Last summer, I went to an early fan screening for Wonder Woman. As the lights dimmed and the Warner Bros. logo hit the shiny silver, a woman behind me shouted, at the top of her lungs, her voice cracking just a bit, "I've been waiting my whole life for this."
I saw Pixar's Coco in a theater in Los Angeles that's deep in the San Fernando Valley, with a high Latinx population. And through my own reckless sobbing — seriously, the last 20 minutes of Coco are like the first 10 minutes of Up — I could hear the weeping of recognition. Parents, grandparents, who've literally never seen their culture on the screen, rendered with all the care and expertise that Pixar has previously brought to bear on everything they do.
There was a video that circulated on Twitter about a month ago, of a young black man standing in front of a massive Black Panther poster, giddy at this array of black faces staring back at him, struck by the realization that "this is what white people get to feel all the time."
If 2017 was the tip of the representational spear, then 2018 will be the long shaft that follows. This year will deliver Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, Ocean's 8, and Crazy Rich Asians — studio movies catering to historically underserved audiences, many of which are written and directed by members of those same audiences.
In other words, 2018 is the year that white dudes will be confronted with inescapable media that isn't about them.
The overwhelming majority of cinema, for the entirety of there being cinema, has been made of stories told by white men for white men. Of course, there have traditionally been "women's pictures," but most of those were written and directed by men. Movies about people of color were, until the indie boom of the 1990s, either genre or exploitation (or, in the case of Scream, Blacula, Scream, both). With the rarest of exceptions, female characters were either romantic quarry or heroic reminders.
The heroes were always white, were always men, were always straight. The progress that stars like Denzel Washington and Will Smith made is that they were so popular that they often got cast in roles that were written for white actors. But unless they were making a biopic — playing, say, Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali — rarely were they cast in roles that were purposefully written as black. Even then, they were telling white stories.
Women and people of color, on the other hand, have a wealth of experience in empathizing with characters who don't look like them. If you were a lady nerd, you had no choice but to take your icons where you could find them, likely in films surrounded by and subservient to men. Princess Leia is a fantastic character, but the end of Star Wars: A New Hope finds her staring at a monitor while the boys do all the Death Star exploding.
The only two female characters in the original Ghostbusters are A) the damsel in demonic distress and B) the receptionist. Until Scarlet Witch showed up, Black Widow was the only lady Avenger — the only one who contractually could've gotten her own movie (Universal has the rights to a solo Hulk flick) and, 17 flicks deep into the MCU, hasn't. And so it goes.
We had to identify with Harrison Ford or Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise because we had no one else to identify with. We all wanted to be heroes, but those were the heroes we got.
Then came Wonder Woman. Armed with a dignity and resolve, Patty Jenkins' film stormed on to the field and lit a fire in generations of women who have been waiting their whole lives to see themselves at the center of the action. Asking no quarter, granting no quarter. It sparked a movement — and swallowed $800 million dollars at the worldwide box office — that chafed some white dudes the wrong way. "How dare you organize women-only screenings? I usually go and do as I please, what do you mean I can't go there? I'm gonna sue." Sure, some embraced the wave of emotion that came with long-held dreams coming true… but too many didn't.
And now Black Panther. It is virtually impossible to convey the sheer tonnage of impact this movie has on a population that has never been at the center of a movie like this. A mega-budgeted superhero movie. Written, produced, and directed by black people. With a cast, bow to stern, made of black people, some of them the finest actors of their generation. (Judging by the trailers, there are only two white guys in the whole flick, and one of them is a second-tier villain.) AND IT'S SET IN F—NG AFRICA.
Black Panther might be the biggest, blackest movie ever made. And white nerds are going to have to go see it, because it's a Marvel movie. They are going to have to learn to identify with someone who doesn't look like them, who doesn't live where they live, who doesn't talk or act they way they do. They are going to have to learn cinematic empathy.
Of course, some will refuse, the same way some railed against the first Black Panther posters, calling them "too militant." Because they had the temerity to center a black man as a king. Sitting on a throne.
Ava Duvernay's A Wrinkle in Time will require the vast generations of people who read Madeleine L'Engle's book to recalibrate their expectations, since now Meg Murry is an interracial kid from Compton, CA instead of a white girl from rural Connecticut.
(It must be said that children have an easier time with this kind of character empathy, since they've been following characters of every species and every hue since their first Dr. Seuss book. It's the parents that can have the calcified hurdles to overcome.)
Tip of the spear vs. the shaft. Ripple in the water vs. tidal wave. Culture feels like it's shifting, inexorably, towards a configuration that favors balance. The true signifier of whether this will have a sense of permanence is money — show business is business more than its show. The numbers will tell the tale.
The top three movies of 2017 were Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, and Wonder Woman. They all starred women. The pre-sales for Black Panther tickets have outpaced every other Marvel movie — and it's not because Fandango gave away posters to early buyers, as Entertainment Weekly suggested.
It is because long-awaited change has finally come. And the audience is grasping for it with both hands.