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Black Panther Movement: IMDb Vote Rigging and the Politicisation of Everything…

Everything is political.

And not just in abstract sense any longer. Over the past two years, it has become clear that popular culture is not insulated from politics, and cannot be insulated from politics. There are any number of markers along this road; the rise of socially-conscious film criticism, the election of a reality television star as President of the United States, debates about diversity and representation on screen and in organisations. It is fair to debate all this, to wonder whether it is a necessary step on the road to maturity or another way in which it has become harder to escape into pop culture.

Over the past few weeks, Black Panther has become another front in the perpetual and never-ending culture wars, a battleground much like Gamergate in which views that would have been socially unacceptable even half a decade earlier are spilling out into the mainstream. Weeks before the film was released it found itself subjected to organised vote brigading and troll campaigns, racist fear-mongering and dogwhistling, panic and chaos. This was before the public had been given the opportunity to actually watch the film. Black Panther became a pop culture totem.

Much has been made of Black Panther as a progressive milestone. It is not the first black superhero movie, but it is the first Marvel Studios film with a primarily black cast and focusing exclusively on a black hero. It is perhaps the first true black superhero film of the superhero boom that the Blade trilogy helped to kickstart, but subsequently stood apart from. Black Panther is undeniably compelling from that perspective, a bold and necessary step forward. However, one look at social media demonstrates that there is still a long way left to go.

It should be noted that Black Panther looks to be a massive success. The film’s pre-sales are phenomenal, indicating a strong grassroots desire to see the film. The film is also the best-reviewed superhero film in the past decade. There are charity drives to ensure that young African American audiences will get a chance to see themselves on film. Celebrities like Octavia Spencer have already promised to buy out entire screenings so that disadvantaged audiences might have the opportunity to experience the movie on the big screen.

This should be a cause for celebration. After all, who could possibly begrudge such sincere enthusiasm and excitement? After all, African American audiences are notoriously underserved when it comes to big budget blockbuster entertainment; it is estimated that 17% of films do not feature a single speaking role for black characters. This despite the fact that films with diverse casts tend to perform better at the box office. This despite the fact that African Americans are attending more movies than ever and eager for more content.

More than that, Black Panther is actually good. It is really good. It is a highly enjoyable old-fashioned box office spectacle that is shrewdly written and cannily directed. It is not perfect, but few films are. It would seem churlish to begrudge Black Panther its success in a world where films like Justice League, Independence Day: Resurgence, Baywatch, CHiPs and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword exist. Black Panther obviously cannot please everybody, but it should please most people. And it is hard to imagine anybody being especially riled up by it.

Except, of course, for the politicisation of everything. Everything is a political statement now, and so Black Panther must be a political statement of itself. Never mind that the film has not been released yet, and won’t be released for another week. Never mind that only a few select audiences of critics and premiere attendees have actually seen the movie at this point in time. So, for most observers, Black Panther is something to be discussed in the abstract. And, boy, is it being discussed in the abstract, and not in a good way.

Black Panther is already receiving a very strong blowback from certain quarters of the internet, a strong pre-release backlash to the film seemingly rooted in nothing more than its basic existence. There was a Facebook group ostensibly set up by rabid DC fans who were consciously planning to down-vote the movie on Rotten Tomatoes in response to negative critics’ reviews of Justice League. A similar campaign was launched, with similar rhetoric, around the divisive and controversial Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

To be fair, the legitimacy of these campaigns have been questioned. It should be noted that films like Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War, movies that are far less overtly progressive than Black Panther or The Last Jedi, have largely avoided generating this sort of backlash. It is entirely possible that the campaigns to sabotage Black Panther and The Last Jedi are dogwhistle campaigns driven more by anger at their progressive politics than by the particulars of their corporate origin. Facebook have since clamped down on this attempt to organise vote-brigading.

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However, there is a concerted effort on certain quarters of the internet to downvote Black Panther and to sabotage its audience scores on certain metrics. The Internet Movie Database seems particularly susceptible to such manipulation. There are Twitter users proudly posting one-star reviews of the film and encouraging their followers to do the same. This is impressive, considering how few people have actually seen the film. But they demonstrate how charged and politicised the atmosphere is around Black Panther.

Indeed, it should be noted that the Internet Movie Database has been inundated with votes for Black Panther in the weeks leading up it is release. This is impressive, given that the film was not screened for critics until late January and is still in the midst of its premiere cycle. Reviews were embargoed until the 6th of February, suggesting that studio had kept a very tight grip on preview screenings. As such, it seems highly unlikely that Disney was screening the movie for large numbers of people who immediately rushed out to register their disgust for the film on the Internet Movie Database.

IMDb voting demographics for Black Panther as of February 7th, 2018.

The demographics of this vote are informative. By February 7th, more than 5,800 people had voted for Black Panther. The staff working at the Internet Movie Database and younger voters had rated it quite highly, although those numbers were comparatively low; numbers that seem plausible for a film not yet in wide release. However, going by these figures, a lot of older men had seen it. And a lot of these older men had a strong negative reaction to it. The contrast in scores is striking, and well outside of what one might expect for standard deviation. By February 9th, that number (and the polarisation) had increased.

It should be noted that the Internet Movie Database has a history with this sort of ballot-stuffing for black films. There were similar issues with Get Out, which was similarly brigaded with negative user ratings before its release, despite overwhelmingly positive reviews. (Get Out went on to secure both a Best Picture and a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards. There is a sense that something is certainly… off about the voting system on the Internet Movie Database, particularly for films that it would have been impossible for audiences to see.

User scores for Beauty and the Beast, as of March 10th, 2017.

There is a strong reactionary element to the kind of users who vote on the Internet Movie Database, with user ratings often politicised. The nature of this politicisation varies. For example, The Promise, a movie about the Armenian Genocide was subject to similar vote-brigading. Beauty and the Beast, a live action remake of the classic cartoon featuring outspoken feminist Emma Watson similarly provoked a very strong reaction from male voters over the age of thirty.

Personally, I co-host a podcast on the Internet Movie Database, known as The 250. As such, I pay particular attention to the user-generated list of the top two hundred and fifty movies of all time. The list changes and grows. However, one of the most striking aspects of the list is how quickly it rejects movies that might be seen as “diverse”, particularly when measured against similar movies that lack diversity. It is obviously impossible to do a direct one-for-one comparison with these films, as taste varies. However, if you look at enough films, a pattern begins to emerge.

User review of Black Panther.
Has since been deleted by IMDb.

For example, all five of the Best Director nominees at the Oscars in 2017 made the list at one point or another. Moonlight had the shortest stay, only in for a few hours. Hacksaw Ridge had the longest hold, and remains the highest ranked. Similarly, most of the big superhero movies of 2017 placed on the list. Wonder Woman was in for under a fortnight. In contrast, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 lasted more than a month. Logan is still ranked, almost a year after placing. Thor: Ragnarok lasted two months.

Of course, it is entirely possible that these statistics could just be anomalies. Maybe grassroots audiences don’t like Black Panther as much as critics do. However, a quick glimpse at the early user reviews for Black Panther on the Internet Movie Database suggests exactly what is motivating these scores. For those unfamiliar with racist memes and dogwhistles, “we wuz kangs” is a derogatory dismissal of attempts by African Americans to connect with their heritage, to dismiss any connection to the continent and the contrast between their ancestors who lived there and those most likely taken as slaves.

User review of Black Panther.
Has since been deleted by IMDb.

The Internet Movie Database seems to understand the bad optics of having user reviews of Black Panther populated by racist nonsense more than a week before the film is released, and so have taken down the reviews and bleached them from the internet. It should be noted that the site has yet to do the same with the overtly racist user reviews for Troy: Fall of a City, another production with a black lead that has been subject to vote brigading and ballot stuffing despite the fact that it has not yet been released.

It should be noted that Black Panther is not even that overtly political. The most political aspect of the movie is an acknowledgement of the consequences of slavery and the imaginary construct of a utopian African nation unscarred by such an atrocity. Black Panther goes out of its way not to offend white audiences, acknowledging slavery and colonialism indirectly and as asides, casting its most revolutionary black character as a villain and assigning a major supporting role to a completely superfluous white character so that white audiences might not feel left out.

Indeed, the biggest problem with Black Panther is arguably that the film is too apolitical, that it refuses to engage in the cultural war into which it would inevitably eventually be drafted. Much like Luke Cage glossed over the racial politics of police brutality against black communities, Black Panther acknowledges the oppression and victimisation of minority communities within the United States, but without ever directly calling it out. Black Panther is a movie that genuinely doesn’t want to alienate any of its viewers, even those who bristle at concepts like “black lives matter” or “social justice warriors.”

This is the political and cultural climate in which we live, in which every piece of pop cultural discourse is poisoned by racist trolls and smear campaigns – in which an innocuous superhero blockbuster becomes a do-or-die online battlefield in which insecure racist audiences vent pent-up fury. Of course, these keyboard warriors are undoubtedly empowered by recent political movements. The internet has always been home to extremist rhetoric and communities, but the past few years have seen this hatred and vindictiveness explode into the mainstream.

The current political discourse has given these people confidence, and encouraged them to express loudly and proudly views that would have been socially unacceptable even five years earlier. Indeed, the alt-right is a product of (and still connected to) these communities, the festering wound of GamerGate tied into the recent election. The digital battlegrounds over Black Panther and Beauty and the Beast are not so different from those on which the 2016 election were fought, populated by culture warriors and battle bots engaged in a bitter existentialist struggle against what they see as progressive encroachment.

In February 2018, everything is political. Even Black Panther. Even IMDb scores.

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4 Responses

  1. 1) I read your review yesterday. The fact that the only comment on it is from a guy flipping out about the reference to the legacy of slavery makes a nice illustration of this exact topic.

    2) Yeah, the fact that this is all being done in reaction to what (according to your reviews) seems to be a bog-standard Magneto vs. Xavier story of “scary radical overreacts to his oppression and needs to be put down by the nice reasonable main characters” is quite a statement. It really is *just* about the main characters’ race.

    • Thanks Chris. Yeah, that comment is a masterful case of “prove my point.” And part of what spurred me to write this, to be honest.

  2. First, Darren, thanks for the early Black Panther review in your other post. I’ve been feeling ‘superhero fatigue’ and wasn’t planning on watching this one, since I had never read the comic books and wasn’t really interested in the character from Civil War. Looks like it’s worth seeing after all.

    To the topic of this post, I think that many of the current modes of discourse online (Twitch chat, Facebook posts, Reddit, IMDB comments & reviews, news article comment threads, Twitter) all encourage the “shouting match” style of discourse and reward the loudest/angriest commentators with the most feedback. This system of rewards has trained most online users that it’s “OK” to be a vitriolic monster online, because it’s what everyone else is doing, and there’s little-to-no accountability. As a result, previously civil areas of the internet are increasingly caught up in unwinnable culture wars. I have some hope that if a new area for discourse online becomes popular, it may change the ‘web forum’ modes of interaction that are now ascendant.

    I think a lot of the GamerGate/Alt-right rage comes from the huge numbers of young white men who are leading unsatisfying lives in terms of relationships, economic self-sufficiency, and positive self-worth, especially in a society that tells them they are privileged and that sets unrealistic expectations for them to measure their own success. Yet they feel that they are suffering, and transfer this rage onto “other” populations like minorities and especially women. Personally, I am worried that trends such as increased automation of many careers may only aggravate this sense of insecurity and rage.

    • Yep. That’s probably a fair assessment. There’s also a sense in young white men that other groups getting “more” means that they get a smaller piece of the pie. There’s some truth in Martin Luther King’s observation that the lowliest white man used to be able to take comfort that he wasn’t on the lowest social rung.

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