The year 2018 was one of box office successes and awards of artistic recognition for black films, from Marvel Comic’s action flick Black Panther to the fact-based drama Blackkklansman.
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, about a fictional African king with superhero powers and his technologically advanced country, Wakanda, has received dozens of awards, including three Golden Globe nominations. The American Film Institute recognized it as one of the year’s ten best movies for its social and artistic significance celebrating African and African-American cultures.
Musing about the film’s power, producer Nate Moore told VOA, “I think that for African-American audiences there is a lot to pull from. And hopefully there is some inspiration again learning about the roots where African-Americans came from.”
Black Panther, with the first black Superhero lead actor, grossed over a billion dollars domestically and internationally, making it the third highest grossing film ever in the U.S. It has been projected as an Oscar winner. But does its critical and financial success mean that Black films are becoming a Hollywood staple?
A turning point for black films?
It may be too soon to tell, says media expert Richard Craig, an associate professor of communication at George Mason University. “I think Hollywood is processing that as the way that Hollywood processes most things, and that’s looking at the bottom line, the profit margin. If a film does well in the box office and beyond the box office — because we have the opportunity of the merchandise, spinoffs in terms of shows, field games etc. Hollywood is going to say, ‘you know what? Maybe we can do another one, maybe we can do another two.’”
As long as audiences pay to see films with minorities as leads, Hollywood will keep on making them, Craig says, but adds that the industry still has a long way to go before it is willing to invest in high-budget film franchises such as James Bond or Spiderman with black actors as leads.
He points to the newly-released animated Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse, which includes a black Spiderman. He said while he and his 12-year-old daughter enjoyed this new rendition of Spiderman, he felt a bit ambivalent about its animated form. “You are given this cartoon version of Spiderman to accept this black face as Spiderman as opposed to having a real time, real place actor.”
However, Craig says, smaller, independent black movies with a political or cultural message that feature real-live actors have a greater chance of making it to production.
Two such films this year are Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, a dark satire based on a true story about an African-American cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan and If Beale Street Could Talk, a romantic drama about social injustice against blacks and incarceration of African-American men in 1970s America, by Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins. Both films have been mentioned as Oscar contenders and share the spotlight in AFI’s list of best films of the year.
Room for smaller films
But small black films by lesser-known filmmakers get little promotion and financial backing. Just a few years after the beginning of the #BlackLivesMatter, musician and activist Boots Riley released his first film, Sorry to Bother You. It advocates activism against the economic exploitation of “Corporate America.”
“When art and organizing are married, then the art becomes a way for people to ruminate on what they can do and then they have a place to plug in,” Riley told VOA. “And then I think what happens is more artists are created from those movements.” He says he doubts his film would have made it to production if he relied on Hollywood to get it funded. “Making your art is one thing and trying to get a job in what “they” [the Hollywood Industry] want to happen is another. The reason I was able to make a film like I made was because I wasn’t trying to get a job.”
He advises young filmmakers without financial backing to use digital platforms to get their films out.
It took Boots Riley four years to get his film made. But Sorry to Bother You is a success story. The film cost a little bit over three million dollars to make and has grossed over twenty million dollars.
The Hate U Give, by filmmaker George Tillman, about a police shooting of an African-American teen in a black community, also went viral, despite the fact that it had gotten little promotion. Tillman said that was because the film offered an authentic depiction of African-Americans killed by police and its message of standing up for justice resonated with audiences all over the country.
Boots Riley agrees that the overwhelmingly positive audience response towards thought-provoking African-American movies signals that black filmmakers can take charge of their narrative and film production.
“We have things to bring to the world that are not just changing the actors or changing the director,” he says, “and I think that black film can really start having its own stories.”