So let me tell you about the town of Plainwell, Michigan, where I just saw the latest addition to the Marvel cinematic universe, BLACK PANTHER. Plainwell is nestled in the western portion of Michigan, north of Kalamazoo and south of Grand Rapids. It’s known here as the Island City, due to a canal which diverts the Kalamazoo River around it on both sides. This makes it an island, technically, though not apparently when you are within its approximately two-mile radius. It was settled, along with Allegan and a few larger surrounding cities, in the 1830s after the removal of all the native people. Despite that sketchy bit of history (which is shared by a vast majority of all American destinations), it’s not a bad place to live. There are all of the usual businesses – Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and numerous dollar stores – though they could really use a legitimate book store (the closest you can get is an impressive used section at both the Good Will and the Salvation Army). There’s an excellent gas station here called Wesco, which currently serves as the town’s best donut shop and offers a fuel discount card that beats the hell out of that laugh-fest you get from Speedway. Our schools are said to be among the states best, though I have no idea who determines such things. There’s the Lake Doster golf course, which is apparently some kind of medium-big deal to people who like golf. There’s also a park, no joke, called Hicks Park, in which I once saw an elderly man taking his pig for a walk. Plainwell’s biggest claims to fame are as the birthplace of the Speed Bump comic strip creator Dave Coverly, actor Ed Gale (who played Howard the Duck in that 1980s movie), and a couple local politicians who briefly stole the news away from Donald Trump a year ago by using city funds for their furtive late-night rendezvous in various fleabag hotels. Most of the people I’ve met here are pretty decent, not that different from other cities I’ve lived in, which include Kalamazoo, Fort Lauderdale, and the areas surrounding Detroit. But I will note that there’s not a large African American community here. As a matter of fact, there really isn’t any. The most recent census indicated that the town’s population consisted of 96.77% white people and a mere 0.46% black. In an area of approximately 3800, that equals little more than a few brave families who have decided to call this place home. My step-daughter, currently a senior at the local high school, says that there are possibly five black kids in her school. From the stories I hear, most of the teaching staff is fairly open-minded, even liberally-inclined, though this entire area went red in the last election. There have been no publicized incidents of racism or prejudice within city limits, at least nothing more than you find anywhere else. There is the matter of those Confederate flags which started flying in the yards of several houses along one particular road, coinciding with the last election. They are the kind of houses that have car parts in the front yard, pickup trucks in the driveway, and poor white folks sitting on the porch. Now, I don’t know the people who live there at all, and it’s entirely possible that the flags meant something different to them than what it meant to the rest of us. I’ve had as many redneck friends as I’ve had black friends and I don’t judge them, or anyone else, on mere appearances. I would say, however, that in a year that saw racially-motivated rioting in the streets and Nazis openly praising the president-elect, I would not have raised a Rebel flag if one hadn’t already been there. Not unless I wanted to create the impression that I fancied things like hanging trees and burning crosses in front yards. Despite all of this, when the local movie theater showed trailers for the still upcoming BLACK PANTHER movie, the entirely white audience seemed to demonstrate as much excitement for it as they had for DOCTOR STRANGE, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, and even that terrible Batman versus Superman business. So, while I was feeling some anxiety over those Confederate flags, I still hoped that the place I call home would show a different side of themselves when the film opened here. Still, I can’t deny a little speculation, if not trepidation, as we approached the M89 Cinema tonight. I wondered aloud if there would be as much trouble getting tickets here as there had been across the rest of the country. Apparently there have been sell-out crowds and more advance ticket sales than for any other Marvel film ever, though I assumed they might have been in areas with a more diverse population. Still, being neurotic about arriving early for shows (and even more so for those which are expecting high box office), we got there ninety minutes before showtime. There were only fifteen seats left in the cinema’s biggest theater. Somehow I managed to get three together, though they were in the second row, glaring up into those silver screen nostrils. Happily, I went back outside and we cruised over to the nearby Wal-Mart to kill some time. Maybe it was just the upcoming show and the surrounding questions on my mind, but it seemed like the entire 0.46% black population was in the store with us. I wondered, though knew of no rudely presumptuous way to ask, if any of these folks were going to the same movie as I was. Many of the people I speak to regularly, no matter what race, are either movie or music nerds of some kind. So there were no presumptions to be made; I knew they would be seeing the latest Marvel. So we killed some time and ventured back to the M89. Getting back in line to get some popcorn, I realized that both our show and the one which followed were now sold out. It’s true that, as we got our movie snacks and then gathered outside the theater to wait for the previous showing to let out, I was more interested in checking out the audience than actually seeing the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I was looking forward to it, and had been since Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther first appeared in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. I knew this character was a big deal, was really cool in his only movie appearance so far, and he had the most badass costume in the entire Marvel universe . . . kind of like Batman, but with Wolverine claws. The design of it fit the panther that he was supposed to be representing and just looked so much cooler than a blue-and-red spider (hey, I love Spidey, he’s one of my favorites, but come on). But yeah, I guess my concerns before the show were primarily nerdy liberal white guy concerns. Once inside the theater, it was hard to really see the audience anymore. I mean, we were all the way up front and my eyes aren’t that great anymore (possibly due to clogged arteries from too much damn popcorn over the years). At this point, my curiosity had begun to wane anyway, having switched into movie-viewing mode. If you ever want to win me over, all you need to do is take me to the movies and get there early. I love everything about the theater-going experience, from the snacks and the theater seats to the moment when the lights go down and the trailers start to roll. Now, you don’t get that many trailers at the M89, because they play a few advertisements from local businesses, all in the name of keeping their prices low . . . which they are, very much in fact. It’s not the fanciest place on earth, but three of us can get in – seats and sodas and corn – for twenty bucks if we hit the earliest show. In the recent year or so, however, they’ve gone from showing several previews to merely letting us have two or three. My prediction for tonight’s trailers were that we’d get to see THE AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and A WRINKLE IN TIME. Again, with the presumptions . . . but from a purely business point-of-view, it seemed logical to feature the latter, which also has a largely African-American cast (including rumored 2020 presidential candidate, Oprah Winfrey) and takes place in the kind of fantasy land we superhero nerds might be interested in. These were, in fact, the trailers they showed, in addition to my first glimpse at ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. But then, as I sat there licking artery-clogging butter from my fingers, I started to question why I was making all these presumptions. I’m not a very judgmental guy, like I said, but was I nonetheless making some kind of judgment? Both on the white folks that I thought wouldn’t show up and the black folks that I thought would. I mean, here I was . . . noticing people of color in the Wal-Mart and at the theater, when I normally didn’t give a damn who was where. Then these presumptions, based on little more than race . . . Oh shit, I thought, am I prejudiced? I mean, I didn’t vote for Trump . . . well, for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest ones was the undercurrent of white nationalism that ran through his campaign. Whether he wanted it there because it’s what he believes, or he’s simply a narcissistic self-promoter who will surf any wave that gets him where he wants to be, I was nonetheless uncomfortable with it. Yeah, yeah, I’m white, and I don’t really know what it’s like to be anything else, but I’ve got eyes to see that it’s not the same for everyone in this country. The system is set up against the poor above all else, but a larger majority of those poor are African-American. While any politician is now (and probably since birth) enjoying a much better lifestyle than the majority of their supporters, I would like to fool myself that at least a few of them might be able to imagine a life where you can sometimes only afford ramen noodles . . . or one in which all the races still haven’t really been given an equal chance. Hell, not just races, but even genders. While Hillary Clinton in no way understood how it was to be poor or black, she at least understood what kind of struggles a woman might face. Sure, you could get into all that email business – and I had a few trust issues when it came to her too – but I’d have rather taken a gamble on the maybes than on the definites that we’d all seen about the shady businessman who was our eventual leader. Not to mention, a vote for her felt like a vote for my confidence in the women of the world. So the movie starts, and we’re in South Central circa 1992, but I’m still kinda stuck in my own head. Now I was thinking about Obama and wondering if I’d only voted for him because he was black. While he was very young, charming, and intelligent – and talked a good game about change – the answer was that yes, that was part of the reason I voted for him. Now, rather than asking if I was prejudiced, I was asking if a vote for that reason wasn’t some kind of reverse-prejudice . . . and if it wasn’t the reason that so many people were flocking to this movie. Because that 0.46% of Plainwell didn’t actually seem to be here tonight, but all the dudes who looked like they might drive pickup trucks were. But wasn’t I then making another kind of judgment on them, like one of those white guys who goes overboard and starts telling the world that all white guys are evil bastards? It was getting really confusing in my head . . . but, damn, that panther costume was still really badass. And just look at all the strong black women in this movie. I didn’t know that Angela Bassett was in it. Back in the day, I had one hell of a crush on her, not so much as Tina Turner, but as . . . yes, a badass chauffer and bodyguard in STRANGE DAYS, where she was protecting a kinda sleazy white boy. Meanwhile, the audience was really getting into the movie. So I’m not arguing with myself quite as much, nor wondering what Plainwell might be thinking or why they’re here. Now I’m watching the cool world of Wakanda that combines African jungles with spaceships, tribal chants with mechanized rhinoceroses trained for battle, plus the rare mineral called Vibranium that’s made it all possible. This newly-crowned king T’Challa is arguing that there must be a way to protect his people (and their Vibranium) while still helping all the other people of the world . . . and, for some reason, it’s kind of choking me up. Then his sister, Shuri, calls the one token white guy who comes to Wakanda “Colonizer” . . . and I laugh, because that shit’s really funny. And I laugh many times during the course of the movie, and I tear up a couple more as well. When T’Challa decides that he can’t just let the rest of the world suffer, basically saying that it’s better to reach out a hand than to build a wall . . . And there’s the matter of that sunset . . . Yeah, I knew it was coming – and I’m not going to give anything away – but the biggest emotional moment for me had nothing to do with black or white, or political and national divides, or Plainwell’s rednecks coming out to see a Black Panther movie, but . . . with a simple act of compassion between two human beings. It was the moment that most made the Black Panther a superhero. He put aside all the differences and saw something he had in common with someone else, and then he did the only thing he knew to make it better. It’s like he said when speaking to the United Nations . . . that, no matter what, we are all really just one big tribe. I don’t care where you live, that’s just the truth. 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