Nope (2022)

When Nope was announced earlier this year, Brandon reached out to ask if I wanted to do coverage of it and, of course, my answer was “Yes.” Get Out was my top film of 2017, and I was passionate about giving Us a five star review in 2019. The only issue was that, when Nope came out in mid-July, I was going through a pretty rough, prolonged breakup. I missed the screenings they were holding at the drive-in and wanted to see it so badly that when a copy proverbially fell off the proverbial back of a proverbial truck, I immediately watched it, but not without some difficulty. The audio quality was awful, so much so that some of the dialogue was virtually inaudible, and the video cohesion also suffered, especially in the night scenes. I was lucky to have a friend over watching it who had seen the film in theaters, so she was able to describe what was happening at times when the truck-fallen video didn’t have the resolution to speak for itself (most notably in scenes with Jean Jacket). And so when people asked if I had seen it, I said “Yes,” but for a long time, I hadn’t really. If anything, I had seen a bunch of shadows on a cave wall. But all that has changed, and although as I sit here on the first day of the new year fulfilling a very late promise, I’ve seen the real deal, and I can’t go back to the cave. 

Nope largely takes place on the Haywood Hollywood Horse Ranch, a legacy and a legend which has passed the prime of its life. Otis Haywood Jr., or “OJ” (Daniel Kaluuya) has recently taken over the business from his father Otis Senior (Keith David), who was killed in a freak accident some six months prior when pieces of metal fell from the sky, supposedly from a plane. The horse that was being trained under the path of the inexplicable event had a key embedded in its flank, while Otis Senior somehow ended up with a nickel embedded in his brain through his eye. OJ inherited the gift of horse training from his father but lacks the elder man’s interpersonal abilities on the micro and macro levels, being unable to work a crowd as his father did but also failing to communicate with others on a day-to-day level without a high dose of awkwardness. All the social skills went to his younger sister, Emerald “Em” (Keke Palmer), a fast-talking, wise-cracking whirlwind who never stops hustling, much to OJ’s chagrin. We see this from one of the film’s earliest scenes, in which OJ begins to recite the rote speech that was no doubt his father’s, about their family’s descent from the Bahamian jockey who appeared in Horse in Motion, what is generally considered to be the first motion picture, and how they are keeping that tradition alive by continuing to train horses for film. OJ is hesitant, stumbling over his words, until Em appears and delivers the spiel with style and aplomb. When she wanders off during the actual screen test and the movie crew fails to heed OJ, causing the horse to act out in a way that costs them the job, we have the perfect vision of how the two siblings function as a team, two halves of a whole that only works when they are together. The two other major players in the film are Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who experienced a harrowing and traumatic tragedy on the set of a gimmick 90s sitcom, and Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), a peroxide-highlighted electronics store employee who gets wrapped up in the Haywoods’ lives after he becomes suspicious while installing cameras and other monitoring equipment at their ranch. 

Why do they need that monitoring equipment? Why, because OJ and Em are dealing with a UFO, of course. And if they can get footage of it, then they’ll be financially set, meaning that OJ will no longer have to sell off the horses from the ranch to remain solvent. 

Jordan Peele’s films are always thematically rich, and manage to exist in that space where they remain fascinating, captivating, and utterly watchable. Many films manage to mostly stay the course and we can forgive their slight imbalances if they manage to avoid tipping too far to one side (Glass Onion comes to mind—it gets close at points but never tilts so much that it starts to take on water), and others can lean too far over one side and become (in the words of Lindsay Ellis) “Oops, all allegory.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of things that Nope could be said to be “about,” or which present rich veins of interpretable ore to be hammered out and turned into gold by better writers than I am. So with that said, I want to talk about the three themes that are my favorites in Nope: the illusory nature of totems, the illusory nature of memory, and the illusory nature of media.

There are a number of totemic items present throughout the story: the Monopoly pieces that the crew sets out when planning to get the shot of the alien creature they have nicknamed Jean Jacket, after a horse that was supposed to have been Em’s ninth birthday gift but which ended up being selected for a movie; the VHS tape of her father’s spiel that Em watches the night that Jean Jacket vomits viscera all over the Haywood farmhouse; the giant balloon version of Jupe that suffers the same fate as the real one. Even the original Jean Jacket himself, in his absence, represents something about Em, her brother, and the fickle nature and absurd reality of the film industry. But the two biggest ones belong to OJ and Jupe. For the former, it’s the coin that improbably killed his father. For the latter, the impossible is represented in something equally quotidian and mundane that was given significance because of circumstance: a shoe. At one point in the film, OJ asks Em if there is a term for a “bad miracle,” referencing the way that his life has changed as a result of witnessing an extra-terrestrial, but this also plays into Jupe’s backstory, in which he was the ostensible human lead in Gordy’s Home, the aforementioned TGIF-style sitcom in which the gimmick was that a family had adopted a chimpanzee. During the filming of an episode of the show’s second season, one of the chimps playing Gordy was started by the popping of an on-set balloon and went on a violent rampage, killing several people and maiming the actress playing Jupe’s older sister, sparing only Jupe himself, who was transfixed throughout the attack on the unusual sight of a shoe standing straight up on its heel. Even as an adult, he keeps this same show in his ad hoc museum of Gordy’s Home memorabilia, enshrined in a place of honor. What differentiates the two men is that OJ ultimately realizes that the nickel that he’s pinned to his wall in memoriam of his father isn’t important, not really; it may have struck the killing blow but he recognizes that it is, in essence, a real life MacGuffin, with no inherent import in and of itself. Jupe continues to attribute significance to the show insofar as he comes to see himself as the recipient of some supernatural, if not necessarily divine, intervention. Late in the film, OJ notes that the alien Jean Jacket isn’t sticking around because doing so is in its nature, but because Jupe thought that he could tame the alien because his belief in his infallibility as some kind of animal whisperer, as made manifest by the impossibility of the self-stabilizing shoe, and he turned out to be very, very wrong. The power of totems is an illusion; it’s just people projecting their magical thinking onto objects in the same way that we often anthropomorphize nature, again to our detriment when it comes to predators. 

For Jupe, part and parcel of this is the nature of his memories. When asked about the incident by Em, Jupe doesn’t recount any honest details to her: not his fear, not the sickening sound of flesh being struck by simian fists, not the panic in the voice of his TV father as he attempted to escape the carnage. Instead, he recalls a Saturday Night Live sketch lampooning the event, except that he doesn’t even really describe the sketch and how it plays out (other than the small detail that Sketch!Gordy panics at mention of the jungle, not the real cause of his outburst), only recounting which cast member played whom and praising Chris Kattan’s performance as Gordy without any specifics other than that Kattan was “undeniable” and “eating it up, crushing it, devouring every moment.” The real memory, as we see it play out, is visceral and full of intricate details, down to the particular transparency of the tablecloth on the on-set dining table that obscured Jupe’s eyes from Gordy, foreshadowing that Jean Jacket’s territorial attacks are only against things that it perceives as looking at it. We know that this event still haunts Jupe and that, like a lot of traumatic memories, the specificity of the day remains vivid and sharp in his mind, interjecting itself into his thoughts when he’s preparing for a performance at the ranch, intrusive. Jupe has taken this memory and buried it under layers of media interpretation and interpolation and changed its quintessential form, just as he has foundationally changed the “meaning” of the shoe. Jupe makes his living off of nostalgia and in so doing never leaves the past behind, and he has supplanted his own memories with, for all intents and purposes, a movie; OJ, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the future and finding ways to keep Haywood open, and Em is focused on the present, with her hustles both professional and romantic. As such, we spend much less time in full flashbacks for the Haywoods; though they are standing in the shadow of Otis Senior and talk about him, each character only gets one actual visual representation of their memories, and it’s open to interpretation how much of each is accurate. OJ’s takes the form of a dream in which his father, speaking of one of the horses, says “I guess some animals ain’t fit to be trained,” a statement which perfectly slots into OJ’s current situation and provides a key moment of insight/realization about the nature of Jean Jacket, in a manner perhaps too apropos for the elder Hayworth to have actually said it and instead synthesized from OJ’s real memories through that ephemeral nature of dreams. Prior to this, on her first night back at the farmhouse, Em recounts the days leading up to her ninth birthday and looking down from the window to see the two generations of Otises training the namesake Jean Jacket, speaking with a soft bitterness about how Otis Senior had given up her promised horse because of “some Western.” This memory, too, is flawed: OJ corrects her by saying that it was actually Scorpion King that the horse had been picked for, and that the film had ended up using camels instead. Memory can be a mirage as much as it can be a mirror, and it’s ultimately imperfect. 

At its peak, though, that’s the biggest theme of Nope: the distortion of reality via the camera lens. One of my favorite lyrics from one of my favorite bands comes from the opening of Typhoon’s track “Young Fathers,” which is “I was born in September / And like everything else I can’t remember / I’ve replaced it with scenes from a film.” Jupe has done this almost literally, but Nope is also about the nature of how the proliferation of media has irrevocably changed our lives. There’s a really fun mixture here of media both real—Scorpion King, The Horse in Motion, Saturday Night Live—and imagined—Gordy’s Home, Six Guns, a nonexistent SNL sketch—which plays with the audience’s perception. After all, if you sort of half remember the SNL sketch in which Kattan plays the monkey man Mr. Peepers, then it doesn’t seem impossible that there was a similar sketch about Kattan playing Gordy. Theoretically, the camera lens should offer us perfect, objective truth, should record reality as it is without the wrinkles and imperfections that our memories include because of distance from events and the horizons of our experience, but that’s not what actually happens, because media is just as edited as our memories are, meaning that they are just as flawed in their ability to capture an inarguable “reality.” In few places is this more apparent than in media parasite organization TMZ, which becomes a literal part of this film when one of their employees appears at Haywood Ranch right in the middle of the Haywood crew’s big push to capture Jean Jacket on film, disrupting the entire operation while begging OJ with his dying breath to get pictures of the entity. This man values the money shot over his own life, and he pays dearly for it. The great irony is that nothing is “real” until it’s captured on film, but even that supposed “truth” is still subject to the edit; if nothing is real until we film it, but film is inherently not true either, then is there even such a thing? Every character in this movie navigates their life in some way informed by mass media: cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) intones a dead-serious rendition of the pop novelty song “One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Purple People Eater” at the Haywoods’ dinner table; Angel singsongs the famous “They’re here” line from Poltergeist when Jean Jacket appears; the course of Em’s life was changed in a small way by Scorpion King, and Jupe’s was altered on a mass scale by Gordy’s Home. It’s just as much a force in everyone’s lives as Jean Jacket itself. 

There’s still more onion to peel back here, but it’s not for me to take up all that space. I could go on and on about how it’s a fascinating choice that almost no character is called by their real name but by a nickname or derivation thereof (even Holst is introduced offscreen as “Ants”), or about the performances (Kaluuya really embodies a specific kind of eyes-averting blue-collar humility that was familiar and beautiful to me, while Palmer is a natural at everything, it seems), or all the little bits of foreshadowing, but I think that’s enough for today. This review is long overdue, but if you’ve for some reason avoided seeing Nope up to this point, then there’s no time like the present. Giddy up. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Naively, I hoped last year’s bizarro movie distribution vortex might make for some exciting, unconventional Oscar nominations. Instead, it seems most of this season’s frontrunners are typically-awarded Prestige Dramas that weren’t available to the wide public two months into the next calendar year. It’s impressively stubborn. Since The Academy is unlikely to ever change the type of movies it tends to award, the best we can apparently hope for are changes in subject & cultural representation. Enter Judas and the Black Messiah, an Awards Season historical drama about a charismatic, radical Black Panther Party leader who was assassinated by the FBI when he was only 21 years old. If the Oscars nomination machine is only going to recognize sobering dramas & grim actors’ showcases, then at least we can celebrate that one of this year’s chosen few is a Trojan Horse for leftist, Revolutionary politics.

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Fred Hampton, the aforementioned Black Panther organizer who was murdered in his sleep by the FBI (a real-life biographical detail that recalls the recent police-state execution of Breonna Taylor). Hampton’s internal life is kept at a careful distance here, as the movie is more interested in his Political Importance, especially in his ability to captivate & motivate large, diverse crowds with passionate speeches about wealth distribution & racist police-state violence. Our POV character is the undercover FBI informant who sold Hampton out to the pigs, Bill O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield. At its most enthralling, the movie focuses on Stanfield’s self-conflicted & self-loathing inability to stop the momentum of Hampton’s assassination once he’s already pushed those events in motion. He gradually realizes how insidious of a lie it is that the FBI frames the Black Panther Party to be just as hateful & anti-American as the Ku Klux Klan (a lie that I remember being taught as a kid myself), but by then his betrayal has already snowballed out of his control, which accounts for most of the film’s dramatic tension.

Judas and the Black Messiah is caught between two extremes; it achieves neither the thrilling undercover-cop genre subversion of a BlacKkKlansman nor the exquisite art-film portraiture of a If Beale Street Could Talk. In most ways it’s a firmly middle-of-the-road actors’ showcase meant to earn Awards Season buzz for its two central performers, something the movie even directly jokes about when an FBI agent muses that Stanfield’s informant “deserve(s) an Academy Award” for his deception. Kaluuya & Stanfield both deserve awards; they’re among the best working actors we’ve got. It’s just that they most often traffic in the kinds of high-concept genre films that don’t typically get recognized by the Academy (titles like Get Out, Widows, Sorry to Bother You, and Uncut Gems). This is the kind of work they have to put in to earn mainstream accolades, so the best we can do is celebrate that they’re not being used to voice mainstream rhetoric.

Judas and the Black Messiah is at least not a birth-to-death biopic of Fred Hampton; it’s a snapshot of him at the height of his power, arguing for the effectiveness of Revolution over the empty promise of Gradual Reform. Using the Awards Season movie machine to get people re-incensed over Hampton’s execution is a genuine, real-world good. The format might be a little dusty & traditional, but the politics are as relevant & vital as ever.

-Brandon Ledet

Widows (2018)

I’m not sure what aspect of Widows’s marketing led me to expect a stylish heist thriller about vengeful women transforming into reluctant criminals in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. That version of Widows is certainly lurking somewhere in the 128-minute Prestige Picture that’s delivered instead, but it’s mostly drowned out by what I should have known to expect: an ensemble-cast melodrama packed with talented women in beautiful clothes & a world of political intrigue. Everything about 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s involvement, his collaboration with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, and the film’s Oscar-Season release date should have tipped me off that the promise of a heist genre action picture was merely a cover-up for a thoughtful, handsomely staged drama about women’s internal turmoil in the face of gendered, financial, and political oppression. Widows might still be a slight deviation from McQueen’s usual Prestige Drama fare in its isolated nods to heist genre convention, but surprise twists are becoming Gillian Flynn’s clear specialty; this entry in her modest canon includes a twist in the basic tone & genre of what you’d expect from an ensemble-cast heist picture.

Viola Davis stars as the ringleader widow, who attempts to rope three other widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and a barely- present Carrie Coon) into a heist job to help heal the financial wounds left by their dead criminal husbands. Following the detailed instructions left behind by her respective husband (Liam Neeson) in a Book of Henry-style notebook, she transforms from grieving teacher’s union organizer to criminal mastermind in the blink of a teary eye. The nature of her planned caper lands her in the middle of a hard-fought Chicago City Council’s race between brutish local politicians (Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, and Robert Duvall), which is dangerous territory for her small crew of grieving non-professional women who just want to put their lives back together. Oh yeah, and Bad Times at the El Royale’s Cynthia Erivo joins the crew as a getaway driver/muscle, just in case the cast wasn’t already overstuffed. And the dog from Game Night is also along for the ride; and Matt Walsh too. And Lukas Haas. And Jacki Weaver. If the enormity of that cast and the themes of that premise sounds like it might be overwhelming, it’s because it very much is. Widows plays a lot like an entire season of Prestige Television packed into a two-hour span – complete with the execution of the central heist acting as a self-contained episode. The economic & political backdrop of a stubbornly changing modern Chicago sets the stage for a wide range of actors (mostly playing dirtbag men and the women who love them) to patiently wait for their spotlight character moment to arrive in due time. Meanwhile, Flynn adds a new wrinkle to the plot every few beats to leave the audience salivating with anticipation for what’s going to happen next. It’s overwhelming (and a little thinly spread), but it’s also exhilarating.

Widows feels like a movie custom built for people whose all-time favorite TV show is still The Wire (and who could blame ‘em?). Its tangled web of debts, power plays, and barely-concealed vulnerabilities make for sumptuous melodrama, where lines like “We have a lot of work to do. Crying isn’t on the list,” don’t feel at all out of place or unnatural. The POV may be spread out too thin for any one character’s emotional journey to stand out as especially effective, but the performers are all so strong they manage to make an impression anyway: Davis as a once-confident woman at her wit’s end, Kaluuya as an inhuman terror, Erivo as an athletic machine, Debicki as the world’ tallest (and most tragic) punching bag, etc. I was way off-base for looking to Widows as a highly stylized heist thriller, as if it were the 2010s equivalent of Belly. Instead, it’s more of an overachieving melodrama and an actor’s showcase, the exact kind of smartly considered, midbudget adult fare Hollywood supposedly doesn’t make anymore. The action-heist element of the plot is just some deal-sweetening lagniappe for a stylish, well-performed story that would have been just as entertaining without it.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Panther (2018)

Oh man oh man oh man, the magic duo of people’s sexiest man alive Michael B. Jordan (not to be confused with People‘s Sexiest[?] Man Alive[?] Blake Shelton[?]) and Ryan Coogler has done it again. Black Panther is as fantastic as we were all hoping, and I’m super excited that Marvel Studios finally started using the privilege of being this generation’s premiere film franchise (for better or worse) to finally push forward with an explicit intersectional, anti-colonialism, and afro-positive message. I’m here for this, and you should be too.

It’s been a little less than two years since I wrote out my thoughts on Marvel’s race problem, which I drafted up in response to the whitewashing of the character of the Ancient One in the then-upcoming Doctor Strange film. That film was a disappointment on more levels than that (there’s a reason our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. coverage hasn’t resumed, as every time I think about rewatching Strange I get depressed) Since then, superhero broadcast and cinematic media has gotten better about addressing the ongoing issues that are shaking the foundations of our society, and even our democracy. For instance: Supergirl continuing to knock it out of the park as far as political commentary goes, from Cat Grant’s speech in the season two finale (appropriately entitled “Nevertheless She Persisted”) to the show’s episodic intro for this season (“My name is Kara Zor-El. I’m from Krypton. I’m a refugee on this planet.”). The CW also premiered Black Lightning at the beginning of this year, which I’m also finding both to be both moving and entertaining in addition to drawing more attention to issues that middle America tends to ignore. In the first episode alone, our hero Jefferson Pierce faced disproportionate police violence against communities of color, the preponderance of racial profiling in America, the bias of media when reporting on black citizens in comparison to treatment of white citizens. Our media should and must address these vitally important issues that demand attention and discussion in our culture right now, when the Attorney General is using (barely) coded language to signal to white supremacists that they have tacit approval from and are welcome to be part of law enforcement amidst dozens of other horrors.

I’m speaking out of my lane a bit here, as neither a woman or a person of color, and I’ll be the first person to admit to that. I’m not the final word on this, and I have no authority to speak to these matters. What I do have is a responsibility to do so. As Bell Hooks tells us in Homegrown: “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege” (emphasis mine), and as such I want to take a second to talk about Star Trek: Discovery (I know, I know, but hear me out). The Star Trek franchise flirted with queer themes a number of times before this most recent series with episodes like TNG‘s “The Outcast” and DS9‘s “Rejoined,” but those episodes, when they discussed queer identities and presences in society, did so with a reliance on metaphor to distance the characters from the “taint” of homosexuality in the getting-better-but-still-not-great nineties. In Discovery, when we finally see Dr. Culber and Lieutenant Stamets standing at their sink and brushing their teeth together, then stealing a quick kiss, I cried. It’s hardly important, not plot-relevant (at least at the time), and part of me wants to decry that this is barely good enough, and yet… seeing, for the very first time, a reflection of myself in the fictional universe that had meant so much to me elicited an emotional reaction for which I was not prepared. Culber and Stamets—Hugh and Paul—were not victims. They weren’t dying of AIDS or as the result of violence, neither was the butt of a joke or a sassy best friend, they weren’t having to face systemic oppression or deny their birthrights to be together; they simply were.

People of black African descent watching Black Panther will have some of the same feelings I had watching Discovery and other feelings as well. There are better and clearer thinkers out there from whom you should be getting this information, but just in case Swampflix is the only website you read and are under a cultural embargo in every other way, listen up: there’s no one-to-one correlation between the experiences of one marginalized group and another, and the history of colonialism is baked into every single facet of contemporary life. The current progressive discourse is about intersectionality and rising higher by lifting each other and standing shoulder to shoulder, but white people like myself are still the beneficiaries of a social order built virtually entirely to ensure our supremacy and maintain a status quo that keeps the reigns of power in white (or, given the current political situation, orange) hands. If you’re capable of empathy and the most basic building blocks of open-mindedness, you either already know this or are not surprised, but down here on the ground in flyover country, even in a progressive urban enclave like Austin, we’re still trying to get the White Gays™ understand intersectionality even just a little bit. Their claims of having have an “inner black woman” are misogynoir in the first degree, their vocal disgust at people of size is fascism of the body, the sexual fetishization of black men is racism, and the claim that sexual attraction to only one (or all but one) ethnicity is “just a preference” is, at its core, a statement of “I treat people differently based on the color of their skin.” Institutionalized homophobia and racism are both legacies of colonialism that (just in case the people in the back didn’t hear me the first time) is a factor in every level of Western society; we’re struggling to slough off like so much dead skin, but some people will take any small advantage that they have without a moment’s hesitation or a second thought to those whom they may be stepping over. That’s something that the alt-right is happy to take advantage of.

I’m sure that, among readers with a moral philosophy that differs from the values I hold, this will be interpreted as some bleeding heart liberal cuck virtue signaling. Maybe a review of Black Panther isn’t the place for me to air my grievances with the White Gays™ and the fact that even my beloved Supergirl anchors itself pretty solidly in the garden of white feminism; I’ve gone a bit off track, but I just wanted to point out to you, dear reader, that even if you are not a person of color, Black Panther is still a movie you ought to see, and basic empathy means that you should be able to grasp some small part of the immeasurable importance of this film, even if its message of empowerment isn’t aimed at you directly. Despite the issues within my own community, I as an individual recognize the awesome power that representation has, and moreso the power of representation that forsakes the trappings of the meager pittances of visibility that came before. Not every movie about The Gays has to be Philadelphia, not every trans* movie has to be Boys Don’t Cry, and not every movie about the black experience has to be 12 Years a Slave. Representation can and must transcend dramatization and metaphor-making of real world trauma; the past and the framework it created for contemporary existence cannot be denied, but looking to the future is important too. This movie may not be for you, but you will be better for having seen it, and the huge numbers of white Americans who would never pay to see a movie with an (almost) all black cast were it not a Marvel property will also be better for it. This is a film company that has become an indomitable box office powerhouse using that power for good, and that’s worth celebrating.

Away we go! Black Panther picks up shortly after Civil War, showing T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the technologically advanced isolationist African nation of Wakanda, preparing to take on the mantle of king after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) in that film. He retrieves his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from the mission she is on as a “war dog,” a term for Wakandan spies living in other nations, and returns home to be greeted by his mother, Queen Ramonda (actual goddess Angela Bassett), and tech wiz younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). His coronation is preceded by ceremonial combat, in which he engages M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a different tribe, for control of the throne. Filling out his coterie are: General Okoye (Danai Gurira, who steals the show), leader of the Dora Milaje, elite female warriors who serve as kingsguard; spiritual leader, tender of the garden of heart-shaped herbs that give the Black Panther his power, and overseer of the transition of power Zuri (Forest Whitaker), who also hides a shameful secret; and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), T’Challa’s confidante and Okoye’s lover. Meanwhile, a literal and figurative world away, American black operative Erik Stephens (Jordan), aka Killmonger, has teamed with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, reprising his role from Age of Ultron) to raid Wakanda in order to steal vibranium, the precious metal that fell to earth long ago and accelerated the technological advancements of Wakanda far beyond its neighbors. Stephens, however, has a greater purpose than Klaue has dreamed, and their machinations lead T’Challa to reunite with American CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). Unexpected revelations occur, the long-term reverberations of a shameful act that happened in 1992 echo through the present, and fierce debates about the potential for colonialist interventionism to arise from pure and honest intentions, the de facto violence of isolationism in a world teetering on the precipice, and the wisdom of building bridges versus the foolishness of building walls arise.

That’s a lot of discourse to wrap up in a 134 minute superhero film that has to introduce nearly a dozen heretofore unseen characters, establish vital information about the history of a fictional nation that is unlike any society in the real world, and create a stunning afro-futurism aesthetic that looks cooler than anything else we’ve seen before in this franchise (only the colorful world of Ragnarok really comes close). On top of that, the film also has to give the audience the action thrills that they’ve come to expect: a (badass) car chase, two slugfests on a waterfall outcropping, a (kind of forgettable) opening sequence under the cover of darkness, a casino shootout, and the final climactic battle. But Coogler manages to compress all of those things into that runtime, and churns out an early contender for one of the best movies of the year. Just like Get Out last year, this is a February release that I predict will continue to be part of the conversation for quite some time to come. Granted, Disney is essentially a national economy unto itself, and this is a “product” for them in the strictest sense, but Marvel Studios seems to have learned the lesson that getting out of the way and letting their directors have extensive creative control makes for better art (who could have guessed?). The only bad thing about creating a movie with so many rich layers and elements is that it’s almost impossible to decide where to begin discussion.

First things first: I can see why this movie is making racists angry, especially those who hate being called out on being the recipients of the benefits of being the descendants of colonizers. Ross is explicitly called a colonizer, and much hay is made of the fact that Wakanda has only managed to reach their staggering technological achievements because of the nation’s isolationism, made explicit in the text by showing other African states being devastated by the slave trade in the film’s opening moments. I come from a rural white family and have family members on Facebook, so I know what its like, as I assume you do, to see the same people who want to “Never Forget” incidents like 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the Alamo, and whatever else you can put a name on that involved Americans being heroic in the face of tragedy (although what defines “heroism” and “tragedy” varies from ideology to ideology, especially when talking about something like the Alamo) but are also vocally resistant to movies like the aforementioned 12 Years a Slave, saying things like “why can’t the past be the past?” I’d wager that no matter what walk of life you come from, you’ve got at least one of these people in your social network because of family or work connections; they’re probably going to hate this movie, because this ideology so often goes hand-in-hand with disliking any art made by people of color, regardless of quality (funny that), although they usually couch it in the rhetoric of “it’s not for me” or “I just don’t understand because it’s not something I know.”

And that is not to say that the film is without flaw. Of all the conspiracy nonsense out there, one that I hate the most is the “ancient astronauts” theory. Ever since Erich von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods? in 1968, the idea that various architectural wonders of the ancient world were inspired by extraterrestrial contact has gained wide acceptance among the irrational, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the History Channel’s passive approval of the idea with the launch of TV shows like Ancient Aliens. But the truth of the matter is that the “paleo contact” and “ancient astronauts” hypotheses are also part of a colonial narrative. Europeans in Africa and the New World saw the ziggurats and pyramids that had been built using rope, stone, wood, and gumption and said to themselves “Well, sure Monte d’Accoddi and the Hulbjerg Jættestue and Newgrange were ancient structures that our ancestors built with primitive tools, but how on earth did these non-white pagans do it? [Snaps] That’s it! There’s no way that they could have expressed such ingenuity… on earth. They must have had help from spacemen!” I’ll admit that I’m a huge nerd and, frankly, very little would make me happier than any sort of evidence of extraterrestrial contact, but this “theory” and all the “evidence” for it starts from the presupposition that non-whites outside of Europe were inherently savage and incapable of the same architectural feats as their European contemporaries. This concept was manufactured out of nothing based on the core idea of denying African and South American ingenuity. Again, this is a long aside, but the reason that I bring this up is that there is a smidgen of this in Black Panther, as Wakanda’s futuristic nature is only possible because of the presence of vibranium. One could argue that Black Panther devalues and undermines African inventiveness in much the same way as von Däniken and his followers by showing a nation that is only exceptional because of an external event; on the other hand, real world history often demonstrates that nations can rise and fall based upon the presence or absence of certain natural resources, and that the film treats the abundance of vibranium beneath Wakanda’s surface as such. As a potential problematic issue in the text, it’s minor, but something I expect to generate an inevitable argument about how “Black Panther isn’t as progressive as you think” in the coming weeks. There’ll probably be some complaints about the monarchic nature of Wakanda as well, despite that the potentiality of abuse of power within that method of governance is addressed pretty explicitly in the text.

Everything else is amazing. It’s beautiful. As excited as I was to see this movie, I’m glad that I waited until it was in its second weekend, and that we’re going to be pushing back the publication of this review. As I was reading Shoshana Kessock’s essay “The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman” this morning while waiting for the bus, she perfectly encapsulated my feelings about this: “[T]here are other voices than mine which should take precedent [sic] in a conversation about a film so strongly impacting people of color right now. There are so many writers of color putting out thoughtful, insightful articles about Black Panther that I felt it was important for me […] to sit back and listen without stepping in and having my say.” I have so much more that I want to say about the movie, but it’s important now for me to stop taking up your time with this writing and send you forth into the world to see the movie, read the brilliant discourse that the film has created (here, here, here, and here are good places to start, and this is a counterpoint that raises interesting issues), and be excellent to each other.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond