The success of Black Panther, which has opened in a number of territories this month is a testament to understanding the wider social value of film, which looks beyond commercial considerations and entertainment. Much has been written about the film in the weeks preceding its release and the days following, since it opened to record breaking numbers. Despite an alleged campaign to flood the internet with negative reviews, critics have largely praised the film, as have audiences writing for popular review sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB.
Olive Pometsey of GQ Magazine focuses on the inspirational quality of the film, stating ’this film is more than an exercise in diversity for Hollywood, it’s a lesson on how to recover and move forward from society’s mistakes. One such mistake is the long held assumption that stories regarding and featuring black characters (and women, and older people) will not result in a box office success. The vast majority of films released by Hollywood studios have white protagonists and if these films are considered as a ‘flop’, the reason behind the failure is not placed onto the protagonist front and centre. However, this is not the case for films which focus on ethnic minority characters, women or older people. In this instance such failure has been viewed as ‘audiences’ not wanting to see these stories, leading to a reluctance to support further similar films.
Another misrepresentation is the view that film is just merely entertainment. Anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker wrote about the Hollywood film industry as The Dream Factory (1950), recognising the central role film plays in shaping our dreams and the importance of social relations in determining the nature of these dreams. When looking at the films produced and the marketing campaigns underlying these films, it is clear that our dreams are often curtailed through a lack of representation. Diversity of stories on our screens, means a diversity of dreams encouraged. Octavia Spencer has said on twitter that she would buy out all the seats in a Mississippi cinema ’to ensure that all our brown children can see themselves as a superhero’.
Similar positive statements followed the release of Wonder Woman, when women celebrated their superhero moment, and there is much to celebrate in Black Panther regarding the portrayal of women. Critics and commentators have also commented on the variety and nature of role for women in Black Panther. Writing in Forbes magazine, Scott Mendelson comments that the women in the Black Panther ‘are funny and fierce’. He highlights the scarcity in previous superhero films of supporting women, whereas in Black Panther we see a strong supporting cast of women who contribute to the plot, are brave and also allowed to use humour (some times at the expense of the hero). But diversity is not just about onscreen storytelling, it also matters who tells the stories, and again Black Panther has taken this seriously.
A further mistake addressed within the film, is the much more deep routed ‘mistake’ of colonialism. In Black Panther, the kingdom of Wakanda was protected from colonialism, natural resources were preserved and used for the benefit of the local population. As the story unfolds, this protection allowed the nation to prosper and to take control of its own destiny, rather than being destroyed by colonial rule and ultimately becoming dependent on aid. In highlighting the colonial past, Black Panther seeks to challenge depictions of Africa which highlight poverty and resource scarcity. Director Ryan Coogler has spoken of the extensive research undertaken in order to draw on rich and diverse African Cultures in developing the characters, the dialogue and not least Ruth E. Carter’s costumes, positioning the film within broader considerations of Afrofuturism.
Going forward, as the story of the Black Panther and the people of Wakanda develops it will be interesting to see how the balance between, defending borders and reaching out to help others plays out, as this concern mirrors contemporary political reality, with tensions within developed economies between defending their borders (Brexit, Trumps Wall) and providing refuge for displaced people . Black Panther engaged with these difficult subjects while at all times maintaining humanity and using humour.
With an estimated budget of $200 million, and one of the most significant marketing campaigns of recent times, the worldwide opening weekend box office of $370.8 million ensures that the Black Panther will return to our screens.