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‘Black Panther’ unlikely to change Hollywood’s lie that black movies can’t make money

Hollywood’s biases have proven themselves stronger than its commitment to the bottom line

Any hopes that Black Panther’s box office conquest will spur Hollywood to greenlight heavily-financed movies featuring Pan-African stories and performed by predominantly black casts must be muted. Racial discrimination is not a product of logic, but rather its antithesis.

Marvel Studios’ latest movie, based on the comic company’s first black superhero, is generating earth-shattering sums of money, amassing $235 million over the first four days of its release in the U.S. and Canada alone. Directed by a black man, 31-year-old Ryan Coogler, with nearly an all-black cast and powered by a $200 million budget, the film is filling Disney’s corporate coffers and delighting its largely white executive decision makers. With films featuring black casts rarely enjoying big budgets, Black Panther will show the financial rewards that Hollywood can reap with black movies rooted in uniquely black experiences.

Many hope the economic triumph of Black Panther will persuade studios to bankroll similar movies with nine-figure budgets. This hope is buoyed by simple logic: Once scenario A proves itself, others, likewise seeking economic success, will copycat. Black Panther’s achievement, therefore, should coax others to understand the financial wisdom in backing black blockbusters. Proof of concept opens opportunity to others, so the theory goes.

An unavoidable truth, however, must temper this expectation: Hollywood’s ongoing discrimination against black movies isn’t supported by logic and evidence, so why believe illogical people will amend their behavior based on evidence that they were wrong all along?

Movie studios would insist that the leading reason for not investing big bucks in predominantly black films is that international markets won’t support them. Comedian Bill Maher, in that vein, said of Asian moviegoers, “They don’t want to see black people generally in their movies. The Hollywood executives are, like, ‘We’re not racist, we just have to pretend to be racists because we’re capitalists. We want to sell our movies in China [and] they don’t like Kevin Hart.’” With Hollywood increasingly reliant upon international dollars to turn profits, overseas perceptions matter greatly.

This is where the illogicalness of racial discrimination pierces through and why we mustn’t expect Black Panther’s success to lessen discrimination’s prevalence in Hollywood: The idea that “black films” don’t make coins internationally has long been proven demonstrably false.

Go back 30 years to Coming to America, a comedy starring Eddie Murphy, released in 1988, which made $160.6 million internationally. Or look at the two Bad Boys action movies, led by actors Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, the original released in 1995 and the sequel in 2003. Together the films earned $210.3 million in foreign countries. The black superhero movie Blade, with Wesley Snipes playing a vampire as the lead, made $61 million internationally 20 years ago. The Fast and Furious franchise practically prints money in China, starring mixed-race Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and black actors Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson. And even the indie film Moonlight, with an all-black cast with no movie stars and a production budget of around $4 million, did $37 million internationally.

When a black movie rakes in the cash overseas, however, Hollywood insiders toss out an endless array of excuses as to why this or that black success story cannot be used to kill the assumption that black movies represent bad overseas investments.

Appealing movies with black casts can make money in foreign markets. The proof surrounds us. Just like movies featuring white leads, black movies need to be well-executed and appealing. If so, people across the globe will pay money to see them.

But why, then, does Hollywood swim against the current of evidence? Why do movie studios need proof of the concept when the concept has already been proven? The answers stare us in the face: These arguments about why black movies aren’t being greenlit are not being made in good faith; the strength of Hollywood’s biases against black movies are stronger than the commitment to the bottom line; sometimes logic is not enough to persuade people to behave in a racially fair way, particularly when discrimination pervades the entire industry.

Jeff Clanagan, president of Lionsgate’s Codeblack films, told the Los Angeles Times, “Every time there’s a success, it gets swept under the rug. … It’s almost like there’s an asterisk on it. They chalk it off as an anomaly.”

We should brace for something similar regarding Black Panther. Hollywood bigwigs will laud the movie as so unique that its appeal cannot be applied to the next black project in the pipeline waiting to be greenlit. Sure, we will get Black Panther sequels. But other movies rooted in blackness produced because of Black Panther’s success? History teaches us we should temper our expectations.

For now, a Hollywood that acknowledges the potential of black films is as fictional as Wakanda.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.