In the racially charged America of the Donald Trump era, even a superhero movie can become a flashpoint.
When “Black Panther” hit the silver screens this weekend, it shattered expectations and became the fifth highest-grossing debut film, following only "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," ''Star Wars: The Last Jedi," ''Jurassic World" and "The Avengers". It was the highest-grossing February opening weekend ever.
The Marvel flick, with a budget of $200 million, is the most expensive movie directed by a black director with a mostly black cast, and is one of few to feature a black superhero. Its strong opening positions it to set a box-office record for a black director.
The acclaim was swift. “‘Black Panther' Breaks Records and Barriers in Debut Weekend,” read aheadline on the NPR website. Rolling Stone ran a feature titled “The ‘Black Panther’ Revolution".
But not everyone was thrilled at the film’s success. No sooner had the film opened than racist Internet trolls began circulating false information. Twitter users posted pictures they said were of white people who had tried to go to see the film only to be “brutally attacked” by “black thugs…because they said whites weren’t allowed to watch the movie", in the words of one such tweet.
Another user said his friend was brutally beaten “by an angry group who did not have tickets". His account quickly became the source of ridicule because the photo he used to prove his point was taken from the Walking Dead and easily recognised by fans of the show.
Soon enough, the black community responded with tweets warning about potential violence. The tweets were all the more salient given that they came on the heels of a school shooting in Florida, the worst in five years. In 2012 a gunman killed twelve people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during the opening weekend of “The Dark Knight Rises”.
The tweets show that in today’s racially charged America, even a superhero movie can be politicised and become the target of Internet trolls. One group decided to use the politicisation of the film in a more positive way: to encourage voter registration.
The Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives has organised an initiative called #WakandaTheVote that encourages moviegoers to register to vote (Wakanda is the name of the fictional country where the movie takes place). The campaign has inspired voter registration drives in more than 50 US cities.
Both Republicans and Democrats are looking at the 2018 midterm elections as a critical battle over control of the House and Senate, and the registration of black voters could be an important factor in that fight. In 2016 there were several instances of mass voter suppression, generally targeting black and Hispanic voters.
Identity politics played a significant role in the film’s success. “But while the White House is putting down people of African descent, Hollywood is lifting us up -- most spectacularly through the release of Disney-Marvel's new movie, "Black Panther," CNN’s Van Jones wrote.
Journalist Jamil Smith wrote in Time about the power of black people seeing representations of themselves in popular culture.
“Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. When it doesn’t happen, we are all the poorer for it,” he wrote. “This is one of the many reasons 'Black Panther' is significant. What seems like just another entry in an endless parade of superhero movies is actually something much bigger.”
And the #BlackPantherChallenge, which began as a fundraiser to send kids from Harlem to see the film grew into the largest GoFundMe campaign ever for an entertainment event, raising $400,000, or enough money to buy tickets for more than 30,000 children.
Audience demographics from the 4,020 movie theatres indicated that the film’s audience was far more diverse than usual. According to comScore, 37 percent of ticket buyers were black, as opposed to an average of 15 percent for other superhero movies.