Saturday, March 31, 2018

Black Panther: Keeping Negroes Broke But Feeling Fabulous


CounterPunch |  Whereas the fictional rulers of Wakanda preserve their wealth by pretending to be poor, using advanced to technology to mask their vast fortune, the real Studio City tycoons behind the film have conjured their own bit of subterfuge in order to receive corporate handouts. Hence the main reason why the principal shooting for Black Panther took place in Atlanta, Georgia: tax breaks.  Over the last decade, in fact, Georgia has become known to producers as the Hollywood of the South thanks to the state government doling out more than $1 billion in tax credits to industry behemoths like Disney and Sony.  In return Georgia has become the leading runaway-production site for Hollywood films, despite few if any economic benefits.

Of course proponents say that hundreds of millions given to Hollywood studios will eventually trickle down to the population, but there’s no way of knowing since the state hasn’t developed a mechanism for evaluating its impact.  Furthermore, because these incentives typically go to productions that shoot on-location, they require little in the way of long-term investment and produce mostly temporary employment.  Even when they do beget jobs, they’re not great: after ten years of tax subsidies, for example, Georgia has added only 4,209 film jobs, just under 2 percent of the industry total, and those jobs don’t pay well: on average film-industry workers in Georgia are the lowest waged.

This is why Vicki Mayer and Tanya Goldman (following Thomas Guback) call such movie production incentives “welfare for the wealthy:” because they function “like every other bloated financial system in the U.S., moving capital between elites while workers live with exaggerated job insecurity, declining market value, and uncertain futures that make up the rest of the workforce.”
Of course revenue lost from tax credits means lower government spending in other areas like education.  And indeed since 2003, Georgia has ranked among the nation’s austerity leaders in cuts to public school funding.  As of the 2018 state budget plan, the state’s schools will have been slashed by a cumulative total of $9.2 billion.  Those cuts in turn play out in places like Atlanta, a city that currently ranks first in the US for income inequality, and where 80 percent of black school students live in areas of high poverty and 75 percent qualify for meal assistance.  Not coincidentally, it’s also a place where local rap stars like T.I.—“The King of the South”—have teamed up with corporate sponsors like Walmart to make sure those same kids who can’t eat still get to go see Black Panther.
Is it any wonder, then, why this city, located in the same state which has lost millions in tax revenues to one the most profitable industries in the US, is now obliged to its pop culture “royalty” for taking its kids to the movies?

Certainly this scenario is not out of step with a blockbuster about monarchical superheroes doing good under the specious cloak of poverty.  Nor is it out of step with a Hollywood system that delivers such high-priced spectacles on the basis of an overall political economy of regressive wealth redistribution, neoliberal governance and precarious labor.

That a billion dollar industry might capitalize on such conditions and still be considered a champion of black empowerment is telling.  Indeed it’s agreeable with a hegemonic model of identitarian wokeness that considers films about mega-rich superheroes to be progressive insofar as those superheroes (and the stars that play them) aren’t all white and male.  The fact that those same heroes emerge at a time when intensifying economic inequality is acutely affecting black communities is enough to recall Theodor Adorno’s dictum about the false promises of the Culture Industry: wherein “the idea of ‘exploiting’ the given technical possibilities, of fully utilizing the capacities for aesthetic mass consumption, is part of an economic system which refuses to utilize those same capacities when it is a question of abolishing hunger.”

Obviously, that’s not the way the film’s promoters would have it. For them, Black Panther affords “positive images” that take the form of African nobility—something most welcome at time of Trump and other noxious emitters of anti-black bigotry.  But to classify such images as racial uplift is to confuse the symbolic value of highborn black superheroes with the ostensible communities they represent.  Indeed it clouds the way we might think about the inequalities that prevent such communities from seeing the film in the first place.  As Joseph told the Wall Street Journal in the successful wake of #BlackPantherChallenge: “I understand that there are other struggles that these children have, whether housing, food or education. [But] it’s not just any movie. It’s a symbol that you can transcend in this turbulent era.”  By this logic, which assumes “representation and inclusion are essential to creating dreams for yourself,” the main thing poor black kids need is inspiration, not money.