When I was a little kid, my mom and I had this weekend ritual. We’d get up real early … hop on the couch … grab some blankets and pillows … and then watch movie after movie together.
This was back in the ’90s, when VCRs were still a thing. So we’d have a big stack of VHS rentals ready to go in the morning. And then we’d spend the entire rest of the day … just … getting lost. Getting lost in all of these different worlds. It was comedies, it was dramas, it was action — and, yeah, some kids’ stuff thrown into the mix every now and again. We’d watch movies for hours, all day long, until it was time to go to bed.
Those days were the best. And so when people ask me now why I watch as many movies as I do in my spare time, I tell them it comes from my mom. Here’s how real my mom and I got about our movies, back in the day: We had one of those ultrafast tape-rewinding machines, made for people who couldn’t wait the full two minutes to rewind their tape in the VCR. You know what I’m talking about? You’d throw the tape in, slam down this compartment, push a button — and then, bam. Ten seconds later you had a fully rewound movie.
It was serious, man. We weren’t messing around.
Once I got a bit older, my mom started taking me to the theater pretty much every weekend to check out the new releases. The first film I remember seeing was Set It Off — that movie where Jada Pinkett and Queen Latifah play characters who rob a bunch of banks and lots of people get shot.
Pretty sure that one’s Rated R, so y’all please don’t tell the MPAA — but I was seven at the time.
I loved it.
I was just mesmerized. There was more action than I could even keep up with … all on this big, huge screen, towering over us … it’s like we were right there. I was definitely way too young to understand everything that was going on — but there was still this, like, language of movies that had me hooked immediately. Even the parts I didn’t get … I got. The longer the movie went on, the closer I was to the edge of my seat.
Near the end of Set It Off, there’s this scene where Queen Latifah, who plays Cleo, is driving a getaway car and the cops are chasing her. She realizes there’s no escape, so she puts her foot on the gas and just drives through the cops as she’s hit by a bunch of bullets. Then she gets out of the car and gets shot up again.
Yo, that crushed me.
I think the first time I ever cried during a movie was when Mufasa died in The Lion King, which is probably pretty normal for kids. But then the second time I ever cried was when I saw Cleo die in that hail of bullets.
I still remember the moment — sitting there bawling, feeling these chills, while all this sad music played in the background. And I also remember how, for a second, I took my eyes off the screen to look around at the rest of the theater real quick. And it was crazy — everyone else, they were doing the same thing I was. Whole room was full of tears. It was like a funeral. It’s like we were all in this moment together.
And that’s movies — that’s the experience they can deliver when everything comes together just right. The right script … featuring the right cast … shot the right way … with the right score … watched at the right time in your life … there’s nothing like it. It’s beyond entertainment.
It’s true escape.
Of course — when I was seven, and I was just grateful to be watching these cool-ass movies, the absolute last thing on my mind was escape. Back then, I didn’t think twice about the real world, or the real-world contexts in which movies existed. I honestly did not notice that Set It Off was “different” from the other movies being screened at the theater that day. And I definitely didn’t consider the different career arcs of its stars … or the different makeup of the audience … or the different math for how many major films that year were made by directors of color.
I just held my breath, gripped the armrests, and enjoyed the ride.
And because my mom always made sure that movies like Set It Off, Juice, Higher Learning, Big Momma’s House, Friday and a whole bunch of others starring our favorite black actors were in heavy rotation at our house, I never felt like those movies were outliers in any way. They were just, you know … movies. Just like Good Will Hunting, and Fight Club, and Mission: Impossible were movies.
What I didn’t realize at the time, was that I only really saw people who looked like me in movies because my mom went out of her way to make it happen.
When I was 10, my mom took me to go see The Wood, and I could instantly see myself in Omar Epps’s character, Mike. There were some differences, of course — but I had moved around some growing up, and often was the only black kid in a predominantly white community. And Mike is the same way in The Wood: this black kid who bounced around a lot and has to try to fit in. He had to go to a new school, and handle himself in some tough spots, just like I did.
Getting to see that experience on the big screen … it really made an impression on me. It made me feel a connection. And again — I probably didn’t understand the full dimensions of it at the time, of what it meant to feel represented on film. But even still. There was just something about that movie, and that specific character, that left this huge mark on me — and really helped me to navigate the life I was leading.
I guess you could say it made me feel less alone in the world.
Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune
It wasn’t until around my senior year of high school, or maybe even my first year of college, that I think I first started to think more critically about the movies I was watching — and about how Hollywood seemed to work. I began to notice how few actors of color were starring in the movies that had the biggest budgets, or that got the most Oscar recognition.
I also began to notice the types of roles that black actors were playing, when they did happen to appear in these movies. It became clear to me that Hollywood was comfortable casting a black actor as the “fun-loving best friend” (Dave Chappelle in You’ve Got Mail) … or the “drug dealer” (Dave Chappelle in Con Air) … or the “generic criminal” (Dave Chappelle in Blue Streak). But as the leading man? As the star that all the kids look up to, and want to be? With a few exceptions (Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and maybe a handful of others), not really. Sadly, even to this day, those are the main roles that black men get in movies. And for women of color, it’s even worse: It’s mostly prostitutes, and drug abusers, and nannies, and maids, and on and on.
And here’s the thing: Those images — repeated over and over again, as they are in Hollywood — can cause damage. They can do real harm. I’m not going to pretend I’m some psychologist or anything, but trust me from personal experience. Seeing that stuff on the big screen, time after time after time … it makes you feel bad about yourself.
It seeps in.
In college, my roommate and I would have movie nights two or three times a week. We’d order pizza and cheese sticks at around 10 p.m., and then we’d settle in for a marathon of old-school stuff from the ’90s. Could be Friday, Friday After Next, Boyz in the Hood, Sixth Man, Money Talks, Love and Basketball, O, White Men Can’t Jump — you get the picture. I wouldn’t say we were consciously choosing “black” movies or anything … but those were just our favorites that we grew up on. That was our nostalgia.
And by that point it had also become clear as day to me that, outside of a select few, most of my favorite black actors who starred in all of those “black” movies that I loved … they simply were not getting major roles in the “mainstream” movies that I also loved. I don’t even remember being bitter about it. It was more just … sad. I remember being like — Where’s Morris Chestnut in L.A. Confidential? Why isn’t Eddie Murphy in Lost in Translation? Couldn’t Omar Epps have been in The Usual Suspects?
I recognized that Hollywood seems to have a lot of great roles available for guys like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson — and don’t get me wrong, I love those guys. But talented black actors seem to get left behind. Even after Cuba Gooding Jr. won an Oscar for his work in Jerry Maguire, there he was a few years later, showing up in, like, Daddy Day Camp. And Boat Trip. And Snow Dogs.
Come on, y’all. Snow Dogs?
And that’s what makes it all so frustrating. It seems like even when a black actor does receive mainstream recognition, or a big-time award … for one reason or another, it doesn’t translate into more opportunities at that level.
Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune
It’s just stuff like that. Subtle things, maybe a little below the surface. But once you realize them, and really see what’s going on … once you understand how the system actually works … it’s hard for movie-watching to ever be the same. Which isn’t to say I don’t still watch movies like crazy. I do — and I’ll be a movie lover for life. But it’s just that little bit harder, you know, once you sit up and realize, Man, this thing I love … it’s rarely “for” people like me. It’s rarely “by” people like me. And it’s rarely “about” people like me.
So where does someone like me fit in?
It’s funny — a lot of people were surprised when Black Panther ended up making over a billion dollars at the box office. Actually, you know what? Hang on. Let me get this exactly right.
A lot of people were surprised when Black Panther ended up making $1,078,615,601.00 — and counting — at the box office. A lot of people were surprised when a lower-priority Marvel movie, made by a black writer/director and a mostly black cast, became a global phenomenon: with the No. 5 opening weekend of all time, and some of the best reviews in comic-book movie history.
A lot of people were surprised that Black Panther became something bigger than a movie.
But not me.
Nah — not if you know what it’s like to grow up waiting for a movie like this your entire life.
Not if you know what it’s like to be a good, loyal fan — buying tickets to Marvel movie after Marvel movie, DC movie after DC movie, staying patient — even while knowing that the best you’re going to do, in terms of seeing someone like yourself, is a sidekick.
If you’ve lived that life — loving movies, without movies loving you back — then you know the honest truth about anyone who was “surprised” by how well Black Panther has done at the box office: They weren’t paying attention.
Man, all you had to do was catch the vibe.
It was crazy. When Black Panther’s first teaser dropped … that’s all anyone was talking about. When the first official trailer dropped … that’s all anyone was talking about. And it seemed like with every piece of promo material after that, as it got closer and closer to the release date — it was just the same thing, on repeat: Everyone in my various circles … friends, family, teammates … they all only wanted to talk about one thing: Black Panther.
It’s like we all just knew, you know what I mean? Knew how overdue this was. Knew that there was finally this high-budget comic-book movie, being made for us … and by us … and about us. Knew that it was going to be big.
Honestly, though, I think even I might have underestimated Black Panther a little.
It came out that Friday of All-Star weekend, which meant it came out while I was on vacation in Mexico. I was disappointed I wouldn’t be seeing it opening weekend — but it’s not like I thought that was going to be a “problem.” But then those advanced Thursday night screenings started to get out … started seeing the word on Twitter, and on IG, and in the group chats and whatnot … and it was sort of like, Oh. O.K. It’s like THAT.
And then once people started seeing it on Friday, man, and getting their word in … it was game over. Every text I’m getting — it’s guys in the league hitting me up like, “Pat, Pat, you see it yet?” And then I’d tell them I’m hanging in Mexico, so Imma wait until I get back in a few days … and they’re, like, bugging out at that answer, man. (“Just see it in Mexico, bro.” “Nah, it’s going to be in Spanish … and I won’t know what’s going on….” “No. No. No. Just see it in Mexico, bro.”) It’s like people couldn’t even take having to keep their feelings about it to themselves for three days, that’s how worked up everyone was getting about this movie. And like I said, you know — at this point my movie-fan bona fides are well established. I’ve lived through pretty much all of the big opening weekends.
But I’ve never experienced anything like those first 24 hours of Black Panther being out.
It’s a one of one.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
The other thing I remember from that opening weekend — before I had even seen the movie — is Vic. My man Victor Oladipo, dunking with the T’Challa mask on for the culture. I was watching the All-Star Saturday Night stuff at my hotel in Mexico, and when I saw Chadwick hand Vic the mask … that was dope, man.
But it wasn’t even really the dunk itself.
It was more just, like — this whole moment.
I saw him put on that mask … and I just flashed back to my childhood. Thought about all those Halloweens, growing up, and you’re trying to figure out what the costume is going to be. And of course there’s always options, it’s Halloween. But whatever that one costume is — you know, the one that everyone wants to be? Whether it’s Spider-Man the years those movies came out, Batman the years those movies came out, or any other year. The costume that everyone wanted to have — it wasn’t ever someone who looked like me.
And there was just something about that, in that moment … thinking about all of these young kids, seeing Black Panther on Friday … then watching Vic in the Dunk Contest on Saturday … and knowing how on Sunday, and Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday, and whatever other day until it happens — those kids only having one thing on their minds: I gotta get that mask.
Just the pride of it all, you know what I’m saying?
Like, all those Black Panther costumes, those aren’t just going to be the costumes the black kids want. Those are going to be the costumes the whole school wants. And for once, that experience — of being the default setting, of being the standard, of being right at the center of mainstream American culture — is going to belong to these young black kids.
And that just really got to me.
As soon as we were all back in OKC after All Star, I knew I had to make my plans to finally go see this movie. But when I started to ask around and see which of the guys wanted to come with me — every single one of them had already seen it. I’m talking, every single guy on the team. This is only five days after the movie had come out.
It was crazy.
And then of course they’re all giving me a hard time about it … and talking about how great it was, amongst themselves … and I’m trying to get in on the hype … but also avoid these spoilers … and, man. It’s just agony.
Marvel Studios/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS.com
The last straw came in the locker room after practice, that first day back — before we took off for the start of our road trip in Sacramento. I’m at my locker, and who pulls up beside me but Melo. Melo’s another big movie guy, very legit, knows his stuff.
And he looks at me and he goes, “Pat, have you seen Black Panther yet?”
I’m like, “Nah, been in Mexico, I ain’t seen it yet. What’d you think about it?”
And he just looks at me real calm. Real calm, no jokes. And he says, “Man — that’s my favorite movie of all time.”
Then he smiles and walks away.
I saw Black Panther that very next night in Sacramento — and then again, by myself, two nights later in San Francisco.
I won’t give anything away in case you’re reading this and haven’t seen it yet … but I will spoil one thing: It’s incredible.
That’s just a straight-up — forget about the hype, forget about the Marvel universe, forget about even the importance of it all for a second — incredible movie. I could go on forever about all the things that made it so great … and I feel like I’d still be forgetting things.
You’ve got to start with the writing. So many little details in Ryan Coogler’s script felt so on point. From one of the first scenes, when the kid hooping in ’90s Oakland shouts out, “Tim Hardaway!” as he crosses up his friend, to one of the last scenes, in which Killmonger gives his final speech, looking out at that perfect sunset … the writing just felt real, compared to other comic-book movies. It felt authentic.
Then you’ve got the performances: strong, across the board. You’ve got the vibranium suit — upgraded from Civil War, very necessary. You’ve got some unreal car chases. You’ve got those one-on-one battle scenes. Man, they even brought jokes, which I wasn’t at all expecting.
The movie really had everything.
But if I had to choose just one part, one individual element, of Black Panther to call my favorite?
It’s gotta be Wakanda.
Marvel Studios/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS.com
Wakanda is this amazing place, this mythical country in Africa that is the home of the Black Panther. It’s a sort of alternate universe, in which black people — freed from the shackles and context of their history — have only prospered. The idea of Wakanda is something that means a lot of things to a lot of people … and it’s one of those things where, if you’re going to do Black Panther right, you can’t mess it up. But I think Coogler and his team do it justice beyond most fans’ wildest dreams: In his vision, Wakanda is this beautiful metropolis, full of color and life … and also this … something extra. It’s hard to explain. It’s almost like Wakanda is a character in the movie, all on its own. It’s almost like Wakanda is this state of mind — where anything feels possible.
And watching Black Panther, and taking it all in … it kind of dawned on me how, you know, that idea of Wakanda, that state of mind, that state of anything feeling possible?
That’s also movies.
That’s also what movies are — or at least what they’re supposed to be. Movies are supposed to be this place of limitlessness. This place of imagination. Movies are supposed to be the place where you can go to turn off the rest of the world, and sit back, and … become a hotshot trial lawyer, facing the case of a lifetime. Or a veteran thief, getting ready to do one last job. Or the only doctor on earth who can perform this special type of surgery (and time is running out). Or a detective with a nose for the truth … and a secretive past. Or an international spy who likes martinis exactly a certain way.
Or a superhero.
The movies are supposed to be this place where you can shake free of your history, and really become anything you want to be. And for too long, for black kids growing up, that hasn’t been the case. For too long, young black boys and young black girls have had to go to the movies — and live out someone else’s dream.
For too long, those kids have had to stare through the window — at the Wakanda that is cinema — without ever being fully let in.
And now, finally, that’s changing.
It’s changing because of films like Black Panther, and Moonlight, and Get Out, and A Wrinkle in Time. It’s changing because of stars like Chadwick Boseman, and Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong’o, and Tessa Thompson, and Mahershala Ali, and Trevante Rhodes, and Donald Glover, and LaKeith Stanfield, and Zendaya, and Daniel Kaluuya, and Letitia Wright, and Storm Reid. It’s changing because of filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, and Barry Jenkins, and Dee Rees, and Jordan Peele — and of course Ryan Coogler.
But maybe most of all, it’s changing because of just … normal people, man.
Because of audiences full of movie lovers like you and me. Audiences who have finally gotten the message, their message, across to Hollywood: We’re here. And we’ve been waiting a long time — a long time — to see ourselves in these kinds of films, and this level of storytelling.
We’ve been waiting for Wakanda, forever.
And now we’re going to stay awhile.