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When you fight for a seat at the table long enough, it seems that you get to run the table—for a minute, anyway. That’s one takeaway from Black Panther’s already phenomenal success—a success whose casting and narrative essence force Hollywood to make some overdue decisions on casting that the industry can’t avoid.
In its four-day holiday weekend opening, the film roared to a $241.9 million debut, beating out Star Wars: The Last Jedi for the second-highest grossing weekend opening in history. Ryan Coogler’s runaway hit, coming on the heels of both the #OscarsSoWhite social-media firestorm and broad changes in the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is the kind of wake-up call Hollywood can’t ignore: one with the sound of cash registers attached.
The success of the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe presents a serious challenge for Hollywood as an industry and a cultural institution. The film’s challenge to H'wood’s hegemonic perspective as an industry is obvious: $242 million over a holiday weekend is hardly couch-cushion money. That’s a real return on investment that indicates what can happen when alternative, rarely-heard voices get green-lighted and break through. It’s often said that Hollywood’s favorite color is green. For the suits who get things done, Black Panther’s success should make that title color, and others, just as appealing, for all the reasons that matter.
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“Black Panther comes in the midst of Black Lives Matter and all the other important social movements that are happening now,” said Rhea Combs, curator of film and photography at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, to The Washington Post. “It makes for a very powerful combination.”
After decades of holding the voices and stories of people of color at arm’s length, Hollywood Inc. faces the inevitable question of “what next” and the equally inevitable answer of “more.” That doesn’t necessarily mean more black superhero movies. It will mean more minority-themed entertainment from a market that’s been relatively allergic to it for a long time.
And if Black Panther’s initial velocity into the wider culture continues, it certainly means Panther sequels, spinoffs, and merchandising. Anyone who thinks Black Panther is a one-off doesn’t know Hollywood at all. There hasn’t been a more sequel-ready movie creation since the original Star Wars exploded on the scene in May 1977. Black Panther lays rightful claim to all the big touchstones of money and marketing that risk-averse Hollywood rarely considered necessary for a black-themed tentpole movie.
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Call it the soft bigotry of expectations that aren’t one’s own. In a headline, IndieWire made the lamentable unforced error of calling director Ryan Coogler “the New Steven Spielberg,” underscoring for African Americans the challenge of trying to create something different, to be someone different, only to face the inevitable comparisons with that which came before.
That IndieWire headline, despite the seeming innocence of the error built into it, reveals what African American filmmakers and filmgoers have had to contend with for generations: Black achievements are filtered through the lens (or the gaze) of its white predecessors or contemporaries, to make them palatable to audiences who require a familiar reference point. One they’re... comfortable with.
Black Panther changes that game, forever. It’s sufficient unto itself; what matters next is to see how the industry embraces this leading and lagging indicator of the power of diversity behind the camera and at the box office. “Culturally speaking, we haven’t had an actual superhero coming from an African country that is revered in Marvel’s universe,’’ said Darryl E. Moss, founder of the Association of Black Business and Professionals, in Springfield, Mass., to The Boston Globe. “It’s entertainment, but it’s also culturally important,’’ he said. “[It’s] a reflection of how [black] people would like to see themselves.”
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And not just black moviegoers. A YouGov poll from Feb. 12, days before the movie opened, found that 74 percent of African Americans said they planned to watch it on some platform, with 63 percent of Hispanics and 49 percent of white moviegoers saying the same thing.
The film’s also had an impact beyond butts in movie theater seats. TheWrap reported that the Electoral Justice Project (EJP), a social-activist organization, has started a black voter registration drive at Black Panther screenings across the country. In an election year in which voting rights promises to be a hot-button issue, EJP’s move unites pop culture and the American political process like few other things could.
More by coincidence than by design, Black Panther capitalizes on an inescapable reality: Hollywood has a history of brief but deep cultural infatuations. Once upon a time, the movies' crush was on vampires (the Twilight Saga, 2008-2012), then it was visions of the dystopian (The Hunger Games series, 2012-2015). The ass-kickings dispensed by Jennifer Lawrence in that series, and box-office success, no doubt had a hand in greenlighting other estrogen-powered actioners like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, with Charlize Theron), Wonder Woman (2017, with Gal Gadot), and The Last Jedi, the latest in the Star Wars canon (2017, with Daisy Ridley).
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Black people have had their own flavor-of-the-era status in American films. The successes of Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972), and The Mack (1973) fully launched the “blaxploitation” film genre of the 1970s. Later, in the wake of the L.A. riots and the rise of rap, Hollywood discovered black urban subculture; films like Juice (1992), Menace II Society (1993), and Set It Off (1996) followed.
And Black Panther has his black-superhero forebears. Falcon, Iron Man’s sidekick and a fellow traveler in the Marvel camp; Blade, Wesley Snipes’ character in three films (1998-2004) and maybe the first black superhero to make a big impression at the movies; Hancock, the reluctant superhero played by Will Smith in the 2008 film... right up to the latest, Jefferson Pierce, the slightly less reluctant superhero of Black Lightning, which just launched in January on The CW.
But Black Panther takes things to a whole nutha level. Like few films before it, it’s singular in moving the needle on what’s possible in the superhero genre, even as it enlarges our ideas of what’s possible when extravagantly gifted directors of color take the reins of the kind of vast, deep-pocketed projects their white male predecessors have been routinely directing for decades.
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What’s next? We’ll see how this franchise evolves, and see how other writers, directors, and actors of color fare in other major motion pictures, telling other stories on the superheroes of color among us—the everyday superheroes of flesh and blood. And we’ll see how white-male suit culture in Hollywood evolves, and responds. Or not.
“It needs to be across the board,” said Todd Boyd, professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, to TheWrap.
“Every aspect needs to change because, let’s be honest, Hollywood has never been diverse,” he said. “And until that happens, we can return to the points where there was nothing to really talk about. It’s important that there are people in positions of power throughout the industry who reflect diversity — in executive suites, in agencies — and when you see that, I think we can talk about long-lasting change.”