In episode 6 of Ken Burns’ seminal PBS documentary series Baseball, former New York governor Mario Cuomo says of Jackie Robinson’s debut for Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, an event that finally saw the color line broken in the sport: “Too late.”
“It was a wonderful moment when it happened. But when I think of it it brings pain, too. It was a great triumph. But why? Why did it take all those years? Why should it have been such a big event? Why weren’t we capable of better?”
It was a quote that I couldn’t help but think of after watching “Black Panther.” As it was a film that felt so fresh, authentic, and distinctive because of its predominantly African American cast and crew, the way that it explored themes of representation and identity and how it presented African culture and mythology.
All of which, for no good reason, we have rarely seen up on the big-screen before. That's about to change, though.
Ryan Coogler’s work as co-writer and director, the performances of Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright, and the freedom given to them by Marvel Studios to make the film that they desired, and that audiences demanded, has been so roundly celebrated that "Black Panther" is set to blossom into a worldwide phenomenon.
But why has it taken so long for a film like “Black Panther” to be made? Why did Hollywood studios not just shun diverse casts, but also refuse to approach subject matters and topics that audiences were pining to see?
Chadwick Boseman explained it best himself at the Chinese American Film Festival back in November, when, after picking up the award for the Most Popular U.S. Actor In China, he remarked, “As African American actors we are told that our popularity and our movies don’t travel overseas.”
Even on the rare occurrences that such films are made, studios make sure that the production costs are kept low and then they only market them to American audiences. “Black Panther” is bucking that trend, as it is being heavily promoted all across the world, and the early predictions are that it has galvanized black cinemagoers everywhere.
Sure, there have been previous examples of black superheroes. In 1993 Robert Townsend starred in “The Meteor Man,” followed 12 months later by the Damon Wayans led “Blankman,” both of which were comedic and bombed. Then there was the “Blade” trilogy between 1998 and 2004, while Will Smith’s superhero slacker “Hancock” arrived in 2008, but neither of these films looked to explore the blackness of their characters.
The argument could be made that even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has played it safe and taken too long to bring “Black Panther” to the big-screen, as the MCU launched all the way back in 2008. The character even had to make his debut in “Captain America: Civil War” before being given his own solo adventure.
While Marvel have been busy developing and shooting “Black Panther,” though, the likes of “Straight Outta Compton,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Moonlight” have been released and impressed at the box office, proving that there was a huge interest in characters and films of this ilk.
Of course, this has always been there. It’s just that Hollywood and its studios have shown no interest in trying to tap into this market, instead resorting to the same tired formula that they knew was profitable.
“Black Panther” is the ultimate proof of the stories still waiting to be told and the worlds still waiting to be explored. It’s just embarrassing that it has taken Hollywood so long to want to tell to them.