Black Panther has clawed its way to becoming one of the highest grossing superhero movies of all time. It’s been labelled ‘game-changing’ for proving that black movies can be a success internationally. The box-office hit, featuring a largely black cast and a black director, has already taken in more than a billion US dollars worldwide. Many regard this as proof that ‘black films can travel’.
As the film opened at movie houses across China last Friday, many in the industry were looking to the world’s second biggest movie market, which is on track to surpass America by 2020, to see whether or not Chinese audiences would be ready to embrace a movie with black lead actors. It’s thought that China’s reaction to the film could play a significant part in determining what type of movies major studios develop in the future.
Accusations of racism
China is still one of the most racially homogenous nations in the world. It’s dominated by one ethnic group, the Han Chinese, which account for 92% of the population. This, coupled with the fact that the country is highly nationalistic, hasn’t always made it the best at embracing foreign faces or foreign cultural exports.
Accusations of racism have plagued the nation in the past, specifically anti-black racism. Just last month, China faced international backlash over a skit performed at its annual Chinese New Year gala (the most watched TV show in the country) about China’s infrastructure projects in Africa. The skit was branded ‘insensitive’ and ‘offensive’ for featuring Africans equated with monkeys, and a Chinese actress outfitted in full blackface and a prosthetic bottom.
In 2016, a Chinese detergent commercial was branded ‘the most racist TV commercial ever made‘ when a young black man was treated with a detergent pod to turn him into an attractive, pale-skinned Asian.
In spite of such racially insensitive incidents, some hope that Black Panther might be a catalyst for change. ‘A lot of stereotypes in China come from a limited exposure to diversity’, said China-based university lecturer Marcel Daniels in an interview with the Shanghai outlet Sixth Tone. ‘Hopefully this film sparks interest in Chinese viewers to learn more about the history, people, and cultures of those from Africa.’
Lost in translation
Black Panther opened in China with a strong $66 million gross, meeting its $60-$70 million opening weekend predictions. But beyond the initial burst of interest in a much publicised movie, some are not convinced that Black Panther truly connects with Chinese audiences.
While in America the film was praised for its celebration of black culture, in China this aspect is thought to have made little to no impression at all.
In an interview with Outline, one young Chinese college student commented: ‘It wasn’t the plot or cast of Black Panther that kept her from enjoying the film. It was that, without the context of why the movie was made, it felt to her like a hundred other superhero flicks and big-budget Hollywood films.’
In that sense, the movie’s celebration of black culture failed to make any impression at all. Instead, it was America pedalling its universal values again that stood out most of all. She explained how, at the end of the film, T’Challa had gone from ‘saving the people of his country’ to ‘exporting technology’ to the rest of the world — ‘much like how the United States operates in global politics.’
While for America Black Panther is a game-changer, for China, the world’s second biggest movie market, aside from healthy ticket sales, it appears this big ‘cultural moment’ for black cinema has largely been lost in translation.