What Don’t Make Dollars Don’t Make Common Sense
by Damien Sojoyner
U.S. film has always been about race, economics, gender, sexuality, and hierarchies. This is the history of the industry. Cedric Robinson describes the U.S. cinema enterprise as having developed to assuage the crisis of a failing racial order that demanded Black subservience. 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.
We’ve seen this play out before. When D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (no, not that The Birth of a Nation ) was shown at the White House in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson held that it was a monumental achievement in U.S. history. The birth of cinema in the United States was ushered in with wild applause by 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.”
Based upon the Southern classic The Clansman, written by Wilson’s good friend Thomas Dixon, The Birth of a Nation was, very simply, an 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.
The core argument 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.
Flash forward to today. Not only are we once again in a time of major political and social crisis, 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 the 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 is subsequently bought), it sought to crush its new media counterparts. Shortly after Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox, it announced that it would pull all of its content from Netflix and start 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 burgeoning media giant. The key here is a very basic tenet of capitalism: crisis breeds consolidation. Consolidation of money, ideas and thought.
Within this particular paradigm, Disney is ripe to address two sets of very serious crisis. For one, 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 narrowing 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 that make the films accounting 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 further shifted the conversation of race in a way that has been quite seductive.
The marketing of Black Panther inferred that the film was going to present a reckoning of the racial order via the valiant rise of the Black race. This fictive Black race was to spring forth from the heart of Africa and challenge the paradigm of the existing racial order that presumes blackness as its base with a rapid hierarchal ascension to whiteness. Yet at its core, Black Panther is a film that is a nationalist project and as a result, rather than shift the dial on the racial order, it co-opts the aesthetic and passion associated with Black freedom struggles and places it within the confines of a palatable nation-making enterprise.
Rather than a new strategy, this has been a common model deployed by cities, counties, states, and nations throughout the African Diaspora in order to circumvent radical Black demands and visions of liberation. From despots propped up by the Western forces such as the United States, Britain, and France in the wake of independence movements in Western, Central, and Southern Africa during the 1950’s and 60’s to Black elected officials in U.S. cities backed by finance, real estate, and industrial capital, the façade of nationalism governed by blackness has functioned to strengthen racial order. In the case of African countries, racial order was upheld by colonial enterprises backed by European private capital and national holdings that invaded all facets of life. These enterprises were under direct attack by revolutionary movements that sought liberation from the yoke of the violence emanating from Western civilization.
In the U.S., elected officials and private capital forged a collusion to prop up a racial order in the face of a mounting tide that threatened to undo the very logics of racial capitalism. In addition to violent physical repression, a common strategy that was and continues to be utilized is the insertion of Black bodies as the face of the nation state as a means to assuage Black demands for freedom. This perhaps was most clearly seen with the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. Heralded as the last piece of a revolutionary triumvirate foregrounded by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.—a slick campaign marketed as a social movement—Obama’s election brought forth books, media programs, and academic panels across the country touting the U.S. as a post-racial paradise.
The reality was quite different. Black folks in the U.S. faced a hell unleashed by the very forces that sought to prop up the racial order. Ravaged by the financial banking crises of 2007 that specifically targeted Black communities, Black people under Obama’s presidency incurred levels of wealth extraction not seen since Reconstruction. All the while being chastised by a respectability politics that functioned to discipline dissident, non-compliant, impoverished, and critical voices and movements. Yet in the face of all this, the U.S. was heralded for its grand achievement of moving beyond race.
This brings us to the current moment. The gentile, respectable façade of Barack Obama is no longer the face of the U.S. nation state process. Instead, the country is governed by naked capitalism. Stripped bare of its shiny clothes and without a filter, the essence of the racial order has been made evident. Previous conversations pertaining to a post-racial society have come to a complete standstill. A crisis has emerged—for the myth of the U.S. as the melting pot and pinnacle of individual achievement has been torn asunder from the very top of the mountain. With the ethos of the nationalist project shown for what it is, movements have gained steam to take advantage of the moment.
It is here that Black Panther enters into the fray. Seductively positioning Black might, power, and intelligence as a Western nation-building enterprise, the film builds upon previous models of circumvention to represent how Black people should look for liberation. Not to a radical approach that would undo the very concept of Western nationalism itself, but to a doubling down and entrenchment of the “liberation” process within the cloak of Western civilization. Under such a framing, the basic tenets that produce exploitation and violence are left untouched. The very basic racial capital tenets that undergird Disney’s immense fortune are left intact and the racial order is carefully pieced back together.
In this light, 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.
The inclusion of non-profits as a fill-in for “means by which Black freedom will be gained” is laughable at best given the intent and purpose of non-profits. As researched and discussed at length by a variety of scholars and perhaps most powerfully analyzed in the Incite! edited collection, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, the direct connection to the state governance process via the philanthropic sector (i.e., foundations) and the official state process was never constructed to challenge racial order. Rather it was situated to reify the order.
A cursory examination of the most vile takeover of Black education at the turn of the 20th century by the philanthropic sector via both the state process and the burgeoning non-profit sector illustrates this point most profoundly. Williams Watkins in White Architects of Black Education carefully connects all of the dots to demonstrate the wrongheaded belief that the philanthropic sector will save Black folks. If one is not convinced by that argument, simply peruse through the archives of cities where organic Black movements developed in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s and you will find a treasure chest of non-profits that magically appear with relatively immense funding from both the philanthropic and direct state intervention. These non-profits were not established to work in conjunction with already established organizing efforts; they were developed to squelch Black organizing and re-establish racial order. Thus, the idea that non-profit sector is going to save anyone is not only inaccurate, but a dangerous pitfall that never ends well for Black people.
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.
 In 2016, Nate Parker co-wrote and directed a very different film also called The Birth of a Nation, about Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in 1831; https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_birth_of_a_nation_2016