Can a movie spark a revolution?
Motion pictures can do a lot of things. They can move us to tears, force us to rethink our perspective on the world, even introduce us to corners of the world we never knew existed. But can they truly be a revolutionary force for change? It’s a lot to ask of a film, knowing that, regardless of all the passion and feeling behind them, they’re still the byproduct of a multi-billion dollar commercial industry. After all, what’s the one thing most, if not all, successful industries try to avoid? Revolution.
But that’s the question that was posed as Marvel’s Black Panther roared its way into theaters around the world this February. And the answer for many, when it comes to this very movie, is a resounding yes. It could. In fact, in its own way, it already has.
You don’t have to go too far back to hit the point in time when the idea of one of the biggest commercial studios in the game coughing up many millions of dollars to both make and market a superhero film starring a predominantly black cast, helmed by an African-American director, set in a prosperous (if fictional) African nation, that didn’t focus squarely on the historical global suffering of black people would get you laughed out of the room. We’re talking just a few years here. They’d have sooner put a giant green monster (who returns to his straight, white male form when he stops being so angry, of course) at the center of a film. In fact, they did. More than once.
For years, Hollywood has told people of color and other marginalized groups that their stories aren’t universal enough. That they aren’t profitable enough, globally. When a film focused on such a story did get made, it would generally be quickly ghettoized into its own sub-genre of film, as though its subject matter precluded it from being considered cinema, full stop. And if it was a commercial success? Well, that’s a fluke, a one-off—certainly not something for studio heads to consider a viable path to profits.
So we’ve waited. And we’ve waited. And we waited some more. And now, we’re finally here, with director Ryan Coogler delivering Chadwick Boseman‘s King T’Challa and his glorious kingdom of Wakanda in the hopes of, much like last year’s smash hit Wonder Woman did before it, giving an underserved community the opportunity to finally see a superhero who looks just like them. And that, in and of itself, is revolutionary, my friends.
“This movie is hard to imagine,” Forest Whitaker, who plays Zuri, one of Wakanda’s elder statesmen and advisors to T’Challa, told E! News’ Justin Sylvester when asked if he ever thought a movie like this would ever see the light of day. “I could see lots of films coming forward and peeking their head and showing us something different that we haven’t seen before. This one has so many different layers, so many different messages, so much humor and pathos and pain, you know what I mean? I think it’s unique. I think Ryan did something that’s going to go down in time.”
In fact, in the lead-up to the film’s February 16 release, it already had secured itself a spot in the history books. Aside from its first-of-its-kind cast for a comic book movie, Black Panther was projected to take in at least $250 million globally over President’s Day weekend, according to analyst projections. Fandago had revealed that the film its its No. 4 pre-seller of all time, behind only the last three Star Wars movies. With more than 200 grassroots campaigns in black communities across the globe arranging screenings in order to commemorate the film’s release, it was safe to say that anticipation for the film was at a high that we don’t see all that often.
And then the box office receipts began rolling in. With a $242.1 million dollar haul over President’s Day weekend, the film notched the best opening ever over that particular holiday weekend. It went on to become the first film to hold at No. 1 for over five consecutive weeks since 2009’s Avatar, netted a worldwide total of $1.347 billion, became the highest-grossing solo superhero film, the highest-grossing film by a black director, and ranks as the ninth-highest-grossing film of all time. Its popularity may have forced the Academy Awards to consider adding a new category and also landed it nine nominations at the 2018 E!’s People’s Choice Awards, netting a win for Boseman in the Male Movie Star of 2018 category and Danai Gurira for Action Movie Star. Its three Golden Globe nominations—announced just moments ago—came as no surprise.
“The concept of an African story, with actors of African descent at the forefront, combined with the scale of modern franchise filmmaking, is something that hasn’t really been seen before,” Coogler told The Hollywood Reporter when why the world appears so hungry for his film. “You feel like you’re getting the opportunity of seeing something fresh, being a part of something new, which I think all audiences want to experience regardless of whether they are of African descent or not.”
Of course, the revolutionary nature of the film, which re-contextualizes the character we met in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War as a newly-crowned king returning to his highly-advanced nation, which has set itself apart from the rest of the world in order to guard its technological secrets, doesn’t stop there. With a story that’s a bit more heady and timely than the usual Marvel flick, T’Challa is forced to reconsider his society’s isolationist way of life thanks to the arrival of villain Erik Killmonger (played by Jordan), the son of his uncle and an American woman. Having been raised in America, and forced to endure all the racism and discrimination that comes along with it, Killmonger wants the Wakandans to share their metaphorical wealth with the oppressed people of the world to help shift the balance of power in favor of those who’ve historically been denied it.
“If you’re anybody from any ethnicity, anywhere in the world, you know what that feels like to grow up in an environment to make you feel that type of way and not feeling like you have any options to change or better your situation,” Jordan told us. “There’s a version of that in Killmonger and having identity issues, not necessarily knowing where you come from and then finding out.”
“The overall conversation of what it is to be African or African-American is definitely one of those things,” he added. “Drawing that bridge between that connection, I think it’s going to start a conversation a lot of people didn’t even know should be had.”
If Get Out, Jordan Peele‘s Oscar-nominated “social demons” thriller was 2017’s most revolutionary film for the way it forced us to consider race in America, then Black Panther takes the baton and runs with it for the way it forces us to celebrate race—both African and human.
“I think one of the large messages is to recognize that we have a responsibility to each other, to uplift each other and to be one. To be one tribe to recognize that our success in our own lives needs to be manifested in the lives we see across from us,” Whitaker said. “I think of that all the time when I’m working. I work a lot with different NGOs in conflict zones and stuff like that and we always have to see ourselves in the other person and understand that they are you and you are them. And if you have that understanding, you’ll treat them differently and you work hard to make sure that their lives are uplifted.”
That said, the true power of Black Panther‘s long road from the character’s comic book introduction in 1966 to his unprecedented big screen debut just may lie in the effect it has on future generations. Aside from Boseman and Jordan kicking ass on screen, their characters are surrounded by a number of similarly ass-kicking women, played by Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett, who aren’t viewed as “strong women,” but simply “strong.” The representation cup runeth over, just in time to quench our far-too-often ignored thirst. And that’s to say nothing about the doors the film’s success will no doubt open for black artists (or artists from any marginalized community, for that matter) down the road.
“At the end of the day, what this represents for the future generation, for these kids that are going to be watching this, for people all over the world to start this dialogue and conversation, that’s what I’m more excited about,” Jordan told us. “Seeing how many more of these Black Panthers we’ll see…I’m more curious seeing the effects of this movie in the industry and how that’s going to change minorities in film and television.”
Much like the Wakandans who are being forced to consider entering a diverse, global community, Hollywood can no longer ignore the notion that diverse stories can and will work across the globe. Not anymore. Not with Black Panther on the scene. Long live the king.
(Originally published on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018 at 4:00 a.m. PST.)