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When Is a Superhero Movie Not Just a Movie? When it is "Black Panther."

Sometimes a movie hits the zeitgeist and the consciousness of the public at just the right time, causing it to transcend the form of a cinematic event and emerge as a movement. In many ways, Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman," released last summer, defined the fierce female warrior spirit of 2017, as countless women in the entertainment industry broke their silence to fight against harassment waged by some of the most powerful men in the business. The blockbuster quickly became the highest-grossing picture ever directed by a woman, inspiring young girls around the world to dress up as the titular superhero while accompanying their mothers to the theater. It was a beautiful sight to see.

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Now arrives Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther," a film that made back it's $200 million budget in its opening weekend, breaking multiple box office records to become the highest-grossing film ever helmed by an African-American director; the biggest ever opening for a film in February; and the fifth highest Friday-Sunday debut of all time! The picture has earned raves from critics including our own Odie Henderson, who awarded it four stars. His review was as persuasive as it was achingly personal, illustrating how African-American audiences have been starved for positive images of heroic and complex characters who look like them. Coogler's film offers a rich array of personalities embodied by some of the best actors in the business. It all starts, however, with the high quality of the storytelling by Coogler and co-screenwriter, Joe Robert Cole, that sets this film apart-- from the description of the fictional African nation Wakanda, to the relationship between Africans and African-Americans that is rarely explored on screen.  And the importance of this movie has been noted so widely that African-American individuals and organizations around the country are voluntarily buying out screenings to allow an audience of primarily young black film-goers to savor it for free. But make no mistake about it, with opening numbers like these, "Black Panther" is also being hailed by white critics and audiences as possibly the best Marvel superhero movie ever made.

"Black Panther" fans attend special screenings at Chicago's Studio Movie Grill.

As T'Challa (a.k.a. Black Panther), Chadwick Boseman (who has shown an amazing versatility playing characters as diverse as Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall) brings a commanding screen presence that isn't bereft of vulnerability, while Coogler's usual leading man, Michael B. Jordan, lends enormous humanity and righteous conviction to his role of the "villain." Jordan's "villain" nomenclature doesn't sit easily. His worldview is layered with a motive that makes him empathetic and to some, heroic. He is not the typically cartoonish foe.  However, one of the most talked about aspects of the film are the beautiful strong role models for girls and women starting with the regal Oscar-nominee Angela Bassett and backed up by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyongo'o, and the badass ensemble of Wakandan Special Forces, the Dora Milaje, including Danai Gurira as Okoye and Florence Kasumba as Ayo. 

The film's ensemble also includes Oscar-winners Forrest Whittaker, Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya and Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown, all of whom resonate as three-dimensional beings whose function in the story is not in service of a white character. As Boseman's sister, Letitia Wright, as Shuri, brings down the house with many of the film's most pointedly funny lines, often aimed at the "colonizer" in her midst, played by Martin Freeman. And her work as the technology wizard in her high-tech laboratory serves as a beacon for girls everywhere. Another beacon behind the camera is Rachel Morrison, who becomes the first woman to serve as Director of Photography (DP) on a big budget superhero movie, and the first woman in history to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography. 

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"Black Panther" is chockfull of entertainment, excitement and inspiration for viewers of all ages and races. Yesterday, February 19th, over 300 Chicago Public Schools students got to attend free screenings of “Black Panther.” The back-to-back screenings were held at Studio Movie Grill, 210 W. 87th St., and were a collaborative effort between nonprofit Creative Cypher, a Chicago-based collective working to promote diversity in the film industry, the Black McDonald’s Operators Association (BMOA) and several other local youth organizations. Actor Craig Robinson later added to the generosity by arranging to pay for more students to attend a third screening in the afternoon. 

Students received "Black Panther" comic books at the Chicago screenings. 

"Creative Cypher focuses on providing independent filmmakers and emerging artists with access to resources and educational programming throughout the year," said Troy Pryor, founder and president of Creative Cypher, located at Stage 18, Cinespace. "In addition to events like this, we also support productions and help them get off the ground. We are able to connect the dots for filmmakers who lack the finances, and we’ve had quite a few projects win some amazing awards at festivals. These artists don't lack talent, they lack resources. They're often trying to do too many things at one time because they didn’t have a network that they could leverage."

Yesterday's screenings were followed by panel discussions featuring African American entertainment professionals including "The Chi" actress Tai Davis, actor and SAG-AFTRA Chicago president Charles Andrew Gardner, Emmy-winning writer/actor Craig Harris, "Hamilton" star Jonathan Kirkland, location managers David Leonard and Natasha Parker, comic illustrator and former Marvel colorist Chris Walker and "Black Panther" stunt performer Mark Willis. Walker spoke about how moved he was, as a comic book fan, to see black culture embrace the Black Panther. He commended creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for starting a conversation about race in the 60's with their Black Panther and X-Men comics. 

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Aspiring filmmaker Kayla Sullers attends Studio Movie Grill's "Black Panther" screenings.

"You can't be what you can't see, and for kids to see a film like this with a predominantly African-American cast and a regal male lead that goes against the stereotypes we've always seen in media is so important," said Pryor. "From a business standpoint, we wanted to do a panel so the kids could understand that there are many paths to professions in the entertainment industry. We want them to know what it can take for a project to be realized. A project like ‘Black Panther’ would’ve never happened if it weren’t for individuals of color in executive roles. For the longest time, studios have claimed that you can’t make a successful film with a black lead or a primarily black cast, and that is a myth. ‘Black Panther’ has demolished the numbers in that myth."

"As Jay-Z said, 'Men lie, women lie, numbers don't,'" Pryor continued. "Even if you are only about the numbers, you would be foolish to not continue in this direction. What I would hope is that people in the industry realize that there is a very important cultural significance to projects like this, and not just for African-Americans. I love that the common knowledge regarding Wakanda was that it was a very poor place. It was like the inside joke that the Wakandans had, knowing that this is what the outside world thought of them. There’s a big correlation to that in how minorities are viewed at times in the media and in the public.”

Ebert Fellow Sue-Ellen Chitunya, who worked on the movie in post production, dressed in Afro-centric garb at the premiere in LA.

Twenty youth-focused nonprofits were selected to receive tickets, including Donda’s House, Common Ground Foundation, Free Spirit Media, True Star Foundation, Free Lunch Academy, We Are MURAL, Chicago Scholars and more. Students who received the complimentary tickets were selected based upon their commitment to being both high-achieving scholars and model citizens in their communities. Pryor believes that there's just as much for viewers to learn from Michael B. Jordan's character, Erik Killmonger, as there is to glean from the heroism of T'Challa.

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“It’s very difficult for me to call Killmonger a villain in the film, knowing his story,” said Pryor. “The takeaway for me from that is everybody has a story and a testimony. This isn’t to justify any lifestyles that some people from disenfranchised neighborhoods or communities may take on, but when you take the time to understand another person, that leads to empathy. It’s one thing if you are oblivious to another person’s existence, but if you know about them and their struggle, how can you call yourself great without lending a hand? T’Challa saw that Killmonger was a product of his environment, and that’s the story of a lot of young black males. You don’t get to hear their story, what you see instead is a byproduct of something that has festered and grown and over time expresses itself sometimes in not the most productive way. And that’s all you know.”

A young fan strikes a pose at Chicago's Studio Movie Grill.

The move to get young people to see "Black Panther" has not been limited to the Windy City. Two teachers teamed up with a Jersey City fraternity to raise money in an online campaign that will secure tickets for local students to see the film. There have also been special student screenings held in cities such as Pittsburgh, Hampton and Atlanta, where the film was shot. And we are seeing this in city after city. The excitement surrounding an African-American superhero is profound and meaningful. Cinema was designed to be a portal for our dreams, and with "Black Panther," those dreams have become more inclusive. 

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