It’s a sight that will restore your faith in movies themselves: De Ja Little, a sixth grader from the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, watching Black Panther on the film’s opening (a few weeks prior, a video of the whole school finding out they were going to see the film also went viral). Little’s face of moving awe and wonder was repeated again and again, from New York to Melbourne.
“I would like to remember this 20 years from now … and go: ‘I remember that night, it was incredible’ … I am moved,” Dorcas Utkovic, presenter and producer for Oz African TV told the ABC after a screening in Melbourne. “We’ve got to undo colonial and historic disadvantage for the last 400 to 500 years,” Scottness Smith, a filmmaker originally from South Africa also told the ABC. “It is a film that tells a story of a fictional African country that exists only in our imagination, and when we take that power and we focus and we go forward, global African excellence will be realised in our lifetime.”
Is the canon of Hollywood, typically written by white men in the directing chair and boardrooms, finally changing?
With Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time releasing within a month of each other, representation, from Wakanda to Ava DuVernay’s rendering of Meg Murry, has been writ on the largest of screens all over the world, the former even becoming the first film in 35 years to be shown in movie theatres in Saudi Arabia. “A Wrinkle In Time is for all the girls – and boys, and non-binary kids, and teens and adults and the elderly – who’ve ever been a Meg,” Angie Han of Mashable wrote in her review of the latter. “It’s a flawed film that entreats us to love flawed things, up to and including our very own selves. Maybe that sounds like a hoary cliché now. It didn’t feel like one when I was watching the movie, which is so disarmingly earnest that I fell completely under its spell.”
Is the canon of Hollywood, typically written by white men in the directing chair and boardrooms, finally changing? Disney in recent years has been celebrated for their strides in diversity that are unmatched by other Hollywood studios: DuVernay becoming the first woman of colour to direct a film with a budget in excess of $100 million; Kelly Marie Tran taking on a major role in Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Black Panther breaking with the well-worn formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Moana finding monumental success (although it’s worth noting that Moana was directed by two white men), and the studio even releasing the sadly forgotten Queen Of Katwe by Mira Nair. They seem, mercifully, to be listening to the current murmurings about representation like no other studio, doing fewer haphazard reboots than their counterparts, and instead revising their past successes with purpose.
Can Disney continue the work they’ve started to resounding acclaim?
This realisation couldn’t have come soon enough. Until Wonder Woman stormed the box office last year and Black Panther this year, interest in the oversaturated tent pole films that now make up the bulk of Hollywood’s expenditure was drying up. Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice made over 50 per cent of its total gross on opening weekend, quickly deflating under a tiredness for the self-serious bombast DC is mainly known for. Justice League, long touted as a high point for the DC universe, recently became the lowest grossing film of the franchise. Not even Avengers: Age Of Ultron was safe, grossing below that of the first outing from 2012. One story about a troubled man saving the world quickly faded into another, and Marvel’s template of fake-out deaths of characters and multiple endings was compounded by there being multiple movies to see each year.
But what comes next after this dream run with Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time? Can Disney continue the work they’ve started to resounding acclaim?
Because in the past, to most studios, even the most limp attempts at racial and gender diversity (I’m questioning whether the record-breaking success of every male-directed, female-driven ensemble comedy counts as such) has always been a passing attraction. A film breaks new ground, scoops up a staggering amount of box office dollars, sets off a cacophony of shocked reactions, and is then promptly forgotten in the continuous parade of white-bread, cookie-cutter superheroes.
When Elizabeth Banks directed Pitch Perfect 2 to a $287 million gross worldwide in 2015, surpassing the first installment in just five days, a lot of the reactions included ‘shock’. “Why Was Pitch Perfect 2 Such a Shocking Box Office Smash?” asked Moviefone. “Pitch Perfect: Hollywood’s surprising success story” said the BBC. “Is 2015 The Summer Hollywood Finally Bet Big On Women?” SlashFilm wrote.
Given studies have found that 51 per cent of cinema audiences are women, and that studio films written, produced by, and starring women show a higher ROI than those by men, perhaps it’s time for Hollywood to learn its lesson. By the time Bad Moms crossed close to $200 million and Hidden Figures beat one of the most anticipated films of the year (it should, however, be noted that both are directed by men) the next year, Hollywood had returned to shock and bemusement again. “Surprise! Turns out Hidden Figures beat Rogue One at the box office,” USA Today said.
How about when Patty Jenkins jumpstarted the much-maligned DC Universe with Wonder Woman, and when Ryan Coogler made Black Panther the 10th highest grossing film of all time? “Theater owners have been asking for more diversity in movies for a long time, and by diversity we mean diversity in casting and diversity in times of the year when movies are released,” said John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theatre Owners, the peak body representing cinemas in the US. “We want these movies to set a precedent and not be one-offs that people forget about.”
Until quite recently, Disney has led the charge – but thankfully other studios are now getting the message too. Patty Jenkins is returning for DC’s Wonder Woman sequel, DuVernay hopping to the same studio for the upcoming New Gods, and Cathy Yan has been signed on for Harley Quinn spin-off Birds Of Prey. Is Disney keeping up their progressive strides? Look at their planned slate for everything from princesses to Star Wars to Marvel, which extends well into the 2020s. Of the films we have learned details of beyond reserved release dates, there’s the long-awaited live action Mulan directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider, The Zookeeper’s Wife), an untitled animated film from Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a female lead in this year’s Mary Poppins returns.
But regardless of the diversity of their current output, such titles are far in the future. Furthermore, there’s controversy around Guy Ritchie directing the upcoming live-action Aladdin film at Disney, despite his latest film King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword proving both a critical and commercial failure. Star Wars, consistently amongst the highest grossing films of all time, is still being directed exclusively by white men, despite continued calls for diversity. And the similar problem goes for Marvel, which has never had a woman helm one of their films, and is yet to engage another director of colour. It’s a situation that asks a simple question – if Hollywood doesn’t learn, how will these successes be replicated, instead of becoming a wishful footnote?