The film is poised to become the highest-grossing superhero flick ever, but its lasting impact on diversity remains to be seen
Black Panther is on track to become the highest grossing superhero movie of all time, which could help make the film a game-changer for black cinema and diversity behind the camera for years to come.
Whether Hollywood executives will treat the global sensation as a turning point for the industry, however, remains to be seen.
Ryan Coogler’s smash Marvel film, which has continued to break records since its February release, has powerfully exposed the lie of the stubborn Hollywood myth that “black films don’t travel”, with its massive success in Asia and markets across the globe. It has earned more than $1.2bn worldwide, and domestically in North America, the film with a nearly all-black cast is expected to soon surpass the The Avengers to become the biggest-ever superhero film.
“Normally, what Hollywood does when something is successful is they try to copy it,” said Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of an annual report on diversity in Hollywood. “I would hope that this movie becomes a milestone in the industry’s thinking about what’s viable both domestically and internationally.”
The film has proven once again that not only do diverse audiences want diverse stories, but that movies and television shows that feature people of color often perform better across all racial groups than predominantly white stories. But despite overwhelming evidence – including the recent success of Get Out, Hidden Figures and Girls Trip – some critics remain skeptical that Black Panther will yield the long overdue shift of studios truly supporting diversity.
“We’ve known for many decades that black-themed films can play a role in resuscitating the film economy,” said Mia Mask, a Vassar College film professor and expert in African American cinema. In the 1970s, black films played a major role in helping revive studios during a difficult financial period, she said, but added, “That didn’t really change the way Hollywood did business.”
Some fear that powerful studio executives may be having the cynical reaction that Black Panther’s success is due in large part to its ties to a comic book and franchise with worldwide fans and brand recognition.
But that interpretation seems to ignore the movie’s unique appeal, said Mike Sargent, the co-president of the Black Film Critics Circle. It’s not another film where actors like Will Smith or Denzel Washington “happen to be black”, he said, but it rather embraces black identity with its setting in the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, which has not been colonized.
“What makes it so groundbreaking is that you have characters … who are proud of their heritage. The story itself deals with the history of people of color on this planet,” he said. “The reason it’s a cultural phenomenon is it’s fresh, it’s new. It’s something that nobody has seen.”
Sargent said he was hopeful the movie would break the “self-fulfilling prophecy” that black films will fail internationally, and that it would lead to more opportunities for black science fiction and Afrofuturism: “What Black Panther will do is open the floodgates for all these stories.”
He compared it to The Blair Witch Project inspiring films in the “found footage” sub-genre: “Hollywood follows the money.”
Hunt, who has documented the slow progress for representation on screen, noted that the demographics of studios remain “frozen in time” and that even if black actors get more and better roles, it’s unclear how quickly film-makers of color will get financial support.
“The executives who make decisions, they don’t look like America. They don’t look like the global market.”
Hunt’s recent analysis of 2016 films found that while black actors occupied 12.5% of roles in top movies, only 8.1% of the writers were people of color.
On a smaller scale, Black Panther will likely translate to new opportunities for Coogler, co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, and the film’s stars, some of whom were relatively unknown, and those projects could then create more jobs for underrepresented people, Hunt added.
“You start to dismantle some of the obstacles to making these kinds of films.”
Jeff Bock, the senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, said Black Panther is now in a special category with a handful of movies that dramatically dominated the industry and popular culture, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Titanic and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Black Panther will have a long-term legacy, he added: “The weird fear that a predominantly African American cast couldn’t open a film has just been blasted out of the water, once and for all.”
If Coogler’s film encourages a boom in black cinema, the projects should extend across genres, said Nicol Turner Lee, a Brookings Institution fellow who has written about the film: “Black actors have been traditionally assigned roles that are not as representative of the full scope of their talent … Black Panther showed the fluidity of black actors and what they can do.”
The shift toward better representation is not just about a single film, added Mask, citing film-makers like Ava DuVernay. The success of her film A Wrinkle in Time meant this month marked the first time in history that two major-budget films by black directors led the box office.
“It’s that growing critical mass of people who are finally breaking out and breaking through that is more of a game-changer than any one individual film,” she said.
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