Marvel Studios' Black Panther movie.

Marvel Studios' Black Panther movie. Credit: Marvel Studios 2018

Jamil Ragland says he buys tickets for every “black movie” that gets produced, even if he has no intention of seeing them in theaters. Call it supporting his peers.

He did it for “Selma,” and he did it for the “Annie” retread starring Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis. When “Black Panther” was announced, he didn’t hesitate.

“My goal was to make sure this movie made $1 billion, even if I had to see it five times myself,” Ragland - an accomplished writer, Trinity College alum and general booster for the city of Hartford - told me last week. “It’s a movie headlined by black men and women that is receiving universal acclaim and appeal. Let’s get it to that point of sales, like so many other movies do.”

I agree with Ragland. We all need to support this movie by seeing it. Corporations like Disney care only about the bottom line; let’s show them that there’s buying power in inclusiveness and multiculturalism, especially in a time when pundits and politicians want to divide us.

Marvel’s latest superhero vehicle has been out for a week and a half, but it isn’t losing steam. With more than $700 million at the box office as of Sunday, it already has smashed records. But the account of a fictional African monarch who moonlights as an armored crime fighter means so much more, to so many people, than raw profits.

And, in Hartford, it’s no different. The city’s library system has an art and history display in its Dwight branch inspired by the movie, curated by a black-and-Puerto Rican librarian reared in Hartford and created by a young, black artist also raised in the city.

On Monday, a lively community discussion about the movie was held in Asylum Hill, moderated by the Rev. Dr. Shelley Best, of the Conference of Churches. Best, through Facebook, helped crowdfund $800 to send 50 kids and adults to see the movie, with the help of RiseUP, a youth empowerment group in the city.

As so many other Hartford residents have told me, “Black Panther” has the potential to be a watershed moment for modern media. Movies, TV shows, even newspapers need to be more diverse and inclusive. And in a city with as rich a cultural tapestry as Hartford, there’s an opportunity to continue that theme long after this particular movie has been replaced with the next blockbuster popcorn flick.

“It’s a runaway train at this point,” said Christina Hill, the manager at the Dwight branch of the city’s public library. “We have to talk about diversity in the media and inclusion. And we can use the movie as a jumping off point to discuss larger issues.”

Hill knows this firsthand. A self-described “lifelong nerd,” Hill made a career out of the same spaces that guided her childhood: libraries. As she’ll eagerly tell you, comic books and her beloved “Star Trek” convey complex, mature themes underneath their seemingly juvenile veneer.

So when she heard about the wide release of a big-budget, Hollywood adaptation of the Black Panther character, she saw an opportunity to seize.

“For me, as a branch manager, it’s giving to the community the things that inspired me as a kid, and combining it with what inspires me as an adult,” Hill said.

Through the end of March, her branch will be decorated with original art created by Julien Skeete, a budding digital artist. Skeete’s paintings include depictions of the title character in the movie, but also representations of African culture as a whole.

They hang alongside historical photos of the Black Panther Party during protests in Hartford in the 1960s and the exhibit’s crown jewel: Archival footage of a community discussion held by the party at the SAND school in the wake of the riots in the North End at the time.

It’s a fantastic melding of culture and history, one that even casual viewers can ease into with the benefit of a pop culture lead-in. The results are already apparent: Members of the adjacent Parkville senior center enjoyed Skeete’s art so much, they asked him to create adult coloring-book pages. Their work now hangs alongside his in the gallery.

“People look at it and get to understand what inspired the movie,” Skeete said. “Kids see the pictures and say ’Is that Black Panther?’ And conversations spring up, naturally, around pan-African culture.”

It’s an important experience, Skeete says, and one he wishes he had as a kid. In his childhood, there weren’t many depictions of black heroes - as he put it, not many people who looked like him “fighting crime instead of committing crime.”

But this new movie and its lead character shifts that paradigm on a mass-market scale. The film’s fictional setting, Wakanda, is a country untouched by colonialism, a nation of Africans who remained self-sufficient with the help of the miracle metal vibranium.

“Right now, anywhere in America, you can walk into a movie and see a country where there are black people who are powerful and in control,” Ragland said. “You can see black people taking care of black people, having conversations about the fate of their country only attended by black people; the future of black leadership is being discussed only by black people.”

After Ragland saw the movie with his 10-year-old son, they had conversations about that theme of self-sufficiency, how to translate the theme as depicted in a fictional place into their very real, everyday lives.

“It doesn’t have to be a magic kingdom in a movie,” Ragland said. “It could be how our schools are segregated, how our streets are cleaned, how our loans are issued. It’s thinking about how we can deal with those issues in a way that doesn’t require us to go ask someone for something.”

Monday’s discussion in Asylum Hill featured that theme and many more.

The panelist of ministers, academics, activists and comic book fans discussed themes of family, heritage, ancestry, disenfranchisement and the scars of slavery still present in America.

And, of course, the powerful messages of feminism, as embodied by the strong, black heroines of “Black Panther.”

But the most beautiful aspect of that conversation was that it was intergenerational. The panelists and Best encouraged the kids in the room to speak up about how they felt about the movie. Whole families packed into the meeting space at 224 Farmington Ave. to listen to the discussion.

“I’m not a comic book fan, and I was unprepared for how much I was affected by it,” Kamora Herrington, the Mentoring Program Coordinator for True Colors Inc. and one of the panelists, said. “It had so many layers, so many powerful messages, that I have to watch it multiple times to peel it back and understand the full meaning.”

It was an honest 90 minutes of introspection and expression, all prompted by a movie that, on its face, is about a man who dresses up in a cat costume. But the movie is so much more than that, and it’s tapped into an excitement, a yearning to discuss these wider issues.

Let’s sustain that in Hartford, and beyond.

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