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Review: In ‘Wakanda Forever,’ an empire mourns and rebuilds

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Made in the wake of tragedy, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” reverberates with the agony of loss, piercing the usually less consequential superhero realm. Like someone going through the stages of grief, Ryan Coogler’s movie is at turns mournful and rootless, full of rage and blessed with clarity. In the fantastical Marvel Cinematic Universe where mortality is almost always a plaything, wrestling with the genuine article, in the death of T’Challa star Chadwick Boseman, makes for an unusually uncertain, soul-searching kind of blockbuster-scale entertainment.

It’s a fine line, of course, between paying tribute and trading on it. I did cringe a little when the Marvel logo unspooled with images of Boseman within the letters: Eulogy as branding. That “Black Panther,” a cultural phenomenon and a box-office smash, would get a sequel, at all, was momentarily in doubt after Boseman’s unexpected death from colon cancer in 2020. Radically reworked by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole, “Wakanda Forever” pushed ahead in hopes of honoring both Boseman and the rich Afrocentric world of the landmark original. In its admirably muddled way, it succeeds in both.

Part of the profound appeal of Coogler’s first “Black Panther” resided in its deft channeling of the real world into mythology. It fed centuries of colonialism and exploitation into a big-screen spectacle of identity and resistance. In an invented African nation, Coogler conjured both a fanciful could-have-been history and emotional right-now reality.

“Wakanda Forever,” which opens in theaters Thursday, expands on that, weaving in a Latin American perspective with a similar degree of cultural specificity in the introduction of the Aztec-inspired antagonist Namor (Tenoch Huerta), king of the ancient underwater world of Talokan. At the same time, Boseman’s death is poignantly filtered into the story from the start, beginning with off-screen death throes.

This image released by Marvel Studios shows Danai Gurira in a scene from "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." (Marvel Studios via AP)

Danai Gurira in a scene from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” (Marvel Studios via AP)

“Time is running out,” we hear whispered while the screen is still black. Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s tech-wiz sister, is frantically trying to craft something in her AI lab to save her brother. But in a moment, their mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), informs her: “Your brother is with the ancestors.” He’s laid to rest in a glorious, celebratory procession, carried through a multi-tiered channel of white-clad, singing-and-dancing Wakandans. It’s as stunning as anything Coogler has shot.

After this prologue, “Wakanda Forever” shifts to a year later. “Black Panther” took some of the spy-thriller shape of a Bond movie, and the sequel carries that on in a new geopolitical context. At the United Nations, the United States and France are pressuring for access to vibranium, the rare metal that Wakanda has built its empire on. Soon after, a U.S. military expedition discovers vibranium at the bottom of the ocean. But just as they’re celebrating, a mysterious tribe of blue underwater people, led by Namor, a pointy-eared monarch in green short-shorts with wings on his ankles, ruthlessly wipe out the entire expedition.

You can feel “Wakanda Forever” searching for a way forward in these early scenes. After such an anguished beginning, how much care can we summon for the whereabouts of magical ores? And more blue people? “Avatar,” you might think, has already laid claim to them. What steadies the film is Bassett. Her awesome presence leads “Wakanda Forever” through grief with a staunch defense of Wakanda that rebalances the newly king-less kingdom. She carries on.

This image released by Marvel Studios shows Danai Gurira, left, and Letitia Wright as Shuri in a scene from "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." (Marvel Studios via AP)

Gurira, left, and Letitia Wright as Shuri in a scene from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” (Marvel Studios via AP)

What follows is a globe-trotting plot that draws the film away from perhaps its greatest asset in Wakanda but uncovers new places of latent power among historically exploited people. Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the Dora Milaje general, travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to seek the student (Dominique Thorne) who created a vibranium detector. In the Washington D.C. area, Wakanda’s friendly CIA officer (Martin Freeman) experiences new scrutiny from his boss, played by an unannounced comic actress familiar to Beltway politics.

But, mostly, a series of exchanges draw Wakanda and Talokan closer. Are they friends and foes? They are, at least, a captivating tweak to the mythology of Atlantis. Talokan, dark and watery, is no Wakanda, though, and there’s less hint this time of a larger society. Still, Huerta brings a magnetism to Namor. In many ways, he’s a corollary to Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, a non-villain whose fury is in many ways justified. His anger appeals to the still-grieving Shuri who finds herself ready, after T’Challa’s death, to “burn the world.”

This image released by Marvel Studios shows Letitia Wright in a scene from "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." (Marvel Studios via AP)

(Marvel Studios via AP)

As in the first “Black Panther,” the question again hangs in the balance of whether, in a pain-ridden and prejudiced world, rage is the answer. This time, it applies to another powerful civilization, too. “Wakanda Forever,” where the role of Black Panther is passed down, is in more ways than one about the transfer of power.

Wakanda and Talokan are brought together a little haphazardly in conflict, as Namor pressures the African nation to join his brewing surface war. “Wakanda Forever” proceeds as a murky, middle-act film that may ultimately serve as a bridge to future “Black Panther” chapters. But along the way, there are countless marvels that Coogler conjures with returning magic-workers like production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter. How the Talokan are flung into the air by whales. The fierce friendliness of Gurira’s performance. Lupita Nyong’o is unfortunately less central here, but every time her Nakia (who has been laying low in Haiti) is present, she graces the film.

“Wakanda Forever” is overlong, a little unwieldy and somewhat mystifyingly steers toward a climax on a barge in the middle of the Atlantic. But Coogler’s fluid command of mixing intimacy with spectacle remains gripping. He extends the rich detail and non-binary complexity that distinguished “Black Panther” in sometimes awkward but often thrilling ways. “Wakanda Forever,” grappling in the aftermath of loss, ultimately seeks something rare in the battle-ready superhero landscape: Peace.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for sequences of strong violence, action and some language. Running time: 161 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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Review: Will Smith-led ‘Emancipation’ is an action thriller

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It comes as some relief that Antoine Fuqua’s “Emancipation,” starring Will Smith as a runaway slave in Civil War-era Louisiana, is not, at least traditionally speaking, an Oscar movie.

Despite the film’s important historical backdrop, its awards-season timing and its inevitable connection to last March’s Academy Awards ceremony, the site of the Slap, “Emancipation” is not quite the solemn prestige picture you could easily mistake it for. It’s an action thriller.

Fuqua, a maker of muscular genre movies, has crafted something with less in common than an acutely piercing drama like “12 Years a Slave,” and instead made a film more akin to a gritty, survival actioner — a chase movie that takes its potency less from psychological realism than a brutal B-movie construction. Immersed in the desperate but cunning escape of Peter (Smith), “Emancipation” is a straightforward parable of Black resistance and spiritual perseverance.

That approach makes “Emancipation,” which debuts Friday in theaters and premieres Dec. 9 on Apple TV+, something distinct from many recent big-screen treatments of slavery and also more shallow. Fuqua’s film is often harrowing and gripping but also less nuanced and too narrowly confined in genre conventions than its real-life protagonist deserves.

Peter, whose name was Gordon according to many accounts, was a pivotal historical figure but also a little-known one. In March 1863, he escaped from a Louisiana plantation. Ten days later, after a more than 40-mile flight, he reached the Union army stationed in Baton Rouge. There, a photograph was taken of him seated on a chair with his bare back — mangled by a crisscross of scars — turned to the camera. Gordon went on to join the Union army but the photograph, known as “Whipped Peter,” became one of the most iconic portraits of slavery’s barbarism, and helped fuel abolitionist movements in the North.

“Emancipation,” penned by William N. Collage, takes those few facts and expands Peter’s tale. Fuqua, who drains the nearly black-and-white film almost entirely of color, has given Peter some familiar notes of family and faith. Peter, here depicted as Haitian with a Creole accent, is ripped away from his family to be sent to help build a railroad for the Confederates, his steadfast goal is to get back to his wife (Charmaine Bingwa) and children. With an unflagging belief in God, Peter’s torturous journey takes on Biblical dimensions. So great is the violence that surrounds him and other enslaved men that the monochrome swamps of Louisiana morph into a metaphorical wasteland. “Where is God?” one man asks. “He is nowhere.”

The white man who guards against runaways with a menacing relish, Fassel (Ben Foster), tells Peter that he’s his god. “You walk the Earth because I let you,” he snarls. When Peter grasps his moment to flee, it’s Fassel, with two others, who chase after on horseback. Peter, initially with several others including Gordon (Gilbert Owuor) and John (Michael Luwoye), sets out on his own. Few films reside quite so much in the swamp as “Emancipation” does, as Peter ingeniously navigates through mud, snakes and alligators with the sound, as he says, of “Lincoln’s canons” guiding his way to Baton Rouge.

As Peter, Smith relies less on his natural charisma than perhaps ever before. The character hardly speaks. As a physical feat, Smith’s performance is formidable. But there’s so little here that fleshes out Peter, and little resonates about him. If “Emancipation” is partly a work of historical imagination, the film has supplied Peter little beyond the most basic of characterizations, ones drawn more from countless other thrillers than from history.

Throughout, Robert Richardson’s cinematography is often mesmerizing, if sometimes distracting. The camera draws too much attention to itself, just as do occasional flashes of color peppered throughout. But there are also mesmerizing black-and-white tableaus that seem to want to pull “Emancipation” to a higher realm, albeit at the cost of sticking rigorously to Peter’s perspective.

Still, as Fuqua’s previous films (“The Guilty,” “The Equalizer,” “Training Day”) have shown, a lean thriller can be powerful thing. “Emancipation” isn’t leaden with self-importance, but it is single-minded in its depiction of the savage inhumanity of slavery, and one man’s courageous, indominable refusal to accept it. In the film’s final third, war proves to be just as violent and merciless. Hell, in “Emancipation,” is elsewhere, too.

“Emancipation,” an Apple TV+ release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for strong racial violence, disturbing images and language. Running time: 132 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

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Jamie Lee Curtis to receive AARP Career Achievement Award

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — “Scream Queen” Jamie Lee Curtis will be this year’s recipient of AARP The Magazine’s Movies for Grownups Awards career achievement honor.

Curtis will receive the honor at the AARP’s annual Best Movies and TV for Grownups ceremony, the group announced Thursday. Alan Cumming returns to host the ceremony, which will be telecast on “Great Performances” on PBS on Feb. 17 at 9 p.m. Eastern.

“Jamie Lee Curtis’ longstanding, ever-increasing career shatters Hollywood’s outmoded stereotypes about aging, and it exemplifies what AARP’s Movies for Grownups program is all about,” AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said in a statement.

Since stepping into the role of Laurie Strode in “Halloween” in 1978, the 64-year-old horror queen starred in her last installment of the slasher series “Halloween Ends,” and the blockbuster indie film, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” this year.

“We are delighted to honor Curtis, who at 19 became an iconic ‘scream queen’ in ‘Halloween,’ then grew up to be a master in comic and dramatic roles, too,” Jenkins said.

Curtis, whose other credits include, “True Lies,” “A Fish Called Wanda,” “Freaky Friday,” “Knives Out” and the television series “Scream Queens,” is an Emmy nominee and a British Academy Film Award winner. Her films have, over her four-decade-long career, earned $2.5 billion at the box office, the statement said.

The AARP’s Movies for Grownups program champions movies that resonate with viewers 50 and over, and fights ageism in the entertainment industry. Previous honorees include Lily Tomlin, George Clooney, Annette Bening, Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro and Michael Douglas.

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Emmett Till movie shown in Black town pivotal to the story

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MOUND BAYOU, Miss. (AP) — The tiny, all-Black town of Mound Bayou became a safe haven for Emmett Till’s mother as she traveled to Mississippi to testify in the murder trial of two white men who lynched her son in 1955.

Hundreds of people — a good portion of Mound Bayou’s 1,500 residents — turned out Thursday evening to watch the movie “Till.” The feature film is going into wide release across the U.S. this weekend after being in limited release since Oct. 14.

“This place, this city, is very sacred to the story of Emmett Till,” one of the filmmakers, Keith Beauchamp, told the mostly Black audience in the gymnasium/auditorium of Mound Bayou’s John F. Kennedy High School.

The screening happened days after a bronze statue of Till was unveiled about 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) away in Greenwood, Mississippi.

Beauchamp is one of the producers and writers of “Till,” which largely focuses on Mamie Till-Mobley’s reaction to the loss of her only child and her evolution into a civil rights leader. Her 14-year-old son had traveled from Chicago to Mississippi to visit relatives in August 1955, and white men kidnapped, tortured and killed him after accusations that he flirted with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman working in a country store.

Till-Mobley, who was named Mamie Bradley at the time of her son’s death, insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago so the world could see her son’s brutalized body. Jet magazine published photos.

An all-white, all-male jury in Tallahatchie County acquitted the shopkeeper’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother J.W. Milam just weeks after Till’s body was pulled from a river. The two men later confessed in an interview with “Look” magazine.

Mound Bayou was founded by formerly enslaved people in the cotton-growing Mississippi Delta in 1887 as a freestanding community where Black people could thrive amid the hostility of the Jim Crow era.

NAACP leaders, including Mississippi’s Medgar Evers, coordinated with Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a physician and entrepreneur in Mound Bayou, to provide safety and security for Till’s mother in the town. Mound Bayou also provided shelter for Black journalists who covering the trial 35 miles (56.3 kilometers) away in Sumner.

The lynching of Till galvanized the civil rights movement, and it has reverberated for generations with Black parents who tell their children to be careful in a country that has not shaken racism.

One of the Till relatives who attended the screening Thursday was 65-year-old Joe Stidhum, born two years after Till was killed. He said his grandfather and Till’s mother were brother and sister.

Stidhum said his mother was always strict on him as his 10 siblings as they were growing up in Mound Bayou, but “she didn’t tell us her side of it until we got older.” He said he was about 12 or 13 before he learned about Till’s violent death.

“Once we got up into teens, that’s when my mom kind of explained to us why she was so protective of us,” Stidhum said after the movie.

The closest cinema to Mound Bayou is more than 30 miles (48.3 kilometers) to the south, in Greenville, Mississippi.

Nobody has ever been convicted in Till’s lynching. The U.S. Justice Department has opened multiple investigations starting in 2004 after receiving inquiries about whether charges could be brought against anyone still living.

The Justice Department reopened an investigation in 2018 after a 2017 book quoted Carolyn Bryant — now remarried and named Carolyn Bryant Donham — saying she lied when she claimed Till grabbed her, whistled and made sexual advances. Relatives have publicly denied Donham, who is in her 80s, recanted her allegations. The department closed that investigation in late 2021 without bringing charges.

Deborah Watts, another cousin of Till and co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, was among the people who found an unserved 1955 arrest warrant for “Mrs. Roy Bryant” earlier this year in a courthouse basement. In August, a Mississippi grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict Donham. Watts said Thursday that she still wants officials to serve the arrest warrant on Donham.

“Justice delayed since 1955 is justice denied,” Watts told The Associated Press. “Without any hate, malice or violence, we want the same thing any victim’s family would want, and that is that those that were responsible be held accountable. No one should be above the law.”

In March, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act. After the movie screening, Beauchamp told the audience that he is all for honoring Till’s memory, but he wants more.

“If we’re looking for racial reconciliation in this country, it’s not going to happen with a statue or a law,” Beauchamp said. “We have to have truth and justice.”

Some in the crowd, sitting on blue plastic chairs and bleachers, nodded and said: “Alright. Alright.”

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