Illiberal Hollywood: Kicked in its Pants by a Panther

[Graphic: Black Panther (2018) theatrical release poster, Walt Disney Studios distributor, Marvel Studios producer]

Though conservatives love to disparage the American entertainment industry as liberal, Hollywood’s business practices have been anything but. I’ve written before about its misogyny and sexism; it has only recently received the scrutiny it deserves, thanks to open protests by women actors and directors, and sadly the cascading revelations about sexual harassment and abuse.

Hollywood has likewise been racist; though minorities make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S.’ population, minorities are poorly represented in front and behind the camera. As of 2013-14, only scripted broadcast television had seen any gains in diversity. Their numbers were stable or falling in nearly all other areas. In film alone, minorities were underrepresented by:

  • Nearly 3 to 1 among film leads
  • Nearly 3 to 1 among film directors
  • Nearly 5 to 1 among film writers

(source: UCLA Bunche Center’s 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report (pdf))

Which is why this week’s release of Disney/Marvel Studios’ live action superhero film, Black Panther, has received so much attention. The director (Ryan Coogler), screen writer (Joe Robert Cole), and leads (Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o) are all African American. This is a first for a film belonging to a major franchise (Marvel Studios), produced by a major studio, with a blockbuster-sized budget of $200 million. While there are a few roles played by white actors, they are small parts which exist to support the story — a complete inversion of racial representation typical across the majority of American films.

The film’s reception even before this week’s release was overwhelmingly ecstatic; many theaters sold out once online ticket sales were available. Reaction from viewers at advance press screenings were joyful, which sold even more tickets. Box office sales this weekend are expected to surpass the film’s budget.

Eager audience response offers a solid swat in the butt of Hollywood’s bigotry, which for too long has rejected scripts or denied minority-led/directed/written films adequate funding, saying, These films aren’t what audiences want. We’ve heard the same excuses about women-led/directed/written films, too, yet they often blow away expectations. Like Wonder Woman (female director and lead), which was the third highest grossing film last year at $412M; it would have placed higher except for the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (female lead) and long-awaited live action reboot of Beauty and the Beast (female lead).

Another refrain too often heard after a minority-led/directed/written film releases: This film exceeded expectations. Hollywood never sees this as a signal not that the film outperformed their forecasts but that audience demand is greater than films supplied. In other words, institutional racism thwarts normal free market response.

Black Panther has garnered some racist reactions, predictably from those who haven’t even seen the movie. DailyCaller’s EIC Ben Shapiro had one of the stupidest as well as most racist takes:

“‘Blade’ was not enough,” Shapiro quipped, referencing the 1998 film and subsequent two sequels that starred Wesley Snipes.

His rant lumped in Halle Berry’s appearance in Catwoman (2004) and Will Smith as lead in the Men in Black trilogy (1997, 2002, 2012), implying that African Americans should be content with what they have in film representation since they’ve been free for more than 200 years and assured their civil rights more than 50 years ago.

Never mind that his first example, Blade, though it featured Wesley Snipes as its lead was made in 1998 with a white director and writer and predominantly white cast. Ditto for the following two entries in the series, released in 2002 and 2004. Apparently black Americans shouldn’t expect to see a black lead in an action film more than once every couple of years — maybe once a year if they’re lucky.

If you’re white — and let’s face it, most of this site’s readers are — imagine a lifetime of rarely seeing anyone who looks like you in film, let alone TV. The idea that minorities, who make up such a large percentage of our population, should be satisfied with rarely ever seeing themselves in all manner of stories is repugnant. It’s both an economic and cultural apartheid. Or worse; it’s not a walling off but erasure of human beings.

It’s a pretty grotesque and deeply unaware stance coming from a guy with the family name Shapiro. It’s an insult to the writers who created Black Panther as a comic book character for Marvel — Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.

There are better criticisms of the film, and they come from those who are much better informed. WaPo’s Karen Attiah interviews Kenyan journalist and broadcaster Larry Madowo on the subject of Black Panther’s fictional fantasy representation of African culture and the ‘messed up’ relationship between Africans and African Americans. Critic Leslie Lee III takes issue with Black Panther’s politics. Warning: Both critiques are spoilery, with Lee’s feedback much more so. However, these critiques are educational for a white audience unfamiliar with African culture let alone African American culture.

Based on casual feedback from creative community and fandom members alike, Black Panther may be the top grossing film this year — and in spite of its release in February, typically the slowest time in the release calendar. It may crack the all-time top 20 films for box office ticket sales.

But will this finally be enough to get through to Hollywood’s other major and minor studios that their expectations need to be reset, that minority-led/directed/written films are successful and deserve a more proportional share of the film market?

In case you’re thinking of seeing Black Panther soon, here’s a decent primer. about its place in the Marvel Studios’ Avengers mythology. I’m not going this week; I’m going a couple weeks from now to an early Monday matinee when I might have 50 percent of the theater to myself so I can take notes. I don’t expect the theater to be less than half full before then.

10 replies
  1. Trip says:

    I don’t know Ben Shapiro, but he sounds like every other white supremacist who belittles everything culturally outside of his comfort zone. A little tiny melting white snowflake. Why would anyone get so worked up about other people being worked up (positively) about a film? Why would he feel such intense animus against something he, himself, is tagging as trivial? If it’s so trivial, why he is bloviating about it?

    • Rayne says:

      I’ll point to feminist theory here, specifically Laura Mulvey’s concept of “male gaze.” While theory explains why women are regularly shut out as artists, to be treated instead as either objet d’art or submissive audience of male art, the theory can easily extend and explain why persons of color are excluded in a society where white males possess the most political power.

      Shapiro is upset because this film occupies a space reserved for his privileged white male gaze; it’s not to be intruded upon more than a couple times in his lifetime by brown-skinned artists or depictions of brown-skinned people. This movie is anathema because it is both combined: brown-skinned artists depicting brown-skinned people. Poor little snowflake Shapiro — whatever will he watch this weekend?

      • Rayne says:

        I forgot to add a link to Mulvey’s work, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (pdf), in which she first posited her theory of “male gaze.” I’d skip the first three grafs explaining women as othered by virtue of their innate castration; I don’t see eye to eye on this part, though being distaff (de-staffed) is part of the equation. To my thinking, biology plays a role in this, ex. bower birds building their ornate “art” to attract mates, ditto male birds’ plumage. How does a male compete if his canvas is obstructed by others, including the object of his effort? ~smh~ Get over it and evolve.

      • Trip says:

        Shapiro is upset because this film occupies a space reserved for his privileged white male gaze; it’s not to be intruded upon more than a couple times in his lifetime by brown-skinned artists or depictions of brown-skinned people. This movie is anathema because it is both combined: brown-skinned artists depicting brown-skinned people. Poor little snowflake Shapiro — whatever will he watch this weekend?

        Indeed. I didn’t advance the thought very far, but inferred it instead. He is VERY VERY upset about the film. He’s even more upset that people have endorsed it, support it and are excited about it. He goes on and proves it (how upset he is), by blathering on and on about its triviality. Someone who is not offended by something, or who considers something insignificant or trivial, doesn’t write an entire essay attempting to belittle and make small any social/cultural consequence of it. He looks like a big fat baby crying because someone turned his TV channel.

    • Palli Davis Holubar says:

      Read this blunt article by Andre Seewood “Why White People Don’t Like Black Movies”
      (although these are trumpean times & 4 years later):!
      Intrinsic to Ben is this:
      “A vast majority of White people don’t like Black movies because they lack the empathy necessary to identify with Black characters which in turn affects their ability to “suspend disbelief” and surrender to the narrative of a Black film. What has been called the Racial Empathy Gap in various sociological studies conducted by researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca and the University of Toronto Scarborough have revealed that,” The human brain fires differently when dealing with people outside of one’s own race.”(1) This study found that the degree of mental activity when White participants watched non-White men performing a task was significantly lower than when they watched people of their own race performing the same task. “In other words people were less likely to mentally simulate the actions of other-race than same-race people.” (2)”

      • Rayne says:

        Thanks. I’m going to dig around for the studies to see if there is a gap, too, by gender. Women are socialized to be more empathic, part of their burdening from earliest childhood with emotional labor where men are not. Are we then looking at a fundamental part of toxic masculinity which expresses itself not only in violence but in less aggressive ways as Shapiro demonstrates, or as techbros like James Damore demonstrates?

        Empathy is innate; the amount of empathy one can summon may depend on genetics or epigenetics. I’m thinking of persons on the autistic spectrum who may not be able to process social cues to varying extents. But empathy can and is acquired; we teach it to children, we encourage it with exposure to and critical thinking in the humanities and arts. Film is part of that process.

  2. Karl Darx says:

    Shapiro is a putz.

    But I’m not sure why this movie would be such a big hit with the current cultural marxists. After all, it does not espouse their values. Wakanda is a very heirarchical society that is filled with racially homogenous traditional families. It is very Wakanda-First, i.e. nationalist, and anti-globalist. It is anti-immigration, too. It is also fiercely protective of its native culture. And the hero’s goal is to create more hardworking individuals.

    I would think, other than the racial segregation and the Nazi-like monarchy, there’s an awful lot to like for the generally conservative crowd. If it teaches young blacks good old traditional American values, then, I’m all for it.

    I look forward to Rayne’s review.

    • Rayne says:

      “If it teaches young blacks good old traditional American values, then, I’m all for it.”

      Wow. Not racist at all. African Americans are Americans. They already have good old traditional American values — just not the ones which see them as submissive second-class citizens or 3/5ths of a voter or slaves.

      Not all movies are made for all audiences. This one may not be for you just as it wasn’t for Leslie Lee III. I’m also not doing a review because my voice isn’t the one which needs to be heard except with this post on Hollywood’s xenophobic business practices.

  3. John says:

    The perfect Catch-22, wherein though I didn’t see the film, and have no desire to do so, I can be called a racist, without ever having done anything. My lack of homage to your multi-cultural offerings are evidence, in themselves, of my evil intentions. And if I do see the movie, and don’t like it, well, there’s racism for ya.

    • Rayne says:

      As I said in my last comment,

      Not all movies are made for all audiences. This one may not be for you just as it wasn’t for Leslie Lee III.

      Black Panther isn’t a Catch-22 for this reason.

      Look, I don’t care for superhero movies. I haven’t gone to the theater to see one since Superman with Christopher Reeve back in the late 1970s. I’m picky about action movies and not an automatic fan of rom-coms, preferring cerebral sci-fi or independent films about individuals overcoming adversity. This is my personal taste.

      But if one’s taste means consciously and actively avoiding films featuring people of a particular group — people of color, women, LGBT, disabled, particular religious or ethnic groups — then it’s not really taste. It’s bigotry. Racism specifically if one is deliberately choosing movies by race.

      And it’s bigotry when the film industry goes out of its way to avoid hiring people of these groups both in front and behind the camera, in spite of the availability of actors and production team members from across the human spectrum.

      Welcome to emptywheel.

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