Is ‘Black Panther’ the stalking horse for new black power in politics?

Is ‘Black Panther’ the stalking horse for new black power in politics?
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“Black Panther” has taken over social media as a major cultural moment. Two generations of black stars are in the movie, including Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Chadwick Boseman, Danai Gurira, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o, to name a few. This action-packed major motion picture is not just an entertaining cultural moment, but part of a coming-out party for black talent behind the scenes that could have an impact beyond Hollywood.

Black performers have entertained white audiences and influenced American culture since the country’s beginning. Enslaved Africans gave America soul food and the banjo. Jazz and blues artists created the unique sounds that influenced rock-and-roll. Now, decades after Berry Gordy gave us Motown and Sean Combs created Bad Boy Records, black ownership and management of the creative process is taking leaps forward.

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As progressives seek ways to change the fortunes of black communities after waging decades of political, civil rights and policy fights, a new generation of African-Americans is waging a culture war with economic heft that will help propel the struggle for equity forward. Instead of just providing the source material for American culture, this generation of blacks in entertainment is seeking to control the narrative, own pieces of the product and the delivery channels to reach the public.

 

Black directors are finally getting the resources to make films with visual and story heft, and it’s paying off. The $200 million budget for “Black Panther” is the largest budget for a movie with a predominantly black cast and black director — and box office projections are through the roof. F. Gary Gray had $250 million to bring “The Fate of the Furious” to screens with a multicultural cast that grossed over $1 billion. Ava DuVernay is the first woman of color to direct a film with a $100 billion budget for “Wrinkle in Time.” These films follow in the footsteps of “Best Man Holiday” which cost $17 million and made over $70 million, and “Think Like a Man,” which cost $12 million and made over $90 million domestically. Tyler Perry movies are basically a category of their own. Those films showed how profitable films with diverse casts could be.

Television is experiencing similar growth in black talent behind the scenes. Shonda Rhimes owns ABC’s Thursday night with “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder.” Issa Rae’s “Insecure” and Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” brought strong audiences to cable. And Oprah Winfrey created an entire network with compelling black content.

In journalism, legacy brands and new ones are growing. The legendary Essence magazine with its strong audience of black women recently returned to African-American ownership. Rolling Out is among the big urban culture brands and Blavity, cofounded by CEO Morgan DeBaun, has been gobbling up other media properties that appeal to millennials.  

Behind the scenes of these brands is a name that pops up repeatedly. Charles King, CEO of Macro Ventures, is leading the charge in financing media and entertainment. King helped finance the Denzel Washington and Viola Davis film version of August Wilson’s “Fences” and this year’s critically acclaimed film “Mudbound” by Dee Rees. Last fall he closed another $150 million round for his investment fund. King was also an early funder of Blavity.

It’s not just content creation and financing. Black entrepreneurs are helping deliver that content to audiences. Jay Z’s talent management company Roc Nation represents performing artists and athletes. His streaming service Tidal gets that music to the audience. Dr. Dre founded Beats with Jimmy Iovine and sold it to Apple, though he remains involved with the company. Mary Spiro, a Ghanaian American, founded Ceek, a company that sells virtual reality headsets with partnerships in the music industry that brings concert experiences to consumers.

African-Americans are still creating the culture that powers America. That’s not new. What is new is the creative control that African-Americans are exerting. Along with that control — and wealth — comes power and influence.

This new creative power set that doesn’t just make hits but owns the culture could be the lever to force policymakers to pay attention to the ills of urban America. Ryan Coogler, “Black Panther’s” director, DuVernay and Charles King are taking a stab at that work. They are among the founders of Blackout for Human Rights, which calls for addressing the “staggering level of human rights violations and injustices against fellow Americans.” Oprah was briefly mentioned as a presidential candidate after speaking out on women’s rights, and Jay Z is using his voice to focus on fixing the criminal justice system and drug laws.

Let’s hope this is just the beginning of their work.

Jamal Simmons is a Democratic strategist who has worked for the Clinton White House, Congress and the Clinton, Gore and Obama presidential campaigns. He is a video host for the soon-to-be-launched Hill.TV project.