It was right around the tenth time that the Barthwell siblings had seen the movie “Black Panther” that they decided they had to do something to transfer the positive feelings of community, inclusiveness and representation existing in the utopian country of the film’s Wakanda to the real world. So, the trio conceived the idea for the first-ever Wakandacon, a three-day fan convention and edutainment summit Aug. 3-5 held at Hilton Downtown Chicago, which “celebrates Afrofuturism as well as black representation and excellence in film, STEM, tech, fine art and media.”
When: August 3-5
Where: Hilton Downtown Chicago, 720 S. Michigan
Tickets: $35 weekend pass
“I grew up a total nerd,” admits David Barthwell, who along with siblings and Wakandacon co-founders Ali and Matt, spent their youth in Oak Park, devouring video games, books and comics, though never quite felt like they fit in with the culture. “I would see people going to ‘Star Trek’ conventions or dressing up like ‘Star Wars’ characters and never got what they were so excited about,” he continues. “Until I saw ‘Black Panther.’ When it was over I truly felt a sense of loss and separation anxiety after seeing this world that gave me characters to identify with and all these people coming together with this energy. My siblings and I wanted a way to recapture some of that.”
David Barthwell, a Yale grad that now runs his own graphic design and web development studio in Chicago, is the tech wizard behind the Wakandacon operation. In March, he decided to develop a simple landing page with a message that said “coming summer 2018,” just to gauge what the reaction might be.
“We agreed that if 1,000 people signed up for more info that we would actually create the event,” says David. “It went viral. We had about 10,000 people submitting info in just the first week, and we realized the community was hungry for this.” In fact there’s also been national and international interest with outlets like Al Jazeera looking to cover the event.
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Ali Barthwell, a freelance TV critic, former writer for the Cards Against Humanity series and instructor and performer with Second City, has been curating all the programming the past four months with the help of event producers Lisa Beasley and Taylor Witten.
“The question we kept coming back to as we were thinking about what we wanted this event to be is why does everyone want to go Wakanda, why does it mean so much to people?” she posits. “And I think something that resonated so strongly is that Wakanda is this place that’s free from all these other harmful, violent, damaging forces that affect black people in so many places in our lives. So we started by addressing the real things happening and reached out to people in the community about what they are doing to make our world a better place.”
While there are typical fan convention components, including cosplay contests (with categories for beginner cosplayers and the best Afrofuturistic fashion) as well as gaming tournaments, there is a strong focus on programming designed to educate and inspire discourse on important issues. On Friday, there’s a STEM panel hosted by the Negro Justice League; on Saturday actress and graphic novelist Erika Alexander will host a panel encouraging people to create TV concepts with the goal of producing 50 original black pilots in the next year; on Sunday activists from Flint, Michigan will discuss why environmental matters should be part of discussions on racism—and that’s just a fraction of the content at the event, which is inclusive and open to anyone that wants to attend. Tickets are just $35 for the weekend, “or the price of going to the movies,” says Ali.
The Shuri Project, an organization that teaches black girls ages 8-12 how to create their own websites and develop public speaking skills, will also help attract younger attendees as will the Bud Billiken Charities who will host their annual Youth Coronation Ceremony at Wakandacon on Sunday.
Several people involved with “Black Panther” will also make appearances, including the film’s concept artists, drum choreographer Jabari Exum and even actor Mark Willis, who, like the Barthwells, grew up in Oak Park.
“He went to the same high school we all did, and though we didn’t know him, we reached out, and asked him to be involved in the event and he was really receptive to the idea,” says David.
The timing for the event was also an interesting choice, held on the same weekend and just across the street from Lollapalooza. “We were pricing out venues and basically it came down to we can either go up against Lollapalooza or we can set up opposite the Beyoncé concert and we weren’t going to disrespect Beyoncé like that,” David jokes, while hoping that concertgoers do trickle over.
“Chicago can be a bit segregated in terms of what kinds of groups get to spend time together in a space and so I think it will be really cool if the Lollapalooza crowd and the Wakandacon crowd could all come together and play video games and listen to some cool panels and have a good time together while learning from each other.”