I don’t know how Hollywood arranges for some movies to be blockbusters and some mere crowd pleasers. The Black Panther is a phenomenon and a benchmark in the cultural history of black America. It has a lot to do with the advertising and promotion of the film, but also with fan enthusiasm. The fan enthusiasm, particularly the black fan enthusiasm, is what made Black Panther the commercial success and cultural event that it was. The fervor took me by surprise. I am to a large extent out of touch with popular culture. Or at least behind the times. Diggit. Before 2008 I had no Internet and before 2013 I had no cable TV. And I have not been in an actual movie theater this century. If the movie ain’t on cable I ain’t seen it. And I’m not talking about that up to date pay per view either. There are no movies being made today that I would pay to see. You know, except for basic cable. That means all the movies I’ve seen are old movies. I’m out of touch with popular culture. Behind the times. That is why the Black Panther phenomenon took me by surprise.
And it was a phenomenon, as explained by one of its stars, Angela Bassett, in the first five minutes of this interview.
For better or worse, it was a cultural event. Yes, it is good to see black characters take central stage in a major motion picture, but it’s not like it hasn’t been done before, as far back as Carmen Jones.
There are many ‘blackstream” movies (movies directed towards a black audience) by Tyler Perry, or some other African American director, with primarily black casts. And there are also major mainstream movies with black stars. In the action genre there is Will Smith, Idris Elba, Denzel Washington. The list goes on. One of the head honchos already in the Marvel movie universe (MMU) is a black man, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury. Granted, he has no super powers but he is a prominent black presence. Be that as it may and despite the membership of Storm in the popular X-Men series, there had as yet been no major superhero movie with a black star. Not since
Blade feels like a film from a different era, where a comic book’s properties were melded to fit the image of a popular actor, as opposed to today’s seemingly post-star Hollywood, where the source materials are slavishly revered and adapted. Blade was originally a supporting character from Marvel’s 1970s Dracula series, but seeing Wesley Snipes hunting vampires at the peak of his fame makes it hard to believe the character wasn’t created for him.
There have been few superhero movies with blacks in the starring role. The scarcity of such roles is part of what made the Black Panther movie so appealing to African Americans. It was a super hero the black community could identify with, this time given the full-blown no expense spared Hollywood treatment. The first black movie superhero of this era and the first in the burgeoning Marvel movie universe (aside from team members and sidekicks). This is part of what the excitement was all about.
I certainly didn’t get it at first. The Black Panther was not even a memory from my comic book collecting days as a kid. I was one of the original fans of Marvel Comics, but I must have missed this issue:
It came as a complete surprise to me that they were doing a movie about a minor character from the original Marvel universe (OMU). The first I heard about the advent of the Black Panther movie was here just before the February opening. What I discovered was that Marvel fans, especially African American fans, had been anticipating this movie for almost two years. The Black Panther character was part of a story arc that had been introduced in the 2016 film, Captain America: Civil War, though you wouldn’t know this from Wikipedia’s synopsis.
Political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability when the actions of the Avengers lead to collateral damage. The new status quo deeply divides members of the team. Captain America (Chris Evans) believes superheroes should remain free to defend humanity without government interference. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) sharply disagrees and supports oversight. As the debate escalates into an all-out feud, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) must pick a side.
And it is perhaps the mythical African story line that is its greatest attraction for a black audience: The desire to see a noble and idealized representation of the culture of the ancestors. No doubt such titillating intimations as teased in Civil War stirred the imagination of black Marvel fans, and attracted the Afrocentric audience as well. This event is going to have an impact on the black psyche, I think. A Western fantasy of Africa has been injected into the black American’s mind and into the collective consciousness. And though a black director finalized and maybe a black writer or two contributed, it’s basically a white man’s fantasy about Africa. It is therefore almost inevitable to find at the core of that fantasy something antithetical to black consciousness.