There’s a strong wind blowing in from the mythical wilds of Wakanda.
With more than a month to go before Ryan Coogler’s hotly anticipated Black Panther solo film hits theaters, the box-office benchmarks are already getting reset. The upcoming superhero spectacle broke the first of what will in all likelihood be a great many records this week, when it outsold Captain America: Civil War to become Marvel’s most-preordered film in its first 24 hours of availability. Now, there’s an early shred of hard evidence for what could previously only be divined from the social media tea leaves: this could very well be the biggest release to date from the most lucrative movie factory currently cranking ’em out.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of industry expertise to get to the bottom of the Black Panther fever suddenly gripping the nation. The past few years have rendered the buying power of black audiences undeniable, no matter how deep in the sand studio executives choose to bury their heads.
Expressions of black success in Hollywood are in closer proximity to the mainstream than ever before: Moonlight’s high-profile Oscar win pushed the humble indie release to a princely $65m gross worldwide, while 2017 saw Get Out take the world by storm with $254m, Hidden Figures soar to $235m and the uproarious Girls Trip rake in $139m. Keep an eye out for Ava DuVernay’s upcoming adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, liable as it is to thunderously prove this point again when it comes to theaters three weeks after Black Panther. There’s a market for original films with black talent on both sides of the camera, and a big one.
From the earliest conceptual stages to the advertising, this production has worn its cultural heritage on its sleeve. The personnel attached attests to Coogler and Marvel’s commitment to doing this properly; in addition to finally allowing Chadwick Boseman the opportunity to lead a spandex spectacle, they wrangled an almost entirely black cast of stars both established (Angela Bassett! Forest Whitaker! Lupita Nyong’o!) and rising (Daniel Kaluuya! Danai Gurira! Letitia Wright!). Perhaps savviest of all, Coogler entrusted hip-hop godhead Kendrick Lamar with the film’s soundtrack, and not just because he’s immensely popular. Coogler himself said that Lamar’s “artistic themes align with those we explore in the film”.
The writer of such modern protest anthems as Alright fits snugly in with a film steeped in a specific sense of black thematics and aesthetics. The film’s plot concerns the creeping tendrils of colonialism threatening to penetrate Black Panther’s secluded kingdom of Wakanda, drawing battle lines between traditionalism and globalist assimilation. Even more promising is the fact that a movie probably budgeted in the hundreds of millions has been informed by Afrofuturist styles. The costumes, designed by Ruth Carter, another black collaborator, split the difference between the usual capes-and-tights getup and the customary garb of the Maasai, Himba, Dogon, Basotho and Tuareg peoples.
But Black Panther’s success is far from assured. While showbiz analysts tend to take presale figures as an predictor of future receipts, The Last Jedi’s steep dropoff after its opening weekend recently demonstrated that staying power is just as crucial. For Black Panther to exceed the sums of its more well-known Marvel brethren, it’ll have to bring viewers back for multiple viewings and thrive on word-of-mouth. In other words, it has to actually be good in addition to having arrived at an opportune moment in the zeitgeist. Fortunately, Coogler proved himself a skilled conjurer of blockbuster-scale emotion and thrills with the rousing Creed in 2015. All signs indicate that the young film-maker does indeed have the juice.
Hollywood has reached a promising juncture, where the power players are starting to realize that investing in new voices – meaning both directors with a clarity of personal vision and those who don’t fit the dominant straight white man mold – is not the risk conventional wisdom once purported it was. In fact, the opposite may very well be true. Those studios insistent on serving up more of the same to audiences will get left behind in a rapidly diversifying market.
Anticipatory cheers met the trailers for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (which trades Peter Parker for Afro-Latino teen Miles Morales) and the CW’s upcoming series Black Lightning. Conversely, in December, the David Ayer-directed and Max Landis-written Bright turned Netflix into the laughingstock of the week for regurgitating the same tired product in an expensive new casing. Critics and audiences alike, saw right through it. A new day is dawning, and if the fates be kind, the American film industry will soon look a little bit more like America.