While the release of Black Panther was a cultural event for the black community in China, Chinese reactions ranged from disappointment to fascination

By Katrin Büchenbacher Source:Global Times Published: 2018/3/13 16:23:39

Chizi Igwe and Leroy Adams, leading figures in the black community in Beijing, doubt that Black Panther will impact Chinese attitudes toward race. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Zhang Xinyan and Lisa Shoko went to the movies this weekend for the same reason - they both wanted to see Black Panther the day it premiered in China. Their motivations, however, could not be more different.

"I am a huge Marvel fan," Beijinger Zhang, 21, told Metropolitan, "I have seen all of their movies." Zhang took his girlfriend out on a date to the IMAX theater to watch Marvel's latest blockbuster.

Zimbabwean Shoko, 21, on the other hand, went to the film premiere organized by Opopo Magazine, a publication based in Beijing, with the purpose to "empower blacks everywhere."

Over 400 people, dressed in African-style clothing, filled two movie theaters. A drum performance and singers welcomed them.

"This is the movie a lot of black people have been waiting for. We celebrated this movie so much because it was all about 'Africaness,'" Shoko said.

Black Panther made $65.5 million on its opening weekend in China, which was a "solid" amount, according to the Hollywood magazine Variety. China is the second-largest movie market after the US, therefore, crucial to a movie's global success. The relatively strong China debut has helped Black Panther to surpass $1 billion globally. In the US, the movie was released on February 16, and as of March 10, the movie already belongs to the 10 highest-grossing domestic releases with $521 million.

The movie was praised by critics and the audience for its predominantly African-American cast, especially in retrospect of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy in 2016, when the Oscars were boycotted by some leading figures in Hollywood because all nominated actors were white. The Financial Times called Black Panther a "cultural touchstone" for the black community and a "feel-good moment" for Hollywood on its path to more diversity.

Chinese moviegoers are drawn to Black Panther because it is a Marvel movie, with the "American" values conveyed explaining the movie's average rating in China. Photo: Li Hao/GT

A moment in the sun

The movie's world is the fictional African country of Wakanda, which is technologically advanced but hides its real face from the world. The creator of Marvel comics Jack Kirby designed the lead character of Black Panther in 1960. At the time, the author did not know that his character would bring about the theory of Afrofuturism, which depicts African and black culture in a way that challenges traditional images of poverty and war, to the big screen.

The positive depiction of black and African culture in Black Panther was awaited by black communities not only in the US but around the world.

"The excitement that Black Panther received globally shocked me," said Leroy Adams, founder of BLK GEN (black genius), a Beijing-based edutainment brand. "I met a moviegoer from Uganda who said they had been waiting for this movie for a long time."

African-American Adams had seen the movie three times, including the premiere in China. A Marvel and action movie fan himself, he said this time he didn't see the movie because it was Marvel, "but went for what it represents."

For the black diaspora in China, the hip, powerful and positive depiction of people of color and Africa struck a chord in particular. "We needed this; we needed our moment in the sun," Shoko said.

In 2017, the patriotic Chinese action movie Wolf Warrior 2 introduced Africa as a setting to a Chinese audience, but Western media, such as the entertainment news site hollywoodreporter.com, criticized that it displayed a picture of helpless Africans caught between civil rebels and Western mercenaries. In 2018, during the annual Spring Festival Gala, CCTV's decision to feature blackface in a stage skit caused uproar beyond the black community.

"I hope that Black Panther dismantles some of the ignorance that we saw at the Spring Festival Gala," Shoko said, adding, "I hope that it will show that black people have their own cultures which they take pride in. As the world advances, we are not left behind; we grow with it and make it fit around our unique identities. We are here, we are competent and we are thriving."

Chinese are not black

But the hope that Black Panther goes beyond an average superhero movie in China may be far-fetched - it resonated with the audience differently.

With 92 percent of the population being Han people, the country does not have the same sensitivity to racial questions as the melting-pot society in the US. The values of equality, diversity and female empowerment portrayed in Black Panther are understood as exclusively American by some netizens in China, unfit for a Chinese context. Pushing "American political correctness" to China is seen as Western propaganda. On the Chinese movie rating websites, Black Panther has, therefore, scored 7.1 points out of 10, and on Douban, another popular site, it only scored 6.8 points.

Many thought that the film was overrated in the US and could not keep up with the other stories of the Marvel Universe. User AmiJC wrote that he thought of the film as "mediocre." He said, "In the US, the movie might have received such positive feedback because it included political correctness."

User AA1310843, likewise, wrote that he hopes "it's not boosted due to political correctness" even though he liked Chadwick Boseman's acting. Boseman, who played King T'Challa aka Black Panther, had been voted the "most popular US actor in China" at the 13th Chinese American Film Festival.

Disney's Marvel has anticipated the backlash to the "American values" in Black Panther and its predominantly black cast. In the past, similarly starred movies have seen less than 50 percent of the profits overseas than made in the US. Black Panther, on the contrary, had the third-largest Marvel opening day in China. American action and superhero movies have always been appealing to an Asian audience. For example, Transformers: The Age of Extinction (2014) is the seventh-highest grossing film in China. Therefore, the poster in Asia highlighted action by showing the Black Panther fully masked, while the US poster showed the full cast without their masks, emphasizing their identities.

"Black Panther pulls all types of audiences - the die-hard Marvel fans and those interested in seeing blacks represented," Adams said. "But I was disappointed by the advertisement in China which showed Boseman fully masked."

Chizi Igwe, a board member of the Beijing chapter of Africa 2.0, a pan-African civil society organization, has an explanation for the different reception from black and Chinese audiences.

"Chinese are not black, so there is not the same hype around the movie here as in the US for example," she said. "In China, the success of this movie has nothing to do with its pro-black theme."

Therefore, both Igwe and Adams do not believe that the movie will cause Chinese to reflect on their relations with black people or change their behavior toward them.

"I have just been to the doctor, and he was surprised that there were black people in America," Igwe said. "There is a lot that needs to be done."

Adams added, "A movie alone is not going to change that."

But Adams said having learned a lot about China through Chinese art, he believes that creative abilities and cultural products can bring about social change, which has led him to build his own organization. BLK GEN wants to give black creators a platform to show "how talented, creative and brilliant we are."

Black Panther may have the same effect of touching people through culture.

"Entertainment does engage people and can open a door, especially for people who don't have any context," Igwe said. "But it is just a drop in the ocean."

The impact of culture

Indeed, the movie seemed to have had an impact on some Chinese moviegoers with it's larger cultural and social themes.

"The female roles are so great. Strong and powerful," Douban user Mijiandawangganlanmei wrote.

"It is by far the most direct, the most complicated and the most realistic Marvel superhero film aimed at social issues," user Penina wrote on Douban.

Others were more impressed by the attractiveness of the actors.

"Michael B.Jordan's body is very nice, and the dreadlocks are so cool," all_proof posted on Weibo, where the hashtag #Marvel's movie Black Panther# generated about 400,000 posts.

The way the Chinese and black audience related to Black Panther was indeed different. For Zhang, it was an action movie shared with his girlfriend. For Shoko, it was an experience of watching it with people who understood her pride and a platform to discuss the questions raised by the movie, for example, the relationship between the Africans and the African diaspora or the impact of foreign intervention in Africa.

The take-home message, however, may be fresh and positive for both.

"The actors were super handsome and cool, both the good guys and the villains. I liked that the bald female warriors were so fierce," Zhang said. "This movie doesn't show black people the way Hollywood used to, but in a larger variety and in the context of African tribal culture. It is very rare for the average Beijinger to come in touch with these tribal elements. We definitely lack an understanding of African and black culture."

Liu Ruiwen contributed to this story

Newspaper headline: Wakanda in Beijing


blog comments powered by Disqus