From the outside, the success of the #BlackPantherChallenge — which is raising money for kids around the country to see “Black Panther” in theaters — has seemed like one of those grassroots efforts that caught fire on social media and became a viral national sensation. Before it became an official GoFundMe with over 400 local campaigns that raised over $400,000, New York marketing consultant Frederick Joseph launched the Challenge as a local effort for Harlem’s Boys and Girls Club. However, the campaign’s trajectory was anything but accidental.
“I always envisioned it going national, but strategically I needed a base for it just to be the spark,” said Joseph in an interview with IndieWire. “With Harlem being such a historically black community and this film being such a historic film in terms of black representation, and feminist representation as well, I just wanted to start it there because I knew people would be most receptive. Plus, my connections are in New York.”
By the time Chelsea Clinton got behind the effort and The Root wrote a story about Joseph’s campaign, the Harlem campaign was already nearing its initial $7,500 goal — largely through donations from Joseph’s personal network — and Joseph had what he needed to pitch GoFundMe on a national effort which, he argued, had ice bucket-like potential. Joseph would rely on the GoFundMe infrastructure to set up one umbrella campaign in which educators and youth organizations could easily set up their own local #BlackPantherChallenges and attach it to Joseph’s national effort. Just a few weeks later, it would become the biggest entertainment-related GoFundMe ever.
Joseph's instragram page
Joseph, who consults large corporate clients on how to market their philanthropic work, admits he bristles when he’s told how “lucky” he’s been with the campaign, having stayed up countless nights for weeks — he still has a day job — crafting tweets and pinging influencers to methodically build awareness. In many ways, Joseph’s motivations to set up the Black Panther Challenge are similar to why many people say the film is essential: representation.
“Seeing yourself in this way is life changing,” said Joseph. “We need to come together to support children and experiences and initiatives like this. We come together when there are times of natural disaster, but it’s also important that we come together and support life.”
It’s a message that resonated for the campaign as well as the future blockbuster itself. In the case of the #BlackPantherChallenge, the effort grew organically as individual campaigns garnered their own attention. In the case of the kids of Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, it was a viral video of students dancing when they found out they were going to see “Black Panther.”
Other campaigns have captivating backstories. In Michigan, this year’s Little Miss Flint, eight-year old Mari Copeny, started a #BlackPantherChallenge — but in addition to donations to buy movie tickets, the campaign calls on donors to write notes to the kids of Flint to let them know they haven’t been forgotten as the city continues to suffer from insufficient water treatment.
Moving the needle more than anything have been celebrities, key influencers, and local politicians spreading the word via social media. Rapper Snoop Dogg, ESPN’s Jemele Hill, activist/organizer DeRay Mckesson, and athlete-turned commentator Shannon Sharpe are among those willing to use their sizable social media followings to spread the word. “The space in which people have really been pushing this has been the black activist and black local digital influencers, which has been really big,” said Joseph. “I haven’t seen much from the entertainment industry — certainly haven’t seen anything from anyone associated with Marvel or Disney films.”
While Joseph admits he’s a little disappointed that the studio didn’t reach out, he believes it only goes to prove that more diverse representation onscreen can’t be something left in the hands of the large studios. The success of the #BlackPantherChallenge shows there is potential for well designed grassroots efforts to tap communities that can amplify underrepresented voices beyond superhero movies.
“It’s actually pretty telling, and this reaffirms for me and my colleagues that the system needs to be disrupted,” said Joseph. “All these major players that are controlling what the content is — there’s such an excitement around ‘Black Panther’ because there’s nothing like it before, but there are people who have written stories about things like this before, or akin to this, for comedians of color, for women, for the LGBTQ community that we want to give a voice, and help amplify voices [the Hollywood is not].”
To that end, Joseph has begun laying the groundwork for his next project called We Have Stories: a nonprofit marketing, fundraising, and creative direction agency that will provide artists focused on representation and inclusion with $40,000-$50,000 of professional services completely free. The main criteria for the grant? Projects that the organization believes have the potential to “move the needle.”
To learn more about, or donate to, the 400 different #BlackPantherChallenges across the country: click here.