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By Adrienne Samuels Gibbs
Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ did it. Virginia’s Alfred Street Baptist Church did it too. And even in Memphis at New Direction Christian Church and in Los Angeles at Hill City Church, the pastors approved of it.
What is “it”? Buying out theaters for screenings of Black Panther, the first superhero movie in recent memory that features an all-Black cast, a Black director, Black stylists and makeup artists, a Black soundtrack, and a big budget, pro-Black piece of the Marvel universe. No, it does not carry the overt religious message of The Passion of the Christ, but church leaders say a culturally positive superhero story can be a boon for the faithful.
“This is mind-altering,” says Pastor Otis Moss III, the senior pastor of Trinity, a church that embraces spiritual discussions after major movie events. Moss’ church purchased 1,200 tickets to the movie – the equivalent of about seven theaters. “It’s important for the ‘family’ to see it together,” he says. He even is working on a study guide for Black Panther.
“People are truly excited to witness Africa viewed not as a struggling, destructive, painful continent, but to see Africa through the lens of African-centered eyes,” Moss says.
The moment is historic, and to hear the actors tell it, spiritual too.
By all measures, Black Panther is on track to exceed most advance ticket sales for big-budget films opening on President’s Day weekend as city after city sells out multiple theaters well in advance. Early estimates from Imax and Fandango placed opening ticket sales around $165 million before a single theater even showed the Ryan Coogler-directed film.
Churches play a big part in this economic engine. With congregations large and small buying out one to 10 theaters and watching the film with the “family,” sales are skyrocketing. The trend is clear. By encouraging members to watch the film in their finest African dress, and by also creating study guides and film talks to engage members, the body of Christ is embracing and anchoring the largest cultural moment of 2018.
This is the stuff a progressive Black church can get behind.
Moss, who has collected comic books since he was 10, can spout out the history of Black Panther and is fascinated with how the spirit of the king in this tale can transfer from person to person, but can only live within a person who has lived a life worthy of the spiritual possession. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. From a purely artistic standpoint, Moss shares this admiration of comic book storytelling and illustration with his children and encourages his congregation to use movies such as this one to help envision a just future and a world where Black power is embraced.
“I had decided (about the screening) when I saw the trailer months ago,” says Moss, who is uniquely positioned to discuss movies and spirituality because he studied cinematography in college and very nearly went to grad school for it. He points out that Superman was originally a superhero for Jews, and the X-Men were originally created to embrace the differing ideas of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Black Panther gives historians and spiritualists a lot to decipher.
“Our study guide will talk about the real Wakanda: ancient Egypt and ancient Ethiopia, Timbuktu, great Zimbabwe,” Moss explains. “All these incredible African nations we were not taught about in school and the African origins of Christianity and Judaism and its connection to Islam. The Black Panther gives us a springboard to lift off the lid about racism and colonization.”
Trinity bought out eight theaters in a predominantly Black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. When members arrive, they will be greeted by drummers, photographers, and a festive, celebratory atmosphere.
Leaders at Alfred Street Baptist bought out 885 seats–or around six screenings–at a theater near the church with three staggered start times.
Like Trinity, this is not Alfred Street’s first movie rodeo. But unlike Trinity, Black Panther is intensely personal to the congregation, Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley says. That’s because member Jesse Holland was the writer commissioned to pen the Marvel accompanying book, “Who Is The Black Panther?”
“If there is anything worth, as a family of faith, us to go and watch—we purchase the theater,” Wesley explains. “Jesse Holland is a member of our church … That made it even easier for us to support it. He will be there to give commentary. He’ll be leading our Faith and Film series. We thought this was a great way [to support] given the magnitude of the film.”
Alfred Street plans to gather in small groups for discussion afterward. And the pastor, who has a 10-year-old who will attend the screening, also is using it as a way to further connect with the kids. “It keeps church relevant,” he adds and laughs when describing his outfit for the event. He will definitely be “daishiki’d up,” he says.
“If the church only deals with stuff that was in the Bible, we would have no relevance in the world,” Wesley says. “Our mission is not to sit around and have prayer meetings and read the Bible. Members are going to see it and why don’t we see it as a family together.”
Many other churches would seem to agree judging from the large number of Black Panther screening Facebook invites swarming social media. Everyone is going to see it.
At New Direction Church, church leader Dr. Stacy L. Spencer hopes the men get some uplift from it, as a way to counter the effect of Black men being killed by police.
“Young men are inundated day in and day out with negative images and it’s emotionally castrating to them,” says Spencer, whose four-campus ministry has helped more than 25,000 people. “There has been a desert as it relates to a cultural icon, a superhero that young Black kids can rally around… To take young people to a movie and to imagine us as strong, to imagine us as heroic is a spiritual B-12 shot, a cultural B-12 shot… They can be heroes as well.”
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs is a Chicago-based writer whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Forbes and Essence. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two young sons who, sadly, are a wee bit too young for Wakanda part one. But for part two, they’ll be ready.
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