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?
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.
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.
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.
King Richard is a film honoring the legacy of Richard Williams, father of Tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams which is in theaters everywhere and on HBO Max this Friday, November 19.
The film tells the story of Richard and the Williams family’s remarkable journey from the rough environment of Compton, CA to the fame and fortune of professional tennis stardom. KingRichard is the Williams family’s tremendous story of faith, perseverance, and triumph that is truly inspiring. The cast was phenomenal and I left the theater wanting to put into action the value for planning, humility, and passion that the family exemplified.
UrbanFaith sat down with Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton who play Venus and Serena to discuss the experience of bringing the lives of these legends to the big screen alongside Will Smith.
HE STILL GOT GAME?: Spike Lee’s new film, ‘Red Hook Summer,’ which explores religion and urban life in a Brooklyn neighborhood, is his first movie to be released during Barack Obama’s presidency. (Photo: David Lee/Newscom)
Director Spike Lee had not released a film during the Obama presidency until this week’s release of Red Hook Summer, just a couple months before the next presidential election.
Remember Spike Lee? This was the man who helmed groundbreaking, commercially successful films on race like Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and Do the Right Thing. When he arrived on the scene with 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, he was hailed as a brave new voice in American filmmaking and the chronicler of the late 20th century black experience. As time has gone by, his films have become less urgent and far less racial. His only hit in this century was 2006’s Inside Man, a heist movie that happened to star Denzel Washington but was in no way a serious work on race. And in the last four years — since Obama has been president — he has not released a movie, period.
During his presidential campaign, Obama positioned himself as the first post-racial candidate. He made us believe that by voting for him we would usher in a new era in which labels like “black” and “white” would grow increasingly irrelevant. He was, of course, uniquely positioned to make this argument, given his background; the effect of his personal story and his rhetoric on this topic was intoxicating. He made affluent whites feel that by simply voting for him they were accomplishing more for black people than we had as a nation since the Civil Rights Act. With their vote, they would cleanse America of its original sin.
But despite that unspoken promise, many Americans remain in a state of de facto segregation. Most whites don’t know the black experience, and what they do know, they learn from the media. Electing a black president has not changed that. In some ways, it has made things worse, since the issue of race is barely discussed in public forums. When black issues are discussed, it is usually in a historically comparative sense. The civil rights era is used today as a point of comparison to discuss immigration issues or the rights of the LGBT community.
Despite the lack of conversation on the subject, there is no doubt that Obama’s election changed the way we look at and talk about race in America. Obama himself said it best in his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention:
[T]here’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.
In retrospect, that moment was the beginning of Obama’s ascendance to the presidency. It was also the first time he explicitly defined himself as a post-racial candidate. And lastly, it was the end of director Spike Lee’s career. For if there is no black America, what happens to the filmmaker whose job it has been to chronicle it?
The Mainstreaming of Racial Transcendence
Lee’s first true masterpiece was 1989’s Do the Right Thing, a drama that took place over the course of one sweltering summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood. In a key scene, our black protagonist, Mookie, argues with a white colleague, Pino, about race. Mookie questions how Pino can admire some African Americans — like Prince, Eddie Murphy, and Magic Johnson — but disdain those that live in his community. Listen to his response:
The 1980s, when Prince, Eddie, and Magic reigned supreme, was the era in which the idea of racial transcendence was mainstreamed. And they were not alone. In that decade, black stars Michael Jordan and Bill Cosby were welcomed into the homes of middle-class, white Americans on a regular basis. Cosby eschewed serious discussion of race on his hit television show for fear of losing his audience. The problems that the Huxtables faced were those common in upper-middle class American families. Never did the show discuss poverty, HIV/AIDS, or serious drug use, each of them an epidemic in 1980s black America.
Jordan, the NBA icon, similarly protected his brand by staying mum on racial politics. When asked why he did not weigh in on a close Senate race in his home state of North Carolina that involved former KKK-member Jesse Helms, he responded, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
The generation that grew up on The Cosby Show and Michael Jordan is the same one that elevated Barack Obama to the White House, and there is much evidence to suggest that they were subconsciously linked in the minds of voters. Obama, like Jordan, made his name in Chicago and exhibited in his campaign the same calm under pressure that made Jordan the best to play the game of basketball. Of course Obama, a big sports fan, never hesitated to bring up his fandom of the Bulls. As for the Cosby connection, many newspapers wrote, when describing Obama’s high polling numbers with white, suburban voters, of the “Huxtable effect.”
Even his future running mate, Joe Biden, said of Obama that he was the first African American candidate who was “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” In other words, he was not what Joe Biden usually thought of when he thought of “black.” The fact that Biden’s remark did not prevent him from becoming Obama’s vice-president should be evidence enough that Obama is more concerned with appealing to white than black audiences.
Ultimately, there is no industry that has been more eager to accept the notion of racial transcendence than Hollywood; it’s an idea that is useful to filmmakers who are increasingly pressured to make films with crossover demographic appeal. But this quest for widespread popularity has a dark side.
Lord, Help Our Blind Sides
The films of Obama’s first term portray racial disharmony in an antiquated, conclusory fashion, making everyone feel good about race without asking audiences to lift a finger or even have an uncomfortable thought. Two such films, The Blind Side and The Help, were not only massive box-office hits but also were nominated for Best Picture by the mostly white Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Blind Side and The Help connect to white Americans because they reflect the feeling Obama created during the campaign — that America had done something important to help African Americans. Exposed in these films to the problems of black America, audiences leave the theater feeling that the drama in the film has been resolved — in each case by a white, affluent character.
In The Help, that character is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young, ambitious Southern woman who breaks convention by writing a book that compiles the horrible, sometimes hilarious stories of local black housekeepers. Skeeter is, for all intents and purposes, a modern woman and seems completely out of place in early 1960s Mississippi. She wants to work, not marry. She despises any form of prejudice, which is odd because most of her friends are unbashed racists. Skeeter is an accessible and sympathetic entry point into the story for a modern, white audience, but the implication in her characterization is troubling. She helps an entire community of oppressed African Americans housekeepers by giving them a voice. She is, in a small way, freeing them. The implication is that the politics of today — represented in this modern woman — have rectified the politics of the past, and in this way, “The Help” asks us to believe that race is no longer an issue in America, as long as there are millions of young Skeeters out there.
It is a similar story in The Blind Side, which was based on true events. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, a strong, willful Southern housewife who takes Michael Oher, a poor black young man, into her home and teaches him to assimilate into white society, represented by a large football program at a southern state university.
We share Leigh’s sadness when we hear of Michael’s poor upbringing. But we are also asked to be thrilled when she takes the “street” out of him. A pivotal moment comes when he tells her that he hates being called “Big Mike,” the nickname he has been saddled with since childhood. He prefers being called “Michael.” In this moment, he transcends his previous existence in a poor, African American community. It is almost as if he is casting off his slave name.
In both films, the central African American characters are rescued from the bonds of the black experience, yet there is little care taken to relay what happens to them afterwards. The real Michael went on to play in the NFL, a profession in which ex-players are increasingly suffering from mental illness and suicide — due to the high number of concussions they suffer during their career. Given the opportunities afforded to him by living with Leigh Anne and her rich husband, perhaps a career as a modern-day gladiator was not the finest choice, but it is in reality the best choice for some who grow up in inner cities without education.
In the final scene of The Help, Aibeleen, the middle-aged housekeeper whose story we have been following, is fired by her boss. As she walks away from her home, she tells us that she feels free for the first time and that she never took a similar job again. But she never shares with us how she earned a living. It is as if not working for an oppressive white boss is enough; but what will she do with her newfound freedom? What other jobs exist for a middle-aged black woman with no education or experience? These are the questions that are not asked in a post-racial film, and they are questions that have not been asked enough by our current post-racial president.
Blacks continue to suffer from the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, obesity, death from cancer, and infant mortality. But Obama has done little to improve federal nutrition programs. He has stood idly by while Republicans cut food stamp benefits. He has extended the Bush tax cuts that favor the wealthy and refused to tackle a tax reform plan that does not continue to burden the poor. He has been nearly invisible on education. And he has been worse than that on “the War on Drugs.”
Of course most of these are not racial issues, per se. They are class and economic issues. And this is the problem with a post-racial president. Because of how he framed his candidacy, Obama allowed middle and upper-class whites to bump the issue of racism far down their list of urgent American problems and, in doing so, gave them the liberty to ignore the class issues that so disproportionately affect minorities.
Where Art Thou, Spike?
And so with the black experience so far from our minds these days, the skills of Spike Lee have just not been called for. In fairness, his problems getting funding for his films have not solely been the result of a post-racial environment. His most recent feature films about the black experience (She Hate Me and Bamboozled) have been wildly uneven and even more controversial than normal.
So instead, Lee took his talents to cable. In 2008, the year Obama was elected, Lee produced and directed When the Levees Broke, a powerful and urgent two-part documentary on Hurricane Katrina that focused specifically on how the disaster affected poor, black communities in New Orleans. It was an important film that exposed suffering that had been glossed over by the mainstream media. But he had to make it at HBO, which is not beholden to ratings or ticket sales, and it’s doubtful that a major studio would ever have sponsored such a project or that most of American has even heard of it.
That brings us to Lee’s latest film, Red Hook Summer, in which he reprises his role of Mookie from Do the Right Thing. But interestingly, the film is not about race. Its subject is religion, which may have replaced race as the divisive American institution of the day. Even Red Hook Summer has obtained only a miniscule distribution. You will have to live in a major urban area to see it.
And so Lee appears to be a casualty of post-racialism, albeit one that no one will cry any tears for. He has made his millions. But as a reflection of white perception of the black experience, his disappearance is a real loss. We have lost a powerful voice for the poor and a filmmaker who made visible that which society tries to hide. He could have been Obama’s counterpoint from the left, someone who pushed him away from his comfortable spot in the center. Instead, next year Lee is remaking Oldboy, a hyper-violent Japanese thriller. If it does well enough, maybe someone will give him a chance to make a serious movie again. In the meantime, we will wait patiently and simply hope that our original sin is not just hidden or dormant but truly redeemed by a single election.
This article originally appeared at Noah Gittell’s Reel Change blog.
Just weeks before Thanksgiving, taking in a film at a movie theater, I saw it.
Intrigued, at that moment, I was sucked into the phenomenon. The it that I saw was the preview for Breaking Dawn, the latest release from The Twilight Saga based on the bestselling series of young-adult novels by Stephenie Meyer.
Though familiar with the hit series, I hadn’t seen the other films or read the novels. Yet after seeing the preview I wanted to see the matrimonial bliss birthed from a forbidden love affair between Edward and Bella. I was even more curious about the fate of Bella and the half-human, half-vampire child she carried inside her womb.
Lured by the preview, there was a part of me that wondered if this movie was something I should even want to see as Christian. Vampires, werewolves, humans marrying vampires, complicated love triangles and a half-human and half-vampire child, it just seemed so dark on the surface. But those concerns were the furthest thing from the minds of the swarms of mostly tween, teen, and female fans who flocked to see The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 when it opened last month. After just four weeks, the film has brought in more than $633 million in global ticket sales.
The day before the movie hit theaters I listened to a Moody Radio program and heard an expert talk about the hidden spiritual themes in the series. Dr. Beth Felker Jones, an associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and author of Touched by a Vampire: Discovering the Hidden Messages in the Twilight Saga, talked about the relationship between Bella and Edward and gave insight into their backstories. Bella came from a broken home. She moved to Forks, Washington, to live with her father. She is an outsider trying to fit in. Then comes Edward, who sweeps Bella off her feet. But there was something different about Edward; he was a vampire—albeit a good one. Bella and Edward practice abstinence in their relationship — a direct reflection, no doubt, of author Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon faith.
It all sounds harmless at first. A true coming-of-age love story that promotes celibacy, but there’s another side to look at. Edward is drawn to Bella’s blood and has to fight his own urges to have it—and ultimately her. He even sneaks into her bedroom at night and watches her while she sleeps. Bella is so desperate to become like Edward, she is ready to willingly forgo her humanity. After hearing all of this, I had more questions about The Twilight Saga. Was Edward really controlling? Was Bella insecure? Was she losing herself in a toxic and abusive relationship? Was I reading too deeply into this?
Despite my questions, I admit, I succumbed to the invisible force that so cunningly reeled me in and I saw Breaking Dawn. Later, I watched the third film from the series and quickly realized that many of the points raised in that Moody interview were valid. While many of the messages in the series are subtle, it reminded me about the subtle way in which the enemy works. In Genesis 3:1 we see this played out with the cunningly sly serpent and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent didn’t force feed Eve fruit from the tree. He merely asked Eve a question that caught her attention. Intrigued, a seed of doubt was planted within in her and she ate from the tree—convincing Adam to do the same.
Like Eve, we too are enticed with all types of fruit (in the form of media) that contain both good and bad messages—some subtle and some not so subtle. In Ephesians 6:12 the apostle Paul says, “ … we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world …” This is not to say that you should stick your head in the sand and never read a secular book or see a secular movie. And it’s surely not to pass judgment if you like the Twilight series. However, with all that said, we can certainly be informed and prepared to take a closer look at what we are watching—and reading. After all, what really are werewolves or vampires and are they all that bad?
In European folklore a werewolf is a man who turns into a wolf at night and devours animals, people, or corpses. By definition a vampire is a supernatural being, commonly believed to be a reanimated corpse that sucks the blood of people while they sleep at night. Another description refers to the vampire as a demon that periodically leaves the grave and disturbs the living. In the Twilight series, Edward is portrayed as a good vampire because he only hunts the blood of animals. Jacob is the werewolf friend of Bella who would do anything to protect her and win her love. They sound like really good guys that just happen to have the wrong DNA, right? But wouldn’t that be like saying, if you’re a good demon you’re okay. Which when you think about it would be like saying if you’re a good sinner you don’t need a Savior, your own desire to be good and exercise self-control is enough. And if we could save ourselves we wouldn’t need Jesus. Though you may not be a vampire or werewolf, we’re all born into sin and in need of a Savior.
Maybe movies like these serve as good talking points and avenues to open up conversations about the true Light of the world — Jesus Christ. But what expense does it take on our souls when we open ourselves up to films like Breaking Dawn? These are just a few things to consider as we navigate through a world where blood-sucking vampires and bare-chested werewolves woo the hearts and minds of fans — both young and old.
Let’s be realistic: There’s no way we’re going to curb the fanaticism of the throngs of young girls — many of them in our own households — who have pledged allegiance to either “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob.” But perhaps we can be more discerning about the messages found in these popular books and films.
What do you think? Should we search for light in the darkness of the Twilight series, or is it best for Christians to keep their distance?
TWICE THE HONOR: Mary Mary arrives at the 19th Annual MOVIEGUIDE Awards Gala at the Universal Hilton Hotel on February 18, 2011, in L.A. The show airs on the Hallmark Movie Channel on May 16th.
This year’s MOVIEGUIDE Awards, hosted by Kevin Sorbo (Soul Surfer), airs Monday night on the Hallmark Movie Channel. Scheduled guests include Pat Boone, Buzz Aldrin, Ace Young, and Mary Mary among others.