In the conventional Movie Studio Paradigm: You can’t make any money with movies about Heroes of Color or strong Women Heroes. Well, let’s look at that now.
In 2018, Director Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” starring Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan made over $700 million domestically. “Black Panther” grossed $1.35 billion worldwide.
Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Captain Marvel” starring Academy Award Best Actress Brie Larson as its Woman Hero – Captain Marvel, made $153 million domestically in its opening weekend. “Captain Marvel” amassed the worldwide box office gross of $455 million in that same time frame.
As in most things, the ‘bottom line’ alters conversations, shifts paradigms, and in this case, the change is all for good. Yes, Hero movies starring African American Actors or Lead Women Actors can sell a shit load of movie tickets. That makes Movie Executives happy. After all, I get this is show “Business”.
Yet, I also believe this paradigm shift reflects the risks gifted filmmakers take in telling meaningful stories for more diverse audiences; thus, creating the possibility of the more inclusive culture. At least that’s my sincere hope.
The phenomenal successes of “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel” demonstrate how far the entertainment industry has evolved. Back in 1972, unknown Martial Artist and Actor Bruce Lee proposed his concept for a TV series set in America in the 1870’s.
Half-American, half-Chinese Shaolin Priest Kwai Chang Caine from China flees to America after killing the Emperor’s son. The Emperor’s son had ordered his soldiers to murder Kwai Chang’s dear Shaolin Master Po, who was like a Father to him. In his rage and vengeance, Caine dispatches the soldiers and kills the Emperor’s son. Now the Chinese fugitive, Caine escapes to the United States. He searches for his half-brother Danny. On his journey, Caine helps the weaker against their oppressors. That TV series was ABC’s “Kung Fu”.
In 1972, Network Executives viewed casting Bruce as Kwai Chang Caine as the unacceptable risk for a nationally broadcast television program. So they hired David Carradine, who was not Chinese, to play the role of Caine. “Kung Fu” became the surprise major hit for ABC and ran for several years. It was my very favorite TV show growing up as a kid.
Bruce Lee left the US to make kung fu movies in Hong Kong. Eventually, he made “Enter the Dragon” for Warner Brothers, which became the international box office hit. Bruce would become the most transcendent Asian Actor and Martial Artist to this day. Bruce even inspired me as kid to study the martial arts. Bruce was my Hero.
Perhaps, in retrospect that was karma. However, at the time did ABC’s commercial myopia occur as euphemistic racism? My guess was that the decision reflected the less than inspired cultural ecosystem of that era.
So has the Movie Business evolved leaps and bounds since “Kung Fu”? Perhaps. More pointedly, I believe we have a long journey ahead. Yet, I believe that we’ve taken valuable ground.
Black, White or Asian, I believe that we all want to see meaningful stories of people, who look like and don’t look like us.
Maybe, diversity arises in the execution of having something to say, that people want to listen to. If you don’t have anything meaningful to say, it won’t matter to anyone, whatever your ethnicity or background. They just won’t care.
Maybe, cultural diversity in movies flourishes in the next generation of movie directors, the movie storytellers like Ryan Coogler, Anna Boden, and Ryan Fleck. All came from independent filmmaking origins. 2017’s “Wonder Woman” Director Patty Jenkins also came from independent films. She directed Charlize Theron in her Oscar-winning role in her movie – “Monster”.
In independent films, budgets are significantly smaller. So the goal is having a valuable story to tell. You don’t have big-name movie stars. You aren’t afforded the CGI effects to overcome narrative defects. No. Telling a meaningful story is what matters.
Now when that independent film mentality is granted the Major Motion Picture Budget, it’s possible to get “Black Panther” or get “Captain Marvel”. Ryan Coogler gained notice at Sundance for his “Fruitvale Station” starring at the time, unknown Michael B. Jordan. Ryan was given an opportunity to direct “Creed” with his guy, Michael B. as the son of the late Apollo Creed from the “Rocky” saga. I thought “Creed” was by far the best “Rocky” movie, even greater than “Rocky”. Really.
Ryan went on to direct “Black Panther” again with Michael B. and powerful Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa – the Superhero Black Panther. Ryan cut to the heart of what inspires about Superhero stories: The possibility of becoming greater than we know ourselves to be.
In “Black Panther” T’Challa discovers that his late Father, was not the Man he thought. His father’s cruelty and betrayal created his mortal rival Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. T’Challa questions whether he will be a good King. Or become like his Father?
His lover Nakia, played by sublime Lupita Nyong’o, tells T’Challa, “You get to choose what kind of King you will be.” He gets to choose what kind of Man he will become. Yeah, this is a mainstream ‘Superhero’ movie. Amen.
In their climactic battle T’Challa mortally wounds Erik. Erik valued freedom as did T’Challa, but he clearly chose violence as the only means to that end. T’Challa pleads with Erik to let him save his life. Erik says, “Why, so you can lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
T’Challa weeps as his ‘Brother’ dies in his arms. The power of the Hero is in his tears. Director Ryan is all heart.
In “Captain Marvel” Brie Larson’s Vers returns to Earth in 1995, possessing superhuman powers. She has no memory of her past human life. In tears, she tells the woman from her past, that she doesn’t remember, “I don’t know who I am!” Her dearest friend from her past, Maria, played by compassionate Lashana Lynch says, “You were the most powerful person I know.”
Vers was always the Hero deep within. Directors Anna and Ryan depict 13-year-old Carol Danvers (‘Vers’) standing tall at-bat after being struck down by a wild baseball pitch. Air Force Cadet Danvers dusts off her fall from the obstacle course swinging rope. She gets back up. The Hero keeps getting back up after failing, after falling. She is Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” – the woman, who dares “to fail bravely”.
Diverse audiences will listen and watch movies that tell meaningful stories. Our Heroes don’t need to look like us, so long as they inspire us to dare to fail bravely and strive to become greater than we know.
Let the times keep a changing.
Previously Published on Facebook