Even before Black Panther smashed box office records and went on to a $218 million four-day debut, it was an extremely important movie. In a movie with a majority black cast, there were no slaves. There was peril, but a white person never appeared to save the day. There were themes of struggles of the inner city, but no crack heads. DC’s Wonder Woman had three white actors supporting the title character. In Marvel’s Black Panther, only three white characters had lines at all.
It’s hard to understate the importance of Black Panther. Director Ryan Coogler invited audiences of all races to imagine a world that depended on the success of a black protagonist. Somehow in 2018, that is still such a radical idea that people tried to kill it on RottenTomatoes. Coogler helped the idea pay off with a solid story that packs pounds of meaning into every single line. There was nearly flawless execution by Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther), Lupita N’Yongo (Nakia), and Danai Gurira (General Okoye). Michael B. Jordan takes his performance to a new level and steals the show in his rendition of Killmonger. But at the end of the day, this is much more than a good movie with a majority black cast.
We could talk all day about how rare it is for movies with large budgets to have a minority director or a largely minority cast, but that’s like saying the heart-shaped herb of Wakanda makes someone a superhero. The minority stuff is nice, but it doesn’t mean anything if no one sees it (See Queen of Katwe). What makes Black Panther special is the structure of the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- a system of films in which every film builds upon one another. In the past, good movies with a majority black cast could be ignored by the audience at large (Again, see Queen of Katwe). However, this is a movie Marvel fans have to see. The things that happen in Wakanda may be consequential to the larger MCU. For the first time, a film by a black director with a majority black cast got a huge budget and a guaranteed audience.
Once the movie actually started, Black Panther demonstrated its importance through the layers of the story. The idea of N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) choosing to betray Wakanda to help black Americans brings a twist that echoes beyond the world of the MCU. Though there are several prominent women, the action and script make sure there isn't a single damsel in distress waiting for a male hero. Entire books could be written on Killmonger’s motivation to aid the two billion people “who look like us,” and we talk about all that and more in the podcast episode below. But perhaps the most important line in the movie comes in one of the end credits scenes. T’Challa is speaking to the United Nations about how Wakanda will begin sharing its technology with the world. At the end of T’Challa’s speech, another representative asks, “What could a nation of farmers have to offer the world?” That is the essential question many people have been condescendingly asking black Americans for decades.
Even though black people have made significant contributions to America, they have been largely silenced outside of the world of sports and music. The campaign #OscarsSoWhite grew out of reality that the Academy felt minorities had nothing “award-worthy” to offer in 2016. Or consider the times when sports stars speak out about racial injustice? Recently TV personality Laura Ingraham encouraged NBA players to “shut up and dribble.” Even the first black president was interrupted in the middle of his State of the Union Address. After all, what could black people have to offer in politics?
Despite the obvious condescension that comes with this question, black people have worked to answer it for centuries. We have enriched millions of companies and built businesses worth billions. Minorities make up a majority of the box office audience and have propelled hundreds of movies to multi-million dollar takes.
Black Panther is special because it was made by black people -- actors, directors, costume designers, etcs -- and black people propelled it to record-breaking numbers. African-Americans are estimated to have made up 40 percent ($87 million) of Black Panther’s opening weekend sales. The world has been put on notice. If you build it, we will come out in force.
Black Panther is special because it was the first, but it won’t be the last. Executives at Marvel and DC can see the dollar signs from a $218 million opening weekend in February. Hollywood will do what Hollywood does and soon we will see even more studios putting actual time and energy into making movies that are more diverse.
This means that outside of the world of cinema, people will finally get to see black people as humans. Rather than being portrayed as slaves, thugs, sidekicks or oppressed, movies with large budgets will start to show the nuance that exists in life as a black person. We will get more stories that show the full humanity of an entire race of people and that could (should) lead to better understanding. Maybe even one day people will stop asking me what the “black community, as a whole,” thinks about the latest topic of the day.
At the end of the day, Black Panther is more than just the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is a movie that carried the hopes and dreams of black people and comic book fans. And it didn’t disappoint. A movie that fulfills so radically different expectations is truly special.