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story.lead_photo.caption Chadwick Boseman is T’Challa, the African prince who becomes the title character in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.

Like most of the movie directors working today, I'm a white male. But sometimes having somebody who doesn't look like me at the helm of a film is a good idea. If you want to make a tired old genres relevant, it can help to have someone with a fresh perspective behind the camera.

Sometimes the differences between how a white man or someone who isn't approaches directing is obvious.

For example, with 2017's Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins had her Amazons wearing armor that looked more functional than sexy. When Zack Snyder and an uncredited Joss Whedon featured the same characters in Justice League, they sported battle gear that looked far less combat ready. How can you fight Steppenwolf or any other superpowered menace when your uniforms seem more suited for arousal than defense?

In 2018's Blockers, a woman's touch behind the camera appears to have been what helped separate the movie from a garden variety gross-out. Director Kay Cannon, who wrote all three Pitch Perfect movies, doesn't have a screenwriting credit, but the tone of her directorial debut matches the approach of the movies she has written.

While the three high school seniors might be trying to lose their virginity, the movie becomes funnier and more rewarding because the trio wind up closer to their parents in the process. Screenwriters Brian Kehoe and Jim Kehoe certainly deserve some of the credit, but Cannon skillfully guides the movie from being merely an exercise in carnality and ingesting beer. Her previous movies have been character-driven, and having sympathetic but flawed characters make all the bodily function gags work better.

In the case of Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler has a screenwriting credit, so his contributions are more clearly present. In the 1960s when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created Black Panther, a superhero who also happened to be T'Challa, king of the fictitious African country Wakanda, they also used their heroes to explore the same problems novelists like William S. Burroughs and James Baldwin examined. Racism, drug abuse and other social ills regularly appeared in the Marvel Universe.

In his 1968 soapbox column, Lee bluntly said, "Let's lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today."

If the metaphor is over 50 years old, Coogler keeps it remarkably current.

When Coogler's title character (Chadwick Boseman) isn't battling a cynical arms dealer (Andy Serkis), he's getting into real world debates with antagonist Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Killmonger is one of the best recent blockbuster villains because his grievances are genuine. Black Panther and his subjects have prosperity and really cool high tech toys, but they could do a better job at helping oppressed people in other parts of the world.

Because he sees the suffering of people in places like South Central Los Angeles and other cities in this country, Killmonger would be a hero in most movies.

Coogler and Jordan show that good intentions can lead to horrible results in the hands of those who are too ruthless or short sighted. Confronting Killmonger makes T'Challa a better king, but having a villain who's on the verge of doing right makes for more interesting drama. If Killmonger were merely a word-destroying monster like King Orm in Aquaman or Steppenwolf in Justice League, it would be harder to get involved with the CGI theatrics. Explosions aren't fun if you don't care about what's blowing up.

This same sense of real world danger helps make BlacKkKlansman play like more than a period piece. While, as in real life, detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) helps reveal the extent and the danger of the klan in 1970s Colorado Springs, director Spike Lee and his co-screenwriters Kevin Willmott, Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz sneak in contemporary lingo between jokes about when O.J. Simpson was a hero instead a convicted criminal. Current phrases like "America First" and "ethnic cleansing" remind viewers that the forces that Stallworth and his peers at the Colorado Springs Police Department confronted haven't gone away.

As much as I enjoyed Peter Farrelly's Green Book, I consistently got a sense that it reflected a time that has now passed. Tony the Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) seemed like they would have become friends right away in a more enlightened age.

With Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, however, the line between present and past is nonexistent.

When former Black Panther Kwame Ture, aka Stokely Carmichael (powerfully portrayed by Corey Hawkins) delivers a fiery speech warning of race war, Washington's Stallworth takes in every word but feels conflicted because he's at the rally to spy on Ture. The latter died 20 years ago, but Lee treats his rhetoric as current. Even if Lee hadn't included terrifying footage from the 2017 Charlottesville riots, BlacKkKlansman would still be a movie about our own age as well as one about Stallworth's unique investigation.

Diversity in hiring isn't a panacea for ensuring good films. James Wan, who has made the terrific The Conjuring, struggled with Aquaman because the human and Atlantian characters were overwhelmed by all the swarms of CGI dolphins. The visuals also ensured the environmental themes got lost, too. Nonetheless, widening the range of people making movies helps us remember why we fell in love with the old tropes in the first place. Without new people keeping these stories alive, they will stay old.

MovieStyle on 01/04/2019

Print Headline: In 2018, diversity made a big difference in films


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