Why ‘Black Panther’ packs a punch with black audiences

It was almost a given that Marvel fans would embrace the film “Black Panther,” whose title character first appeared in the “Fantastic Four” comic back in 1966. But the collective euphoria the Disney-Marvel film has ignited in the black community overall is unprecedented.

"No one has ever seen a movie like this before," Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association, observes. "It's certainly a cultural phenom. The anticipation around the film all throughout black America is hyped. AAFCA has never witnessed such a strong visceral connection to a movie before people have even seen it."

For months now, social media has been brimming with references to the film through memes and countdowns. That enthusiasm has already helped "Black Panther," which did some of its filming in Atlanta, top the 2016 blockbuster "Captain America: Civil War" as Marvel's top pre-selling film in 24 hours. (Coincidentally, Chadwick Boseman introduced his portrayal of T'Challa/Black Panther in "Captain America: Civil War.")

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Liana D’Anjou bought seven tickets to see the film, opening Feb. 16, with family members. Although an active moviegoer, D’Anjou, who is in her mid-30s, can’t recall the last time she pre-purchased tickets for a film. Personal reasons moved her to act so early for “Black Panther.”

“It’s just so rare to see a reflection of yourself in the media,” she shares. “The reason I wanted to pre-purchase tickets is, one, for (Hollywood) to see that this is something that can be and will be wildly successful and, not to mention, that I want to be part of the conversation opening weekend.”

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Like Robertson, Nsenga Burton, Clark Atlanta University’s Department of Film and New Media chair, can’t name another film that has generated this kind of excitement in the black community but insists there’s a reason this one has.

“’Black Panther’ is more than just a superhero film. It brings in all parts of Africa and America and science fiction. It’s like we exist in all realms, past, present and future, and that rarely happens in film,” Burton explains.

“This movie is for everybody,” says Burton, whose students are extra riled up since their Clark Atlanta mascot is actually a black panther. “If you’re Caribbean or African or American from a cultural space, you’ll love it. If you’re a science fiction head, you’ll love it. If you’re into history, you’ll love it.”

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Jamal Ahmad, who is most well-known for his WCLK “SOUL (Sounds of Universal Love) of Jazz” show, has noticed the enthusiasm a lot of black women like D’Anjou have for this particular action film and loves it. “I just think it’s really great to see all these sisters hyped,” he says.

And that’s probably because black women appear well-represented through Oscar nominee Angela Bassett, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and “Walking Dead” star Danai Gurira. Of course, Boseman, who is T’Challa/Black Panther and has starred as such real-life black heroes as Jackie Robinson and, most recently, Thurgood Marshall, has a history of portraying black people responsibly. And so do Michael B. Jordan, who starred in director Ryan Coogler’s previous two feature films, “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” and Forest Whitaker, who won an Oscar for playing Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the 2006 film “The Last King of Scotland.”

“When you look at the cast, not only is it a great black cast, but it’s a brilliant all-black cast. These are some of the top black actors and actresses in Hollywood all coming together,” says Ahmad, who has also pre-purchased tickets.

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It is important that "Black Panther" unites actors from various parts of the African Diaspora (e.g., Americans Boseman and Jordan with Nyong'o and Gurira, whose ancestry is respectively Kenyan and Zimbabwean), especially considering Samuel L. Jackson's reported criticisms of non-American actors in American roles like "Get Out" star Daniel Kaluuya, who is British. (Kaluuya was just nominated for a best actor Oscar for that role and even appears in "Black Panther" as W'Kabi.) Then there are the frustrations some Africans have had with African heroes like Nelson Mandela being consistently played by non-African actors in Hollywood films.

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“This whole ism that supposedly exists between American-born actors versus European- and African-born actors is ridiculous,” Robertson says. “What ‘Black Panther’ proves is that we can all come together, work together and deliver a product that makes black people, wherever they’re from, feel proud.”

The film’s great early reception is also due in part to its director’s stellar track record with black storylines, says Burton. “Ryan Coogler’s work speaks to our full humanity. He sees our full humanity. He understands that we have lots of different stories to tell, and he believes in our greatness.”

Burton notes that there are other impressive black people behind the scenes as well. Marvel’s own Nate Moore is an executive producer. Working legend Ruth E. Carter (“School Daze” “Malcolm X” and “Amistad”) is the costume designer. Hannah Beachler, who worked with Coogler on both “Creed” and “Fruitvale Station,” is production designer. Joe Robert Cole co-wrote the screenplay with Coogler.

“We are at every level of this film, which is why black people are here for it,” says Burton.

“Just the idea of a black hero and a film based in an independent, educated, wealthy African country unlike the portrayal that our president and others seem committed to embracing” is what is exciting to black audiences, asserts Robertson. “’Black Panther’ shows the world a side of Africa that we believe in, that we want to see.”

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