Black Panther is Marvel’s first Oscar-winning film. Patrick A. Howell explores the impact of Black Panther on our history and culture, beyond the award recognition.
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” —Robert McKee,”Story Seminar”, University of Southern California
2018’s Black Panther was a high-water mark in the culture, moving the needle and assuming the scepter of power from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It passed judgment on all the shenanigans, announcing through its trailer, “The world is changing. Soon, there will only be the conquered and the conquerors. You are a good man with a good heart. It is hard for a good man to be king.”
That clarion call ushered not only the standardization of Afro-futurism and Afro-Punk movements, but it also shifted international imagination from the world and its children of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts to Marvel Universe’s Wakanda. The movie as a high culture moment announced the future is now (Stan Lee’s departure (R.I.P. November 12th, 2018) from this planet was flawlessly executed). Along with the Resistance and millions of women marching around the world to American midterm elections which elected the most diverse group of legislators in American history, Black Panther was a not-so-subtle shift of a young adolescent nation of ideas struggling painfully to achieve its potential.
Ruth Carter wins an Oscar for her groundbreaking work on 2018’s Black Panther.
The world cheered for King T’Challa’s Royal Talon Fight to cover the White House and save us all from its orange villain (box office receipts of $1.23 billion as the 9th highest grossing film of all time). The quality of this superhero, directed by one of Oakland’s many bright stars in Ryan Coogler, was a monument of triumph amidst the seething stagnant toxicity of social and political hopelessness.
Bit by bit, the facade of fear seems to chip away, falling into an ocean of potential fully realized. No different than Sophia Stewart’s story (& the Wachowski brothers’ film) The Matrix could be a forebearer to the unimaginable reality of a Barack Hussein Obama campaign (Hope and Change) and presidency (Trinity: “Neo, no one has ever done anything like this.” Neo: “I know, that’s why it’s going to work.”), so too is Black Panther a precursor to 2020’s election outcome. In American politics, there is the maxim of the United States shifting between “right and left” ideologies and the resulting election of Republican and Democratic presidencies and agendas. This time, there will be the move from alt-right to alt-left. Tic. Toc. Hate. Love.
“James Baldwin birthed this baby and, Barry, you nurtured her, surrounded her with so much love and support. So, it’s appropriate for me to be standing here because I’m an example of what it looks like when support and love is poured into someone. Mom, I love you so much. Thank you for teaching me that God is leaning and has always been leaning in my direction.” —Best Supporting Actress winner Regina King for If Beale Street Could Talk in her acceptance speech
No different than D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation which helped birth the Hollywood Industrial Complex and its rich legacy of programmatic institutionalized un-American racism or the 1980’s Godfather and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street which planted the seeds of the 21st century’s Donald J. Trump immoral capitalist Presidency, Black Panther dared a metaphysical composition that could take us all higher, with djembe drums, hip hop chants, and uncovering the true lineage of America’s African children when we had been brought so low. Coupled with Avengers Infinity War (4th highest grossing film of all time at $2B), Black Panther is one of two of the top 10 grossing films of all time. As Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Coppola’s Godfather, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, or Stallone’s Rocky, the greatest movie in the history of movies (for its time) not only amasses cultural and commercial kudos, when you see it, it transports you backwards or forwards to a time. The magic elixir is timeless. We are still in the midst of Black Panther transport; we are in the midst of our own real cosmic infinity war if you will. And everyone has a role to play.
“Your crown has been bought and paid for. Put it on your head and wear it.” ―Maya Angelou
This past Sunday, at the 2019 Oscars, the Academy had the opportunity to crown the achievement with its most prestigious award, one which would give it the artistic and mainstream accolades it richly (over)earned. Instead, Black Panther won spot-on kudos for Best Production Design (Hannah Beachler), Best Costumes (Ruth “Finally, the door is wide open.” Carter), and Best Original Score (Ludwig Goransson).
After the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite debacle as well as Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President’s Cheryl Boone Isaacs stewardship, the crowning of Mahershala Ali as Best Supporting Actor for his work with Green Book, Regina King as Best Supporting Actress for If Beale Street Could Talk, the three technical awards which Black Panther garnered and BlacKkKlansman’s award for Best Adapted Screenplay are not only richly deserved but it is (still) only the tip of the iceberg. African American creative artistic expression and genius is American wealth and, by extension, it is global culture. As with Jazz, Blues, R&B, Hip Hop, and American sports, African American expression in cinema will do away with previous notions of what is possible with daring visions of what is the largest panoply of the human experience. It is what we do.
“We are the stories we tell ourselves.” ―Shekhar Kapur at TED India 2009
The greatest movie in the history of movies is a paradigm shifter. It is a tentpole in the zeitgeist of world culture. It simultaneously reflects the milieu of culture and takes keynotes from the culture and defines precise potential of the culture with startling accuracy. It reinvents the genre of storytelling, then refines it. It spills from the cinema into our collective consciousness to become reality. Does the greatest movie in the history of movies garner box office and take all the signature awards (Best Movie, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress) during awards season? Perhaps. Does it pull in the bounty of the technical awards in addition to the major ones―best score, best special effects, or best sound editing? Traditionally, the greatest movie in the history of movies casts who will be the Hollywood powers for the coming decades. The greatest movie passes into legend. Ryan Coogler, Alfonso Cuarón, Hannah Beachler, Jordan Peele, Ruth Carter, Kevin Feige, and Michael B. Jordan and others are the auteurs and producers of a new power generation just as George Lucas, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone have been iconic in the 20th century.
Come movie awards season, the Hollywood Industrial Complex formally commenced and all of its true colors revealed (even the MAGA hues). In 2015, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy launched A2020, whose purpose is to focus on representation of diversity, including a five-year plan to focus on industry practices and hiring. This is in liberal bastion Tinseltown (where President Obama and the 2020 Democratic nominee will receive their lion share of campaign contributions). You see, institutional racism is a tricky little bugger (ref: Donald J. Trump and the sordid White House episode). However, not even the institutionalized racism of Hollywood can stem (Most Popular Film scandal) the tide of what has been the coronation of King T’Challa a.k.a. Black Panther (and his nemesis Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger). This is something altogether on a different plane. No wonder Compton’s Kendrick Lamar refused the opportunity to perform at this Sunday’s show―that griot was probably just too real for all of the pretense. Anointing comes not from the pretense of false tastemakers but rather the hearts, spirits, and minds of people. Anointing comes to people who have tethered themselves to and mastered principals as justice, love, and hope, or at least, been their instruments. In some quarters of American life, Oscar is in the process of receiving the “minority” treatment from America’s creative class of black super achievers gave to president Trump’s inauguration as well as the Super Bowl. Accolades by so-called tastemakers is secondary to the sales and box office receipts demonstrating the clear preference (and dollars) of the people.
“Before the world tonight, I give praise to our ancestors who helped build this country.” ―Spike Lee at the 2019 Oscars accepting his best Adapted Screenplay award for BlacKkKlansman
Stories have power. The most powerful way to exercise power is by influence versus legislation or “show, don’t tell.” Films offer perspective. Films appeal to the chakras of people’s hearts versus appealing to the regimen of the mind. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds. They impart wisdom. Want to make a point or raise an issue? Want to transform the culture for decades to come? Movies may be the most universal of form of religion and church in America. Want to see a vision become reality? Make a movie. Star Wars (1977), The Matrix (1999), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Psycho (1960) all heralded cultural shifts prior to their actual advent.
When Black Panther came out a year ago, it was another shift in the cultural zeitgeist of American culture from the staid, toxic regime of Donald J. Trump. Typically, an American president has a cultural equivalency who is the champion of the people as he governs. One legislates and pursues executive agendas as the other captures and serves as a focal point for imagination, passion, and inspiration. During Ronald Reagan’s administration, Michael Jackson moonwalked us all out of this world and into the next millennium. For Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, it was Muhammad Ali punching down racism and discrimination of previous centuries and raising a fist for the people in the modern era. For Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan mirrored the near sociopathic (though charismatic) need to win at any cost, by any means necessary. George W. Bush: Kanye West, Beyoncé, Kardashian, and Jay Z. Since the presidency of Barack Obama, America is shifting uncomfortably like a teenager into its next manifestation.
Hannah Beachler makes history as first African American to win for Set Design for her work on Black Panther.
“You got your Omo valley tribes that are sort of South East in Ethiopia. So, it’s like they migrated down to Wakanda and became our River Tribe. And that’s how we began to sort of, all right, naturally these people would have migrated to this area for these reasons. So, these are our inspirations.” ―Black Panther’s Hannah Beachler in the 2019 Oscar’s press room
Rarely does the commander in chief hold the scepters for both forms of power in his hand. Barack Obama was the exception who, once in office, eschewed his cult status as a global phenom and rock star (John F. Kennedy was another and certainly William J. Clinton aspired). Obama focused on the practical demands of governance. Trump, Obama’s polarity in style and substance, has embraced his role as the Twitter’er-In-Chief, the first commander in chief to govern by social media, fostering a negative inverse charismatic energy. He is a polarity so negative that he transforms the national mainstays of journalism and integrity―The New York Times, Washington Post, NBC who must report on every sordid scandal and tawdry detail―into his personal tabloids. The so-called “fake media” has become his National Enquirer(s). Our national life has become an extension of his persona or, at least, a reaction to it.
With winter coming to an end (Mueller Report due within days if not weeks), Spring is around the corner. Oscar season signals another cultural shift in the country. Movies as Alfonso Cuarón Orozco Roma or Green Book won Best Director and Best Picture respectively. But one film in particular stands as king amongst them all. Which magical elixir will define a generation hereto unseen? Think Black Panther is just a movie?
A king, a real king, does not need to announce he is king. He is anointed and simply is.
“I’ve been struggling and digging deep and mentoring and doing whatever I could to raise others up, and I hope from my example there is hope and other people can come in and win an Oscar just like I did.” ―30-year Hollywood Insider and Veteran Ruth Carter after winning her first Oscar for Costume Design for Black Panther