Sunday, February 25, 2018

What Does 'Black Panther' Mean?

Having reviewed Black Panther, I want to comment on the way the movie has been discussed by film critics and by cultural commentators in general. Black Panther has achieved an impressive 97% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and deservedly so – the movie is quite good. But the conversation about Black Panther has gone beyond praising its cinematic craft to proclamations that the movie represents some kind of rubicon that will change Hollywood and American culture.

The past few weeks have seen the publication of numerous articles emphasizing Black Panther’s cultural significance and framing the movie as a game changer. Black Panther has become one of the most Tweeted–about films and, as Carvel Wallace explains in New York Magazine, African American social media turned the release of the movie into a cultural event. Black Panther has been seized upon by political activists who have used screenings as voter registration drives and fundraisers for community organizations.

Film critics were not immune to the excitement. Rohaan Naahar wrote that Black Panther “will be taught in school [and] debated among intellectuals.” Leonard Maltin gave the movie a mixed review but ultimately decided that his misgivings about Black Panther’s cinematic merits “may not be what matters.” One of the most hyperbolic reviews came from CineVue’s Zoe Margolis who proclaimed that “Black Panther is the film that will change everything. When you see it, you know that from here on in, everything will be different.”

There is something to the narrative around Black Panther. The movie takes place in Africa, a continent whose people have been ignored by Hollywood, is written and directed by black filmmakers and features a primarily black cast in a story in which black identity is central. And all of this happens in a tent pole studio film. But we should be cautious about proclaiming Black Panther as a defining moment for American culture or for Hollywood. Its impressive box office performance is encouraging but it’s just too early to know if this film actually represents that kind of change.

Recent history provides more than enough reason for skepticism. In 1998 the Marvel comic book Blade was adapted into a feature film starring Wesley Snipes. It was rated R and was released at a time when the box office for comic book features wasn’t quite what it is now. Regardless, Blade was a hit and the movie spawned two sequels (one that was very good and another that wasn’t) and a television series. The release of the original Blade was preceded by 1997’s Spawn, an adaptation of the popular comic book that also featured an African American actor in the lead role. Spawn was not the financial success that Blade was (nor was it as good) but Spawn was nevertheless a high profile release by a major studio headlined by an African American actor.

At the time of their releases, there was some mention of the fact that these movies were comic book adventures with black protagonists but neither Blade nor Spawn were regarded as game changers. And they weren’t. Hollywood’s representation of characters of color has remained more or less consistent in the two decades since Blade’s release. In the interim we got 2004’s Catwoman starring Halle Berry, a movie that the actress probably wishes we would forget. But Catwoman is worth mentioning because Berry made it after becoming the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. At the time her Oscar win was discussed in much the same way as the release of Black Panther: a historic game changer that would bend the course of Hollywood and open doors for other people of color. A decade and a half on, it’s clear that her win was not the sea change it was initially proclaimed to be, something Berry herself has admitted

There is a distinct difference between the culture that Spawn and Blade played to and the one that showed up for Black Panther. For one, the internet is a ubiquitous presence. With that comes the networking of social media but also the hyperbole and moral grandstanding that defines online discourse. Black Panther also comes at a time of greater awareness—and anxiety—about the status of people of color in American society and in particular their absence from a lot of mainstream entertainment. Those components, as well as the impatient pace of today’s world—sends many of us looking for validation and lead us to prematurely declare pop cultural events as more significant than they actually are. The same dynamic played out in 2017 with the release of Wonder Woman and in 2016 with the remake of Ghostbusters.

So where does that leave Black Panther? For the moment it is a well-made and financially successful movie. And, just as impressively, it is a major studio film with intelligent political themes in which the artistic voice of its makers was not steamrolled by the corporate filmmaking process. And the movie is a high profile success for the cast and crew of color. That is more than enough to celebrate. Whether Black Panther is more than that depends on whether or not other filmmakers and studios follow its lead. And whether Hollywood does that will depend, at least in part, on whether or not audiences continue to show up at the theater.