A woman I know in Boston has plans to see Black Panther three times this coming weekend, each as part of a “Theater Takeover” of groups buying out some or all of the tickets for a showing. She is hardly unique: all over the country, black Americans are planning to make the movie’s release a mass cultural event—with advance ticket sales suggesting a blockbuster opening weekend.
Meanwhile, over the past two weekends, Democratic caucuses all around Massachusetts have struggled to fill rooms and generate enthusiasm for this year’s state elections—especially among minorities who constitute a disproportionate share of the party’s voters.
There’s no fair comparison between a mass-market film and an obscure political process, of course. Still, we seem to be in a cultural moment of eager celebration of identity—which may or may not end up fully reflected in our politics.
Wonder Woman, Get Out, Fearless Girl on Wall Street, Oprah’s Golden Globes speech, Big Little Lies, Coco, Despacito; it’s not hard to find examples over the past year of what might be called identity pop culture. That is, pieces of popular culture that have achieved widespread mainstream penetration, in large part because one segment of the population claims special, almost devotional affinity to it based on race, gender, ethnicity, or other defining characteristic.
Black Panther appeals to more than black audiences, of course—I for one am frothing in anticipation—but black Americans have unapologetically claimed it as a special experience, that they wish to partake with others like themselves. In addition to a nearly all-black cast and black director, the movie’s protagonist hails from a fictional, never-colonized, technologically advanced, African nation. The character was reimagined by leading African-American author Ta-Nehesi Coates in a recent series of comic books; the film’s soundtrack is by rapper Kendrick Lamar, who has emerged as the nearly undisputed voice of Black Lives Matter and black identity music.
Lamar’s phenomenal rise—he performed live for this year’s college football championship game halftime show—is another example of this cultural moment. Protesters in Ferguson chanted lyrics from his “Alright” anthem four years ago. Three weeks ago, the Grammy Awards—the very definition of mainstream in music—chose him to open the show; in front of some 20 million people, surrounding himself with an American flag and men dressed as soldiers, Lamar began with a verse about a friend who “said they killed his only son because of insufficient funds.”
Last year, it was women and girls adopting a super-hero movie, Wonder Woman, as their own—to be experienced not merely as a movie but as a cultural moment.
That was merely one highlight of the past year in cultural touchstones of communal female empowerment—bookended by powerful, identity-driven Oscar award speeches by the 2017 and 2018 recipients of the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Awards: Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey.
In between, there was the Fearless Girl statue’s appearance on Wall Street; the first female rapper (Cardi B) in 19 years to hit number one on the Billboard 100; Tiffany Haddish’s appearance as the first black female comic to host Saturday Night Live; and the massive popular and critical success of Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Those two television shows were subsequently linked to the #metoo cultural phenomenon, which exploded alongside the growing list of accused sexual harassers.
It’s worth noting that the cultural embrace of the sexual harassment issue pre-dated the October, 2017, New York Times Harvey Weinstein expose, which started the still-tumbling chain reaction of allegations and revelations. Handmaid’s Tale, based on a 1980s novel, debuted in April. Kesha’s hit song Praying, about her own well-publicized accusations of abuse, debuted and charted in the top 10 in July. Taylor Swift testified against an alleged groper in August.
Of course, it’s hard not to consider all of these cultural moments in the context of Donald Trump’s election. Most of them were conceived and largely produced prior to the November 2016 elections—that is, with a black man still President, and expectations for a woman to replace him.
Still, it’s hard to imagine they would touch the same cords, if not for the emotional backlash against the divisive politics of President Trump.
Likewise, the movie blockbuster movie Coco was in production for years, and the smash hit song Despacito was written and recorded in 2016. Both probably would have been successful regardless of the political climate, and sources of pride among Hispanic-Americans. But surely not in the same way.
There is undoubtedly much political in the past year’s trend in identity pop culture.
Will identity politics similarly sweep women and minorities into office?
That premise will be tested, by hundreds of candidates nationally—and in Massachusetts by congressional candidate Ayanna Pressley, taking on Michael Capuano, and by several of those running to succeed retiring Niki Tsongas.
It’s interesting to see Pressley, and others, seeming to openly embrace the identity argument—that having diverse representatives in Congress is a good unto itself, and a valid justification for casting a vote.
Not that the idea is new or novel, mind you: Capuano publicly rejects it as a reason to vote for Pressley, but in 1998 he first punched his ticket to Congress by trawling for Italian-American votes. Identity politics, and identity pop culture, can often be in the eye of the beholder.
It can also help, in both cases, to have a little star power behind the identity—which Oprah and Ayanna each have, in their own way.
But most candidates for public office—including those trying to gin up support at the Massachusetts Democratic caucuses—aren’t Oprah, let alone Wonder Woman or Black Panther.
The Democratic candidates for governor include Setti Warren, a black man, and Jay Gonzalez, a Hispanic man, along with liberal stalwart Bob Massie. They would love to catch a little of that flame surrounding identity culture and politics this year. They haven’t yet. Neither could Tito Jackson, in Boston’s 2017 mayoral campaign.
To defeat popular Republican Charlie Baker in November—and for identity-based candidates to thrive nationally this year—candidates like Warren and Gonzalez will need to convince people to get unapologetically enthusiastic about politicians of an underrepresented race, gender, or ethnicity. That’s a tougher sell than superheroes.