Marvel’s Black Panther smashed box-office records over the weekend, matching overwhelming critical acclaim with ticket sales that surpassed any movie ever released in the month of February. But the quantifiable impact of Ryan Coogler’s new movie, while massive, pales in comparison to its cultural and historical import.
The $361 million worldwide opening weekend gross blows apart the long-held Hollywood notion that broad audiences will not respond to movies with majority black casts, opening the door to a whole new generation of action heroes. In fact, as the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie starring a black superhero, it changes the entire trajectory of the biggest movie franchise in history. And it gives an entire generation of black fans a whole set of superheroes to call their own.
“A lot of young people going to this film, they're going to have for the rest of their lives an image of themselves on the screen, whether they're boys or girls, that is powerful, that's complicated, that's interesting, and intelligently depicted,” Jamil Smith, the well-known journalist who wrote Time Magazine’s Black Panther cover story, told The Fandom Files. “There might be some people saying, ‘Oh, there've been black superheroes before. What are you so excited about?’ But those stories of those heroes were not told by black people. They were not told within a context that is inherently black. That’s worth getting excited about.”
Smith’s point is multi-faceted, befitting a movie that is far more complex than most blockbusters. Black Panther is not simply a story of a noble hero facing down a greedy villain; instead, the antagonist, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, puts forward complex questions about black identity and responsibility. His perspective is driven by a harsh reality that T’Challa, the hero played by star Chadwick Boseman, cannot possibly understand.
Wakanda is an isolated nation, hermetically sealed from the centuries of warfare, exploitation, and subjugation that have plagued much of the rest of the African continent. It is far more advanced than any other country in the world, powered by the ultra-strong Vibranium, and filled with a vibrant culture and tradition plucked from real African nations. It is an image of the continent that Americans do not often see in the media — or hear from their current president, who called Africa a collection of “s**thole countries” during a discussion about immigration earlier this year.
“Certainly, they could not have planned for this movie to be coming out in the Trump era when they started making it, but it's interesting that it is because of the president making that remark,” Smith said. “It emphasizes that first of all, he doesn't really know anything about Africa or the nations within it. Also, that if you're going to call a country a s**thole, well s**tholes are not naturally occurring. They're made. You have to understand the role of colonialism, of outside invaders, of usurpers; that's why Wakanda is isolationist.”
Killmonger, meanwhile, was raised on the streets of Oakland, a world away from the peace and power of Wakanda, where his father was born. When he arrives and seeks to take over Wakanda so that he can use its resources and technology to start a bloody uprising, one that would put black people in charge of the world, it’s hard to see fault in his reasoning, if not approach.
“They took some risks that frankly they didn't really need to,” Smith said. “They could have made an average sort of paint-by-numbers Marvel movie and gotten by. It's a really interesting risk to take in a major mega-budget film like this, to have a story that revolves around a key thing that a lot of black households talk about: If you have the power to level the playing field, how do you use it? Wakanda has that power, and in this film you see two very different approaches to using that to help black people around the world.”
And it’s not just the movie’s hero and antagonist that are rich, complicated characters. The cast is filled with smart, thoughtful, strong women. In fact, from Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) to young genius Shuri (Letitia Wright), it is the women who often drive the fate of Wakanda.
“I think it's an important thing to note, because you see in this film T'Challa, the king of Wakanda, deferring often to the women in his life,” Smith said. “I think it's an important image for boys as they see a hero who maybe looks like them or doesn’t, no matter what color the viewer is, to see a male character deferring to women in that sort of fashion.”
Jamie Broadnax, a writer and the founder of the influential site BlackGirlNerds.com, emphasized how welcomed that image was in an era of blockbusters that still largely cater to men. She also pointed out that it took some courage on the part of the Black Panther creative team, given the stories laid out in the comic books.
“I think we should definitely attribute it to Ryan Coogler, [producer] Nate Moore, and the team, who took some creative liberty to give these women some more agency, give them more fully fleshed-out stories, have them on equal footing and not just be the subservient characters to T'Challa,” Broadnax told The Fandom Files. “Because even though General Okoye [Danai Gurira] is a loyal protector and servant of her king, there were moments where she disagreed with him. There were moments where she had an opinion, and she was very blunt with it. ... In the comics, they didn't speak to anybody but T'Challa. Those different kinds of liberties that they took, it was a big deal, and I love the fact that 16-year-old Shuri is the smartest person in the Marvel universe. That's a huge deal.”
As we saw this weekend, Black Panther is a huge deal to a lot of people, and should continue to not only set box-office records but create the kind of conversation that is rare not only in a superhero movie, but any film, period.
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