Now that Black Panther is out and wrecking manner of beautiful havoc cinematically, financially, and culturally, you’re likely wondering what the next move is. How do the people who loved, liked or just appreciated Black Panther to the point of elevating the film from a moment in entertainment to a moment in history parlay all of this good will, cookout love, and celebration of/participation in black excellence into the next Thing We Should Be Doing?
We try as hard as we can to do the same thing next month for Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. Here’s why:
Director Ava DuVernay is no joke. She did Selma, 13th, created Queen Sugar, and more. She has been going in the paint for black cinema – and especially women-led production and subjects – for almost a decade. She doesn’t just create; she produces and distributes. She is the complete media package waiting on the complete media package check. She has all of the critical accolades she needs. What she requires next is us doing what we did with Black Panther for the shot she’s been “given” with “Wrinkle” (arguably earned, but whatever). Nobody expects it to do Black Panther business – there are movie expectations and then there are Marvel movie expectations. The good news is that it doesn’t need to. She’s the first black woman to get a $100-million budget for a film. While I have no doubt that the movie will make that on the strength of artfully capturing a classic book, the movie deserves to do better than cross the finish line. DuVernay took a white, existential fantasy tale with mad religious subtext and made it pop with culture, and conversely political subtext. That’s what she did and the movie isn’t even out yet. She’s a master storyteller, and she’s handling a property that, I won’t lie to you, has been considered difficult to capture at best. But it’s DuVernay, so I can’t wait to see what will come. DuVernay is a genius and her resume to date is impeccable.
But let’s focus on our job here, the part where we buy tickets and turn theaters out.
Remember how much fun it was to have panel discussions and read think pieces and dress up and cosplay and post hot takes and #WakandaForever? All of that can happen again next month for this movie. Remember how two years ago only your black nerd friend and comic geeks knew what Wakanda was, but now the dude who hangs out in front of the carryout is talking about Vibranium? Just do all of that again for Wrinkle. Certainly you have more black excellence party game in you than once a decade, yes? Certainly you want to be a good ally, yes? You don’t do this because A Wrinkle in Time is black; you do it because doing so changes the black cinema game substantially.
Hollywood is not generous. It is not an industry that operates with good intentions or faith. It is one of the most brutally sadistic business machines in the world. If that machine possesses a cultural or political agenda, one would never confuse such software with being remotely humanitarian on even its best day. So while bittersweet, it bears noting that Black Panther is what happens when you give non-white creators the same resources you have been giving white creators for over a century: money, freedom of interpretation, distribution, marketing, talent choice, access. We could have given you something like Black Panther years ago. We wanted to. We have the stories and the talent and the craft. I have read the books and been to the black comic book conventions held in back rooms, and spent good money to revel in the mountain of genius therein. Coogler is exceptional, but he is hardly alone. DuVernay will, once again, prove this, and we should show the world that black excellence deserves its support every time at bat because it is work provided by brilliant people.
I know many of you don’t know what A Wrinkle in Time is about. Most of you didn’t know how to pronounce T’Challa until you got into the theater either, or who Killmonger was, or what one member of the Dora Milaje (created by a black writer 20 years ago, unlike the titular Panther. SEE?!) could really do, let alone all of them. Trust our black excellence, but better, show them that if it keeps receiving the support and free reigns our talent deserves, we will keep making excellent art that makes them money.
Ah, the money. Let’s talk about that.
Here is the part you can use against critics who say you shouldn’t go see any of these films because the money ultimately goes to The White Man (aka Disney. Yes, both films.):
Many have already forgotten, assuming they knew in the first place, what happened on February 28, 2016. I keep the events of that night burned in my mind when I create. It was an Oscar show night, and while Chris Rock was making lynching jokes in front of millions of white people, Ryan Coogler was in Flint, Michigan leading the charge at a benefit show put together by him and Ava DuVernay. I’m going to quote what I wrote the day after that event to save us all some time:
Coogler’s resume consists of two films – one critically acclaimed, the other critically acclaimed and a hit. His movies collectively grossed around $126 million, with $109 million of that being “Creed” money. “Creed” came out four months ago. We’re talking new money. Money he made for studios, not himself, but was able to convert into clout. He didn’t waste any time getting to the “give back” part. Ava DuVernay, who also helped get [the Justice For Flint benefit] off the ground, has three movies directed to her credit, altogether amassing a whopping $52 million, almost all of which is “Selma” money. As business goes, her first two films might as well not exist in Hollywood terms. And yet here she is, putting in the work, using what she has been able to garner into genuine activism. Ain’t no symbolism here…just real work.
These two artists have already decided that they’re going to use what clout they’ve amassed to build new things and work in the interest of people in need. They dumped the whole of their reputations as a commodity into actual work, called in whatever favors they’ve garnered after a few movies, and done some real, hands-on good. They didn’t wait until they were rich enough, or when it seemed politically correct, or while the issue iron was at its hottest. They didn’t produce from afar or just donate a fraction of a check.
Compare their work to ALL of the black actors and actresses who you can name, who make $2 or $5 or $10 or $15 million per picture. Compare it to the black actors and actresses with ten times his resume and clout and money who thought boycotting was a more profound gesture than on the ground, with the people, hands-dirty, get the money work. Think about all the money and time and resources available to black Hollywood, and how, after all the time and deference paid and art they’ve generated, few have gone as all-in as Coogler and DuVernay have here, and what such a move represents. Think about how it comes on the heels of some powerful political statements (Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar) in long-standing bastions of white cultural power. It’s a serious line being drawn in the sand against not only the white power structure – which they seem to have given very little thought to – but also black Hollywood.
Change gonna’ come indeed.
These are the two people I’m talking about now, two years later nearly to the day. You didn’t get Justice For Flint – the event or the action – without Creed, Selma and all the other work they do that make white people lots of money, but each time inches them closer to more independence. And unlike a lot of other people who try to sell us that they are helping us by virtue of their existence, they have already proven what they are willing to do and that was before they were each making history. DuVernay and Coogler have remained true and unapologetic, and now they are on the biggest stage in the world: $100 million-plus budget territory. Do you think that these two people, after finally having earned the last few pieces of the media business puzzle, won’t build something that feeds its people beyond the screen? Making these two films more than just successful, but record-breaking, sets them up to do more good than all of the Facebook Live revolutionaries combined.
Black joy fueled Black Panther’s head-over-shoulders success. Don’t get me wrong: It was going to make its money because it’s an actually good Marvel movie. But it was our joy and anticipation that compelled the industry to distribute and market it beyond initial projections, and amped audiences to come witness our picnics firsthand. Black joy is a resource, is a concrete thing that can make real moves. When we are presented with work that comes from value bases the like of which DuVernay and Coogler inhabit, we are made full and powerful and better people. A million movie tickets by themselves aren’t activism, but neither is a million ACLU memberships. The power of these things allow people who are frontline activist-minded creators to build things the rest of us can use to grow and build other things. It is how you snatch phrases like “I can’t afford that” out of the mouths of people like Oprah Winfrey, who appear to have the resources to save a show that speaks to our history like Underground, but then, not really.
So: A Wrinkle in Time opens on March 9. I’d say start blowing it up in about two weeks.
(Don’t worry: I’ll enlist some help here to get you up to speed so your premiere game is strong.)
Creators have always made the case that you get what you pay for, that if you want to see more of a certain kind of thing, throw your money at it. I’m not making that case (though I agree with it). I am saying, in the case of Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay specifically, that we should all throw everything we have at their projects because they have shown that they care about people, that they are willing to put their hands directly on communities to improve them, and that they will use every resource they have to speak a better world into existence.
Black art comes from a tradition of engaging lives. Our art has always been a function of living cultures, from African storytelling to gospel shouts to the blues to hip hop. Our art engages lives, and in turn influences those lives. Our art has almost never just been entertainment or escapism. It is why watching Black Panther with a black audience becomes a visceral experience. (Watching Black Panther under such conditions is probably the only time I’ve ever thought shouting “rewind!” might be apropos because we drowned half of the movie’s lines following any time Shuri opened her mouth.) Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time combined stand to provide two of our most powerful and politically-minded creators with more top-tier resources than perhaps any black creator before them. If we blow up A Wrinkle in Time just a third as much as we did Black Panther, I believe that we will have set up black cinema to change the world behind, in front of, and beyond the camera in ways we can only begin to imagine.