Monday, 16 April 2018

A Marvellous Movie

I may have turned my son into a political activist. I'm not sure, but I think he may be on the verge of joining a rebel group in a far off continent. There could be complications as the group are renowned for being highly secretive and not accepting people from outside cultures. That and the fact that he's 8 years old.

And the fact that Wakanda doesn't actually exist.

Yes, I took my son to see Black Panther at the weekend, the first 12A certificated film we've seen at the cinema together. It turns out that he knows an awful lot more about the Marvel universe than I do, no doubt due to a mix of watching the Iron Man cartoon on Netflix, reading some books at school and having friends who are well versed in the mythos (as well as a cousin who could actually talk for days about both the Marvel and DC universes without pausing from breath).

For what it's worth I haven't really gone too deep into the lore, I enjoy some of the Marvel films, but can generally take it or leave it. While some of my work colleagues almost had heart attacks when the Infinity War trailer first aired, I shrugged my shoulders and said that it looked okay. "Only okay"? they said. "Don't you understand the significance of blah, blah, blah....." No, I don't understand the significance of any of it. Left to me, Guardians of the Galaxy would stay in its own film franchise and never touch Iron Man and chums. But what do I know? Not a lot actually, especially about this stuff.

So, the lad was desperate to see it. He'd also like to see Deadpool but clearly has no idea how massively inappropriate that would be for him (thanks Lego Marvel for including him in your games). In a bid to stay in touch I had a look at the BBFC ratings app and concluded that while there was some very minor swearing he would be okay to watch it, he's come home from school having discovered worse and we have strict rules in our house about what is and isn't allowed to be said (at least for the kids). With fingers crossed I booked tickets.

When Saturday comes.

We travelled to town and he was super excited. I love taking my children to the cinema, it's something we always do in the holidays and this was the first time since Big Hero 6 that just the two of us went (his sister saw Peter Rabbit with his mum the next day, there may be a future guest blog post if we're lucky). We got lunch, picked up the tickets, bought an eye-wateringly expensive bag of popcorn and went in.

And we were blown away.

No wonder this is one of the highest grossing films ever made. It is an absolute stunner of a movie. Yes, the plot's quite straight forward. Yes, there is a big fight in act three. And yes, you have a good shot of being able to plot the major beats of the film in the first twenty minutes, but the delivery and commentary on all manner of issues is done so deftly and with such comedy and grace that you can't help but be taken along with it all.

Marvel has done something really important here, they have put their money where their mouth is and made a strong film that focusses on Africans and African-Americans and portrays them without caricature and without feeling the need to justify anything. I came out wondering why the major studios haven't had the balls to do this before. What were they waiting for? What were they afraid of? I've heard people complain that this is a film for the modern, apologist PC world but that's frankly bollocks. I can't grasp historic issues of race in America and the western world, I understand them but I am a step removed. I understand that I live in privilege and am from a country that has a brutal history of suppressing minorities and taking over countries they think are beneath them. We have dug up kings and ransacked the riches of a variety of cultures and profited off all of it. I can't go back and change any of that, but it's about time Hollywood stopped portraying Africa as a continent of despair, and focussing on African-Americans as either Uncle Tom's or gangsters.

I firmly believe that it's important to see your own race and culture portrayed in film in a variety of ways, in balance. There's nothing wrong with seeing negative portrayals, but when they become the default, when they become lazy stereotypes then there is an issue. Which is why I'm not surprised how successful Black Panther has been.

Digging up kings.

If you add up the combination of the appeal of the Marvel franchise, the racial diversity, and the equality of gender roles in this film it's not hard to see why it's done so well. This is a film with universal appeal. I can only imagine some executive looking at how well it's done and working out how they can continue to benefit from this (simple answer, make more diverse movies).

I mentioned above that this film dealt with historic issues with a deft touch. On the one hand it addresses issues such as cultural theft, colonialism, slavery, the continued portrayal of Africa as a desperate continent, and the western belief in the ignorant savage. On the other hand, it doesn't dwell on them. Each case is stated and either moved on from or laughed at, and in some cases both. It's left for the viewer what they want to do with the information. My son won't get the references about one of the tribes being vegetarian, but I took it as a comic take on the old movie threat of the savage cannibal tribes eating the plucky white adventurers.

I could go on. I think this is a really important film, and I hope it proves that there should be no fear in making a film that's not solely based around white characters. If a film's good it will stand up on its own merits. When it also manages to pack a cultural punch as well judged as this then we are potentially entering a golden age of film-making that combines box-office savvy, entertainment, and political film-making. For while Wakanda is completely made-up the themes in this film are real. And that's where it wins over so many other superhero films.

And as a measure of just how good this film was, I didn't even mind Andy Serkis being in it. I can normally only bear his gurning when he's wearing a CGI mask to be honest (and it's hard to top Gollum).

It's worth noting after all this that my son loved this film. He couldn't stop talking about it on the journey home, and when his mate scored a goal the next day at football they both crossed their arms and shouted "Wakanda" at the top of their voices. We haven't found it on the map yet so I don't think he'll be running off any time soon.