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Column: ‘Black Panther’ is everyone’s movie

Posted: March 8, 2018 2:10 p.m.
Updated: March 9, 2018 1:00 a.m.

I knew we were in for a very different movie experience while my sons and I waited in line to see “Black Panther.”

We decided to take in an early showing, 10:45 a.m., on the Saturday of Black Panther’s opening weekend. The place was packed. In fact, it was so overwhelmingly packed, we had to wait forever not just to get into the theater, but to get snacks.

It seems almost ridiculous for me to have to say this, but, yes, the folks waiting in line to see the movie and who, then, packed the theater itself, were mostly black. And I say “black” because I can’t say they were all African-American. It wouldn’t surprise me if a good number were actually Africans who have lived here for years or recently moved here.

Needless to say, I was definitely among the minority of whites in the theater. It’s not the first time. I spent three years in high school being a minority student while living on the west Pacific island of Saipan. I’ve also been to step shows here in Camden. It’s no big deal to me.

Indeed, I didn’t feel out of place at all that Saturday morning. Why? Because I, like them, was waiting to see what we all hoped would turn out to be a great movie.

It was beautiful.

I’ve lived in or visited places that have allowed me to take on a different perspective than many of my peers. I’ve seen people living in houses made of not much more than tin, putting up with typhoon winds and rain. I was a child of 5 when another child of about my age came up to my car trying to sell my mother something, likely so he and his siblings could eat.

So, when I looked up at the big screen and saw a fictional “third world” country that looked more advanced, beautiful and civilized than my own, I knew I was watching a game-changer of a movie.

I now understand what director Ryan Coogler meant when he told NPR recently that original Black Panther creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby “...tapped into something when they said, ‘Man, what if that never happened to a place?’”

Colonialism “happened.”

Wakanda, the country Black Panther rules in the comics and on screen, is one of the ultimate “What Ifs.” What if an African country was never conquered or colonized by Europeans, but also had the means -- vibranium, the substance from which Captain America’s shield is made -- to make itself into a techological powerhouse?

In reading about Coogler’s journey to make this movie, I see where, when asked to direct the film, he told Marvel that he needed to travel to the one place he’d never visited to get a sense of how to present Wakanda to an international audience: Africa.

“Afrofuturism” is a word being thrown around in terms of the movie’s style. Indeed, Wakanda melds as futuristic looking a landcape as one could hope for while retaining the vibrant -- and varied -- culture of Africa from costumes to food to art to ... everything.

But it’s never all about the look of a movie. It takes good characters, and good actors and actresses to play them in a good story, and this is where Coogler hit gold.

Taking relatively modern versions of Black Panther and his supporting cast, Coogler gives us real people in real situations that just happen to be set in a fantastic superhero world. Chadwick Boseman, who plays King T’Challa/Black Panther, never seems out of place as either the ruler of his kingdom or the super-powered hero that rule requires.

For that matter, that rule is an interesting one -- a kingdom that, nonetheless, comes across as more democratic than some other, real countries can claim.

I cannot talk about this movie without talking about the women. They are supremely fantastic characters, vividly brought to life by the actresses who play them. What’s great about them is that they present a myriad of role models for girls and women everywhere.

There’s the sassy younger sister (Leticia Wright/Shuri) who happens to be one of the smartest people on the planet; the independent romantic lead (Lupita Nyong’o/Nakia) who is a superb spy and martial artist; the Dora Milaje general (Danai Gurira/Okoye) who is so fiercely loyal, she becomes conflicted over loyalty to the king and the throne he sits on; and there is the Queen Mother (Angela Bassett/Ramonda), a leader in her own right.

I won’t spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I will say this about the villain in this movie, Erik Killmonger, played to perfection by Michael B. Jordan: his choices -- as a child, a young man, and at the end of the movie -- should make for great discussion.

I am very happy Black Panther is enjoying success at the box office. I’m also happy to see the joy on people’s faces after seeing the movie. We -- and I include myself, an almost 53-year-old white guy -- have been waiting for a movie like this for a long, long time.

Wakanda, Black Panther and the Dora Milaje may all be fictional, but they are also part of a dream, a myth, a vision that we can all be inspired by to be better people.

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