For Black people, ‘Black Panther’ is a crucial viewing experience

We rented out a theater to see the movie -- and it was lit.

Credit: Nu Wexler
Credit: Nu Wexler

A record number of moviegoers rushed into theaters over the weekend to be among the first to see the long-anticipated and much-ballyhooed Black Panther movie. I was one among them and I fully understand why we all felt drawn like bees to honey for this, a crucial and historic film.

Thrilled by the idea of a major-motion picture from Hollywood that features a nearly all-Black cast and tells the story of a technologically advanced African kingdom, we were among the legions of moviegoers across the United States who collectively spent $192 million to see Black Panther during his opening three-day weekend. By the time the four-day President’s Day holiday ends, movie-money trackers predict audiences will have spent up to $218 million.

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That’s enough people buying tickets to rank Black Panther‘s box office opening as the fifth-highest all-time for an opening weekend and the highest ever for a February film, according to Variety, Hollywood’s leading trade publication.

That isn’t surprising. The buzz surrounding Black Panther had been building for years, dating back to Marvel Studios’ 2014 announcement that the superhero would anchor his own feature-length movie as part of the studio’s universe of superhero films. Comic book geeks, like me, couldn’t wait see a movie about the Black Panther, who was introduced in 1966 as the first black superhero in the galaxy of comic book characters.

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True to its comic book origins, the movie is set in Wakanda, a fictional African nation that is both the most technologically advanced on Earth and hidden from the outside — read: white — world. The movie stars Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, or the Black Panther — the powerful and benevolent king of his hidden paradise. No spoilers here: suffice to say the drama and CGI action-sequences stem from his efforts to preserve his kingdom from internal and external forces that threaten both Wakanda and the entire world.

I watched the movie with several of my black friends and colleagues — affectionately, we refer to ourselves as “Kinfolk” — who rented out a theater because we wanted to experience the movie as a group. We wanted to cheer on the heroes and heroines, to boo at the villains, to laugh out loud and talk back to the screen.

As one of the movie-outing organizers Christina Henderson explained to me afterwards, those who attended wanted to make viewing Black Panther an unapologetic black event, where everyone could be themselves without any disapproving stares or shushing from other movie patrons.

“One day at brunch in December a group of us said wouldn’t it be lit to experience #BlackPanther with just a theater of Kinfolk,” Henderson wrote to me in a tweet. “So we made it happen, renting out a whole theater.”

There was something special and magical about seeing this movie with not just any group of friends, but a theatre full of Black folks. It was a moment I needed to share with my people.

Our Kinfolk crew arrived as if we were going to a party. Several of the women wrapped their hair in brightly colored kente cloth or donned dresses in African textiles; some of the men also wore dashikis. One exceptionally outgoing fellow outfitted himself as Prince Akeem, the Eddie Murphy character in the 1988’s “Coming to America.” (He was something of a selfie-magnet, as Kinfolk members lined up to snap a picture with him on their iPhones.)

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“There was something special and magical about seeing this movie with not just any group of friends, but a theatre full of black folks,” my colleague Daniella Leger told me. “I’m sure it is something that is hard to understand if you’re not a person of color, but to see such glorious multifaceted representation of yourself on the big screen is so amazingly rare. It was a moment that I needed to share with my people.”

Tracey Ross, a former colleague who now lives in Oakland, California, told me she was compelled to come back to Washington, D.C. to see Black Panther with the Kinfolk community because “this is clearly a cultural phenomenon and I wanted to experience it with the folks [with] whom I have shared so many pop culture moments.”

It was a celebration of all things African-American and African. It also served as social cause, supporting the black director and actors connected with the film, in addition to a fulfilling an emotional need — as African Americans, we feel starved for affirming images of ourselves and our ancestral ties to Africa.

Ross told me one example of that occurred for her during the movie.

“At one moment, [our former co-worker] Maryam, who is Nigerian, whispered to me, ‘They’re speaking the language of my grandparents,'” she said. “I later whispered ‘Michael B. Jordan sounds so Oakland.’ We got to share in the glee of representations of ourselves, which is exactly what I wanted.”

Black Panther portrays a vision of the world that is truly inclusive of the value of people of color, especially black women. It’s not an overstatement to say the true stars of the movie are the strong, capable and smart women featured — equal in every respect to the male hero and his antagonist. The movie repeatedly emphasizes King T’Challa’s reliance on fierce warrior women, as well as the counsel of his mother Ramonda, his sister Shuri, and his love interest Nakia.

“One thing I know for sure — the Black women in this film were everything,” Henderson told me.

But there was more to the movie’s opening weekend than just the images on the screen. In the buildup to the movie’s opening, I heard friends and strangers say they wanted to see the movie at the first possible opportunity, believing it would send a message of overlooked support for the black director and actors connected with Black Panther. What’s more, we wanted to demonstrate to Hollywood moguls that they can get a healthy return on their investment if they produce movies with affirming stories of black people.

My friend and colleague Rejane Frederick shared this sentiment with me in a post-viewing tweet.

“Black [America]…is saying ENOUGH, dismantling dominant racial narratives, and forcing the status quo to change in ways that will bring us closer to a Wakandan-esque state of being,” she wrote.

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It may only be one movie, but its importance can’t be overstated. If only for the two hours or so that we laughed and cried and cheered, Black Panther accomplished its mission.