On March 9th, 2018 it was reported that ABC Studios pulled the plug on an episode of the popular show Blackish, due to “creative differences” between the network and showrunner Kenya Barris. Why? The episode featured commentary on NFL players protesting police brutality. On a show that has explored the n-word, Trump’s divisive election to the presidency, and Juneteenth, this particular topic was too much for the company. Do I even need to mention that ABC is owned by Disney, who, in addition to owning ESPN, owns Marvel? That’s right. The same Marvel that has earned over a billion dollars in revenue from hawking a faux-progressive movie during Black History Month. The same Marvel that has created a marketing blitz designed to spin Black Panther as a revolutionary step in black progression, instead of simply a stunning and entertaining movie.I saw Black Panther while on vacation in Vegas. I don’t know why silent tears streamed down my face during T’Challa’s coronation ceremony. Maybe it was my proximity to the huge IMAX screen. I was nestled into a reclining chair four rows away from the vibrantly beautiful people, colors, and waterfalls. Perhaps it was the enchanting music pulling my heartstrings. It could have even been Lupita Nyong’os bewitching face, beaming down at T’Challa as he prepared to take the throne of Wakanda. Maybe it was all of these things, but the tears were abundant. It’s truly one of those things I can’t explain. The tears ended within minutes and Black Panther continued without me shedding more. It was a thrilling and layered tale, and I don’t even like superhero movies. The acting was superb, the sets were spectacular, and for the first time in my life I had a slight sexual attraction to Michael B Jordan. Every major female character was likeable and funny, a true rarity. While I had a few gripes, I wasn’t going to flex: Black Panther lived up to my expectations.
When the movie ended I vowed to see it again so I could re-experience that blissful pre-coronation ceremony scene. I told myself that I wasn’t going to let my hatred of the marketing surrounding the project make me hate the project itself. Ryan Coogler and the whole bloody cast deserved their accolades. So I left the theater (and Vegas) with nothing but positivity for the film. When I had a free chunk of time, I’d return to see it again so that I could write about it. Or at least that’s what I told myself. I never did make it back to see the movie a second time. As days passed and praise continued to be heaped onto the movie, I became fatigued. At first, it was a slight annoyance that every little thing was being infused with Wakanda. Then came videos of real African people doing things with captions from non-Africans including “What It’d Be Like in Wakanda” or similar. These were tweeted by people with no real interest in Africa, just the fictional country depicted in the movie. These were in addition to the scores of tweets lashing out at fair criticism of the film with “Ya’ll make everything too deep!” So the movie was significant enough that theaters of impoverished black children were crowdfunded seats to see it, but not significant enough to merit a nuanced conversation on how the movie and it’s marketing may be used against us?
Then came the daily reports of how much money the movie was raking in. Millions and then a billion.
I wanted the movie to be just a movie, which is why I was annoyed at how many requests I got from people to write an essay on it. And when I was first in that theater, it was just a movie… an enjoyable one. But the overdose of praise, attention, and money being thrown at the film made me remember what I had shoved to the back of my brain shortly before it came alive on that Las Vegas theater screen: the mania surrounding Black Panther is a mechanization of Disney.
When I read the news that ABC shelved the controversial episode of Blackish, the gripes I initially decided to ignore began echoing loudly in my head. That’s when the urgency to write this essay presented itself. Why did the movie end with the self-sufficient, wealthy, and powerful nation of Wakanda revealing to a greedy white-supremacy tainted world that it not only had vibranium, but that it would make it’s secret weapon available to everyone? Could Wakanda not have helped liberate black people elsewhere with secret operations, the way Nakia saved human tracking victims at the beginning of the film? Why were the only two modes of leadership presented for Wakanda, Killmonger and T’Challa? Killmonger was horribly misguided and clearly more into revenge than liberating the black diaspora he claimed to care so much about. Meanwhile, T’Challa was lazy and complicit in the oppression of the black diaspora before sloppily adopting Killmonger’s idea to tell everyone about vibranium. The two options- angry, violent revolution doomed for failure and aligning Wakanda with the enemy in hopes of not being played (along with exposing it’s valuable secret weapon)- were not pleasing.
Why would a movie about black excellence end with a message of opening up to the white oppressors and seeking their assistance in making the world a better place? Wakanda can’t put Wakanda first. It has to put the world first. To me, this subliminal message was too obvious. Black people can’t put black progress first. We have to put the world first.
There are no accidental multi-million dollar productions in this economy. In this socio-political atmosphere, in which a protest of police brutality via peacefully kneeling during the national anthem is enough to be blackballed or maligned by the media, there are no accidental marketing campaigns. This is a country where the very purpose of Black Lives Matter is skewed as terroristic in nature or as a dangerous or overblown ideology. The same country where a black comedian is laughed at for suggesting a boycott of a popular streaming service to get paid as well as her white peers. A country where there is no nationwide outrage at the fact that the median black wealth will be zero by 2053, or that the racial wealth gap has been widening for decades. The same country where a media conglomerate with it’s fingers in nearly every capitalistic pie can shelve a 22 minute episode of a popular tv show because it would discuss the NFL protests with a little too much nuance.
Black Panther the movie is beautiful and fun. Black Panther the marketing campaign is ugly and dangerous. In this social media and celebrity crazed world, calls for revolutionary change will fall on deaf ears if they aren’t glamorized in the same manner as a black film created with the pure intent of churning a profit. Hollywood has always had a reason to create mainly-black films of this caliber, but they made sure we were good and wet for this movie to be released during Black History Month. Knowing we have been desperate for positive representation in films, they created a marketing campaign in which parting with money makes most black folks feel like they’ve done something viable to achieve racial equality. In the Black Panther revolution the only sacrifice you need to make is $12 for a ticket and giving up three hours of your afternoon. It doesn’t matter if the film (or future ones) subliminally reinforce the notion that blacks cannot buck the reins of white supremacy or be an independent nation free of white interference. It’s “for the culture.”
Many are twinkly-eyed over Black Panther for it’s mainly all-black cast (sidenote: why the fuck was a white CIA character allowed to be a hero in this film?!), and will continue to be so. In the background, there are those of us weary of Black Panther, and other future films, being spun as acts of revolution, funding the same company that doesn’t want us to have any real ones.