Beyond ticket sales: 'Black Panther' wields cultural punch

The movie is headed for a box office blitz. But it is the potential it has to elevate the role models for young people of color that has rallied donations of more than $400,000 from across the globe to help send thousands of children in the US to see it. 

Marvel Studios/Disney/AP
Chadwick Boseman appears in a scene from 'Black Panther,' which opens in theaters Feb. 16. The Monitor’s Peter Rainer writes in his review of film that he hopes its success will mark 'a recognition of the extraordinary range and artistry of black filmmakers and writers and actors whose talents even now remain so imposingly underrepresented and unexpressed.'

Cherie Pinchem delivered some somber news to her Boston Latin High School African American studies class this week. The $8 tickets for their Friday group outing to see Marvel’s latest superhero film, “Black Panther,” on opening day would cost another $10 each.

Sighs and quiet protests echoed around the crowded classroom. Some students held up both arms in disbelief. But then Ms. Pinchem delivered the good news: This class is going for free.

Several students gasped. Then the applause broke out. “I’ve anticipated this movie for over a year,” says senior Aaliyah Alexander through a wide grin.

The tickets will be courtesy of #BlackPantherChallenge – a GoFundMe campaign that has been replicated across the United States. In Boston, Liz Miranda, the director of the Hawthorne Youth and Community Center, has raised more than $15,000 online so far to cover movie tickets, food, and transportation for children, particularly children of color, from across the city.

“Black Panther” is the first Marvel movie to be directed by a black director, Ryan Coogler, and to feature an almost entirely black cast. For Ms. Miranda, and countless other organizers like her, those superlatives make a difference – especially for African-Americans.

“It’s almost like seeing yourself reflected in the culture means that you're American. It actually means that you count, that you matter,” says John Jennings, professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside.

The movie is tearing its way through advance ticket sales and is positioned to break box-office records for Presidents' Day weekend, possibly earning upward of $170 million. While Marvel films typically dominate at the theaters, they don't usually result in large-scale field trips. What's different is the opportunity afforded by a movie whose characters were carefully envisioned during the civil rights era. In other words, observers note, the unusual collective effort is based on a need. 

The #BlackPantherChallenge, for example, began in January when Frederick Joseph, a writer and marketing specialist, created a GoFundMe campaign to send the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem, N.Y., to see the film. 

“Many of us yearned for the chance to be Batman or Superman, but only if he was black. Black Panther gives our children the chance to dream those dreams,” he wrote in The Huffington Post.

Entertainer Ellen DeGeneres has since funded Mr. Joseph’s campaign. But his idea went viral. So far, GoFundMe campaigns have raised more than $400,000 for tickets for thousands of young people, with donations coming in from all 50 states and 40 countries, according to the crowdfunding platform. 

Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman, isn’t Hollywood’s first black superhero (Wesley Snipes’s Blade and Will Smith’s Hancock both predate him). But his position as a sure-footed authority working alongside so many other strong black figures has ignited a sense of pride among African-American fans. Hollywood films, they say, normally aren't known for such positive and explicit racial representation.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Actor Daniel Kaluuya, who plays W'Kabi, the right hand man of the main character, poses with fans at the premiere of 'Black Panther' in Los Angeles on Jan. 29, 2018.

“When you’re little and you see black people who are powerful and educated, that’s something that can boost your ability to create a positive image of black people in your head, rather than a negative one that you’ve been force-fed your whole life,” says Sydni Britton, another senior in Pinchem’s class.

For many of the movie’s supporters, the Black Panther’s fictionalized home of Wakanda is just as inspiring as the superhero himself. Wakanda, hidden somewhere on the African continent, has been untouched by European colonization. Free of imperialist violence, the country developed the most technologically advanced society on the planet.

“Even just from history, people always think that European powers need to step in in order for a society to become advanced. I think that’s another important aspect of the movie, where they can become developed without European influence,” Aaliyah says.

That the Black Panther is African, not African-American, can be complicated for black American audiences, says Professor Jennings. By centering the comic in Africa, its white creators in the 1960s could avoid confronting racism facing the black community in the US – a decision some contemporary writers critique. On the other hand, connecting black American audiences to an African context can foster solidarity in a wide-reaching diaspora.

“People keep forgetting that most black people in [the US] are not immigrants. We were kidnapped. And that's a very different relationship with this country,” Professor Jennings says. He notes that the film’s setting, which drew upon contemporary African languages, cultures, and fashions, can appeal to black Americans, whose own heritage was lost in slavery. “We didn't get to bring those various types of cultural production with us,” he says.

The recent rise of “Black Panther,” and other black superheroes such as Netflix’s “Luke Cage,” have been connected by some experts to activist movements, such as Black Lives Matter, that promote racial justice and fight white supremacy.

“Every time you see rebellion or revolution around politics, you see a surge in arts, in resistance arts spaces,” Jennings says. “Black Panther and all these black independent comics that are coming out are this generation's Harlem Renaissance.”

In Pinchem’s history class, Aaliyah makes a similar point. “People are starting to realize that it’s really important that the black community feels included. Especially during the political tension right now,” she says.

For all the record-breaking fanfare surrounding the Black Panther – on Tuesday announced it was the most tweeted about movie in the world this year – it’s the subtler milestones that can sometimes have the biggest effect.

Jennings loves the representation found in the film’s promotional videos, but what really got to him was a “Black Panther” toy commercial featuring black children. “Me and my wife watched it like 20 times,” he says, “almost with tears in our eyes.”

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