CHICAGO - As she clutches her movie ticket for a 7 p.m. showing, 9-year-old Akeelah Jaco is beaming. She has yet to see a minute of footage of Black Panther, but she already knows something about the film.
"There's a black superhero. There's a lot of people like us. And there's a lot of black children in the movie," she said.
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Jaco was among hundreds of students from the Betty Shabazz International Charter School that turned a Sunday night showing of Black Panther at the Studio Movie Grill theater on Chicago's south side into a celebration of African culture and heritage.
"We want to see this," said former student Taheera Cartman. "We support this. We encourage that more of this is accepted."
Accepted and, in Cartman's opinion, long overdue.
"It's 2018. We've had a black president. We shouldn't be still just having slavery movies. We've seen those stories. We need to see more positive stories, and our kids need to see more positive stories," Cartman said.
"This film is a major departure, as far as the types of roles black actors are given and the types of storylines that we see black characters in the midst of," said Blair Davis, an associate professor of communication at DePaul University in Chicago who focuses some of his classes, and his own study, on the impact of comic book characters on pop culture. He believes Black Panther will be remembered as more than just a superhero film.
"The best films, I think, we remember because they say something bigger," he told VOA. "They say something about who we are as people, and I think the cultural aspects of Black Panther are what are going to allow us to remember it in years to come. So, I think that it will succeed on its own merits as an action film. But I think that, thanks to the talents of [director] Ryan Coogler, that this will have a lasting value, perhaps as a sea change in Hollywood."
Black Panther is a certified Hollywood blockbuster, raking in more than $200 million in North America during its opening weekend, setting several records. It has grossed close to $400 million globally. The film's success comes as no surprise to the fans who packed the theater, celebrating a film that marks a departure from the Hollywood norm.
"It's a vision of black people in power, and of black people having control over their own destiny," said Carol Lee, one of the founders of the Betty Shabazz International Charter School, which she described as "African centric." Black Panther is the kind of film that reinforces some of what they teach.
"It's tapped a spirit, and that's why people are coming out in such numbers, bringing their children, dressing in cultural ways, affirming. We are very clear who we are," she said.
"It's very important media imagery," said Cartman, whose daughter is enrolled at the Betty Shabazz school. "It's definitely affecting the way our children see themselves, and affects who they want to be, who they look up to, who they aspire to be. All that matters."
For 9-year-old Jaco, ?Black Panther was teaching her an important lesson even before she took her seat in theater No. 8 to see the film.
"It says, anything's possible."