Jenice Armstrong: To Black people, 'Wakanda Forever' is more than a movie

Event promoter Mister Mann Frisby, second from left, organized a "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" night to celebrate the opening of the new Marvel film. - Elizabeth Robertson/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

Both the beginning and ending of "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" were so masterfully done that as I watched on-screen flashbacks of Chadwick Boseman portraying the fictional King T'Challa, tears started flowing down my cheeks.

I cried for the loss of Boseman, a talented actor who was way too young when he died in 2020 of colon cancer, and for the loss of King T'Challa. They weren't just an actor and a character to me — they represented Black excellence. Howard University, my beloved alma mater, last year named its school of fine arts after Boseman, a 2000 graduate. I know it sounds corny, but as I sat in that dark theater this week, I made the Wakanda salute with my fists crossed against my chest.

To African Americans like me, "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" is much more than a Marvel Studios fantasy action flick.

Many of us are descendants of enslaved Africans who arrived in the Americas centuries ago, having been dragged from their homelands and forbidden to speak their native tongues or practice their religions. Our families were ripped apart and shipped off to plantations in distant parts of the United States, often leaving us — their descendants — with no knowledge of our ancestors' African heritage and traditions.

Although we may have grown up hearing of the greatness and riches of Africa, many had no real connection to the continent. When I was a kid, the only thing we saw in pop culture that had anything to do with Africa were "Tarzan" reruns on TV. We've come a long way since then, but there's still a deep hunger for connection between African Americans and the Motherland and its people.

Which is why so many theatergoers showed up for "Wakanda Forever" dressed in their finest Afrocentric attire or painted their faces.

"We are a people looking to fill a void of some sort," explained Helen Higginbotham, a New Jersey-based attorney who organized about 100 people to watch "Wakanda Forever" as a group at a theater in Voorhees Township, New Jersey, on Saturday. To Higginbottom and those attendees, "Black Panther" celebrates Africa and Black excellence, while also giving us a fantastical glimpse into our stolen heritage. After the movie, people hung around to talk about the film and participate in a raffle of books from La Unique African American Bookstore & Cultural Center in Camden, New Jersey.

"It's the idea of Wakanda that gives us hope. It's the idea of Black excellence," Higginbotham told me earlier this week. "Black unity: That's just utopia for Black people."

On Friday, party promoter Mister Mann Frisby prepared an entire night of activities, including a happy hour, prior to the screening of the new Marvel release at the Fashion District. The theme was vibranium — the fictional, rare metal produced by Wakanda.

Afterward, people went to go watch the film. But before it started, attendees rose to their feet and sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the Black national anthem. Afterward, attendees dressed in Afrocentric attire followed African drummers through the streets to the African American Museum at Seventh and Arch Streets for a Wakandan Afrobeats Bash with the legendary DJ Spinderella.

"This felt like a release, almost like the world got to be a part of [Boseman's] memorial service," Mister Mann Frisby, a former Philadelphia Daily News reporter and a friend of mine, told me about the event. "I've never experienced anything like that where you're watching a movie and it's like you lost a person in real life," he added. "We lost a character and it touched people like so deep. We needed that release. This was a way to honor his life."

State Rep. Amen Brown, D-Philadelphia, brought his two children to the screening, during which he announced that Frisby's annual Achievers Brunch — which honors college-bound, local high school seniors — is the recipient of a $25,000 award.

"I left out of [the movie] in tears. My children are still doing the 'Wakanda Forever' stances," he told me on Sunday, adding that he, too, felt inspired by its images of Black excellence. "It brought my family closer together, especially with all this stuff going on right now. All you see is Black people hurting each other, Black people doing this. So the timing of this movie was so important to show that Black people can do more than what the media shows."

Positive media representation of Black and brown people is extremely important, even if it's only in a fantasy flick. Being able to watch characters on-screen who look like you and are doing remarkable things, demonstrating technological brilliance like in Wakanda, is inspiring. Young people, particularly those who are disadvantaged, need this kind of imagery to counterbalance the ugly news headlines and negativity that surrounds them and their neighborhoods.

As Derek Lee of D&J Entertainment in the Northeast told me over the phone, "Wakanda Forever" "makes you feel proud."

Proud enough to bring you to tears.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Jenice Armstrong is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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