“Black Panther” is a Commerical…and That’s Okay: A Response to MovieBob

The recent Marvel film Black Panther has been the main topic of discussion for more than two weeks. Reviews are positive across the board, the cast and crew have garnered accolades and attention from the press, and the box office results are out of this world, with a $202 million and $111.6 million first and second weekend, with the film expected to make at least $650 million domestically, making it one of the top 5 biggest domestic grossers of all time.

But like with anything successful, there’s some people questioning its worth and value, and an example can be shown with a recent YouTube video made by film critic Bob Chipman, also known by his YouTube name “MovieBob.” In his recent video “Darmok & Jalad at Wakanda,” a part of his “In Bob We Trust” series.

Chipman has great respect for Black Panther in many different aspects, mainly its representational and cultural values and how it has more or less been turned into an event film for both Marvel fans and more importantly black people. But he brings up the idea that this Disney-Marvel film being used for social or cultural progress, meaning, or other purposes may be a bad idea.

This is on the basis that because it is a film distributed by Disney and produced by Marvel Studios, that in spite of whatever message director Ryan Coogler and many audience members want to share is only secondary to the fact that this is a for-profit commercial. Black Panther was made to sell toys, promote Marvel’s comic books, and to continue the hit streak of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Is the idea that what is essentially a giant commercial being used as a cultural statement and becoming a black cultural icon a regression towards the anti-establishment message that many black activists had? Is a character and property owned by Disney, arguably the biggest and most influential corporation in the entertainment industry, more or less appropriating black pride and using it to manipulate the message and use said message through their own personal gain, through feature films, cartoons, toys, costumes, and theme park rides? (Black Panther: The Ride is coming to Disney California Adventure in about 10 years, just you wait)

Within Chipman’s video, a lot of good arguments were made, even if his own opinion is more on the neutral side than anything else. Most notable is the way Coca-Cola appropriated the peace and free love movement in an attempt to associate the activism with their own brand, as well as creating the image of Santa we Americans know today.

And I will be the first to admit that I have a lot of qualms with The Walt Disney Company. Relating to the topic at hand, there’s the fact Disney has appropriated other properties to the point where they act as if they own the likes of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins was so adamant against the idea of her books being made by Walt Disney, because Disney had enough power that whatever they touched would now be owned by them when it comes to the public conscious. After all, when most people hear the word “Snow White,” the first thing that pops in their head isn’t the original Grimm fairy tale, but the Disney film. That’s why almost every film’s logo and marketing materials has the Disney logo attached just above the title. Look at the posters for a Disney production, then look at the posters from other Hollywood studios, and you’ll notice that Disney really likes having its name where people will see it.

But what Chipman, and a lot of others, fail to recognize is that film, as well as art in general, is inherently commercial. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Disney blockbuster or an A24 indie. You can make an argument that some pieces of self-distributed art can be considered non-profit, but when it comes to feature films, it’s fair to say that close to 99 percent of all film is a commercial.

Using black-led films as examples, Black Panther, a Marvel film with a ginormous $200 million budget, was made to further the careers of Coogler, Boseman, Nyong’o, Gurira, Jordan, etc. by giving them big fat paychecks, as well as sell toys, comics, and get a billion sponsorships, as well as further the brand respect of Marvel and Disney as a whole.

Girls Trip, a midbudget comedy film doesn’t care about selling toys or developing theme park rides, but it is still commercial. This is a film that needs to be successful, as it will give all four lead actresses more work in films in the future, as well as the writer, director, producers, and distributor, Universal, earning profits, so that the former three will continue to get work, while the distributor will be more inclined to greenlight similar films in an attempt to get more profits.

Moonlight, an independent drama, is similar to Girls Trip, but on a much smaller scale budget-wise and gross-wise. It is made to help get a paycheck for the actors, and the writers, directors, and producers want the film to do well so they can continue to get work. As an example, Barry Jenkins had to wait eight years for his next movie to be released, as Medicine for Melancholy didn’t make much money, while his next movie after Moonlight is coming out in 2018, two years after the release of the aforementioned film, because of how much money and attention it received.

The distributor, A24, also released this movie for commercial purposes, as they want to have a film that can get nominated for a bunch of awards, boosting the film’s box office and their reputation as an independent distributor, in order to keep making more money and to help put bread on the table for the executives and employees who work there.

All three films do have things that are “important” to say in their own way, but in the end, they are all made for the purpose of making money. People seem to automatically assume that Hollywood blockbusters are only made for profit purposes, and that independent features are ones that are made just to make “cinema.” And while I don’t want to say that argument is completely invalid, I think people fail to recognize that an important part of making art, especially a movie, is to put bread on the table. If you want to argue that Black Panther’s message is negated due to the fact that it’s focused on pushing itself as a commercial piece of filmmaking, then you better make the same argument for that surreal movie playing nearby the local arthouse theater.

But while all films are commercial, unlike what Chipman said, film is not a commercial first. Film, by and large, is art first, and commercial second. Ten years from now, no one will care about the sponsorships and brand deals that Black Panther had. People won’t care about the car commercials, the toy ads, the Happy Meal promos, or anything else of that ilk. Advertising is temporary, film is forever.

And the simple fact of the matter is that all film, from highbrow to lowbrow, from Star Wars to Lady Bird, is a piece of art. And the reason art exists, first and foremost, is to make people think and for people to use it for whatever purposes they so choose. Art helps break down barriers and educates people, as the artist, or the director/auteur when applied to film, is the driving factor of a piece, and uses their template to explain how they see the world and what they want people to learn. And the viewers themselves are the ones who either reciprocate or reinterpret that message.

And using Star Wars quotes on protest signs, or promoting fictional nations like Wakanda as a shorthand towards fighting against sexism and racism is just one of those ways said art is being reciprocated or reinterpreted. Of course, there will always be people who will use art and images in an attempt to reinterpret something that will negatively impact people. But the overall positives that a film like this will achieve, from a representational standpoint, as well as from a progressive standpoint, can and should be respected and celebrated. If anything, having a Marvel film being used for these kinds of statements is far more beneficial than independently-made art, on the basis that more people will actually see it, therefore more will be inspired by what the film has to say.

Simply put, all film is art, and all film is commercial. Some may be more artistic than others, and some may be more commercial than others. But film is, and always will be art first and commercial second when it comes to modern society, and with this piece of art being reinterpreted as a positive political and social statement, as well as something that can be used as a shorthand for conversation, maybe being a commercial isn’t that bad.