How do you write about a movie without giving away parts of it to anyone who has not seen it? I was spurred to see the movie “The Black Panther” after attending a networking dinner where half the guests had seen it and eagerly wanted to talk about it across the table while some of us pleaded that there not be any discussion until the rest of us had seen it.
As I write this, Black Panther has crossed the $1 billion revenue mark. When I saw a preview of the movie sometime in December it looked like another mindless action movie set in an American city. But the film with a predominantly black cast is set in Los Angeles, Seoul, and primarily in a fictional African country called Wakanda.
The movie has been well received in many markets due to its positive portrayal of Wakanda which has massive mineral wealth reserves that the residents have harnessed to develop an advanced technological economy while remaining hidden and portraying themselves to the world, as another poor African country.
It has a mix of new and-well established stars, as familiar faces like award-winning Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Lupita Nyongo have meshed well with several upcoming stars who have worked hard in their careers to get to their big break in the Black Panther. Fred Swaniker, the co-founder of the Africa Leadership Academy, recently wrote about Danai Gurira, a Zimbabwean college-friend of his, who he advised not to study theatre, as it was a waste of time; but she ignored his advice and now portrays the scene-stealing female general in the Black Panther.
Black Panther is directed by young black director Ryan Coogler who has a knack for turning small movie budgets into large paybacks. And Black Panther is now the 20th highest-grossing movie of all time on a list dominated by comic and children themed movies. Films get on this list when audiences enjoy, re-watch, and tell others to see them. And local entrepreneurs and celebrities have offered to pay for whole groups and classrooms in cities like Atlanta and Kisumu to watch the Black Panther.
For Kenyans, the film has been well received, and one report that it is probably one of the largest-grossing local films due to Lupita’s appearance. I got in touch with my friend Chris Foot, Chairman of the Kenya Film Commission to ask if Black Panther could have been shot in Nairobi and he mentioned that Coogler had actually visited Kenya for research but ultimately the producers decided that the movie would be primarily filmed in the US.
What’s remarkable about the Black Panthers’ billion-dollar haul is that it was achieved before the movie was shown in the large China movie market. In reading about expectations ahead of Black Panther’s opening in China I came across this article which looks at if the Black Panther movie would change the views of Chinese citizens about Africa.
The article mentions a movie, called Wolf Warrior II, which was released in July 2017 and became the best-selling Chinese movie in history, grossing $874 million. Wu Jing directed and stars in it as an indestructible Chinese soldier who foils rebels in a fictional African country where senseless wars break out that have soldiers shooting at each other and killing civilians even as an Ebola-like disease decimates communities. In it, the Chinese are revered as do-gooders in medicine and industry who are not to be harmed in Africa, except by the white mercenaries who are orchestrating the wars.
Finally, the imagery of Africa in Wolf Warrior II, which was filmed in present-day South Africa, is more realistic than Black Panther’s futuristic utopia of Wakanda. And the global success of the Black Panther movie will not change American or Chinese views about Africa but it may inspire more interest in African countries, stories, and projects.
This was written in March 2018 but not approved for publication as my regular column on financial issues.
Edit: Reading “The Ride of a Lifetime”, Robert Iger’s autobiography of his time as Disney CEO, during which he made three huge acquisitions – of Pixar, the Star Wars franchise and Marvel comics for the Disney empire, he writes that one of the proudest creations of his tenure was the Black Panther movie.
It defied the notion that a black-led superhero movie could not perform at the box office, on top of challenging a prevailing view in Hollywood that movies with predominantly black casts and black leads struggled in international markets. This had, in the past, resulted in fewer black-led films being produced, with fewer actors, and smaller budgets to mitigate the box-office risks.