“Are you excited for the movie?,” 12-year-old Akim Maxlino asks his friend Gene Fisher.
“Did you hear what you just said? Mans just asked if I’m excited for this movie,” Fisher snaps back, popcorn in hand. “It’s the biggest movie of all time.”
That’s exactly the reaction that Joseph Smith and Dwayne Brown, sitting next to the boys waiting for Black Panther to start, were hoping for.
Smith and Brown, best friends and school teachers by day, run a program called Generation Chosen in Toronto’s Jane and Finch area, a community often stereotyped as troubled and crime-ridden.
Having grown up in that neighbourhood, Smith and Brown wanted to expose local teens to more positive messaging and guide them away from some of the questionable elements that exist there.
That’s why they entered a contest for a chance to attend a special screening of Black Panther organized by Toronto’s Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA).
The BBPA held a fundraiser with a goal of $6,000 – enough for 200 kids to attend a screening. Within 24 hours they doubled that, and were eventually able to invite 350 youth and 100 parents and guardians.
Grassroots efforts to hold special private community screenings specifically for black youth and people of colour like the one held by the BBPA have popped up all across North America, usually promoted with the hashtag #BlackPantherChallenge. In the U.S., celebrities like Octavia Spencer, Serena Williams and Travis Scott have pitched in and bought out theatres, eager for kids to see the Afrofuturistic world of Wakanda.
For Andray Domise, one of the organizers of the BBPA’s screening, seeing an audience that has longed for this kind of representation in mainstream media makes it all worth it.
“I’m watching the faces of the people around me in that theatre,” Domise says. “I’m seeing the kids look up to these characters and I’m seeing that every time Black Panther comes on screen, or every time one of the Dora Milaje – that is the elite guard who are all women – come on screen, they’re just smiling so bright. And that’s really what we wanted to accomplish today.”
In just under a week since opening night, Black Panther has broken multiple box office projections. The film, featuring an African superhero and once considered a gamble for the studio, sold the most presale tickets for the first day of any Marvel movie. It made $192 million over Family Day weekend, coming in just behind The Avengers, which made $207.4 million over its first three days.
For the group from Generation Chosen, though, it was more than just a trip to see a popular movie.
When they meet on Tuesday nights at Emery Collegiate Institute, Generation Chosen’s sessions consist of lessons having to do with leadership, compassion and navigating life as young people of colour – sandwiched between games of pick-up basketball.
Their morning at the movies turned into a workshop as the kids, still in their seats after the film, discussed what they saw in Black Panther with their mentors.
“What do you think it would be like to live in Wakanda?,” Smith asks Fisher.
“I think it would be cool to live there, because you never know, I could be king,” Fisher says, laughing.
“What did you think of Killmonger, and did you think his anger was justified?,” Smith asks Maxlino about the film’s dynamic villain.
“I think partly [justified], but I think you can rise and overcome your circumstances,” says Maxlino. “Just because you come from a bad situation doesn’t mean you have to end up bad. You could be different.”
Fisher lingers on the film’s hero, T’Challa, and what he learned from him.
“How you can see the pain – like, how the pain could hit you but you can give the positive energy back towards the person who hit you with that negative pain,” says the 12-year-old. “I’m gonna use that towards school and life.”
Watch The National’s feature for more on the Generation Chosen kids’ screening of Black Panther: