Black Panther and Wolf Warrior across Cultures
Updated: Jul 27, 2020
A small casualty of COVID-19 was my first scheduled trip to China. In anticipation of my participation in forums about culture, I became curious about the reception in that country of one of the most hyped cultural products of recent years, that is, the motion picture Black Panther. It will come as no surprise that my first stop was the Internet. It turned out that the Internet surprised me. I expected commentary to be varied because in any large group a range of responses always exists. However, I became perplexed about how little consideration had been given to a perspective adopted by many---though of course not all---African Americans: Black Panther is to be viewed with pride because it is a positive portrayal of African culture and, by extension, of African-American culture to the extent that such derives from the mother continent. Instead, a strong sentiment I came across among Chinese pundits was that Black Panther was merely another Hollywood movie, another piece of American propaganda, in particular. One observer claimed that the film portrayed the “universal values of the United States.” T’Challa focuses on protecting his own country and then plans to export technology around the planet. The viewer considered this to be “much like how the United States operates in global politics.”
The trends in discourse that I noted help to explain the financial performance of Black Panther in China. By any measure the film did well, garnering a haul on opening weekend of between 63 and 67 million dollars. But the movie somewhat stalled afterward in what was then the world’s second-largest theater market and barely topped the 100-million mark overall, which was below projections. It grossed over 700 million dollars in the United States and Canada. While investigating all of this, I stumbled across the fact that Wolf Warrior 2, which I had never heard of, raked in more money at the box office in China, almost 900 million dollars, more than any motion picture in history in one market. Of course, I started thinking about why that was the case and how it was related to the response to Black Panther.
Black Images and Chinese Audiences
One strand of thought in the media is that Chinese audiences, because of their stereotypical view of Blacks, were predictably limited in their enthusiasm for a cast of Black characters. However, the auspicious debut in China seems to belie that analysis. Apparently, the hunger, attached to the Marvel franchise, existed. But then one has to consider that the cast came as a revelation in the Chinese market. Unlike Marvel advertising posters in the U. S., which displayed all of the stars and featured the face of the lead, Chadwick Boseman, Marvel ads in China showed a masked and solitary Black Panther against the backdrop of a cityscape. Perhaps part of what ensued, then, is that the marketing strategy that underplayed Black stardom proved immensely successful until an anticipated racial reluctance by the Chinese set in, signified by a tepid critical embrace on Douban, China’s IMDb-like platform, where Black Panther received a below-average rating for a production in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indeed, more than a few people pointed to two famous incidents that spoke to Chinese backwardness regarding race: 1) a 2016 laundry detergent commercial that showed a Black man being “washed” into a light-skinned Asian man, and 2) the inclusion in the CCTV Lunar New Year extravaganza in 2018 of a Chinese actress in blackface with a prosthetic derriere along with a Black actor playing a monkey. Case closed, some figured. Racial chauvinism served as adequate explanation for the decline in attendance.
Yet that conclusion is unsatisfying. For one, no film is going to attract opening-weekend revenue every weekend. Second, the narrative about racial insensitivity, though certainly worthy of consideration, does not delegitimize an aesthetic critique that Chinese audiences are not enthralled with plot lines focused on defending thrones. The logic goes that viewers in China are somewhat numb to that trope because of the dynasty dramas, with their political infighting, that are prevalent in their culture. The argument is that, regarding an American film fantasy, they are more willing to embrace the save-the-world scope of, say, an Avengersmovie. Moreover, if hesitancy does exist among Chinese audiences to accept Black leads, that disposition has been shaped more by Hollywood than by any other force. Very few natives in China have had in-person exposure to Black people, perhaps explaining, at least in part, the embarrassing media representations. It is likely, Jeff Yang points out, that their most extended engagement has been through “exported American pop culture.” Before Black Panther, those products, Yang writes, have largely depicted Africa as strictly a land of wild animals, war, and famine. The Black diaspora has been predominantly cast as poverty stricken and infested with crime. He concludes, “Chinese should be blaming Hollywood racism for failing to produce authentic portrayals of black people.”
This last point hardly requires debate. Hollywood has long been a purveyor of negative stereotypes about Blacks, a litany of Sambos, Sapphires, Mammies, Bucks, and Thugs, not to mention Darkest Africa. This is along with other stereotypes like the yellow-peril, nerdy-math-and-science-expert, martial-arts-wielding, SAT-slaying, store-owning Asians. In a recent book, Maryann Erigha argues that the Hollywood film industry gladly stood on the back of Jim Crow to reach higher levels of success and remains slow in effecting structural change. The lag results in the formulaic thinking about which films should be released in foreign markets, and the authenticity that Yang prefers has not been a priority.
Whatever the reasons for the reception of Black Panther among Chinese audiences, it seems clear that to those viewers the African-American celebration remained mostly a mystery. They lacked a sense of distinct African-American imperatives or of a Black, transcontinental heroic relative to White supremacy. What, then, is the magic of Wolf Warrior 2? Released the year before Black Panther, it set an astounding money standard in the Chinese market that the latter movie could not approach The short answer is that it featured an iconic Chinese actor-director, one whose countenance could be displayed on posters, as the lead in a sequel that makes an unabashed appeal to a sense of Chinese nationalism.
The buildup became serious with the release of Wolf Warrior[i] in 2015. The already popular Wu Jing stars as Leng Feng, a maverick sniper in the People’s Liberation Army, who combats drug smuggling in southern China. For recklessly defying orders, he is imprisoned but then is offered and accepts membership in the Wolf Warriors, an elite training unit headed by Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan). This is sort of like the recruitment of Jim Street (Colin Farrell) in the American film S.W.A.T. Eventually, crime lord Min Deng (Ni Dahong), the brother of the drug smuggler killed by Leng Feng, is sprung from captivity in Southeast Asia and procures the further services of a group of international mercenaries, led by an ex-Navy Seal (Scott Adkins), to assassinate Leng Feng. The ensuing skirmishes, with all of the expected military pyrotechnics, hand-to-hand combat, and casualties, occur in a forest along China’s southern border. The dialogue includes patriotic speeches and promises to honor nation and fallen comrades. This might remind you of the runup to Doolittle’s Raid as portrayed in Pearl Harbor.
An even more pressing matter than drugs materializes. Min Deng is in the area to obtain biotechnology that would be used exclusively against the Chinese. The combination of drugs and genetic weapons is worthy of twenty-first-century, hi-tech analogs to the Opium Wars. Predictably, Leng Feng, the Wolf Warriors, and the People’s Liberation Army prevail. During the climactic scene, a large paramilitary force loyal to Min Deng advances from across the border but is forced to retreat because the show of force displayed by the Chinese soldiers. The external threat is repelled, the border secured, and Leng Feng, as action heroes of his ilk usually do, gets a date with the girl.
Warrior in Africa
Wolf Warrior did well at the box office, being competitive in the Chinese market with fan favorite Furious 7. But Leng Feng’s popularity only soared to record levels when, ironically, he wandered into a fictional country in the vicinity of Wakanda. Released from another confinement, this time administered because he delivered a fatal kick to the belly of a violent and exploitative real estate magnate, Leng Feng chooses to reside in Africa. He performs noble deeds such as foiling, in a really slick underwater fight scene, Somalian hijackers so that a ship carrying humanitarian aid can safely reach port. His peace is short-lived, though, because he becomes caught in a civil war after rebels and mercenaries attack a beach party. Because Chinese nationals are imperiled in the conflict, a Chinese armada arrives to rescue them, though, constrained by the United Nations, it is not to otherwise involve itself in the war. It is primarily Leng Feng’s job to do battle on land with the Dyon Corps, a mercenary group led by an American named Big Daddy (Frank Grillo), that is, until matters take such a bad turn that the Chinese fleet receives permission from the U.N. to intervene and mercifully unleashes missiles to destroy rebel tanks. This aspect of the story was inspired by the much-publicized rescue of Chinese citizens in Yemen by Chinese military forces in 2015. Draped onto this plot, in ways similar to Mission Impossible III and I Am Legend, is fighting for control over lethal viruses and their antidotes. Of course, we also get another chapter in the story of the relationship between Leng Feng and Long Xiaoyun.
Spectacle and Message
Sometimes you get enchanted by spectacle. Considerably longer, more muscular, and more visually stunning than its immediate predecessor, the movie is definitely enjoyable and announces that, as an aesthetic achievement, a Chinese director can go toe-to-toe with Hollywood for relentless pacing, overwrought but entertaining plot twists, special-effects wizardry, drone maneuvers, top-notch battle sequences, blood and gore, chase scenes, explosions, and heroic character resolve. But a movie is not just aesthetics. As Stephen Hirst observes, “as much as Wolf Warrior 2 owes its success to being a lot of fun to watch, it is just as much dependent on an accurate gauging of the national zeitgeist.” He reports that at a theater in Qingdao, the audience whooped it up as the credits rolled. A young Chinese man preparing to exit remarked, "That was inspiring. Makes me feel proud, you know?" I kind of know. I’m old enough to remember hearing the phrase, “You don’t stand a Chinaman’s chance,” meaning you had no chance. Leng Feng and the Chinese navy certainly speak to the contrary.
Some reviewers in the American media appreciated the technical mastery and understood, if not embraced, the overarching message. In a mixed review in the Los Angeles Times, Noel Murray admits, "It's fascinating to see a film so closely mimic big-budget Hollywood war pictures, but from an opposing socio-political perspective." That dissonant viewpoint contains several elements.
The Wolf Warrior movies are often likened to the Rambo series. Leng Feng and John Rambo are similar personality wise, and they loyalty vanquish the perceived enemies of their native lands. There’s no room for subtlety. The others are bad, and, we, despite being volatile, are ultimately good. Patriotism reigns. For Leng Feng, China is not only a brave and unconquerable protector of the home front but is a positive and noble presence on the world stage. Americans may not be the enemy categorically to Leng Feng, but he certainly is not counting on their support. When his back is against the proverbial wall and a medical volunteer tries to contact the U.S. embassy, Leng Feng asserts that the action is futile. In Wolf Warrior 2, writes Helen Raleigh, “China is the only powerful, responsible, and benevolent world power.”
The film’s barbs aimed at Americans have likely been responsible for keeping its receipts modest in the U.S. market. However, I don’t think the shade thrown would much trouble an African-American audience. They won’t think that any characterization of “Americans” is directed toward them. They think the average Chinese citizen sees America as White, just as the Chinese can view Black Panther to be American, not African-American, propaganda. No, the objection I imagine, and have heard a bit of, is to the simplistic, stereotypical projections of Africa and Africans.
First, paternalism is manifest that would make historical Hollywood proud. Africa gets another savior, but that savior isn’t African. Leng Feng is even known by some as a godfather based on his apparent mentoring of an overweight boy in a Kobe Bryant jersey, who peddles porn, gambles, and can’t seem to keep food out of his mouth. No reason is provided for why Leng Feng feels responsible for this particular child. The same applies to the civil war. We don’t know the policies for which the government stands. We don’t know the cause of the rebels. We just feel that we have walked into the middle of Hotel Rwanda. Good Africans need deliverers, and the strong message is that they will be best served to pin their hopes on the Chinese. Africans themselves aren’t up to the task; in the face of violent onslaught, they huddle ineffectually and without agency in the background. Americans lack either the interest or courage. At one point, Leng Feng remarks, “All foreign navy ships left when I arrived. I watched them sail away from port. And among the countless masts fading into the horizon, I saw some kind of star-spangled banner.”
When Leng Feng and company win victories, the Africans they defend seem to take their own safety for granted and respond by partying rather than by anticipating and preparing for attacks to come. While gazing on the proceedings, Leng Feng asks a fellow Chinese soldier why the people are so happy. His comrade responds, “Our African friends, it doesn’t matter if it’s war, disease, or poverty, once they’re around the bonfire all their cares go away.” This comrade divulges what he likes about Africa: “Great food. Nice scenery. Hot women.” A second comrade spells out what he finds gratifying in Africa: “Lions, crocodiles, AK 47s, sniper fire. The melody of gunfire you can’t get in a peaceful country.” The movie includes a shot of a giraffe and a scene in which lions feed on a felled zebra in case you get lost.
For all of the miracles that Leng Feng can perform, even he reaches a limit without adequate backup. The most that Africans can offer is a sorry rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Fortunately, Leng Feng, while pinned down by machinery, manages to screen shot pictures to a Chinese naval commander that show Chinese nationals being slaughtered by rebels. The images are received at the same time that word comes down that the U.N. has approved military intervention. The Chinese navy then launches the decisive missile strikes. Len Feng can then finish off Big Daddy one on one. The Asian champion vanquishes the sinister American inside the arena of a hapless Africa. In fact, the mercenaries were leading the rebellion by that point because Big Daddy had seized control after slicing the throat of rebel leader General Inuwa.
What is intended to be the positive content regarding China is clear. If there is an upbeat spin centered on African potential, the little girl Pasha represents it. Pasha also happens to be the name of a species of butterfly found all over Africa. Butterflies are often linked to a healthy soul and bright prospects, even resurrection. The presence of the girl Pasha and the symbolism of her name might calm down some African-American critics. She was a patient of Dr. Chen, who was working on a serum to cure the deadly disease, Lamanla, which had reached endemic proportions. Her blood is the only source he had found that contained the antibodies to cure the disease. But he is killed before he could apply his findings widely. Yet Pasha remains the hope, the best possibility of future health for Africa. The hero Leng Feng cannot triumph without her because it is her blood that saves his life after he becomes infected with Lamanla.
With respect to the question of health, the boy Tundu is worth studying more. Perhaps his eating disorder is the physical manifestation---the overweight Black body---of a child’s desperate attempt to survive the madness surrounding him. This reading trades in the pathologizing of Africa to some degree, but it also addresses the real stress children face in dangerous worlds, Tundu’s home country being one. This interpretation likens him to the doomed Black boys in Monster’s Ball and Annapolis as well as to Kiese Laymon’s popular memoir, Heavy. If we grant the benefit of the doubt, we can assert that the script writers grasped this angle.
To summarize, I understand how the chips became stacked so high in the case of Wolf Warrior 2. What that means for further expeditions remains to be seen. Black Panther could be the wedge that opens space in the Chinese market for commercially viable movies with deep, nuanced portrayals of African and diasporic experiences. If the film industry can move in that direction, Yang, speaking from his sense of Chinese audiences, says, “Chinese moviegoers are here for it.” On the flip side, there’s plenty of opportunity to build up African-American audiences for overtly political Chinese films. The camera has to capture more variety. Farcical, agentless, constricted depictions will be received no more favorably because they emanate from the East rather than the West. Cinematic complexity should accompany China’s increasing involvement in Africa and the diaspora. Business and infrastructure progress should meet artistic advancement. Those are developments to watch.