Bright vs Black Panther: the strangeness of race in blockbuster films
One of the strangest kinds of film you can see today is the Race Blockbuster. It’s a movie that tries to analyse racism, like an indie Hood-film from the nineties or an Oscar-nominated drama, while aggressively trying to earn as much money as possible. Race Blockbusters are a relatively new type of film, but it’s likely we’ll see a lot more in the coming years because film studios have been earning big profits from them. Black Panther broke box office records when it premiered this year, raking in nearly a billion dollars. Straight Outta Compton (2015) made over $200 million and while Get Out was not a blockbuster per se, it was the most profitable film of 2017, earning back nearly 6000% from its $4.5 million budget. In an industry where money, rather than artistic integrity, is the end game it only makes sense that as many production companies would try to cash in on the trend.
As a relatively new figure in the industry, Netflix has been fighting tooth and nail to secure its position as an entertainment-juggernaut, producing dozens of original films since its debut feature Beasts of No Nation (2015). Despite its reputation for niche indie-releases and brainless comedies, it’s no surprise that Netflix would keep riding its unprecedented wave of success and graduate onto producing big-budget films. Even less surprising was Netflix’s decision to greenlight a risky, off-beat project most Hollywood studios would steer clear of: Bright (2017), the fantasy buddy-cop film that paired Will Smith with an Orc in a bizarre reimagining of Los Angeles full of magic, elves and awkward racism. Released less than a month before Black Panther, Bright tried to attack the same racially-charged themes that Panther did, but while Marvel’s flagship film was a runaway success Bright was universally hated. So how did Netflix get it so wrong? How is it that two fantasy-action films, both trying to cast a light racism, can receive such polarising responses?
The most striking difference is that Bright presents racism as an allegory; in the film Orcs are supposed to represent the African American community; maligned, persecuted and feared; while the beautiful and affluent Elves are the powerful upper class of celebrities, politicians and… trend-setting Kardashians? Humans, on the other hand, make up most of the population but live in a weird, post-race society where the Chief of Police is a Korean-American woman (Margaret Cho) and a black police officer (Smith) aggressively discriminates against anyone who isn’t human, declaring “Fairy lives don’t matter” after killing a [presumably] sentient fairy in his front yard.
It’s a clumsy, effective way to show a mass audience the horrors of racism, but when you start unpacking what’s implicit in Bright’s race-system some very twisted ideas come to light. Orcs are ugly, criminal brutes with a keen, animal sense of smell, and they’re vilified because they “Sided with the Dark Lord” in some vaguely-referenced magical war thousands of years ago.
What is this movie trying to say? That African-Americans are persecuted because they’re animalistic thugs that performed some great evil thousands of years ago? It makes for great fantasy viewing but when you’re trying to very obviously talk about race it becomes dangerous propaganda. Bright suffers from its own ambition, trying to neatly compact ‘Racism’ and all its idiosyncrasies into an easily-digestible format. Racism is a vast, complicated web, and there’s no easy way to simplify it for a mass audience. Bright isn’t the only film to suffer from this flaw; Zootopia (2016) was another allegorical race-blockbuster whose system contradicts itself.
Black Panther, however, isn’t trying to hide behind a family-friendly veneer. It’s clearly a fantasy film, but its characters shout speeches about black incarceration rates, the disintegration of African-American neighbourhoods, and the responsibility that all members of a race have to help each other. The fact is Black Panther is a more complex film that isn’t afraid to struggle with nuanced themes: female empowerment, America’s foreign policy, and the deep scars left by the Atlantic slave trade. This is no doubt due to the production teams of each movie; Black Panther was written and directed by black men, Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler, respectively; with a soundtrack produced by Kendrick Lamar; production design by Hannah Beachler, and costume design by Ruth E. Carter, both African-American women. On the other hand Bright was made entirely by white men.
However, it might be too easy to venerate Black Panther as a wholly woke film. Billed as “a love letter to Africa”, Black Panther has been making headlines for its positive and accurate depiction of African culture. From flawless accents and lavish costumes to an absolutely mesmerising Wakandan cityscape, the film’s design team put a huge amount of effort into depicting the many people of Africa. The real people of Africa, however, have not been thrilled by the representation. In an interview with the Washington Post Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo says “As an African, I didn’t feel accurately represented in Black Panther”, identifying Panther’s design as a random grab-bag of African culture, with accents from West Africa being spoken alongside south-African Xhosa and random spurts of Swahili from East Africa. Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack is weirdly devoid of African representation; of the twenty-three artists featured on the album, only four were from Africa. Bizarrely, the diversity of the cast is even less African; only three are from Africa (Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, who was raised in London, and John Kani, who has less than ten minutes of screen time as T’Challa’s deceased father). The rest of the cast all come from either the USA or England (with the notable exception of Winston Duke, who portrayed the chief of Jobari Tribe, who was born in Tobago).
This cuts to the core of Black Panther’s problem with cultural and racial identity: even though it has been celebrated as one, it is not an African film. This is an African-American film, financed by Hollywood. The internal tension this film possesses is reflected in its story: Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) arrives in Wakanda and imposes an aggressive, Western regime on the nation, repeating exactly what he’d been taught growing up in California and the American Army. The creators of Black Panther have committed the same Neo-Colonial crime, homogenising and misrepresenting Africa, showing us an ‘idea’ of the continent rather than its reality. It’s the exact problem representations of Africa have had for hundreds of years, from the shroud of mystery that Timbuktu held in the Middle Ages to Joseph Conrad’s white perspective in Heart of Darkness (1899); from Shaft in Africa (1973) to Blood Diamond (2006); fantasies of Tarzan and the colonial romance Out of Africa (1985). From the European perspective Africa has always been a blank slate to satisfy a need, whether it’s to expand an empire, explore a wilderness, steal slaves, or to set a story. The nation of Wakanda was created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, both white, and of the dozens of writers Black Panther has had in the last fifty years none have been born in Africa.
Of course, it’s a fantasy film and everything is being done with good intentions, so why should it matter? Bright had the same motivations and yet it was condemned. What’s the difference? Maybe the sad truth is that nobody cares about Africa yet. As long as everybody in the rest of the world is happy about Black Panther it doesn’t matter what Africans think. How many African films even receive wide release? District 9 (2009), another very profitable race blockbuster, is one of the few to have had any world-wide success, and while being South African, it was directed by a white guy. What if Black Panther had been created by a group of African filmmakers? Would it have been as successful, even with the Marvel branding behind it? Would anyone have cared? On the stage of global culture Africa has such a quiet voice everybody speaks for them. After all, even this article is written by a white man speaking on behalf of every person in Africa.
Black Panther is a watershed moment for black people and minorities across the planet, but when will Africa get their moment?