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Hollywood loves only one thing more than making money. Strike that. Hollywood loves nothing more than making money, but a close rival is congratulating itself for its admirable social conscience.
So 2018 was a very good year. Black Panther was one of the top grossing films, pulling in a cool $1.3 billion. It was the first superhero film to star a black character and the rare film that had a nearly all-black cast. Hollywood’s favourite colour is green, but the very black Marvel film made the industry very proud of itself.
Just in case anyone missed how progressive that all was, Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture this week. The Oscar nominations are part of the astonishingly successful marketing device called the “awards season.” Hollywood gathers to give awards to itself, a vanity exercise under the guise of recognizing artistic achievement. Occasionally a celebrity might recognize the whole affair as more than a little tacky and try to redeem it with a little apposite social commentary. And then everyone gets back to the red carpet, upon which strut various contenders for the empress who has no clothes.
Black Panther is not a very good film. It is not even a mediocre film; it is a banal film with dazzling special effects. In that, it is no different than the several superhero or dinosaur films released each year.
Black Panther got the nomination because Hollywood wishes to congratulate itself for being clever enough to do a little progressive preening while executing the prime directive of making money. But highlighting Black Panther is awkward for those who can see beyond the box office numbers. It is a completely unremarkable film with neither the complexity nor philosophical exploration of evil found, in say, The Dark Knight. (That Batman film did not, by the way, earn an Oscar nomination.)
Even worse, Black Panther itself traffics in racial stereotypes. But it did make a great deal of money, and in Hollywood making a lot of money excuses everything, including a touch of profitable prejudice here and there.
This first superhero film to feature a black star and black cast has two principal settings. A tough Oakland neighbourhood populated by hoodlums and a desperately poor sub-Saharan African country. No great marks for creativity here. And the villain of the piece is basically the American black urban gangster. The “progressive” part is that he is opposed by a black African king.
What makes Wakanda something other than what it seems, and gives the Black Panther his powers, is “vibranium,” a mineral which enables you to fly stealth space-age fighter jets, create energy force fields, and to armour the rhinoceros. Yes, in the climactic battle scene, filled with the most advanced technological weaponry, there appears the rhinoceros – armoured rhinoceros, mind you – because of course black Africans would fight with jungle animals. The only real racial advance which the Black Panther achieves is that black people are now the ones creating the dull stereotypes of black people.
Such stereotypes would usually set off the finely-tuned antennae of the Hollywood set. So why did Black Panther get not only a pass, but an Oscar nomination? Because it made money, lots of it.
The object lesson here is Star Wars. The original film was released in 1977. Hollywood was already sensitive to racial issues; it is enough to recall the enormous controversy when Italian-American groups strenuously objected to The Godfather, and its less than flattering portrayal of a certain slice of Italian life.
Objections greeted that first Star Wars. There were no black heroes. And the arch-villain Darth Vader is dressed head to toe in black, speaking with the voice of James Earl Jones. So, George Lucas took some heat. But in inflation-adjusted dollars, Star Wars was the second highest-grossing domestic film of all time. It still is. (Only Gone with the Wind did better at the box office.) Lucas was in a position to ignore the critics.
But he did not ignore them entirely. He treated them with spite. For the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, he cast one of the most prominent black movie stars of the day, Billy Dee Williams. Williams would play Lando Calrissian, who principally advances the plot by betraying his friend. Take that, said Lucas. Here’s another black character, also a villain. (In the next installment, Lando would redeem himself and rescue his betrayed friend.)
The money kept coming in, and so Lucas was immune. So immune in fact, that when it came to the “prequel” trilogy (1999-2005), Lucas dared Hollywood to critique its biggest cash cow, creating the most stereotypical of characters. There was the kind-hearted buffoon from the Caribbean, Jar Jar Binks; the greedy and exploitative Jewish merchant, Watto the junk dealer; and the Neimoidians, the Japanese trade officials cum warlords. One longed for the innocent days of the giant fish, Admiral Akbar!
So obvious was Lucas’ provocation that some voices had to take note, but when the dollars roll in, all is forgiven – or even better, overlooked. Now Black Panther has its turn, given what Hollywood could never quite give to Star Wars, an Oscar nomination. A sign of Hollywood’s progress? Or perhaps a guilty conscience?
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