Black Panther: a billion dollar movie that says a lot about race and Hollywood

In a world where most film and cinema delivers atrocious messaging, Black Panther does something different, writes HA Hellyer

Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER..L to R: Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Matt Kennedy / Marvel Studios
Powered by automated translation

It took Marvel's critically acclaimed Black Panther movie just 26 days to cross the $1 billion box office mark worldwide and become the 33rd movie to ever gross that amount. It's certainly a milestone in cinema, but for reasons that have much to do with popular Western culture at a time when populism has never been stronger.

That populism isn't positive, rather it has been punctuated with underlying tinges of white supremacy. If that sounds stark, that is because it is. In the United States, the Trump presidency came about and is sustained by precisely that kind of bigoted phenomenon. In Europe, far-right populism has become mainstreamed. In high politics, that has led to the likes of Marine Le Pen coming second in France's presidential competition, and anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia making constant appearances in our popular culture. Just this past weekend, leaflets advertising "punish a Muslim" day were distributed across the UK. Many more such examples of this xenophobic and intolerant phenomenon are documented every day.

It is against that background that the success of Black Panther ought to be seen. It's not simply a film, in that regard. Instead, it raises pertinent questions around the portrayal of black Americans and Africans in film. Indeed, such portrayals have by and large been minimal, often negative, and have rarely placed people of colour in such prominent and positive roles.

There have been two sets of worthy analysis of the film – one positive, and one negative. The negative ought to be addressed, and placed into its appropriate context.

A common theme in that regard has been the critique of the black American protagonist, Killmonger. In the film, he is the sole black American. He is a villain, the son of Wakandan royalty, who is born to a black American mother in the United States and raised as such. He is a desperado. And yet it is he who notes some crucial elements of the black American experience and is someone who goes through oppression, as do so many black Americans in modern America. He is someone who raises the issue of slavery, which defines the historical reality and narrative of black Americans and descendants of African migrants beyond Africa – and their exploitation, which he seeks to redress. The rogue nature in which he tries to do that, however, using the full might of the mythical Wakandan kingdom, is what places Killmonger among the ranks of the wretched.

Many commentators questioned this and did so with disdain: why was it down to Killmonger to address these obviously scandalous treatments of Africans beyond Africa? Was this not an unfair characterisation of black Americans, so the argument goes?

It’s an argument worth noting – and the questions people ask about Killmonger are worth asking, but it does miss a crucial aspect of the film, which is that it wasn’t meant to address the black American experience per se. If it was, then  Ryan Coogler, the director, would have been well-placed to make a movie doing just that. Coogler is, after all, a black American from Oakland and the entire movie was led by black American talent. Rather, this was a movie about Africa and Africans, a mythical kingdom that is light years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of technology and progress. Demanding that the black American experience be centred in the portrayal of Africans en masse may be understandable for some black Americans, but it isn’t a crucial flaw of the film if it chooses to do otherwise.

And certainly, the international film-going audience seems to have expressed their approval. Here, we might consider how the film fared not only among black American audiences, where it did phenomenally well, but in Africa. And there, the reception was astounding. For the first time in my own memory, and probably that of most people, a film was produced to high quality that showcased Africans not as villains, but as heroes; as advanced, not as backwards; as symbols for higher accomplishments, not as struggling.

Is that mythical, rather than realistic, considering the history of colonisation in Africa and the less than fortunate state of post-colonial regimes on the continent? Well, yes, but it is a comic book movie. And the ultimate arbiter of how that was received is in the movie theatres up and down the continent, as well as among the vast majority of black American audiences. It is perhaps difficult for people who are not of African extraction to fully comprehend how incredibly empowering it is to see African faces in a Hollywood blockbuster in such overwhelmingly positive roles. For so long, they have been denied that – and if nothing else, this movie shows the possibilities for them to reach for. In a world where most film and cinema delivers atrocious messaging and poor narratives, is it not possible – indeed, laudable – to be positive about such an uplifting missive?