The second Chadwick Boseman’s character — Prince T’Challa, aka Black Panther — leapt into action two years ago in “Captain America: Civil War,” Marvel fan Kira Coelho was excited.
“He’s the coolest cat, literally speaking,” said Coelho, a Salt Lake City after-school education consultant who cosplays under the name Kiki Furia.
Since that appearance of Marvel Comics’ distinctly African superhero, Coelho and other “blerds” — “black nerds,” as she says — in Utah and elsewhere have been anticipating the day when T’Challa got to headline his own movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
That day has come, with this weekend’s opening of “Black Panther,” and African-American geeks are ready.
“As a kid, you want to find someone who looks like you,” said Jay Whittaker, a Salt Lake City stand-up comic and actor, and a contributor to the popular Geek Show Podcast.
“It’s nice to have a hero that looks like me, but with more hair,” said Robert Neal, a systems engineer working in West Valley City. Regulars at the Salt Lake Comic Convention have seen Neal cosplay as Nick Fury, the chrome-domed organizer of the Avengers played by Samuel L. Jackson.
“You can look in the mirror and say, ‘There is somebody [onscreen] with features like mine, and has had experiences like mine,’” Neal said.
That kind of representation, Neal said, is important in a place like Utah, where African-Americans make up less than 2 percent of the population.
“There’s a segment of the population here that until the last 10 or 15 years hasn’t seen [African-Americans] outside of sports figures,” Neal said.
Coelho said she wasn’t sure what to expect when a Utah audience saw “Black Panther” for the first time, but at a preview screening this week, she said, “everybody was cool and lively.”
Anticipation for “Black Panther” has been widespread. The movie-ticket site Fandango reported that advance sales for it broke the record for a superhero movie two weeks before the movie’s opening. And a survey for the website YouGov reported that 74 percent of African-Americans planned to see the movie, compared with 55 percent of the overall population.
Neal said he and T’Challa “grew up together.” Black Panther first appeared in Marvel Comics in 1966 (the character predates the political movement of the same name by a few months), both in books under that name and in other characters’ storylines. “I read him mostly in ‘The Avengers,’ occasionally in ‘Fantastic Four,’” Neal said.
T’Challa is prince, and later king, of Wakanda, a fictional African nation that is blessed with prosperity and technology — because it is the only country that mines vibranium, the super-strong metal that is the main ingredient in Captain America’s shield.
Wakanda, noted Paul White, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah, “is the great ‘what if’ of Marvel: What if colonization had not hit a country in Africa?”
“Wakanda’s a place where slavery damn near never existed,” Whittaker said.
Because Wakanda was never conquered by Europeans, White said, “they are so advanced scientifically, but also spiritually in a communal way. … There is this mythical world out there where a black person is leading not out of fear, not in juxtaposition to a white leader, not out of some duplicitous way of gaining control.”
The fact that Wakanda has hidden itself from the rest of the world, Coelho said, is symbolic of how many African-Americans feel about themselves.
“Do I open up and let people in? Do I show who I really am, even though they may already have a stereotype against me? Or do I just keep to myself and keep to my culture, where I know I am safe?” she said. “You are a king in your world, you are a queen in your world, but you’re also an outsider.”
Whittaker said “Black Panther” is that rare movie “where African-American culture and African culture are not represented as slaves, hoodlums, crack pushers, dealers and thugs. … It’s fantasy, but it’s also reality.”
For black kids, Coelho said, the movie “does wonders. … To know they’re looking at this superhero, and relate to him just skin color, is impactful on its own, because, ‘Hey, there’s somebody like me there.’”
“Black history’s very important, but this movie is about a black future,” Whittaker said. “We know what we are, we know where we’ve been, and I’m excited to see where we could be.”