Today is the day, barring a fluke, that Walt Disney’s Black Panther crosses $500 million worldwide, including well over $200m overseas. And the acclaimed MCU actioner hasn’t even opened in Russia (opening in IMAX today, everywhere in Russia on the 26th), Japan (March 1) and China (March 9).
The lessons of Black Panther are obvious. Big movies with and for black people are not remotely box office poison. Big movies with, for and by black people can absolutely pull in good to great overseas grosses as well. It’s a rebuttal of conventional wisdom. But it’s also a rebuttal of the conventional wisdom that Hollywood has ignored time and time again.
It’s not like Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther is the first big-budget movie with a black leading man or even a majority-black cast to kick box-office butt. Hollywood (and pop culture in general) has had decades of evidence debunking the conventional wisdom about what kinds of movies make money and what kinds of movies travel overseas. And yet, they choose to ignore that in favor of what we all presume is a safe box-office formula. Just as Hollywood has to keep relearning that female-led movies can be huge hits even after Mamma Mia!,Twilight Saga: New Moon, Bridesmaids, Hunger Games, Frozen, Lucy, Fifty Shades of Grey, Rogue One and Wonder Woman, I fear that the success of Black Panther will provide only a flash-in-the-pan moment before things go back to business as usual. Because we’ve been here before, time and time again.
Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop ($234 million domestic/$316m worldwide on a $15m budget) didn’t lead to Hollywood cultivating more black men as the next Eddie Murphy, be it as a comedian or an action star. All due respect to Action Jackson, it wasn’t like the multiplexes were filled with high-concept comedies or action flicks that happened to star non-white dudes. The only result was more Eddie Murphy hits like Trading Places, Coming to America and The Nutty Professor. That film was the seventh-biggest grossing movie of all time in its day. It was the biggest R-rated movie ever in North America for 19 years and is still the third-largest such title when adjusted for inflation. It was the biggest hit of 1984 while Beverly Hills Cop II was the highest grosser of 1987.
For that matter, Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple is more famous for its controversies and for its director getting an Oscar snub than for the mere notion of a drama about black women earning $98 million in North America back in 1985, a figure which would be around $233m today. In 1995, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence powered Michael Bay’s Bad Boys to $65m domestic and $75m overseas on a $19m budget. Yes, this action comedy featuring two TV-famous black actors was A) a big hit and B) made more overseas than in North America. This was 23 years ago, and the year ended with Waiting to Exhale (starring Angela Bassett, Whitney Houston, Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon) earning $67m domestic, or about the same as Heat over Christmas 1995.
Speaking of Will Smith, his entire career is a walking, talking rebuttal of conventional wisdom. Up until recently, he was among the last true-blue movie stars, opening a wide variety of movies (I, Robot, Hitch, Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend, Hancock, etc.) to big bucks and huge overseas totals often with little beyond his face on the poster and the promise of glossy big-budget thrills or crowd-pleasing melodrama. Will Smith helped Independence Day earn $820 million worldwide back in 1996, yet in 2016, Independence Day: Resurgence starred box office dynamo Liam Hemsworth and made less than half of the original film’s global gross (and about one-third of its predecessor’s North American total).
In the late 1990s, the likes of Spawn and Blade helped make comic book movies safe for Hollywood, but when X-Men and Spider-Man broke out, the comic book superhero movie became a white man’s genre. And then in 1998, we were all a little surprised when Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour snagged a $31 million debut weekend in the middle of September before legging it to $141m domestic and $244m worldwide on a $33m budget. Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker’s Rush Hour 2, which had even fewer white people in its supporting cast (it takes place in China), earned $226m domestic and $347m worldwide on a $90m budget in August of 2001. Unfortunately, any progress that might be maintained after the likes of Rush Hour, Waiting to Exhale or Men in Black was muted by the slowdown of the DVD business and the emphasis on overseas box office and four-quadrant action fantasy franchises. Conventional wisdom still maintained that black movie stars (or “black movies”) didn’t travel overseas, so we got a lot of big-budget flicks starring would-be white male movie stars.
Thus an entire generation of black actors and actresses, save for Denzel Washington (who flourished as one of the lone purveyors of grounded, big-budget, R-rated action thrills), found themselves even more comparatively underemployed, with only Tyler Perry’s crowd-pleasing melodramas (and the eventual emergence of peak TV) coming to the rescue. Say what you will about Perry’s movies, but they provided meaty starring roles to the likes of Taraji P. Henson, Michael Jai White, Kimberly Elise, Angela Bassett, Idris Elba, Derek Luke and Sharon Leal. The punditry at-large continued to express shock each time a Perry pic opened at the top of the weekend box office charts to the point where it became an inside joke. And this continuous shock applied to other hit films in the late 2000s/early 2010s like Dreamgirls, Obsessed, Jumping the Broom, Think Like a Man and The Best Man Holiday.
Those pulpy genre entertainments continued to prove that black audiences (and other demos) wanted to see multiplex-friendly genre fare that just happened to feature a deluge of black actors and actresses. Yet Hollywood remained dedicated to finding the next Tom Cruise instead of the next Will Smith. They spent six years (from Step Up to The Vow) trying to turn Channing Tatum into a leading man while tossing Taylor Kitsch into two flop mega-budget would-be tentpoles (John Carter and Battleship) and casting Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia. Never mind that Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan’s The Karate Kid, which barely contains any white actors with speaking roles, went supernova in 2010, earning $175 million domestic from a $55m opening weekend and $349m on a $40m budget. You’d think that someone would try to rip off that particular success, but the well-reviewed remake (Chan deserved an Oscar nomination) didn’t even get a sequel and the younger Smith’s career imploded after the media declared war on M. Night Shyamalan’s decent After Earth.
Black Panther is going to end up one of the highest-grossing movies of all time featuring a majority-minority cast alongside the last two Fast and Furious movies. I’d like to be optimistic and presume that this is indeed a watershed event and that Hollywood will fall over itself to rip off Black Panther. A movie like Girls Trip is absolutely an event movie in a way that The Mummy is not. And, if I may, a Nightwing that stars Lewis Tan would be much more of an event for Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc. than one which stars Dylan O’Brien. I’d like to think the likes of Pacific Rim: Uprising, A Wrinkle in Time, Crazy Rich Asians and Overboard means that the lessons of Get Out, Black Panther and Wonder Woman are being heeded. But history points to lessons being learned only from a big movie featuring minority leading men or women flops, with Hollywood then reverting to finding the next Channing Tatum.
History shows that they’ll keep trying and failing to turn the likes of Armie Hammer or Taylor Kitsch into blockbuster movie stars, only to still let those actors create a redemption narrative when they are still able to snag meaty supporting and leading roles in smaller-scale or prestige fare, as if (all due respect to the talented actors in question) shifting from blockbusters to indies or prestige TV is an act of courage. I’d love to be wrong because I would argue that the survival of the theatrical movie business depends on me being wrong. But the precedent has shown otherwise despite the glaring evidence which debunks the deeply-rooted conventional wisdom. We have not just the success of Black Panther but over 30 years of evidence that you don’t need a white guy or a mostly white cast to make a hit movie. We have plenty of evidence, recent (Moonlight, 12 Years A Slave) and not-so-recent (Bad Boys, Bad Boys 2, The Bodyguard) that movies starring black movie stars can do even better overseas than in North America. And we have plenty of evidence (Hidden Figures, Get Out, pretty much every Tyler Perry movie) that wholly mainstream studio flicks with responsible budgets don’t need a dime from overseas box office to be big hits.
We’ll see if Black Panther is the start of a revolution or merely a mirage.