A Crisis in Hollywood: Black Panther to the Rescue?
By Gerald Horne
I saw the movie in a theater near Pasadena and the audience was ecstatic. The film takes place in a fictional African nation and the audience seemed to resonate with the themes of anti-racism most notably. Indeed, stormy applause greeted these riveting scenes.
Yes, I certainly enjoyed watching Wolf Warrior 2 in Monterey Park, one of the most heavily Chinese-American—and Asian-American—suburbs in the nation.
Invoking this Chinese blockbuster about how a Chinese hero almost single-handedly intervenes to rescue a fictional African nation from the devastation being wreaked by mercenaries and “terrorists” directed by Europeans—seemingly Euro-Americans—reminds us that when analyzing the phenomenon that is Black Panther, it pays to take note of related trends that, at least ostensibly, have little or nothing to do with the fictional Wakanda. (And, yes, a pivotal scene occurs when the Chinese hero dispenses with the villain after the ill-advised man makes a blatantly racist comment about historic exploitation of Chinese and Asians.)
Wakanda isn’t the first time.
That is, the first question to consider when discussing Black Panther is what is happening to Hollywood itself? This inexorably brings us to a discussion of what is happening to U.S. imperialism. Over, roughly, the past half century since Yorba Linda’s Richard M. Nixon journeyed to China to convince this giant to join the anti-Soviet bloc, Beijing has soared beyond its designated role as a cheap labor site for U.S. transnational corporations and, instead, is now mastering green energy, quantum computing, robotization, artificial intelligence—and the “soft power” that is moviemaking.
Ironically, many of those cheering Black Panther may have been engrossed in its wonders in an AMC Theater chain now controlled by the Chinese-based “Dalian Wanda.” This investment of Asian capital in Hollywood is nothing new: SONY of Japan has been in control of Columbia Pictures for almost two decades, for example. (The scenes of Black Panther filmed in South Korea should be viewed in this context.)
History should remind us that when Hollywood—speaking now of the Euro-American controlled portion—has a crisis in terms of profitability or otherwise, it often turns to the African-American audience: that is the lesson of the so-called “Blaxploitation” era of Shaft and Super Fly and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and Pam Grier that was being launched as Nixon was deplaning in China.
Today, Hollywood faces a similar crisis as it is being pressed not only by China—strategically, financially, and otherwise—but also by the “new kids on the block,” Amazon and Netflix, which are pouring billions into moviemaking. Their entry could disrupt the reign of traditional studios, such as Disney, which produced and financed Black Panther.
This brings us to a related matter: Robert Iger, Disney’s chief, stepped down from the so-called Business Advisory Council of the 45th U.S. President in a tiff over climate change. Hollywood—historically—has heavily supported the Democratic Party (see the campaign donations of former Disney executive, Jeffrey Katzenberg, for example), which in turn has received votes disproportionately from African-Americans. It is apparent that Donald Trump’s Republican Party—at least for the foreseeable future—has a stranglehold on the vote of the Euro-American working class and middle class. This is occurring as the bourgeois commentator, Michael Kinsley—who is related by marriage to an early investor and executive in Microsoft, and therefore a card-carrying member of the 1%—has warned gravely that the rise of Trump, and the right-wing populism he represents, carries the seeds of fascism. This means counter-revolution, which could threaten the status quo—to the detriment of the anti-Trump faction of the U.S. ruling elite.
Intriguingly, Britain is now facing a similar dilemma in light of the June 2016 decision by the electorate to withdraw from the European Union, which has upset the Confederation of British Industries (CBI). The CBI has been a prime supporter of the Conservative Party, which spearheaded this maneuver, but of late it has been making overtures to the Labour Party, now headed by Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn was often derided previously by these same forces as a “Marxist” or “Stalinist,” since he has called for his party to not pursue the “hard” Brexit (or exit from the EU) but a softer version.
Is it possible to see the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the production and promotion and distribution of Black Panther in this context of swirling political and economic changes globally and domestically and, if so, what does this mean for the future? Is Black Panther a maneuver by the usually well-positioned Disney to garner a new audience, which is of not only economic but political consequence?
First of all, in times of crisis, opportunities for inclusion and diversity arise. As has often been said about the significance of being a network news anchor, when television’s importance began to decline, the time had arrived to allow women to become anchors. It does seem that as television as a whole has lost audience and cultural capital, it has similarly created an opening for more African Americans on TV, be it Kerry Washington or Shonda Rhimes or Donald Glover or Kenya Barris or Mara Brock Ali. Is it possible that the recent prominence of Black Panther and its writer-director, Ryan Coogler—not to mention Ava Duvernay and Will Packer—is a simple reflection of a crisis in Hollywood, being challenged on all fronts?
Before I go further, I should spend time examining what I witnessed on the silver screen (though the fact that I have not done so should be a hint that our analysts of related phenomena—e.g., “Hip Hop,” for example—would do well to pay more attention to Political Economy). John Howard Lawson, who founded what is now the Screen Writers Guild, once opined that the investment in an artistic product often shapes how radical it can be: i.e., a poet with a pad and pencil can be quite radical, certainly more radical than a playwright in a 99-seat theatre, while a film-maker directing a movie in which millions have been invested can be quite constrained. To put it another way, Hollywood movies reflect the balance of forces on the ground, whether labor or capital has the upper hand, whether the right or the center (or the left) is governing, whether progressives or fascists are on the march globally and domestically.
Given Trump and Brexit, the rise of Alternative for Germany in Berlin and the National Front in France, the revival of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, it is apparent that the conservative right is on the march in the North Atlantic nations—though, as noted, the rise of China (with all of its contradictions) provides a counterpoint.
It is in that context that Black Panther should be viewed. I confess that I analyze this film not only in terms of the foregoing but also in terms of why it has struck such a chord among audiences, filling the coffers of Disney. Thus, I do not analyze this movie solely in terms of whether the film meets my critical standards, since I recognize that those like myself are not necessarily in the ascendancy.
Hence, I sense that the film has become so popular because it represents an implicit critique of the status quo, notably—as Walter Rodney once put it—How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The idea of a modern and technologically sophisticated African nation, e.g., Wakanda, then does seem to be possible only in science fiction or “Afrofuturism” or a writer’s fevered imagination. I would hope that the youth who view this movie might ask why this is so, which could lead them in turn to Rodney or the work of Trinidad’s Eric Williams.
The Afrikaner villain in Black Panther is justifiable, though under-contextualized is that U.S. imperialism was apartheid’s closest ally. The idea of a Euro-American CIA agent allying with the “good guys” of Wakanda is questionable at best, given that agency’s role in dislodging Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana in 1966 and aiding Pretoria in capturing Nelson Mandela, facilitating his 28-year prison sentence. On the other hand, Washington was forced from 1941–1945 to ally with anti-fascist forces—i.e., to be on the side of the “good guys”—so this may not be as far-fetched as it seems.
The African-American character played by Michael B. Jordan has been knocked by a number of critics, though—in the end—his idea of using Wakanda’s wealth on behalf of other Africans seems to gain sway when the Chad Boseman character, accompanied by comrades, addresses the international community in Vienna. Assuredly, as a number of critics have noted, the women characters are uncommonly strong and send striking cultural signals—e.g., as when one complains about, then doffs her straightened hair wig before engaging in combat. Apparently, inspired by Black Panther, a new Hollywood film is in pre-production starring Viola Davis in a role as one of the “Amazon” warriors of what was then late 19th century Dahomey, now Benin in West Africa and a former major site for the unlamented African Slave Trade.
Thus, given the correlation of forces and what it is possible to produce, what is my verdict on Black Panther? Well, as a Chinese leader reportedly once said in the 1970s when asked to evaluate the French Revolution of 1789, it is “too soon to tell.” Or as Miles Davis, the celebrated trumpeter, once said, there is no such thing as playing a “bad” note, it depends on what note is played immediately after: that note has yet to be played but I hope and trust that viewing Black Panther will compel our youth to play a note of piercing beauty and triumph.