The Czar and family have returned from Marvel’s latest thousand-dollar-or-more-grossing movie Black Panther, which stars Jackie Robinson, Adonis Creed, and that frog from Star Wars. If you are reading this by way of the Internet, you are already connected enough to know that this is The Greatest Black Movie Ever Made in the History of Cinema!
Or is it? The Czar had a sneaking suspicion that there was something more going on.
Historically, there have been two types of “Black” movies: those which feature a couple of black actors inserted into an otherwise ordinary movie—so much so that the black actors could have been white without much of the story changing—or movies made by and almost exclusively for black people with the intent of discouraging non-black Americans from seeing them. Basically, this is intended for black audiences only.
In the first case, familiar or “safe” black actors are used—Denzell Washington, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman, Bernie Mac, and so on—but not in any particularly exclusive manner. Most, maybe all, of these roles could have been performed by non-black actors. The Czar speculates, to no one’s surprise, that this is Hollywood’s way of ensuring financial success: these aren’t crossover movies as much as way to ensure white dollars don’t go elsewhere. “Make it black,” the Hollywood producer tells the director over capelli d’angelo and goat cheese, “but not too black.” It’s a Kevin Hart movie, sure, but the rest of the cast is white.
Our second example is even more obvious: Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, and F. Gary Gray. White audiences liked some of their movies, but you can bet they saw them on cable. And deep down, non-black audiences mostly pretended to get this hip-hop crap, and barely understood the inner city dialogue.
Perhaps the most notable exception to this paradigm is 1988’s Coming to America, which featured an almost exclusively black cast in both Africa and a black New York City-neighborhood. This, like 1985’s The Color Purple, seems to be a noteworthy exception until you look at the producers, directors, and crew—most of whom all went to temple together. These were really white movies for white audiences featuring black actors.
This is what makes Black Panther so different for a lot of Americans: this is an almost exclusively black-cast movie, set in southern Africa for the largest part, with a very, very, very black crew. Yeah, sure, Kevin Feige isn’t black, but the creative control for this movie was by Ryan Coogler. So while some of the headlines proclaiming this the Blackest Movie EVER are way over the top, they’re not exactly wrong.
But here’s the thing: this movie doesn’t care if the audience is black or not. The story is completely approachable, secretly based in the essential history of Civil Rights, that strives to be inclusive for all audiences. Bright, vibrant, and very unlike any of the Avengers-style entries, this movie elects to show and tell, rather than beat audiences over the head.
This was the Czar’s suspicion: that Ryan Coogler decided that only the cast and setting need, by the story’s setting, to be black. He decided the movie’s messages need to be universal.
You may have read some left-wing pundits praising the movie for its Black Liberation messages, its rejection of white supremacy, and its anti-Republican stance. This film, uh, really doesn’t have any of that in there. There is a passing reference of colonialism used in an overtly humorous way (the Czar thought it quite funny, actually), and African cultures are synthesized into a dignified, photogenic fashion.
But catch this: there is a formal expression, taken from Malcolm X’s earlier days, the blacks have been victimized by other cultures for too long, that injuries need to be repaid, that old grievances need to be settled—by the bad guy. The title character believes, and expresses, that people of all races have almost everything in common except small differences, and that it’s time to put subdivision and isolation behind us. Conservatives will watch this movie, and likely at several points look around the audience and think “I hope you’re all hearing this.” Multiculturalism, maybe—but the story goes to great lengths to show the Black Panther is very much a nationalist. He’s just a nationalist who believes that his country could do more to help others.
All this sounds a lot deeper than the goofiness of Thor: Ragnarök or teenage wit of Spider-Man: Homecoming, but this latest film from Marvel is quite apart from any of those that have gone before: nearly all the major characters (and there are quite a few!) get equal screen time and play very interesting, strongly focused roles. In fact, the Czar expects that this film has more detailed characters than any Marvel Studios film made before it, each of whom you really get to know. You rapidly forget the Greatest Black Film Ever, and instead focus on the actual story and very convincing acting.
Either way, it’s going to make billion dollars in less than 12 months, and while you may walk away from it thinking “That was a little different,” you won’t regret having seen it. Nor will your kids, who will find the costumes cool and the fight scenes quite imaginative. And if they learn a little something about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King’s opposing visions, well, it’ll be vastly more than they’ll get in school.
Божію Поспѣшествующею Милостію Мы, Дима Грозный Императоръ и Самодержецъ Всероссiйскiй, цѣсарь Московскiй. The Czar was born in the steppes of Russia in 1267, and was cheated out of total control of all Russia upon the death of Boris Mikhailovich, who replaced Alexander Yaroslav Nevsky in 1263. However, in 1283, our Czar was passed over due to a clerical error and the rule of all Russia went to his second cousin Daniil (Даниил Александрович), whom Czar still resents. As a half-hearted apology, the Czar was awarded control over Muscovy, inconveniently located 5,000 miles away just outside Chicago. He now spends his time seething about this and writing about other stuff that bothers him.