AK: What does Black Panther mean to America’s most diverse community?

Janeshia Adams-Ginyard (right) takes a photo with a family at the Youth Summit at Clark Middle School (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Grossing over a billion dollars worldwide and boasting some of the highest critical reviews of the year, the movie Black Panther has become a global phenomenon. The film has maintained high levels of renown for its primarily African American cast in diverse and nuanced roles.

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Residents of Anchorage got a chance to get up close and personal with the film when one of the stuntwomen and actresses from the film visited Clark Middle School to talk to the Mountain View community last Saturday.

Clark Middle School is the most ethnically diverse middle school in the United States according to demographers. It’s right up the street from East Anchorage High School, the most diverse high school in the country, and lies on the entrance to Mountain View, the most diverse census tract in the country.

In partnership with local nonprofit Shiloh Community Development Inc., Clark hosted a Youth Summit which ended with a talk from Janeshia Adams-Ginyard, a stuntwoman and actress from Black Panther. Cessilye Williams is the school principal and helped organize the summit.

“I just think it has great inspiration and role models that are in that picture for so many levels of people,” principal Williams said.

From the sound in the auditorium, it was clear Adams-Ginyard was the highest anticipated moment of the summit, which was put on to promote positive family development and empower youth in school and life.

One of the attendees was Cal Williams, a local advocate and self described performing historian. Williams, no relation to Clark’s principal, has lived in Anchorage since 1965, and he said that his pool of role models who looked like him was very small when he was growing up.

“So we kids grew up idolizing Tarzan as opposed to the Africans. We sided with the cowboy as opposed to the Indians,” Cal Williams said. “We always wanted to be the hero on the white horse with the white hat. That was the portrayal of heroes in my growing up.”

Cal Williams says that the film Black Panther serves as a template for getting rid of negative stereotypes of Black Americans.

“All of the negative images that we see, oftentimes the only time we are portrayed in the news or in the media is associated with crime or something negative,” Cal Williams said. “And to have this positive image go forward is uplifting to our youth and to us older people as well.”

One of the youth uplifted by the film is 13-year-old Nahla White. She attends Clark and was part of the drumline that helped introduce the guest of honor that day.

White says that oftentimes, films don’t offer nuanced portrayals of black people.

“I feel as if there was maybe more representation of maybe black people who like anime in movies or who like to draw or like art,” White said. “And I just feel like there’s not enough of that.”

Janeshia Adams-Ginyard signs autographs for families at the Youth Summit. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

But on Saturday, there was no lack of diversity in the crowd, something very apparent to Adams-Ginyard, the guest of honor.

“After speaking to everyone out there in the audience, I could see that,” Adams-Ginyard said. “I saw representation from almost all groups. Almost all groups.”

Adams Ginyard says when she was growing up, it was hard to find positive role models in the media. something she hopes she and other actors in the film can change, She wants young people to look at her and her castmates like she looked at her own personal hero, actress and singer Grace Jones.

“Dark skin. Beautiful. Regal. I mean, she just… her presence commanded attention,” Adams-Ginyard said. “And she didn’t have to say anything and it was just so powerful.”

Throughout the summit, attendees attested to why Black Panther provided so many positive role models. Some noted the intelligence, poise and power of the characters and the fictional afrofuturistic nation of Wakanda.

Ron Brown, an assistant principal at Bartlett High School — which happens to be the second most diverse high school in the country — says he’s optimistic that more characters like this will pop up in future movies due to the film’s box office domination.

“As long as we have people who look at the bottom line which is dollars, I think this is only the start of something bigger,” Brown said. “I have to believe that. I’m in education. I work with young folks. I have to believe that that’s what’s gonna happen in the future”

For five-year-old Dabria Wrencher, she’s just happy to have found her own connection with the character of Shuri, the titular protagonist’s sister. Dabria has long hair, and she loved that Shuri did, too.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that Cessilye Williams, the principal at Clark Middle School, and Cal Williams, the advocate, are not related.