Resounding success of ‘Black Panther’ franchise says little about the dubious state of Black film

Resounding success of ‘Black Panther’ franchise says little about the dubious state of Black film

‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ is one of only three Black films since 2018 to have a production budget exceeding $100 million. Christian Thompson/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images
Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, Wake Forest University

When Marvel Studios released “Black Panther” in February 2018, it marked the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film to feature a Black superhero and star a predominantly Black cast.

Its estimated production budget was US$200 million, making it the first Black film – conventionally defined as a film that is directed by a Black director, features a Black cast, and focuses on some aspect of the Black experience – ever to receive that level of financial support.

As a scholar of media and Black popular culture, I was often asked to respond to the resounding success of that first “Black Panther” film, which had shattered expectations of its box office performance.

Would it lead to more big-budget Black films? Was its popularity an indication that the global marketplace – the real source of trepidation about the film’s potential – was finally ready to embrace Black-cast films?

With the release of the massively successfulBlack Panther: Wakanda Forever” in November 2022, I expect those questions to reemerge.

Yet as I review the cinematic landscape between the original and its sequel, I am inclined to restate the answer I gave back in 2018: Assumptions should not be made about the state of Black film based on the success of the “Black Panther” franchise.

Reason for optimism

Prior to its release, the producers of “Black Panther” faced questions about whether there was a market for a Black blockbuster film, even one ensconced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

After all, since the Wesley Snipes-led “Blade” trilogy, which came out in the late-1990s and early 2000s, Black superhero films had experienced diminishing returns. There was one notable exception: the commercially successful, though heavily panned “Hancock” (2008), starring Will Smith.

Man with red sunglasses pumps his first in front of a movie poster.
Wesley Snipes attends the premiere of ‘Blade 2’ in March 2002. Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Otherwise, Black superhero films such as “Catwoman” (2004) and “Sleight” (2016) either flopped or had a limited release.

Furthermore, until “Black Panther,” no Black film exceeded a $100 million budget, the average benchmark for modern Hollywood blockbusters.

Nonetheless, despite these early concerns, “Black Panther” earned the highest domestic gross, $700 million, of all films released in 2018, while earning $1.3 billion in worldwide gross, second only to “Avengers: Infinity War.”

“Black Panther” emerged at the tail end of what many industry experts considered to be a surprisingly successful run of Black films, which included the biopic “Hidden Figures” (2016) and the raunchy comedy “Girls Trip” (2017). Despite their modest budgets, they earned over $100 million apiece at the box office – $235 million and $140 million, respectively.

However, both films were mostly reliant on the domestic box office, especially the R-rated “Girls Trip,” which was only released in a handful of foreign markets. Conventional wisdom has long held that Black films will fail abroad. International distributors and studios typically ignore them during the presale process or at film festivals and markets, reasoning that Black films are too culturally specific – not only in terms of their Blackness, but also their Americanness.

Films like “Black Panther” and the Oscar winning “Moonlight” (2016), which earned more on the international market than the domestic market, certainly challenged those assumptions. It has yet to upend them.

Black films after ‘Black Panther’

What do those Black films released in theaters in the nearly five years between “Black Panther” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” tell us about the former’s impact?

The simple answer is that the original “Black Panther” has had no discernible influence on industry practices whatsoever.

Since 2018, no other Black blockbuster has emerged, save for the sequel itself. Granted, Black filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s remake of “A Wrinkle in Time” (2018) reportedly cost an estimated $100 million; however, while Black actors portrayed the protagonist and a few other characters, the film features a multicultural ensemble cast – which, as scholars such as Mary Beltran have pointed out, has become the primary strategy for achieving diversity in film.

Even if one were to include “A Wrinkle in Time,” the grand total of Black films with budgets exceeding $100 million is three, with the two “Black Panther” films being the others – all during an era in which there have been hundreds of mainstream films with budgets exceeding $100 million.

Otherwise, most of the Black films released in theaters between 2018 and 2022 typically were low budget by Hollywood standards – $3 million to $20 million in most cases – with only a handful, such as the 2021 Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” costing $50 million to 60 million.

Perhaps the most notable change has been the medium. Many Black films now appear on either cable networks that cater to a Black audience – namely Black Entertainment Television and, more recently, Lifetime – or on streaming services such as Netflix. Tyler Perry, the most popular and prolific Black filmmaker of the modern era, has released his latest films – “A Jazzman’s Blues” (2022), “A Madea Homecoming” (2022) and “A Fall from Grace” (2020) – directly to Netflix.

Furthermore, no other Black film has approached the financial success of “Black Panther.” Granted, several Black films have fared well at the box office, especially relative to their production costs. Foremost among them is Jordan Peele’s “Us” (2019), which cost an estimated $20 million, yet earned approximately $256 million worldwide despite its R rating and the fact that it was never released in China.

Whither Black film

Without question, large budgets and commercial success are not the only measures of a film’s value and significance.

As has historically been the case, Black film has managed to do more with less. The critical acclaim afforded to films such as “BlackKlansman” (2018), “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2019) and “King Richard” (2021) reflect this fact. All reflect trends in contemporary Black filmmaking – comedies, historical dramas and biopics abound, for instance – and were made for a fraction of the cost of both “Black Panther” films.

In truth, the zeal with which some cast “Black Panther” as a bellwether for Black films is part of continued haranguing over their viability, particularly after the #OscarsSoWhite movement that drew attention to the lack of diversity at the 2016 Academy Awards.

However, its positioning as a Disney property within Marvel’s transmedia storytelling effort makes it so atypical that its success — and that of its sequel — portends little about Black film.The Conversation

Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, Assistant Professor, Media Studies, Wake Forest University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Aspire for More: An Interview with Angela Cannon

Aspire for More: An Interview with Angela Cannon

Angela Cannon was on the edge of the transition to streaming content as she led the efforts by the UP Entertainment to grow its streaming channel UP Faith & Family. But she has often found herself at the forefront of industry shifts. She is now taking over management of AspireTV and is SVP of Multicultural Networks and Strategy for UP Entertainment.

UrbanFaith sat down with Angela to discuss her career journey, the importance of mentoring, and how she finds herself as a trailblazer.

DEVOTION: Why You Should See This Movie

DEVOTION: Why You Should See This Movie

It is not often that I go to the movie theater and feel like a movie left my speechless but that is exactly how I felt about Devotion. It is based on a true story and has been the culmination of decades of work by the family and friends of Jesse Brown, a true American hero. There was a national conversation a few years ago about the “Hidden Figures” of American history. As African Americans unfortunately much of our history has gone untold, and some of it has been erased by racism, fear, and cultural amnesia. The story of Jesse Brown, one of the first black Naval Aviators to serve in an integrated unit, is a piece of history that must be remembered. It is an honor to Jesse’s daughter and grandchildren who are still alive that their grandfather’s story can finally be told. We are rooting for everybody black, and as we learn his story we help to remember more of our own history.

Jesse served during the Korean War, a war that is not often highlighted on the big screen. It is called America’s forgotten war because it was not the heroic story of good triumphing over evil from World War II and it is overshadowed by Vietnam during the Cold War in its tragedy and impact on American consciousness. But it was the first war where young Americans who were inspired by WWII joined the ranks of the military in order to fight for their country and were not drafted. Jesse Brown was like many African Americans in his era in that he was motivated not simply by patriotism, but an opportunity to help his family advance in a rapidly changing society. He saw himself not as an incredible black man, but as an incredible man. His wife and daughter were the center of his world and his purpose was to fly with the best pilots in the nation.

As we watch the impeccable talent of Jonathan Majors bring Jesse Brown to life we cannot help but to see his devotion. He was a man of faith, a man of family, and a man of fortitude. He demanded respect but rarely opened himself to trust people outside of his home. A lifetime of facing overt and structural racism had taught him to test before he trusted. A new and accomplished member of his unit Tom Hudner played by Glen Powell attempts to build a friendship across the cultural divide.

There is a special bond between team members that go through battles together, and it builds a devotion to one another and to the cause they fight for. This movie explores the depths of that passion in a profound way. But the reason why you should really see this movie is because the story of Jesse Brown needs to be told. We hear about how African Americans have to work twice as had to get half as far, Jesse Brown lived it in our military. We remember stories of American heroism trying to serve our country and protect their fellow soldiers. We rarely hear about black men in those positions. There have been countless successful war movies. This one is for our community with all of the nuance and authenticity that is true to our struggle to be part of the military let alone thrive in it. How can we honor the people in uniform for a country that has long neglected the rights and humanity of black people? Hundreds of our ancestors wore those uniforms and the story of the American struggle for freedom has been the story of the African American struggle for freedom since America’s first war. All Americans need to hear that story and be reminded of the struggle and the triumphs. We need to tell Jesse Brown’s story the same way we tell the stories of Pearl Harbor, Letters from Iwo Jima, Dunkirk, and all of the other films that share tragedies and triumphs of our veterans.

I left the theater in tears. I was moved. I could not believe I had never heard about Jesse Brown’s story, and had rarely heard about the Korean War in all of the history classes I had taken. I feel myself particularly acquainted with African American history having attended the illustrious Howard University and taken several African American history courses. I could not shake the sadness, frustration, and inspiration I felt because I had never heard the name Jesse Brown as one of the “First Black” in the long list of first blacks. We have to know and share our history. We have to share our devotion to our heritage. You have to see this movie, so that this piece of history, our history, is never forgotten again.

Never Would Have Made It: An Interview with Bishop Marvin Sapp

Never Would Have Made It: An Interview with Bishop Marvin Sapp

Bishop Marvin Sapp is a pastor, musician, author, artist and now filmmaker. He’s working on learning how to cook. He has over a dozen Grammy nominations, Stellar Awards, BET Awards and more as a Gospel Artist. He is the co-founder and pastor of two churches in Grand Rapids, MI and Fort Worth, TX. He is the Bishop serving over 100 congregations. He is a gifted preacher, speaker and leader. He most recently released a film with TVOne telling his testimony and was an executive producer and star of the film. To put it lightly, Marvin Sapp is a busy man of God. But it is his love for people, his incredible testimonies, and his heartfelt authenticity that have helped him be a vessel for the Holy Spirit for decades. UrbanFaith sat down with this legendary Gospel artist and minister and talked about everything from film to football and ministry to mental health. The full interview is above, more about Bishop Sapp is below.

Bishop Marvin L. Sapp is a passionate orator and biblical teacher, who desires to be a living epistle glorifying our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ both in word and in deed who is the Co-Founder of Lighthouse Full Life Center Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and the Senior Pastor of The Chosen Vessel Cathedral in Fort Worth, Texas as well as a Metropolitan Bishop that oversees more than 100 churches in the Central Deanery of Global United Fellowship.

Bishop Sapp is a multiplatinum selling artist who has enjoyed a decorated music career receiving 13 Grammy nominations, 24 Stellar Awards, 2 Soul Train Music Awards, 2 BET Awards, 4 Dove Awards, 8 BMI songwriter’s awards for sales, Black Music Honors Gospel Music Icon Award along with many other accolades and honors from national, regional, and local institutions.

 

 

Marriage Be Hard: Interview with @Kevonstage and @Mrskevonstage

Marriage Be Hard: Interview with @Kevonstage and @Mrskevonstage

Marriage is one of the most important institutions in the lives of believers. Unfortunately it is rarely spoken about beyond the headlines of culture wars in the news or as the excuse some believers hide real conversations about sex behind. A lot of believers have a hard time keeping it real about how hard it is to be married. Kevin and Melissa Fredericks, aka KevOnStage and MrsKevOnStage, rarely hold back on keeping it real in conversations.

With over a million followers on social media (which don’t happen for church folks), they are some of the most busy and influential believers on the internet. Their authenticity and creativity have helped them connect with the “churchy” and unchurched alike. But like all married folks they have had challenges in life and in marriage. Their new book Marriage Be Hard is a candid look at their marriage and the lessons they have learned along the way through reflection, therapy, The Love Hour podcast and real work. They hope to help couples everywhere to get past “just making it” in marriage to thriving through their insights.

UrbanFaith sat down with Kevin and Melissa to talk about their journey and their book. The full interview is above, more information on the book is below.

 

ABOUT MARRIAGE BE HARD

Discover the keys to upholding your vows while staying sane in this hilariously candid guide to relationships, from the husband-and-wife team of comedian Kevin Fredericks and influencer Melissa Fredericks

Growing up, Kevin and Melissa Fredericks were taught endless rules around dating, sex, and marriage, but not a lot about what actually makes a relationship work. When they first got married, they felt alone—like every other couple had perfect chemistry while the two of them struggled. There were conversations that they didn’t know they needed to have, fears that affected how they related to each other, and seasons of change that put their marriage to the test.

Part of their story reads like a Christian fairytale: high school sweethearts, married in college, never sowed any wild oats, with two sons and a thriving marriage. But there’s another side of their story: the night Melissa kicked Kevin out of her car after years of communication problems, the time early in their marriage when Kevin bordered on an emotional affair, the way they’ve used social media and podcasts to conduct a no-holds-barred conversation about forbidden topics like jealousy, divorce, and how to be Christian and sex positive. (Because, as Kevin writes, “Your hormones don’t care about your religious beliefs. Your hormones want you to subscribe to OnlyFans.”)

The Violin Conspiracy: An Interview with Brendan Slocumb

The Violin Conspiracy: An Interview with Brendan Slocumb

From music educator to best selling author Brendan Slocumb has an unexpected journey. But his action packed novel The Violin Conspiracy is a fictional story based on his true life journey. UrbanFaith sat down with Brendan to talk about his book, his faith story, and what stories he wants to tell next. The interview is above. Information on the book is below.

 

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Most classical musicians are white, wealthy, privileged. Not Ray: he’s Black and comes from a single-family household, with a self-centered mother who actively blocks Ray’s aspirations. Only his Grandma Nora seems to care about his love for music. She gives him her old family treasure – a beat-up fiddle that hasn’t been played in eighty years. Ray confronts rampant discrimination from an establishment that believes that Black people cannot emotionally understand the music of dead white Europeans: Blacks should stick to hip hop, Gershwin, and jazz. A college music scholarship, and a professor’s mentorship, nurture Ray’s extraordinary talent and unstoppable ambition.

Then Ray discovers that Grandma Nora’s ancient violin is actually a rare and unique instrument that can take his playing to an entirely new level. The resulting media frenzy catapulted him into a solo violinist’s career. His star rises, but with success comes heartbreak: two lawsuits threaten to rip the violin away from him. In the first, his family claims that the instrument is rightfully theirs; in the second, the slaveholder family of his ancestors declare that Ray’s great-grandfather stole the violin from them. The two claims intertwine. Desperate to keep the violin, Ray makes a bargain that will have far-reaching and devastating consequences.

And then someone – his family? The slaveholder family? The mafia? – steals the violin. Ray has a month to raise five million dollars to pay the ransom before the Tchaikovsky Competition – classical music’s version of the Olympics –  begins, and before the violin disappears forever.

In Moscow, under the glaring lights of musical stardom, Ray will not only compete, but will also discover what happened to the violin that means everything to him.