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Exploring the Cultural and Cinematic Impact of “Black Panther"

Illustration by Juliette Le Saint/Illustrations director
BY RAUNAK DEVJANI
Theater | Film | Television Editor

All the stars are closer.

After decades of pushing for racial diversity, a stellar black superhero took his place among the ones we’re used to seeing on screen – one step closer to a more equitable future for Hollywood.

“Black Panther” can be described as nothing less than a cultural phenomenon. Executive producer and UCLA alumnus Nate Moore said the crew was aware that in the absence of other blockbusters with primarily African and African-American casts, “Black Panther” would set a standard for what superhero films starring people of color could be. If the film didn’t do well, Moore said, studios would be able to point to it as a reason not to make predominantly diverse films.

“I think we were very conscious, by not having a lot of films like ours out, our film would become to some degree a bellwether of the potential of the risk of doing a movie like this,” he said.

But “Black Panther” ended up proving the very point made by the Hollywood Diversity Report. The 2018 edition of the annual report highlights the fact that films with diverse casts sell. Darnell Hunt, the dean of social sciences at UCLA and a co-author of the report, said the film’s $ 1.3 billion earnings wordwide undermine a myth that has circulated in Hollywood for generations.

“I think the success of 'Black Panther' validates what we’ve been arguing for with the last five years of the Hollywood Diversity Report,” Hunt said. “You can make a high quality, well marketed film with leads of color … that does incredibly well, not only domestically but internationally.”

PoC, Assemble.

Two-year-old Stephen Daniels watched the 1989 “Batman” in theaters — his mother told him he stayed awake for only 70 percent of the movie but loved it anyway.

Daniels has been a fan of comic book characters since childhood and now wants to produce superhero films, he said. “Black Panther” was released while he was completing a three-month-long professional program in producing at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, and it had a profound impact on him because of the African-American representation it brought to the big screen, he said.

Previous superhero films that focused on ethnic diversity didn’t seem to hit home the way “Black Panther” did, Daniels said. The 1997 “Steel” starring Shaquille O’Neal, for instance, felt too goofy to him, even though he knew it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Spawn” was too intense. The 1997 film, based on Image Comics' character of the same name, was rated R. Daniels said when he watched the film at 10 years old, he was overwhelmed by its themes of sacrifice and violence. Because Spawn was technically from hell and had to give up his humanity to be a hero, young Daniels couldn’t aspire to be like him. When “Black Panther,” came out, Daniels noted that it had the Goldilocks effect of being just right, with the perfect balance of comedy, seriousness and action, as well as a protagonist that can be seen as an idol for all ages.

Moore was also a comic book nerd in his college days. But he said the comic book industry has changed considerably in recent years — while physical book sales have dwindled, superheroes themselves have been written into the mainstream narrative of pop culture because of films made about them.

Even before “Black Panther,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe featured African-American characters such as Rhodey and Falcon, but kept them on the sidelines. T’Challa himself was once a supporting character in “Captain America: Civil War.”

“(T’Challa) was just one of many characters and Captain America was the white lead of the film,” Hunt said. “That was a way to ease the character in, so that when they actually got to the movie 'Black Panther,' they didn’t have to introduce the character.”

In 2017, while “Black Panther” was still in production, Gina Prince-Bythewood came aboard Sony’s upcoming Spider-Man spinoff, “Silver & Black,” making her the first woman of color to direct a major superhero motion picture. Prince-Bythewood, a 1991 UCLA alumna, said the most notable impact of “Black Panther” on the superhero genre is that it ensures films will feature characters of color in the future.

“I really do not think we’re going to get any more superhero films that do not have people of color – you just can’t. We’ve done that enough, year after year after year,” Prince-Bythewood said. “'Black Panther' has proven that we want to see diversity up on screen, so there’s no going backwards.”

Prince-Bythewood also said the film is groundbreaking in that it dispels the myth that a superhero story cannot contain deeper social messages. “Black Panther” proves that a film doesn’t need to be strictly entertainment- or action-based – blockbuster projects with great depth can find success nonetheless, she said. Hunt also said the film functions as an example of the notion that all films, regardless of their genre, can include the full spectrum of American diversity.

“My sense is that this film will be seen as a cultural icon,” Hunt said. “Something that kids who saw it with their parents will remember as one of those defining moments that shaped the way they think about themselves in relation to the broader society, because of the strong characters and personalities that the film circulated on the screen.”

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Wakanda, Oakland and the World in Between

Erik Killmonger wasn’t always from Oakland.

In the comics, the character is a Wakandan native exiled to Harlem, New York. Director Ryan Coogler, however, relocated Killmonger to his own hometown in Northern California. While the change in setting was new for fans, Coogler’s choice of city wasn’t a coincidence.

The Black Panther Party, a political organization with the purpose of protecting African-American rights, was founded in Oakland in 1966 – just three months after the character of the same name first appeared in "Fantastic Four" #52. Given the city’s historical significance within the African-American community, Daniels, who is also from Oakland, said Coogler was able to weave in Killmonger’s roots in a way that made sense. Although most of “Black Panther” is set in Wakanda, he said the Oakland narrative grounded the film in reality and allowed it to resonate with the black community.

Toward the end of the film, T’Challa chooses to share Wakanda’s resources with the rest of the world. The fact that he builds the nation’s first international base in Oakland is symbolic, Daniels said. Though there isn’t a direct connection between the party and the character, Hunt said they both emerged in a similar spirit and social context of rising black power.

To understand Wakanda, Hunt said viewers must go back to the creation of Black Panther at a time when the civil rights movement was winding down. Shortly after Black Panther was first recognized as a superhero, the party had come to life, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated and black people were determined to fight for equal rights. Hunt said the comic tapped into something African and African-American people were looking for.

“They both, I think, were tapping into the same ethos ... this whole idea that black people were tired of being victims,” Hunt said. “They wanted agency, they wanted control and self-determination over their own communities, and so in a way, 'Black Panther' was the ultimate in terms of agency – what more agency can you have than a superhero?”

Michael Tran, a doctoral student in sociology who co-authored the Hollywood Diversity Report, said Wakanda is a metaphor for how powerful African countries could have been if it weren’t for colonialism. “Black Panther” opened the doors to a society that was both more advanced and more benevolent than the so-called first world. Hunt said Wakanda undercut the idea that power leads to corruption because the nation chose to keep its resources a secret instead of consolidating its own dominance.

“This amazingly advanced, technologically savvy society called Wakanda, in a way, can be thought of as almost the antidote to the way black people felt … being subjected,” Hunt said. “You can think of Black Panther and the mythical nation of Wakanda as being everything that African-descended people weren’t under slavery and under colonial rule, which is what happened in a lot of Africa.”

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Details in Disguise

If Wakanda stands for an African nation untainted by colonialism, it may serve audiences well to consider the film’s reversal of conventional racial power dynamics. Hunt said a prominent example of the tables turning is the scene in which the Jabari tribe leader, M’Baku, silences CIA Agent Ross when he tries to speak.

“I saw the movie in a theater that had a mixed audience, but immediately, everyone got that reference and it was clearly resonating with this longstanding history in which people of color are often silenced because of the authority and privilege of whites and white America,” Hunt said. “It wasn’t subtle, but (M’Baku) didn’t have to say much.”

Other similar examples include the scene in which Shuri lightheartedly calls Ross a “colonizer,” and when Killmonger asks a British curator before he robs a museum if her ancestors paid a fair price for an artifact that rightfully belonged to Wakanda.

Numerous references to African history are embedded throughout the film, Tran said. One such moment is the South Korea casino scene in which Nakia, T’Challa and Okoye attempt to capture the notorious smuggler Ulysses Klaue and intercept Ross' mission to attain the stolen vibranium artifact. The three enter the club dressed in green, black and red respectively – the colors of the Pan-African flag , Tran said. In an earlier scene, Nakia, T’Challa and a Dora Milaje guard approach the queen of Wakanda and Shuri while wearing the same colors.

Okoye’s scarlet dress isn’t the only iconic part of her outfit. While in disguise, she dons a wig of press-and-curl hair — a juxtaposition to Nakia’s natural afro. Tran said the scene could reference the longstanding debate surrounding hair within the African-American community. Okoye, a patriotic figure who is bald in the film, despises the westernized hairstyle of the wig and later takes it off to throw it at an enemy shooter in the casino.

“There’s a history of problematic politics about wearing your hair natural or having it pressed down or made to look more like flat hair,” Tran said. “ I love that (Okoye) represents such a proud character. She basically weaponizes what you can think of as a symbol of oppression.”

The cultural significance of the film’s South Korea segment continues with a high speed car chase, after which T’Challa succeeds in capturing Klaue. As the king of Wakanda strangles him, claws bared and ready to kill, he notices the bystanders who crowd the scene with their camera phones out. Daniels said the cinematography is reminiscent of the shooting of Oscar Grant III by Bay Area Rapid Transit police in Oakland — the tragic incident captured in Coogler’s own 2013 directorial debut, “Fruitvale Station.” The scene features a white criminal whose fate rests on the decision of black authority, and also represents T’Challa’s choice as the dominant figure in the conflict.

“When I saw that scene, it really spoke to me because it seemed to say that before you take someone’s life, think about the impact of what that’ll have. ... It negatively had an impact when BART police had shot (Grant), and there was tension between police officers (and black people) in urban communities,” Daniels said. “I don’t know if that was (Coogler’s) original intention in that scene, but it spoke to me.”

Audience members often found references in the film that weren’t born of deliberate directorial choices, such as the fact that the final battle between T’Challa and Killmonger takes place on train tracks. Hunt said the climax could spark a number of potential interpretations, including associations with the railroad jobs held by black men in early America as well as chain gangs.

During his lecture at UCLA, Moore said the creative team didn’t intend on using the setting as a reference. However, the crew’s intent or lack thereof doesn’t make audience members’ interpretations of the film any less meaningful. Tran said sociologists who study the media have long debated whether the meaning of a text lies within the text itself, the audience or the filmmaker's mind.

Though Hunt has only watched the film once, he hopes to see it again and pick up on things he wasn’t able to detect the first time around, he said.

“I think the first time I saw it, I was just taking in the grandiosity of it all — the beauty of the film and the acting, and the story was very powerful,” Hunt said. "But there’s so much in there in terms of imagery and other things that I want to go back and see again.”

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

The Black Panther: More Than One Man

Darnell Hunt’s twelve-year-old daughter goes to an all-girls STEM school and idolized Shuri from the moment she saw her on screen, Hunt said.

T’Challa’s sister is a powerful scientist and innovator, and Wakanda celebrates her for it – she doesn’t seem to face the discrimination that women in STEM often have to deal with.

“I think it’ll be embraced in schools because the images were so empowering for a lot of youth, and particularly for girls who saw strong, female role models among the … warriors and the protectors of T’Challa,” Hunt said.

Ruth E. Carter, the film’s costume designer, developed the costumes for the Dora Milaje – or the female Wakandan guard – after multiple meetings in which Coogler emphasized his desire to diverge from the comics’ portrayal of the military force. Traditionally, members of the Dora Milaje have been portrayed as highly sexualized, presumably because comics were developed for boys and men, Carter said.

In the 2018 film, they are dressed in red suits, complete with armor and shaven heads. Carter, who served as the Swarovski Designer-In-Residence at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television for 2017, said her team wanted to revere femininity in a unconventional way that didn’t involve amplifying the characters’ sex appeal. Although “Black Panther” followed a heated controversy about the Wonder Woman costume, Carter said her creative choice was not informed by allegations that Diana was hypersexualized in the film.

"This is a time when we want to honor and empower women,” she said. ”(Our design) had more to do with showing a really cool fighting force, and that we could create a costume that was functional, that could protect them, that was believable but also really beautiful and would honor the female form in a different kind of way.”

Carter was just one of the many women that worked behind the camera on “Black Panther.” Moore said many key decision-making positions were held by women, including the film’s cinematographer, first and second assistant directors , production designer, casting director and visual effects producer.

Carter said she thinks the strong female representation in the “Black Panther" cast and crew, as well as Prince-Bythewood directing “Silver and Black,” will encourage the film industry to put more women in positions of power both on and off screen.

“I think Hollywood is answering the call,” she said. “Once one person breaks the mold, then Hollywood jumps on the bandwagon, but I think this is a good bandwagon to be on.”

Though women were heavily involved in the project, Moore said the crew’s diversity wasn’t a function of inclusion riders – a provision of film contracts that ensures a certain level of diversity on set. The "Black Panther" executive team didn’t employ the concept, which gained traction after Frances McDormand's Oscar acceptance speech, because they were simply searching for the most qualified people to work with, which naturally included women and people of color.

“There was no contractual thing to make the film diverse both by gender and by ethnicity,” Moore said. “Partially because of (Coogler's) urging, and partially because we were just looking for the best people, (we) just happened to end up having a very diverse crew.”

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Looking Forward

Moore said he anticipates that in the future, both women and people of color will become more involved in the film industry for the very reason that they may often be the best fit for the job. Moore said he hopes studio executives will see the success of “Black Panther" as a reason to fund projects by and for people of color.

“Hollywood is an insular place just because people are just trying to make the smartest investment choice that they can with their budgets, and I think what will ultimately happen … is that people will become more comfortable with (women and people of color) because that is the norm,” Moore said. “I think (it’s) really heartening, to know that just by being a part of our film, there is more visibility for these people and they’ll continue to work a lot.”

Tran said he believes the significance of the film lies in its scale. Academically, researchers consider differences in scale and differences in kind while talking about the impact of films. A number of recent projects spanning various genres and preceding "Black Panther" spotlighted the African and African-American communities – a relative success considering most black filmmakers in the 1970s only had opportunities to create films of the blaxploitation genre, he said. But while newer diverse films were often critically acclaimed, they didn't gain mainstream traction. Narratively speaking, Tran said “Black Panther” wasn’t entirely revolutionary because films with similar social messages had been done before. But its unprecedented success at the box office is what will hopefully make a more diverse film landscape, Tran and Hunt said.

While “Black Panther” may be a superhero blockbuster, Moore said he doesn’t subscribe to the notion that commercial films can’t be infused with personal or political ideas, and hopes the film can illustrate their potential to create change.

“I think the perfect marriage of art is something that is both personal and has something to say, but also is commercial, because commerciality just means that a lot of people are going to go see it,” Moore said. “I think that’s the most effective – the art that speaks to people across age, gender and ethnicity.”