Press screenings aren’t at all representative of what it’s like to roll up to a theater with your friends to see the latest blockbuster. Everyone’s fixated on the screen, and the movie’s jokes may get a laugh or two, but because most everyone there is there working, it’s just not the same as sitting back and just having fun.
Like a lot of people across the world, I saw Marvel’s Black Panther multiple times this weekend because I wanted to pore deeply over the film’s narrative layers and drink in the visual richness that is Wakanda. But as I hopped around from theater to theater in New York City, something else—something beautiful about the movie—became clear for me: The only way to really appreciate how powerful Black Panther is is to see it in a black movie theater with a predominantly black audience.
Because of how close it is to my apartment, the AMC Magic Johnson in Harlem is where I’ve ended up seeing nearly every Marvel movie for the past few years, but the atmosphere in the theater this past Friday was unlike anything I’d ever experienced there before. Long before even stepping foot inside the building, you could tell who had made their way to Harlem specifically to see Black Panther and how, for many people, the night was part of a bigger cultural event. In the light of the lobby, you could see groups of women rocking gorgeously styled geles and excitedly stanning in front of larger-than-life cutouts of Danai Gurira’s Okoye in her Wakandan finest.
Kids in panther masks weaved their way in and out of the ridiculously long line of people waiting to scan their tickets, and even though the place was hectic, you could feel just how pumped everyone was—not just for the movie itself but also to be celebrating something like Black Panther in a distinctly black space.
No two audiences react to a film the exact same way, but what was enlivening about sitting in a theater full of black families and friends was the way everyone was able to fall into different rhythms with the movie while watching it together.
Moments like T’Challa’s fight against M’Baku atop Warrior Falls drew everyone together in support of the royal family, but you could sense a distinct divide grow in the audience as Erik Killmonger argued his case for an expansionist Wakanda. Every time the camera trained its focus on Michael B. Jordan (especially while he was shirtless), someone made a point of reminding everyone just what a vision he is to look at. But just moments later, someone on the opposite side of the theater never missed a chance to (lovingly) tut and suck their teeth in disapproval of Killmonger’s extremism. Just as Black Panther was engaged in a very specific kind of dialogue with the audience, we were engaging with one another in real time—a call-and-response of sorts about the story developing before our eyes.
There were more than a few scenes—usually after one of Shuri’s flawless zingers—where the entire theater erupted into laughter that drowned out a few seconds of dialogue that no one could hear. In those moments, it didn’t feel as if anyone was missing out on the movie but, rather, that as a collective, we all slipped into a comfortable familiarity with and understanding of one another that was more important than the specifics of the plot.
Black Panther’s online hype is a force to be reckoned with, but it doesn’t quite capture how profoundly moving it is to see rows full of little black girls and boys staring up in wonder at the Dora Milaje while they’re kicking ass and taking names. They saw themselves on-screen in Black Panther’s heroes and its villains, and I saw myself in them—young and vibrant and inspired by the very idea of futuristic, distinctly African blackness destined to save the world from itself.
None of this was exactly the case at the screening on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that I attended later in the weekend. The lines were just as long and the excitement was still palpable, but the sense of togetherness and kinship was missing. There were no families posing in front of the Black Panther cardboard stand-ups with their arms proudly crossed in X’s over their chests, or carefully placed kente cloth accents as part of people’s ensembles. I enjoyed the movie all the same, but I couldn’t help feeling as if something important was missing from the experience, and I don’t know that it’s something the theater could have replicated even if it wanted to.
Wakanda itself may not be a real place, but the magic and wonder that Black Panther presents to us is. It’s the magic and wonder that all black people know we’re more than capable of creating in the world when we come together and rally behind a cause, and it’s something that can never be celebrated enough. That power and sense of connectedness is the narrative foundation upon which Black Panther is built, and it’s something that’s best experienced in the company of other black people.