Black Panther: The Accents, The Villain, The Women

Posted on February 25, 2018 at 2:20 pm

“Black Panther” is now more than a blockbuster, record-smashing superhero movie. It is a genuine cultural phenomenon, with thought-provoking and remarkably nuanced issues of identity, race, gender, and politics, and it has inspired some fascinating commentary.

Slate goes behind the scenes in an interview with Beth McGuire, director of speech and dialects at Yale and dialect coach for the film.

Aisha Harris asks:

In general, even if you’re a classically trained performer, do you think there’s a greater jump from an American accent to an African accent than there would be from a British accent to an African accent?

I think so. It depends on the country, because if you’re doing Liberian, then American’s gonna help you. If you’re doing Rwanda, neither British or America’s gonna help you because it depends on who colonized the country. But if you’re doing Nigerian, then yes, definitely British is gonna help you. If you’re doing South African, you know, that’s a call, because you had the Dutch. Honestly, it depends on who the damn colonizer was.

Copyright Marvel/Disney 2018

I always say that the most important character in a superhero movie is the villain, and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik may be the best bad guy in the history of superhero movies. He isn’t some alien who wants to control the universe. He’s just an American guy who has experienced and witness a lot of injustice. As Ryan Coogler told me in an interview, at the beginning of the film he is more altruistic than the hero. But because of the losses he has suffered, he is a damaged person and his empathy does not extend beyond the people he identifies with.

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer compares Killmonger to X-Men Antihero Magneto:

Killmonger’s stated purpose, to liberate black people all over the world, has sparked a lively discussion over whether he is a bad guy to begin with. What could be so bad about black liberation? “I fist-pumped in the silent, dark theater when he was laying out his plans,” writes Brooke Obie at Shadow and Act. “IT’S A GOOD IDEA!” That Coogler’s villain has even inspired this debate is a testament to how profound and complex the character is.

“In the end, all comes down to a contest between T’Challa and Killmonger that can only be read one way,” writes Christopher Lebron in a well-argued piece in Boston Review, “in a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks.”

This is not actually what happens in the film. Killmonger’s goal is, in his eyes, the global liberation of black people. But that is not truly his goal, as Coogler makes clear in the text of the script and in Killmonger’s interactions with other characters. Like Magneto, another comic-book character who is a creation of historical trauma—the Holocaust instead of the Middle Passage—Killmonger’s goal is world domination. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” Killmonger declares, echoing an old saying about the British Empire, to drive the point home as clearly as possible. He sees no future beyond his own reign; he burns the magic herbs Wakandan monarchs use to gain their powers because he does not even intend to have an heir.

In The Root, Carolyn Hinds and Clarkisha Kent talk about the themes of duality in the film.

During the challenge ceremony, M’Baku chastises Shuri (because what he sees as a child who is in charge of all the tech in Wakanda and thereby the future of Wakanda) for showing disregard for traditions that T’Challa himself is taking part in. What I also appreciated about that scene was when T’Challa told M’Baku to yield, he did because he realized that his people still needed his leadership.

Now, what Ryan Coogler did so brilliantly with the challenge scene is that at the climax of the film, T’Challa and Killmonger are practically in the same situation, but instead of yielding Killmonger chooses death later on over instead of yielding to T’Challa. When he said that he’d rather be thrown into the sea instead of being in bondage, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut and started to cry because that imagery and history is so real to me that I didn’t pick up on his other reason. Over time, I came to realize that in his mind, Killmonger would rather be dead than owe T’Challa anything—including a life. He chose death over possibly being locked up for what he did.

The gender politics of the film are as thoughtful as the race politics. In the Washington Post, Shanon Lee writes:

From the start, the story avoids the sexist tropes we are accustomed to watching on film. The women’s sex appeal is obvious but secondary to their personality and skill. They are strategic opponents in battle, saving the life of Black Panther T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) several times over. Equally entrusted with guiding and protecting the nation, they do not need to be rescued, sustained or lauded by men.

When romances are revealed between Nakia and T’Challa, and Okoye and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), we get to see the dynamics of each relationship play out.

And Slate calls Black Panther more feminist than Wonder Woman. “Black Panther confidently performs the tricky balancing act of writing fully realized women characters into a traditionally male-centered narrative by wholeheartedly believing that they are integral to the storytelling.”

TIME’s Arica L. Coleman writes about the real-life inspiration for “Black Panther’s” women warriors.

In the film, the fictional Dora Milaje — “adored ones,” an all-female military group that protects the King and the fictional nation of Wakanda — are perhaps the most obvious example of female strength. The Dora Milaje were introduced in Black Panther comic by Christopher Priest, who took over as lead writer of the series in 1998; since the series’ relaunch in 2016, they’ve become much more central to the plot. (The title character, who was Marvel’s first African-American superhero, was created in 1966.) In their initial appearance, Priest’s narrator describes the female bodyguards as “Deadly Amazonian high school karate chicks,” who were also the King’s “wives-in training.” While many have speculated about the inspiration behind these warriors, it is clear that one of their main antecedents was the famous all-female African military corps of Dahomey, West Africa (now The Republic of Benin), whom the French dubbed “Dahomey Amazons” after female warriors in Greek mythology.

Those who want to understand the history of the character will enjoy these comments from one of the leading writers on race and politics, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has written Black Panther comics:

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Black Panther: Behind the Scenes

Posted on February 20, 2018 at 8:25 pm

I was lucky enough to be able to interview “Black Panther” co-writer/director Ryan Coogler for

The movie places an African and an African-American in opposition. “I’m an African-American male born in the 1980’s in Oakland,” he said, “and there’s a dynamic between being African and African-American that’s very interesting.” This is a key element he explored in the film, with African characters from the fictional country of Wakanda, which has never been colonized or even had any trade relationships with western countries, and African-American characters, who reflect the stress of living in a country still confronting racial divides.

“The question for me is what does it mean to be African? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I first knew I was black, since my parents sat me down and said, ‘You’re black and that’s what this means. You’ve got to navigate the world in a certain way.’ That’s the conversation every person has had to have because of the way the world works. If you don’t have that understanding you could be in a situation that costs you your life,” as Coogler’s first film, the fact-based “Fruitvale Station,” showed. “Nobody who was telling me what being African means had ever been there. My parents had never been, my grandmother had never been.” So it was essential for him to spend time in Africa, researching the cultures that Wakanda would represent.

“The African culture the world knows best is the African-American culture,” he said, citing the worldwide dominance of hip-hop. But working on the film and spending time in Africa helped him realize that the African culture he thought was erased by bringing Africans to the United States as slaves was much more intact than he thought. “I grew up thinking the African culture had been taken away from us, that it was lost. But the truth is, we didn’t. We hung onto it.”

And as the mother of a costume designer, I was especially excited to speak to Ruth Carter, whose costumes play such an essential role in the film. She talked about the African inspirations for the traditional tribal attire of the Wakandans, and the way African patterns are even reflected in the iconic superhero suit.

Actual African fabric as we know it is Dutch and Dutch-inspired and brought to Africa. Africa liked it and adopted it so all of their African fabrics come from Holland or from China. Wakanda was never colonized, so I didn’t want to use them. Every time I started to use the African fabrics I felt like it was not this movie so I created my own fabrics, based on the sacred geometry of African art. Usually it’s a checkerboard or it’s pyramid shapes or it’s striations of horizontal and vertical strikings so I use that and we created prints. Lupita’s green dress in the casino is one print that we created based on the Nigerian kente cloth. We just extracted the line work and we printed the fabric the same way we printed T’Challa’s superhero suit.

Once I get the illustration of the super suit I can’t change it; I can’t give him a Shaft coat, all of a sudden. I have to stay within those confines because they have already been working with merchandisers and all kinds of other people. The one thing that I did do which was my contribution was the Okavango pattern, a triangle shape.

That fabric is completely made up. The triangle is definitely a big part of African artistry. It’s a mystery within the African culture what that triangle shape actually means and everybody has their own theory. So the panther suit was printed with that triangle shape all over it so that when you’re looking at it, it’s this superhero suit that has this Wakandan language traveling through it; veining throughout it, and you also see an Okavango pattern and which makes it feel like he’s in the place of Wakanda, he’s in Africa and he’s an African king and gives it texture.

Vanity Fair posted a scene analysis with Coogler explaining what was going on in one of the film’s striking action sequences.

More commentary about this brilliant, groundbreaking new film coming soon.

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Mae Abdulbaki on Representation of Middle Eastern People In Movies

Posted on January 29, 2018 at 2:54 pm

Copyright Disney

My friend and fellow critic Mae Abdulbaki has a very thoughtful piece on The Young Folks about the portrayal of Middle Eastern characters and the appearance of actors of Middle Eastern origin in films. Hollywood has a shameful tradition of “browning” white actors for roles in Biblical and historical epics.

To this day, there is still very little representation of Middle Eastern people who aren’t stereotypical terrorists and, if they ever do appear, they’re background characters or there to help white people (sometimes in their own land, see: “Indiana Jones,” “The Mummy” as examples). So when it was announced that there would be a live-action “Aladdin,” I was beyond ecstatic. Finally, a movie that had once been one of the only positive representations of Middle Eastern people on screen was now getting the live-action treatment. But Disney’s adaptation of the beloved animated classic has already hit several bumps in the road–from rumors of not being able to find a Middle Eastern cast, to “browning up” the extras on set–Disney’s inability to properly understand the importance of representation and the need to self-insert a white character where he doesn’t belong proves that the studio, and Hollywood in general, still struggles.

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Posted on January 18, 2018 at 2:41 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence, and language
Profanity: Some very strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive and very graphic violence, many characters injured and killed, rapes
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 19, 2018

Copyright 2017 Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures
“Hostiles” is more in conversation with movies about the settlement of the West than it is about or in conversation with the brutal history of the West itself. For decades there were simple stories of brave cowboys and soldiers fighting racist caricatures of Native Americans. White men were heroes and Indians were savages.

Then there were some stories with a little more nuance and some better intentions but pretty much on the side of “civilization” and the more nuanced Native American characters were usually played by actors who were not Native Americans. Westerns went out of vogue in part because of the growing recognition that the stories were too complicated and painful for the “good guys vs. bad guys” cliches of the past. “Hostiles” is a sincere effort from writer/director Scott Cooper at a Western that frankly grapples with the challenge of building a society on the unthinkable carnage and injustice of the past. But there is more formula than drama, with each character specifically designed to represent a place on the spectrum of culpability. With dialogue like “I don’t know what we are going to do with these wretched savages” and “There ain’t enough punishment for his kind” and soldiers with too-symmetrical responses to their own culpability, and unceasing brutality to drive the points home, even the fine acting cannot bring it to life.

Christian Bale plays Captain Joseph Blocker, a man who has witnessed and inflicted horrible brutality in the fight with Indians. When he is ordered to escort an Indian leader and his family to their home, he refuses, until his superior officer threatens to court-martial him and withhold his pension. Blocker despises Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), who has been in prison for years and is dying of cancer. But the President has ordered that he be allowed to return home to die, and he will need an escort to protect him and his family.

Blocker assembles a group of soldiers and they begin the journey. They come across Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose husband and children have just been killed by Indians, who stole their horses and burned down her home. She is severely traumatized, but Blocker’s respectful treatment helps her begin to accept what has happened, and when Yellow Hawk’s daughter offers her some clothes, she changes out of her blood-stained dress.

Each encounter along the way, most horrifically brutal, is designed to add some variation on the theme, and all boil down to: both white settlers and Native Americans committed atrocities and both have to find some way to reconcile with the past. The film begins with a quote from DH Lawrence: ““The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” Perhaps more apt is a quote attributed to Golda Meir, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”

Parents should know that this film has extended peril, violence, and rape, with many characters injured and killed, including children and a baby, and many grisly and disturbing images, suicide, racist epithets and comments, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What helped Mrs. Quaid begin to accept her loss? How were Blocker and Wills different? Why did Blocker get on the train?

If you like this, try: “Unforgiven” and “The Searchers”

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Coco and Mexican Culture

Posted on November 29, 2017 at 3:57 pm

Slate has a great guide to the cultural references in “Coco” that people who are not of Mexican heritage might miss. (Note that co-director Lee Unkrich has responded to one of the points in the Slate article, saying that the use of both Dia dos Muertos and Dia de los Muertos was intentional to reflect the support for both they found in their research.

And this piece by Manuel Betancort about watching “Coco” with a Spanish language soundtrack made me sorry I don’t speak Spanish. He says that “Coco” is “Pixar’s most culturally specific movie in their lauded pantheon.”

Here at last was the kind of dubbing that didn’t feel like it was mangling, or weirdly bending the original into something it was not. It just had its characters talking (and singing) in the very language they were meant to speak. There’s a difference, for example, in hearing Miguel’s family talk about ofrendas (a word that always feels like it’s being italicized by its voice performers when speaking English, eager as they surely are to make it clear it’s a Spanish expression many may not be familiar with), and quite another to see that word just roll along in dialogue that doesn’t needlessly highlight it.

That’s perhaps even truer when it comes to Hector, the bumbling skeleton that Miguel befriends while in the Land of the Dead, and to Ernesto de la Cruz, the famed musical legend the musically inclined young boy admires and hopes to find while in that fantastical world. The former may be voiced by García Bernal in both versions (he’s one of a handful of actors who made good use of his bilingualism to score a double gig) but the latter, played by Benjamin Bratt, was dubbed by Marco Antonio Solís. And not to diminish Bratt’s singing abilities, but it truly is something else to hear the Pedro Infante-like character be portrayed by one of Mexico’s most recognizable voices.

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