At Oscars Nominees Luncheon, Spike Lee praises writer April Reign and former Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs for the show’s diversity push. (Feb. 5)
There was a lot of buzz about “Black Panther” before it opened in theaters in February 2018.
Of course, there’s a lot of buzz about any new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But this was different. We just didn’t realize how different.
And important. In fact, “Black Panther” was almost certainly the most important movie of the year, for both its impact and its influence.
Yes, it was the first Marvel movie with a black hero. Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote and directed the film, is black; so is his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, and so were nearly all the cast and crew. This was meaningful, as people of color have for so long been woefully underrepresented on both sides of the camera. Still, by itself none of it guaranteed the movie would be any good.
In fact, it was great.
Critics loved it. Audiences loved it even more. The film made more than $700 million at the domestic box office, $1.3 billion worldwide. It was the third-highest-grossing movie of all time. Kendrick Lamar’s well-regarded soundtrack debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 100 chart and is nominated for eight Grammys, including Album of the Year. “Black Panther” was the first superhero movie nominated in the Golden Globes and received seven Oscar nominations, including for best picture.
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And while commerce and art are not typically related, in this case money really does matter. In 2017, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” made an unexpected $176 million. That’s not Black Panther money, but it’s still stunning. If one black movie makes a mint and another makes even more, that paves the way for more to follow.
It’s surely not a coincidence that four of the best movies of 2018 could be called “black” movies. In addition to “Black Panther,” there’s “BlacKkKlansman” (nominated for six Oscars), “Sorry to Bother You” and “Blindspotting”. All put black culture or race front and center, and none shied away from or soft-pedaled difficult issues. That is incredibly welcome in a time when people either tiptoe around matters of race for fear of offense or deliberately tear down the structures of civility and decency.
“Black Panther” created its own culture in the fictional land of Wakanda, an African nation that is an idyllic mix of ultra-high technology and tribal custom.
“Sorry to Bother You” found a black man succeeding in telemarketing only after adopting a “white voice” — and then discovering the nefarious consequences.
“Blindspotting”, directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada, a Mexican American, looked at how race and gentrification are intertwined, and the resulting problems.
“BlacKkKlansman”, of course, is a Spike Lee joint, with everything that implies. Lee has always gotten in the audience’s face with matters of race, and here that confrontational style is invaluable. A black police officer in the 1970s infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan (sort of; he has help), so racism is on the front burner. It is the perfect vehicle for Lee’s sensibilities — he neither makes apologies nor asks permission to tell this tale.
Why should he? None of these filmmakers did, or should. Part of the reason for the financial and critical success of these films is their absolute fearlessness at celebrating black culture. It’s as if a group of filmmakers decided: Enough is enough — we are going to tell our own stories the way we want to tell them, and we are going to do so in mainstream films for mainstream audiences.
With the outsize success of “Get Out” and “Black Panther”, the old argument that only black people will want to see movies like this got tossed out the window. The other films weren’t exactly blockbusters, but they made their mark.
Whether this can be sustained is an open question. But at least it is a question people are asking, which is a kind of victory. These are voices that need to be heard, films that need to be seen.
Bill Goodykoontz is media critic for The Arizona Republic.
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