By John Hessburg, Editor
© Copyright 2018, The Diction Aerie.
First question is this: have America's movie critics become so paralyzed by political correctness, so frozen by fear of censure for telling the truth about mediocrity, that they are slinking down propaganda pathways reminiscent of post-Weimar Germany?
Second question is: "If called by a panther, should you anther ?" And my disappointed anther is... "Nope."
Really wanted to like this flick. Got lured in, at first, by weeks of big budget Marvel-lust trailers and a disingenuous hailstorm of plump plaudits on the film critics' forum, Rotten Tomatoes. In the first half-hour, was nearly won over by the humility, refined intellect and affability of the title character, whose occupant Chadwick Boseman in 2013 also played a tour de force Jackie Robinson, contrapuntal to Harrison Ford's Brooklyn Dodger codger, the ball club's owner. Remember that cinematic gem? Now Mr. Boseman plays a smooth, utterly likeable character again. So I came to the theater with high expectations.
But left feeling deflated, dejected, more dismayed than disgusted. Because I really dig comic-book movies. But here, the self-important preachiness of the script swept over Mr. Boseman's character like a sad-yet-silly tsunami. So I disliked the movie as an artistic hole (sic)... into which promotional millions were poured -- with cunning, almost cynically fine-tuned calculation. One wonders... Was all this promo hoopla born of the widely reported Neo-Prog guilt that still lingers over those pre-2017 Oscar snubs of African-Americans? Or was it just plain ol' greed, 21st Century Blaxploitation with a glossy moral veneer? Or maybe a little of both?
The "Black Panther" movie was a noble idea, ruined by Hollywood's eternally repeated misstep -- Art By Committee. Which works about as well as Honeymoon Sex By Committee.
Fact: for far too many years, zero to few movies were made by and for African-Americans, featuring strong black men and women in title roles. Fact: the 2015 and 2016 Oscars were infamous for ignoring black actors and directors. Fact: activists howled to high heaven, demanding reforms. Bewilderment: OK, so why is this flick so achingly self-aware, so stiff and pompous... so not cool? Was "Black Panther" the mighty Disney studio's racial mea culpa gone awry, a grandiose vision of new fairness/awareness that was spoiled by unchecked guilt-tripping?
Here's the gist... Way too many studio execs seem to have flexed their wills, each injecting the movie with their own potions of piety, eyes on the next Oscars, as methodically as if the movie were some holiday turkey on an assembly line. A needle poke here, another poke there, over and over... and a once healthful free-ranger gets pumped up plumper than Pam Anderson. All this poking and pumping derives from one goofball premise -- that the too-perfect Kingdom of Wakanda with its too-photogenic rulers, warriors and its too-lustrous fashion sense, like some 21st Century Duchy of Grand Fenwick (remember "The Mouse that Roared" ?) will save the planet through unstoppable volumes of saintliness and divinely-conferred technology.
OK, let's really talk turkey now. What sentient social critic could possibly argue that Hollywood for decades has not denied African-American script writers, directors, designers and actors their fair shot at creative freedom? And who on earth would assert that industry-wide reform is not essential, from scripts to grips to the director's chair, if true post-racial equity is ever to become norm in American film arts? And who would ever reasonably argue that African-American youth have no need of stronger, wiser black men and women for cinematic role models?
So why did the Hollywood studio machine blow yet another chance to start bringing intelligent social balance to its most expensive movies? Here's the bummer, folks: once again over-compensating for the amber waves of Anglo Guilt they feel yet never find a remedy for, wallowing in a reactionary sump of "Let's-Crush-White-Privilege-Forever-in-One-Swell-Foop-and-thereby-salve-our-collective-conscience," Hollywood proves with "Black Panther" that it's chronic weakest link has been, and maybe always will be, clinging to its sacred bedrock, its 11th Commandment. You know, the one declaring that Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Over-Doing.
Meanwhile, in a curious surprise one almost never sees on the nation's top Internet hub for movie reviews, Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score was dramatically lower than the critics' score. Only 79% of all the viewers liked "Black Panther," while 100% -- yes every blessed one of the Top 50 reviewers -- said they liked it. Almost seems the big boys thought hard, then chose the easy way out: to steer way clear of any angry hornets among the righteous left...
Fearing backlash that might brand them as right-wing, racist or terminally unhip.
Such sycophants, often the frontline admirers of any Emperor's New Clothes, even a king in spandex, are nothing new. As far back as the early 1700s, genius poet Alexander Pope skewered literary critics who were too lily-livered to tell it like it is, when some nobleman's production was a dud. Pointing to then renowned lit-critic Joseph Addison, Pope complained that Addison would "damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer / And, without sneering, teach the rest to sneer." Pope sniffed that Addison was "Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike / Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike."
Now today in 2018, look at how movie critics seem to be struggling with Addison's Disease. Here is a handful of them ...
"Coogler is trying for a lot of things in Black Panther, probably too many, but there is also a winning modesty to his ambition." -- Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor.
"Whether or not this is the best film Marvel Studios has made to date-and it is clearly in the discussion-it is by far the most thought-provoking."
-- Christopher Orr, The Atlantic.
"Ultimately, it's more interesting to think about than it is to watch."
-- Matthew Lickona, San Diego Reader.
"Black Panther" matters." -- Stephen Whitty, New York Daily News.
"When "Black Panther" works, it's thrillingly alive." -- Alonso Duralde, The Wrap.
"Say this about Black Panther, which raises movie escapism very near the level of art: You've never seen anything like it in your life." -- Peter Travers, Rolling Stone.
Now many of these guys might have had misgivings but none of the Top 50 " Rotten Tomatoes" critics -- not even one -- voted against "Black Panther." They all towed the cable company line. One critic whose work I respect enormously, who's among the nation's most prominent, who typically nails his reviews with enviable insight, gushed so effusively about this so-so movie that he seemed possessed by some grovel-demon. It's so embarrassing to see this screed that, out of basic human charity, I cannot print the gentleman's name. Read it and weep, folks. This is the intro to his review -- verbatim. Be warned; your gag reflex may be tested to its limit:
“Black Panther” is the 18th movie in the Marvel Universe canon and one of the best — likely to entertain and thrill the hardcore geeks who waited breathlessly for months (years, decades) for this story to take center stage as well as the more casual but still enthusiastic and massive global fan base for superhero movies.
Even if you’re not normally into this genre, consider this. If you appreciate finely honed storytelling with a Shakespearean core; winning performances from an enormously talented ensemble; provocative premises touching on isolationism, revolution and cultures of oppression, and oh yeah, tons of whiz-bang action sequences and good humor — then you should see “Black Panther.”
It’s one of the best times I’ve had at the movies this decade."
Look, I love action movies, especially righteous warriors from the comic-books, guys on a moral mission like Chris Evans in Captain America, or Liam Neeson's juggernaut in the first "Taken" flick, or Denzel's towers of power in "The Equalizer" and "The Book of Eli." Uma Thurman was a hoot, and a hit, in the "Kill Bill" movies. Scripts, direction and acting that good can really rock a fun night out.
But it just feels nuts, like a lapse into embarrassing self-parody, for movie producers to indulge so vividly in hand-wringing PC that their first mega-successful all-black super-hero movie is... ta da!... The Kooky Kingdom of Wakanda, where equivalents of Seal Team Six are battalions of 6-foot gold-clad wannabe Amazon women with UFC-like grimaces, perfect Barbi Doll figures all gripping deadly spears -- poised to eviscerate in a nano-second any bad dude who dares to cross the line. Is this really the female role model that African-American Dads and Moms hunger to serve to their daughters? Do these same Dads and Moms really want their kids to sweat and fret through AP classes, concert bands and varsity teams for four years of gripping high school intensity, then nail an Ivy League admission, then graduate magna and finally carve out a Stanford PhD, then launch into public service careers ... oh yeah... all to eventually be like Wakanda's too-cute king, a GQ-cover-worthy head of state willing to settle old scores with ritual combat -- to the death -- on the edge of a giant cliff? In front of his whole nation, little kids included? Really?
Geez Louise, and hold the Thelma... Both dialogue and plotline of Black Panther often lapse into pretentious drivel, so preposterous even by comic book standards that it leaves one wincing, praying for a better day. Now, let's make it plain: How about this for a do-able sustainable film project to advance the cause and dish up some healthy role models -- depicting the drama of Obama's rough 'n ready neighborhood organizer years in Chicago, then his remarkable capture of the White House? Hey, the PRESIDENCY of the USA! I didn't even vote for the guy the first time, but I'd go see that movie in a heartbeat. Films like that would show a real-world role model that any parent would be proud to share with their children.
With my own parents and one beloved teacher, as a high school kid back in the 1960s and early '70s, I marched and rallied in Minneapolis with civil rights leaders. Back then the keynote speakers were flanked by real Black Panthers with opaque shades, shotguns pointed skyward and black berets. I'm serious as a heart attack; look it up in news archives. So I still find it's an amazing milestone to remember how, even though Jim Crow's evil spirit ruled the South until the 1970s, a skinny kid from Oahu named Barack, of African and Hawaiian roots, earned a Harvard law degree and got elected to be Leader of the Free World less than five decades after the KKK was lynching black men and burning crosses with demonic impunity. That's still one big honkin' deal for most of us Baby Boomers, or for any generation of character and spirit.
Before Obama, there were Underground Railroad workers, Freedom Riders and MLK, plus a myriad other bona fide historical heroes worthy of a great film to advance the cause. So why does Hollywood still cast its biggest-buck pearls before the porcine bottom line instead of the social justice compass it so devoutly claims to cherish?
But wait, there's even more cause for a pause in all this "Black Panther" hubbub...
Consider the film's resounding "Duh Moments" -- staggering logical stretches too loony even for a comic book kingdom. So, get this: the most ultra-advanced technology ever devised by human beings is hidden by electronic camouflage in some super-secret culture deep under the jungle canopy, that for decades doesn't even show up on NASA satellite flyovers or Google Maps? Yeah right.
When running for president back in 1968, Bobby Kennedy once told reporters he was so popular among African Americans that he could pitch a tent on the sidewalk, right in the heart of Harlem and sleep like a baby, safe and serene, all night long. Yet not even at the heights of hubris would RFK ever boast like that about any inner city today -- especially the mean streets of Oakland in 2018. Still, one final scene in "Black Panther" has Wakanda's head of state, the king mind you, the freakin' KING! -- clad in casual shirt and slacks, strolling a chain-link-fenced-in playground smack dab in the middle of the hardtack 'hood, accompanied by zero security people, not a single bodyguard -- and only one woman friend. Then hardly a single passerby even notices he's there? C'mon...
Gimme a break-dance. Hey Ryan K. Coogler, nimble director, you're barely 31 and you've got more talent in your left hand than many directors gather in a lifetime. So how about at least one culturally uncontrived moment to close your ambitious, ultra-expensive film with... OK?
Mr. Coogler, we've read you were actually living out of your car only a couple short years ago. With your gifted story-telling knack and cinematic vision, first proved by the celebrated film Fruitvale Station in 2013, it'd be a shame to see you revert to trunk camping again, so soon after releasing the third-highest-grossing film of all time -- one that eclipsed even Titanic. Next time, Mr. Coogler, consider wresting your dream projects free of the paunchy king-maker moguls in Hollywood-land, before you start rolling film. Maybe those brain-washing number crunchers are harder to bust nowadays, since they reportedly don't chomp cigars and cast from the couch anymore. Let's take a cue from recent Time Magazine covers -- their time has passed. Dinosaurs belong at the bottom of the La Brea Tarpits, not the summits of cinema. Indie rocks and Indie rules. Or so it should from now on.
And so it goes... Black Panther is a Bleak Panther -- artful but shameless PC-riddled politi-porn. With hypnotic colors and lush cinematography. But not enough to save it from its own overblown gravitas. En fin, I wasted my time and ten bucks. On yet another studio-engineered CGI-top-heavy trifle.
But the most sobering statistic of all is this: it's a trifle that's already raked in more than $1.3 billion to date, as of mid-April 2018. A BILLION bucks! Man, what does that say about the movie-hungry masses, we the people -- just like P.T. Barnum said -- suckered into those reclining seats once again, and lobotomized by cunning commercial calculus in the Kingdom of Wah Con Job ?
© Copyright 2018, John Hessburg & The Diction Aerie.
( Our thanks to Parker West & Pixabay for the slick graphic of a jungle cat. Just looka those eyes. )