The More Things Change, The More Things Stay the Same…Or Do They?: Black Media Representation in the Age of Black Panther

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Without a doubt, Marvel’s Black Panther has been an unprecedented success. It has broken a plethora of records. It is the highest grossing superhero movie of all time in North America, the most tweeted about movie of 2018, had the largest presale tickets for a Marvel film, had the largest opening weekend for a Black Director, and the fifth largest opening weekend of all time (Khal). Black Panther is also the highest reviewed movie on Rotten Tomatoes. Pushing James Cameron’s 1997 epic, Titanic, to the fourth spot, Black Panther is now the third highest grossing film of all time.

Despite being a part of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and the precursor to the highly anticipated Avenger’s Infinity War (factors that may have played a role in the film’s ground-breaking success), the most appealing aspect of the film was its majority Black cast, fascinating plot, and wonderful characters (Rubin). For years, Hollywood executives justified their lack of financial backing for films starring Black leads or a predominant Black cast on the premise that such films lack crossover appeal to both non-Black audiences (chiefly White) and non-North American audiences. Yet, as many journalists have stressed, the sheer success of the film has certainly proved the Hollywood film executives’ beliefs to be unfounded (Barnes; Pesce; Harris; Rolli). The film garnered an enormous amount of excitement from movie going audiences of all ethnicities, nations, comic book fans, non-comic book fans, and celebrities alike (Coley; Hodge; McNary;McNary; BBC News).

As Phil Contrino, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners, astutely exclaims,

a movie can’t get to $1 billion globally without tapping into some universal truths. Black Panther’s emphasis on the importance of family and identity helped it transcend race, and that’s why it’s had no problem playing so well around the world…Audiences are sending a clear message that they want to see more diversity on the big screen. I really hope that five years from now we can look back at Black Panther as the moment that permanent change began.”

Black Panther brilliantly tackled issues anyone could relate to- abandonment, loss, isolation, duty, and revenge. Also, the characters and their interaction with each other was reminiscent of most families and communities. They all had distinct personalities, flaws, and were devoid of racial stereotypes. However, contrary to Contrino, Black Panther is not the only “moment” that could function as the beginning of “permanent change”.

The 2010’s has been a great decade for mainstream Black media representation. The decade even started off with an African American president, a Black first family, and a movement that brought the issue of police brutality into the world’s consciousness and repainted the image of African Americans as victims of a heinous crime instead of deserving criminals. Further, there have been a plethora of widely popular television shows and films that not only obtained crossover appeal but included well rounded, multi-dimensional Black characters. From Kerry Washington’s Scandal, Viola Davis’s How to Get Away with Murder, the socially conscious black-ish, the Oscar winning Get Out, to the critically successful Hidden Figures. There has never been a time where we’ve seen this amount of positive as well as diverse Black media representation. However, I do question the permanency of such representation.

The history of African American media representation has always been an incredibly negative one. However, there have been certain periods in which we witnessed a bevy of tv series or films that included well rounded Black characters and/or predominantly Black casts. Unfortunately, these periods were succeeded by a period that had very little positive Black representation. For instance, the mid-1980s and 1990s were seen as a Black Renaissance of cinema. The period had a horde of positive and diverse Black media representation. It had The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Different World, Family Matters, Sister, Sister, Smart Guy, Coming to America, Beverly Hills Cop, Independence Day, and so on. Each of these tv series and films were critical successes, had cross-over appeal, and featured three dimensional Black characters. Yet, by the 2000s, the renaissance seemed to have ebbed away. There was very little positive Black representation in that period, apart from niche markets that catered to Black audiences (e.g. BET). One can only wonder then if this “new” Black media renaissance will ebb away like its predecessor. I posit, there are factors in contemporary society that leads credence to the likelihood of permanent change that was not around in the previous renaissance(s). But before I discuss these factors, it is paramount I paint a more detailed picture of the ebb (the reduction in positive representation) and flow (the increase in positive representation) of Black media representation.

The Ebb and Flow of Black Media Representation

Much of the early days of American cinema was marked by virulent racism. Bishetta D. Merritt asserts, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation, “crystallized Hollywood images of African Americans on celluloid” (109). The film contained practically every racist trope of African Americans imaginable (e.g. Uncle Tom, oversexed buck, the coon, etc.). These images would serve to be a mainstay in American cinema and functioned as a standard image of blackness in which the rest of society would come to view African Americans (109). Therefore, Black directors, such as William D. Foster, Noble and George Johnson, and Oscar Micheaux, spent most of their energy creating independent Black films to counter the toxic images of blackness permeating mainstream American cinema of the early 20th century (1900s-1930s) (Sheridan 177; Merritt 109). These films more closely mirrored the lifestyle of African Americans during this epoch. The characters were doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, ministers, teachers, etc. and the subject matter pertained to issues of race, class, everyday life of Black people, and were aligned with various movements of upliftment. The Black press and film scholars referred to these films as race or ebony films (Early African American Film, “Definition”). Though only a few of these films garnered commercial success and attention from the White press and mainstream (White) audience, these films were successful, at least for Black audiences, in (re)articulating Black identity as “complex, contested, and fully realized” (Early African American Film, “History”). Though fewer in numbers, race films would continue on until the 1950’s, when many Black production companies went out of business due to growing costs of film production (Early African American Film, “History”).

Nevertheless, after the Second World War (late 40s to 1960s), the mainstream media, at this point in time-Hollywood, would begin to pick up, in a sense, where race films left off. As America began to confront racism so did Hollywood. Big studios often made movies depicting various aspects of racism like miscegenation and segregation in the military. Sidney Poitier rose to prominence in this era. He would go on to star in numerous movies, a few in which had tremendous crossover appeal. However, most of the movies in this period were criticized for “their velvet glove handling of racism-noble White man to the rescue of the saintly Black victim. The “saintly negro” charge was particularly leveled at Poitier, who many Black critics viewed as White America’s vision of what a Black man should be rather than a real flesh-and-blood man who was allowed to be angry or sensual”. The films that showcased a more realistic portrayal of Black identity were again independent movies aimed at a Black audience. Though there was a bit of progress gained in the mainstream media in terms of more positive, albeit stereotypical, Black representation, this period was still marred by racism and the Black filmmaker, unlike in the previous period, was nowhere to be seen. This absence resulted in movies depicting Black people that did not reflect Black people or Black experience(s) (Sheriden 180).

Television was no better. Racism marred this medium as well. Although there was a dearth of Black representation, there were a few shows that featured Black characters. The ever-racist Amos and Andy was one of them. The program initially started as a radio show in the 1930s where two white broadcasters, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, portrayed two black men named Amos and Andy (Watkins). However, what made Amos and Andy semi-positive was that it depicted “a richly textured Harlem community at its center, filled with all manner of black people, filling all manner of occupations and roles. White characters were an unusual occurrence, and every one of the major regular and recurring characters was played by a black actor” (Ihnat, Sims, VanDerWerff, McGee, and Bowman). This level of “well-intentioned” yet malicious racism characterizes the popular depiction of African Americans in the media. The period that succeeds this one, however, will once again seek to counter the racism of  its predecessor.

The early to mid-1970s, which was deemed to be the first official Black media renaissance, started off with a group of UCLA Black filmmakers. Energized by the Civil Rights Movement, they sought to “resist the grip of Hollywood and its use of Eurocentric models of behavior. The Black community, its culture, literature, and people were the focus of the films…” (Merritt 110). These films were decolonizing and antiracist in their images, sounds, aesthetics, and production techniques. Their aim was to place the Black perspective and culture as the center of the narratives and to showcase black people as “neither marginalized…nor…villainous stereotypes” (110). In fact, this was the era where the Black superhero emerged (Sheridan 181). A common plot line in films of this epoch was the Black protagonist thwarting the racist antics of White antagonists as well as the schemes of gangbangers. Also, the Black female perspective emerged. There were a plethora of movies featuring Black women as superheroines stopping crime, getting revenge on their abusers, and standing up to White supremacy (Sheridan 181). Most of these movies, however, did not have a tremendous amount of crossover appeal, but they were critical successes with Black audiences.

Tv shows fared a similar fate. Black centered programs such as What’s Happening!!, Different Strokes, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Sanford and Son, would also emerge during this era (Kimble and Lewis). Shows of this period portrayed the diversity of Black identity and experience and had an abundance of cross-over appeal to non-Black audiences (Kimble and Lewis; Arceneaux). Unfortunately, the succeeding period, though with more Black characters in mainstream movies, would return to stereotypical portrayals of African Americans.  

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the racial consciousness in films vanished and subtler, yet still overt, racist depictions of African Americans arose. Earl Sheridan asserts, “there were Blacks in the movies, like Eddie Murphy, but they were funny men. With his jive, street-smart attitude, Murphy was unapologetically Black, but his films were not about race and he was not threatening to White America. Richard Pryor began as a powerful comic critic of American racism. But as he grew more popular in the ‘80s, his films lost their militant edge, so much so that in The Toy (1983), Pryor is a plaything for a spoiled rich White kid.” (182). However, there were a few films that did deal with issues of race, but there were few in number-The Color Purple being one example (182). Television was slightly better since many sitcoms from the previous period were still on air and with new shows like NBC’s 227, that centered Black experience, everyday life, or with majority Black cast, added to the repertoire (Kimble and Lewis).  

The late 80s and the 1990s witnessed yet another renaissance of Black media representation. The Black movie star was in full effect with the likes of Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Wesley Snipes, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, and many others. This stood in stark contrast with previous epochs when only a handful of Black stars became cross over sensations (e.g. Sidney Poitier in the 50s and 60s). Also, this period experienced a boom in the “hood film” genre. Much like the 1970s, these films presented stories about inner city African Africans and their experiences with poverty, racism, and crime (Sheridan 182-186). Equally, television witnessed a comparable trajectory with the arrival of The Cosby Show and many others with dimensional characters or mostly Black casts (Wicker).

The 2000s, however, would put a halt on the progress of the proceeding era. In this period, networks and studios developed “urban” shows and films that focused on a niche market-the Black audience. But many of these shows didn’t last very long and most of the films were only successful amongst a Black audience. There were a few commercial hits that featured Black characters, but they were portrayed as the comic relief, the dutiful servant, the Black sidekick, mammy, Jezebel, welfare queens, etc. As writer Christopher John Farley expresses, “when it comes to Black cinema, Hollywood is often cool to film concepts that don’t include pimps, drive-bys, sexual antics, or preferably, all three”. Like in previous interims, the only films to broach the subject of Black identity, experiences, and racism were those independently produced and distributed (Weaver 58; Wicker; Hall; Sheridan 186-187, 190-191).

Which brings us back to the present-the 2010s. As expressed previously, there has never been a time where we have witnessed such an uncanny amount of Black representation. It seems as if the previous “flows” of Black media representation have been coalesced into a unified body of work. Race is at the center of a bevy of tv series and movies in this age. The only difference is that, now, they are receiving more mainstream attention and cross-over success than later periods (Wicker). Also, there are a lot more Black screen writers, producers, cinematographers, and filmmakers than ever in mainstream media (including popular streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, etc.) (Wicker).  Further, African American characters are featured in a variety of genres. For instance, there are Black characters and even predominantly African American casts showcased in the comic book genre such as Black Lightening and Luke Cage, the young adult/teen genre such as Everything, Everything, and in psychological thrillers such as Get Out. In addition, Black directors are being offered more lucrative deals from major networks and studios. For example, Ava DuVernay was the first African American woman to be given a production budget of $100 million for her A Wrinkle In Time.

However, the question, will this mark the beginning of permanent change, remains. There are two factors that supports the potential permanency of the positive and diverse Black media representation. They are social media and demographic changes.

Two Factors Indicating the Possibility of Permanent Change

With the enormous success of online activism such as #BlackLivesMatter, social media has proven it has power beyond its platform. #OscarsSoWhite is another example. This hashtag was created by April Reign, in 2015, to protest the lack of non-White actors, filmmakers, writers, etc. being nominated (Anderson).  In the following year, the hashtag grew like wildfire and became a trending topic (Anderson). In response to the popularity of the hashtag, the Academy overhauled its membership in order to diversify it by “race, gender, geography, and age” (Shulman). This demonstrates that the power is certainly in the hands of the people. Especially, since the majority of Americans utilize social media (Smith and Anderson). Of that majority, most of the Americans are people of color (Smith and Anderson).

Equally, the demographics of the American public is changing. Currently, America is more diverse than it has ever been. It will only continue along this trajectory. D’Vera Cohn and Andrea Caumont, from the Pew Research Center, reports that by 2055, “the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority”. Though the White population will remain the largest single group, a minority majority will be in effect (Wilson).  Also, by 2020, non-White children will make up the majority of children in America. This statistic may hold true considering that non-White babies are now the majority of babies in America (Yoshinaga). Therefore, there is a possibility that studios and tv networks are positioning their companies to profit from these demographic changes. Nevertheless, time is the only factor that will truly tell us whether Black media representation in the Age of Black Panther will lead to permanent change.

 

Works Cited

Merritt, Bishetta D. “Charles Burnett: Creator of African American Culture on Film”. Journal of Black Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, 2008, pp. 109-128.

Sheridan, Earl. “Conservative Implications of the Irrelevance of Racism in Contemporary African American Cinema”. Journal of Black Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2006, pp. 177-192.

Weaver Jr., Tony. “Analysis of Representations of African Americans in Non-linear Streaming Media Content”. Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, vol. 7, no. 2, 2016, pp. 57-67.