The fictional African land of Wakanda, which outsiders wrongly assume to be a Third World country, is the most technologically advanced nation on Earth in the Marvel comic book universe. This weekend, the new film about Wakanda’s protector, Black Panther, is also poised to destroy long-held assumptions about the movie business.
All signs say Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther,” being released Thursday evening by Walt Disney Co., is having a cultural moment fueled by massive pent-up demand for what is expected to be the first global superhero blockbuster to feature a mostly black cast and an African American director.
The $200-million film — directed by Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) and starring Chadwick Boseman as the titular hero — is expected to gross at least $150 million in the United States and Canada through Monday, according to people who have reviewed audience surveys, putting it on track to become one of Marvel Studios’ most valuable franchises.
Such a strong domestic result would set a record for a film directed by an African American filmmaker. It would also represent an unprecedented opening for a Marvel Studios movie that is not a sequel or an “Avengers” film, easily beating the first “Iron Man,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” pictures.
Crucially, “Black Panther” could help shake up the way Hollywood does business by defying assumptions about films with predominantly black casts and filmmakers. Most movies with black casts, producers and directors — including the highly profitable “Girls Trip” and Tyler Perryproductions — are made with low budgets and marketed to American audiences, not international crowds. “Black Panther,” by contrast, is getting a global release and marketing push from Disney.
“There aren’t many examples of African American directors being given that kind of opportunity to make a big-budget movie with a black cast and a global marketing campaign,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA. “It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate the box-office power of this type of storytelling. This film, on both the cultural and economic fronts, has the potential to be a powerhouse.”
According to Fandango, “Black Panther” has pre-sold more tickets than any other superhero movie at the same point in its life cycle. The film has energized black moviegoers, many of whom bought their tickets weeks in advance and tweeted their excitement about it.
The movie has also inspired black charities and celebrities, including actress Octavia Spencer and Tampa Bay Buccaneers player Clinton McDonald, to host free screenings of the film in African American communities. Rapper T.I. teamed with Walmart to give free tickets to fans in Atlanta for an advanced screening, one of five screenings that the retail giant set up for this week in different cities.
Spencer, who does not appear in the film, wrote a Jan. 31 post on Instagram saying she planned to buy out a theater in Mississippi “in an underserved community there to ensure that all our brown children can see themselves as a superhero.”
Marvel and its Burbank-based owner, Disney, have taken steps to target African American audiences. The studio enlisted rap superstar Kendrick Lamar to create the original soundtrack, including contributions from artists such as SZA, Khalid and Vince Staples. Lamar recently performed at a college football halftime show to promote a new trailer for the movie.
Other films have already proved that diverse casting pays off at the box office. Universal Pictures’ “The Fate of the Furious,” directed by F. Gary Gray, who is African American, grossed $1.24 billion last year, mostly outside North America. Jordan Peele’s satirical horror film ‘Get Out’ grossed $255 million at the box office last year and scored four Oscar nominations, including best picture.
African Americans are a powerful underserved market for Hollywood, making up about 15% of frequent moviegoers, while constituting 12% of the general population, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Still, only six of the top 100 films released in 2017 had black directors, according to a study by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released in January.
“Audiences of color are driving box office and they’re driving ratings,” Hunt said. “Hollywood, if it wants to remain viable, will need to produce what the audience wants, and the audience is becoming more diverse by the day.”
Yet Marvel has previously been criticized for not giving lead roles to minorities and women. Now the studio is starting to address the lack of superhero films with leads who are not white men, including upcoming projects such us “Captain Marvel,” starring Brie Larson, and a Black Widow movie with Scarlett Johansson that is in development.