Black Panther and the portrayal of black people in the media
One of the pleasures of journalism is learning about and writing about new subjects. If you are a curious person it is a great career. Having worked as a reporter in Boston years ago before going into marketing, I can still remember far too much about the finer details of urban planning and development.
More recently I was pleasantly surprised by the success of Black Panther. I have liked most of Marvel’s films but never expected it to tie record-holder Avatar and remain number one at the US box office for five consecutive weeks.
Out of curiosity I interviewed black media experts on the evolution of the portrayal of black people in pop culture throughout the decades, from the ‘blaxploitation’ films of the 70s and Bill Cosby in the 80s through to Will Smith and Quentin Tarantino in the 90s, The Wire in the 00s and Black Panther today. I also looked into how our profession has marketed to black people.
Longtime readers of this column know that I never hold back my opinions. But I realised during my research that this is a time to shut up. I am a white, middle-class, Jewish guy. I cannot and should not give my opinions because I have no real understanding of these issues – and I never will. So, for this column, I will sit back and present the words of others.
What follows is a Q&A with Todd Steven Burroughs, an American author who recently published Marvel's Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, from Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates; Jason P Chambers, an American professor of advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry; Marcus Flemmings, a British filmmaker, author and playwright whose directorial debut was the boxing movie Six Rounds in 2017; and LeMar McLean, an American actor and writer in New York whose podcast Brothers from Another Planet discusses race and entertainment and who produced the horror-comedy short film Page One, which addresses themes involving the representation and self-realisation of marginalized people.
What do you think of the state of black media in the UK?
Marcus Flemmings: “In the UK, there is a still a huge gap. In the 90s we had a beautiful period where Soul II Soul, Omar and, to a lesser degree, Massive Attack were championing the progression of black music. American artists were lagging behind.
“On TV in the 90s, shows like Desmond's and The Real McCoy were significant in bringing black characters and actors to the mainstream. Right now there are literally no TV shows with that sort of significance or popularity on UK TV.
“Idris Elba has a new sitcom, In the Long Run, coming out shortly. Let’s see how that fares. It’ll be difficult to get any attention as it’s on Sky TV, which, over the years has typically not a been a great place for original UK programming. The reach isn’t large enough.
“Music-wise we are lagging behind the US. Grime and UK hip-hop aren’t anywhere near as big as US hip-hop.”
What do you think of the ‘Blaxploitation’ films such as Shaft in the early 70s?
Todd Steven Burroughs: “MGM was nearing bankruptcy and a new generation was rejecting the fantasies given by Hollywood since the 30s. The films were called 'blaxploitation' because of their varying quality, exploiting the need for black audiences to consume anything from Hollywood that went beyond the slave/mammy image.”
Marcus Flemmings: “The idea of ‘black power’ and independence was an idea formulated by the civil rights movement mainly perpetuated by the popularity of Malcolm X, whose initial ideology was separatism – in comparison to opposite ideology of Martin Luther King Jr.
“With the assassination of both – along with other important black political figures – and the rise of the Black Panthers, the concept of black people coming together and creating our own strand of media became more prevalent.
“With the US separating, for a short period, into black and white subcultures, blaxploitation became African Americans’ version of Bollywood. Great music, less great storylines, and acting that ranged from great to suspect.
“The old ideas of Motown and doo-wop groups of the early 50s and 60s became outdated. These artists were conforming to a fashion, musical style and tamer sensibility to appeal to a white mass audience. This, in the late 60s and early 70s, was seen as ‘sell-out’ behaviour.
“Thus, the early 70s black pioneers decided to make black-specific films as Hollywood only really had Sidney Poitier as a prominent black actor.”
LeMar McLean: “The surge of black hero narratives set in urban environments appeared to function as a direct response to the wake of the American civil rights movement. While the federal government passed legislation to ensure civil rights within a context that was already draconian by default, agencies of that same government worked to undermine efforts for black people to advocate for their own prosperity.
“Characters such as John Shaft, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones and Black Caesar satisfied an immediate need for black audiences to feel empowered within an accessible (if not one-dimensional) reality. But the escapism the genre provided did little to inspire black people to look beyond the framework that white supremacy continued to hold in place.”
What do you think of sitcoms such as Sanford & Son in the late 70s?
Marcus Flemmings: “As is happening now, once a movement becomes large enough and voices of dissent become louder, the mass media jump on that and turn it into cash. Being individualistic and black became ‘cool’ and therefore the networks began making TV shows that specifically featured black talent.
LeMar McLean: “The irreverent black family sitcoms of the 70s marked a nexus for counterculture and mainstream entertainment in an unprecedented fashion that has not been demonstrated since. The existence of these series during the same period allowed for the mainstream to see a wider reflection of black life, made accessible by framing experiences with which audiences could relate on a human level through a comedic lens.
“For a mainstream audience to be confronted with the challenges of black people, the situation comedy was invaluable because the humor disarmed in a way that more serious exhibitions might alienate for being too true to face. And facing collective shame and growing from it is not in the American DNA. The black sitcoms of 70s did operate to restore much of the dignity that white supremacy was designed to strip from black people.”
What do you think of the 'Cosby Decade'?
Todd Steven Burroughs: “This history is not as well known and should be confirmed by a book somewhere, but Bill Cosby and Alvin Francis Poussaint were disturbed by late-70s, early-80s sitcoms in which the children were smarter than the adults and so decided to re-establish the authority of the parent in the home.”
Marcus Flemmings: “The Cosby Show was really the only show that peaked and left a legacy outside of the US. The significance of The Cosby Show, in particular, was huge – it also showed another side to black culture. By the 80s, there were far more black families who had affluence or at least were middle-class, as opposed to the common portrayal of black pimps, drug dealers, and destitution from the blaxploitation films in the 70s.”
LeMar McLean: “The Cosby Show did more for white audiences than it did for black audiences. While the portrayal of an upwardly mobile black family provided an aspiration template that black people may not have seen on television before, there were also black audiences who felt alienated by how remote that possibility would be for discouraged black people in working-class spaces with no options in sight to advance.
“Meanwhile, this portrayal of a wholesome black family allowed white liberal, audiences to have their metaphorical cake and eat it too. They could see that things could be better for black people if they just worked hard while assuaging any guilt about doing nothing to defend black people against the misfortunes that white supremacy continued to bombard them with through that period and beyond.”
In 1986, Run-DMC collaborated with Aerosmith on a historic cover of Walk This Way. What is the significance?
Marcus Flemmings: “Rap and hip-hop, in general, were at a very infant stage in the early 80s. Run-DMC, Public Enemy and then NWA formulated what is now seen as the most popular music genre out there.”
LeMar McLean: “I imagine black people were glad to see a legendary rap duo getting some mainstream shine without compromising what brought them so far up to that point. I imagine more white people took notice of Run-DMC after that, but it's unlikely that swaths of black people cared more about Aerosmith after that.”
What do you think of sitcoms such as Fresh Prince and Martin in the 90s?
Marcus Flemmings: “More than anything, they were coming off the idea that stand-up comedians could front TV shows and films with wisecracking, maverick black leads. This trend was started by Richard Pryor in the 70s and then made into a multi-million, worldwide movement by Eddie Murphy. The 90s were just a fall out of this with Martin Lawrence, Will Smith, Chris Tucker, and Chris Rock all having their own TV shows and/or film franchises.
“It left people thinking all black people are ‘funny’ – if you weren’t funny there was something wrong with you. Much like the idea that ‘all black people can dance’.”
LeMar McLean: “While The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was a black show with undeniable crossover appeal, Martin and Living Single were specifically for black audiences. Martin and Living Single did not shut out white audiences, but they did not seem interested in making sure white audiences were in on the jokes.
“As a group, these three shows demonstrated that loyal black viewership could keep a series viable in a previously more risk-averse industry. These shows presented a range of black lives just as series of the 70s did, but they treated prosperity as a matter of course as opposed to an uphill struggle that might discourage black audiences from emulating in their real lives.
The 90s also saw Quentin Tarantino movies such as Pulp Fiction make frequent use of the n-word by white and black people. What is the significance?
Marcus Flemmings: “My take on the Tarantino n-word situation is he has done more for black actors than a lot of other directors. I know Spike Lee, and he had a conflict about his use of the n-word. Personally, I haven’t got a problem with it. Most hip-hop songs use the word like it’s a verb. It is, however, very excessive at times in Tarantino films – sometimes to the point of overkill (much like in hip-hop). But sometimes it is necessary in his films like Django.”
LeMar McLean: “The prevalence of racially-charged language in Quentin Tarantino films did nothing more than possibly empower white people who'd felt unfairly censored for their use of the slur. It didn't make people more or less racist, and it didn't make black people feel worse about our place in the landscape because the struggle is the default setting for us.”
The Wire was one of the best dramas of the 00s, if not of all time. What is its significance?
Marcus Flemmings: “The Wire – which to date, is the best TV show there has been – perfectly encapsulates black America. Its portrayal of characters as fully-formed individuals who make choices based on their own personal ambitions is wholly accurate. It didn't strive to create characters that served its storylines that, from season to season, focused on each aspect of drug crime in America from the politicians to the school teachers to the press. What it did was put characters into real-life situations and give them choices based on their character attributes.
“The idea behind black cops passionately working for years to eliminate crime that kills black youths is a powerful one. There is a poetry there.”
LeMar McLean: “I call it the most important drama about American life that has ever been made because its depictions of crime, poverty and addiction extend beyond the inner city of Baltimore to how government and education play a role in how those issues affect the city's most vulnerable and disenfranchised.
“The show humanizes every character to the extent that no role, from drug dealer to detective to mayor, is glorified as inherently good or bad. This level of nuance continues to be lost in our real media and journalism, so The Wire, sadly, provides relief to people who don't accept the most sensationalized ‘information’ as the full reality.”
What do you think of black TV in the current decade?
Marcus Flemmings: “Black TV must get better. Or rather, TV shows must start using more black leads. There has been an improvement over the recent years, such as with Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Luther.
“Empire and Power do nothing for black people. It’s about drugs, guns and loud music. There is more to black culture than that. Films like Moonlight, Selma and The Fits perfectly highlight that there is a new way forward for black narratives. It’ll happen with time.”
Today we have Black Panther, which tied Avatar for the most consecutive weeks at number one at the US box office. What is the significance?
Marcus Flemmings: “Black Panther has been a wonderful cultural phenomenon. It’s been good to see a film which is a majority black cast go on to do so well. It is basically the accumulation of many things over the years – music, violence, racism, police brutality, seclusion and politics.
“I think a lot of people forget about the Blade films or the Spike Lee joints in the 80s and 90s. It’s not like black film didn’t exist until this moment in history. Spike Lee, especially, has been overlooked. He is maybe the most significant black filmmaking pioneer ever.
“I’ll be more impressed when ‘black films’ are just films and ‘black directors’ are just directors. As well as when casts are constantly more diverse without being a majority white or a majority black. But, for now, the success of Black Panther will do. One step at a time.”
LeMar McLean: “Avatar is and always was dreck. It doesn't even belong in the same conversation as Black Panther in the box office context. Black Panther was a celebration of black life that validated our potential as opposed to a validation of black life through depictions of hardship. Black Panther allowed us to see what it's like to tell our own story without the limitations of a white establishment.
“Of course there was ultimate permission granted by the studio involved, but the vast display of blackness in every corner of the screen represented everything we have always wanted to believe was possible for us – and something that white supremacy has worked tirelessly to deny. And to see it on such a grand stage – smart, entertaining, and expertly at both – was a triumph for the collective and individual black spirit.”
In 2017, Nielsen found that hip-hop has become more popular than rock music. Madonna used to be called the Queen of Pop, but now that title is usually used for Rhianna or Beyonce. What is the significance?
Marcus Flemmings: “Black music shapes popular society now. The way people dress, talk, think – it is further saturated by the fusing of cultures. Kanye and Kim. Kendall Jenner and ASAP Rocky (and now Blake Griffin). It is a physical fusing of cultures. White and black.
“Being white and liking black music is no longer seen as ‘wrong’. Not only this, the world as a whole is way more intertwined via social media, sports, film and music. Hip-hop, which is now at it’s most popular just pop music, dominates because of its proximity. If we’re getting technical it’s actually pop music now.”
LeMar McLean: “The unseating of rock music by hip-hop as most popular music genre should surprise no one – black people invented both! The best art comes from the historically disenfranchised, which in large part accounts for the black American experience.”
If you could summarize the change in the portrayal of black people from the 70s to today, what would you say?
LeMar McLean: “Whiteness makes the rules, blackness breaks them, the world takes the result and whiteness figures out how to own it and frame it to keeps whiteness in power. Rinse and repeat.”
How have marketers changed their approaches to targeting the black community over the decades?
Jason P Chambers: “Marketers have changed their approach to blacks in a number of ways. The most important of them is that they now approach black consumers with a much greater level of respect for their financial power and for their social consciousness. Marketers no longer expect black consumers to merely purchase products because they stuck a black face in an ad or put up a billboard in a black neighborhood.
“Today’s black consumer routinely exhibits a knowledge of their financial importance to companies and a willingness to take their business elsewhere if they find a better product or they consider marketers to have disrespected them as individuals or as a group.
“And, outside of a few idiotic instances – Kendall Jenner and Pepsi-Cola, Dove and H&M to name a few – most marketers avoid the racial marketing blunders of the past. They do so because, firstly, they are smarter than they used to be and, secondly, they know that an absolute ton of negative press and social media commentary – to say nothing of lost sales – will be the result of their mistakes.”
Marcus Flemmings: “In the case of Black Panther – which is the best example – Disney played on the fact that it is an all-black cast. It has every black actor, music star and TV star tweeting about it. Big corporations play on things that are current – that's what all good marketing companies do.
“Disney is loving it right now. It has one of the biggest films of all time on its hands with a majority-black cast. Walt will be spinning in his grave.
“In Europe and countries where there is a lesser black population, films have often advertised the white actors ahead of black actors. 12 Years A Slave – a film about slavery in America that had black leads – was advertised using only Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in its promotional materials. Both are in the film for a very short time.
“Marketing will always aim to make money but sometimes the decisions made are, ethically, misguided.”
LeMar McLean: “The black dollar has asserted itself more and more over the years. The optimistic view of that demonstration is that black consumers recognize that power in a way that will reflect the images of blackness we want and need to see – as opposed to representations that perpetuate an unfair power dynamic.”
Nielsen recently published this report on the 'power' of black consumers. As long as marketers consider black people to be a separate, niche market, can they ever be 'equal' to the rest of society? No one ever says 'power of white consumers'. Is that a subconscious assignment of second-class status?
Jason P Chambers: “I’d correct you a bit. People talk about the power of white consumers all the time – every day, in fact. You don’t notice it because they simply call them ‘consumers’ or ‘mainstream consumers’ or some other generalized appellation that indicates they're talking about the largest body of consumers (white ones). It’s akin to people asking the misguided question of ‘why is there a Black Entertainment Television (BET) when there’s no White Entertainment Television?’ Sure there is – every other channel is White Entertainment Television.
“My point is that it’s absolutely not an assignment of second-class status. It’s the recognition that demographics – of which race is one – are still key points of understanding how groups act as groups. Is it the only one? No. But ‘post-racial society’ nonsense aside, race continues to matter in the US. Understanding how black, Asian, Latino, LGBT, men, women, transgender people and any other group that can be aggregated into a group for purposes of understanding how they act in the marketplace remains important.
“People who fail to understand that generally don’t understand marketing, or they presume that marketers only strive to understand groups at these macro levels of ‘black’ or ‘Latino'. They don’t. The macro level points of information are there as starting points. Savvy marketers then drill down as far as they can into the group so that they can market their products to them in the most optimal ways.”
The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global marketing and technology keynote speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, consultant and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.