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'Black Panther' And The 'Very Important Black Film'


Marvel's "Black Panther" is out. And it's got it all - superheroes, critical acclaim, public adulation. But here's another way "Black Panther" has come to be thought of - a very important black film. The director is African-American. Most of the cast is black. And the film grapples with complex ideas around black identity. For some in the black community, you don't just go see this movie. You go support it. But in the end, what are you actually supporting? Gene Demby wrote about this for NPR's Code Switch blog. And he joins me now in the studio to talk about it. Welcome.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Before we get to anything else, you've seen the movie. I haven't. Thumbs up, thumbs down.

DEMBY: It's a good movie. I had really impossible expectations for it. It met a lot of them. If I have any criticisms, it's that it wasn't long enough.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It wasn't long enough.

DEMBY: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is a good criticism. You've written about the ritual of what happens when a very important black film...

DEMBY: Very important in air quotes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, in air quotes here, yeah - is released. Tell me what happens. And how does that sort of metabolize?

DEMBY: So imagine a movie like - I don't know - "12 Years A Slave" or "Hidden Figures" or going back even further like "Malcolm X." There's this sort of turnout machine. And a lot of black cultural institutions are sort of - like, kicks into place, right? So churches will organize trips to screenings to the local Cineplex. Fraternities and sororities will do the same things. Teachers will take their classes. Like, these become these events - right? - that have, like, collective stakes in them. There is this idea that if we don't come out and support these movies, then they won't continue to be made. And also, if you talk to a lot of people, they understand this is part of, like, a larger political project - right? - that black representation - that telling black stories is part of a larger project of equality for black people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that playing out like this in "Black Panther?"

DEMBY: Well, one thing that's different about this is that normally, the treatment of those movies is very reverential and, again, like, a little solemn, right? This one is just openly celebratory. There's this hashtag called #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe. There's, like, thousands and thousands of tweets under this hashtag in which people are talking about sort of the importance of a big-budget, Marvel-Disney movie coming out with an all-black cast. And, like, the - what it means for, like, the imaginative space for black children and not just black children but, like, children in general to sort of grow up in a world in which it's possible to envision black people and people of color as heroes and superheroes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. So what's the problem with that? I mean, that sounds like a good thing.

DEMBY: Well, there's a way in which people in the past tried to cynically manipulate that impulse, right? So back in 2012, there was this terrible movie called "Redtails" - and was executive produced by George Lucas. And George Lucas - in the run-up to the movie's premiere, he was saying that he sunk a lot of his personal money into the movie because Hollywood executives would not bankroll this movie because it did not believe that a movie with a black cast - it was a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II - could appeal to global audiences. And so implicit in his sort of - what he was saying there was like, we need black people to come out and support this movie and prove them wrong. So the movie had some, like, tepid early reviews. But black people showed up. All the groups organized around this movie - they showed up on opening weekend. It won the box office. And then people realized that it was trash. It was not good.


DEMBY: And so, obviously, the momentum sort of died down really quickly. But there's a way in which that impulse that we see a lot is, like, born of this real desire to see black people portrayed in these loving lights but also that people in Hollywood still are trying to get people's butts in seats. And so if they have to play on that a little bit, it's not crazy to think that they would.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. It happened with "Coco," the Disney film that obviously touches on Mexican identity and mythology. And it was really important to the Latino community to see that representation. And they had to almost give, like, their stamp of approval first, like...

DEMBY: That's exactly right. There's a way in which a lot of the pre-advance hype of this movie seemed to be around the idea that the people who were going to be the arbiters of the credibility for this Marvel movie, for this superhero movie was going to be a different universe of people than the people who might ordinarily rubberstamp, like, an "Avengers" movie. It wasn't going to be fan boys and fan girls and cosplayers. It was going to be the undergraduates at Howard University who saw the screening with Ta-Nehisi Coates...


DEMBY: ...Interviewing the director, Ryan Coogler, right? It was a...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's a tough crowd.

DEMBY: Absolutely.


DEMBY: It's going to - but those are the people who, like - if you get their buy-in, those people will evangelize for you. So as excited as we all are, it's also, like, just remembering, like, a little bit that, you know, this is all on the surface of this big commercial endeavor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I guess my last question is - you've seen it. And do you think that it can wear the burden of this expectation that, somehow, everything will be different post-"Black Panther?"

DEMBY: I mean, isn't this always the question, right? I mean, I'm sure it was like this around "Coco," right? It's always this idea that this will be the movie that proves that movies with black casts or black actors are bankable. And it happens every time, right? You know, if we can imagine some world in which there were, like, four "Black Panthers" coming out every year or if there were four "Girls Trips," coming out every year - that none of these movies would have to fulfill the collective hopes of black America or Disney. They could just sort of be their own things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gene Demby, lead blogger of NPR's Code Switch, thanks so much.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Lulu.


Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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