A week after its release in theaters across America, director Ryan Coogler’s new Marvel comic-adaptation, Black Panther, is still setting box office records. The film is the 5th highest domestic debut of all time, and the highest grossing February release in history, with a staggering $202,003,951. It earned more in just 3-days in theaters than any other film featuring a black director and predominantly black cast with an impressive worldwide opening weekend gross of $350 million. The success of the film has not only shattered age-old myths surrounding the “unpopularity” of all-black ensemble movies in Hollywood. It is also changing the way Hollywood, and America at large, view films that deal primarily with black and African American culture. But why is Black Panther such a big deal for America and not simply just another superhero movie with a hero who happens to be black?
The answer lies in the history books. In modern times, America is a country that prides itself on its ability to celebrate African American culture. February is Black History Month. Barack Obama was our first black president (depending on who you ask). But America’s history with race, even today, is far less glamorous than it should be. The African Slave Trade continued in the United States until Congress finally abolished it in 1807. Domestic slavery, however, continued for another sixty years, finally ending with the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865. Despite the 14th and 15th amendments that followed, guaranteeing citizenship and the right to vote, Plessy vs. Ferguson allowed legal segregation in America until the mid-twentieth century. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally ended lawful segregation on both the federal and state levels, but that was still only on paper.
Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, proving that America still had a long way to go in overcoming its history of racial disparity. After King’s death, the struggle continued. The Black Panther Party rallied against segregated military campaigns during Vietnam in the 1970s. Rodney King was beaten by LAPD officers in the early 90s (all of the accused were exonerated in the case) which led to the violent LA Riots in ’92. Even today, social unrest has led to violence and culture clashes in the wake of police killings of black citizens like Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile. Through it all, American writers, artists, and filmmakers have chronicled the history of American racism and made attempts to shift public awareness towards the realization of a truly fair and equal America. This, however, is where Black Panther stands alone.
American films, either created by and/or surrounding black people in America, have always focused on the subject of racial equality. Cinematic achievements like In the Heat of the Night, Roots, The Color Purple, and more modern films like The Butler, 12 Years A Slave, Selma, Mudbound, and Fences (based on August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play) all deal specifically with either slavery and/or racism in America. Black Panther, however, does no such thing. The plot follows a man named T’Challa (Black Panther), who returns home to the African nation of Wakanda to take his place as king following the death of his father. His throne, however, is challenged by the vengeful Erik Killmonger, whose own father was killed by T’Challa’s father and who now seeks to rightfully claim the throne. It is here that T’Challa must rally the power of the Black Panther to protect both his kingdom and his people. Call it a Game of Thrones or Arthurian legend-type scenario in a mythical African nation. So what is it that sets Black Panther apart from other cinematic achievements?
Simply put, it is the lack of focus on race. Black Panther is set in a free and technologically advanced African nation, a far cry from the realities of America and of African nations, whose peoples and resources have been raped and scoured throughout history by empires the world-over. It is a shift in focus from racial disparity in America and the world at large to that of a free and functional society that happens to be located in Africa. The reason it stands out to audiences is merely our reaction to it in relation to our history. The film, itself, makes no such commentary on the state of race and equality in the world. Our knowledge and inherent shame of our own history with race is what makes Black Panther stand out as a cultural achievement in modern American film. The film, itself, is nothing out of the ordinary. Strictly from an entertainment standpoint, the beginning is slow and the plot is one audiences have seen time and time again. But where Black Panther stands alone is in the fact that it is simply a comic-book movie aimed at providing entertainment and not making a political statement.