By Niesha Davis for SixthTone.com
The film “Black Panther,” which premieres in Chinese cinemas today, has been hailed for its stylized and celebratory representations of Africans. While it isn’t the first major motion picture starring a black superhero, it is arguably the most earnest film in the genre to date. American movies like 1993’s “The Meteor Man,” starring Robert Townsend, and 1994’s Damon Wayans-led “Blankman,” were based in the inner-cities of the U.S. and hammed up the superhero shtick for comedy value.
But in channeling a fictional black superhero created in 1966 at the height of the American civil rights movement, the protagonist of “Black Panther” is truly unique: a person of African descent with the power, intellect, and moral compass to inspire admiration across racial divides; a person who stands as a unifying force in a fictional African country with no obvious history of colonization and blessed with abundant natural resources.
I hope that the release of “Black Panther” in China will heighten awareness of race among domestic audiences. Let me be clear: As a black American woman, I regularly experience systemic racial discrimination at home in the United States. But I often find the discrimination I encounter here in China cruder and more overt.
I moved to China in 2015 in the hope of earning good money as an English teacher and exploring more of Asia during my off-time. And it is true that my experience in Shanghai has been quite lucrative for my career since then. Yet to paraphrase the African-American poet Langston Hughes, life for most black people in China isn’t a crystal stair.
Chinese beauty standards put whiteness at a premium; some women regularly bleach their skin, for example. But these aesthetics run deeper than skin color: The popularity of plastic surgery proceduresdesigned to widen and brighten the eyes reflects a widespread acceptance of Caucasian, Eurocentric beauty standards. Often, I feel as if my very existence as a dark-skinned black woman is in opposition to what some Chinese people find aesthetically beautiful, a tension that has made me feel disrespected in certain social interactions.
Beauty standards have negatively impacted my employment prospects and income. Many job postings specify that only white or “native European” teachers may apply, or demand that candidates submit copies of their passport pages at the very start of the recruitment process in order to screen out people with dark skin.
It is regrettable that most Chinese lack exposure to black people. Interactions that many locals have with those of the African diaspora are therefore rife with negative stereotypes — particularly notions of cleanliness. Last year, the Chinese detergent brand Qiaobi was accused of open racism after releasing a television commercial in which a Chinese woman shoved a black man into a washing machine. He then emerged as a fair-skinned Chinese man, to the visible delight of the woman.
Qiaobi came under warranted criticism for perpetuating the bogus idea that dark-skinned people are dirtier than their lighter-skinned counterparts. But my own experiences indicate that this notion exists much more prominently in China than in the U.S. I have witnessed passengers blatantly cover their noses as I enter a subway carriage; once, while on holiday in Hong Kong, a department store clerk who was demonstrating a brand of soap on my hand even joked that my skin was dark because the poor air quality on the Chinese mainland had made it dirty.
And things are hardly better when it comes to the average Chinese person’s perceptions about Africa. Admittedly, both Chinese and Western media outlets perpetuate a negative narrative that casts the continent’s people as backward, poverty- and disease-stricken, and in need of economic and structural help from other nations.
A particularly harrowing recent depiction of Africa in the Chinese movie world is last year’s popular action thriller “Wolf Warrior 2.” By now, I am used to seeing the cinematic trope of the white savior, in which the Caucasian protagonist rescues “vulnerable” people of color from a dangerous plight. “Wolf Warrior 2” remixes this for a Chinese audience. Set in a nameless African country, Wu Jing stars as a Chinese soldier on a special assignment to protect both his countrymen and locals amid a violent rebellion, eventually winning the fawning admiration of the country’s black population. Despite the film’s almost comically ham-fisted plot, it nonetheless stands as the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time and is the country’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards.
Fortunately, the Africa that Chinese audiences will see in “Black Panther” completely dispels the above stereotypes. Wakanda, the fictional country in which the film is set, exemplifies a futuristic, technologically advanced nation where black protagonists are masters of their own destinies, not victims in need of salvation.
University lecturer and Shanghai resident Marcel Daniels, who has seen the film while abroad, is optimistic that the film will have a positive influence in his adopted country. “I find that a lot of stereotypes in China come from a limited exposure to diversity, so assumptions are made reflexively. Hopefully this film sparks interest in Chinese viewers to learn more about the history, people, and cultures of those from Africa.”
Kristen Stanley, the owner of Liaison Luxury Sport and Entertainment Agency in Shanghai, plans to host a “Black Panther”- themed screening on the night of the film’s China release. “The perception of black people around the world is changing and this movie will continue that trend,” she says, adding that three cinema viewings she organized have already sold out completely.
“Black Panther” is unapologetic in its celebration of blackness. Its costuming, hairstyles, and language, are replete with African cultural references and historical recognition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. African beauty standards stand front and center: While previous Hollywood productions have been criticized for casting fairer-skinned black people in leading roles, the likes of Lupita Nyong’o — who plays Nakia, Black Panther’s love interest — show a boundary-pushing commitment to darker-skinned stars. Female characters also shun Eurocentric ideals of straight hair by embracing bald heads, dreadlocks, kinky and curly styles, and Bantu knots.
Of course, it would be simplistic to say that one film will completely change attitudes toward black and African people in China. For all its laudably progressive traits, “Black Panther” primarily addresses comparatively subtle Western stereotypes of black people. When transposed onto the Chinese context — a society in which crude racial stereotypes pervade national television — some of the film’s celebration of African pluralism might be lost in translation.
But “Black Panther” can still be a start. Exposure to pop culture that encompasses diverse representations of black people can exert a powerful influence on how individuals conceive of them. “Black Panther” probably won’t completely eradicate the notion that Africa is a monocultural entity that needs fixing, but it might show Chinese audiences that our perceptions of superheroes can be complex and beauty standards are not easily divisible into black and white.
By Eileen Guo for theoutline.com
To understand where race relations in China are right now, one needs only to look to the highest grossing Chinese film of all time, last year’s Wolf Warrior 2. Directed by its star, Wu Jing, the ultra-patriotic action blockbuster was China’s answer to the thinly veiled military propaganda of Hollywood films like Rambo or Zero Dark Thirty, grossing $854 million and becoming China’s 2018 submission for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars (sadly, it wasn’t nominated). Unfortunately, it alsomirrored the American blockbuster’s tendency to lean into unflattering foreign stereotypes, portraying Africans alternatively as unscrupulous enemies or weak, faceless hordes awaiting salvation.
As it stands today, China is one of the world’s most racially homogeneous countries. Though it has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, it is dominated by one, the Han, to which 92 percent of the population (including me) belong. Its foreign presence, meanwhile, is tiny. Accordingly, China is less focused on “race” as it’s socially constructed in the west and more in a culturally-based but politically defined sense of “ethnicity.”
In China, blatant racism still very much exists. This is true towards any non-Han Chinese, but there is also specific anti-black racism, at least partially influenced by American media portrayals of both African-Americans and Africa, the continent.
It is against this backdrop that Black Panther opened in China this weekend. As a Chinese-American who has already seen — and fallen in love with — the film, I was anxious and a little curious as to how the movie, so steeped in the African-American experience, would translate to the almost completely racially homogenous country of my birth. I desperately wanted both cultures to show their best sides: that this celebration of black culture in America could be recognized as such and would resonate with Chinese audiences, and that China’s anti-foreign impulses could be overcome.
But beyond feeling personally invested in the film, China’s reception of Black Panther was important in another way. China is currently the world’s second-largest movie market and is on track to surpass America by 2020, so the nation’s reaction to the film could shape what type of movies major studios take big bets on in the future.
I watched the movie in a small, modern cinema owned by Dalian Wanda Group (which also owns America’s AMC theaters) in the southwestern city of Chengdu, a metropolis of 14.45 million people best known for its spicy dishes, giant pandas, and — more recently — as the birthplace of Chinese hip-hop. If I thought that the city’s connections to a music originating from the African-American experience would somehow make the film more relatable, I was wrong.
The energy — or lack thereof — in the theater was completely different from my first experience in New York City, where I felt like a small part of one emotional organism, each person’s laughter and visceral reactions influencing the whole. I sat enthralled, possessing the distinct sense that I was a witness to something historic. In Chengdu, meanwhile, the only thing that we shared, beyond being in the same physical space, was the pair of 3D glasses that each of us wore. The solidarity, and even shared reactions, were missing. The moments that elicited laughs in America — “two Grace Jones-lookin’ chicks” with spears showing up in Oakland; Shuri naming her high-tech silent boots “sneakers,” calling the white CIA agent “Colonizer,” and numerous quips and cultural touchstones that immediately registered with American audiences — were lost in translation.
Sometimes, literally. When T’Challa indignantly tells Okoye, “I never freeze!” as he’s about to head out on a mission to fetch ex-girlfriend Nakia, it’s translated to “My leg is fine!” When he re-enters Wakanda, the barren world beyond its borders giving way to the civilization within, he says, “This never gets old,” which is translated into the far blander, “It’s so beautiful.”
Each of these moments is a missed opportunity to connect with its audience. And these missed opportunities added up, leading some Chinese viewers wondering what the big fuss was about.
For college student Yang Yang, it was more than just the jokes that were lost in translation. The movie’s celebration of an unconquered African civilization failed to make any impression at all. When I asked what she thought about the movie’s portrayal of race, she said, “Black culture in the film is only a small part,” before adding, “The theme songs — the music from The Weekend and Kendrick Lamar — are all very good.”
Of course, “black culture” is not just hip-hop, but her confusion might be at least reflective of China’s limited exposure to race. China’s insensitivity when it comes to representation was also on ample display at this year’s CCTV Chinese New Year’s gala, an annual variety show organized by the state broadcaster and traditionally watched by basically every family in the country. During the four-hour long show, a short comic skit about China’s expansion in Africa made headlines for very much the wrong reasons.
The sketch was set in the savannah of an unnamed African country, with Shakira’s “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” serving as the musical backdrop. It featured mistaken identities (a common trope in the show), a narrowly averted interracial marriage due to said mistaken identities, African gratitude for Chinese saviors, people dressed as monkeys and giraffes, and a Chinese actress outfitted in full blackface and prosthetic butt. It would be an understatement to call the skit — which provoked backlash both in China and abroad — offensive, let alone problematic. Yet, as a report in the Washington Post noted, China’s Foreign Ministry remained defiant in the face of criticism of the skit, accusing outsiders of exploiting the controversy in an attempt to hinder China’s economic development in Africa.
China-based university lecturer Marcel Daniels told the Shanghai outlet Sixth Tone that he was hopeful that Black Panther could make a difference. “A lot of stereotypes in China come from a limited exposure to diversity, so assumptions are made reflexively,” he explained. “Hopefully this film sparks interest in Chinese viewers to learn more about the history, people, and cultures of those from Africa.”
But that depends on the film connecting with Chinese audiences. As of yesterday, Black Panther has made about $66.5 million in China, meeting its $60-$70 million opening weekend predictions. But beyond ticket sales, it’s not clear that Black Panther truly connects with Chinese audiences. Hollywood films are increasingly adjusting plot points, settings, and even casting to appeal (or pander, depending on whom you ask) to China’s lucrative, but hard-to-crack audiences, something that Black Panther hasn’t done at all. One audience member in my showing, for example, loudly asked why the South Korean scenes couldn’t have been set in China, which would have made it more interesting.
In my screening, at least, it resulted in its somewhat tepid reception. Yang Yang, who admitted that she prefers more serious films to the superhero genre, says that it wasn’t the plot or cast of Black Panther that kept her from enjoying the film. It was that, without the context of why the movie was made, it felt to her like a hundred other superhero flicks and big-budget Hollywood films. Visually, she said, there were scenes that reminded her of Inception and Avatar.
In fact, Yang Yang felt that, more than anything, the film espoused “the universal values of the United States.” She explained how, at the end of the film, T’Challa had gone from “saving the people of his country” to “exporting technology” to the rest of the world — “much like how the United States operates in global politics.”
What we see is ultimately a reflection of what we know. So, while American audiences see a celebration of blackness, for some Chinese moviegoers, it’s Black Panther’s American spirit that stands out.
Marvel’s first black superhero film Black Panther made a strong debut in China, taking in more than $63 million this weekend and helping it cross the billion-dollar mark globally. And while the film filled seats in China, it didn’t exactly bring in rave reviews from Chinese audiences—in fact, online reviews hint at subtle racism and discomfort with the all-black cast.
Set in Wakanda, a fictional country in East Africa that’s hidden from the outside world, the movie portrayed a romanticized version of Africa that had never been touched by the white man. Led by a cast of black actors and actresses, the film presented how the king of the country, T’Challa, used his intelligence, ancestral knowledge, and access to advance technologies to become the superhero Black Panther.
But the movie—which comes as a timely portrayal and celebration of blackness half a century after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination—is hardly resonating with Chinese audiences. On Douban, China’s IMDb-esque platform, the film holds a 6.8 rating out of 10 (link in Chinese)—almost half of science-fiction and action movies rated by Douban users have a better score. Outside of China, Black Panther is on track to become the highest-rated superhero movie, according to Rotten Tomatoes; 97% of reviews from critics have been positive.
Some moviegoers disliked Black Panther because they felt Marvel was trying too hard to be politically correct (link in Chinese). While many reviewers on Douban stopped short of leaving overtly racist comments about the film, many discussed their discomfort of being surrounded by so much blackness.
“Maybe the Chinese are still not used to a film full of black people,” wrote one reviewer on Douban (link in Chinese). The commenter said he had to pinch himself more than 10 times 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 drowsy.”
Another reviewer who came into the theater late made a similar observation: “When I entered the theater, a bunch of black people was fighting in the night… I’ve never been in a theater so dark that I couldn’t find my seat.”
Someone else said the experience was worse in 3D (link in Chinese): “The film is filled with black actors and actresses. Also, because the film’s colors are a bit dark, it’s nearly a torture for the eyes to watch the film’s 3D version in the theater.”
It’s yet another reminder of China’s limited exposure to race. Last month, in the annual Lunar New Year TV gala by China’s state broadcaster CCTV, producers had a Chinese actress in blackface and cast a black actor to play a monkey. In October, a Chinese museum hosted an exhibition titled “This is Africa” that juxtaposed images of black people to animals, including monkeys and cheetahs.
Still, Black Panther could be a start for Chinese people to learn about the black culture, argues writer Niesha Davis on Shanghai-based digital publication Sixth Tone. “Exposure to pop culture that encompasses diverse representations of black people can exert a powerful influence on how individuals conceive of them,” Davis wrote.
Although not about ‘Africans in China’ this interesting doco shows another perspective on ‘being black’ in Asia. Many of the African pioneers living in China in the 1990s ended up in Japan, btw. Interestingly, many of these ppl claim to be treated better in Japan than in China. Anyways, worth watching!
Black in Tokyo was created with the intention of exposing people around the world to the black foreign experience of living in a homogenous country. Directed by Nigerian-American artist Amarachi Nwosu, the film follows five subjects, with origins ranging from West Africa to the U.S., narrating the different cultural challenges and opportunities of living in Tokyo, Japan.
Read more about this here