More than a Movie: The Cultural Significance of Black Panther

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Some might say that based off audience reactions and box office numbers, Black Panther is more than a movie. They’d be right. It’s a movement.

From enthusiastic audiences to one of the highest ratings of a super hero film ever by critics, Black Panther has done quite well for itself. There were reports of folks showing up with drums to the premiere last month and numerous photos of others posing next to the official film poster. The film has not only been been popular, but profitable, even beyond Marvel’s (and parent company Disney’s) own dreams.

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Black Panther (Marvel/Disney)

As of this writing, Black Panther has already grossed more than $1 billion globally and over $600 million domestically. To put that in perspective, it is now one of the Top 15 10 highest grossing films in American cinematic history. Much of this money is coming from people seeing the film not just once, but multiple times with friends and family.

Black Panther has been the #1 movie at the box office for five weeks running, something not seen in eight years here in the United States. Most studios are happy if they win the box office on back-to-back weekends, let alone five straight weeks. By tapping into a relatively under-served market, Black Panther is reaping the benefits, and then some.

The dearth of diverse stories in Hollywood is both a pertinent issue and a persistent one.  It hasn’t been much better in the super hero realm with black actors appearing in films but usually as sidekicks and never as the main story. Black Panther changes all that with a majority black cast and a story told from an afro-futuristic perspective.

Even the individual roles have been no less significant. From Shuri, who is the real brains behind the operation and enhances her older brother’s Black Panther capabilities, to Okoye, who is the leader of the fierce all female Dora Milaje unit that protects T’Challa and Wakanda, these roles are deeply impactful. There’s also the significance of M’Baku, played by Winston Duke, a role that was written very differently then what had been portrayed in the comics. Finally, there’s the land of Wakanda that was never touched by colonialism and has thrived as a hidden kingdom for centuries.

In recent weeks #WakandaForever has taken root and been embraced by a wide array of folks. Though this is a fictional land, its influence is very real. For black folks to simply imagine a land where they get to be themselves, far from the white gaze and troubling histories of colonialism and enslavement, is a truly refreshing thought during times of such heartache.

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Athletes embracing #Wakandaforever

So will the commercial appeal and success of Black Panther open up the lane for Hollywood to tell more diverse stories in the future? I remain skeptical, but we’ll see. These days, the T.V. networks along with heavyweights like HBO and Netflix, seem more committed to a diverse palette of stories being told on their platforms. Clearly, there is serious money to be made in well done diverse pictures that entertain a cornucopia of audiences.

If nothing else, Black Panther shows that there is a real thirst among audiences for well done films by and about people who remind them of themselves. To see yourself onscreen is a subtle, yet powerful affirmation of one’s humanity. Inspiring a generation of kids to look and see themselves in a different light, may be Black Panther’s greatest achievement yet. #WakandaForever

Voices Beyond the Baseline: Lebron and KD share their thoughts on the ‘Bad Coach in Chief’

Athletes speaking out about social issues isn’t exactly a new thing, but the way today’s players are using their platforms to express their views against a sitting president is anything but routine.

Case in point are the comments NBA stars Lebron James and Kevin Durant had to say in a recent interview regarding President Trump and his leadership — or lack there of.

The comments were featured in a 16 minute video on Lebron’s media site Uniterrupted. The video is done in partnership with the ride-sharing company Uber, and features Espn’s Cari Champion playing the role of chauffeur/interviewer while asking guests in the back seat a series of questions regarding their career on and off the court. There have been two other videos I know of thus far featuring Paul Pierce and Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, with Ms. Champion being the driver in both instances. These videos give the viewer a somewhat more intimate look at today’s athletes thoughts and answers to challenges they face on and off the court.

On this particular ride, Ms. Champion had the opportunity to interview two of the NBA’s biggest stars for a somewhat unfiltered discussion on sports, politics, influence, and what drives them not just as athletes — but as men. The ride takes place in Lebron’s hometown of Akron, Ohio and features pit stops at the places that influenced him growing up.

During the ride a number of topics are discussed regarding money, influence, growing up and social responsibility. It’s enlightening to hear these two talk about things outside of basketball and give the audience some insight into what fuels them beyond the 94 feet of NBA hardwood.

One of the more interesting segments were each man’s thoughts on president Trump when prompted by a question by Cari Champion. Lebron came out and laid it right on the table when he said that Trump, “doesn’t give a fuck about the people.” Meanwhile, Durant added that the president should be showing more leadership and empowering people. Instead, according to Durant, Trump was doing just the opposite and running America like a “bad coach.”

These comments in of themselves aren’t all that noteworthy, but the mouths through which they were uttered, certainly are. The NBA — perhaps more than any other league –has been rather outspoken on number 45 and his policies. The fact that Durant and Lebron are speaking out, being the league’s two best players, only strengthen’s the NBA’s position as the league most likely to stand up to Trump.

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Lebron lets his stance be known via Instagram

Suffice to say, there were some not too happy with Lebron and KD’s words. Laura Ingraham of Fox News, called them two “dumb jocks,” “barely intelligible,” and that they should just “shut up and dribble.” In Ingram’s view, she doesn’t believe athletes should have a voice, let alone speak out against a president her employer just can’t stop fawning over.

What’s interesting is that Fox News has had plenty of entertainers and sports figures on their airwaves freely discussing issues and topics beyond their realm of expertise. Philadelphia Eagles player Chris Long, created quite the Twitter story of Fox’s hypocrisy of athletes and entertainers speaking out.

When asked about host Laura Ingraham’s comments during NBA All-Star weekend, Lebron James responded, “we will definitely not shut up and dribble. I will not do that.”

There has been a long history of black athletes speaking out in America. From Jackie Robinson, to Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Althea Gibson and others, many of them understood that their talents gave them a platform. That platform, in turn, gave them an opportunity to speak out on issues affecting millions of lives in the communities in which they grew up in, many of whom could only dream of such an audience. Even the notoriously quiet Michael Jordan has in recent years opened up.

With the ever evolving prevalence of video and social media, it’s never been easier for today’s athletes and superstars to lend their voice. With millions of followers and watchers around the world, it’d be foolish to expect them to just “shut and dribble,” without taking note of the world around them.

Before Black Panther: Black Superheroes Who Laid the Foundation

It’s safe to say that with just under a week to go until it’s theatrical premiere, Marvel’s newest film Black Panther, is already a cultural phenomenon.

The film debuted last month in Los Angeles for it’s first official screening and the red carpet looked very different than what one would see at these types of events. Folks dressed in beautiful African garb and a who’s who of Black Hollywood, showed up in addition to the cast and crew for Black Panther. From that moment, the effervescent reviews have been flowing.

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Lupita N’yongo’ and Chadwick Boseman at Black Panther premiere in Los Angeles

Black Panther is a cultural landmark not just for audiences, but also for the film’s parent studio — Marvel. As the the 18th movie in Marvel’s ever expanding cinematic empire, it’s the first film to feature a majority black cast. With Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther himself and featuring Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, and Micheal B. Jordan, the film encompasses some of the leading young black actors of today. Not to mention it’s directed by Ryan Coogler (this is his and Micheal B. Jordan’s third film together) the film certainly has many people excited.

Black Panther comes at an interesting time for Marvel. For 2018 marks the 10 year anniversary of Marvel’s first picture that ignited the studio’s resurgence: Iron Man. Since then, the studio has earned more than $12 billion dollars from it’s films as of 2017. Things weren’t always so lucrative however. As of matter fact, in the mid 90s Marvel the brand was nearly bankrupt and theatrical success for its comic book characters seemed little more than a pipe-dream at the time. That was until a gun-wielding vampire slayer showed up onscreen and ignited a sleeping giant.

When Blade debuted in 1998, Wesley Snipes was still a megastar. From New Jack City to White Men Can’t Jump to Passenger 57 and Money Train (OK, maybe not Money Train), Snipes had established himself as one of Hollywood’s more bankable stars during the 1990s. After a fair amount of success, Snipes wanted to make a film based of the comic book character Black Panther. Unfortunately for Snipes, the timing just simply wasn’t right.

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“I think Black Panther spoke to me because he was noble, and he was the antithesis of the stereotypes presented and portrayed about Africans, African history and the great kingdoms of Africa,” Snipes said recently in an interview to The Hollywood Reporter. Snipes also mentions that although he had the blessing of Stan Lee at the time to make the film, they couldn’t get the right screenwriters and a director who shared the same vision as Snipes.

“We went through three different scripts and couple of different director options,” Snipes says in the interview. But where Black Panther failed to launch, that opened the door for Blade and the rest is history as they say. “They both [Black Panther and Blade] had nobility. They were fighters. So I thought, hey, we can’t do the King of Wakanda… and the hidden kingdom in Africa, let’s do a black Vampire.”

Blade would make more than $100 million at the box office and spawn two more films for the franchise. As successful as it was however, there were other black superheroes during the decade who were leaving their mark as well.

In 1993 MGM’s The Meteor Man starred Robert Townsend as a D.C. school teacher just trying to do good until he’s hit by a meteor one day and wakes up with super powers. Though a light-hearted comedy, the film did touch on issues regarding gangs and the drug trade. What’s also interesting about this film is that Townsend’s character never wears a mask, and hence, everybody knows who he is.

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Robert Townsend as Meteor Man

There was Daman Wayans in Blankman in 1994 and also Micheal Jai White’s Spawn in 1997. Even Shaq got in on the act during this era with his movie Steel that also starred a young Ray J, who himself would go on to make very different films a decade later.

Fast forwarding back to today, what these films show is that black superheroes aren’t exactly a new thing, but that there has been some time since they’ve had their due. It’s self affirming to see people who look like you onscreen and even better when they’re kicking ass and taking names.

Films like Black Panther help to open up the comic genre movie-going experience for more audiences. Knowing that a film like this has been in the works for over 20 years and is finally coming to fruition, is an achievement not only of the cast and crew, but for those pushing all these years for a day like this.

The Role of An Eclipse and Nat Turner’s Rebellion

Here in the United States, people were obsessing about an eclipse that could be viewed by millions throughout the country. Apparently this was possible for the first time since the 1970s. The eclipse was treated with a lighthearted celebratory fare, with the only concern being people not look directly into the sun for fear of damaging their eyes. Not everyone got the message however. It was on this day though, 186 years ago, that an eclipse proved to be a harbinger of one of the most storied rebellions in American history.

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The Internet Comes For Everybody: ESPN Layoffs Result of A Changing Era

In 2004 I was an intern at my local newspaper The Record, based out of northern New Jersey. Those were challenging days for newspapers, as many people were getting used to the fact that they could get the same information in the daily paper online for free.

Newspapers weren’t getting the same advertising rates digitally that they were getting in print. Needless to say, the more people that got their news online, the more it hurt the bottom lines of papers like The Record. Fast forward 13 years later and television companies, notably ESPN in this case, are finding out what newspapers saw coming more than a decade ago: Just as the internet changed print media, it is now changing television in ways thought unimaginable just a few years ago.

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It was a Wednesday morning in April and my timeline was buzzing. ESPN was the topic of the hour because they were in the process of laying off roughly 100 people, many of them on-air talent. This was shocking to a number of people as we are not accustomed to seeing faces we recognize on television suddenly being gone in an instant. Though it should be noted this isn’t the first time layoffs of this kind took place at the sports network. ESPN laid off 300 people in a cost cutting move mostly behind the camera in 2015.

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Filmmakers Remember the L.A. Riots

25 years ago this week, Los Angeles was up in flames over the acquittal of four police officers who were caught beating up Rodney King on videotape. Now filmmakers are using their craft to reflect on what was, and what has become of Los Angeles since that day.

NPR has a list of films commemorating the 25th anniversary of the riots, and one film of particular interest to me is “Gook.”

Directed by Justin Chon, “Gook” tells the story of two Korean-American brothers and their friendship with an African-American girl during the outset of the riots. Chon actually lived through the riots himself, witnessing his father’s shoe store get looted as a child. Chon felt it was important to tell the riots from the perspective of two Korean brothers rather than immigrants, as he points out that too often recent immigrants and those who had been living in L.A. for sometime were just lumped together as Koreans without much context.

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Moonlight Wins Best Picture

It’s been over two weeks since the Oscars, but the glow of ‘Moonlight’ will last for years to come.

It was powerful to see the cast and crew of ‘Moonlight’ gather round for their award, especially after Mahershala Ali had won earlier in the evening for Best Supporting Actor. The biggest blunder in Oscar history aside, I was particularly happy for director and producer Barry Jenkins, who was finally getting the due that eluded him in his earlier work.

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Mahershala Ali

In the Summer of 2009 I attended a symposium at the Teachers College of Columbia University, on independent black filmmakers and breaking through the wall that is Hollywood. Many of the issues brought up that day have been discussed ad nauseam among filmmakers of color: lack of funding, marketing, distribution, working within the studio system, etc. Towards the end of the program, we watched a film called ‘Medicine for Melancholy’ that told the story of two people who spend a day together in present day San Francisco. The actors Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins take us into the world of two people exploring themselves – and their city – if only for mere hours. That film, was directed by Barry Jenkins.

‘Medicine fp192781_p_v8_aaor Melancholy’ was  well received by the audience that day back in 2009. We all wondered out loud though, how do
we get more films like this out to those who live outside LA and New York where the opportunities to see such work isn’t as plentiful? And where will this director go in their field and how long before they work on their next film? Eight years later, we have the answer to one of those questions.

To know that ‘Moonlight’ is only the second feature film Barry Jenkins has directed (but to most people, it’s their first introduction to him) and that it won Best Picture is all the more powerful. These stories need to be told. ‘Moonlight’ was not some big box office project and did not get the wide distribution that many films get, but it made an impact and was a an incredibly well told story. None of us could have foreseen this at the Teachers College eight years ago, but the fact that Barry Jenkins and the ‘Moonlight’ family are getting their due at the highest of levels, makes it all the more rewarding.