At a recent media-only screening of Black Panther, I happened to be one of three African Americans in attendance. Although I sat right in the middle of the theater rocking a heather-gray sweatshirt with T’Challa emulating the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute, a couple of white film critics must not have noticed me and proceeded to have quite the interesting exchange that I ear-hustled. It went a little something like this …
Critic A: I’m really sick of the hype.
Critic B: I know, it’s been a lot.
Critic A: You think it’s going to live up to the hype?
Critic B: If it doesn’t, I’m not going to be that guy who writes the bad review.
Critic A: I know. With all of the “movements” going on, even if it isn’t that good, you can’t write a bad thing about it.
Critic B: Exactly.
Once the credits rolled, a sense of pride swelled in my chest considering that, in my humble opinion, Black Panther lived up to the hype. However, I couldn’t help eavesdropping on the film critics who spoke before the film to get their thoughts.
Ultimately, they thought the movie was good but not great, and ranked it somewhere in the middle of the 18 Marvel Cinematic Universe films that have been released since 20o8.
I left the movie theater wondering how many other film critics felt the same way about Black Panther but refused to be those critics. After all, everyone saw how Irish Independent’s Ed Power was raked over the coals on social media after his negative review apparently broke Black Panther’s 100 percent-positive Rotten Tomatoes rating. Is a bad review of a movie with so much hype and cultural relevance to a community worth the perceived backlash?
And with that, does that mean that Black Panther has been graded on a curve?
It’s important to note that it wasn’t necessarily the fact that Power gave the film a negative review. Instead, it was the rationale behind the review (T’Challa didn’t beat up enough bad guys) that drew the ire of fans.
Unfortunately, there may be other critics like the ones I overheard at the theater who think that black folks aren’t willing to accept a critical review, and will therefore grade the film on a curve for fear of being attacked on social media. That method of thinking reduces African Americans to an irrational collective that is of the same mind. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Not everyone in the African-American community loved Black Panther, for a variety of reasons, and that’s fine.
Surely, one scan of your social media timeline will find many debates regarding whether or not the movie lived up to the hype. It’s what makes Black Panther such a cultural phenomenon.
The fact that we can debate about a blockbuster superhero movie with a predominantly black cast, a black lead and a black director bears a great deal of significance. Don’t get it confused: We can accept a negative review from a nonblack film critic as long as the words back up the grade.
On the flip side, there are contrarians for the sake of being contrarians in the African-American community who made their decision long ago that they wouldn’t like the film. One black film critic who tore the film to shreds was the National Review’s Armond White (cinema’s Jason Whitlock, if you will).
For the uninitiated, White has long been considered a contrarian troll in the film-critic community. He’s responsible for the first review to break Get Out’s 100 percent-positive score on Rotten Tomatoes and has served up negative reviews for universally acclaimed films including The Dark Night and Toy Story 3, while praising other lowly rated films such as Jonah Hex and Grown Ups.
“But Oedipal conflict is too serious for the Marvel Comic Universe, so careerist [Ryan] Coogler gets distracted from his real subject and creates a kind of ideological retreat in which Afrocentricity becomes an opportunistic folly,” White writes of Black Panther. “Unlike biracial Vin Diesel’s The Chronicles of Riddick, which translated racial and political awareness into a quasi-classical drama, Black Panther marginalizes its white characters: ‘Another broken white boy for us to fix,’ a Wakanda scientist rhetorically spears a CIA outsider. Its focus is on what masculinity means for heartbroken black boys.”
You read that right. He compared Black Panther to The Chronicles of Riddick in terms of how those films dealt with the subject of race.
Until there are more African-American movie critics who are part of the Rotten Tomatoes algorithm to balance out nonsense like this, there will remain a curiosity as to whether these reviewers are being 100 percent honest about a mainstream film that is by and about black people.
Some white critics may not be able to relate to the themes presented, and the movie may not resonate with them. Also, it’s not too far-fetched to think that some white critics might have racial biases that affect how they critique a film. But that’s pretty much how black folks have felt about the vast majority of films to which we cannot relate, but upon which are heaped tremendous praise by film critics.
Hopefully, a balance will eventually be struck between the racial makeup of films and the writers who critique them. Fortunately, Black Panther has received its fair share of praise by the people who needed that escapism in a world where Donald Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric routinely infests our news broadcasts. And that’s really all that matters.