Excitement Builds Ahead Of 'Black Panther' Opening

Feb 13, 2018
Originally published on February 13, 2018 5:46 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the very first black comic superheroes is making a comeback. "Black Panther" is a product of the 1960s. That's when Marvel Comics first presented the king and protector of a fictional African nation. Now, after years of obscurity, he's getting his own movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK PANTHER")

MARTIN FREEMAN: (As Everett Ross) You're telling me that the king of a third-world country runs around in a bulletproof catsuit?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes.

INSKEEP: The film opens this week to the delight of Tre Johnson, who wrote about it for Rolling Stone.

TRE JOHNSON: I am a black kid who grew up in central Jersey. And, you know, I was really shy, really awkward. And comic books were very much a safe space for me to kind of fall into.

INSKEEP: Somewhat safe. Johnson yearned to dress like Spider-Man for Halloween as a kid but felt he could not because the character in the spider suit is white. The writer told David Greene why that matters.

JOHNSON: All entertainment is escapism. Right? Like, we love to see ourselves inhabiting the costumes and capes of the characters that we really find ourselves wedded to. And I think there's a bit of a question mark that I think happens, almost existentially for people, about, like, why don't I see myself in a lot of the stories I like to, like, escape into? And I think that constant act of omission really makes you wonder, like - who's actually being valued?

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: So I know you haven't seen the new movie yet. But you've seen the trailer, right?

JOHNSON: Yeah.

GREENE: And I understand it was really - I mean, even that was emotional for you.

JOHNSON: I literally get moved to tears watching the trailers. Here I am, like, this about to be 40-year-old black guy who has spent decades of my life reading comic book stories where black characters were either on the sidelines or the sidekicks. So like, knowing, like, how hard it's been to see a lot of "Black Panther"-type stories told on a major level on a wide screen, I think a lot about, like, the nieces, nephews and cousins that I have. Right? They're all under the age of 10. These kids don't have to be wedded to the idea that there was a struggle to see these stories up here, and this is all they will know.

GREENE: There have been other movies that have had black superheroes, that have had strong black leads. Why is this the one? Why is this one so special?

JOHNSON: You know, when you look at some of the earlier films that have happened, like "Blade," "Catwoman" with Halle Berry, even "Hancock" with Will Smith - I often view those as projects that were wedded to the brand name of the actor themselves. You know, you were going to see Will Smith as Hancock. You were going to see Wesley Snipes as Blade. I think this is different because, one, it is an almost exclusively all-black cast. Two, there hasn't been one that's taken place in a place like Africa around a hero that's actually grounded in black and African culture. To have all of that ensnared in one film is a wholly unique thing.

GREENE: Given that you are hoping that this movie establishes for your nieces and nephews that superheroes can be black, are you putting too much pressure on this movie to accomplish too much?

JOHNSON: (Laughter) No. I don't think so personally. This very much feels like a cultural moment. I look at the ways that there have been everything from viewing parties that have popped up in my social media feeds. People are talking about, like, how they're going to dress and prepare and how they're going to celebrate this moment. Like, I don't think it's too much. It's just taken too long. I always kind of am bemused at the mainstream press's reaction to the fact that movies and films like "Black Panther" are such huge cultural splashes. Like, it's a reflection of the fact that our audience is always here, and we're always here at the ready to see representative stories of us on the major screen.

INSKEEP: David was talking with the writer Tre Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE STARS")

KENDRICK LAMAR AND SZA: (Singing) This may be the night that my dreams might let me know all the stars are closer, all the stars are closer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.