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Even Black Panther can’t change Hollywood.
LESSON NOT LEARNED

“Black Panther” is already a hit, but it won’t change the way Hollywood treats minorities and women

Jed Gottlieb
By Jed Gottlieb

Black Panther is already a hit, and massive one at that.

The latest installment in the record-breaking Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, Black Panther (out Feb. 16) beat 2016’s Captain America: Civil War as Fandango’s top-selling MCU title in the first 24 hours of presales. Now, presales don’t always correlate to box office numbers, but it would be shocking if Black Panther didn’t do huge business—December projections had the film earning around $85 million in its opening weekend; January estimates bumped that up to somewhere near $110 million.

The success should echo unlikely 2017 smash Wonder Woman. Tried-and-true names Spider-Man, King Arthur, and Optimus Prime couldn’t stop Wonder Woman from claiming the summer box office crown—the DC comics’ star went on to rake in $413 million domestically and her debut title became the third-highest grossing film of the year. Black Panther could equal those numbers. But even if it doesn’t, the film is a milestone.

Just as Wonder Woman became the highest grossing film directed by a woman, Black Panther is sure to be the biggest film helmed by a black man. Like “Wonder Woman,” it will prove a white male lead isn’t compulsory for a Hollywood blockbuster. But it is doubtful the movie will change much in Hollywood.

The major film studios appear to have learned an odd lesson from Wonder Woman. Instead of realizing female-fronted franchises can become studio tent-poles, the success of Wonder Woman seems to have reinforced to them moviegoers only want iconic, easily-recognizable faces from their childhood. Studios will surely produce more comic book, sci-fi, fantasy, and spy movies with female or black lead actors, but they’ll mostly keep looking to the past to find their protagonists. They will quickly run out of options: The comics, cartoons, pulp novels, and mythologies of the past rarely feature female and black characters in prominent roles

The boilerplate criticism of Hollywood remakes and reboots revolves around the notion they are lazy, uninspired. But when you look at the actual work being produced its hard to argue they’re all worthless. For every dreadful Batman v Superman there is a J.J. Abrams Star Trek or Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock to even the scales. The real problem with Hollywood’s addiction to sequels, prequels, and “new” takes on old stories is they reinforce an outdated, if not completely backwards, worldview.

Batman and Superman are straight, white men. Captain Kirk, James Bond, Jason Bourne, Spider-Man, Thor, the Flash, Green Arrow, and a score more fit the same bill. The problem isn’t just with the heroes in circulation, its with the homogeneous army being resurrected ad nauseam. Over the next few years, look for the return of Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Robin Hood, Flash Gordon, Green Lantern, Rambo, Conan, He-Man, and Hellboy (who, while not technically not a white man but a demon, will be played by David Harbour).

The industry has clearly been working to populate their fictional worlds with more women and black men. Marvel has Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, and this summer adds Cloak & Dagger, featuring white female and black male leads. DC has Supergirl and Black Lightning. But the source material just doesn’t have enough women and black men to draw from. And the ranks of Latino, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, and LGBTQ characters are far thinner.

On the rare occasions the industry tries to battle its traditions with progressive, creative casting, fans often whine, moan, and threaten to boycott. Casting Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, who Marvel Comics conceived of as white, might have worked because Fury has never been a lead character. But asking audiences to accept women or people of color in starring roles originated by white men can have disastrous repercussions. The blowbacks might seem absurd to many, but they do damage. The best example of this came in the summer of 2016 with the female-centric reboot of Ghostbusters starring Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. (The next litmus test may come in June with “Ocean’s 8,” a spin-off from the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise with Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and Anne Hathaway, that doesn’t recast characters from “Eleven”—Bullock is Danny Ocean’s sister—but refocuses the series on female protagonists.)

The ’80s Bill Murray Ghostbusters films have a decent cult following and are pretty damn funny. But, for most people, they didn’t seem sacred. And yet, tinkering with the films’ legacy mobilized a hoard of misogynistic trolls. This group became furious enough to strategically, spitefully sink the new Ghostbusters trailer on YouTube. The clip received a record-breaking 800,000 dislikes and created enough of a fervor to elicit a reaction from then-candidate Donald Trump—“They’re making ‘Ghostbusters’ with only woman! What’s going on!?!”

Here is what is going on: Film fans, who live in a perpetual fantasy world of caped crusaders, alien invaders, and sexy robots, show a surprising lack of imagination. Since George Lucas and Steven Spielberg invented the modern blockbuster, the real world has radically changed. Gays serve openly in the military and have the right to marry in all 50 states and 26 countries. A black man spent two terms as president of the United States and a woman received more votes than her male opponent in the 2016 presidential election. A Muslim is the mayor of London, Europe’s largest city.

It’s not the 1970s, but by and large, the film casts of reboots and remakes resemble that of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Arc—heroes are white men, love interests are white women, black guys and Mexicans are sidekicks, Asians and Indians are inscrutable wise men or dark-hearted witch doctors. For all of Hollywood’s progressive politics, its reliance on the past hamstrings art’s ability to add to the forward push the broader society has long experienced.

Yes, blockbusters are art, often awful art, but they remain enormously important. They determine who has the money and power in the industry. Thanks to endless installments of Iron Man, Batman, and Mission Impossible, Robert Downey Jr., Ben Affleck, and Tom Cruise constantly crowd the top of the best paid actors list. The impact is profound: When openly gay, female, black, Latino, and Asian actors are automatically disqualified from carrying the biggest films, they are paid less and less well known, which means moviegoers and studios considers them second tier names, and the whole cycle begins anew.

We can argue about the level of influence Hollywood has on civil rights struggles, but the movement’s chief icon understood its importance. In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. convinced Nichelle Nichols to stay on as Lt. Nyota Uhura on Star Trek after she was offered a Broadway role.

“I am your best, greatest fan… As a matter of fact, [‘Star Trek’] is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to watch,” King told her. “We don’t need you to march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for.”

Hollywood needs to reflect the equality so many Americans still fight for. This is a fight Captain Kirk and James Bond can’t win. Wonder Woman and Black Panther represent progress, but the progress lags far behind the broader society. When “Bond, Jane Bond,” and Han Solo played by Donald Glover compete for box office domination, we will be leaping forward. When the Bond and Han Solo archetypes are no longer our cultural touchstones, we will be where we need to be.