Understanding Black Panther’s Power
Wakanda Forever. It’s not only a rallying cry for a great movie — it’s a proud proclamation of inclusion, heritage, and a hope for a better tomorrow for all peoples. Black Panther is the number one movie in the world, and, frankly, deserves to be there.
We believe in the power of reaching niche audiences to tell a story, whether that’s through branded, documentary, or narrative content. In the past year, we’ve seen a remarkable upheaval in the status quo when it comes to which audiences are represented — for example, the successes of Wonder Woman, Coco, Get Out, and, now, Black Panther. Advertisers and business people alike have scratched their head about where the market is shifting. Now, we seem to have data points. There’s a reward for telling stories that represent peoples of different backgrounds and origins — we find that hewing close to the universal truths that bind us together can have lasting effects and staying power with audiences. The latest example is Black Panther, which targets African-American audiences and, in turn, succeeds in almost every way.
Oftentimes, it takes a creative team to lead the way when it comes to this industry that typically sticks to the safe choices. The writers, director, producers, cast, and crew gave us a film that revels in Pan-Africanism, Afrofuturism, and the learned idea that being isolated from the world isn’t the way forward. We must learn from this juggernaut film that tapped into a diverse demographic, infused personal struggles, and exemplified great art. Beware, possible (unintentional) spoilers for the film ahead.
Black Panther is an unprecedented achievement. A superhero film starring a large majority black cast and written/directed/produced by black artists has crushed the box office and filmgoing expectations. The film grossed an estimated $235 million over the four-day weekend in a little over 4,000 screens — a feat attributable to the film’s power to bring out a diverse and enthusiastic audience.
What was more inspiring to me, beyond the numbers, were the videos and pictures of audiences all over the world of people owning their pride — wearing West-African-inspired clothing, dancing, and gushing over the film that celebrates black and African culture in such a positive, contagious manner. Not only that, it is a phenomenal film.
From my point of view as a Hispanic person, it was inspiring to feel such an overwhelming pride well up in the theater. I had a few kids and teens sitting around me, all of different backgrounds, engrossed in the story and moved by the celebration of African heritage. Older folks were moved to tears in the theater. The commitment to an underrepresented demographic saw a massive spike in turnout: African-Americans made up 37% of the audience (blowing past the typical 15% for other superhero movies), Caucasians were 35%, and Hispanics were 18%. Apparently, diversity pays off in a big way.
An Auteur’s Touch
In these superhero films, there can be a personal story that’s missing from the film or lost in all of the spectacles. Originally, Killmonger from the comics hails from Harlem but was altered based on Coogler’s experiences in Oakland — where Coogler saw boys and girls just like him get lost to the streets. Coogler imagined himself creating an industry for people in his part of Oakland to work and thrive. Congruously, there are many of those same themes in Black Panther — what if an African country, the most technologically advanced nation in the world, spread their knowledge and compassion around the world? Coogler wants to be a role model for all children who don’t think they have a shot; he certainly did it despite the odds. That same mission becomes T’Challa’s work, as well.
The auteurist touch stems from Coogler’s personal story and bleeds into every scene in the film. For example, in a video segment titled ‘Notes on a Scene’ with Vanity Fair, Ryan Coogler dives deep into an action scene that blew me away in the theater. It’s amazing that Black Panther can exude so much meaning while exploring the thrill of a fight scene in a casino, which is a testament to the filmmaker. The color of each costume for the characters in the scene (T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye) are black, green, and red, respectively. Their color choice represents the Pan-African flag, which represents unity among all indigenous peoples in Africa. Also, their unity against a foreign adversary trying to sell their natural resource harkens back to the historical context in which imperial powers took advantage of Africa’s wealth at the expense of their native people. In an industry where action comes in spades, it’s refreshing to see so much thought in the minute details.
Then, there’s the camerawork that elevates the scene from a run-of-the-mill fight to a full exploration of the casino as a space. In the above video, Coogler speaks into how he pulls off the one shot. Nakia shoots people on the balcony from the floor below, and the camera cranes up on a MoVi Steadicam rig up to the next floor. A cameraman (behind the pillar?) stands by to “catch” the camera to film the brilliant fight choreography of Danai Gurira and the stuntmen. The shot resembles a one shot from the 1958 film, A Touch of Evil, where the craning one shot adds so much depth and vibrancy to the scene.
When you allow artists to infuse their unique craft into a story that could have easily been a typical blockbuster, you’re bound to reap the deserved rewards. Sure, there are certain ways to film a scene such as this in a way that’s easy to understand and passable. But it’ll be just that — passable. Not memorable or groundbreaking. When you try to move the needle with films such as Black Panther, it’s imperative to let the artists do their thing and create the most compelling piece that they can.
The status quo will kill you, in the end. A film that was, partially, made for American audiences borrows from Afrofuturism, Pan-Africanism, and Shakespearean family struggles to tell a wonderful story of reconciling with the mistakes of your past and how to activate positive change in the world. It’s a film that will resonate with audiences for years to come. Storytellers of all flavors (film, TV, commercial, branded content) have much to learn from Black Panther’s success.
There’s wisdom in leaning into diverse modes or sources of storytelling because that artistic infusion will bring depth to your product. When you see Wakanda for the first time, it’s like Manhattan if it were built in West Africa and the people who live there are inspired by many peoples and cultures within the continent. The blending and attention to detail invite more people to resonate with your story — which is the ultimate goal of telling any story. When an audience connects with your story, they connect to your brand.
A story that is born from something personal and deals with hard, beautiful truths will hold up to scrutiny much more than a milquetoast attempt at selling a product. When a story is rich, vibrant, and celebrating cultures and inclusion — that’s the gold mine. Be careful when trying to tell these stories as to not appropriate, but be open to letting inspiration come from all sources.