How do blockbusters co-opt radical movements?
Following the highly anticipated release of the new Marvel superhero film, Black Panther, there has been much discussion in online circles about the idea of media corporations co-opting radical movements for their own financial gain. A criticism often levelled is that this co-option devalues, simplifies and creates a cynical view of the radical movements they take inspiration from. It is claimed that the movements do not benefit from their new prominent place in pop culture, but rather are demeaned by misrepresentation and the dilution of their radical ideals by making them more “acceptable” to a fee-paying audience. Is this the case, or can these representations paint radical movements in a positive light?
A discussion of this issue would be best placed by looking at the spark that started it, Black Panther. To give a spoiler-free summary, it tells the story of the comic book character Black Panther, also known as T'Challa, who is the king of a fictional African nation called Wakanda that is kept completely secret due from the outside world. In the film, the nation of Wakanda is an unusual mix of traditional African culture with futuristic technology, inhabiting a genre between sci-fi and superhero movie. While the name for the character was originally derived before the revolutionary Black Panthers came about in the 1960s, the parallels between the portrayal of the Black Panther and Wakanda in the film and the real Black Panthers are quite visible. The makeup of Wakanda is entirely black, and in the film, value is placed on preserving the culture of Wakanda from those outside who they fear would destroy it. A nod to the famous picture of Black Panthers founder Huey P. Newton sitting on a wicker chair, with a spear in one hand and a shotgun in the other, is found in one of the promotional posters for Black Panther, as T'Challa sits on his throne in a similar position.
It is reasonable to doubt the idea that a Marvel film could promote the activities of a radical group like the Black Panthers. Rather than drive home a message of black empowerment and liberation, the film seems more content to play with traditional story archetypes – the unchallenged king versus the jealous upstart who wants vengeance for past misdeeds. There is an element of isolationism versus multiculturalism, but the film favours the latter at the expense of the African culture it is trying to represent. It is, then, very easy to see where the debate has sprung from as the cynical nature of the film's representation of a revolutionary movement probably does it no good.
Another prominent example of this phenomenon also involves the Black Panther movement -Beyonce's half-time performance at Super Bowl 50. During the show, Beyonce performed her single Formation, in (you guessed it) a “formation” with outfits resembling that of the Black Panthers, and also featured Beyonce and her dancers doing a black power salute. The performance sparked unrest among conservatives for the political and racial statement it made, but little of the discussion focused on how Beyonce had co-opted the Black Panthers for a consumer-centric Superbowl half-time show. Differences between this performance and Black Panther mostly lie in the fact that this was more blunt and was unashamed in its promotion of the real-life Black Panthers, whereas Black Panther was far more subdued in its invocation of the movement. How many of Beyonce’s younger fans, not having seen the salute before, would have copied her after seeing it on TV? In this way, it seems as that the co-opting of radical movements in pop culture could help those movements if done in a way that is non-cynical and empowering.
But the co-opting of radical movements is hardly a new phenomenon. The famous Guerrillero Heroico photo of Che Guevara became a ubiquitous element of pop culture over the past few decades through its appearance on t-shirts, posters and even Irish stamps. The image of Che became massively popular among students, stoners, and others who believed they were “fighting the system”. It is quite easy to see the irony of having a Marxist revolutionary plastered all over vapid consumerist products. Its use emphasises the worst side of the co-opting of radicalism - that the movement it is trying to represent loses all value and meaning and becomes little more than a strange hypocrisy that can be laughed at. In 1997, there was the release of the Hollywood blockbuster The Devil’s Own, a film that was lambasted in some sections of the British press for “glamourising the IRA”. While that statement may just be tabloid sensationalism, the film does present a sympathetic view of its lead - an IRA member played by Brad Pitt who has come to America to buy Stinger missiles to use back home. If this co-opting of the IRA was successful in promoting their cause and activities, it begs the question – is this what we really want?
The Overton window theory states that there is an acceptable range of public discourse, which can change over time and with social change. Might this co-opting of radical movements not shift the Overton window to make the radicalism acceptable? Of course, the views of what radical movements are “OK” to promote through popular culture will vary wildly between individuals. Do we then accept the co-opting in pop culture of the Black Panthers but not the IRA? What about Che Guevara? However, these discussions are moot when we realise that pop culture is not controlled by ordinary people, but by suits in marketing and consumer research departments. We must accept that we live in an inherently cynical capitalist society where these radical movements have been and will continue to be taken advantage of for the profit of corporations, but this doesn’t mean it has to be a bad thing for the movements represent in media. It just has to be done right.