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Black people's stories perform at the box office

Mar. 14, 2018
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From his perch at the top of the global box office for the fourth week in a row, the Black Panther is changing the notion of how commercially successful black creators and narratives can be. 

Directed by relative newcomer Ryan Coogler, Marvel’s Black Panther has been dominating both domestic and international box offices since its release in February. The story of T’Challa, King of the (sadly) fictional African nation Wakanda, has been estimated to gross 1.8 billion dollars worldwide. It has also become the seventh biggest grosser ever in North America (not adjusted for inflation), passing superhero favorite The Dark Knight and Star Wars side piece Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

But Black Panther isn’t the only film with an African American protagonist and creative team that’s topping the charts. Ava Duvernay became the first black woman to direct a film with a $100 million budget for this month’s A Wrinkle In Time. The film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel puts diversity at its forefront. This film collected 33.3 million dollars its opening weekend. 

Both films are contributing to a larger discussion about how successful and lucrative African American creative teams and narratives are. There is long-held belief in the industry that films starring black characters or centering around black people’s stories do not have as much interest internationally as they do in North America. There is also an ideology that there are not bankable “stars” to sell black stories abroad. 

However, this appears to be far from accurate. Disney insiders projected that Black Panther would  make $75 million to $115 million at the box office. It made $269 million. It’s not closing anytime soon. As for “star quality,” Black Panther boasts two Academy Award winners (and two additional nominees), a retainer breaker, a Walking Dead fan favorite, and the 2018 BAFTA breakout star. DuVernay’s film, similarly, has Oprah. 

“There has been this sense that black art, black experience, black politics are only localizable, not generalizable,” says Robert Patterson, Director of African American Studies at Georgetown University. Directors like Coogler and DuVernay help “people to think about the universality of the black experience.”