There is an above average chance that you've heard of the movie "Black Panther" and have also seen it. The Disney-Marvel action movie has grossed over $1.2 billion globally since its February release. Those revenues make Black Panther among the most successful and fastest grossing movies of all-time, trailing only Star Wars in some categories and decidedly ahead of other blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Avatar, and Titanic. More specifically, it is the top grossing solo superhero movie of all-time, and easily the top grossing movie ever with a predominately black cast, crew, director, and theme. These accomplishments have been points of pride for all communities, but particularly for black communities.
During its debut weekend in the United States, 37 percent of the audience were African-American, more than double the usual 15 percent that attend superhero movies. In addition, 45 percent of the moviegoers were women, also an anomaly. Social media was flooded with black people draped in dashikis, Kente, and other African clothing as they headed to see the movie. The “Black Panther Challenge” raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to send low-income black youth to see the movie for free. Seemingly, millions of African-Americans are ready to stamp their passports to Wakanda, Black Panther’s fictional homeland.
This adoration and success of Black Panther leads to numerous questions. First, why Wakanda? Many remember Eddie Murphy’s 1988 hit movie, "Coming to America," where his fictional country included African royalty as well. So why not Zamunda?
Second, what is the relationship between seeing positive images of one’s self onscreen, only to return to a real world that is vastly different? Many youth who had the benefit of seeing the movie for free returned home to American ghettos and slums.
Third, what tangible and measurable impact will Black Panther’s success have on black America? Not much. Perhaps the most relevant and important question might be: in 2018, is the only hope that blacks have of a Wakanda-type community in science fiction, on the movie screen?
Data shows us that America is no Wakanda. Poverty among blacks is not budging. Equal achievements, such as wealth gains, yield unequal results for whites and blacks. Most startling, at 1 percent of national wealth, black America’s wealth is the same as it was at the end of the Civil War (relatively speaking) – and declining towards zero.
North Carolina and Durham (where I live) are no Wakanda either. Like America, they are becoming more segregated at the intersection of race and class, specifically black poverty. According to a recent N.C. Justice Center report, from 2000 to 2016, neighborhoods of concentrated poverty across the state nearly tripled from 262 to 669, and doubled in Durham from 4 to 8. These trends are worsening. Therefore, more of our communities in the future will look like Wakanda, but will not have their economic vitality. Black Panther’s success can show us why.
Though the movie has grossed over $1 billion, and will make billions more with DVDs, toys, merchandise, and sequels, little of that money will end up in the black community. Though black start-up entrepreneurship is up, the number of black businesses with employees is down. Blacks do not own movie theaters, manufacturers, transportation companies, or raw material factories that would position them to capture any of Black Panther’s revenue benefit.
As state and local leaders grapple with budget choices heading into the start of a new fiscal year in July, they should think about investing significant resources into creating a more equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem in places like Durham, Raleigh, Fayetteville, and across the state. This includes making sure that underrepresented businesses do not just start, but grow.
Doing so would not only allow the community to benefit from blockbusters like Black Panther, but have associated benefits in education, health, civic participation, housing, safety, and the public tax base. If we fail to do so, we all suffer from a competitive standpoint. Building the black business community would help fill a hollowness in our economy and would have us chanting “Wakanda Forever.”