Why ‘Black Panther’ was the perfect first choice to revive Saudi cinema

T’Challa, aka the Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman in the Marvel box-office hit. (Marvel)
Updated 20 April 2019
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Why ‘Black Panther’ was the perfect first choice to revive Saudi cinema

  • Marvel’s superhero film went on to set other milestones, at the box office and during awards season

DUBAI: “Black Panther,” with its ensemble of African-American actors and its unapologetic social commentary on racial politics, was a welcome signal of change in Hollywood.

Released in January last year, the Marvel movie was a breath of fresh air in an industry lacking in diversity. But it was more than that for Saudi Arabia.

After remaining dark for 35 years, commercial cinemas reopened in the Kingdom on April 18, 2018, with an invite-only screening of “Black Panther” at a cinema in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District.

Hundreds of VIP guests, including government officials and celebrities — men and women mixed — flocked to the venue to be part of the historic moment, one that was part of a series of major policy changes led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

It made sense for “Black Panther” to signify this cultural renaissance, as the film itself was lauded for its own social relevance.

In the movie, African Prince-turned-King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to rule in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a technologically advanced country that is isolated from the rest of the world.

Doubling as the crime-fighting hero Black Panther, King T’Challa also has to defend his country from the evil intentions of his cousin Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who wants to dethrone him.

Critics have praised the film’s bold navigation of a racially charged narrative arc, where the major driving force of the main antagonist was to launch a global uprising against the oppression of African people. 

Aside from the film’s highlight on the plight of people of color, there is also the fact that it treated its female characters the same way it did their male counterparts, giving their warrior roles much-needed depth.

These roles were given life by Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar winner for “12 Years a Slave”) and Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”).

Director Ryan Coogler successfully managed to inject all these provocative ideas in “Black Panther” while preserving its entertainment value as a superhero movie. 

All the commendations were not just talk — “Black Panther” became an awards-season darling, also making history as one of the most critically acclaimed movies in its genre.

It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar at the 91st Academy Awards this year, the first superhero film to get such a nod.

One of the most nominated films that night, it took home three Oscar trophies out of seven: Best Original Music Score, Best Costume Design and Best Production Design, all of which represented historical feats.

It became the first Marvel film ever to win an Oscar. Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler, who won for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design respectively, became the first African-American winners in their categories.

“Black Panther” raked in more than $1.3 billion at the global box office, making it the third-highest-grossing film of all time. 

Its critical, commercial and cultural milestones made it the perfect film to revive the Saudi cinema scene.

 
 


Breaking big: Nadine Labaki’s star continues to rise

Updated 12 min 47 sec ago
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Breaking big: Nadine Labaki’s star continues to rise

  • Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so
  • “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks

DUBAI: The success that Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” continues to find across the world is astounding — even to her. Just one year ago, “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival — a jury chaired by Cate Blanchett — after a 15-minute standing ovation. The film went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, with Labaki becoming the first woman from the Arab world to receive that honor. Now, perhaps most surprisingly, “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks.
“It’s crazy! I can’t believe it! I really can’t. Why there? It’s all very new, so I still don’t know what it means exactly, but we’re soon going to find out,” Labaki tells Arab News in Cannes.
With its success in China, along with the US, Middle East and across Europe, “Capernaum” has reportedly become the highest grossing Arabic-language film in history.
“There’s been rumors going on for the past two to three days, and it’s like, ‘What?’ I still can’t believe it. It’s living proof that an Arab film with no actors can actually be a box office hit — can actually return money, make money for investors. You know how much we’re struggling in the Arab world to make films, find money, find funding, find investment. Especially for a Lebanese film,” Labaki says.
Labaki was in China just one month ago to show the film at the Beijing International Film Festival, and although the film got a rousing response in the room, she didn’t feel the reaction was any stronger than anywhere else the film has shown.
“Maybe it’s because there’s more than a billion people in China, but even the distributor is saying it’s working like any big blockbuster movie,” says Labaki.
The Chinese release of the film has one major difference from other cuts. The original version of the film tells the story of a young boy named Zain El Hajj (played by Zain Al-Rafeea) struggling to survive on the streets of Lebanon with the help of a young Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil and her undocumented infant son Yonas, dreaming of escaping as a refugee to Sweden. The story is not far from Al-Rafeea’s real-life situation at the time — he is a Syrian refugee. Since the film’s release, though, Al-Rafeea and his family have been relocated to Norway, something the Chinese release includes at the end of the film as a short visual report.
“The film ends on his smile, and in a way there’s (now) a continuation of real life in that story. This is really happening, it’s not made up,” says Labaki. “That’s why we’re making a documentary around the film. Maybe it’s a way of comforting people, knowing that he’s alright, he’s good, he’s in a better place. Deep down, people know this kid is going through this in his real life, they know he’s not just an actor in this film.
“I think it’s comforting to know Zain is in a different place now. He’s travelled. He was dreaming of going to Sweden the whole time, and now he’s really in Norway. He has a new life, a new beginning, a new house. He’s going to school, all his family is with him,” she continues. “It’s a complete shift of destiny. Maybe the fact the distributor added this report after the film made people understand that this is a real story and a real struggle, and not just another film.”
Though this is a huge moment for Arab film in general, Labaki doesn’t believe that the success of “Capernaum” necessarily signals a greater appetite for Arab cinema worldwide.
“I don’t think it’s about (where the film comes from). It’s about good films. It has nothing to do with the identity of the film or the country it’s coming from, really. It doesn’t mean if this film worked in China that another Arab film will work in China,” she says. “Maybe there’s going to be more hope for Lebanese cinema in the sense that investors will be less afraid to invest in Lebanese films, but it’s about the script, the filmmaker, the craft, the know-how. This is what gives confidence to somebody.”
Speaking to Arab News at the renowned Hotel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes on one of the busiest days of the film festival, Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so. Labaki began her relationship with Cannes in 2004, writing and developing her first feature, “Caramel,” at the Cinéfoundation Residency before showcasing the film at the Director’s Fortnight in 2007. Both of Labaki’s subsequent films — “Where do We Go Now?” in 2011 and “Capernaum” in 2018 — debuted at the festival, each in increasingly competitive categories.
“I feel like I’m their baby, in a way. With a baby you start watching their first steps, see them grow, protect them, push them… They’ve accompanied me in this journey, and recognized and encouraged me. It’s great — I really love this festival. I think it’s the best festival in the world. I like the integrity they have towards cinema. You feel that watching a film in Cannes, you know that you’re not going to watch just anything — there’s something in there for you to learn from, to be surprised by, to be in awe of. There’s always something about films that are shown in Cannes,” says Labaki.
In approaching her role as head of the jury, Labaki is focusing on connecting with the films, and taking on the perspective of myriad filmmakers from across the world.
“I don’t watch films as a filmmaker. Never,” she says. “I watch the film as a human being… I don’t like the word jury. I don’t like to judge because I’ve been there — I’m there all the time. I’ve been in those very difficult situations, very fragile situations, where you’re making a film, where you’re doubting, where you don’t know, where you don’t have enough distance with what you’re doing, and you don’t have the right answers and you’re not taking the right decisions.”
Just as her own films have become increasingly focused on the problems facing Lebanese society, Labaki believes that contemporary film cannot help but be political, and must accept its role as a commentary on the world we live in — something that she feels she’s seen in the films in her category.
“Cinema is not just about making another film; it’s about saying something about the state of the world right now. Until now, every film we’ve seen is (doing that). That doesn’t mean that cinema that is just art for art’s sake is not good — there are so many different schools — but I feel we’re becoming so much more responsible for this act,” she says. “You become an activist without even knowing you’re becoming an activist, and saying something about the state of the world. It’s important.”