The worldwide success of the Marvel film calls into question how we think of black-led films and markets abroad.
As of Tuesday, Feb. 27, Marvel’s “Black Panther” has made $476.6 million domestically in just two weeks ― and it pulled in the second biggest 10-day total for a theatrical release, behind only “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
It has broken many other records, too: the highest-rated superhero film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes, the biggest opening for a black director ever, and the highest-grossing first week for a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie.
Having now earned over $704 million worldwide, box-office experts predict it is “inevitable” that the film will surpass the billion-dollar mark in a few days.
Directed by Ryan Coogler and starring an almost entirely black cast, the movie has made headlines not only for its huge numbers and critical acclaim, but also for dispelling the myth that movies with black leads don’t have box-office pull with audiences of all backgrounds.
Indeed, it seems like every few years a film starring a predominantly black cast or directed by a black filmmaker smashes records. The story always becomes how improbable the success is, and how, perhaps, the movie in question will finally break down barriers and assumptions about the potential of black movies in Hollywood.
Of course, the scale of the success of “Black Panther” must be celebrated, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. In the past few years alone, movies starring and/or directed by black people have gone on to both critical acclaim and commercial success. “Hidden Figures,” starring Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe, was Fox’s second biggest domestic release in 2016 after “Deadpool” and made about $236 million worldwide.
The indie “Moonlight,” last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, made $413,175 in just four theaters on its opening weekend. With “Get Out,” Jordan Peele made the highest-grossing debut for a writer-director based on an original screenplay, ever. And “Girls Trip” became the first film written, produced, directed by and starring black people to hit the $100 million mark at the box office.
This is all to say: The story that “Black Panther” marks some kind of Hollywood turning point is a non-story. One thing that can be said is that “Black Panther” does add to the conversation surrounding the international appeal of films with black stars. Just as Hollywood has propagated the myth that black movies don’t sell domestically, there’s a similar myth that they don’t sell in foreign markets, particularly in Asian countries like South Korea and China, which have fast become key to the global success of blockbuster movies.
There are those who theorize it’s impossible to promote so-called black films in Asian markets because they are, apparently, too “racist” to accept anything other than a white lead. This doesn’t jive with the fact that films with diverse leads have done incredibly well in China ― “The Fate of the Furious,” with its wildly diverse cast, became China’s second-highest-grossing film in 2017.
It still remains to be seen how “Black Panther” will do in the all-important Asian market of China. (It comes out there on March 9.) It has exceeded expectations elsewhere, making $41.2 million in the U.K. and $36 million in South Korea. With $2.5 million in Vietnam, the film had the fifth biggest opening weekend in industry history in that country, according to Variety.
So, then, is Hollywood finally ready to move past a very familiar narrative?
Miriam Bale, a film critic and senior programmer for the Indie Memphis Film Festival, thinks it probably isn’t, which makes the conversation around black films and the box office “frustrating.”
“The industry says: ‘Black films don’t perform well overseas,’ when that’s clearly not the case. Just as these dinosaur aspects of the industry make films for men, when women are buying tickets,” she told HuffPost.