Thoughts on the conversation around Black Panther and other similar films:
If you don’t follow a lot of entertainment news you might not have seen there’s a lot of negative online conversation surrounding *certain* movies such as Black Panther. Most people haven’t even seen the film yet and they’re dragging it for a variety of “reasons.” I put sarcastic quotes around *reasons* because they are more like excuses for their racist/misogynist/homophobic (etc) views. That sounds easy for most people to disregard. But part of cultural conversation is those who aren’t necessarily participating but are reading these comments and maybe cementing a belief that was in the back of their head…but they hadn’t fully formed yet. “Oh somebody else feels this way too. I’m not alone, this is a valid feeling.” And it snowballs. I think this sort of mechanism helps people justify political and religious extremism as well. But we’re discussing pop culture.
BP is at 98% (at time of publishing) on Rotten Tomatoes in critical consensus (this does not in fact speak to its actual quality, but the general consensus of likes vs dislikes from viewers and critics), but already the online conversation has converged around how critics aren’t “allowed” to dislike it, or were bribed to give it a good review. BP is a major Marvel movie, and I’d argue Marvel movies do start with a higher floor for critics. But that doesn’t mean that the movies are bad, because we also hold them to a very high standard. These aren’t the old Punisher movies!
The other line I have frequently seen is that BP is racist because it has a majority black cast and speaks directly to black audiences. When movies have always been made about “you,” with “you” portrayed as the protagonist, it’s threatening to see that spotlight shift, and people are lashing out (also see similar responses to Wonder Woman or The Last Jedi, under every story about that movie you’ll inevitably see this comment: “I don’t know why you promote this movie so much it’s awful,” with terrible grammar and spelling, natch). Frankly though, stories about white, male protagonists are getting boring. We’ve seen it. It’s been done. It’s awesome to see major movies come out with a diversity of viewpoints because it’s fun and interesting to see a multitude of ideas in the creative sphere! Just because it was not made with “you” as the protagonist doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t enjoy it. People of color and women have been doing it for decades, after all. But a Samurai movie isn’t racist for only portraying Japanese people, a movie about Mexican people isn’t racist because it talks about Mexican people, and a movie with a female protagonist isn’t sexist because it speaks to women. Therefore, no, Black Panther isn’t racist because it has an almost 100% black cast and speaks to black audiences. And yes, non-black audiences, you should definitely go see it! If nothing else it’ll be really fun like most Marvel movies are!
Women reacted to Wonder Woman with ecstasy, but I had several male friends reach out to me to ask, “why is this such a big deal? I don’t get excited every time I see a male protagonist onscreen.” Nothing wrong with asking, especially me because I love to comment on pop culture. The reason is, of course, because it’s so rare to see ourselves on screen in a powerful and empowering role. Women are so often portrayed as the sidekick or girlfriend, or an object of desire, or to be avenged after a rape (*sigh*, it’s always rape), that seeing yourself as the role of the smartest, toughest, most empathetic person on the biggest screen is powerful. Good storytelling embraces that power and shares it with all of us, and tells its audience that it too has worth. Stories about superheroes are our modern day myths, they resonate with us and inspire us to be our best possible selves.
This racist/sexist conversation has been bubbling under the surface for a while. But with social media it’s come to the forefront crying out against successful movies like Wonder Woman, The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens, and now Black Panther, while defending lesser movies like Bright (which would not have done well in theaters). It’s amusing to watch people tie themselves in knots to defend their like and dislike without sounding racist/sexist. But it’s also dangerous to allow that sort of defense go without pushing back.
No movie is above criticism, and there is legitimate criticism to be made about all these movies I’ve discussed here. However, when one does make that criticism, be sure you’d say the same about any other movie. There’s a lot of “criticism” of the Last Jedi that does not hold water, while letting slide legitimate concerns. Additionally, people can simply LIKE OR NOT LIKE A MOVIE. That’s fine. I mean, I can tear the original Star Wars apart (good lord, that dialogue!), that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t enjoy it. A personal example: most people love Lady Bird, I found it dull and trite, but it’s still a well executed film, I can definitely recognize that. That is ok, my dislike does not make it a bad movie. Additionally, because I did not like one movie in a series, say, Age of Ultron because it is terrible, does not make me dislike the rest of the Marvel series. Nor does it retroactively make me dislike Iron Man or Winter Soldier. Nobody can ruin your childhood movies except you.
Go. See Black Panther. It looks beautiful and fun and it promotes a view of Africa we don’t see often in mainstream American movies. Make your own decision. See movies with differing points of view! It’s fun! It’s enlightening! And it lifts the creative spirit of everyone, and all movies can be better for it!