Black Panther Is Not A Movie. It’s A Movement & It’s Bigger Than Box Office Success.
There have been literally hundreds of interviews with the cast of Black Panther, and thousands of write-ups about the film’s commercial and cultural impact. However, there’s a moment that occurs in a Sway In The Morning town hall discussion with the entire cast that captures the essence of why this movie has grown from a Hollywood blockbuster to a movement. When asked if he had directly experienced the social impact of the film, lead actor Chadwick Boseman responded “There are 2 little kids–Ian and Taylor–who recently passed from cancer. And, throughout our filming, I was communicating with them, knowing that they were both terminal. What they said to me, and their parents, is they’re trying to hold on till this movie comes. To a certain degree, you hear them say that and you’re like ‘Whew. Wow. I’ve got to get up and go to the gym. I’ve got to get up and go to work. I’ve got to learn these lines. I’ve got to work on this accent.’” He continues, “To a certain degree, it’s a humbling experience because you’re like ‘This can’t mean that much to them.’ But, seeing how the world has taken this on, seeing how the movement, how it’s taken a life of its own, I realized that they anticipated something great. I think back now to [being] a kid and just waiting for Christmas to come, waiting for my birthday to come, waiting for a toy that I was going to get a chance to experience, or a video game…I did live life waiting for those moments. So, it put me back in the mind of being a kid, just to experience those 2 little boys’ anticipation of this movie. And, when I found out that they…” Fulling embracing the gravity of the moment, Boseman is unable to continue, dejected at the thought that the 2 young boys were unable to hold on until the film’s completion. He breaks down and eventually has to excuse himself from the discussion.
Boseman is not the only one overwhelmed by the enormous symbolism of the film in which he embodies the protagonist, and the accompanying hope and optimism that it has brought to a world in which those things are increasingly scarce. As the African-American father of 3 sons, there have been several times in the last week when I was nearly moved to tears by the concept of the film’s existence, and its commercial reception, before even seeing it. The profound impact it has had is something that many of all races, ages, and gender are feeling and still cannot quite fully process. The box office results are in and with an astounding $242 million 4-day weekend domestically and $427 million worldwide, Black Panther has smashed more records than many thought imaginable even a week ago. It is already the highest grossing film of all-time featuring a black director and cast, eclipsing Straight Outta Compton’s overall take of $214 million. It is the highest grossing solo superhero launch of all-time. It is the biggest holiday opening ever. It is the biggest non-sequel launch of all-time. And, it is the fifth biggest U.S. weekend debut of all-time, trailing just Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Jurassic World and The Avengers.
The critical response has been no less stratospheric, with the film earning a 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating from critics, and garnering an A+ CinemaScore from fans–only Marvel’s second ever, after The Avengers. But, as universally favorable as those metrics are, they do not fully reflect the significance of Black Panther or explain why it has captured the Zeitgeist.
From great strife comes great art. It is not a coincidence that the cultural phenomenon that is Black Panther comes amidst the most political turmoil this nation has seen in a generation. After an 8-year presidency by America’s most multicultural leader, many, especially people of color, once again have been forced to look to screens for their heroes.
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This was commonplace in the past. On the big screen, there was Will Smith, Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington. 24 offered not one, but two Black presidents, as well as a woman commader-in-chief. When 44 came into office, however, much of that was taken for granted and it allowed for a pop culture pendulum swing that yielded #OscarsSoWhite.
Now, America is undergoing what feels like not one, but multiple civil wars. A significant faction of the population wants to go back to a subjective idealized time when the country was “great.” Others want to push forward to a time when humans are all but irrelevant in a world driven by artificial intelligence and robotics. The wealth disparity continues to grow, with many policy decisions being driven by the .1%, even though public opinion is diametrically opposed. Fans and players are at war with the NFL, and we are in the midst of a long overdue uprising that is fundamentally shifting dynamics in the workplace, but potentially sowing a new level of discord between men and women. The general malaise and disillusionment with this world and the “heroes” it has to offer has created a seismic void for many, and it’s set the perfect stage for a film that rejuvenates our sense of hope for what’s possible.
The mere existence of Black Panther was a fundamental re-alignment of what audiences could expect from a film. From the moment that the all-star Black cast took the stage with writer/director Ryan Coogler at the  Comic-Con, all preconceived notions of the ingredients necessary to make a Hollywood superhero blockbuster were shattered. It wasn’t just that there was no White male lead—the mythical necessity of which was debunked with 2017’s Wonder Woman—it was that there was no White person, period on that stage. The enormity of the visual was not lost to anyone looking on, especially anyone of color. But, that moment could have easily been a Pyrrhic victory. It wasn’t until the views of the trailers and the presale tallies began to roll in that the gravity of just how enormous the film’s impact could be took hold, and it galvanized people into action.
In the weeks that lead up to the film’s premiere, it became a cause, particularly for the Black community. Church groups, fraternities and sororities, Black-owned businesses and more began purchasing tickets as groups, often buying out entire theaters. In an interview with The Breakfast Club, Boseman spoke on the phenomenon, saying “Just seeing how people have bought out theaters…And when you’re seeing the #BlackPantherChallenge, which Fred T. Joseph started [where he raised $40,000 for underprivileged youth to see the film], they’re living up to some of the ideals of the movie when they do that. That’s historic. This is history being created. In those other movies I was doing we were remembering the past. We were looking back at history. This is a very, very present moment that takes us into, what could be, a different future.”
For years, it has been commonplace for Blacks to come out in droves to support films featuring Black casts and Black themes, knowing how important opening weekend numbers are to Hollywood in making decisions about future films to greenlight. Tyler Perry has benefited from this type of galvanization for the better part of a decade. In most instances, however, the films being proffered were ones with low to moderate budgets, that yielded financial windfalls for the companies that dared to take the “risk” on narratives about and enacted by Black actors. 2017’s Oscar-nominated Get Out was just the latest example of this.
As an addition to the storied Marvel film franchise, however, the stakes for Black Panther were much higher. The budget was exponentially bigger (a reported $200 million) and the expectations that the film perform commensurately went all the way up to the top of Disney, with CEO Bob Iger personally signing off on the allocated expense. African-Americans responded in kind, making up approximately 37% of the film’s domestic audience. The pre-sales and block purchases showed that for at least one audience, Black Panther was too big to fail.
While pent up desire to see the first ever all Black epic superhero film on the silver screen–and to give big budget films populated by Black casts a fighting chance–explains some of the furor around Black Panther’s release, it does not fully account for why the film became the cultural and commercial juggernaut that it is. Had the movie been mediocre or even just good, it would not have enjoyed the record-breaking momentum it gained over the weekend. But, it was not just good. It was exceptional and it delivered on the hopes that people from various cultures and genders carried with them into the theater.
For American Blacks, it was an opportunity to see, in living color, the connectedness between all people of African descent, regardless of birthplace. In a separate interview with The Breakfast Club, Boseman said of the dynamic “There’s a conversation in this movie that is an in-house conversation…You have to be part of the diaspora. As an African-American, there’s a conversation that you’re having with the continent as you watch this movie, and the continent is having a conversation with you.”
In speaking with Hot 97, Ryan Coogler took the concept even one step further, in detailing the personal revelations he experienced about the interconnectedness between Africans and African-Americans while researching the film: “One thing that I was kind of told about being African-American is that we lost our culture–that we lost our connection to Africa–because we can only go back, documentation-wise, 400 years. That we don’t know what specific tribe we’re from [and] because we don’t know these things, we’re kind of bastardized. And, I believed that until I went there and I spent time with people and did rituals with people, and I was like ‘Oh, yeah. We do this exact same thing at home…’ and [the Africans] were like ‘Oh, yeah, because you all are African. You all are just doing what our people have been doing for thousands of years. It’s no way that whatever you think happened to you all could have broke that.’” Coogler continued, “Out there, we’re African. We’re just from a different tribe. Sometimes, I call us the Lost Tribe, but African-Americans are very, very African.”
Realizing that many Black Americans might never have the means to experience Africa first-hand, he took painstaking efforts to make the representation of African culture as authentic as possible, spending months on the continent and drawing from the customs of many countries and tribes. He even used a language–Xhosa–from a specific area of South Africa. He also ensured that the many tribes in the film were depicted regally to reinforce the notion that the African existence is one with a historical legacy of kings and queens.
Black Panther is more than just a story for Blacks, however. With a cast that featured The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett and Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, Black Panther featured arguably one of the most powerful representations of women on film, certainly for a superhero movie. While women have been making inroads as part of franchises like X-Men, Avengers and Wonder Woman, seemingly every single woman on the screen in Black Panther was royal or just an all-out badass. T’Challa was not protected by men, but by a corps of women warriors who often saved him when he was in over his head. Regardless of color, that is the type of visualization that can have profound impact on little girls around the world, and even grown women who have never seen themselves portrayed with such fierceness and dignity.
While speaking with Hot 97, Coogler discussed how the portrayal of women in the film was rooted both in Black Panther comic history and African culture. “We’re adapting a comic book that’s been [around] for 50 years,” said Coogler. “The most recent run of Black Panther, which is [author] Ta-Nehisi Coates and [illustrator] Brian Stelfreeze’s run, the women take center stage, the women of Wakanda. And, for us, it was so many elements that made us have to have these fully rendered women in the film. The biggest reason is it’s an African story, and in that culture, you see the women are the backbones of that culture. It’s something that’s known. You’ll hear phrases like ‘You can’t have a king without a queen.’ You look at functioning societies, women are the backbones for all of it. For me, as an African man that was born in the States, that’s who keeps our communities running…You look at the history, and it’s been like that.”
In the Sway In The Morning town hall discussion, Gurira echoed Coogler’s sentiments, saying “My heart, my passion is all around women and girls, and, specifically, on the continent where there are just massive disparities that stop them from getting to their fullest potential.” She continues “I was so excited to be a part of this and I sat down with Ryan, but I needed to hear the vision, which was so fantastic and so rooted in authenticity, and in real powerfully interesting women, because that’s deeply important to me: how women of African descent are portrayed, especially on this scale, and the knowledge that that is going to have an impact on girls, because imagery does. Representation does.”
With women and Blacks making up 50% and 37% of the box office receipts for Black Panther, respectively, that means at least 30% of the film’s viewers fit into neither category, but there was plenty of relatable content for all, regardless of race or gender. For the disillusioned, Black Panther provided a look at a people and place more noble and aspirational than many of us currently feel about our own country and several of its citizens (or at least its leaders). Wakanda is a place with advanced technology, rich natural resources, and certainly better healthcare. Coogler, again, was meticulous in making sure that Wakanda showcased human beings’ most advanced thinking. “Wakanda’s known to be the most technologically advanced place on the planet, so that gives us freedom to explore and do research–go to the TED conference and see what new tech is being developed,” he said. In speaking about the natural resource that fueled the company, the director said “Vibranium is a sonic-powered metal alloy, so we met with teachers that use applied sonic sciences to see what kind of things you can do if you have full control of sound; what kind of things can maybe happen in the future. It was a really fun process for us.” In the town hall, he revealed another layer to his research, adding “It’s a program called the Science Entertainment Exchange that Marvel Studios is connected with. It’s basically a group of scientists that love movies, and they want movies to get the science right…So, my co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, and myself, we had access to scientists and historians.”
The film also shows patriots who are willing to put country first, even before those in their own effective “political party.” In these polarized times, in which there are questions about whether key leaders are colluding with foreign nationals to fix our elections, and others willfully disregard the wishes of their own constituents, it’s no wonder that a utopia filled with more upstanding characters would have such widespread appeal.
Putting politics and race issues aside—a feat that is more and more difficult these days—at its core, Black Panther is still a superhero film and, in that capacity, it overdelivers, as well. There are amazing special effects, spectacular car chases, fierce battles and strong antagonists and protagonists. And, the challenges facing the hero are skillfully maintained throughout the entire film. Literally, Black Panther has something for everyone.
At the center of why Black Panther grew from a movie to a movement, is hope. For many African-Americans, it represents hope for being depicted as heroes rather than criminals, and the beginning of an era in which such depictions are commonplace. For others, it symbolizes hope that we can once again be a world filled with real-life heroes. And, for others, including two boys who were unable to hold on long enough to see the film, it may have simply represented hope for a cool superhero story that offered thrills and a temporary escape. No matter how it is sliced, the movement that is Black Panther is bigger than the numbers, and something that will continue to unfold for years to come.