The Black Panther Phenomenon, Is Hollywood Listening?

In April of 2017, I wrote a blog about Hollywood whitewashing and how people should vote with their money if they wanted to see more diversity in films. Well, congratulations because you, the American audience, did vote and the outcome was fantastic!

Black Panther Review

First and foremost, Black Panther is an excellent movie. Don’t spaz out about it being an all-Black cast, because it isn’t or being for only the Black audiences because it isn’t that either. It is simply a damn good movie, which is reason enough to see it multiple times.

The Black Panther character originally shows up in Captain America: Civil War. The current movie capitalizes on the Captain America film and fills in the gap of Prince T’Challa ascending to the throne. This episode in the long line of Marvel movies is much better than many of the other origin tales. I found Thor’s and Ant-Man‘s beginning tales a little on the dull side, and no one has measured up to the panache of Iron Man. Yet Black Panther matches the heart-racing action of an Iron Man flick while being filled with the filmography beauty and use of color found in the Thor films.Black Panther

Chris Pratt called it a “Bond movie meets Shakespearean tragedy.” in a tweet and he was right. Royal brothers battle for the future of their country. The result of that conflict has far reaching effects on both of their sons who later battle for the throne as well. Yes the throne is in a small, hidden, and (to the rest of the world) unbelievably poor African nation, but that does not detract from the importance of the outcome. In reality, Wakanda is one of the most technically advanced and wealthy nations on Earth due to their gigantic deposit of vibranium. In their battle to rule the kingdom, one brother wishes to do only good and serve his people. The other wants to use the high tech to conquer the world. The stakes could not get any higher than that.

The Actors

Chadwick Boseman did an excellent job as the complex, brooding T’Challa, the new ruler of his nation and the most recent in a long line of panther heroes. His near worship of his father is shattered when he discovers the previous king’s mistake in killing his brother and leaving the man’s only child, Erik Killmonger behind in an impoverished area of Oakland. The comparison of his childhood in oppression as compared to T’Calla’s wealthy world is only hinted at but easily imagined by most Americans. Michael B. Jordan raged on the screen as Erik, a frightening figure of obsessive vengeance.

However, in my mind, the women nearly upstaged the men. T’Challa is surrounded with intelligent, fiercely loyal women, including his mother, played by lovely Angela Bassett; his geeky-tech sister Shuri, (Letitia Wright); the love interest Nakia, acted by Lupita Nyong’o; and Okoye, the fierce general of the all-woman guards (Danai Gurira). In some ways, this was a strong feminist film as well since many of the top advisers to the king, and in some cases the ones that handed him his victories, were all strong, beautiful women.

Breaking Box Office Records.

Still one of the really important points of this Marvel film was that the crowds came out for it. As everyone probably knows by now, it broke all kinds of box office records, which is not easy in this post-Star Wars age. The movie stands on its own excellence and will possibly be the biggest hit of the year. I saw it on a Tuesday night when the weather outside was crappy enough to make people stay home. Yet the theater was more than half full with a ethnically mixed crowd, families and dates, young and older, and everyone loved it. I’m sure audiences of all backgrounds and ethnic groups will continue to enjoy it for many weeks to come.

So Hollywood, are you noting the true lesson here behind the Black Panther movie? The people have proven that ethnically diverse movies can be great in the box office. We want to see more Black, Asian, Hispanic, and other nonwhite actors in great roles that aren’t just second fiddles to all-white leads. We want really great films that support diversity. And we, the American audience, will vote with our money.

Are you listening, Hollywood?

Who’s to Blame for Hollywood Whitewashing?

After seeing Ghost in the Shell and reviewing it, I looked at the controversy of how much fans hated having Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. The film’s story is from a Japanese manga and many folks wanted an Asian woman as Major. Let’s push it a little further. This movie should have been full of Asian actors. Yet the only real noticeable ones were Major’s boss and one guy on the team. Every single person of importance, from the loving doctor down to the company bad guy, was of some other race, mostly white. So focusing on Johansson as Major is only part of the issue. The entire movie should have featured Asians.

The whitewashing problem is not new. It is just as obvious in movies such as Dr. Strange where Tilda Swinton played an Asian mystic.  But who is really to blame for this whitewashing? The answer is simple.

You.

And me.

Well, not just you specifically but the millions of movie goers that flock to films featuring predominantly white actors while being less enthusiastic about movies with largely minority casts.

Let me break it down for you. Hollywood is not about art. People think it should be but it is not. The Hollywood film machine is about money. Massive, soul-corrupting amounts of cash that could feed armies or support small countries. They don’t care about equality, fairness, or justice. The Hollywood moguls care about return on investment. Movies are expensive, but they are also a magnificent money cows if they are done right. Being “done right” means they are aimed at attracting the largest audiences possible. Uncomfortable stories and films with lesser known actors either don’t get made, are never large moneymakers, or sit on the shelf for years until one of the actors in it become a big star.

Thus, film companies are going to make movies that sell tons of tickets and are aimed at the richest, most entertainment-oriented population available. That tends to currently still be mostly white people simply because they fill more of the wealthier demographics.

The other factor is that folks of like seeing actors of their race or ethnicity because they can personally identify with those characters more. As a white woman, I can picture myself in a story when that character is a white woman. Making her southern even helps more. I love the Wolverine movies but have never pictured myself as a clawed, hulking male. Yet I easily can see myself as Phoenix in a liplock with him. When I watched Hidden Figures (excellent movie, by the way), I didn’t picture myself as one of those ladies because that experience was too different from my life. I did love seeing the story and it made me feel ashamed about the way they were treated, but it had a lesser impact on an emotional level since I couldn’t viscerally relate to what they had to overcome.

Hollywood knows these facts and will continue to exploit them by whitewashing stories and roles that should go to minority actors. To appease the folks crying out for equality in movies, producers or directors may throw in a Black or Latino in secondary roles, just to make everyone feel better about themselves. However, it is not done with a lot of thought or care to the sensibilities of the minority groups. Case in point: how often is the minority guy only the best friend, background character, or the first one to die?

Some exceptions do exist. Samuel Jackson clearly ruled as head of a stellar cast in The Hateful Eight. Denzel Washington dominated The Magnificent Seven along with great actors Lee Byung-hun and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. These occasional movies show that times are changing, but that attitude evolution crawls along at a snail’s pace.

Is it fair or right? Hell no.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that the producers and decisions makers are supporting more minority actors in roles, and more minority-oriented movies are getting made, with bigger budgets than ever before in cinema history. Great actors of any race deserve a chance and the bookstores are filled with great stories featuring minority characters that should be on the silver screen.

However, white people movies make better box-office blockbusters. If you don’t like this fact, then change it.

How?

Vote with your money.

Go see a film you normally wouldn’t because it has a mostly minority cast. No one will throw you out. While you are raging about whitewashing in some films, also cheer on others which truly support a mixed cast like Rogue One or Get Out. Be vocal in your displeasure about how films like Ghost in the Shell should have been cast differently.  If the idea really offends you, then DON’T see the whitewash film, no matter how good it is.

If you want to be an instrument of equal representation, then vote with your money and your opinion as often as possible. Make it bad business to whitewash great stories. Only when Hollywood is hurting in the pocketbook will they change. Only the movie goers can bring about that change.