It is against this backdrop that Black Panther opened in China this weekend. As a Chinese-American who has already seen — and fallen in love with — the film, I was anxious and a little curious as to how the movie, so steeped in the African-American experience, would translate to the almost completely racially homogenous country of my birth. I desperately wanted both cultures to show their best sides: that this celebration of black culture in America could be recognized as such and would resonate with Chinese audiences, and that China’s anti-foreign impulses could be overcome.
The energy — or lack thereof — in the theater was completely different from my first experience in New York City, where I felt like a small part of one emotional organism, each person’s laughter and visceral reactions influencing the whole. I sat enthralled, possessing the distinct sense that I was a witness to something historic. In Chengdu, meanwhile, the only thing that we shared, beyond being in the same physical space, was the pair of 3D glasses that each of us wore. The solidarity, and even shared reactions, were missing. The moments that elicited laughs in America — “two Grace Jones-lookin’ chicks” with spears showing up in Oakland; Shuri naming her high-tech silent boots “sneakers,” calling the white CIA agent “Colonizer,” and numerous quips and cultural touchstones that immediately registered with American audiences — were lost in translation.
China-based university lecturer Marcel Daniels told the Shanghai outlet Sixth Tone that he was hopeful that Black Panther could make a difference. “A lot of stereotypes in China come from a limited exposure to diversity, so assumptions are made reflexively,” he explained. “Hopefully this film sparks interest in Chinese viewers to learn more about the history, people, and cultures of those from Africa.”
But that depends on the film connecting with Chinese audiences. As of yesterday, Black Panther has made about $66.5 million in China, meeting its $60-$70 million opening weekend predictions. But beyond ticket sales, it’s not clear that Black Panther truly connects with Chinese audiences. Hollywood films are increasingly adjusting plot points, settings, and even casting to appeal (or pander, depending on whom you ask) to China’s lucrative, but hard-to-crack audiences, something that Black Panther hasn’t done at all. One audience member in my showing, for example, loudly asked why the South Korean scenes couldn’t have been set in China, which would have made it more interesting.-The Outline/