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Smith: When a movie is not just a movie

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Theater owners have had their teeth set on edge while awaiting the premier of the sequel to “Black Panther,” the epochal blockbuster that changed the face — and the trajectory — of cinema. The movie industry still hasn’t recovered financially from the pandemic, which forced people to watch from their couches. (Theaters generally receive about half of a movie’s ticket revenues.) Some observers estimate that the sequel, titled “Wakanda Forever,” could gross as much as $200 million on opening day. That would induce theater owners to breathe a deep sigh of relief.

Tragically, the movie event of the year will debut this week without the original’s transcendent star, Chadwick Boseman, who died of cancer two years ago. Not only was Boseman a superhero on the screen; he was a flesh-and-blood hero in real life. (I offered several reasons to substantiate my claim in a column that I wrote shortly after his untimely passing at age 43.)

African Americans understand the reality that movies — especially Black ones — must do very well at the box office if we wish to see more of them made. We willed “Black Panther” into grossing roughly $1.3 billion. (“Black Panther” was the highest grossing non-Avengers Marvel movie until “Spiderman: No Way Home” crawled into theaters.) But that’s not why we will flock to the theaters for this one.

We live in a time in which Black movie characters, including ones in lead roles, are far more common than they were even just 15-20 years ago. “Black Adam” notwithstanding, Dwayne Johnson is arguably the biggest movie star in the world — figuratively and literally. Yet, no movie has to the near-mythic hold that “Black Panther” has on African Americans.

Even without Boseman, “Wakanda Forever” is engendering a devotion that surpasses hyperbolic fandom. I think that the appropriate word is “pride.” Black people, in America and across the world, are deeply proud of “Black Panther”/”Wakanda Forever,” even though we had nothing to do with the films’ writing, directing, acting or producing. (And we certainly won’t share in the astronomical profits.) Still, we claim it as ours. The bond between these particular movies and their audience, as well as the shared experience among all of us who experience them collectively, is reminiscent of the literal translation of the word inspire: “God-breathed.”

As a child, I loved Superman. I read the comics and watched the old black-and-white series that starred George Reeves. And, of course, I was enamored of the Christopher Reeve-led movies. (Well, at least the first two.) Still, I understood that I could never be Superman. While I knew that he was a fictional character, my imagination would not allow me even to envision myself as him. Millions of African Americans have had the same reaction to hundreds of other superheroes. We have fallen in love with characters in whom we could not see ourselves.

Then came Black Panther. While there have always been Black superheroes, none has been presented onscreen in quite the same way (though Wesley Snipes’ “Blade” was a triumph). I am a few years older than Mr. Boseman was, but I could see myself in him. I could feel myself as him — even though I am a grown man who knows that fairytales aren’t true. Loving “Black Panther” is not merely about suspending disbelief; it is about emotionally embracing an alternate reality in which we as a people can rise above the paths to which most of us are consigned.

On the one hand, the confines of cinema are infinite; movies are only limited by the imagination of those who make (and watch) them. On the other hand, the “real world” has a way of intruding and superseding even the most brilliant stories. Black America needs “Black Panther” and “Wakanda Forever” because they make us limit-free. We can be gerrymandered out of voting. The imminent overturning of affirmative action will result in us losing seats at America’s elite universities. We fear being verbally and physically accosted for merely living our lives. We have to endure racial profiling by the police. But these movies — these movies — allow us to escape those realities for just a little bit.
Wakanda. Forever.

Larry Smith is a community leader. The views expressed are his own. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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