These are some of the things the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference is known for: policy talk for the black community, mixed in with big parties, behind-the-scenes shenanigans and profilin’ outfits.
This year was the same, with one huge exception : The panel put together by first-term Rep. Val Demmings (from Florida’s 10th District) on the upcoming Marvel film Black Panther and STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) fields.
Most first-term congressional members go for a safe, easy panel on the environment, maybe find a B-level political pundit or celebrity to talk about health care, or slam Donald Trump. But Demmings went big.
“They can’t say yes if you don’t ask,” she said, smiling when discussing how she put her panel together.
Demmings used her connections with Disney (the Disney World Orlando theme park is located in the 10th District) to put on a panel called “Imagining a Bigger World—Marvel’s Black Panther, Cultural Heritage and STEM,” which premiered five minutes of exclusive footage from the upcoming Black Panther movie.
Yes, THAT Black Panther movie. The one with the trailer that broke the internet. The one with every single black actor in Hollywood not already cast on BET or TV One. The one directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), who is the most recognizable brother out of Oakland, Calif., not named Marshawn Lynch.
We saw the trailer. We laughed, we cried, we tried to make a time machine to get to February faster, and now we’re sharing what we saw with you.
While other people lined up for panel discussions about how to battle HIV in the Trump era or juvenile-justice reform, about 150 or so people lined up quietly, then filed into a small lecture hall to catch a glimpse of an imaginary African country that is about to completely transform Marvel superhero movies and Hollywood in general.
While some of the footage had been shown during Comicon this summer, this was the first time Black Panther footage would be seen by a 95 percent black audience. It was like a test screening for a movie we’d already bought tickets for in our heads.
Moderator Jay Harris of ESPN introduced the star-studded panel, including director Coogler; actress Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead); Belinda Frazier, head of diversity and outreach at Disney; Nate Moore, the film’s executive producer; and Rick Loverd, the director of Science and Entertainment Exchange at the National Academy of Sciences.
Seriously, this was like the fantasy version of a black science-and-comic-nerd panel. After somberly reading the “You better not pirate this clip or Disney will hunt you down and everyone you’ve ever loved” speech, the lights were dimmed and the footage came up on-screen. Here are the highlights:
The trailer opens with King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in a black tailored suit walking into a red-carpeted casino with a Dora Milaje (the special all-female Wakandan royal security force) on each arm—Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira). They’re scoping out the place, talking through hidden microphones, looking for mercenary Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis).
Klaue arrives with about 10 goons and starts bragging about what’s in his pants (literally) and trying to negotiate a deal with Agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) for a briefcase holding a small sample of an ore called vibranium. One of his goons notices the Dora Milaje, the deal goes bad, bullets start flying, and everybody was kung fu fighting.
The action is kinetic, like a mixture of Coogler’s fight scenes from Creed and the manic bullet ballets from Kingsman movies. Okoye and Nakia pull out spears and start fighting off henchmen, and T’Challa is diving over tables while Klaue is shooting at Ross, T’Challa and everyone else to make his escape. T’Challa effortlessly makes a 20-foot leap into the upper balcony to chase after Klaue, only to have to dodge a slew of lasers as Klaue’s hand transforms into a cannon of some kind. Then the scene ends.
In the next scene, T’Challa is seen running through brightly lit city streets chasing an SUV. As he runs, his formal casino wear morphs around his body, seamlessly changing him into the Black Panther costume.
Black Panther jumps on top of the fleeing SUV while you see Okoye pull out a gigantic golden spear and throw it in front of the vehicle, where it props up like a light post. The car smashes full speed into the spear. The spear holds its ground as the car flips over, and as it does, you see Black Panther leap from the top of the roof of the car, onto a nearby building, where he begins to run up the side—like Spider-Man, but with better coordination.
Next you see Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T’Challa prepare to battle in the sacred falls that have been shown in previous trailers. It’s clear that in the movie, King T’Challa will be challenged several times for leadership of Wakanda in ritual combat.
As T’Challa and Killmonger square off, you see a red battle suit similar to Black Panther’s form around Killmonger, and he leaps at the king. They fight, kicking, punching and swinging, before falling off a waterfall together, fighting all the way down into the cloudy waters below.
In what appears to be another leadership challenge, M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of the White Gorilla Cult, steps out of a cave into the sacred lake to battle T’Challa. He’s much larger than Wakanda’s king and wears a large mask that resembles an ape.
After that, there are a series of quick scenes showing Black Panther dropping out of a airplane, a secret lab full of weapons and Black Panther suits being tested, more butt-kicking, and Michael B. Jordan scowling at T’Challa.
When the trailer ended, the room cheered, once we stopped wiping tears of absolute joy from our eyes. The panel seemed legitimately thrilled with their work: Gurira smiled like a kid who knows she’s going to win the science fair, and Coogler was amped to answer questions.
An audience member asked how technology derived from vibranium—the rare ore found only in Wakanda that is part of everything from Captain America’s shield to Ultron’s robot army—played a role in how they set up the film. Coogler compared Wakanda’s relationship with vibranium to the Congo’s relationship with the mineral coltan in the real world.
Most people don’t realize, but coltan is one of the most vital minerals on planet Earth. Due to its unique properties, coltan is in every cellphone, electric car and missile-guidance system in the world, and it’s pretty much only found in the Congo.
The Congo has been attacked, colonized and renamed several times over the years, but imagine if that didn’t happen? Imagine if the Congolese discovered and capitalized on coltan technology, and managed to fight off Western colonization. How might that nation have evolved? Just how powerful would it have become?
That’s the story of Wakanda, with super-smooth black royal superheroes thrown into the mix.
“We asked ourselves, did the vibranium make Wakandans special, or were Wakandans already something special and made something of vibranium? We decided it was the Wakandans,” said Coogler.
Panelists talked about everything from vibranium’s impact on Wakandan aeronautics to the cultural importance of seeing a movie about black people running a black country for little black children all over the world. (Black Panther will actually have a cross-nation release on the African continent, in addition to opening in the United States, a first for Disney films.)
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” remarked panelist Rick Loverd, who pointed out that in the years after the Hunger Games films and Pixar’s release of Brave, there was a 50 percent increase in girls signing up for archery classes.
He said he believes that Black Panther will spark interest in science and tech as well as travel to Africa in a whole generation of black Americans who’ve never seen this kind of rich cultural depiction before.
Everything about this movie screams international adventure, action and cultural resonance that few Marvel movies, if not movies, period, have ever accomplished.
If you can’t wait till February to get your Black Panther experience going, don’t worry. According to the panel, the toys drop before Christmas.