Note: The following story reveals minor plot details from Black Panther.
"I've always wanted to make a change and (Black Panther) really made me aware that I can make a change through anything I want or any career I want," says Ypsilanti Community High School student Emerson Wilson. "It made me realize how much potential I have and how much I can make a change for my country, for my people, for my society."
Wilson was among 150 Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) students who cheered for Wakanda's victories and groaned at its defeats during a special private screening of Marvel's highly-anticipated film Black Panther on Friday. The screening was funded by a highly successful crowdfunding campaign organized by Ypsi resident Jermaine Dickerson. Dickerson is the founder of Hero Nation, an Ypsi-based organization dedicated to amplifying the voices of marginalized or underrepresented people by empowering them through superhero-related experiences.
"Our mission is to help people discover and celebrate the hero within, so we want to do that with things like this, by taking the youth to see this movie," Dickerson says. "By them seeing themselves projected on this big screen in this really fantastical, larger-than-life narrative, they may discover the hero within and they may be eager to celebrate it."
Dickerson was originally inspired to start the crowdfunding campaign because he believes representation is important. He thinks Black Panther has the potential to impact young people because the movie focuses on strong, intelligent black characters from the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Dickerson thinks Black Panther provides another talking point about race and culture, so it can encourage conversations about black excellence.
"This could be the thing that inspires them to do something great with their lives," Dickerson says. "It could be the thing that ignites a fire, or gives them hope, or gives them some liberation, or makes them feel valued, despite going through possible hardships at home or school or whatever."
On Friday morning, the students loaded onto buses outside of Ypsilanti Community High School, 2095 Packard St. in Ypsi, and headed to Rave Cinemas, 4100 Carpenter Rd., in Pittsfield Township for the special movie screening. When it was over, the students returned to the high school for a special assembly, where all of them received goody bags containing Black Panther and Hero Nation swag and some of them picked out superhero-related raffle prizes.
Students went home with items including books, comics, and Black Lives Matter pins. Dickerson wanted to make sure he provided the students with tools so they can take the empowerment they felt after seeing the movie and transform it into something creative or intellectual.
"Whether they decide to pursue that or not, that's entirely up to them," he says. "But we want to at least give them the opportunity and the resources to churn that imagination, or that inspiration, or that drive or empowerment into something powerful."
The students were proud to see so many talented black actors share the screen and portray groundbreaking characters. Desiree Turner was really excited to see Black Panther because she's a big fan of Marvel movies. Since black people usually aren't depicted as superheroes, she was happy the movie featured so many characters with whom she could identify. She hopes to see more movies like Black Panther in the future.
Many of the students were inspired by the movie's displays of female empowerment because it showed that women can fight alongside or against men. Kelise Johnson and Daleceia Noblin enjoyed seeing female characters who didn't give up and continued to fight for what they believed in. They were especially moved by the image of W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) kneeling before his love interest Okoye (Danai Gurira) during their confrontation at the end of the movie.
"I think representation is important because I feel like a lot of times black girls can feel torn down, like they're not good enough," Johnson says. "I feel like this movie brought out the fact that we are good enough … and we can accomplish anything … and we are strong and we come from strong ancestors and strong people."
Noblin liked how Black Panther reflected the diversity of African culture because she thinks it's important for black people to stay in touch with their ancestral roots. Johnson appreciated how the movie offered a different depiction of Africa by portraying Wakanda as a global leader in futuristic technology, when African countries are normally shown as poverty-stricken.
The conflict between the film's protagonist and antagonist reminded Wilson of the civil rights movement. Both of them have similar goals, to help their people, but they have completely different ideas of how to make that happen. Wilson pointed out that T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is like Martin Luther King, Jr. because he thinks violence should be avoided and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is like Malcom X because he believes in armed self-defense.
"It was really inspiring because black children don't really see a lot of black heroes in our society, especially," Wilson says. "I feel like there was a deeper message behind everything and it was trying to give awareness to black children."
In early January, Dickerson launched the crowdfunding campaign to host the special screening, with the goal of raising $3,000 within five days. After sharing the campaign on his social media channels, it ended up raising $3,000 in a day and went on to raise over $10,000 in a week. Dickerson's campaign even predated New York-based activist Frederick Joseph's viral fundraising effort, called the Black Panther Challenge, which raised more than $400,000 for screenings all over the world. Dickerson believes people's willingness to donate money for the screenings shows the importance of representation.
Since Dickerson's crowdfunding campaign raised three times more money than it intended, about half of it will be used for other Hero Nation events. Dickerson is still in the conceptual stages of deciding what kinds of events he wants to host in the future, but he wants to ensure they're strategically impactful.
Dickerson plans to spend much of 2018 learning from other individuals and organizations so he can absorb information to help him determine how he wants Hero Nation to move forward. In 2019, he plans to host the second Hero Nation-Ypsilanti comic con, as a followup to the inaugural comic con hosted at Parkridge Community Center, 591 Armstrong Dr., this past September.
"I love the community here … what it's given to me and what I've learned from it," Dickerson says. "I'm truly humbled and appreciative of that, so I wanted to give back and I will continue to give back to the people who I truly believe need this kind of thing."
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.