After 'Black Panther,' Will Hollywood Finally Admit That Black Films Can Travel?
As of Tuesday, Marvel’s “Black Panther” has made $476.6 million domestically in just two weeks ― and it pulled in the second biggest 10-day total for a theatrical release, behind only “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
It has broken many other records, too: the highest-rated superhero film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes, the biggest opening for a black director ever, and the highest-grossing first week for a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie.
Having now earned over $704 million worldwide, box-office experts predict it is “inevitable” that the film will surpass the billion-dollar mark in a few days.
Directed by Ryan Coogler and starring an almost entirely black cast, the movie has made headlines not only for its huge numbers and critical acclaim, but also for dispelling the myth that movies with black leads don’t have box-office pull with audiences of all backgrounds.
Indeed, it seems like every few years a film starring a predominantly black cast or directed by a black filmmaker smashes records. The story always becomes how improbable the success is, and how, perhaps, the movie in question will finally break down barriers and assumptions about the potential of black movies in Hollywood.
Of course, the scale of the success of “Black Panther” must be celebrated, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. In the past few years alone, movies starring and/or directed by black people have gone on to both critical acclaim and commercial success. “Hidden Figures,” starring Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe, was Fox’s second biggest domestic release in 2016 after “Deadpool” and made $207.7 million worldwide.
The indie “Moonlight,” last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, made $413,175 in just four theaters on its opening weekend. With “Get Out,” Jordan Peele made the highest-grossing debut for a writer-director based on an original screenplay, ever. And “Girls Trip” became the first film written, produced, directed by and starring black people to hit the $100 million mark at the box office.
This is all to say: The story that “Black Panther” marks some kind of Hollywood turning point is a non-story. One thing that can be said is that “Black Panther” does add to the conversation surrounding the international appeal of films with black stars. Just as Hollywood has propagated the myth that black movies don’t sell domestically, there’s a similar myth that they don’t sell in foreign markets, particularly in Asian countries like South Korea and China, which have fast become key to the global success of blockbuster movies.
There are those who theorize it’s impossible to promote so-called black films in Asian markets because they are, apparently, too “racist” to accept anything other than a white lead. This doesn’t jive with the fact that films with diverse leads have done incredibly well in China ― “The Fate of the Furious,” with its wildly diverse cast, became China’s second-highest-grossing film in 2017.
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It still remains to be seen how “Black Panther” will do in the all-important Asian market of China. (It comes out there on March 9.) It has exceeded expectations elsewhere, making $41.2 million in the U.K. and $36 million in South Korea. With $2.5 million in Vietnam, the film had the fifth biggest opening weekend in industry history in that country, according to Variety.
So, then, is Hollywood finally ready to move past a very familiar narrative?
Miriam Bale, a film critic and senior programmer for the Indie Memphis Film Festival, thinks it probably isn’t, which makes the conversation around black films and the box office “frustrating.”
“The industry says: ‘Black films don’t perform well overseas,’ when that’s clearly not the case. Just as these dinosaur aspects of the industry make films for men, when women are buying tickets,” she told HuffPost.
“It’s too early to say, as far as numbers, but I think ‘Black Panther’s’ international success is going to be record-breaking and so harder to ignore,” Bale added. “And I think one reason for that success is how truly international that release was: premiering on so many continents at the same moment. The slow rollout doesn’t make as much sense anymore when word-of-mouth is international and 24-7.”
Indeed, the problem with the “black films don’t travel” myth is that it operates under the false assumption that black people do not exist in the rest of the world. Asian markets are huge, yes, but “Black Panther” was as much bolstered by numbers in South Korea and Vietnam as it was in countries with large populations of black people, like South Africa, Nigeria and Brazil, where it has even inspired black Brazilians to protest white elitism.
“Black Panther” proves that Hollywood must shift its ideas about what international success truly means. If representation is important to black people in the States, it is just as important (if not moreso) to those in countries abroad that have even less diversity in the media landscape. For example, Germany, where “Black Panther” is currently No. 1.
So the question isn’t whether the success of “Black Panther” will change the way Hollywood views and markets films with predominantly black casts. The question is: When will we stop asking this altogether? When will Hollywood support black-led films without caveats or concessions? Will “Black Panther” truly be the turning point we need?
Paul Dergarabedian, a media analyst at ComScore, believes that “great movies can travel anywhere in the world” and that “Black Panther” stands as “a lesson to anyone who believes a film may be limited in its appeal around the world due to the cultural background of its cast or specific point of view.”
This is an optimistic outlook. But whether it’s true remains to be seen.
Next month, Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle In Time” will debut in theaters, as will the sequel to “Pacific Rim,” starring John Boyega. There’s little doubt that they will do well at the box office at home, and abroad. But the true question is ― will their success at home and worldwide come as a surprise as well?