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'Black Panther' becomes cultural moment for many in St. Louis

Families take photos next to a Black Panther banner at the St. Louis Science Center First Friday event dedicated to Black Panther on Feb. 2., 2018
Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio

Welcome to Wakanda, the technologically advanced fictional nation that is the setting for an upcoming superhero, blockbuster film.

If you are not sure where that is, try asking the thousands of people who pre-ordered tickets to “Black Panther,” the film with the most first-day presales in history.

Theaters across the country are holding “black carpet” events to premiere the film. In St. Louis, the nonprofit organization Mocha Moms will hold theirblack carpet  this evening at the Regal St. Louis Stadium 18 in Hazlewood.

“This jacket, this kente cloth that I got from my grandparents, I’m going to wear that,” Cami Thomas said. “It has African print and has an earthy, tannish brown and the whole thing is super long and goes all the way down to my knees.”

Thomas is the founder of FTC TV, a local, underground media company that focuses on diversity. She is also a fan of “Black Panther” and is one of thousands across the country who's planning to wear traditional African attire to view the film Friday because, for many, “Black Panther” is not just a film, it’s a cultural milestone.

“I felt pride, for some reason. I felt all of these amazing emotions because it almost felt like watching your family on screen,” Thomas said.

“Black Panther” is the latest superhero film by Disney and Marvel and is the first to star a black superhero, played by Chadwick Boseman. The film also includes Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Angela Bassett, and Forest WhitakerThe movie is directed by Ryan Coogler, a filmmaker who gained international fame for his role in the critically acclaimed films “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed.”

The film follows T’Challa, the Black Panther, heir to the throne in Wakanda. After the death of his father, T’Challa returns home and discovers a plot to remove him from power. With the help of Wakanda natives, he must fight this threat to prevent what could lead to a war.

For Cami Thomas and many others, cultural representation is a big deal, especially for Hollywood films. In a recent study from the University of Southern California, researchers found that 28 percent of films in 2014 and 2015 featured minorities in speaking roles.

“For me, that representation is really important in a time where we see so much black dehumanization and the annihilation of black people, that we get to celebrate black people as gods,” Jeffrey McCune said.

McCune is an associate professor of African and African-American Studies at Washington University. He said he hopes the fascination with this film will be able to inspire younger audiences.

“I imagine that there will be kids there who will begin to understand themselves as a part of a royal family and one that has superpowers. Which is not what has been available to so many young boys and girls in the U.S. landscape,” McCune said. 

Lion Forge is a black-owned comic book studio in St. Louis.  Here Carl Reed, co-founder of the company, works on an illustration. Feb. 2018
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Lion Forge is a black-owned comic book studio in St. Louis. Here Carl Reed, co-founder of the company, works on an illustration.

The strong roles in the “Black Panther” comic books have also resonated with the crew at Lion Forge, a local, black-owned comic book company. The company was founded by David Steward II and Carl Reed with the goal of creating comics that have ethnically diverse characters and diverse writers behind the scenes.

“It’s a huge portrayal of African-Americans being leaders in the world society, which is extremely important because, typically, in the world today, Africa is always looked at as third world and always behind the button,” Steward said. “It’s extremely important to show that Africans, African-Americans have value and have a big role to play in society in general.”

“Black Panther’s” impact is also noted for its positive image of black women, said David Gorden, the editorial assistant of Lion Forge. He said the comic features a female group of female warriors called the Dora Milaje that protect and assist Black Panther. T’Challa’s half sister, Shuri, assists him with scientific innovations because she is one of the smartest people in the world.

“When I was a kid I would have loved to have seen that. You know, a 16-year-old girl, black girl, afro hair who is the smartest person in the Marvel Universe,” Thomas said.

The ability to appeal across race and gender is something that the people at Lion Forge hope will continue with films beyond “Black Panther.”

“This will open up the floodgates. Now we can tell all kinds of stories,” Steward said. “It’s all about showing the success of (this movie) and then going to other projects that will be coming out of the gate to get funded and get distributed and heralded appropriately as they should have been.”

“Black Panther” opens worldwide in theaters Friday.

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.