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“Black Panther”, “Crazy Rich Asians”, and American Dreaming in 2018…

The silver screen is not just a window, it is occasionally a mirror as well.

The cinematic gaze reveals a lot. Not just about the object in focus, but about the filmmaker (and the audience) behind the gaze. Although independent and arthouse cinema is thriving in the twenty-first century, and though home media is fundamentally changing the way that people consume media, the cinema will always be a communal space. A group of people sitting in a room together, bathed in projected light. There are obviously debates to be had about to what extent cinema reflects culture as much as it acts upon it, but there is undoubtedly a symbiosis there.

Cinema reveals a lot about contemporary culture, and not just “worthy” cinema that tends to get cited by critics as “the most important” or “the most timely” media of its particular moment. Indeed, there is perhaps something more revealing in looking at media that doesn’t consciously invite these comparisons, that doesn’t trumpet the manner in which it speaks to a particular moment. Sometimes it is more revealing to look at the films that aren’t saying anything, or at least are not consciously or overtly saying anything, about the current political moment.

In fact, it’s often a lot easier to get a sense of what is bubbling through the popular consciousness (or even the popular subconscious) by looking at low-budget “disposable” fare like horror movies than it is be interrogating more respectable and self-conscious fare. It is no coincidence that the past decade has seen a resurgence in haunted house and home invasion horror like The Conjuring, The Strangers, The Purge or even Don’t Breathe, reflecting anxieties about the American home as a site of horror in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis.

Popular cinema is similarly a fascinating prism through which to examine contemporary American culture, to get a sense of how the United States sees both itself and its relationship with the rest of the world. It’s a glimpse into the nation’s psyche, offering a messy and dynamic dive beneath the polished exterior. It cuts through a lot of contemporary politics, foregoing accuracy in favour of a general aesthetic. It is a sketch more than a portrait, but that sketch can be instructive and revealing of itself.

In particular, the twin releases of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians over the past year suggest something interesting about modern conceptions of the American Dream.

There is always a pull towards recency in criticism, a desire to frame the current moment as particularly important or particularly meaningful, to act as if this instant is more notable than any other by simple virtue of building upon the string of moments that led to this point. This is especially true in the era of the Trump Presidency. It could be argued that Barack Obama was the first Pop Culture President of the United States, the first leader engrained in popular culture to such a degree that it was impossible to escape his influence in even the most casual of settings.

Of course, this is a generalisation. After all, there were other historical candidates for the post of first pop culture president. John F. Kennedy allegedly embarked on affairs with movie stars. Ronald Reagan had famously been a movie star before elevating himself to the office. Bill Clinton played saxophone on television, and provided a springboard for one of the great fictional presidencies in one of the most influential and beloved television series of the nineties and early twenty-first century. However, Obama took that to a whole other level.

Still, if Obama was a cultural icon who provided an intersection between the idea of pop cultural celebrity and successful politician, then Donald Trump blurred the line even further. Trump was in many ways the first president to be a product of pop culture rather than simply an actor engaged with it. It could reasonably be argued that The Apprentice made the candidacy (and the victory) of Donald Trump possible in the first place. Much has been written about how Donald Trump runs the presidency like some grotesque reality television series.

Trump exerts a strange gravity over popular culture. This may be because he has so cravenly pursued celebrity and so desperately craves attention, but it may also be because nobody has any real idea of how he managed to end up as the most powerful man in the world. Whatever the reason, it is impossible to escape Trump. It isn’t just the constant (and exhausting) stream of news that he generates and the constant fires that seem to spring up and consume all cultural oxygen on an almost daily basis. It is difficult to watch a film or a television series and without feeling the pull of Trump.

It isn’t just overt references and discussions of Trump as featured in television shows like The Good Fight or Black-ish. It isn’t even just overt allegory like that featured in genre shows like Luke Cage or Star Trek: Discovery. It isn’t even just the choice of stories that we tell and how they reflect and intersect with the modern politic landscape in films as diverse as Ocean’s 8 or even The Mercy. It is woven into every reference to and discussion of the President of the United States in popular culture, even seemingly innocuous acknowledgements of the office like Sicario: Day of the Soldado and Mile 22.

So there’s a certain wariness in reading political comment into pop culture, because the knee-jerk response is to wonder what makes this particular moment so special that it deserves particular attention. However, pop culture has always reflected contemporary politics. Star Trek was the perfect blockbuster for the Obama era, an optimistic sixties throwback aspiring towards a utopian future. The Dark Knight was a carefully calibrated farewell to the Bush era, an exploration of the moral quagmire in which the United States found itself.

This has always been the case. The horrors of the attack upon the World Trade Centre cast a long shadow over twenty-first century blockbuster filmmaking; think about the holes in the sky that are a major part of blockbusters like The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and even Avengers: Infinity War. Even beyond that, think back to the wave of seventies paranoia and anxiety cinema unfolding in the wake of (or even during) Vietnam and Watergate; All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, The Exorcist, The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Popular cinema has always been insightful and revealing. One of the more interesting things about the past few years has been a relative mainstreaming of more marginalised voices; think of the success of films like Get Out or Moonlight. Indeed, it seems like there is a broader conversation happening about the idea of diversity and representation both on and behind the screen. With Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins secured the record for highest domestic opening for a female director. With A Wrinkle in Time, Ava DuVernay became the first black woman to helm a blockbuster with a budget over one hundred million dollars.

The three biggest films at the American box office in 2017 featured female leads. The two biggest films at the global box office in 2017 featured female leads. The London Film Festival accomplished gender parity in three of its four competition strands. Warner Brothers have taken on an inclusion rider in their collaborations with actor Michael B. Jordan. Actor Ed Skrein withdrew from the latest Hellboy movie following allegations of “whitewashing” his character. Scarlett Johansson withdrew from a movie in which she would have played a trans character after protests.

Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians undoubtedly exist as part of this broader cultural shift. Black Panther was a massive commercial and critical success. It had the biggest February opening ever. It had the largest opening weekend of any Marvel movie. It is the highest grossing comic book movie ever. It was the first film to remain at the top of the box office for five consecutive weeks since Avatar. On top of all of this, it was a genuine cultural phenomenon, and demonstrated an appetite for films that featured more diverse ensembles than most Hollywood films.

Similarly, Crazy Rich Asians was also a massive box office success, although less so than the massive superhero epic. It was the most successful studio romantic comedy at the box office in nine years. It also had the most successful Labour Day performance of any movie in eleven years. However, it was still a massive cultural phenomenon. Fans bought out entire theatres in order to encourage audiences to see the film. It was the first major American studio film to be led by an Asian ensemble since The Joy Luck Club a quarter-century earlier.

The similarities between Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians are striking. Both Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians are notable as massively successful movies with diverse non-white ensembles; as their titles employ, Black Panther is dominated by black actors and Crazy Rich Asians features a large Asian cast. Both films are largely set overseas; Black Panther in the fictional state of Wakanda, Crazy Rich Asians in Singapore. Both films are very much crowd-pleasing genre-defined films that adhere to familiar formulas; Black Panther is a conventional superhero narrative, Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy.

Wouldn’t it be gran(d)?

These comparisons are striking of themselves. A lot has been written about what Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians have to say about their unique cultural perspectives, about their commentaries upon what black and Asian identity. However, there is also something interesting in how both Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians approach the idea of American identity, particularly from the perspective of subcultures within the community. Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians offer an interesting (and perhaps unsettling) glimpse at the American Dream as it exists in 2018.

The American Dream is a fascinating idea. At its core, the American Dream suggests that anybody can come to America and make something of themselves. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” promises the Statue of Liberty, an invitation to those exiles from the old world searching for a new home. In theory, America was settled by wandering pilgrims who sought to be free from the persecution of Europe, who wanted a new world to claim as their own.

Of course, the reality is rather different than the fantasy. The United States was built upon the genocide of the Native Americans, and its economy was powered by the horrors of slavery. It could fairly be argued that those early pilgrims sought not freedom from persecution, but freedom to persecute. Even the poem on the Statue of Liberty is decidedly more complicated than a single inspiring line might suggest. Nevertheless, the American Dream was never about the reality. As the name implies, it was about the aspiration. It was was about hope, and belief. It was about the idea of what America could be. Its best possible self.

Indeed, the American Dream is something that the United States has skilfully packaged and exported for generations. The American Dream has long been filtered through the lens of cinema; Charlie Chaplin’s performance in The Immigrant is perhaps one of the earliest populist examples. Even deconstructive explorations of the American Dream, such as The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America offer a cynical rub on the same core optimistic idea; anyone can come to America and make something of themselves. More straightforward examples of the genre include In America or even An American Tail.

However, it seems safe to concede that recent years have challenged the American Dream as an ideal. One of the first acts of the Trump Administration was to implement a so-called “Muslim Ban”, blanket prohibitions on immigrants from particular countries. It was recently upheld by the Supreme Court. Similarly, the government has begun a crackdown on illegal immigrants, and even has made gestures towards severely curtailing legal immigration. The separation of migrant families at the border might have been the most honest and brutal articulations of the administration’s policy.

This is to say nothing of how the current political climate is impacting minorities already established within the United States. Donald Trump is a president endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. The Trump administration has made it a priority to minimise the impact of investigations into allegations of the police brutality against minorities. The Justice Department has moved away from pursuing civil rights cases. At the same time, Trump himself has engaged in racially-motivated attacks against black athletes protesting to raise awareness of such issues.

It seems fair to suggest that these policies represent an ideological challenge to the American Dream, to the classic and romantic notion of the United States as a land of opportunity that welcomes those with nowhere else to go. It makes sense that contemporary popular culture would feel uneasy when confronted with these sorts of changes. Those anxieties are obviously reflected in prestige cinema like Detroit or BlacKkKlansman, but it’s also interesting to see them filter through into more mainstream and populist fare.

Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther are both essentially rejections of the American Dream, stories that are rooted in the idea that migrating to the United States is no longer a guarantee of a better life. Instead, in both Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther, migrating to the United States means alienation and isolation for many immigrants and minorities, a sense of loss and listlessness only further emphasised by a gaze that looks not towards the United States, but instead away from it.

It is tempting to suggest that Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther are films about foreign countries. After all, they were primarily shot in foreign locations and unfold largely outside the border of the United States. However, they remain American films. They are about these foreign locations only so much as these foreign locations are observed through the eyes of American characters and (primarily) for American audiences. Black Panther has earned more than half its money in the United States, and a significant portion of the remainder in markets like the United Kingdom and China.

To be clear, there are major Hollywood films that are told from the perspective of foreign countries. This is particularly true with the increasing influence of China on the industry, both as an audience and as a production partner. There are major blockbusters that have been geared towards the Chinese market; consider the portrayal of the Hong Kong government in Transformers: Age of Extinction or the presence of Wang Xueqi  in Iron Man 3 as a character who helps Tony Stark reject the crass empty materialism of his decadent lifestyle. However, Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther are not these kinds of films.

Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther both focus on second-generation immigrants. In Black Panther, Erik Killmonger is the distant heir to the throne of Wakanda, but he was born and raised in the United States. (Deleted scenes reveal that his mother was actually incarcerated, and his father was killed while plotting to break her out.) Erik had never set foot in Wakanda by the start of Black Panther, even as he plots a return home. Wakanda exists as an aspiration to Erik, reflected in his trip to the British Museum to explore old Wakandan artifacts.

Of course, Erik is not nominally the protagonist of Black Panther – even if he technically carries the mantle for a certain stretch of the film. However, Erik remains the film’s most compelling and intriguing character. It is Erik was generated the most discussion and debate. He has been described as one of the best blockbuster villains in recent memory. Indeed, some observers have even argued that Erik was largely right. While Chadwick Boseman does good work as T’Challa, the film belongs to Michael B. Jordan.

By a certain measure, Erik has made a success of himself in the United States. After his father is killed and his uncle abandons him, he finds himself bounced around the system. He eventually enrolls in the United States military, and becomes one of the country’s best military operatives. Erik fashions himself into an instrument of American foreign policy, a ruthless killing machine who bears the marks of such violence on his skin in the form of scars that he carves himself. Erik’s family might have originated in Wakanda, but Erik is an American.

Similarly, Crazy Rich Asians is the story of Rachel Chu. Rachel is an economics professor with particular interest in game theory. Her mother immigrate to the United States from China. Over the course of the film, more details of the story are revealed, but it is very clear that Rachel and her mother did not emigrate by choice. Instead, they sought to escape. Rachel has never been back to Asia, despite her mother’s suggestion that she always wanted to go. However, she agrees to accompany her boyfriend, Tony Young back to Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding.

Both Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther are fundamentally stories of the diaspora. Although set on different continents, the stories that they tell remain fundamentally American in nature, just with a gaze looking outwards rather than within. Rachel and Erik are consciously positioned as outsiders on their journey overseas and are told repeatedly that they do not (and cannot) properly fit in. “You are different,” Rachel’s mother explains to her, trying to explain the challenges in dressing for a casual reception. Both Rachel and Erik are defined as different or other. They are not immigrants, but exiles.

In Crazy Rich Asians, the conflict is between Rachel and Tony’s mother Eleanor. The conflict is informed by issues of class and history, but also geography. Eleanor defines Rachel as “not one of our kind.” When pressed, she elaborates, “You are a foreigner. You are American.” Eleanor insists that Rachel has been othered by her mother’s decision to emigrate, and so cannot possibly reintegrate with those families that did not move. Eleanor argues that Rachel is informed and shaped by a distinctly American perspective, anchored in individualism and self-obsession, that creates a barrier between her and the Young family.

In Black Panther, Erik is similarly othered. He has all the marking of a native Wakandan, including the tattoo on the inside of his lower lip. However, it is immediately clear that his time in the United States has warped him. Erik has witnessed the brutality and the oppression of the United States first hand, grown up within its systems and structures. As a result, he had been fundamentally changed, and he can never truly come home. He is driven by anger and hatred, and unable to truly grasp the power of Wakanda itself. In his dying moments, Erik asks that his body be dumped in the ocean like those of slaves taken from Africa.

This is a very bleak perspective on the American Dream, on the immigrant experience. Both Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther are films about American characters who look towards their ancestral homeland and wonder whether things would be better if they had stayed overseas instead of making the long journey to the United States. Of course, neither Rachel nor Erik had any choice in the matter. They were brought to America by circumstances, not choice. This is a reality often obscured by the romance of the American Dream, perhaps explaining how Ben Carson could try to classify slaves as “immigrants.”

“Do you ever think about him?” Rachel asks her mother of the father that they left behind in China, forced to abandon him by circumstances outside of their control. “All the time,” her mother admits. There is a sense that Rachel’s trip to Singapore touches on some of these same anxieties, as she witnesses first-hand the relative opulence of the Young family, a life of luxury that she never imagined. When Tony describes his family as “comfortable”, Rachel shoots back, “That’s exactly what a super-rich person would say.”

At one point early in Crazy Rich Asians, Goh Peik Lin outlines the origin of the Young family fortune. The Young family originated in China, by migrated to Singapore centuries before the events of the film “when this was all jungle.” The family remained relatively close to home, and established an empire, carving out their space in Asia without having to migrate. Circumstances never conspired to force them to leave home, and so they were able to thrive. The Young family are practically royalty in Singapore. They have roots. They seem to anchor local industry. They are the establishment.

In this way, the Young family suggests the potential of those Asians who didn’t have to migrate to the United States, and confronts Rachel with the question of whether her family’s migration to the United States was the best possible decision. Rachel has thrived in America, but not to the extent that the Young family has in Singapore. In an inversion of the archetypal American Dream narrative, there is a sense that the migration to the United States actually cost Rachel some opportunities rather than affording them to her. The Young family provide a romantic fantasy of a family that thrived because it never had to emigrate.

This cost isn’t simply measured in material terms, despite the opulence (and title) of Crazy Rich Asians. The cost is also more abstract and less tangible. The Young family are still a family. They might be a dynasty and an empire as well, but they are a closely-knit group of similarly-minded people who clearly love one another and offer moral support. There is a sense that Rachel missed out on this as much as any material wealth. Sitting at the table making dumplings, she muses, “When I was growing up, it was just me and my mother.” She never had a big family dinner table. She never had a large and welcoming family.

Wakanda serves a similar purpose in Black Panther. It is a country fundamentally untouched by the ravages of imperialism, a nation that has managed to thrive and flourish. It represents an idealised depiction of the African continent, a space within the landmass that was never subject to the barbarism of colonialism or slavery. It never lost an entire generation to greedy western powers who transplanted them against their will. It was never torn apart by ethnic strife perpetuated by imperial powers looking to solidify their hold on the region, or civil wars created by hastily-drawn boundaries.

It should be noted that Black Panther is arguably just as much a family story as Crazy Rich Asians. If the Young family represents the family that Rachel was robbed of by immigration, the royal court in Black Panther represents something similar to Erik. In a change from the source material, Erik is T’Challa’s cousin. On arriving in the chamber, Erik greets the queen mother with “Hello, Aunty.” Erik uses the medicinal herb to reconnect with his long-absent father. He asserts his right to govern Wakanda through his bloodline. Like Rachel, Erik longs for the family life that emigration took from him.

Both Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians seem openly ambivalent about the American experiences of these characters. The films suggests a fundamental recalculation of the opportunity economics of the American Dream. Historically, populist fiction has suggested that the potential opportunities afforded to immigrants far outweigh the cost of the opportunities lost in that transition. Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians suggest that the math is less clear cut, suggesting that embracing an American identity comes at a profound cost, one of alienation an isolation from a strong original cultural heritage.

This perhaps reflects contemporary anxieties about identities within American popular culture. Traditionally, American society has seen itself as a “melting pot”, in which various ethnicities and subcultures can come together to form a greater whole while also retaining a distinct identity. Think of how popular Chinatown is in San Francisco, the celebration of Creole culture in Louisiana, even the way in which the Irish have turned St. Patrick’s Day into their own holiday. Historically, these celebrations of distinctive cultural identity were celebrated and lauded. People could be Asian American and American, African American and American.

However, recent years have seen a polarisation and anxiety about the celebration of these unique and distinctive identities. After all, there’s strong evidence that one of the driving forces of Trumpism is anxiety from white Americans that they might end up a political minority within the United States by the middle of the twenty-first century. Indeed, establishment politicians frequently deride the concerns of minorities by complaining that “identity politics” are dividing the country. This ignores the reality that all politics are identity politics, but also serves as an attempt to erase the identities of these distinct groups.

This perhaps explains why both Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians find a way for their African American and Asian American characters to define and explore their identities outside of America. It might also explain why both Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians frame the prospect of those characters returning to America as something akin to a defeat. Dying, Erik conjures up images of the slaves who jumped to their deaths rather than going to the United States. In the third act of Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel’s potential return to America is framed as a retreat or defeat. Without getting too spoilery, the film doesn’t let her go.

Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians are fantastic crowd-pleasing movies with a decidedly upbeat sensibility, charming casts and an engaging energy. They are broad blockbusters in the classic Hollywood mould, and so it’s no surprise that they have found enthusiastic and engaged audiences. At the same time, there is something simmering beneath the surface of both movies, a reflection on the state of the American Dream in 2018. There was a time when the rest of the world looked to the United States for leadership and guidance, the famous “shining city on the hill.”

Now, it seems like many Americans are looking anywhere else for hope and opportunity.

4 Responses

  1. Great article! I agree with you, Crazy rich asians and Black panther seem to represent a refusal to idealize the american dream, but in my opinion it’s a very positive change. In my opinion filmmakers in 2018 had 2 choices: trying as hard as they can to “bury” the negativity surrounding american politics under a bunch of patriotic movies that involve the military and some idealized version of America; or try something fresh like Black panther and Crazy rich asians to see if new cultures and more representation for minorities would resonate with audiences. Fortunately they made the right choice.

    • Thanks Fiore! Glad you enjoyed. Yeah, as depressing as things are right now, little things like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians give me some small hope.

  2. I think the real thing isn’t so much changes in America, so much as changes in the rest of the world.

    The entire American Dream idea of the U.S. as a haven for refugees and immigrants was there as a counterpoint to a Europe always wracked by war, revolution, and dictatorship. And other parts of the world were able to have a similar relationship with the U.S. especially as the twentieth century made the country less racist and more welcoming. But since at this point a lot of societies have become as successful as the U.S. or more, the American Dream doesn’t have the same pull anymore. People now have a lot more options than they did a hundred or even fifty years ago.

    (I imagine Ireland is Exhibit A for this: see the massive emigration during the Potato Famine versus today).

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