your slave master was a Christian, and I always say, there were Christians in Africa long before all that, and look!”
There are no Coptic crosses in the new Disney/Marvel movie, Black Panther, though there are many other African signifiers on display, and the movie’s African utopia Wakanda is something of a cross between a Disneyland version of old National Geographic issues highlighting tribal African life, with lots of lip plates and facial tattoos and shaven headed female warriors, and the drearier Jedi Council scenes from George Lucas’s ill-destined Star Wars prequels. The movie is bombastic, badly written, overlong, poorly edited, and at times almost perfectly exemplary of The Onion headline “Fans of Green Screens, Incredibly Fake Looking Things express Love for Modern Cinema.” The first few scenes are mostly set at night and almost invisibly underexposed, and apart from a 15 minute sequence in the middle (in which the Wakandan superwarriors go on mission to Korea, Andy Serkis gets to chew some scenery and a conventional car chase ensues) the entire movie feels like a sluggish human retelling of The Lion King, with almost identical ghostly fathers and evil relatives competing for the kingdom’s throne.
This is all too bad, since Ryan Coogler’s last movie, Creed, was so good, heartfelt and finely observed in joining affection for black America to appreciation for the worthwhile elements of the Rocky saga. The presence of Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis (Bilbo and Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies) suggests some of Coogler’s aspirations with Black Panther, and the initial cartoon of Wakanda’s history and the CGI-overwhelmed final battle scene are both reminiscent of Jackson’s less successful stylistic quirks . Michael B. Jordan, the underwhelming lead of Creed, is brought back as a pumped up and scarified villain to vie for the throne with Black Panther. While Jeremy Irons’s Scar in The Lion King managed to combine humor with oily menace- genuinely scary for a cartoon lion- Jordan while playing the same approximate role (an emotionally as well as physically scarred cousin instead of uncle trying to kill the king and seize the throne) seems intermittently petulant when not robotic, delivering endless monotone monologues about using Wakanda’s weaponry for world black revolution and finding vengeance for his father’s death. The good guys all have less personality still, various versions of Wise African Sages, Butt Kicking Babes, and Black Girls Code.
The most important thing about Black Panther- a bad but forgivable superhero movie that is after all, just a superhero movie- is how absurdly over the top positive the media reaction and reviews of it have been. While the kids movies I loved as a kid were often quite negatively treated by critics, who would trash The Neverending Story or even the indelible Stand by Me without a second thought, reviews of tentpole movies are often absurdly low-variance now, with the wayward The Last Jedi and lugubrious Wonder Woman both garnering over 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, and Black Panther getting over 99% of 200 reviews positive, allegedly beating out The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane as the most positively reviewed movie of all time. Michelle Obama who, like Barack has mostly tried to stay out of the news over the last year, praised it almost as highly as her “greatest work of art I’ve ever seen” review of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.
For all this hyperbole, it’s not entirely clear what barriers are being broken by Black Panther- big and serious movies with black casts have been around since at least 1954’s wonderful Carmen Jones, and Spike Lee and John Singleton were putting much better looking and more crisply constructed films together throughout the 90s on a lot less than Black Panther’s $200 million apiece. A cynical person might say, with Chinese audiences evidently pushing Hollywood studios to include fewer dark skinned and black actors in movies than previously, hype over things like Black Panther is in large part to distract from people remembering, say, that Eddie Murphy was the star of the #6 movie in 1982, the #4 movie in 1983, the #2 movie in 1984, the #8 movie in 1986, the #3 movie in 1987, the #3 movie in 1988, and the #8 movie in 1996 (Coming to America, a better constructed movie about an African prince), and that it’s not entirely clear that the influence of black American culture worldwide is in ascendancy rather than decline.
Afrocentrism has always been mostly about America, about black Americans (like the visitors to the Penn Museum or the actors in and audience for Black Panther, perhaps) trying to find a thread that connects them to a mythic or historical African past, whether that past is as fake as Wakanda or Kwanzaa or something much richer and real. It is unfortunate, given the world-dominating dynamism of the last century of black American culture, that this connection takes such an ersatz, stale bubblegum flavor as Black Panther, and worse yet that it is praised so orgasmically by the largely white American press.
For all comic books and the movies based on them are treated now as universal, shared global myths, they are probably best when they are grounded in the particular culture that produced them, and in the case of Black Panther (like X-Men, one of Stan Lee’s 1960s creations) there probably was a livelier possible version that could take its 60s-ish Afro-Fabulous Techno-Fantasy Afro-Futurism with a grain of salt and amusement rather than leaden self-seriousness. Unfortunately, given the rapturous reception given to Black Panther by the largely white American press, we can expect a lot more leaden self-seriousness in Hollywood in the next few years.