U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy took a trip to the mythical African country of Wakanda on Sunday night. But he wasn’t visiting on official business.
He invited along 50 of his younger New Haven constituents.
Many of them had already made the trip to Wakanda for one of the season’s biggest cultural phenomenon of the year once (or twice, or three times) before.
Sen. Murphy organized for 50 New Haven teens from four local youth groups — Solar Youth, LEAP, the Boys & Girls Club of New Haven, and Youth Continuum — to join him on Sunday at North Haven’s Cinemark movie theater for a 5 p.m. screening of Black Panther, the new Marvel superhero movie that follows the fight between T’Challa, the king of the isolated, peaceful African utopia of Wakanda, and Erik Killmonger, a righteous and jaded challenger to the throne from inner-city Oakland.
Directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita N’yongo, the movie distinguishes itself from other action blockbusters not just by its serious engagement with the tensions between internationalism and isolationism. The movie is also the rare Hollywood product to focus authentically and positively on African and African-American characters and stories. Even more noticeably for mainstream American cinema, the creative team both behind and in front of the camera are almost entirely black.
“I’ve seen it three times already,” said Jackie Hines, 16, who came to the screening with Solar Youth.
She said that her favorite character was Shuri, T’Challa’s precocious and witty sister, played by Letitia Wright. She said that she loved watching Shuri help T’Challa drive through a high-speed chase in South Korea, even though she was back in her lab in Wakanda. She loved how confident and fun Shuri was in her mastery of the technology that upheld Wakandan society.
Her fellow Solar Youth student Tailyn Robinson, 15, agreed.
“She’s so wavy,” Robinson said about Shuri with a smile. “She comes up with all the best stuff.”
Who’s The Good Guy? The Bad Guy?
After the screening, Murphy left the theater with several counselors from LEAP and asked what they thought about the movie’s portrayal of Killmonger as a thoroughly understandable and, at points, relatable villain. Killmonger’s father was murdered in a high-rise in Oakland; much of his anger and thirst for international revolution as an adult stems from a longing to see black people seize control of societies that they have all too long been oppressed by.
“I think the original king was more right,” said Terrance Mallory, Jr., 20, about T’Challa’s emphasis on peaceful economic and educational outreach as a means of combating racial inequality. “Killmonger just grew up tough. Dude was right, but I think he just had the wrong way of going about it.”
“It’s absolutely fascinating,” Murphy said. “I had no idea who I was rooting for for most of the movie. I wasn’t sure who the good guy was and who the bad guy was until nearly the end.”
Mallory said that, on this second viewing of Black Panther, he was most struck by how motivated Killmonger was to look after people suffering around the world. “His motivation came from knowing that there was a better world,” he said. “He just wanted that better world.”
Gornelle Hunter, a 17-year-old LEAP counselor, said that she never really felt sympathy for Killmonger, especially when he started beating on old, female residents of Wakanda.
“I did understand where he was coming from,” she said, “but I didn’t really have sympathy for him.”
Mykah Knight, 17, said that she loved Black Panther for doing something that she never sees in superhero movies: dealing with real-life issues, and, specifically, dealing with real-life issues faced by black people.
“This movie was all about the roots of the black community versus the urban black community,” she said. “I like that. It’s not really just black against white, sometimes it’s black against black as well. There are so many issues within our own culture.”
Tytianie Brown, 15, said that she was fascinated by Killmonger’s unfettered motivation to seize control of the Wakandan throne. But she was also interested seeing Black Panther another time for a more conventional, but no less valid, cinematic reason. “Michael B. Jordan is cute,” she said.
Many of the New Haven teens in attendance did not know that they had watched and were talking about Black Panther with a U.S. senator until Murphy introduced himself.
“My name’s Chris,” he said halfway through a conversation with one group of teens. “I’m the senator from Connecticut.”
“Oohh!” the kids all said at once.
What About Washington?
When the teens knew just whom they were talking to, the conversation quickly changed from being just about the movie to being about Murphy’s work in Washington.
“As far as gun violence goes,” one member of the Boys & Girls Club contingent asked, “what seems to be happening? What action is happening? Because we hear a lot of words, but we don’t see much happening.”
Murphy agreed. He said that he too is frustrated by a Republican-controlled Congress that is sympathetic to gun-lobbying groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and therefore extremely reluctant to pass even basic gun background check and safety measures.
“We’re having a very hard time passing any legislation because gun companies are so influential in Congress right now,” he said. “The gun companies don’t want any of these laws passed because they want to sell guns to anybody and everybody.”
He told the teens that he was only 24 when he first ran for political office, and that he was the youngest U.S. senator when he was elected in 2012.
He said he hopes that if enough people are dissatisfied with politicians who refuse to respond to their concerns about gun violence in this country, then the people will vote those politicians out of office and elect ones who are more sympathetic to their concerns, or simply run for office themselves.