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‘Black Panther’ is much more than a superhero movie for black Americans

"Black Panther is the superhero version of President Obama."

Director Ryan Coogler and some of the "Black Panther" cast at Comic-Con, July 2017. CREDIT: 	Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images
Director Ryan Coogler and some of the "Black Panther" cast at Comic-Con, July 2017. CREDIT: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

The highly anticipated Black Panther movie is generating a must-see, gotta-be-there buzz among black Americans, many of whom are making plans to be among the first in line when the movie opens next month in theaters across the nation.

I’ve been looking forward to this movie since I first heard they were making it and that was more than a year ago,” Rashid Darden, a writer and community activist in Washington, D.C. told me. “I have my ticket and I can’t wait.”

Neither can legions of other black folks, some brazenly admitting they will call in sick for work on February 16, the movie’s opening day, to attend day-long watch parties. Others are renting theaters for private showings. Still others are raising money to take groups of black children and elderly people to see the first black comic book superhero make a triumphant debut in a feature-length movie.

To be sure, the release of Black Panther is a cultural coming-out event, a moment of Afrocentric pride projected onto a backdrop of racial and political ennui. Set to open in the middle of 2018’s Black History Month, the movie is a perfectly timed rebuke to President Donald Trump’s depiction of African nations as “shithole countries.” Black Panther’s story is set in Wakanda, a fictitious African nation in the Marvel comic book world that’s the most technologically advanced nation on Earth.

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In fact, the dark-skinned characters, heroic storyline, and African setting for Black Panther is what has black moviegoers so geeked out that early ticket sales have set records well before anyone has seen anything more than the movie’s dramatic trailers.

Darden, a self-described comic book nerd, said he’s attending the movie with a group of his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers who have rented out a theater on the Saturday of the opening weekend for an exclusive, private screening.

“There is no way I’m going to miss out on the opening weekend of this movie and the only question I have is what to wear to the opening,” he said, laughing at his dilemma. “I probably should wear some (fraternity) paraphernalia and colors, but I’d really prefer to go in costume, do it up properly with cosplay or wear something very Afrocentric because that’s what this is all about.”

“The only question I have is what to wear to the opening.”

At the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Adrienne Clark, a 21-year-old senior, is taking time away from her social work studies to organize a private screening of Black Panther as a fundraising activity for the campus’ Black Student Union.

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Clark said the excitement for the movie began last year when word spread on social media and in October, she contacted the multiplex closest to campus to inquire about renting out an entire theater for the opening weekend. But the theater made her wait until last week before telling her she could get permission to do so. After a day of dropping leaflets on campus, Clark said the BSU sold 42 tickets and she expects to sell out the 194-seat theater well before the premiere next month. 

“I’m a huge, huge Marvel comic book fan and Black Panther is my favorite character,” Clark said during a telephone interview. “I got the idea of using the opening weekend as a fundraiser because everyone on my Twitter timeline was talking about the movie and everyone wanted to watch it together. I said, ‘This has to happen.’ And so, I made it happen.”

Similarly, Kevan and Ayesha Shelton, owners of K&A Companies, a consortium of real estate-related firms in Houston, Texas, got the idea of making the movie’s release an opportunity to showcase black businesses in his community. He arranged to have a private showing of the movie and advertised it as “A Night of Black Excellence,” inviting other black-owned businesses to participate.

In exchange for contributions, which will be given to a local cultural arts center, participating businesses will get an opportunity to show a commercial about their firm before the movie begins. One of the sponsoring businesses, Nixon Adult Day Care, is providing tickets for a group of senior citizens to attend the movie.

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Kevan Shelton said the community’s response to the movie shows the power of black consumer spending and he’s thrilled that black people want to support the movie on opening weekend. “This is almost like a FOMO moment,” he said in an interview. “This is our chance to do our thing in concert with Hollywood doing its thing. Everyone wants to be a part of the action.”

African-inspired groups such as the Charlotte, North Carolina chapter of MALIK Fraternity Inc., a collegiate and graduate fraternity founded on African principles, and the Intentional Community Building Collective and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Baltimore, Maryland neighborhood organization built on African communal values, are assembling discussion panels on the movie’s themes.

Within the first 24 hours of pre-sale offering, Fandango, the movie ticketing firm, reported Black Panther established a record as the top-seller for advance sales among the wildly popular Marvel superhero movie franchise. Fandango didn’t disclose exact figures, but said Black Panther’s first day pre-sale figures topped the previous opening weekend leader among Marvel comic movies, Captain America: Civil War, which went on to become a major box-office hit.

Box Office Pro, another Hollywood ticket tracker, projects Black Panther will be a blockbuster, based on the early ticket sales and estimating the movie is likely to generate opening weekend revenues approaching $120 million. If the movie hits that figure, Box Office Pro said, it would beat the $117 million opening for Spider-Man: Homecoming and fall slightly behind the $122 million earned by Thor: Ragnarok, making Black Panther the eighth highest grossing opening weekend among Marvel superhero movies and the 14th highest grossing opening for any comic book movie adaptation.

“Black Panther is riding an incredible wave of momentum right now,” Fandango editor Erik Davis said in a recent interview with Variety, the movie industry publication. “It’s one of the biggest and most anticipated movies to ever open in the month of February, and its trailers have electrified the internet. Tickets have been going fast ever since pre-sales started on Fandango.”

Black Panther features a predominately black cast, starring Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa or the Black Panther, who is the powerful and benevolent king of his futuristic nation. In typical superhero fashion, the Black Panther fights evil villains who are hell-bent on destroying the world. But unlike the average neighborhood crime fighter, the Black Panther is an African king and is assisted by an all-black army of warrior women.

What’s more, the movie has a black director, Ryan Coogler, and features a star-studded cast that includes Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Forest Whitaker, Danai Gurira, Sterling K. Brown, and many more black actors.

Comic-book nerds are familiar with the Black Panther’s history that dates back to his 1966 introduction in an issue of Marvel’s Fantastic Four. They effuse over the fact that the character was the first black superhero in the pulpy comic book universe. At the height of the 60s civil rights movement, Marvel’s writer-editor Stan Lee and writer-artist Jack Kirby consciously created Black Panther as an African-based crime-fighting colleague to Captain America, Spider-Man, and the Avengers.

While the character has been a featured staple in the comic world ever since its origin, Black Panther’s recent rise in popularity has coincided with Marvel’s 2014 announcement that the character would anchor its own feature-length movie as a part of its universe of superhero films. Since then, noted writer Ta-Nehisi Coates produced a series of much-hyped comics that attracted attention to the character and built excitement for the movie.

“We’re primed by the story of a proud, strong, intelligent, and successful black man competing and winning at whatever he does.”

But all that comic book fandom is secondary to many black Americans, who don’t know or care about the differences between Iron Man and Superman. For them, this movie is an affirmation of blackness at a much-needed moment in the nation’s history. 

“We’re in the midst of a cultural change,” Steven Barnes, an Afrofuturist scholar, writer, and college lecturer, told me in a recent interview. “Black Panther is the superhero version of President Obama in that we, as black people, have an emotional identification with him. We’re primed by the story of a proud, strong, intelligent, and successful black man competing and winning at whatever he does.”

Barnes said he’s making plans to see the movie several times over the course of its run in theaters. “It’s critical that this movie succeed and that black viewers do their part,” he said, noting that the movie is escapist storytelling that carries social significance.

“Do little white boys who identify with Spider-Man or little white girls who look up to Wonder Woman really believe they exist?” he said. “We are looking at something that says [to black Americans] this is the full potential of what’s running through your blood. If it’s a fantasy, who cares?”