In the run-up to the Academy Awards two years ago, Hollywood was abuzz with complaints about its attitude to race. With not even one black actor nominated for any of the major categories, a social media protest under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite went viral and several leading African-American figures in the industry boycotted the event.
On the eve of this Sunday’s Oscars broadcast, Hollywood is again consumed with race. But this time it is celebrating the blockbuster global success of Black Panther, the first big-budget superhero movie with a black lead, a predominantly black cast and a black writer and director.
The film, from Walt Disney’s Marvel Studios, is heading towards $1bn in global ticket sales thanks to the rapturous embrace of critics, audiences and the African-American community, for whom it has already become a cultural touchstone.
After the controversy of the Oscars two years ago, the success of Black Panther provides a feel-good moment for Hollywood on its approach to diversity. Indeed, the nominees for the 2018 Oscars reflect a broader than typical range of race and gender, thanks largely to a recent push by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to refresh its largely ageing and white voting membership.
But it is also a potentially important moment for a film industry that has often assumed audiences would not turn out in large numbers for movies filled with non-white faces, even when the racial make-up of American society is changing so markedly.
At a time when movie studios are being forced to search for new audiences as they weather competition from Netflix and video-streaming, Black Panther has provided a wake-up call on the commercial potential for films that are made by and star black talent.
“These things don’t happen overnight, but when studio executives worldwide think about greenlighting a movie with a black cast or a Hispanic cast that crosses all four quadrants [male, female, young and old movie-goers], rather than playing to a particular group, the experience of Black Panther changes the dynamic,” says Richard Gelfond, chief executive of Imax, the big-screen cinema company. “I think people will be more willing to take risks.”
Bob Iger, chairman of the Walt Disney group, said the company was “exhilarated” because the film represented “an important moment in the culture” but that it also had the potential to become a blockbuster franchise sold across its businesses.
“I pretty much guarantee you that this coming Halloween and even Christmas, you’ll be seeing a lot of Black Panther merchandise in the marketplace,” he said on Monday. The queues at Disneyland to meet the Black Panther character were an hour long, Mr Iger said, and he hinted about developing a ride around the film.
Black stars are not new in Hollywood. From Sidney Poitier to Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, black actors have starred in box-office hits for decades. Plenty of films are also made specifically for black audiences, such as the Madea comedies from the actor and director Tyler Perry. Yet despite those successes Hollywood has been reluctant to take the next step with an all-black “tent-pole” movie — one with the earning potential to support a studio’s entire slate of movies.
If Black Panther was a bet in that regard it has paid off handsomely for Disney. Even with the anticipation ahead of its release in February, it smashed expectations, pulling in more than $200m in the fifth biggest opening weekend ever.
Worldwide ticket sales have topped $700m, a number that will only grow once the movie opens in China, the world’s second-largest film market, on March 9. Black Panther has already passed 2015’s Straight Outta Compton as the top-grossing film by a black director with a majority black cast.
Across much of the US, the release of Black Panther was not just a night at the cinema but a cultural event. Movie-goers turned up in outfits inspired by the film’s costumes and traditional African dress then waited in queues that wrapped around city blocks. Cinemas added showtimes to meet demand. Churches, schools and companies including the advertising group Interpublic Group organised screenings.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever been this proud to be African-American,” Chadwick Boseman, who plays the title character, told a sold-out crowd this week at an event at New York’s Apollo theatre.
Outside a Harlem cinema a few blocks from the Apollo, vendors hawked T-shirts emblazoned with “Wakanda Forever” and “Straight Outta Wakanda” — the fictional African nation where the movie is set.
“Deep down we all hoped that people would come to see a film about a fictional country on the continent of Africa, made up of a cast of people of African descent,” said Ryan Coogler, Black Panther’s director and co-writer, in a thank-you letter to fans after its opening weekend. “Never in a million years did we imagine that you all would come out this strong.”
The film’s strong performance could potentially resurrect what had been looking like a disastrous first quarter for the industry. RBC Capital Markets said this week that its gloomy forecast for the 2018 box office had improved “meaningfully”. Total box office takings would be “closer to flat” in the first quarter rather than the expected 12 per cent decline, Leo Kulp, an analyst at RBC, said in a note, helped by the fact that “Black Panther substantially outperformed our expectations”.
Enthusiasm for the movie is generating money from other sources as well. The soundtrack, curated by the rapper Kendrick Lamar, has topped Billboard’s album chart for two weeks. Sales of action figures, masks and other merchandise tied to the film have also been strong, according to Hasbro and other toymakers.
The runaway commercial success of Black Panther underscores just how long it has taken the largest studios to produce big-budget films with diverse lead actors and casts. Other forms of entertainment have moved more swiftly: black acts dominate the music charts and hip-hop is the most streamed genre, with listening increasing by more than 74 per cent in 2017, according to Spotify. On US television some of the biggest hits of recent years, from Empire to Scandal and Blackish, have featured black stars and writing talent, part of a concerted effort by the main broadcast networks to produce programming that better reflects American society.
Facing competition from streaming services, studios are searching for different types of film that can fill cinemas in the US and increasingly important international markets. Although the US film industry has long been dominated by a belief that films featuring largely black casts and storylines do not perform well around the world, many executives have made the case for more diversity on the big screen as a way to reach a wider audience.
“Every movie that breaks down these barriers is another step towards more inclusion in mainstream Hollywood movies,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst with ComScore, a media research group. “If you have grown up and never seen someone like you on screen then you’re looking at the world through other people’s eyes. When people see themselves on screen it can be a very powerful experience.”
Disney, which generated more than $6bn worldwide at the box office last year, has made a concerted effort to diversify its films both in front of and behind the camera, from the racially inclusive cast of the recent instalments of the Star Wars franchise to the animated Moana, based on Polynesian myths, to the forthcoming A Wrinkle in Time, for which African-American female director Ava DuVernay reimagined the world-saving protagonist as a biracial girl.
A new study of diversity in Hollywood from the University of California, Los Angeles found that relatively diverse movies (casts with between 21 and 30 per cent ethnic minority actors) produce higher ticket sales. “Increasingly diverse audiences, the evidence shows, prefer film and television content populated with characters to whom they can relate and whose stories drive the narrative,” the report said.
Non-white audiences carry box office clout: people of colour account for nearly 40 per cent of the US population but bought more than half of tickets for five of the top 10 global grossing films in 2016, according to the UCLA study. That included Captain America: Civil War, another Marvel superhero movie set in the same universe as Black Panther.
Still, the research suggests that only modest progress has been made towards reflecting the make-up of contemporary audiences. While the proportion of minorities increased over the years in several employment categories, including lead roles on broadcast TV and creators of shows on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, they remain under-represented compared with the population at large, in every category the survey measured. Women are also under-represented across the industry, the study found.
The number of directors of colour being given responsibility for top films has barely increased — 12.6 per cent in 2016 compared with 12.2 per cent in 2011. The percentage of minorities in lead acting roles rose from 10.5 per cent to 13.9 per cent in the same period.
That lack of representation has come into sharp focus in recent years at the Oscars. The routine exclusion of people of colour from the industry’s top awards came to a head in 2015 and 2016, both years in which none of the acting categories had a single nominee of colour. The black activist April Reign coined the term #OscarsSoWhite on Twitter, generating a social media campaign that led Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith to boycott the 2016 ceremony.
The Academy, whose membership is 87 per cent white and 72 per cent male, has pledged to become more representative. It has set a goal of doubling the number of female and non-white members by 2020. “I happen to think that the Academy’s initiatives regarding diversity are way overdue,” John Bailey, a cinematographer who was named Academy president in August, told the New York Times.
Last year’s Oscars presented a different picture. Moonlight, a coming-of-age tale about a gay black man, beat favourite La La Land for best picture. The slate of nominees for this year’s prizes includes acting nods for Denzel Washington, Daniel Kaluuya, Octavia Spencer and Mary J Blige. The best director Oscar could go to the first ever African-American winner, Jordan Peele for Get Out, or the second-ever woman, Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird. Mr Peele received the accolade of being nominated for best director, best original screenplay and best picture, all for a debut film.
Having been released this year, Black Panther is eligible only for next year’s Oscars. Cultural phenomenon or not, it will then have to contend with the Academy’s traditional disdain for superhero films.