March 9th, 2018 — Two hours before the premiere in China of Disney-Marvel’s blockbuster Black Panther, Rhianna Aaron, the founder of OPOPO Magazine, a Beijing-based online magazine, hustles into the Tiananmen Poly International Cinema, supervising the preparation of this red-carpet event.
When she posted the film premiere information on WeChat on February 12th, Aaron didn’t expect all 450 tickets would be sold out in a flash. As the singer, King Joshua belts out his ballad, Hold My Hand on the stage and hundreds of moviegoers decked out in their best outfits pose on the red carpet, the first premiere for the black community in Beijing is about to kick off an electrifying night.
Despite all the conservative predictions of a lukewarm reception in the Chinese market to a film with an all-black cast, Black Panther earned $67 million in its opening weekend and crossed the $100 million milestone two weeks after its release in China. According to Forbes, it has earned $1.37 billion worldwide thus far and has officially become the biggest solo superhero movie of all time in global gross, with China becoming its biggest overseas market.
For a long time, Africa has been portrayed as a backward and poverty-stricken continent that needs the economic support from other nations. As the first full-black cast Superhero movie, Black Panther conveys a different picture of Africa, through a fictional African country, Wakanda, which has enormous wealth and high technology, but isolates itself from the world by posing as a third world country. Many black people are thrilled by this vivid and positive portrayal of Africa, regarding it as a defining moment for their long-time aspirations.
Deusdedit Oygen, as have many other black people in China, had been waiting for a long time for a film like Black Panther to be released in China. Coming from Tanzania, he felt strongly about the lead character King T’Challa, who he said resembles Julius Nyerere, the first president of post-colonial Tanzania. “Nyerere believes that Africans don’t need the West in order to solve their problems, just like T’Challa,” said Oygen.
But the box office success doesn’t necessarily translate to good reviews in China. The film only got 6.7/10 in Douban, a film score website, garnering the lowest score among the Marvel series movies.
Tianyu Lei, a fan of Marvel, expressed his disappointment after watching Black Panther. Compared to the superhero Black Panther’s outstanding performance in Captain America 3, Lei thought this one is probably the worst in the Marvel series. “The story itself is really a cliché,” he said. “The plot of two men fighting for a crown is like watching The Lion King.”
Although the film has dominated social media for several weeks domestically and is being described as a “re-imagination of Africa as a dream of our wholeness, greatness and self-realization,” by writer, Carvell Wallace, in his review in The New York Times Magazine, the Chinese audience is still having a hard time understanding this cultural sensation. Guofan Zhou, an insurance agent, didn’t even pay attention to the African culture in the film. “The values in this film, like loyalty, sharing resources with the world and that justice will defeat the evil, are typical mainstream values of Hollywood superhero movies,” Zhou said. “And Black Panther is just another copy of the same formula.”
Working as a coordinator of film distribution, Yilian Ma isn’t surprised to see this kind of reactions to Black Panther. When the film was promoted in China, it was sold as a Marvel movie instead of a black movie. In the U.S., Black Panther’s success lies in both its quality and its social significance. However, the film doesn’t resonate in the same way with many Chinese viewers, due to the lack of racial diversity and common cultural background. Ma thought it would be challenging for most Chinese audiences to cheer at the theater and appreciate the political metaphors in the film when they don’t have the same context as Americans do.
As more and more moviegoers scored it online, the film reviews became polarized. The top three reviews on Douban all doubt whether the film benefits from its political correctness and criticized the weakness of the story and characters. Yanzhuo Li, a film critic, responded to some netizens’ negative racial comments on Black Panther on Weibo, a twitter-like social platform in China. She pointed out that most Chinese people can’t empathize with black people because they are ignorant of the race discussions, so they use “political correctness” to justify the movies they don’t like in her post, which was later retweeted 2,951 times and liked over 4,000 times.
The discussion of racism in China has been downplayed for years. The popular belief is that Chinese people generally lack a sense of racism because the majority of the population belongs to a single race. Looking into the reason why Black Panther failed to please Chinese viewers, Yilian Ma disagreed with the assumption that Chinese audiences have a strong sense of racial discrimination. “I would rather use it as a form of insensitivity to races.”
However, Dr. Adams Bodomo, who spent years studying Africans in China, finds ignorance and insensitivity is not always an excuse for all discrimination against black people. From the laundry detergent ads which washed a black man into a pale-skin Asian man in 2016 to Hubei Provincial Museum juxtaposing of photographs of animals with portraits of black Africans in an exhibition, there’s no social reflections on why these behaviors happened over and over again.
Samuel Kipchumba Lebo, a software engineer at Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd, Nairobi bureau, still remembered his experience of being refused entry to clubs in Wudaokou, a lively commercial center in Beijing, where his Caucasian friends could go freely.
“The fact that because you refuse to learn about some race and continue to discriminate against members of that race is no excuse to claim that you are not racist,” said Adams Bodomo, the professor of African studies, focused on cross-cultural communication, at the University of Vienna. He claims that the Chinese government must start a massive educational program to address its racial problem.
In Guangzhou, the city that has the largest black population in China, an anti-black sentiment has been rooted in locals’ minds for years. “My parents warned me off the Xiaobei Road, where lots of Africans hang around since I was very young,” Zhang Zong, a graduate student at Indiana University recalled. Having spent three years studying Central Eurasian history, Zhang has an understanding of racism in China. Admitting that Chinese have a natural repulsion of other races, he also mentioned lots of media reporting about black people committing crimes, drug-trafficking and harassing women in Guangzhou, which increased the security risk in that region.
“In fact, some of the news they get is often very negative — they see riots, they see crime so that’s the only thing they associate with African-Americans,” Richard Pena, the former program director of Film Society of Lincoln Center, explained. After organizing a series of retrospectives on international films of various foreign countries, including China, he realized that China is simply a part of what is an international reality that he hopes to change, which is to make African American media cross over and be widely accepted. “Perhaps the success of Black Panther will help Chinese audiences know more about Africa, or at least that’s the hope.”