TORONTO – Seeing black culture projected through the lens of Marvel’s hotly anticipated superhero movie “Black Panther” is giving actress Danai Gurira a new sense of empowerment.
While she’s already a successful playwright and star on TV’s “The Walking Dead,” it’s her role as a warrior leader in the film that feels particularly important to her. Even before it hits theatres on Friday, the movie is drumming up social media enthusiasm that would leave even the latest “Star Wars” films envious.
Viewers have rented out theatres to watch “Black Panther” with their friends, online fundraisers — including some in Toronto and Halifax — have raised money to buy young black kids tickets, while at least one Atlanta school is sending all of its students to see the movie, coupled with classes on African art, dance and music.
“The anticipation has been so powerful,” Gurira said. “That I could not have predicted.”
Watching the movie for the first time at its Los Angeles premiere a few weeks ago only ratcheted up her excitement for its potential — it is the first big-budget superhero movie with a predominantly black cast.
Sitting inside a packed theatre with her co-stars — including Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o — she listened to the audience respond excitedly as her character Okoye fended off henchmen with a golden spear.
“I’d just reach around and grab Michael B. Jordan’s calf every now and then like, ‘Oh my gosh,'” she recalls of her reaction.
“I’ve never seen myself in this sort of character, I’ve never seen this world before. Though we created it, I’ve never seen it actualized.”
Moviegoers appear similarly enthused about the prospects for “Black Panther” as it heads towards an expected US$150 million opening weekend.
Ticket presales have already surpassed all other superhero movies — including blockbusters like “Marvel’s The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight” — through U.S. online seller Fandango.
The film is among a number of black superhero projects underway right now, with Netflix’s “Luke Cage” and “Black Lightning” already showing on TV screens. But the release of “Black Panther” is widely being seen as a pivotal moment for diversity in cinema, and it comes on the heels of another major coup for representation.
Last summer, audiences flocked to theatres for “Wonder Woman” and many women spoke about fighting tears as they watched the character single-handedly battle her opponents. In a genre that often relegates women to supporting story arcs, it felt almost revolutionary for a superhero movie to give top billing to a female character.
While “Black Panther” is getting much of its attention for its black cast, it’s actually the women who steal the show. They’re witty, often make decisions for the tribe and drive the plot in ways “Wonder Woman” fell short.
Guirira said the cast collaborated with director Ryan Coogler to build depth into their characters, which included bringing a “complex specificity” to the women of the film.
“You get to contribute … have your thoughts considered and bring in ideas,” said the American actress who grew up in Zimbabwe.
“That was something that allowed us to feel a great ownership. Even more so as female artists and creatives we felt … like true and full participants.”
Gurira wouldn’t say which flourishes she added to her character or the story.
“You keep that stuff — that’s fam. That’s family stuff,” she said.
“We go into a cocoon and metamorphosize this little caterpillar of a script into the butterfly of a film.”
Gurira said she’s hopeful this marks a turning point for filmmakers and executives to experiment outside the formula of superhero movies.
“It’s setting a precedent, it’s breaking a barrier,” she said.
We need “more of these diverse, varying stories on this massive platform. It’s exciting and it’s definitely time.”
Follow @dfriend on Twitter.