It’s a film of many firsts: Black Panther’s protagonist, T’Challa (performed by Howard University graduate Chadwick Boseman), is the king of the secret African nation Wakanda and is the first Black character to lead a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Ryan Coogler is the first Black director of a Marvel film. The large cast of African and African-American actors includes Angela Bassett, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Florence Kasumba, and Forest Whitaker.
Black Panther is breaking records at a time when most major films are still being anchored by white male stars. For instance, only the Star Wars film franchise has had more advance ticket sales than Black Panther. At the same time, according to a study released last summer by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, of the 100 highest-grossing films of 2016, roughly a quarter lacked any black characters.
What has deeply impressed me more and compelled me to write about this film, which is based on the 1970s comic book and the vision of two African-American writers—Joe Robert Cole and direct Ryan Coogler—is how communities around the country have been mobilizing experiences to engage with this film. Let me share some examples:The call to come in African attire – carrying the spirit of royalty.The call to come in African attire – carrying the spirit of royalty.
- The fundraisers and call to buy out theaters and sponsor youth of color to experience the film
- Voter registration drives in the theater lobby.
- Screening parties that have mobilized neighborhoods, churches, sororities, fraternities, restaurants, and clubs, and fosters a way of building community-arts bridges by gathering people together to go the movies.
- Post-viewing dialogues, social media posts, photos, conversations and panel discussions.
- The sheer joy and pride of movie goers, especially family groups, as they head into the theater.
- African drummers and dancers in the lobby as people enter the lobby
Inspired by trailers more than a year before the film was released and online information that helped give potential viewers a window through which to view “art-in-the-making,” the community created its own programs based on its desire to support and engage. In addition, Black celebrities, athletic teams and Ellen DeGeneres joined the #BlackPantherChallenge and purchased screenings in major cities to ensure that Black community youth did not have the barrier of the ticket price, which was as much as $25 in major cities, as an obstacle to seeing the film.
I have more than 35 years of experience as an audience development specialist, university instructor of arts marketing, and community engagement specialist. However, witnessing the “Black Panther Effect” has caused an awakening of new possibilities for my field! Why can’t a performing or visual arts presentation use this model and these examples as a template?
Where does one begin? Director Ryan Coolger started with a vision. In an interview, he said he was making the film to inspire the next generation the way he was inspired when he read his first Black Panther comic book, especially because he still lived in a world where there weren’t many heroes who looked like him.
Some may argue that the true thrill of the film and reaction to it is the idea of Afrofuturism, which they think mistakenly think is a new concept. The concept of Afrofuturism is more than a quarter-century old; the Black Panther film is its most recent, visual representation. The truth is we must look beneath the surface and the hype; the devil is in the details. This film’s blockbuster status was the result of a community-building process; a journey that began with the first inklings of the film’s existence. This foresight led to the curating of audience experiences that were further enhanced by attending the screening. In other words, the audience felt kinship, ownership and connection before the film opened. This process required vision, desire, time and an investment in building the film’s eventual audience. In the realm of the performing and visual arts, what is the vision we can hold for the communities we seek to engage?
First, the product needs to tell/show the perspective audiences’ story in a positive, bold, and dynamic way. That may require the enlistment of new writers, who can share stories that encompass the past, present, and future. Like the Black Panther screenplay, stories that project and promote respect, dignity and love resonate the deepest and garner the widest audiences. That also may require enlisting the input of emerging artists (taking a chance on the future Ryan Cooglers and Joe Robert Coles) and taking a risk on a new vision of art.
Second, you engage the community. As early as possible, you share the creative process behind the work; the reason for the project’s genesis, and the people involved, including those working behind the scenes. I have read at least 30 articles about the cast and the creative team behind Black Panther. There have been countless videos, links on social media, including a Facebook Fan Page (which currently has more than three-quarters of a million followers), as well as numerous articles in a wide-variety of print and online publications.
The performing and visual arts have the capacity to do the same. It’s not about having a Marvel-like marketing budget and promoting ticket sales. It’s more important to look at the psychographics of building communities and engaging them from the perspective of creating value—wanting to connect, respect, honor, touch and transform their lives.
I encourage you to pay attention to the movement and momentum this film has generated. This is indeed a pivotal moment in time. As audience development specialists, arts executives, or artists, our institutions, venues and projects will be left in the dark if we miss it!
#WakandaForever I gotta go! I’m heading out the door to go see it again!