The release of Black Panther this week is notable for a number of reasons. Not only does it feature the first African-American lead in the Marvel cinematic universe – a franchise that has still made $13.5 billion USD at the global box office over the past 10 years while seemingly ignoring 13 percent of the United States population – but it also reveals a new set of rules for how drum up fan enthusiasm.
By all accounts, the film is poised to outpace Deadpool at the Presidents Day box office – when the wise cracking hero earned $152 million USD over four days and set a record for a February release back in 2016. While the box office success is certainly welcome news to Marvel executives, past superhero missteps like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad reveal that films can both me lucrative and poorly received by critics and audiences.
However, Black Panther was holding strong at 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes for several weeks before slipping slightly down to 98 percent as the premiere date approached.
Aside from actually making a good film, how else did Black Panther generate the most digital content engagement between November 21, 2016 to December 21, 2017 – outpacing Aquaman, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, and Venom?
And moreso, what does all that enthusiasm actually translate into?
Black History Month feels like a celebration
Black History Month is a period of time when the lives and messages of important figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X., Harriet Tubman, Mary Jackson, Jackie Robinson and others are remembered. But more often that not – like with the ill-received Ram truck Super Bowl ad that used a sermon from Dr. King – the messages are not only hollow, but also seem to only acknowledge past contributions in the African-American community.
The byproduct, then, is that the month often has an ominous and somber feeling instead of it being a celebration of new and exciting achievements in the African-American community.
“There was always a focus on the civil-rights movement and it was as if black history stopped once Dr. King died,” said Raquel Willis, a writer and racial-justice activist in Atlanta. “We rarely learned about anyone new from year to year, and we also didn’t get a context of different time periods. I would’ve loved to have delved into African history, the Harlem Renaissance, black life in the 1970s, and beyond.”
While Black Panther itself portrays fictionalized royalty in a fictional nation (Wakanda), it does feature a predominately black cast and crew – which allows for greater discussions and celebrations of African-Americans in the arts in general – and seems particularly apropos right now after Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald recently revealed their portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama.
If Black Panther does indeed become a tentpole franchise, the continued exploration of afrofuturism – presented on a grandiose scale during Black History Month – seems like the perfect instance where everyone can learn what happened in the past, what is occurring now, and how that contradiction could manifest itself in the future.
There are currently over 200 grassroots campaigns aimed at helping underprivileged kids go see Black Panther without having to pay out of pocket. Subsequently, prominent celebrities like Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis have respectively rented out theaters in Mississippi and Texas to ignite the imaginations of those who have never seen a superhero with the same color skin.
The goal is not only to provide a setting to watch the first African-American superhero lead a film in the Marvel cinematic universe, but also empower children of color to partipate in the arts and help change the fact that of the the 100 highest-grossing films of 2016, roughly a quarter lacked any black characters (stemming from a lack of representation amongst directors, actors and screenwriters).
The intentions of the various groups serve in stark contrast to a Facebook group, “Down with Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and its Fanboys,” who have attempted to alter Black Panther’s Rotten Tomatoes score because, “minorities…should stay that way.”
As TIME noted, “Black Panther is emblematic of the most productive responses to bigotry: rather than going for hearts and minds of racists, it celebrates what those who choose to prohibit equal representation and rights are ignoring, willfully or not.”
In an examination of the film in New York Times Magazine, writer, Carvell Wallace, recalls that the last instance he recalled of a similar community response for a film, was during Ryan Coogler’s debut film, Fruitvale Station, which told the harrowing story of the last few hours of Oscar Grant’s life.
“A group of us, friends and strangers alike and nearly all black, stood in the cool night under the marquee, crying and holding one another,” Wallace writes. “It didn’t matter that we didn’t know one another. We knew enough.”
But whereas the subject matter of Fruitvale Station was a bitter reminder of systematic racism and police brutality, Black Panther may be the first film where community tears are packed with happy emotions.
Red carpet cohesion
The red carpet is often an afterthought when it comes to film promotion. The race has already been ran, and those involved take a moment to pose for pictures wearing brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga, Tom Ford, and Givenchy.
However, Black Panther utilized their “purple” carpet to extend the motifs beyond just what was in the film. The result? A fusion of high-fashion – many in recognizable brands – like Armani, Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana with vibrant colors and patterns – which complimented more traditional African garments like Daniel Kaluuya in a Burberry blazer over a Ugandan kanzu.
GQ proclaimed, “Black Panther’s Lead Actors Just Won Red Carpet Season,” The New York Times said, “The Black Panther Red Carpet Put Every Other Hollywood Premiere to Shame,” and Harper’s Bazaar stated, “Everyone Looked Incredible At The Black Panther Red Carpet Premiere.”
For too long, award shows and red carpets have felt boring and safe. Had only one actor or attendee dressed in Wakanda-approved duds, they may have been chastised for the risk. But since there was so much cohesion, the impact of the gesture was felt by everyone.
The album is the new score
Black Panther is the rare example when a film turns over music responsibilities to a lone record label – in this case TDE – which boasts a roster that includes Kendrick Lamar, SZA, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay-Rock.
Whereas a director like Ryan Coogler may have in the past sought out luminaries in film scoring like John Williams, Hans Zimmer, or Thomas Newman – and does in fact have original music by composer,
Ludwig Göransson (best known for his work with Childish Gambino) – his decision for the soundtrack is something that other directors will surely copy.
TDE has built its reputation on releasing music that is socially consciousness, though provoking, and explorative of contemporary African-American culture. Thus, it seemed not only organic to broach a working relationship, but also one built on mutual respect.
“I’ve been a massive Kendrick fan ever since I first heard him, since his mixtapes, and I’ve been trying to track him down,” Coogler said. “Eventually I caught up with him a couple years ago — first with Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Tiffith, who runs his label, and then later on sat down with him and Kendrick and just spoke about much his music affected me. He talked about my movies that he had seen, and we said if the opportunity comes, we’d love to work with each other on something.”
Lamar was originally only supposed to provide a few songs. But after Coogler showed him sample footage, he knew he had to be the architect of the project.
Engage people in other passionate communities
The crossover between comics/movies and sneakers has been happening more frequently in recent years. In the past we got a Marvel Comics x Reebok Pump Omni Lite “Deadpool,” adidas basketball “Avengers: Age of Ultron” collection, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles X FILA FX-100, Marvel Comics x A Bathing Ape BAPESTA “The Incredible Hulk,” and Marvel Comics x New Balance 530 “Spider-Man.”
However with Black Panther, Marvel Comics has further utilized this strategy with three different projects; a PUMA x BAIT Clyde Sock “Black Panther,” a Clarks Original Tri Evo Panther, and two different New Balances from retailer, Jimmy Jazz (574 Sport and 990v4) – all of which amounts to a first-of-its-kind rollout with sneakers serving as a vital ploy in the promotion.
When collectively compiled, it’s clear that Black Panther is the perfect storm of long overdo representation for minorities on screen in superhero films, clever side projects which both tangibly and intangibly increase exposure, and fan response which has made it there highest-rated superhero movie ever.
For more entertainment news, read up on Ryan Murphy’s $300 million USD deal at Netflix.
- Featured/Main Image: Marvel