Essays · Movies

‘Black Panther’ Blends Blockbuster Distribution With Grassroots Activism

By sponsoring ‘Black Panther’ screenings around the country, communities are taking a page from issue-driven cinema.
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By  · Published on February 20th, 2018

By sponsoring ‘Black Panther’ screenings around the country, communities are taking a page from issue-driven cinema.

When it comes to the success of Ryan Coogler‘s Black Panther, it seems there’s more than enough credit to go around. Credit to Coogler for executing on a vision that puts representation above franchise continuity; credit to his talented writers and cast for turning Wakanda into a source of inspiration for millions. But as we continue to measure the ripples Black Panther has created in popular culture, there are countless others who also deserve credit beyond the world of Wakanda. Throughout the film’s opening weekend, we saw countless communities rally around the movie by offering free screenings for elementary school and high school-aged students, and this grassroots effort – in addition to the colossal blockbuster success of the film – shows why movies like Black Panther are so important to communities everywhere.

Back in 2017, I wrote about Netflix’s decision to make 13th, Ava DuVernay‘s award-winning documentary on the criminal justice system, available for free to educators. In that piece, I quoted Slate author Dana Goldstein in her assertion that media literacy was about offering positive historical and cultural messages as it is teaching historical skepticism. “Effective media literacy,” Goldstein wrote, “empowers students to consume and create good content, not just critique the bad stuff.” For films like 13th and Selma, this argument meant providing people the opportunity to experience challenging retellings of American history while also celebrating black creators.

And over the years, we’ve seen free screenings play an increasingly vital role in the media literacy of the next generation of filmmakers. I don’t need to tell you about the cultural impact of Black Panther but is important to note the amount of support we’ve seen from community leaders. Octavia Spencer sponsored a series of free screenings in her native Mississippi over the opening weekend, saying that this was an important moment where “all of our brown children can see themselves as a superhero.” Top Dawg Entertainment, the record label of Black Panther soundtrack architect Kendrick Lamar, also hosted a series of free screenings in South Los Angeles. In Chicago, the artist collective Chicago Cypher spearheaded their own free screenings for high-achieving students in the Chicago Public School system. And this doesn’t even count the number of small acts of cinematic philanthropy taking place in communities around the country.

This also occurred the same holiday weekend that Jordan Peele‘s Get Out returned to select theaters, for free, for one day only. As noted by MoneyGet Out was not only one of the highest-grossing movies of 2017, it also remains a contender – and, dare I say, frontrunner – in the Best Picture category at the upcoming Academy Awards. For Peele, this screening wasn’t just an opportunity to expose new people to his movie before the Oscars. “I don’t care if you’ve seen it one time, two times, three times,” the writer-director explained in a recent video posted to Twitter. “If you bring someone who’s never seen it and you watch them watch it, whatever. You get to enjoy a free screening of Get Out this Presidents’ Day.” For Peele, it was simply another opportunity to bring the community of Get Out fans together and to celebrate his brilliant, subversive movie one last time in theaters.

The surprise we see when movies like Black Panther and Get Out offer free screenings at the community level is owed primarily to the scope of each movie. These are films that have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars at the worldwide box office; if we look only at the bottom line, it’s certainly odd to see people subsidizing Hollywood success with their own private screenings of these movies in smaller markets. But what seems out-of-place for a Hollywood film is nothing new for documentary cinema. For years, the producers of issue-driven movies have actively courted community screenings of their work; the websites of films like Generation FoundThe Surrounding Game, and He Named Me Malala offer educators a step-by-step approach to organizing grassroots screenings for each film, including talking points and discussion prompts for post-screening interactions. The filmmakers hope that this will increase the exposure of their work and move the conversation forward, even if it does little for their meager bottom line.

In 2015, IndieWire even put together a guide for filmmakers on how to build educational and non-theatrical screenings into their release windows. According to the article, one of the standouts of this hybrid distribution method was Lisa Biagiotti‘s 2014 documentary deepsouth, a film detailing the HIV/AIDS crisis in the rural American South. Comparing her methodology to that of tentpole releases, Biagiotti noted that community viewings “became part of something so much larger than a film screening – they were part of some collective effort. They took a stand and started critical conversations in their communities.” While neither Get Out nor Black Panther may deal with an issue as key as HIV/AIDS research, their impact in elevating the discourses about the black experience in America is no less impactful than the conversations kicked off by a documentary screening.

So here we have it: a secondary distribution network that bears more in common with no-budget documentaries than $100 million dollar studio releases. The people spearheading these events understand the importance of making black heroes and superheroes visible to their local communities; these screenings reinforce positive representation not only on the screen but at the audience level as well. Like the documentary filmmakers that came before them, they’re willing to take a hit on the financial side of the release if it means increased visibility and discussion. And, like Goldstein suggests in her Slate article, the characters, and filmmakers shown onscreen add some much-needed positivity to the ongoing media literacy effort. There is no doubt in my mind that a filmmaker will someday pinpoint one of these Black Panther screenings as the moment when they realized they could pursue a career in the movies. Some of the credit for their success will belong to the community leaders who recognized a good grassroots campaign when they saw it.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)