The story behind the racist responses to “Black Panther” in China

Internationally iconic.
Internationally iconic.
Image: Chris Pizzello of /Invision/AP
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In the run-up to the release of Marvel’s Black Panther in China last weekend, pundits warned that the movie could only hope to, at best, match Ant-Man’s opening in the region ($43 million). “The themes of most films with largely black casts will not be of interest to Chinese audiences,” USC professor and China specialist Stanley Rosen pronounced, assuring Deadline that the film would underperform.

And yet when Black Panther finally made landfall in China, it blew past all predictions, with a $67 million opening—up there with some of Marvel’s long-running, well-established cinematic franchises, such as Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Spider-Man: Homecoming.

This “surprise” success came despite a persistent media narrative with ugly implications, both for China and Hollywood: That Chinese racism will destroy any chance for success for a film with black leads.

China is now the world’s second biggest theatrical market, but this assumption has given Hollywood a rationale to largely avoid releasing films with black protagonists there. It has also led to egregious acts of “decolorization” in how Hollywood films are marketed, including Lucasfilm’s decision to minimize John Boyega’s face in Chinese posters for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Despite healthy advance buzz and an explosively positive response in China to its early trailers, Black Panther wasn’t spared these shenanigans. Early Marvel posters for the film’s release in China showed the superhero, played by Chadwick Boseman, fully masked, in sharp contrast to the US posters, which featured Boseman with his chiseled features dramatically exposed.

One might think Black Panther’s blockbuster opening would’ve been enough to reassure Hollywood that China is ready for a black superhero, but instead the persistent narrative about Chinese racism has simply moved on to other fronts—focusing on early reactions on anonymous review sites such as Douban, where the film has to date earned a 6.7 out of 10 rating. This middling score, the story goes, is due to China’s antipathy toward black actors—but that’s actually a higher rating than those for Captain America: The First Avenger, at 6.5, and The Wolverine, at 6.2.

The Los Angeles Times, taking a quick scan of Douban, observed “a large proportion of commentators leaving racially insensitive or blunt comments.” The examples it chose to highlight were critical of the storyline (“cliché as always”) and of a perceived agenda (“too politically correct in promoting racial equality”). Echo Huang’s piece here on Quartz similarly focused on a handful of reviews as evidence of Chinese racism:

“Maybe the Chinese are still not used to a film full of black people,” wrote one reviewer on Douban (link in Chinese). The commenter said he had to pinch himself more than 10 times to stay awake during the movie because “Black Panther is black, all the major characters are black, a lot of scenes are black, the car-chasing scene is black—the blackness has really made me drowsy.”

Another reviewer who came into the theater late made a similar observation: “When I entered the theater, a bunch of black people was fighting in the night… I’ve never been in a theater so dark that I couldn’t find my seat.”

Someone else said the experience was worse in 3D (link in Chinese): “The film is filled with black actors and actresses. Also, because the film’s colors are a bit dark, it’s nearly a torture for the eyes to watch the film’s 3D version in the theater.”

While the complaints of these commenters reference the actors’ skin color in a way that certainly sounds racist to a Western ear, they are actually describing the literal darkness of action scenes in the film set indoors or at night, which they argue makes for difficult viewing during high-energy sequences, including the film’s epic car chase.

Cherry-picking negative posts on an anonymous reviews site isn’t a particularly fair way to assess Chinese attitudes toward black people (and one is likely to find plenty of racist comments on English language online chats too). Many of the reports on Chinese racism conflate skin color with race, a common mistake that misses important nuances.

There is a long history of colorist prejudice that stretches throughout Asia. Some of the Asian elevation of fair skin as a mark of beauty is a legacy of white Western imperialism, stemming from British, Dutch, French, Spanish, and American occupations of countries ranging from India to Vietnam to the Philippines.

But much of this colorism is rooted in pre-colonialist attitudes that have little to do with racial differences: Light skin, in agriculture-based Asian societies, was a proxy for wealth and aristocracy, marking a person who could afford to stay out of the sun-drenched fields. This attitude is the source of lingering preference for pale complexions, which drive sales of wraparound sun visors and whitening lotions across the continent—and it’s distinct from any aspiration to whiteness or aversion to darker-skinned races.

Meanwhile, for all of its rising profile on the current global stage, China was essentially historically isolated until its “opening” to the world in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, Chinese society still bears a deep streak of cultural insensitivity toward non-Chinese, not to mention residual xenophobia (which is actively cultivated by a government that frequently uses campaigns against foreigners to quash domestic discontent).

These sometimes express themselves as racism—consider the laundry detergent ad that showed a black man being “washed” into a light-skinned Chinese man, for example, or the occasional eruptions of blackface in Chinese pop culture. But it’s also worth noting that many Chinese people are shocked when these incidents are held up as evidence of general hostility toward black people.

That’s because the reality is that the vast majority of China’s 1.4 billion people have had little or no exposure to black people. If they’ve encountered them at all, it’s through exported American pop culture, which, pre-Black Panther, has been largely bereft of depictions of African nations as anything but lands full of wild animals, war, and famine; and black diaspora societies as poor and crime-infested.

Arguably, Hollywood shouldn’t be blaming Chinese racism for its decision not to export black films; Chinese should be blaming Hollywood racism for failing to produce authentic portrayals of black people.

Hollywood has spent decades now proclaiming and defending an egregious orthodoxy that says that films without white protagonists “cannot travel” abroad—projecting America’s own original sin of endemic, systemic racism, and anti-blackness onto societies with dramatically different histories.

Conscious or unconscious, this appears to be a manifestation of the industry’s tendency to protect its proprietary star-making apparatus, and the white privilege that’s baked into it. Diversity—which has the ancillary effect of allowing the gravitational center of pop culture to drift and disperse toward marginalized communities—is still seen by Hollywood as more of a threat than an opportunity.

But despite being “so white” for so long, Hollywood is now being dragged kicking and screaming into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable multicultural future. And Chinese movie-goers are here for it.

The two most successful foreign films in Chinese history are The Fate of the Furious and Furious 7, both drag-racing action movies directed by non-white filmmakers (F. Gary Grey and James Wan, respectively) with largely nonwhite casts. Pixar’s Coco managed to quadruple Pixar’s prior record in China, despite having a Latino cast and a setting that’s intensely and specifically Mexican.

Looking beyond Hollywood, the Indian actor Aamir Khan—a 53-year-old veteran of the Mumbai film industry—has become China’s most beloved marquee idol, generating a staggering $190 million in Chinese box office for last year’s $11-million-budget Bollywood sports drama Dangal, and following that up this year with $118 million in China to date for his $2.3 million Secret Superstar. And it looks like Aamir isn’t the only Khan to find fans in China: After just two weeks, Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan has already earned more than double its $14 million budget in the region.

The fact is that China’s prime moviegoing audience, the culturally curious and globally aspirational post-1990s generation, isn’t particularly resistant to nonwhite actors and stories. Like much of the world, it’s hungry for them.

Black Panther’s enormous opening, which Marvel couldn’t possibly have imagined even a few years ago, should make a strong case that China is an opportunity, not a challenge, for films telling the stories of black and brown people. Be smart about how you speak to China’s experience-hungry young audiences, and success is there for the taking.

The path runs through Wakanda. If broken-white-boy Hollywood is willing to be fixed, it will find success in China. But if it continues to claim privilege and primacy while emerging markets open and content globalizes, it should prepare to find itself silenced as the one major white character in Black Panther was, with the Jabari treatment: Whoof whoof whoof whoof!