A Beautiful, Black Panther, Thank You Letter from its Director
By Amanda Davis
Wednesday marked the last day of an extraordinary Black History Month. But this year, black history isn’t confined to just one month – it continues to be celebrated and made, in big ways and on the big screen.
“Oakland, California 1992”
As soon as those words appeared, the crowd roared with pride and excitement in the sold-out Emeryville theater.
“Black Panther” was a hit before the film even hit the box office, because it promised to be more than just a movie – it was like a personal letter to black people around the world. A week after its groundbreaking release, the film continued stirring up visceral emotions to packed audiences across the country, but perhaps the most intense responses came from the East Bay itself. The movie is about the first black Marvel comic book superhero, with an all-black main cast, directed by a 31-year-old black man from Oakland. We made it, ya’ll.
Going to the theater an hour early was no use – the lines were just as long two days after opening night. At Bay Street Emeryville Plaza, the lines filled with people of all races trailed down two floors, but what was remarkable was the enormous presence of black fans, many of whom dressed for the part.
Majority of the movie takes place in Wakanda, a comic-made technologically advanced country located in Africa. However, Wakandan spies sent to America made little ole Oakland their home, and grew to know the experience the black community, especially those without resources, go through every single day in the United States.
Although the “Black Panther” comic book series was originally set in Harlem, director Ryan Coogler wanted to leave a piece of himself in the film and did so with a shout out the city that made him who he his. The depiction of his hometown was spot on and clearly personal. It felt relatable, even to me, a girl from Inglewood. There was an undeniable and contagious vibe of happiness in that theater, with locals smiling from ear-to-ear as their city was being put on the map in a Marvel movie, the most successful superhero franchise in the world. The fact that the movie, and Oakland’s role in it, carries such a powerful message is an ongoing source of pride.
It’s clear why this film (work of art, pivotal creation, whatever you want to call it) resonates with people around the world, but why it’s so significant to the East Bay in particular is one of many subjects that needs to be discussed in today’s America. The city, like many others, has been victim to numerous racial crimes against it’s black people and it is more than fair to say that they are fed up. “Black Panther” not only gave the city someone that represents their frustration, but shined a light on their demand for change.
Oakland is where the Wakandan-American “villain” of the movie is born and raised. Erik Killmonger’s quest for vengeance is not just for the death of his father, but also for his city and all black Americans.
“Y’all sitting up here comfortable. Must feel good. Meanwhile, there are about 2 billion people all over the world that looks like us. But their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all,” said Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan. Those words, spoken by the same actor who portrayed Oscar Grant in true-story, Oakland-based “Fruitvale Station”, transcend the fictional world.
I placed quotations around the word villain intentionally. In my opinion, he was more “Robinhood” than villain, The shouts and cries (yes, literal tears) that filled the Emeryville theatre when Killmonger’s life was hanging in the balance told me that many people agreed.
Erik Killmonger wanted to make Oakland, and everyplace else, suitable and livable for black people, a motive the audience directly related to (ignoring the second part of his plan to exterminate the white 1 percent). Viewers in Oakland may have felt that more strongly than any other crowds flocking to see the blockbuster across the country. The city was the birthplace of the Black Panther Party in 1966, in the same year Marvel’s Black Panther character made his comic book debut. Those two points in history may not be directly related, but they cannot be separated emotionally for locals. The movie’s unprecedented success suddenly thrusts Oakland into the global spotlight – acknowledging its darker days and celebrating its hope. In that, there is a swelling sense of pride.
This is the first time in history a film of this caliber and widespread appeal was about Oakland – it was personal, real and beautiful. It was amazing to see a film that oozes black excellence released during Black History Month, but even more amazing that its success continues and the impact it has on black history, and Oakland, will be felt for years to come.