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Will “Black Panther” Defy Expectations in China?

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Black Panther opens in cinemas across China today, March 9. Ever since it was announced that the film would be coming to screens in the world’s second largest movie market, there’s been speculation about how the country’s cinema-goers would respond to the Afrofuturist flick. But as opening weekend finally arrives, is the Ryan Coogler-helmed action flick set to defy expectations in China?

In January, Forbes asked “Can Disney Possibly Succeed With ‘Black Panther’ In China’?”, with Rob Cain writing:

It’s not that the Chinese film authorities actively discriminate against films with black actors. But a big part of their job is to import movies that will succeed at the local box office, and their experience and instincts tell them that such films haven’t typically been embraced by China’s moviegoers.

And later that same month, this happened:

The supposedly leaked Black Panther poster turned out to actually be a piece of Taiwanese fan art, and was swiftly disowned by Marvel and Disney. But the controversy nevertheless pointed to concerns over how accepting Chinese audiences would be of a black-led blockbuster.

While assuming that Chinese people will be put off by a black lead could be considered racist in itself, Disney is not without form in the area of poster alteration: John Boyega’s image on Chinese posters for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was greatly reduced compared to international editions, a move which also brought allegations of racism.

As China headed toward the Spring Festival, there was more positive poster news as Disney released an eye-catching piece of artwork to promote Black Panther:

But then of course came the Spring Festival Gala ‘blackface’ skit, and China’s attitudes to black performers were once again thrust into the spotlight.

Related:

Four Key Points from CCTV’s Controversial Spring Festival Gala

While other pictures from the Marvel stable have been given star-studded premieres in China in recent years, Black Panther‘s only Asia promo stop came in Seoul last month. However, the Spring Festival holiday and the Academy Awards falling between that visit and the film’s China release date may well have played a significant role in this decision.

At Disney’s flagship Shanghai store the day before the film hit cinemas here, there was little sign of any special promotional activity, with posters outside the prominent Lujiazui-based shop promoting Buzz Lightyear and Woody instead of T’Challa or Nakia (a Toy Story area will open at Shanghai’s Disneyland theme park in April). Inside, only a limited range of Black Panther merchandise was available: a single T-shirt design, action figure, backpack, and baseball cap, though a store assistant told us the bags had been selling well.

Naturally, anyone looking hard enough can dig out Weibo comments to support both positive and negative hypotheses on Chinese cinema goers’ attitudes toward the film. Sample comments under the film’s hashtag include: “Cool, cool, cool. This is the first time I’ve thought of a black man as handsome”, “This is like a black person version of Star Wars” and, of course, “Wakanda Forever”. It’s an unscientific assessment of course, but many of the negative comments we’ve seen about the film so far on the microblog platform have been centred on superhero movie fatigue rather than skin color.

Yet as we finally reach opening weekend, there are rumblings that Black Panther could surpass expectations in China, with Deadline tipping it to make a $60 million opening, pushing the film past the $1 billion mark worldwide before the end of the weekend.

We’ll certainly be watching closely to see how Black Panther performs in China – when we’re not watching the film itself in the cinema that is.

Cover photo: sarunrod / Shutterstock.com

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.

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