Black Panther and the Underestimated Power of Black Audiences
This just in: Black Panther, Marvel’s latest movie about a black superhero that stars a predominantly black cast and production team, has broken every blockbuster record out there.
Okay, so that statement is a bit over the top, I admit. Exaggerations aside though, there’s no doubting the blockbuster phenomenon that is Black Panther. By Sunday, the highly anticipated film had earned an estimated $361 million worldwide according to Variety, securing its spot as the highest debut ever for a movie in February (beating out Marvel’s Deadpool) and the fifth highest of all time. It’s the top single day gross for a solo superhero movie ever and the biggest single day for a movie not helmed by a white male. The movie has a near perfect rating on Rotten Tomatoes and sitting at 97 per cent, it’s the best aggregated score on any live-action superhero film.
Since its creation in 2008, Marvel Studios has released a whopping 17 superhero movies (collectively grossing more than $13 billion), each featuring a lead white character and a predominantly white cast. DC Comics unfortunately hasn’t been much better, only recently diversifying its big screen superheroes with last year’s Wonder Woman (her groundbreaking glory and fierceness not to be denied, she was also white and supported by a largely white cast). Black audiences have waited what seems like an eternity for a superhero who looks like them to grace the big screen and it therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that Black Panther has shattered so many records and segmented its place among the top superhero movies of all time (in terms of box office sales).
Black audiences are showing up to theatres in waves and best of all, they’re also showing out, arriving dressed in costumes inspired by the film and traditional African wear like headwraps and dashikis. Celebrities like Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer and rapper T.I. have bought out entire theatres to ensure that black children from underserved communities will have the chance to see the film. Meanwhile, the viral online fundraising campaign, #BlackPantherChallenge, has reportedly raised more than $400,000 – 10 times its initial goal – to purchase movie tickets for young kids across North America.
The success of Black Panther is a much-needed reminder to Hollywood and its corporations of the power of black audiences – a group that despite representing the largest consumers of colour group in the U.S. marketplace, remains underestimated and overlooked.
When looking at the overwhelming number of African Americans who buy movie tickets in the U.S. (in 2016, this number was as high as 49 per cent) it’s hard to believe that a mega studio like Marvel would wait so long to diversify its casts. But a panel at the 2016 Long Beach Comic Con, which featured members of the Marvel Studios team, provides perhaps the best insight as to why: When asked about the lack of diversity and representation in their films, writer Brandon Easton (Marvel’s Agent Carter) alluded to “political and financial” reasons. Hinting at the approval process for Black Panther and Captain Marvel, he explained, “We want to make those movies, but we answered to people who have different ideas.”
Though vague, Easton’s response appears to be reflective of a wider, long-held Hollywood myth that films rooted in black culture can’t become global blockbusters – one that Black Panther is debunking, one ticket sale and dollar at a time.
It’s this same myth that led to poor box office predictions for movies like Straight Outta Compton, The Perfect Guy and War Room, which each featured predominantly black casts. According to Variety, Straight Outta Compton, which received widespread critical acclaim, debuted at roughly $20 million more than most trade publications initially predicted. According to the magazine, for each movie, black audiences accounted for 30 to 60 per cent of viewers during opening weekends.
But unlike those films which were blockbuster hits in their own rights, Black Panther remains in a category of its own and for reasons other than its incredible box office sales. Effectively tackling real-world current issues like racism, inequality and oppression while entertaining audiences, the movie is much more than just that. Journalist Jamil Smith likely sums it up best for Time Magazine where he argues that “the very existence of Black Panther feels like resistance.”
It’s been a painfully long wait, but perhaps there was never a better time than now for a movie like Black Panther. The global demand for diverse and representative casts has never been louder, while the need for powerful and positive representation of blackness has never been greater. Anyone who believes otherwise is to be reminded of the majority black audience that showed up to see Black Panther this opening weekend.
For all of its black excellence, Black Panther has long been worth the wait. And with all of its success, largely driven by the oft-underestimated black audience, we can only hope we won’t have to wait another 17 superhero movies for a black hero on our big screen.
But that’s just According to Adrienne.