Friday, February 16, 2018

White bird, black panther

Yesterday, February 15th, was an important day on the Australian cinematic calendar. The best movie of 2017 and the best movie of 2018 both opened -- on the same day. (Well, I suppose either of them could be challenged for their respective honors by Paddington 2, depending on what hemisphere you live in, as the movie was released in a different year here than it was in the States.)

That's right, a mere 104 days after the date of its first limited release in the U.S., best picture nominee (frontrunner?) Lady Bird finally graced our shores. A day before its U.S. release, so did Black Panther.

And yes, they both have ridiculously high ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. The once unblemished Lady Bird still stands tall at 99%, while Black Panther sits a mere percentage point behind it at 98%. (Glad my editor at ReelGood does not get tabulated on RT, as he gave it a mere 5 out of 10.) Humorously, both movies still do trail Paddington 2, which remains at 100%.

Their release dates and high RT scores is where the comparison between these two movies seems to end.

Though they could be flip sides of the same coin.

Although it has not suffered for this in any significant way, Lady Bird may be one of the last of a dying breed -- a movie craving widespread mainstream acceptance that does not have any characters of color in significant roles. In scanning the credits list on IMDB, it appears that there is a Latino guy and a woman who seems to be of mixed race, though without having seen the movie, I can't comment on the size of their roles. I can say they are 10th and 11th on the cast list, though.

Black Panther is kind of the opposite, though this, paradoxically, does not seem to be as much of a problem in today's climate. (Which, unmistakably, seems like a good thing to me.) Instead of token minorities, it has token whites, as Andy Serkis is the 12th ranked member of the cast, followed by David S. Lee three spots later.

As I said, this is a good thing. Until I came up with the current take on its release, I was going to write a post heralding the opening of Black Panther with a title along the lines of "Marvel makes a movie with a bunch of black people in it." You know, summarizing a very exciting development -- a Wonder Woman-style development in terms of its social significance -- in a provocative manner that would certainly turn your head if you weren't expecting it.

But we also know Marvel only does things that it thinks are in its best financial interest, which is the truly encouraging thing about Black Panther. The movie has proven Marvel right, shattering ticket presale records, because there is a collective hunger for this type of movie, obviously among black audiences, but among white audiences who find themselves poised to embrace the type of movie that might have made them feel alienated just five years ago. White audiences -- thinking white audiences, anyway, which may only be a small percentage of them -- want this. Not as much as black audiences do, but they want it too. And that's fantastic.

You know that thing where you walk into a movie that isn't aimed at you, and you find yourself in kind of a demographic Twilight Zone? "Oh, this is what it feels like to be ... a three-year-old kid, or an old person, or yes, a black person." Well congratulations on this "unique" experience. This is how black audiences felt for years, when only a handful of films each year truly felt like a reflection of their lives and experiences. And since those movies weren't made with big budgets by big studios, they often didn't attract the most talented filmmakers, or actors.

Well, that may be changing. Slowly, but then sometimes dramatically. Black Panther still could have continued taking baby steps by making a movie that was, maybe, two-thirds black. Five years ago, it might not have dared to be any more than 51% black in the cast. And it almost definitely wouldn't have been directed by a black man, though Ryan Coogler is one of the best talents we have going of any race.

But this is 2018, and something has happened -- something in our culture that has allowed this to happen. At a time when things seem their worst under Trump, something is still bubbling underneath, more like a majority than a minority, that celebrates the diversity that seemed to be repudiated by the last election.

And hallelujah, amen.

So where does that leave Lady Bird? I guess the answer is, Lady Bird will be fine. Lady Bird has always been fine, and it will continue to have a place in the cinematic landscape. You can't really make a movie with no black characters anymore, anyway, though some people still try. Lady Bird is close, but not totally there. And it's directed by a woman, so at least that's something. And I still look forward to trying to see it over the next week ... though I will see Black Panther first.

I do think there's an important shift that's occurring, that makes Lady Bird seem like the movie that's a bit tone deaf, a bit antique, a bit in its own hermetically sealed universe in which not only the people are white, but the problems are also white, no matter how many characters who are not quite white it may have in it. I think we are moving closer to a Black Panther world, and that's a world I want to live in.

And hallelujah, amen.

1 comment:

Derek Armstrong said...

I somehow jumped right over the familiar name of Martin Freeman in the cast of Black Panther on IMDB. He's fifth listed.