There was one aspect of Black Panther that settled in my stomach, rough and raw for weeks after I saw the film. It left a bitter taste in my mouth and left a haze of a film that I had mostly praised. It was around the issue of Erik Killmonger. I mentioned it in my review of the movie so I’ll get straight to the point. The issue I have with Killmonger is a framing problem. His actions, his motives, his motivations, his everything is framed as “perfectly fine” and that is to be very frank, troubling as hell. Killmonger is compelling, heartbreaking, tragic, real and very valid. His anger is rational and he is very much a sympathetic character. So when Erik says radical things like “Hey, maybe we should make our own militant colonizing force.” and similar statements, he sounds like a rational, logical young man. How else would one expect for someone in his position to feel and act?
And in his final moments, there was the line that burrowed deep into my gut and remained there. “Death over bondage.” (Yes, I’m paraphrasing but in my horror, that was all I heard.). And that brings up to framing.
Framing in film language is how a thing is set up. We code (another film and sociology term) lots of things about characters and setting based on framing. A hero is a hero because of swelling music, bright colors, bright clothes and handsome looks. A villain is a villain because of dark music and tones and velvet and other things that make a villain a villain.
And framing done wrong is just as bad as framing done not strongly enough. Poor framing gives up the Victorian mustache twirling villain and the overly Jesus-like hero. Now, weak framing does a similar thing were a bad guy doesn’t seem so bad. Let’s take a scene from Rent that Folding Ideas and Lindsay Ellis both took umbrage with and that I mentioned in my post about Rent. There’s a scene in both the musical and movie during the whole No Day But Today thing where Mimi stands out in the cold with her posse that doesn’t know here while Roger remains in his ivory tower refusing to come down and play. But the framing makes it look like Roger is a stuck up mean guy for not wanting to leave his lonely life but really, his concerns are valid. Mimi is a known stripper and drug-user and Roger is a recovering drug addict with HIV. He has every reason to not want to be with her but the framing makes Mimi’s lack of care, concern or logic seem good and warm while Roger’s very valid logic and hesitation is framed negatively and that’s just not fair.
But plenty of films recently have had framing problems. A big example that comes to mind is actually both Kingsman films. We’ll use the first one mostly because it’s my favorite. Valentine is compelling, charming, charismatic and in parts of the movies just plain right. He has lots of ideas about how the Earth is going to hell and how to stop global warming. The problem is that his plan involves a violent mass genocide. But by the time he gets to the “I want a lot of people to die.” part, he just sounds like a pretty okay guy with a good plan to save the world. And that is a framing problem. The film around him has done a piss poor job of saying “Hey, watcher of this film, this man’s ideas are not good.”
Anime has had this problem for easily 20 years with antagonists and villains who are far more relatable than their hero mains. I’ve been paneling about this topic for literally almost 5 years. Many times, this is done to create more empathetic villains while also giving the hero/main something to do but again, it’s weak storytelling when your villain is more compelling than your protagonist.
Which brings up back to Black Panther. Erik’s sympathetic backstory makes it easy to ignore some of the venom that drips from his mouth. And in today’s current socio-political climate, I am sure that many see his vision as logical, sure a little radical, but surely sound. We’ve seen militancy fail over and over again for African-Americans. And while Black Panther does kill off Killmonger, his actions and words leave a heavy shadow over the film.
How do we correct such framing issues? Well, by simply not rewarding them. We’ve talked about characters getting what they deserve in a previous post and that is one of the best ways to combat poor framing. At least in Black Panther, Erik does not make it to the end of the movie but his message lives on and forces T’Challa and the people of Wakanda to think more closely about their isolationism. Not glorifying clearly horrible things is easy to do in real life but difficult to impose upon fictional characters. Consequences are vital. Erik’s rage rightfully makes him too unstable for this world and his exit is a pained sigh of relief. And those consequences don’t always mean death. Think of Loki in the rest of the Marvel movies: he is denied empathy at every turn despite his actions being mostly reprehensible. And movies are particularly fertile ground for framing issues. When you’re a handsome and well-known actor, you want screen time and being a mustache-twirling villain can be fun but often means that you are not on screen very long. Additionally, movies are a complex and visual media, creating sympathetic and likable characters is vital to keeping your audience’s interest. And I’m happy to see more complex characters, it has come at the cost of clearer storytelling. And I love morally ambiguous stories but those still have the stakes and consequences vital to keeping such narratives afloat. Valentine still dies at the end of Kingsman. Poppy for sure dies at the end of Kingsman 2. And if we’re talking anime then most of the time, the villain goes down with his or her overly complicated plan in a blaze of flames and glory.
Framing is a vital part of writing but an even more vital part of film and other visual media. How a character, scene and act are framed tells you a lot about how to feel about this character, the scenario and about the work. And when you frame a bad guy as a pious saint, you not only risk betraying your work but you risk muddying the waters of your own narrative.