For years Hollywood had its reservations about making a Black Panther film. It takes place on a continent that comes with an unfair share of stigma. Its characters are predominately black. The superhero shares a name with a controversial 1960s-1970s revolutionary party. It was conceived to celebrate Afro-centric Blackness, unlike other black superheroes like Blade, Blackman, Hancock or Meteor Man.
Conceived in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to offer black readers a character to identify with, Black Panther celebrated Afrocentricity. Characters, Black characters, are rulers, warriors, inventors and creators of the most advanced technology. They do not carry with them the redundant, almost predictable backstory that involves black suffering and black poverty. Nor should we expect a white person “saving” a black person in Wakanda. All of which has been synonymous with how Hollywood characterizes the black experience. Hollywood needed to change.
According to Bloomberg, in 2009, Marvel’s president, Kevin Feige recognized a lack of diversity in Hollywood and at Marvel. That same year Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Electing the first black U.S. president opened up doors to projects like Black Panther, proving an audience exists. By 2014 Feige had selected Ryan Coogler, a black man to direct Black Panther. Coogler previously directed Fruitvale Station a film about a police shooting of an unarmed black man in Oakland, California. Rather than shy away from the ingrained African experience of Black Panther, Coogler takes the perceived risks and wears it with pride.
As I discussed last week, of the 779 Hollywood directors in 2014 only 5.8% were black. Just 17 out of the top 100 films featured a lead or a co-lead from a racial or ethnic minority group. “Diversity behind the camera, in the writing room, in the boardrooms, and writing the checks improves diversity on screen,” I wrote. “Having a black director present increases the percentage of a black character on screen by nearly 30%.”
In many ways, Black Panther benefits from impeccable timing. Just last year we saw the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. We saw the rise of Black Lives Matter, Neo-nazi’s and white supremacist coming out of the woodwork and marching in the streets and penetrating social media. The Women’s and #metoo movements have impacted every industry and a U.S. President who continually criticizes black culture and described African nations as “shitholes.”
Sure, moviegoers are more woke today than ever before, but we should not diminish Marvel’s role in pushing this film through before Donald Trump ran for president, before Charlottesville, and before Black Lives Matters became well known. Their foresight that a superhero film based in Africa, with strong female leads and with a mostly black cast and a black director could be a box office success deserves some praise. They budgeted the film at $200 million. Most analysts believe they will recoup that and then some, astonishingly, in its first four days. That includes International revenue signaling that films by and of people of color have audiences everywhere.
Fans have been packing theaters since Thursday night. Some have been sporting traditional African clothing to show their support. Last night, I went to the 8:30 pm showing at the 34th street AMC Loews Theatre in New York City. Most of the theaters that night were playing Black Panther. Some fans were wearing traditional African clothing. Other fans were wearing this Sunday best. It was about respect. Respect that this film was showcasing the strength and dignity of black culture for the world to see.
Black Panther is probably the best superhero film I have ever seen. I cannot say enough about the stellar performance by Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Guira, Michael B. Johnson, Daniel Kaluuya and Angela Basset. However, it was Letitia Wright who played Shuri who stole the show for me. Black Panther is not short of positive messages. However, it lacks the overly cheesiness that is synonymous with most superhero films which can cheapen the positive messages.
With that said, Black Panther is not just a film. It’s something more. I’m not one to jump on the bandwagon and call it a movement. It’s not. The movement has been happening. Black Panther is part of it. It is part of the change that takes a hard, direct look at our overly white, overly male institutions. It is part of that same movement that DC Comic’s Wonder Woman, which brought in $821.9 million at the box office, is a part of. You don’t need a white man to direct an international superhero blockbuster with a $200 million budget. A woman can do it. A black man can do it. And they can do it exceedingly well.
What Wonder Woman and Black Panther prove is that audiences crave their stories and stories like theirs. Both Marvel and DC Comics deserves some credit for finally acknowledging that the audiences, which are more diverse than ever before, exist. Marvel and DC Comics deserves credit for realizing who the appropriate people are to tell these stories. Patty Jenkins and Ryan Coogler brought authenticity and truthfulness to their films which might not have occurred if they were not behind the lens. Would a white director create a movie so ingrained in black culture with only two white main characters? And if they did would it be authentic?
It is easy to get lost and to get discouraged in the times we are currently living in. It is easy to point fingers at our missteps and to focus on the negative. However, I encourage us all to acknowledge how far we have come. Millions of young girls and boys are living in a world where superheroes are diverse, much like them. We are living in a time where women can lead and where their voices can be heard. Race should not longer be ignored, instead it should be celebrated. It is clear the time has come to move past the “I don’t see race or gender” cop out. It is time to move toward a more accepting and genuine movement where all races and all genders are seen and are celebrated and are not ignored.
The time is now. Don’t walk but run to see Black Panther in theaters now. #WakandaForever.