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'Black Panther' marks milestone in black culture's impact on Hollywood

African-Americans are treating “Black Panther” as both holiday and policy proposal, setting it up to affect Hollywood and culture beyond box office returns.
Image: Stars of Marvel Studios' Black Panther Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) with some of his border tribesman.
Stars of Marvel Studios' Black Panther Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) with some of his border tribesman.Film Frame / Marvel Studios

PITTSBURGH — When the Marvel superhero movie “Black Panther” opens this Friday, there will be an African drum ensemble greeting patrons as they enter the SouthSide Works Cinema theater and a post-screening Afro-futurism-themed party at the Ace Hotel. Around the country, it has sparked lectures and academic panel discussions sponsored by universities and churches, and even the AARP is getting in on the “Black Panther” action by scheduling screenings in major cities.

Far and wide, African-Americans are treating “Black Panther” as both holiday and policy proposal, setting it up to affect Hollywood and African-American culture in a way that goes beyond box-office returns.

This will be the first standalone movie for the Black Panther character in the Marvel cinematic universe, which includes “Iron Man,” “Thor,” “Spiderman” and dozens of other superheroes from the nearly 80-year-old comics powerhouse.

What’s different about “Black Panther” in one respect, however, is it will feature an almost entirely African-American cast of characters — including Lupita Nyong'o (“12 Years a Slave”), Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), Michael B. Jordan (“Creed”), Forest Whitaker (“Rogue One”), and Angela Bassett (“Chi-Raq”). It’s directed by Ryan Coogler, the young African-American director whose first two films, “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” won numerous awards from film associations and festivals across the globe.

That starpower helps explain why expectations are so high for "Black Panther" both as a movie and as a political statement.

“In the midst of a regressive cultural and political moment fueled in part by the white-nativist movement, the very existence of Black Panther feels like resistance,” Jamil Smith wrote in TIME magazine.

A petition on currently demands that Marvel and Disney contribute 25 percent of the movie’s profits to black communities to fund programs focused on science, technology, engineering and math, for instance.

“As black communities across the United States continue to grapple with issues such as gentrification, police brutality, and substandard living conditions, we cannot continue to recklessly support these conglomerates, allowing them to profit off of us without demanding something more than just their products in return,” the petition states. “Income inequality is real, and the continued decline of black wealth is something that need not only be addressed, but solved.”

This is not the first time that a black movie has been expected to serve the needs of black communities beyond its entertainment value. Nearly 50 years ago, civil rights groups, led by activists such as Jesse Jackson and Roy Innis, the director of the Congress of Racial Equality, were also demanding that the film industry contribute proceeds from its movies to black-owned banks and institutions, and threatened boycotts if it didn’t.

The impetus was somewhat different back then: Civil rights advocates filed these claims against Hollywood because they were upset with the quality of black films offered to the public. This was when the films “Shaft” (1971) and “Superfly” (1972), directed by Gordon Parks and his son Gordon Parks Jr., respectively, had just been released, both portraying arguably the first black “superheroes” to grace the silver screen.

“Shaft” is about a black detective, fancied as a black Derek Flint and Errol Flynn wrapped in one, who takes on the Italian mafia in Harlem. “Superfly” is about a drug dealer looking for one last, big cocaine offload so that he can ride off into retirement in a fancy Cadillac. Both movies were criticized for peddling stereotypes of black men as vice lords and sexual predators in an film era permeated by toxic masculinity, but these films broke ground in terms of black representation.

“Hollywood has been so unkind to us throughout history that until this era, when we went to the movies, when you saw a black character you started to cringe because you knew [he was going to die],” says Stanley Nelson, the African-American filmmaker who recently created a PBS documentary on The Black Panther Party and has an upcoming documentary on historically black colleges and universities.

With “Shaft” and “Superfly,” Nelson added, “You had a black hero [who] was going to win. Shaft was not going to get shot in the first reel. He was going to succeed, and we were not used to seeing that. So what Shaft did was made it so we didn’t have to cringe.”

“Shaft” brought in $12 million in its first year, while costing only a little over $1 million to create. “Superfly” was shot on a budget of less than $500,000, and pulled in $20 million at the box office in its first year.

These films boosted the film industry at the time when it was under financial duress, but they also signaled a bonafide market for black movies. They paved the way for Disney-backed “Black Panther” today, but this certainly was not an Afro-futurism that the civil rights activists of the ‘70s could have foreseen.

The December 1972 cover of Ebony asked “The New Films: Culture or Con Game?” The article scrutinized the new wave of black cinema, questioning whether many of these films even deserved to be classified as “black.” Virtually everyone quoted in the article leaned heavily towards calling them cons.

The critics’ perspectives could easily be summarized as: Martin Luther King didn’t die so that a pimp could snort coke off a black woman’s backside on screen.

There’s a question, though, of whether a Disney and Marvel-produced fantasy like “Black Panther” might overshadow the work of real-life black activists, such as the Black Panthers of the 1970s.

“I don’t think so,” said Nelson. “If the movie was really bad, or was some Uncle-Tom movie with black people cooning in it, that could be a problem, but from what I’ve heard that’s not what this is.”

“Black Panther” does have much in common with its 1970s forebears.

It taps into the radical-chic aesthetic of this generation’s Black Lives Matter and Afropunk movements, just as “Shaft” reflected the militancy of black power activists of its day. And while “Superfly” projects a somewhat testy relationship with these activists, its protagonist Priest still adopts their me-versus-The-Man attitude. “Shaft” and “Superfly” boasted scores from two political musical artists, Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, just as “Black Panther” features a soundtrack by the political rapper Kendrick Lamar.

The films of the ‘70s were accused of exploiting black culture — hence the labeling of this genre as Blaxploitation — prompting the question of whether “Black Panther” can be accused of doing the same.

In fact, some critics have questioned whether Disney and Marvel have been manipulating the confidence of African-Americans and appropriating the Black Lives Matter zeitgeist for their own financial reward.

NPR’s Codeswitch reporter Gene Demby agonized about this on Twitter.

Black Panther is already breaking box office records even before it has been released, which suggests that there is excitement for this film beyond just black audiences. But there are other reasons to believe that this isn’t just the ushering in of another era of Blaxploitation cinema.

For one, unlike the often-amateur cinematic offerings of the ‘70s, today’s class of black filmmakers are viewed and respected as true craftswomen, auteurs, and artists. Black directors such as Coogler and Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman have received critical acclaim for their work over the past few years.

And beyond “Black Panther,” there are African-Americans who are increasingly being recognized as geniuses behind the lens, as seen with the cinematographer Bradford Young (“Arrival,” “A Most Violent Year”) who’s commanding a whole new clinic on lighting and capturing dark skin on camera.

While these opportunities were made possible in large part because of their extraordinary skills, their success has also hinged in part on a prominent outcry from the black public, as when African-Americans became disgusted and threatened by motion pictures such as the 1919 film “Birth of a Nation,” and when they protested the degrading images of black women in “Gone With the Wind.”

In that regard, African-Americans today may appear to be stretching to almost comical extremes by hosting drum circles and teach-ins in support of “Black Panther” — as if their lives depend on the film being taken seriously — but the reality is that historically Hollywood has depended, in one way or another, on their lives for profits.