The enthusiasm around “Black Panther” isn’t just about finally getting to see a mostly black action blockbuster, a milestone we should have been celebrating decades ago. It’s about being able to go to the movies without feeling like the future of black film is at stake.
Black progress in Hollywood has been slow. As long as black actors and actresses are routinely typecast and black filmmakers struggle for opportunities to go beyond the same few genres, black moviegoers will feel pressure to support any and every black production that manages to break the mold. We hold our breath hoping that box office results are strong — and if they’re not, we wonder whether another black movie will get a chance. “Black Panther,” whose record-breaking ticket pre-sales all but ensured that it will be a success, is an exception. We don’t have to root for it to win. We can just watch the movie.
It’s something many white filmgoers just don’t get. I’ve seen it many times: someone claiming it’s a double standard to celebrate all-black movies while calling all-white movies racist , or resenting that race is being brought up at all. It’s only a movie! Can’t we all just enjoy it? This is a question you would ask only if you had been overwhelmingly represented in every genre in every era of American film, and you simply don’t understand the sense of urgency for those of us who have not.
It’s not that black actors and actresses are absent from movies. (Hispanics are far more underrepresented on screen.) It’s the range of roles available to African Americans that’s the problem.
For white actors, character types are virtually unlimited, while actors of color are often stuck playing stereotypes and one-dimensional supporting roles: mammies, maids, sidekicks, thugs. So many token black friends appear in horror movies only to up the body count (“It,” “Resident Evil,” “Deep Blue Sea ,” the latest “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) that the concept is conventional wisdom. Almost every teen movie from the ’90s (“Clueless ,” “The Craft,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Bring It On,” “She’s All That”) featured an underdeveloped sassy black friend or antagonist, often played by Gabrielle Union, for the white lead.
Complex action heroes? Not so much.
When the rare action drama with a black female lead, like Babak Najafi’s “Proud Mary,” hits theaters, the stakes are high. “We need Proud Mary more than ever,” Sesali Bowen declared on Refinery29. But the movie tanked, and it stung. The film’s star, Taraji P. Henson, was vocal about her frustration with Sony Pictures’ lackluster promotion domestically and overseas. She echoed sentiments from black actors and filmmakers over decades: The industry has no confidence that just any kind of black movie can be sold.
But folks were quick to dismiss her claims of racial bias on the part of Sony. One writer for Forbes white-splained them away by pointing out that Sony has a record of heavily promoting movies with stars like Will Smith and Denzel Washington, and comedies with leads like Kevin Hart. But we all know that Smith and Washington have long transcended barriers faced by most black actors. And we’re not talking about the genres that studios are normally comfortable investing in when black faces lead the cast (i.e., Kevin Hart comedies).
The consensus on “Proud Mary” does seem to be that it just wasn’t very good: The story was flimsy, the acting bland, the dialogue cheesy. But this describes just about every mid- to low-budget action flick ever made. In a world where “Fast and Furious” sequels continue to multiply, it’s safe to say that not all demographics worry about getting another crack at a genre after one lousy flick or flop. Even white women, another marginalized group in Hollywood, can see movies like “Sucker Punch” fail without worrying that they’ll never have another “Tomb Raider,” “Lucy,” “Ghost in the Shell,” “Underworld” or a bazillion “Resident Evils.” But when a movie like “Proud Mary” sneaks into theaters under the radar and fails to earn, black people, especially black women, wonder if we’ll ever get another one like it on the big screen.
George Lucas’s “Red Tails,” a 2012 Tuskegee Airmen biopic that doubled as a black action movie with a huge budget, was also a first of its kind. Black moviegoers were urged to support it to prove to studios that big-budget black projects were worth the investment. “I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk,” Lucas, an executive producer, said while promoting the film. “I’m saying, if this doesn’t work, there’s a good chance you’ll stay where you are for quite a while. It’ll be harder for you guys to break out of that mold.”
“Red Tails” turned out to be an overpriced dumpster fire of non-biodegradable trash that failed miserably at the box office, and again, black audiences wondered if we’d get another shot.
More recently, Nate Parker’s Nat Turner biopic, “The Birth of a Nation, ” generated acclaim and anticipation after its Sundance Film Festival debut — only to fizzle at the box office after a prior rape allegation against Parker, who wrote, directed and starred in the movie, returned to the headlines. It was the ultra-rare slavery movie to focus on rebellion, something black filmgoers have been yearning to see, but conversation about “The Birth of a Nation” revolved around whether Parker was guilty (he was found not guilty in court) and whether the film’s cultural importance should outweigh concerns about sexual assault. “Should people see it?” Stephanie Zacharek asked in Time. “. . . If we care at all about who, beyond white guys, ought to be making movies in America, the answer to all is ‘yes.’ ” Commentator Roland Martin lambasted the criticism of “The Birth of a Nation,” saying, “Very rarely are our stories told on the big screen, especially a story of a black man killing a whole bunch of white folks in slavery.” He added, “You have potential movies in development in Hollywood where they’re pressing the pause button saying, ‘Well, if this didn’t do so well, we shouldn’t make this movie.’ ”
It’s not paranoia. Plenty of movies flop, but, as the New York Times reported, films with mostly black casts are rare, so they stand out more when they fail. And studios are frequently skittish about black projects to begin with. “The bottom line is that the major studios want assurances that film projects have the potential to attract a significant white audience,” veteran producer Joe Pichirallo told the Times. He and co-producer Lauren Shuler Donner had to prove that there was a strong following among white women for the book “The Secret Life of Bees” before they could get a green light for their film adaptation. Studios are also increasingly reliant on overseas revenue, and black films tend to perform poorly internationally, even domestic blockbuster comedies from Tyler Perry. Too many box office bombs, and studios could start avoiding movies with black casts altogether.
There have, of course, always been brilliant black movies. The late ’80s and early ’90s, in particular, were a golden age for black film. More recently, Barry Jenkins’s coming-of-age drama “Moonlight” showed a new side of black manhood and rightfully earned the best-picture Oscar last year. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” which tackled both overt and covert racism and moved black film into the realm of horror and suspense thriller, is nominated this year. Movies like these broaden the scope of what audiences expect from predominantly black films. They move us outside our typical lanes: comedies, rom-coms and historical dramas.
“Black Panther,” a big-budget action movie and the first major comic genre film to feature a black director, screenwriter and cast, could also open the door to more black blockbusters and more genres. But with its success all but assured, black filmgoers can simply watch and enjoy, without worrying that the box office receipts could break the futures of other black film projects. We’ll be watching a black movie that doesn’t rely on caricatures and recycled tropes, and we’ll rest easy knowing that it won’t bomb and may prove to Hollywood the extent of our potential (as if more proof was necessary).
Maybe the question black audiences will ask now isn’t “Will we get another shot?” but “What will we do next?”