Jeneé Osterheldt

‘Black Panther’ is so powerful, it could change Hollywood forever

Like the sun breaking the horizon, her smile beams in the dark movie theater.

I can see every tooth — baby teeth and adult teeth mashed together in that beautiful elementary school way. Eight-year-old Grace Edwards has just seen “Black Panther” at an early screening. And her response to seeing a movie full of superheroes who are black like her is to stare into my eyes and grin. Overjoyed.

“Good,” she finally sings. A woman passing by takes in our moment and starts to cry.

We are all Grace. “Black Panther” is like nothing we have seen before, a mainstream, mega-budget movie starring a nearly all black cast with a black director (Ryan Coogler). But it’s not a black movie Hollywood is targeting to a niche audience. This is a Marvel blockbuster that everyone, across color lines and cultures, will see. And it’s bold, black, beautiful power debuting smack dab in the middle of Black History Month.

Pride, activated.

The title character, aka T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), was created in the comics during the civil rights era, just months before the Black Panther Party was formed. Though the superhero and the party aren’t related, it’s hard not to see Black Panther as a form of resistance.

It takes place in the sweet, Afrofuturistic euphoria of Wakanda, a fictional African utopia never touched by colonization. The tribes are free, wealthy and thriving. There is no slavery, no inequity, no brutality. It defies the fly-swatting wasteland stereotypes that a s**thole-spewing president would have you believe.

To the outside world, Wakanda poses as an unassuming Third World country. Secretly the Wakandans harvest vibranium — a nearly indestructible metal — and it’s made them the most technologically advanced place in the world. Think “The Matrix” meets “The Jetsons” meets black excellence. Their sexy technology and spaceships co-exist with lush mountains and the kind of sunsets you can’t wait to see. Gorgeous.

And so are the people. Watching this movie as a black woman is double the empowerment. For once, we are not silenced or dismissed as angry. The women don’t play to Hollywood stereotypes. White is not the beauty standard. The melanin is poppin’ in all shades of chocolate. There’s no long, straight hair flowing in the wind. There are braids, Afros, twists, locs, headwraps and beautiful bald heads. Women sit on the advisory board of elders, women protect the country, and a young woman is at the center of their technology.

It’s rare to see black women so dynamic and dimensional in a mainstream movie. It’s not about our pain or suffering or anger. This is not a celebration of comedic prowess or hypersexuality. It’s not one woman with no real friendships running things. It’s an explosion of #BlackGirlMagic.

black panther2
In Wakanda, it’s not just about the men in power. The women are running things on all levels. Long live the queens. Matt Kennedy Marvel Studios-Walt Disney

Grace and her 5-year-old sister went into “Black Panther” wanting to be like the title character. They left telling their parents all about the women, too. Everyone should get to feel this. Asians, Latinos and Muslims deserve to see themselves like this, too. Native Americans deserve this. My hope is this movie’s success will burst open the doors for more diversity.

The movie has more IMAX presales than any other Marvel film and is estimated to debut between $165 million and $170 million — a February record, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

And when you see the movie, out Thursday, you get it. Blackness has never been represented with such versatility and power in a blockbuster.

Even the bad guy is no cardboard Marvel villain. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a descendant of Wakanda, born in Oakland, Calif., to N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown and y’all aren’t ready). He wants to take the throne and liberate black people all over the world. He’s filled with rage. But as James Baldwin put it so perfectly, “To be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

So no, you don’t hate him. You get him. You might love him.

You’ll love this movie, period. It’s well-written, stunning to watch and if you’re black, it feels like a triumph.

All over the country, black people are hosting private screenings to watch it together. They are wearing dashikis and royal African attire. This is an unofficial black holiday.

Spencer Hardwick reserved a theater at AMC Ward Parkway opening night for Wire KC, his young black professionals network.

“What message does it send to kids when all of the characters on the screen are the same color?” he says. “Using mediums like blockbuster movies to affirm different people’s identities is very powerful.”

That thinking is why my squad and I are sending a group from Operation Breakthrough to the movie.

And Kansas City school board treasurer Matt Oates and friends are running a GoFundMe to send 500 of the top-performing district students to have lunch and see the film. In less than 24 hours, they’ve already raised $4,000 of their $6,000 goal. $10 sends one kid.

“This is a groundbreaking movie and to see themselves in a film like this is important,” Oates says. “We also wanted to get the whole community behind them and reward them for doing their academic best and encourage them to continue doing well.”

A screening party for black people Saturday night sold out in four days.

“When ‘Wonder Woman’ came out, there were women-only screenings,” says the event’s organizer, Stacy “Reach” Smith. “This was their first time really seeing themselves represented that way. So it was important they see it together.”

The movie has received near universal praise from critics. And yet, there’s been “Black Panther” backlash. Facebook groups were formed to bring down its Rotten Tomatoes rating. People have called an all-black movie racist and anti-white.

White people have always seen themselves multifaceted and empowered. As a card-carrying Harry Potter and superhero geek, I’ve loved and fan-girled over Spider-Man, Batman and Wonder Woman. I never miss a Marvel or DC movie. White fans shouldn’t see black representation as a threat. They should welcome another rock star to the roster. Either way, it’s our time.

Wakanda forever.

Jeneé Osterheldt is a Kansas City Star culture columnist, @jeneeinkc.

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