Spike Lee credits Black Panther for at least part of the success of his new film, BlacKkKlansman, starring John David Washington and Adam Driver. Based on the 1970s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan by Colorado's first black detective, Ron Stallworth (Washington), BlacKkKlansman has earned Lee wide critical acclaim and grossed over $84 million. While some have objected to Lee's choice to parallel the film's events with the 2017 Charlottesville riots, Lee has said he wishes he could have gone a step further with the film's political messaging.
Get Out, which earned Jordan Peele an Oscar for his directorial debut, is a horror film about a young black man named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), whose white girlfriend and her family serially kidnap black men and transplant their brains into their bodies. Black Panther follows the action-packed adventures of a Prince named T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) but explores the oppression of black communities through racist power structures using his main foe, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). BlacKkKlansman's tone meets somewhere in the middle of the two, maximizing the funny but gripping buddy-cop chemistry between Washington and Driver, while examining the brutal hate-mongering based on Stallworth's autobiography.
Lee spoke with Screen Rant about how low returns for black films in foreign markets have impacted the budgets on his work. He elaborated that studios haven't looked to black-led projects as major revenue drivers, without the support of major stars. Black Panther, however, changed the game when it became a powerhouse without many A-listers.
“I'm happy for the success of Get Out. But, this film didn't cost that much so... For me, the film that changed the game is Black Panther... When you're a black director and trying to get a film made with a studio, the way it always went the okie doke was when the line item came to foreign. Historically, they said, 'Well we can't give you that much for the budget because historically black films don't make any money overseas.' Then when Denzel [Washington], Will [Smith], and Sam [Jackson], started selling overseas then they move the goal line further and said, 'Well, there are stars are in it. If you don't have any stars in the film you're not going to make any foreign.' Black Panther...there were no stars in that film. Prior to the film."
Black Panther earned well over a billion at the global box office, including sizable returns in China. Part of the success was undoubtedly due to the massive following the MCU has established globally, but, as Lee points out, getting studios to recognize the potential in international markets for black films is another frontier.
"Now they move the goal line further. It's been proven that Black folks can travel, you know? And people go see our films. So that's the next thing, you know?"
The frustration felt by many in Hollywood to see real changes in diverse casting and creation in the film industry has often been met by the response Lee described. Studios point to the need for, in many cases, white stars whose attachment to the projects can be depended upon to ensure the project makes a profit. But, in many cases, progress has been made by pressuring studios to invest in more projects led by less known people of color. It's possible that Moonlight's win for 2016 Best Picture may not have happened without the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter campaign. While Black Panther did it for the superhero genre, Crazy Rich Asians proved that a romantic comedy made of up people of color could be a huge international hit. Thanks to creative forces like Lee, Peele, and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, real diversity in film will, hopefully, further become the new normal.
BlacKkKlansman is currently available on digital, and will debut on Blu-ray, 4K, and DVD on November 6, 2018.