In a week filled with troublesome and even tragic news, there are a few bright spots. One of them is the spectacular success of Disney/Marvel’s latest superhero film, “Black Panther,” which is breaking box office records left and right.
“Black Panther” grossed $242 million in the United States and $426 million worldwide in its first weekend. Among the many records the film has already set: It is the second-highest grossing film over any four-day opening period in history and the highest-grossing film ever released in February.
The film’s success is particularly gratifying because it features a black director, a largely black cast and is set in the (fictional) African nation of Wakanda – thus soundly disproving the conventional Hollywood “wisdom” that a film with black and African themes would not appeal to broad audiences. Commentators have further observed with delight that – for once – a film with predominantly black characters isn’t about slavery or exploitation. And former first lady Michelle Obama tweeted her praise for the fact that African-American children now have a superhero that looks like them. (If past is precedent, I predict that lots of little boys and girls, regardless of their race, will be dressing up like Black Panther for Halloween this year!)
In truth, none of this should really be surprising. When the writing is good and the characters are compelling, Americans flock to material created and acted by black artists. “The Cosby Show” spent five consecutive years as the No. 1 show on TV in the 1980s, helped launch spinoffs (“A Different World”) and other shows featuring black artists like “In Living Color” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”
Nor is this phenomenon confined to sitcoms. Talk-show host, sometime actress and media mogul Oprah Winfrey is one of the most successful entertainment personalities in the world. She is not only the richest self-made woman in American history (with a net worth of approximately $3 billion); she is a beloved and influential cultural figure and a generous philanthropist (who some are encouraging to seriously consider a presidential run).
In fact, a comprehensive list of just contemporary successful African-American actors, directors, musicians of all genres and comedians – not to mention well-known athletes, scientists, entrepreneurs, academics, authors, journalists and activists – would fill many pages.
What becomes clear when one looks at the evidence – and “Black Panther” is just the most recent example – is not that blacks in America cannot succeed, but that there have been gatekeepers in every industry who have maintained a blinkered, self-interested and manifestly false narrative of black failure that discouraged trying to succeed. Those who have succeeded have done so by defying those narratives. Happily, the American public has often rewarded their bravery, their vision and their determination with staggering success. This should be a source of inspiration.
None of this is intended to diminish obstacles black Americans continue to face in this country. But it is so easy to become caught up in legitimate anger about systemic injustice and individual cruelty that we risk losing sight of the successes, and how to build on them.
Finally, it isn’t just black performers and fictional superheroes who should receive our rave reviews, but those around us who display extraordinary, everyday heroism.
For example, last month, Army National Guard private Emmanuel Mensah – an immigrant from Ghana – died trying to save residents of a burning building in the Bronx. Mensah posthumously received the Army’s highest award for heroism outside of combat.
Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Johnson was captured in a photo saving small children from floods in Cypress, Texas, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Another Hurricane Harvey hero, MMA fighter Derrick Lewis, volunteered to rescue stranded people – including one man with a Confederate flag, which Lewis magnanimously ignored.
Just last week, amidst the dramatic snowfall that hit Chicago, activist Jahmal Cole tweeted out a need for 10 people to come help shovel snow for elderly residents of his neighborhood. The next morning, 120 people showed up to help.
During Black History Month, it does our collective heart good to remember that heroes are not just actors, and heroism isn’t just in films.
In fact, it’s real people in the here and now – observable every day. We can look around us and celebrate the successes, recognize the heroes and applaud the progress.
It gives us all hope.