Black Panther is the rare film that doesn’t just live up to the hype. It exceeds it.
The first-screening social media takes were breathless. The ensuing reviews were glowing to the point they may have blinded you. Pre-sale numbers hinted at a ravenous appetite for the film, and box office soothsayers predicted that the final tallies, when all was said and done after President’s Day weekend, could be historic.
They were—and then some. Which is just how so many people who packed theaters across the globe over the weekend felt about Black Panther: It was all that we had hoped, but more than we could have dreamt.
Black Panther sent a $242 million message to Hollywood this past weekend. The question now is whether it will listen.
The latest Marvel film wasn’t just the first to center around the story of a black superhero, it featured an almost entirely black cast. Chadwick Boseman plays the titular character, called T’Challa out of his bionic spandex, the king of the East African nation of Wakanda. Orbiting around him are characters played by Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, and Winston Duke.
That this cast and this film is this historic reflects the intrinsic fallacy of the industry: that films starring black actors and telling black stories don’t sell.
But what’s even more significant is that Black Panther didn’t just put a black actor in a superhero suit, it, with the guidance of director Ryan Coogler, soaked the film in blackness, in African culture, in that authentic wardrobe and culture and spirit. In response, audiences didn’t’ just turn out. The film became an event.
The receipts were staggering. With a four-day holiday weekend tally estimated at $242 million, Black Panther was the second-best opening in that frame ever, behind only Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Its global haul of $404 million is monstrous in its own right.
It was the fifth-best opening of all time. It was the biggest opening ever for a black director, the first superhero film to feature a nearly all-black cast, and, perhaps in response to its ensemble of female ass-kickers (has any blockbuster ever crushed the Bechdel test this hard?), boasted ticket sales that were 45 percent women. Typically, that number is in the 35 percent range for superhero movies.
That idea that superhero films need to pander to fanboys to be a hit? Ha.
Oh, and by the way, it was really good. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 97 percent fresh and a Kevin Fallon post-screening astonished whisper of, “Wow…” it is the best-reviewed superhero movie ever. As always happens after a critical and commercial hit like this, pundits are all having the big O—“Oscar!”—and for once it doesn’t seem like ludicrous, premature hyberbole.
Those lingering assumptions that black casts can’t open films, that black films don’t play globally, that mass audiences won’t respond to a culturally specific story? Black Panther just hurled a grenade at all of them.
It’s both beautiful and frustrating to witness the fawning over the uniqueness of this phenomenon. It’s beautiful because it’s so deserved. It’s frustrating because each time we paint a success like this as unique, we are perpetuating that myth.
In fact, recent history has proven that this success shouldn’t be considered surprising at all. Yet we’ll continue to treat it as such.
Let’s take a brief walk through box office history.
As Wired editor Peter Rubin pointed out on Twitter, Straight Outta Compton had a $60 million opening weekend on its way to a $161 million domestic total. Get Out earned $176 million. Just last summer, Girls Trip earned $115 million—an R-rated comedy starring four black women, with that kind of haul.
But it’s not just those films. Hidden Figures made $170 million domestically last year, ending up the highest-grossing of all the 2017 Best Picture nominees. Creed, which was also directed by Ryan Coogler, took in $109 million stateside on just a $35 million budget. The Butler, Selma, Think Like a Man Too, Best Man Holiday: they were all box office and critical smashes.
It’s when you really look at what these films were that the message is driven home. You have a biopic, a horror film, a raunchy comedy, a family-friendly historical drama, a boxing movie, race dramas, and rom-coms. These movies cross all genres, all demographics, and all genders. Diversity so clearly sells. Yet because of Hollywood’s institutionalized myopia and racial biases, we’re still astonished each time it does, and wonder if things will change when it comes to seeing the value of race—in other words, of humanity—in Hollywood.
The remarkable thing about Black Panther is that this was not a movie about black oppression, e.g. a slave movie. It features a black cast and all the big-budget production value of any other Marvel popcorn flick, without sacrificing the specificity of that black story in exchange for those expensive costumes and special effects. The message is that Hollywood responds to quality, especially when that quality reflects back a world that we know, but rarely see on screen.
Michelle Obama said as much on Twitter this weekend: “Congrats to the entire Black Panther team! Because of you, young people will finally see superheroes that look like them on the big screen. I loved this movie and I know it will inspire people of all backgrounds to dig deep and find the courage to be heroes of their own stories.”
How many major box office bombs featuring formulaic storytelling and whitewashed casts do we forgive as a casualty of the industry’s risk-taking, all the while refusing to read the receipts when it comes to the bankability of diversity in film? Black film successes are ignored at the same rate that white film failures are.
Will that change going forward after Black Panther?
Fans are clamoring for sequels and spinoffs, and Marvel would be insane not to consider them. (According to Vulture, a spinoff centered on the film’s prodigious female ensemble is already enticing the suits at Marvel HQ.) But what about outside of the spandex?
Disney is releasing A Wrinkle in Time next month, which promises to be another major hit for an African American director (this time Ava Duvernay, who happened to edit her film in the office next to Coogler’s while he was prepping Black Panther). Steve McQueen’s Widows, starring Viola Davis and Cythia Erivo, comes this fall. Next summer will see the remake of The Lion King from Disney. We foresee huge numbers for all three, while at the same time recognize that three is a paltry number to be able to point to.
At the end of March, one of Hollywood’s most reliably bankable black directors will release a psychological thriller called Acrimony, starring Taraji P. Henson. While we can’t speak to the quality of the movie—it hasn’t screened yet—it will be a fascinating test case at this post-Black Panther crossroads in the industry.
Henson recently opened the film Proud Mary, a movie that was hardly good, but saw its commercial potential torpedoed by a studio that ultimately decided to bury it, skimp on promotion, and deny it the support that could have elevated it to an action-movie success, one that put up the kind of box office number that social media buzz suggested it could attain.
“[Studios] never expect [black films] to do well overseas,” Henson said while promoting Proud Mary. “Meanwhile, you go overseas and what do you see? People trying to look like African Americans with Afros and dressing in hip-hop fashions. To say that black culture doesn’t sell well overseas, that’s a lie. Somebody just doesn’t want to do their job and promote the film overseas. Do you not have people streaming my Christmas specials in Australia? Come on, y’all! I don’t understand the thinking. Send me over there, and if it fails, then we don’t do it again, but why not try? If I knew this movie was gonna make money domestically, I would try to get more money overseas. It’s business!”
It’s business, and for so long Hollywood has been bafflingly bad at it. Maybe it took a superhero to finally make the lesson hit home.