Geez, When Did Success Become Toxic? When It’s Black Success

Excuse me, Scott Mendelson? I’ma need you to find your mind quick, ‘cuz I’m pretty sure you lost it.

His Forbes piece “Box Office: Black Panther’ Should Terrify Every Hollywood Studio”starts off ok, running down the film’s stats and comparing it to some other heavy box office hitters in recent history. But things quickly take an unsavory turn:

“…Black Panther is the 25th movie to top the charts for five or more consecutive weekends.

“But here’s the terrifying part (for the competition, and potentially the industry as a whole): The MCU flick is doing this at the expense of other would-be event movies.”

Whoah, buddy. What now? That title – the second one this piece has had since it was published – was already dancing on the line – and I give people leeway with titles because they’re a tool writers use to attract a reader’s attention. But this “at the expense of other would-be event movies” calls the headline and his mental state into immediate question.

Why is Black Panther’s success terrifying? I’d describe it as illuminating, even clarifying. The film’s consistent position at the top of the box office charts these past weeks says clearly: The public is down for Wakanda. We like black royalty/adventure/families and positive messaging. We want more, and we’re gonna need you filmmakers, producers, studios and other green lighters to get on this train and ride it until it jumps off the tracks.

But when black is the dominant factor in anything’s success it seems like fear, questions and a ridiculous demand for an accounting isn’t far behind. Think of the media’s habit of narrative baiting when describing black vs. white criminals.

One nut’s been isolated and troubled for a long time, as if to chastise society for not trying harder to befriend the weird loner kid. The other’s apparently been a career criminal – remember that one time he kicked a dog and took a puff off his daddy’s cigarette? – and a drain on society since birth.

Bomb an unsuspecting black church in the south the police will buy you Burger King and put your crazy ass in a bullet proof vest to get you to court safe and sound. Try to get your unarmed self into grandma’s house through the back when you’re locked out, they’ll shout ‘gun’ and give you 20 unnecessary bullets.

If Black Panther is chopping the heads from these so-called “do-or-die releases for their respective studios” that Mendelson refers to, why not place the blame where it should be – with those movies, or even better, with the studios who make them? I mean, don’t hate the player, man. Hate the game.

Most films, even the ones that kill it in theaters, don’t last long. That’s the nature of the beast. These days the movie-going, media-consuming public has a ton of options and a really short attention span. You have to be compelling – not to mention have great timing – or we will quite simply move on.

I tried to recall if I’d seen comparable questionable language used to describe the success of other movie blockbusters that dominated the box office recently, but I never got into Star Wars or Harry Potter. By the time I saw Avatar it was a rental, so I can’t say for sure. Still, I wonder if Mendelson would have likened those films’ success to an unfair tragedy for other films? It’s like Black Panther is an actual cat going around viciously slashing the throats of unsuspecting movies in theaters.

To be fair, Mendelson’s entire narrative isn’t problematic. He goes back and forth between a variety of films to make his point, and some of the other head choppers he mentions have predominantly white casts. “A slate of event movies is facing an environment where they aren’t the event. The winning Black Panther serves as a consensus pick for every demographic. The Ryan Coogler-directed MCU action drama, its obvious value as a conventional wisdom-crushing crowdpleaser (and possible Oscar-contender) notwithstanding, represents the worst nightmare of an entire industry now dedicated to a near-weekly stream of glorified event movies. Black Panther is so big, so good and so “one size fits all” in its appeal that it has turned an entire slate of would-be blockbusters into counterprogramming.”

He makes comparisons between films that aren’t alarming, but when he does cross that line – that tone is rife with the wrong kind of meaning. Black Panther “was so huge that it wounded a whole slate of studio-appointed biggies, all of which were important the respective studio’s bottom line.” When I read that my face frowned up big time.

It’s like, dude. Really? Again, it sounds as if Black Panther is out here deliberately and with ill intent doing these poor other films dirty, and let’s not forget these poor studios. It’s like he’s shouting, “think of the children!” when referencing their bottom lines.

Yes, he’s talking strategy around timing for movie releases and such. But come on, man. That accusatory and quite crooked finger pointing is grating on all kinds of nerves. Twitter is awash with backlash against the article, and Mendelson – or his editor – knows he screwed up. Remember, earlier I said the original title of the piece was changed to what it is now.

Now, I know better than most that every article can’t logically talk about everything. You’ve gotta keep your narrative tight. There are word counts to consider, as well as a host of other factors that dictate how you shape an article for publication. But I think it would have been entirely appropriate to drop in some mentions – however brief – to suggest that the same studios he’s sympathizing with should have now learned a valuable lesson:

Don’t neglect your audience, cater to them, and black people are a huge ticket-buying demographic within that audience.

On one hand, I understand perfectly what he’s saying. I went to see Jennifer Lawrence’s Red Sparrow last weekend, only to find it gone from the theater. But is that really Black Panther’s fault? Or, is it the studio’s fault for taking so damn long to offer the viewing public something like it, now it’s here we can’t help but glut ourselves on its bounty?

Black folks have literally waited forever for a film like Black Panther. Actually, not just black people, everyone has waited forever to see a movie like this. Or, it felt like forever. Now that it’s here, don’t try to cheapen its success with weak, passive aggressive suggestions of unfairness. You sound like a hater, dude. The faceless, irrelevant Internet kind.

Let me stop. Despite all that I’ve said, it’s entirely possible that Mendelson had no intention of offending anyone. He could right now have his head in his Black girlfriend’s lap, red faced and appalled at what has transpired. I made that up, but my point is writers aren’t clairvoyant. We usually write from the heart, and sometimes things go bad.

It’s why you can never forget that people are uber sensitive to undertones in content. Writers, content marketers, advertising gurus and other creatives have to be careful of those undertones – they reveal your own hidden, or not so hidden prejudices, and holey opinions – lest the primary messages they’re looking to share be lost in a tidal wave of negative response to the wrong thing.

And sometimes things just happen. You can’t please everyone. It’s actually not always smart to even try. No one appreciates that more than me. But then there’s just silliness. Silliness and its close cousin unnecessary are why it’s so important to have a diverse group of people working behind the scenes.

Diversity in media – and in this case, that means the editors and copy editors who touched this piece before it was published – breeds exposure, sensitivity and a laudable kind of caution. Exposure, sensitivity and caution would have caught the references that fired up people like me like matches. Not only would diversity have caught them, it would have coached the language so that its message wasn’t lost and virtually discarded by foolishness.

Sure, if you object to the message in this blog you could hold on to what I said about not being able to please everyone. The problem with that is, everyone in this case is people like me. People who buy movie tickets to Black Panther, over and over and over again. And in this case, people like me? Well, we’re winning.

Shout out to Kate Everson for sharing this story with me.

March 28th: And a big shout out to Scott Mendelson who took his lumps like a G after I wrote this and reached out to me on Twitter. Nicely done, sir.

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