North Philly students ‘lost for words’ after seeing themselves in ‘Black Panther’

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Bethune students take a photo right before entering Philadelphia Mills to see

Bethune students take a photo right before entering Philadelphia Mills to see "Black Panther." (Kyrie Greenberg/for WHYY)

It’s field trip day at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School in North Philadelphia and the hallways are packed with 273 kids getting ready to board buses.

But the students are not going to the museum or the zoo. They’re going to the movies to see Marvel’s new superhero film, “Black Panther.”

Dressed in a red, gold, and brown dashiki, seventh grade reading and writing teacher, Herman Douglas leads a sea of students to the bus. He says for the students at Bethune where 80 percent of the student body is black, “Black Panther” isn’t just another superhero movie. It’s a chance to see a superhero and an all-black cast who look like them.

“It represents African-Americans and Africans from the Diaspora coming together to fight evil, to fight oppression,” Douglas said. “To get children to actually see that there’s a possibility that we can solve our own problems in our own community is extremely powerful.”

The school’s principal, Jamina Clay-Dingle set up a GoFundMe page in February online to raise money to help pay for her students to see the film. Her goal was to raise $1,125.

“We raised close to $4,000 so that was just powerful in itself,” Douglas says. “And we had donors from all over the world.”


The group arrives at Philadelphia Mills and the students are ushered into their very own theater. The movie starts and the kids are swept away to Wakanda, the fictional African country where “Black Panther” is set. It’s the most technologically-advanced country in the world, and it hasn’t been touched by colonialism.

Sheena C. Howard, an associate professor at Rider University, said for kids like these students, seeing a place like Wakanda on screen is powerful especially in a political climate fraught with racial tensions.

“In those two hours you are in the movie theater — especially as a black person and even as anyone else that has any sense of social justice — [you] can feel like right now in these two hours, we are winning,” Howard said. “It kind of gives you something to hope for and it gives you a sense that things can be better.”

The students and staff at Bethune laugh, cheer, and scream their way through “Black Panther.” And once the movie is over, they snap selfies with each other and can’t stop talking — and yet, students like seventh grader Daiyannah Brown say they can’t find the words to describe what the experience meant to them.

Brown says she finally saw herself on screen in characters like Shuri, Nakia, and Okoye.

“Can you believe it? Wow! To have African-American women doing their own thing in the movie, it was amazing,” Brown said. “It was phenomenal. I loved it. I’m lost for words.”

Seventh grader Edward Rosario says the movie — starting with the poster he saw before the film — has changed his view of Africa.

“You see the futuristic city. You don’t really expect African warriors to have a futuristic city,” Rosario said. “You would expect them to have a tribe. But these ones… I’ve got no words.”

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