When Star Wars, The Force Awakens was released in China in 2015, there was controversy when the black actor John Boyega was shown in shrunken form in the promotional posters. Other non-white stars, including Lupita Nyong’o, were cut out altogether.
The Chinese media refuted the charge of racism furiously. “Since the poster is merely a promotion method and an individual case, it would be unfair to criticise Chinese audiences for discriminating against the black actor,” Chen Qiuping, head of the scriptwriter unit of the Beijing Film Association, told the Global Times.
Yet it is far from the only time that the Chinese media has been accused of racism. In an advertisement that aired in 2016, a young woman used laundry detergent to transform a black actor into a clean-looking Chinese man. After an enormous backlash, the company behind the ad apologised (see WiC327). But lessons have been slow to be learned: during a segment in last month’s Spring Festival Gala, the most watched TV programme in the country, there was more outcry when a local actress painted her face black and donned prosthetic buttocks to portray an African character. The skit even cast a black actor as a monkey. The scene was lambasted as being in “poor taste” and “totally racist” (see WiC399).
So when Marvel released its latest superhero flick Black Panther, hopes weren’t high that audiences in China would flock to see a film that features a nearly all-black cast and is helmed by a black director.
Set in fictionalised Wakanda, a country hidden from the outside world, the film tells the story of T’Challa, that nation’s king, as he transforms into the superhero Black Panther to defend his people against their enemies.
In the run-up to the release of Black Panther, posters for the movie in China showed the superhero, played by Chadwick Boseman, largely masked, in sharp contrast to the promotional material in the US, which revealed the actor’s face.
Industry experts had already calculated that Black Panther wouldn’t make more than Rmb600 million ($94.72 million) at the Chinese box office, about the same amount as Ant Man, a marginal figure in the superhero universe, took in the country.
“The themes of most films with largely black casts will not be of interest to Chinese audiences,” USC professor and China specialist Stanley Rosen told Deadline.
Quartz agreed: “Chinese racism will destroy any chance for success for a film with black leads.” (Lupita Nyong’o also co-stars with Boseman in the film.) So it was a pleasant surprise when Black Panther blew through the early predictions, bringing in over Rmb600 million in ticket sales in the first week it opened. Analysts even predicted that it could surpass Spider-Man: Homecoming, which took Rmb750 million, and become the most successful ‘single-hero’ film to be shown in China.
A drop-off in ticket sales as audiences switched to propagandistic films like Operation Red Sea and Amazing China saw Black Panther lose some of its commercial momentum, although it still won plenty of fans in the Middle Kingdom. “The story is fluent, the music is great, and it’s a rare black superhero movie. I am also very interested in African culture after seeing this movie,” one person wrote on Douban, a film and TV series review site.
“Some people say the jokes were a bit lame but I thought they were funny. I also applaud Marvel for making such a bold film. Finally, they have produced a superhero film that is both mature and unique,” wrote another.
Other commentators put the film’s surprise success down to its timing, however. “Since February, there hasn’t been a Hollywood film in China for a while so Black Panther came at a good time. Secondly, the strong reception for the film in the US has been a major publicity boost,” says Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment blog.
Local reviews for the movie have rated it average. On Douban it had a score of just 6.7 out of 10, one of the lowest in the Marvel universe (and only slightly ahead of similar fare like Captain America, which had a rating of 6.5).
“I think for the most part Chinese movie-goers are not getting what they expected from a Marvel film,” says Jonathan Papish from China Film Insider, a film blog. “Most of these Marvel films are very bright, very funny, sort of about saving the world, big explosions.”
Overseas media was also quick to point out some of the remarks made by netizens about the film. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, ran this quote from Douban: “Maybe the Chinese are still not used to a film full of black people. I had to pinch myself to stay awake during the movie because Black Panther is black, all the major characters are black, a lot of scenes are black, the car-chasing scene is black – the blackness has really made me sleepy.”
Nevertheless, the Information Times put up a stout defence of Chinese audiences, saying that few of the comments indicated that netizens were racially insensitive.
“There are a lot of scenes in the film that take place at night. The problem is, with the film being shown in 3D, there are not many movie theatres in the country that are equipped with high-brightness screens. As a result, a lot of cinemagoers complain that the screen is very dark. Coupled with a slow story line, many of them complain that watching the film has induced them to sleep,” it protested.
Papish at China Film Insider agrees, saying that the comments had more to do with technology than prejudice. “There’s a complaint with Chinese movie-goers that 3D movies are too dark, and so this added to the kind of aesthetic of this movie meant it didn’t fit their palate,” he told ABC News.
While Black Panther surprised at the box office, Oscar winners like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and The Shape of Water have been flops. Even though the former won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, it took just Rmb43 million over its first 10 days of screening. The Shape of Water, which got Best Picture and Best Director, did slightly better at Rmb72 million.
That was no great surprise. In fact, the only Oscar winner that has performed reasonably well in China was Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Revenant, which took Rmb370 million.
“While the ‘Oscar halo’ is still relevant in China it is not as impactful as in the US. It could be a major driving force for some die-hard film buffs but it certainly is not enough to draw ordinary audiences,” says Yangtze Evening News.
“The problem is, all of these Oscar winning movies are art-house films and with little commercial value. Even the name Three Billboards is too abstract for Chinese audiences to understand,” it added.
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