Africa must cash in on its Black Panthers
African celebrities on the global stage have a chance to make home-grown talent part of the value chain
Earning $1bn in turnover worldwide, Black Panther, the Hollywood blockbuster movie produced by Marvel Studios, has found resonance among many black audiences.
For many blacks this was the first time they saw positive reflections of themselves on the big screen in a meaningful way. At some local cinemas, entire families dressed up for the occasion and cheered and ululated as the credits rolled up the screen.
The release of Black Panther proved that there was a market that had been underserviced for years. The constant depiction of black people in films and television as the victims or perpetrators of strife was a burden black audiences had to accept, as they did not have many alternatives.
So the depiction of the fictional, uncolonised country of Wakanda had huge appeal for black people looking for alternative narratives. Black Panther not only created a black mythology, it opened the door to a commercialised black narrative of empowerment.
The film has been hailed in some quarters as an important tool in the mental liberation of black people, much like Franz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks. It is not. Confined by commercial considerations, it is a Hollywood blockbuster based on cartoon characters and owned by the same people who own Mickey Mouse and Star Wars. Marvel Entertainment is a subsidiary of Disney.
This means audiences have been drawn into the Disney business model, where the film is the first step in the marketing arm that pushes all sorts of products aimed at the market the film created.
The more successful the franchise, the bigger the market for toys, T-shirts, masks and the like. The only people making money off the explosion in black pride are Disney’s shareholders.
Created in the 1960s by science fiction legend Stan Lee, Black Panther is part of the Marvel universe. Marvel Comics created several superhero characters for its comic books and comic strips. So Spiderman can make a guest appearance in an Iron Man comic. The characters were also brought to life in film and television franchises.
Whether by accident or design, this business model of leveraging audiences from one product line to another works spectacularly well.
The creative process was turned on its head when Canadian toy company Spin Master, the creator of the children’s animated series Paw Patrol, took this to another level. A toy company created one of the world’s most popular children’s TV shows.
Ask any parent of a child under the age of five and they are all too familiar with heroic cartoon pups that save the day. They are also familiar with pillow cases, shoes, bags and toys that just have to be purchased for the young fans.
With the worldwide clampdown on advertising aimed at children, it is hard to regulate against product placement disguised as a show.
This is an important lesson for African commercial creatives. The African success story DStv has among its most successful offerings the locally produced Mzansi and Kyknet channels. On these channels audiences see and hear themselves in their own languages.
While DStv has been successful in capturing audiences, it has failed to commodify them. There is a clear value chain in a business model that has not been exploited.
Media companies have to learn. It is no longer enough just to access audiences. Media houses have to evolve beyond just being content creators. They have to engage audiences in such a way that they become partners in longer value chains.
It is time that the commercial creative industry thinks of the entire pipeline and not just the products they produce.
Black Panther has opened the door for Africa to get onto the celebrity value chain.
It is not enough that Lupita Nyong’o wears the clothes of South African-based designers David Tlale or Ephraim Molingoana. She needs to be contracted to them, because getting payment in African patriotism is not enough
Of the stars in the movie, only John Kani, his son Atandwa and fellow South African Connie Chiume wore outfits designed and made in Africa at the premiere of the film. The rest of the cast were content to wear designer names like Versace.
The African fashion industry missed an opportunity to showcase the best in fashion talent that the continent has to offer.
It is not enough that Lupita Nyong’o wears the clothes of South African-based designers David Tlale or Ephraim Molingoana. She needs to be contracted to them, because getting payment in African patriotism is not enough. There have to be large-scale production facilities to produce the demand that African celebrities create, along with the accompanying retail outlets.
Tlale and designers like him are not deaf to these opportunities. They have been campaigning for years for more investment into the fashion industry. They have constantly been disappointed by potential financial backers who often regarded the fashion industry as simply a Cinderella business.
To many the concept of celebrity might seem trite and vacuous when compared with the bigger issues in the world. But celebrity definitely has the power to draw attention to the issues and drive markets.
The late great Nelson Mandela understood the capacity of his celebrity status and how to use it to benefit SA. The use of celebrity has helped to amplify South Africa’s position on the world stage.
Michelle Obama has done the same. She was known for dressing in the outfits made by young minority designers in the US to give them a platform.
Africa now has access to a platoon of international celebrities including Nyong’o, Charlize Theron, Trevor Noah and Danai Gurira. There needs to be a clear plan to engage and use their celebrity. If no one in Africa comes up with the plan, a company like Disney will.