“I am Queen of the most powerful nation in the world! And my entire family is gone! Have I not given everything?”
The shadow of Chadwick Boseman’s untimely death loomed over Black Panther‘s sequel, but Ryan Coogler chooses to embrace it in an elegiac rumination on grief. Shuri has the fullest arc, as her rationality leads to a rejection of her mother’s traditions and an inability to process her grief, but Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda is the film’s greatest asset with a devastatingly powerful performance. Unfortunately, the nuanced exploration of these themes is diverted by the needs of a blockbuster franchise film to introduce new characters and hooks. Wakanda Forever opens on the world stage, as Ramonda refuses to share her nation’s vibranium resources, calling out the US military in contrast to other areas of the MCU. War nevertheless comes from beneath the waves in the form of Namor, reinvented here as the ruler of an underwater kingdom created due to colonial incursion into the Yucatán. Namor is a personification of indigenous rage, his cultural grief mirroring Shuri’s personal anger. Beyond that parallel, he lacks the depth that made Erik Killmonger such a fascinating villain — Namor is simply driven by an obsession that war with the surface world is an inevitability. Meanwhile engineering savant Riri’s introduction feels perfunctory in setting up an Ironheart TV show, whilst providing a fleeting Black American perspective — “to be young, gifted and black,” she quotes Lorraine Hansberry, before realising that means nothing to a Wakandan. The costuming remains exquisite in its detail, as does the Ludwig Göransson-produced soundtrack, though it is interesting to find that the film’s essential “blackness” is less immediately noticeable on this occasion, perhaps arriving so soon after The Woman King. The action, however, is the generic Marvel CG-fest with nothing memorable beyond a sequence in which the Wakandan men belay female warriors fighting over the vertical side of a ship. Coogler is to be praised that, with so much crammed into the bloated running time, its emotional core still feels heartfelt rather than hollow. Shuri’s interactions with those who knew her brother throughout the film explore aspects of grief, broadening her understanding, and particularly fascinating are her conversations with M’Baku who proves a surprising confidante. Nevertheless, Wakanda Forever feels hamstrung by its place within the franchise rather than elevated by it.
“These are new men, new types of human beings. These men have perspective. Know particularly that they glory in the struggle. They are not demoralized or defeated or despairing persons. They are leaders, but are rooted deep among those they lead.”
The first of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Mangrove is an emotionally powerful courtroom drama chronicling the true story of the Mangrove Nine, falsely charged with riot and affray following a protest. That this powerful indictment of systemic racial injustice should be released in the same year as the Black Lives Matter protests could not be more fitting. A joyous opening celebrates the Mangrove restaurant’s opening, but also Notting Hill’s multiculturalism at large. However, it is swiftly overtaken by brutal police raids, one simple yet haunting shot lingering for a half minute on a spinning colander, forcing the viewer to take in the destruction and pain that lingers long after the police depart. As a whole, the film hits the expected beats for its subject matter but is elevated by its thoughtful artistry. Shaun Parkes and Letitia Wright provide the film’s emotional core as allies but ideoligical adversaries within the black community. Whilst the sneering PC Pulley is an easy caricature, a more telling scene shows his impassive reaction to a black mother’s grief at her finding that her child has been beaten in custody: the man truly believes he is restoring a natural order that is challenged by the black community’s self-sufficiency. The courtroom itself is a microcosm of the wider world, unwilling to acknowledge racial injustice until it is no longer avoidable. When Frank Crichlow is thrown into a jail cell, the camera gazes up at him as he screams in frustration, the image uncomfortably overexposed with blown out highlights mirroring the bursting emotion he can no longer contain. Similarly, the camera remains fixed on Frank’s face as each of the verdicts is announced, rather than passing from one defendant to the next; tracking the continuing range of emotion he experiences after a long-fought battle is far more powerful. And yet, as we are reminded shortly afterward, this was a single battle for justice in an ongoing war.
“You’re a good man with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king.”
A triumphant take on the superhero movie that offers not just a new aesthetic (like Doctor Strange) but is steeped in black culture throughout. It bridges the divide between African and Black American culture but also pits them against one another, considering colonialism and interventionism from the perspective of the technologically advanced but isolated African nation of Wakanda, whilst recognising black anger that atrocities past and present are allowed to happen. It also does not shy away from ritualised displays of strength and violence, but they parallel the respect and empathy felt by T’Challa for his adversaries. Such nuance is unusual for a superhero, particularly one that is meanwhile challenging conventional Hollywood wisdom that a blockbuster with an overwhelmingly black cast would not be profitable.