The phenomenal success of Ryan Coogler’s ground-breaking Marvel smash is the latest wake-up call for an industry still lacking in diversity
The Black Panther’s blockbuster coronation is now complete. This past weekend, Marvel’s latest superhero extravaganza succeeded under just about every definition of the word. Critics, often the final holdouts against an otherwise unilateral love for the capes-and-tights set, smiled kindly on the film with a windfall of positive reviews across the board. Marvel and director Ryan Coogler promptly obliterated a fistful of box-office records, their $200m-plus take setting a new bar for February’s biggest opening weekend, the highest-selling opening weekend for any non-sequel film, and the most lucrative opening weekend for any film helmed by a black director. And the viewers didn’t just turn out in droves; they came in costume, as social media flooded with attendees wearing African-inspired dress from various screenings around the globe. This is Black Panther’s secret – before it even existed, the movie had hardcore fans.
It’s not too difficult to trace the cultural dots connecting the mind-boggling success of Black Panther with its adoption as a cause célèbre by the black community. As an anti-colonialist narrative staffed by a largely black cast and high-profile black talent in the crew, Coogler’s film directly appealed to audiences usually given the short shrift at the movies. Many of the sold-out showings this past weekend had been filled through coordinated efforts from schools, activist groups, and other social programs. Think of Black Panther’s princely receipts as an organized collective effort, and its achievements shift from the realm of the artistic to the political. It’s not just a fun way to kill a couple hours, but a win.
Those in search of additional signs of hope for an increasingly black Hollywood needn’t look far. A spate of upcoming big-budget projects will be fronted by black talent on both sides of the camera: certified grade-A movie star John Boyega has been tapped to carry the upcoming Pacific Rim sequel, the upcoming animated feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse will feature Shameik Moore as the voice of Peter Parker’s web-headed successor Miles Morales, and Coogler will soon reteam, as producer, with muse Michael B Jordan for a follow-up to their breakout Creed. Looking a bit further down the pipeline for this year, black directors will steer the Purge and Equalizer franchises in their latest installments, and we’ve all got Widows, a Viola Davis-led heist thriller from 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen to look forward to.
But none carries quite as much real-world import as the eye-popping adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, set for release in March. With Ava DuVernay running the show through a colossal shoot in New Zealand, it’ll be the largest-ever production overseen by a woman of color. For the lead role of the plucky youngster hopping through dimensions to rescue her lost father, DuVernay went with complete unknown black actor Storm Reid and filled the rest of the cast out with powerful women. For her guides across the universe, Reid gets three masters of space and time: the first is played by Mindy Kaling, who parleyed the sitcom she created into multiple book deals and a growing empire. The second is Reese Witherspoon, so committed to telling female-fronted stories that she cofounded production studio Hello Sunshine just to do it herself. The third is Oprah Winfrey, who is Oprah.
Kaling, Witherspoon, and Winfrey have all gotten wise to the fact that to truly seize influence, it must be grasped by the roots. All of the front-facing black talent in the world won’t make a meaningful difference until that control goes deeper and extends to the highest levels of authority. Heartening as Black Panther’s success may be, the money it earns will ultimately return to Disney, a vast and thoroughly white corporation interested in social progressivism only insofar as it pertains to optics.
Looking past the horizon to projects still in early development, the future seems bright. Black directors are seizing franchise reins left and right, whether it’s Gina Prince-Bythewood handling the planned Spider-Man spinoff Silver and Black (focusing on his sometimes-friends, sometimes-foes Black Cat and Silver Sable) or F Gary Gray rebooting fan favorite Men in Black for a new decade. In the ultimate vote of confidence, Universal signed Malcolm D Lee to a first-look production deal three days before last year’s Girls Trip hit theaters and made him box-office gold. From a wide vantage point, a gradual trend of change is nearly visible.
For as long as as complaints about homogeneity at the Oscars have been voiced, the Academy has passed the buck onto the industry; you start with the diversity, and it’ll trickle down to us. The moneyed behemoths have heeded this call, but that’s just the problem. A free and colorful pop-culture landscape is too important to be left to the whims of the rich men that run studios, necessitating a redistribution of power at the uppermost levels. Until the world of independent film can figure out how to marshal hundreds of millions of dollars at time, the releases that move the crowds and command the zeitgeist will be ordered by the suits. So long as that’s fact, the best anyone can do is install some fresh faces in the rooms where decisions get made.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010