Ryan Coogler has delivered a very early contender for the 2018 Academy Awards (that is to say the ceremony a year from now, not the one coming up in a week) in the form of Black Panther. A lavishly constructed big budget biopic of revolutionary political activist Huey P. Newton starring Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther depicts the founding of the eponymous socialist organization. The Black Panther Party was the most influential black social movement of the late 1960s and Black Panther (2018) is the most ambitious film of its kind since Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992). It speaks well of Hollywood that they are willing to produce such an important work of cinematic history.
The movie tells the story of Huey P. Newton’s eventful life with faithful attention to detail, from his childhood in Jim Crow-era Louisiana, to his family’s migration to Oakland at the end of the Second World War, to his organizing of the Black Panther Party out of Merritt College in 1966. The most exciting sections of the movie depict Newton’s rise to lead a powerful movement for black liberation, capturing the energy of how quickly the Black Panther Party grew to become a nationally and even internationally significant part of revolutionary tumult of the 1960s. But the most emotionally wrenching sequences come in the final part of the film, as the party is violently suppressed by the FBI and other agencies of the U.S. police state. If you haven’t been awakened yet to the oppressive, white supremacist nature of the U.S. government, this movie will be the one to open your eyes.
Black Panther owes much of its success to its incredibly talented cast: in addition to Boseman, it also features Michael B. Jordan as Stokely Carmichael, Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, Danai Gurira as Angela Davis, Winston Duke as Eldridge Cleaver, Lupita Nyong’o as Kathleen Cleaver, Sterling K. Brown as Bobby Seale, and Andy Serkis as J. Edgar Hoover. This is a vibrant ensemble that enriches history with a true sense of life and humanity.
Coogler directs with a sure hand and a visionary sense of possibility for a revolutionary new film vocabulary. He captures the late 1960s with an obsessive eye for period detail, from the costumes and the language to the music and most especially setting. An Oakland native, Coogler knows the Bay Area in his bones, and it’s thrilling that he used the clout he earned from his first two films to bring this defining element of Oakland history to the nation’s eyes.
The movie also seamlessly integrates documentary footage and techniques that recall the free indirect subjective style of third world cinema to create a startling forceful, rousing call to action. It reminded me of nothing so much as the films of 1960s Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha, though somehow far more accessible to mainstream audiences.
An intimate portrait of such a profoundly important historical figure as Huey P. Newton was long overdue. The massive success of Black Panther with both audiences and critics makes me hopeful about the future of racial justice.
TL;DR – Fueled by a gripping performance from Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther draws inspiration and dramatic power from the life of Huey P. Newton — but doesn’t ignore how far we remain from the ideals embodied by the Black Panther Party.
What the rest of the critics are saying:
“This is what Black Panther dares to do so well: show us the small, private moments in Huey P. Newton’s life, the intimacies, the humanity.” – Lonesy Windrows, Washington Post
“Like Huey did in history, Black Panther captures your mind and your guts as it entertains, the way great movies often do.” – Elvis Mitchell, KCRW
“The Black Panther Party is back baby, and it’s more socialist and revolutionary and anti-imperialist than ever!” – Eric D. Snider, EricDSnider.com
“The identity politics provide a fresh spin to the biopic genre’s increasingly tedious narrative formula.” – Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, AV Club
“This is a movie whose political theory matches its stunning special effects.” – Youtan Poluo, New England Movies Weekly
“Black Panther is a story we haven’t seen told before in popular cinema – a story about radical black activism nearly succeeding in the overthrow of entrenched systems of colonialism and oppression.” – Jwaundace Landis, The Point Magazine
“An ugly celebration of a traitor to the U.S. of A. Avoid at all costs.” – Adam Yoshida, Unqualified Reservations
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