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Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, left) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Panther. Photo: TNS

Black Panther opens as most successful film with primarily non-white cast of all time

The 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe also breaks the old Hollywood adage that ‘black’ films don’t do well outside North America

Marvel’s Black Panther opened as the most successful movie with a primarily non-white cast of all time, industry data showed yesterday, raising hopes for a new era of storytelling by filmmakers and actors of colour.

The 18th release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe opened atop the North American box office with a stratospheric US$242.2 million take over the four-day President’s Day weekend, said box office monitor Exhibitor Relations.

Black Panther soundtrack carries on tradition of black movie music that stretches back decades

Its performance overseas brought the global total to US$426.8 million, prompting analysts to conclude it had put to bed for good an old Hollywood adage that “black” films never make the grade outside North America.

Black Panther’s international debut [of US$184.6 million] forever slams the door on the myth that predominately black films can’t make money overseas,” said Jeff Bock, a senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations.

“From a box office perspective, though, I’m not sure I ever believed that. Even going back to Wesley Snipes’ Blade trilogy, that series [internationally] routinely kept pace with the [US] gross, and actually exceeded North America with the trilogy capper.”

Black Panther, directed by black filmmaker Ryan Coogler ( Creed), features a star-studded, almost entirely black cast led by Chadwick Boseman as the first non-white superhero to get his own stand-alone movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise.

Director Ryan Coogler (left) and Boseman at the European premiere of Black Panther at the Hammersmith Apollo in London. Photo: EPA-EFE

Starring alongside Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o, Boseman plays the titular superhero also known as T’Challa, king and protector of the technologically advanced fictional African nation of Wakanda – an affluent, never-colonised utopia.

In the US, the film finished President’s Day with US$40.2 million, the largest Monday box office receipts of all time – topping previous record-holder Star Wars: The Force Awakens (US$40.1 million).

Yet to open in the lucrative Chinese and Japanese markets, the film’s various achievements include the second-largest US four-day total, also behind only Star Wars: The Force Awakens (US$288.1 million) and just ahead of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (US$241.6 million).

Jordan as Black Panther villain Erik Killmonger. Photo: Marvel Studios

Its four-day total also crushes the 2016 President’s Day record of US$152.1 million set by Fox’s Deadpool, while its three-day opening breaks the highest mark for February and the best for a black director.

Black Panther is currently the highest-rated Marvel or superhero film of all time on the Rotten Tomatoes website, with 96 per cent approval. Disney said it was expecting “exceptionally strong” word of mouth to further boost ticket sales.

Is there more stuff going to be greenlit outside of this specific event movie that will continue this conversation?
Eric Kohn

The film has been backed to the hilt by Marvel’s parent company Disney, benefiting from a muscular US$350 million production and marketing budget and months-long publicity campaign.

This bucks the trend of US studios only committing modest budgets to black-specific films, out of a belief that white audiences – particularly in the increasingly important foreign markets – will not be interested.

The example often cited is the Madea movie franchise from Tyler Perry, which has made more than half a billion dollars across eight releases since 2005 – but with only one per cent contributed from overseas markets.

Bock said he hoped all discussion regarding skin colour and box office performance had been put to an end by Black Panther, giving way to a new era of inclusiveness.

Black Panther cast members (from left) Lupita Nyong'o, John Kani, Danai Gurira and Connie Chiume at the premiere of Black Panther in Johannesburg. Photo: AFP

“Just like Wonder Woman shattered the glass ceiling of females not being able to lead a box office charge, Black Panther should quell any future arguments that African Americans can’t deliver the box office goods in a tent-pole film,” the analyst said.

IndieWire film critic Eric Kohn places Black Panther on a continuum of influential and increasingly commercial black films starting with Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’s first feature Medicine for Melancholy (2008), taking in Justin Simien’s satirical comedy Dear White People, then Moonlight itself, as well as Oscar nominee Get Out.

Trevante Rhodes (right) and André Holland in Moonlight.

“In some ways, what Black Panther represents is the culmination of all these different elements of African American storytelling on a mainstream scale reaching that sort of level,” Kohn said on IndieWire’s Screen Talk podcast.

“It will obviously now lead to all kinds of different sequels and could remain in the zeitgeist for years to come. The question is, what else is there?”

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The next big Disney release that could piggyback on the success of Black Panther is A Wrinkle in Time, directed by Ava DuVernay ( Selma, 13th), the first black woman trusted to helm a US$100 million-plus blockbuster. The principal cast features mainly non-white actors, including Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Storm Reid, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Michael Pena.

Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima

“That movie is not necessarily being seen as quite the same kind of great stride in terms of representation as something like Black Panther,” Kohn said. “Is there more stuff going to be greenlit outside of this specific event movie that will continue this conversation?

“The assumption is yes because obviously it has proven to be profitable but, then again, there is still this disconnect in our industry. If you look beyond the most obvious examples, which are the movies, you have the gatekeepers at the studios and it’s still pretty white.”