by Lena Potts
The hype around Black Panther is huge, following in the tradition of superhero films in the past few years. And the recent casting news around the upcoming film Crazy Rich Asians, starring a nearly all Asian/Asian-American cast, was met with insane buzz.
Both films are determinedly racial- the concept is embedded even in their names. But unlike race films we’re used to seeing, these aren’t stories limited by the historic struggles of the communities they represent. Additionally, the marketing around Black Panther is very obviously broader than a Black audience, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Crazy Rich Asians was similar. What, if anything, does this mean? Are these examples of a new type of movie, about everyone and for everyone?
As we saw with the narrative surrounding Wonder Woman earlier this year, there’s a concern that people (White people, men) won’t watch movies that aren’t about them, even though Brown people and women have been doing it forever. There was skepticism about whether Wonder Woman would be a real success, and, leading up to its release, it took on the dreadfully unfair weight of being the ‘lady movie that could’- if Wonder Woman was successful, maybe it would prove that woman-centric movies should be made. The film was like the one Black kid in class who everyone would look at whenever a Black history question came up, or who had to explain their hair to literally everyone, or who had to work hard all day to disprove every Black stereotype because they were the only one, representing everyone.
When you think about films made for, about, and by marginalized folx, think about where they fall on two axes: 1) to what degree is the story about the marginalization itself (a race story, an LBGT tale, etc.), and 2) who is the movie made for and marketed to (everyone, or the subject of the film)?
Comedy has been able to push this boundary for some time, with movies like Rush Hour. Although much of it doesn’t age well, it did help cement Jackie Chan as a viable Asian male lead in a mainstream American comedy, something arguably unreplicated in the almost 20 years since its release. Pushing boundaries, stretching our norms, and tackling difficult subjects in an accessible way is what comedy does. But drama and action have had far less success broadening their brands outside of White period dramas, White men blowing stuff up, White people being superheroes, Black people fighting for rights, Asian people not existing, queer people being Mitch and Cam, people with disabilities (other than problematic representations of Autism) not existing, Native Americans not existing, etc. Atomic Blonde was supposed to be a kickass lady film, and it was, but it came and went without much noise. Asian martial arts films have trouble crossing into the “mainstream” outside of the bump in notoriety that came with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 17 years ago. Ghostbusters tried going hard with the “women can lead movies” thing, but had very middling reviews.
But this year we had both Wonder Woman and Get Out, and saw Moonlight win Best Picture. And with each passing day, people from more marginalized communities are becoming increasingly vocal about their right and ability to tell their own stories. Detroit, the awful mess Kathryn Bigelow directed about a police hostage incident during the Detroit race riots backfired. The film has lost Oscar buzz despite its big name director and timely subject matter, in part because it’s increasingly in poor taste to tell a story someone else, someone closer, could have told better.
Not only are people vocally and powerfully demanding that we hear them tell their stories, but they’re asking that we let them tell stories for the masses. They’re telling us they have the same talent to entertain, and that watching people with disabilities, people of color, queer folx, women, people who aren’t Matt Damon (u cool tho Matt), is just as entertaining and exciting as anything else, if not more so.
So here’s to Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians! Go see them for the culture(s).