At the Academy Awards two years ago, Hollywood faced stinging criticism over its attitudes to race.
With not even a single black actor nominated for any of the big category awards, fans took to social media to vent their frustration at a great injustice. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was born and several prominent African-American actors boycotted the ceremony.
Talk of race is swirling once again in Hollywood — but this time for good reason. The movie business is celebrating the blockbuster global smash hit that is Black Panther, the first huge superhero movie with a lead black actor, a majority black cast — and a black writer and director to boot.
Lead Chadwick Boseman stars alongside Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett and Michael B. Jordan in the fictional African country, Wakanda.
The film is a great commercial success story, crossing the $1bn ticket sales mark in just 26 days — joining an elite club of super-grossing movie franchises such as Iron Man, The Avengers and Captain America. Black Panther was heading for a $40 million-plus weekend, which would make it the number-two superhero release of all time, behind The Dark Knight’s $535 million.
$1bn ticket sales
After the fiasco of the Oscars two years ago, it provides Hollywood with a watermark: it has finally changed its approach to diversity, and is basking in a feel-good moment, as are actors and fans of all races, everywhere.
“The movie’s release comes after a long history of overtly white representation in the nominees and winners at the Oscars,” says Nicol Turner-Lee, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank.
“And the movie has precipitated a movement within the African American community, as moviegoers adorn themselves with indigenous African clothing, celebrate the movie’s characters, and even register people to vote before and after screenings.”
And in addition to addressing concerns about diversity, Black Panther has laid bare the commercial potential for films that are made by and star black talent.
Dr Finola Kerrigan from the Department of Marketing at the UK’s University of Birmingham, says that when films with ethic minority characters have flopped, movie producers have concluded that audiences do not want to see these stories, leading to a reluctance to support further, similar films.
“The success of Black Panther, which has opened in a number of territories this month, is a testament to understanding the wider social value of film, which looks beyond commercial considerations and entertainment,” Kerrigan says.
“Despite an alleged campaign to flood the internet with negative reviews, critics have largely praised the film, as have audiences writing for popular review sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB.”
Diversity: A Recipe for Success
This is backed up by some harder evidence. A study of diversity in Hollywood by the University of California, Los Angeles found that diverse movies (with between 21-30% ethnic minority actors) produce higher ticket sales.
“Increasingly diverse audiences, the evidence shows, prefer film and television content populated with characters to whom they can relate and whose stories drive the narrative,” the report said.
Ethnic minorities account for nearly 40% of the US population but bought more than half of tickets for five of the top-10 global grossing films in 2016, according to the UCLA research, including Captain America: Civil War.
The success of Black Panther highlights a broader turning point for Hollywood’s attitudes to diversity, as similar positive sentiment towards the movie Wonder Woman has spread globally recently.
Women have celebrated their own superhero moment, while critics have also praised the variety and nature of roles for women in Black Panther.
There has been a scarcity of big roles for women in previous superhero movies (think Thor, Iron Man and Captain America). Yet Black Panther and Wonder Woman bucked the trend, with much success.
“[Black Panther is] going to make well over a billion dollars and may actually do so within a month,” said writer and activist Shaun King on Medium.
Black Panther is Akin to Michael Jackson’s Thriller
“From a pure business standpoint, it is to film what Michael Jackson’s Thriller was to music. The whole world stopped to not just watch this movie, it was bigger than that, the whole world stopped to soak in this moment. … Let’s make this moment last.”
And that success was not only routed in on-screen characters but those behind the scenes too. Wonder Woman became the highest-grossing live-action film to be directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, with the superhero adventure movie eclipsing the $609m made by Abba musical Mamma Mia!.
“Diversity is not just about onscreen storytelling, it also matters who tells the stories,” says Kerrigan.
Superhero Movies Address Politics
What is striking about Wonder Woman and Black Panther is that they subtly address not just issues of diversity but of wider politics in western society today.
Hollywood has played on politics for a long time — just look at Thor: Ragnarok, which told a tale not just of thunder and lightning but also refugees, immigrants and imperialism. But Black Panther feels different.
The film’s entire narrative is grounded in the harsh reality of black American identity. Wakanda is a fictional country, but in it we see a horrid history of slavery, colonization and their lasting contributing to inequality. The movie bluntly informs the viewer of a part of American culture that most films would not dare to broach.
“Black Panther has unequivocally become one of many recent inflection points for the African American community, especially following the success of extraordinary black voter turnout in tough southern elections,” says Turner-Lee.
“It could be argued that since the end of the historic and ground-breaking Obama presidency, black people have been searching for a superhero, or a ‘yes we can’ leader like [the film’s main character] T’Challa.
“For two hours, he becomes more than a comic-book superhero. He transforms into a symbol of hope for African Americans, much like President Obama was during the previous eight years.”
Black Panther’s script cleverly raises the issue of bias and prejudice not just in America but on the African content. In one scene a television news report refers to Wakanda as a “third world country”.
Later in a post-credits scene, the main characters visit the United Nations and tell those assembled that they are ready to share Wakanda’s riches and information. A white man responds: “What can Wakanda give the world?”
In fact, Wakanda is a technologically-advanced marvel of a nation — that is a stark contrast to previous superhero films, which represent Africa as a poor, war-ravaged and uncivilized place, such as Captain America: Civil War, in which Lagos houses bio-terrorists.
Kerrigan says: “As the story of the Black Panther and the people of Wakanda develops, it will be interesting to see how the balance between defending borders and reaching out to help others plays out.
“This concern mirrors contemporary political reality, with tensions within developed economies between defending their borders (Brexit, Trump’s Wall) and providing refuge for displaced people. Black Panther engaged with these difficult subjects, while at all times maintaining humanity and using humor.”
A Backdrop of Mass US Upheaval
Indeed, it is just such contemporary political realities that have informed the creation of the Black Panther narrative. The movie comes against the backdrop of mass political upheaval in the US, where only a few years ago the Black Lives Matter civil-rights protest movement developed in response to the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer in Missouri.
That campaign forced the presidential candidates of the time to confront a legacy of racism and police brutality in America, and inspired protests across the deeply divided nation.
“Clearly, this is not your traditional Marvel film,” says Turner-Lee. “It has demonstrated the strong economic power of diversity and inclusion on screen, and restarted nostalgic conversations on the potential of black power.
“It is clear that the symbolic representation emerging from the film is helping African Americans reimagine what was historically possible, and what can be realized now to counter the current administration’s racially divisive public policies and rhetoric.”
A Lack of Women Leads
Complex politics informed the creation of Wonder Woman too. Over the past decade the big superhero movie producers, such as Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment, have commissioned a throng of successful movies, yet all have been male.
Overall, women get top billing on only 24% of top-grossing films, according to data from The Numbers, and they are top lead in only 17% of the top 25 films in a given year.
And despite an increased spotlight on diversity and inclusion, women made up just 7% of all directors on the top 250 films in 2016, a 2% decline from 2015, according to a report from San Diego State University. And according to trade website The Trap, of the 149 movies in production and due to be released in the next three years, just 12 have female directors.
(It is not much better for black actors and directors, either. According to research from the University of Southern California, African Americans play 13% of characters in major movies, compared to 70% of white characters in 2017. And African Americans make up just 6% of directors.)
Rising Issue of Gender Equality
Wonder Woman comes as gender equality in society becomes more of a problem. The US film producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of dozens of sexual assaults this year, which sparked the #MeToo movement, encouraging survivors of harassment to Tweet their stories. More than 50,000 people responded overnight.
That followed women who marched not so long ago to protest against US President Donald Trump, who was caught on tape boasting of grabbing women “by the pussy”.
Besides championing a lead role for women in society, what Wonder Woman does is portray a woman doing all the things that women have not traditionally done on screen. It countered people’s sometimes controversial views about gender roles. And despite fears that women leads were not as appealing as male leads, the film has been a huge commercial hit.
Hollywood has been so apparently closed-minded that movies with black and women stars, and directors, is considered a big step forward towards a more diverse future — one in which it is not only morally right to embrace actors of all colors but a recipe for success.
An audience survey said the African-American share of the Black Panther audience was 37%, with Caucasians, and people from Latin America and Asia making up the bulk of the rest of the audience. If that prediction is to be believed, it means hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of tickets were sold to non-black audiences, who watched a predominantly black film — vastly defying industry expectations.
There remain challenges for Hollywood, including the woeful pay gap in Hollywood, with figures showing recently that the highest-paid actress Emma Stone is out-earned by 14 male actors. Stone earned $26m — high by all accounts.
But that pales in comparison to Mark Wahlberg, the highest-earning male actor who made $68m in 2016-17. Nineteen male stars earned $15m or more over the past year, but only five women made the same amount.
Stone said recently that she asked male co-stars to take a pay cut so there was pay parity. “And that’s something they do for me because they feel it’s what’s right and fair,” she added.
“That’s something that’s also not discussed, necessarily: that our getting equal pay is going to require people to selflessly say, ‘That’s what’s fair,’. It’s not about, ‘Women are this and men are that’. It is, ‘We are all the same, we are all equal, we all deserve the same respect and the same rights.’”
While it would seem that there is a long way to go to achieve parity of race and gender in movies, what is clear is that films such as Black Panther and Wonder Woman are catalysts for long over-due change in Hollywood. Long may that continue.