Something special happened in Hollywood recently, but it will be a true test of the people in charge to see if they really understood it. For years now movies have been going through what could easily be described as a dark age of cinema. The most successful entertainment platform on the planet had real competitors for the first time in its history. From video games, to Netflix, to social media and every kind of streaming service on the internet caused cinema to suffer a substantial blow to its market share of our attention. Their response was far from inspired.
Instead of captivating us with new stories, firing up our imaginations and making us question why we ever doubted the greatest storytelling platform on Earth, they went backwards. They made reboot after reboot, choosing safe picks and safe franchises to bleed dry until we’d lost all faith in every product they’d attempt to serve to us again and again. The overriding question was never what are the stories that we need to tell? Nor was it what’s best strategy for the long term health of our industry? The question was almost always, what is going to meet our short term needs for massive return on investment? Which led to the truly insipid and lazy follow up question of what can redo next?.
Playing on people’s nostalgia, living off of past successes, ignoring new talent and killing the middle class of cinema, Hollywood became a factory for comic book, superhero, blockbusters. Flashy, shallow, big budget, small story, one dimensional spectaculars that tickled our dopamine triggers, but left us feeling empty when we left the theatre. Enter Black Panther and $1B in box office sales for a film that has no connection to Star Wars.
Black Panther is by no means a perfect movie and it still suffers from drawing on the pantheon of films it is destined to outgrow. But what is so exciting is that in spite of ridiculously high barriers to entry, Hollywood has allowed a $200+ million dollar budget to go to a story that needed to be told, rather than just rebooting a stalled franchise for the fourth or fifth time.
The issue of diversity in cinema and the void that this movie has filled in that conversation cannot be understated. Representing non white races in film and mass media has always been an underserved need within society, but more that that, representing each race’s positive attributes back to them by showing them occupying aspirational positions of power is the cornerstone of the evolution of our culture. Kids can and often do derive what’s possible for them in life based on what they see in movies and TV. For the sake of our future and the continued evolution of mankind as a whole, Black Panther is a story that needed to be told.
What’s more, is that in an increasingly rare occurrence for 2018, Black Panther joined the rarified air of capturing a ‘Monoculture Moment’. A moment where seemingly everyone is talking about one particular thing or event. In a world of niche, upon niche, upon niche of digital entertainment, cinema still has the power to unify and bring people together like very few other mediums do, even so, in recent years outside of Star Wars, cinema hadn’t really chalked up a significant win in that regard for a while. Therefore, the fact that Black Panther was able to capture this limelight with an overwhelmingly positive story to tell should be celebrated.
Think about it, for a cast featuring this many African actors, to have surfaced in any other time in film history, (especially with this much backing) they would’ve undoubtedly had to have been playing servants, slaves or criminals. Pigeon-holing an entire race into the oppressed roles that society had forced upon them is more than a disservice, it’s oppression in action. It’s continuing to foster the myth that while individuals may be able to rise to prominence, as a race they will always be a product of their circumstances. Take the opposite, take Black Panther and see what happens when you saturate a young audience with stories of people that look like them, that are:
- Ruling the world’s most powerful country.
- Inventing futuristic technology and researching the limits of human potential.
- Leading a fighting force of some the world’s most well trained and skillful warriors.
- Operating as a spy gathering global intelligence for their homeland.
- Being part of a thriving political system that features real world iconography from African cultures and tribes.
There’s power in that. There’s healing in that and there’s a need for that kind of filmmaking in the current political climate. Let no one forget that time the man currently occupying the White House referred to African countries and places like Haiti as “shithole countries.” Every human has the right to see themselves as a positive, impactful member of society and if for whatever reason they can’t do that: You will never disserve someone by seeing more in them than they can see in themselves. Oftentimes giving someone that future vision of themselves allows them to find the courage and the permission in their own minds to step into all that they’re capable of being. If that happens, then the whole world wins.
When a focus is put on telling stories that need to be told, the result is often great nuance. If the focus is simply put on ‘what can we can come up with next?’ It’s more likely to result in simple, demonstrative, white knight heroes and machiavellian villains. (The kinds we’ve seen countless times before in Marvel and DC movies.) Black Panther is different in that the central struggle of the film is less a football match where you just cheer for your team, but more of an intense debate where both sides believe they’re equally correct and both have defensible positions.
Killmonger will likely go down as one of the all time best villains in MCU history, because was he actually villain? He didn’t just appear out of a black hole as some entity that enjoyed eating planets as a pastime. Killmonger was a monster of both the Wakandan’s and societies’ creation. Through the death of his father at the hands of the T’Chaka and the subjugation of his people that he witnessed growing up in Oakland, all of Killmonger’s actions had context, they we’re deeply motivated, not simply chaotic or anarchistic but deeply felt, intentional and defensible. This is revolutionary in the world of comic book movies and allows us to see Killmonger as less of a villain and more an anti-hero/ agent of change. After all, when all’s said and done, it’s facing Killmonger that prompts T’Challa and in turn Wakanda to face their own selfishness, self reflect and change how they interact with the outside world.
When T’Challa ends Wakanda’s policy of isolationism he changes the course of history for Wakanda’s people and the greater MCU. Life will never be the same for either side and sharing their vibranium technology with the outside world will certainly open up the Wakandan’s to the threat of power hungry members of the outside world. However, the message from Wakanda (and Black Panther’s director Ryan Coogler) is clear: “We are one tribe,” and “now more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence.” Which should become very apparent in Avengers: Infinity War, when the fate of the world may rest on Wakandan technology.
The world is changing, our perspectives are slowly widening and the problems we seek to solve are becoming greater. Therefore this inclusivity, this expanding of our consciousness, through representation of stories that need to be told, showing diversity in both race and gender will be required to take our next step as a species. One people, united, telling the whole world: Anyone can be a hero if they choose to be.