What Don’t Make Dollars Don’t Make Sense
by Damien Sojoyner
When D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (no, not that The Birth of a Nation) was shown at the White House 1915, President Woodrow Wilson held that it was a monumental achievement for U.S. history. The birth of cinema in the United States was ushered in with wild applause from Wilson who stated after the screening: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Now, just a quick bit of history, The Birth of a Nation was a film based upon the classic The Clansman written by Wilson’s good friend Thomas Dixon. Very simply, The Clansman and The Birth of a Nation attempt to rewrite U.S. history. In the wake of the dastardly compromise that closed the Reconstruction era, the Southern planter class and its northern allies were quickly attempting to develop a new narrative of race within the U.S. The close of the Civil War brought about new possibilities given that Black people in the South had just determined the end the war by literally going on strike (for all of those who don’t believe this rendering of the Civil War, please read W.E.B DuBois’s Black Reconstruction in America). In addition to parsing out land to the formerly enslaved, Reconstruction led to a brief moment in the U.S. formal political structure that saw Black federal and state senators take ranks alongside the same white southerners who were clambering for their return back to the good old days of chattel slavery. This of course was a major problem, and the Hayes Compromise saw to it that the economic polemics of racial capitalism would remain intact with the ushering in of the convict lease system that enchained Black people back to the land. However the genie was out of the bottle as Black people had freed themselves from slavery and importantly, Black people knew that white people knew that Black people had freed themselves from slavery.
Enter in the U.S. cinema enterprise, which Cedric Robinson describes as being developed as a means to assuage the crises of a failing racial order that demanded Black subservience. The core of The Birth of a Nation (and the part that Wilson so much agreed with) is that the U.S. was constructed as a morally bankrupt and failed structure because of the proclivity of Black men to rape white women. The savior for this cauldron of morally bankrupt stew was the Klu Klux Klan who would save the day and return the U.S. back to the democratic traditions that had made it so great. And thus, U.S. modern cinema was born.
I mention all of as a reminder that U.S. film has always been about race, economics, gender, sexuality and hierarchies. This is the history of the industry. The list of “iconic” U.S. films fits this bill to a T.
And now we have Black Panther, which arrives on the doorstep of the United States during a time of severe crisis. While the formal political apparatus is in a state of chaos with a president who is breaking records for abysmally low approval ratings and whose administration is currently under federal investigation, communities across the country have been living under threat of incarceration, gentrification schemes, dismantling of health care systems, and food shortages. This has been compounded by the fact that the film industry has been teetering on the brink of financial ruin for the past decade. While new media technologies and companies strive to attract viewers, the paradigm of box office smash has run out of steam. Enter Black Panther.
Black Panther is a Disney creation through and through. When Disney paid a little over 15 billion dollars to buy Pixar, Marvel and Lucas Film, it was doing so with a long-term vision in mind that is now coming into full bloom. Eyeing a new market place, Disney sought to not only crush its traditional competitors such as Paramount and 20th Century Fox (which it subsequently bought), it sought to crush its new media counterparts. Shortly after Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox, it announced that it would be pulling all of its content from Netflix and starting its own streaming service. That effectively meant that many of the Netflix Original shows, many of which hailed from the Marvel Universe such as Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones in addition to the litany of children’s programming, will no longer be streamed on the Netflix platform. Adding insult to injury, Netflix will now have a competitor that could potentially spell the end for the burgeoning media giant. The key here is a very basic tenet of capitalism: crisis breeds consolidation. Consolidation of money, ideas and thought.
This brings us back to Black Panther. Within this particular paradigm, Disney is ripe to address two sets of very serious crisis. On the one hand, Disney is going to reap the rewards of a very stagnant theater-going market. While the Black Panther has quickly made a billion dollars, this money is in fact deceiving as the astronomical mark-up in ticket prices has attempted to cover for the fact that people no longer go to the movies as they once did. 2016 was one of the worst years in ticket sales in over a century. Further, the bulk of the money within the industry comes from a handful of movies. In 2017, the top twenty movies accounted for 51% of ticket sales from the 165 wide release films in the U.S. This was on the heels of the fact that in 2015 the top five movies accounted for 25% of ticket sales. Disney’s plan is quite simple: target the genres and by extension the companies making the films that account for the bulk of ticket sales, buy them, and watch the money pile up. Hollywood has its winner that will save the rest of the industry and Disney can forge ahead making billions.
Second, what better way to enter into a foray of racial and political animus than to use the film for what cinema was intended to be used for: the re-establishment of the racial order. Disney spent more money on Black Panther advertising than any other Marvel project to date and the investment paid off handsomely. Aside from cracking the 1 billion dollar benchmark, the film shifted the conversation of race in a way that has been quite seductive. Given the litany of thought pieces that have covered Black Panther and its meaning for Black people, I want to focus attention on the film’s final message: Non-profits will save Black communities. This was not by chance, as film, an institution of the U.S., functions to reify the state during a time when the U.S. has just about lost all legitimacy in many Black communities as it has become synonymous with dispossession and incarceration. Let this sink in: a kingdom (Wakanda) that has one of the greatest minerals (vibranium) in the universe and has used that mineral to produce epic technological achievements in health care, weaponry, and food distribution has decided that it will establish the very thing that the “Black community” needs more of to take it out of its very precarious and vulnerable situation: a non-profit. Yep, that makes perfect sense.
I will end where I began with Woodrow Wilson’s quote on The Birth of a Nation: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” We must take the film industry for what it has always been and always remember that Lincoln did not free the slaves.