Ryan Coogler

Black Panther

About three years ago, Marvel announced a solo Black Panther movie. The news was met with enthusiasm, but the energy was largely confined to Marvel fans. Fast forward a couple of years later as buzz builds towards a Black History Month release date, and the masses have been whipped into a collective frenzy – myself included. I said that regardless of my opinion, I would be honest in my review of Black Panther. I told myself that I wouldn’t succumb to groupthink, as I admittedly did in my final grade of Moonlight. I needn’t have worried about that, because Black Panther met every expectation, living up to the hype in a dazzling display of Afro-futurism that left me swelling with pride. And while the film will undoubtedly appeal to a broad cross-section of viewers, there is something uniquely dope about Black Panther that resonates with Black folks particularly.

Chadwick Boseman (Marshall) returns as T’Challa, heir apparent to the throne of Wakanda after the death of his father King T’Chaka. Although the throne would seem T’Challa’s birthright, he still must compete for it, if challenged. In two exhilarating scenes T’Challa competes in tribal battle as inspired Wakandans look on, their shoulders rising and falling rhythmically in ritual witness to the spectacle. Untouched by European imperialism and Western civilization, Wakanda is a thriving bastion of technology due in part to its rich natural supply of Vibranium. Mined from a meteorite that landed thousands of years ago, Vibranium is used for everything from powering transportation to advanced weaponry. In fact, T’Challa’s younger sister Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright, The Commuter) has harnessed its properties brilliantly, unimpeded by Western ideals about traditional female roles.

T’Challa is an empathetic and even-tempered leader. He seems almost reticent to assume the throne, fueled by a sense of responsibility rather than hubris. He has lionized his father his entire life, but as Wakanda confronts new threats, T’Challa must contend with the harsh realization that T’Chaka had moral shortcomings that would prove dire. Enter Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Creed), wayward son of Wakanda with questionable origins. He has aligned himself with Wakandan nemesis Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, Star Wars: The Last Jedi), one of the few outsiders who are aware of Vibranium. Very few people know that Wakanda is a thriving epicenter of technology and innovation; most Westerners think it is a primitive, third world country, and it is that fallacy that has sustained Wakanda’s existence. People cannot colonize or exploit that which they do not know exists. But will T’Challa continue the path of isolationism that has sustained Wakanda until now, or will he step to the forefront of the global stage and reveal its greatness?

Black Panther was larger than life. I could fill page after page with praise for the entire cast, including writer/director Ryan Coogler (Creed), who gave the latest Marvel entrant an added layer of cultural significance while putting his signature Oakland twist on the story. He was my quiet favorite after his debut Fruitvale Station, but after pairing with Michael B. Jordan for a third time, the two are charting a relationship on par with DeNiro or DiCaprio and Scorsese. That may sound like lofty praise right now, but I think we are just scratching the surface. The film’s cultural impact cannot be overstated, and the power of film as a medium cannot be denied.

Marvel fans will enjoy the accurate interpretation of the Black Panther and his origins, while many Black moviegoers will recognize the film as a defining moment in the culture. The beauty, strength and power of African people was on glorious display throughout, and the film’s casting reflected a deliberate representation of beautiful, strong dark-skinned actresses like Lupita N’yongo (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Danai Gurira (All Eyez On Me) – a stark contrast to most mainstream movies. The film hinted at the greatness and untapped potential of the continent, and challenged its viewers with powerful themes that served as metaphors for the current state of our communities. At the risk of turning this review into a dissertation, I’ll conclude my thoughts by saying: Black Panther was flawless, and should be etched in the pantheon of Black cinema as required viewing.

Grade: A


I think it’s great to introduce an old classic to new audiences with a “reboot,” provided the original legacy isn’t cheapened in the process. When I heard about a movie called Creed that was going to revive the Rocky franchise by featuring the son of Apollo Creed, I had mixed opinions. These things can go either way: corny or rather cool. I was optimistic the film could be entertaining, primarily because director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan (both of Fruitvale Station) were reuniting to infuse the franchise with new blood.

Jordan (Fantastic Four) continues his Hollywood hot streak as Adonis Johnson, son of Apollo Creed. Young Adonis was the product of infidelity, and his famous father was killed in the ring before his birth. Orphaned and understandably frustrated, he found himself fighting often in the juvenile detention center where we are introduced to him as a troubled adolescent. In a benevolent turn, Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad, Good Deeds) rescues Adonis and takes him into her home. Fast forward a few years later, and despite the trappings of privilege and stable employment, Adonis retains his innate love of fighting. A self-taught boxer, he makes his bones in Mexico fighting amateur opponents on the weekends. Finding that no one will train him in any of the local California gyms, “Donnie” seizes his destiny by heading east after quitting his job.

Donnie touches down in the City of Brotherly Love, hoping to train under the tutelage of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables 3) his late father’s former foe turned best friend. Rocky is a Philadelphia legend, but his career has long been over and he isn’t looking to train anyone. Adonis bides his time, joining a gym made famous by Rocky and Mickey, his legendary trainer. Eventually Rocky takes an interest in the younger Creed after observing his patience, dedication and earnestness. He latches on to Rocky almost immediately, endearing himself to the elder man by affectionately calling him “Unc.” Adonis is a raw, unpolished talent but shows great potential, making the most of his first legit professional contest by earning victory. He fights under his mother’s last name of Johnson, refusing to rely on the famous surname of a father he never knew. When he lines up a high profile title bout against a fading champion, Adonis sees his chance for greatness – as long as Balboa is in his corner.

Director Ryan Coogler continues to impress, masterfully weaving a feel-good story of triumph sure to resonate with audiences. Adonis Creed is a likable underdog, much like Rocky Balboa decades ago. Tough, yet sensitive – he never gives up on his dream and pursues it with dogged tenacity. Coogler crafted a fitting homage, and the little references and clever nods to 1976’s Rocky were not lost on me. I spent my childhood in the city of Philadelphia, and I’ve never seen it so glorious and inspiring. That’s a testament to Coogler’s cinematography, and the young director clearly did his research. From Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Selma) explaining the local slang, to depiction of the city itself – Coogler showed an impeccable knack for realism and deft storytelling. The audience in my theater audibly cheered throughout the film, yet Coogler didn’t sacrifice authenticity just to please viewers. When Creed needed to win, he did. When he needed to get his ass kicked, he did.

The fight choreography was superb, and the final bout of the film was simply electrifying. When that iconic theme music sounded, my heart pounded! If I may compare Creed with Southpaw, another boxing movie released earlier in the year, the former surpasses the latter in storytelling and realism. The final scene was framed like an HBO match, and the commentary enhanced it tremendously. Stallone was at his most endearing, like a familiar old friend, his visage well worn but kind. Jordan has undeniable star power. Forgive me if this reads like hyperbole, but the pairing of Coogler and the charismatic Jordan may one day rival the likes of DiCaprio/DeNiro and Scorsese in terms of sheer chemistry. Creed wasn’t terribly complex or original, but there was beauty in its simplicity and I can’t find a single thing wrong with it. Grade: A.

Fruitvale Station

Wow.  I don’t even know where to begin.  Nothing could have stopped me from seeing Fruitvale Station, for several reasons.  First, I adore Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle).  Secondly, I support young emerging Black talent.  I admire people who follow their dreams and aspire to greatness, particularly in filmmaking.  The director of this film, Ryan Coogler, is a young man on the rise and I support that.  Lastly, the events that gave rise to this film were a tragedy, and I’m tired of it being ‘open season’ on young Black men in America.  I don’t have a brother, but if I did he might look like Oscar Grant. Or Sean Bell. Or Emmett Till. Or Trayvon Martin.  The list goes on and on, and I’m fucking sick of it.  My soul weeps, and that’s not hyperbole.

In the wee hours of New Year’s Day 2009, a young man named Oscar Grant was a passenger on a BART train heading into Oakland, California.  He had been celebrating the holiday with friends, and they were returning home.  While aboard the train, a fight broke out, prompting a response from transit police.  They detained several passengers, including Grant and his friends.  In the course of this detainment, Grant was shot in the back by one of the officers.  Oscar was unarmed.  The bullet entered through his back and ricocheted back into his body, piercing his lung.  By 10:00 AM on New Year’s Day, Oscar Grant was dead.  The movie begins with the actual footage of this crime, a chilling moment that is not dramatized until the movie’s final act.  Fruitvale Station, so named for that fateful transit stop, examines the last day of Oscar’s life.

You cannot divorce the movie from its larger societal context, particularly in light of George Zimmerman’s recent acquittal.  Other than their skin color, the similarity between Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant is that they embody the frustration and futility that engulfs so many young Black men in America.  Over the course of the film we see that Oscar is an average young man.  He loves his daughter immensely.  He argues with his girlfriend, and they make up.  He loves his mother and his family, but like many young Black men, he is frustrated with his circumstances.  He has made some mistakes in the past, but he is hopeful and earnest in his desire to change for the better.  Desiring a new start for a new year, he wants to stop selling weed, and we see him make incremental changes in his life to that effect.  It is this flawed ‘everyman’ quality that makes him so relatable.  We are all playing the hand we were dealt, and we’re all trying to get better.

It is particularly poignant to watch his life unfold, only to know that it will be cut short very soon.  There’s an air of dread and foreboding that hangs over the movie, and even the joyful moments are painful, because we know that these moments are fleeting.  His tasks are mundane, but there is something refreshingly authentic about the way Coogler and Jordan brought Oscar to life.  He was immediately humanized, and we see that despite his shortcomings (previous brush with the law, moments of angry frustration), he was a beautiful spirit.  I always say that people are complex.  Good people do bad things, and bad people do good things.  The haunting thing about the movie and about Oscar Grant’s life in general, is that it is a story of promise unfulfilled.

Fruitvale Station won prizes at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, and it’s easy to see why.  Jordan is a revelation, and continues to impress with both his versatility and a rare ability to endear himself to audiences.  Octavia Spencer (The Help) is featured as Oscar’s mother, and you know this woman.  Either she is your mother, or your aunt or your friend’s mother – but you know this woman.  She carries a quiet and loving demeanor, a firm but gentle hand.  Black women are tasked with raising sons in a world that is at once fascinated by and fearful of that which they don’t understand.  As we see Oscar interact with children, his peers, strangers of different races (some of whom are White), and even a stray animal – we see that his humanity shone through.  It is this same sense of humanity that unites us all, if we could just cut through the bullshit and get to it.

I think Fruitvale Station will prove to be a seminal movie that very much captures a time in American history where we are at a proverbial crossroads.  It’s 2013 now, and the officer that murdered Oscar Grant has been tried, convicted and released, all within a four-year span.  I don’t know whether to laugh mirthlessly at that absurdity or cry about it.  As human beings, we need to figure out what unites us rather than what divides us, and we have to cling to that with every ounce of strength we have left.  What is about young and Black and male that threatens us?  Examination of this question is the difference between life and death for so many people, and the answer has to start to matter to more than just Black people.  It has to matter to all of us.  Grade: A+