Despite the fact Lollapalooza was taking place right across the street, attendees of the first-ever WakandaCon chose instead to revel in what’s next after the highly successful “Black Panther.”
They wanted the theme of representation to stick long after the film fades away from the spotlight.
After all, “Black Panther” not only was inspiration for the organizers of the convention, it captured the minds and hearts of the attendees, panelists and vendors, as well. This weekend the film, still showing in some theaters more than six months after its release, is slated to become the third-highest grossing film of all time with close to $700 million in box office sales domestically,
WakandaCon was a three-day event that included several panels on subjects including gaming, creativity, education and feminism.
“At first, we were like, ‘Let’s get a bunch of black nerds together in the room together to talk about the movie.’ One of the reasons we wanted to do it in Chicago is because Chicago gets a bad rap. Especially with issues regarding people of color,” said Ali Barthwell, co-founder of WakandaCon. “We wanted to have something for all of the black creatives. I remember growing up playing video games, I had to pick the girl character or the character of color.”
“Black Panther” allowed Barthwell to relate to characters she saw in her own life.
“We wanted to make space when you discover about yourself that your blackness is a given and not a liability, when your womanhood is a given and not a liability. I’m so excited to we have so many women here leading panels and discussions.”
Bartwell, a River Forest native, wanted to make WakandaCon a place for black creatives to not only spread their wings, she wanted them feel protected from the negative themes that surround other comic book conventions.
“We have a ‘No Booth Babe’ policy in place. Other cons have those types of women in bikinis to draw attention to their booth. It can create an unsafe space for women just because you’re promoting harassment,” Barthwell said. “Someone may think that just because they are dressed that way, they are opened up for harassment. We want people to feel safe and a lot of our vendors are women.”
Even though the convention had no official partnership with Black Panther creator Marvel Comics, several of the people who made the movie possible were in attendance: Jabari Exum, choreographer and drummer in the film, along with Oak Park native and actor Mark Willis, who played a role in the Jabari Tribe.
WakandaCon received positive reviews from most of its attendees.
“The movie had a deep message, so when I heard about this [WakandaCon] I wanted to see to how would transfer here,” said Laticia Nichols, in costume as a movie character. There’s was positive images in the movie of women being strong and standing up for themselves. The scene where the woman stood up for herself, we need to see more of that.
Vendor Nzingha Nommo, the owner of Afriware Books in west suburban Maywood, believes that “Black Panther” was the catalyst to make black kids think science and math are attractive career paths.
“The movie empowered the black community. This is a movement. I didn’t realize that so many people learned how to read from reading comic books,” Nommo said. “I’ve seen the sparkle in young people’s eyes. How often do you hear young people saying that they love math? This movie made it cool to be smart.”
Vivian Walker and her 6-year-old son Reuben came to Chicago from Cleveland. Walker wants her son to see to positive images of black superheroes that she didn’t see while growing up.
“I saw this online months ago. Nothing but death was going to keep me from this. It’s important for my son to see images of his likeness. He was a fan of Black Panther. He got to see lots of beautiful black people enjoying themselves,” Walker said. “This is an opportunity a lot of people didn’t have when I was growing up, to see us celebrated in a positive light. My son gets to see strong, positive images.”
Marvel’s lack of involvement wasn’t an issue for her. “I’m glad this was done with local people. This is a tremendous event,” Walker said. “Sometimes things need to be separate from big corporations. I think that’s the way I would like it to be.”South Siders Ashley Roberts and her husband, who goes by “J,” wanted their son, Fanom, and their daughter, T’Sage, to be inspired by the movie.
“The imagery was beautiful. The costumes, the people look like us. It was my daughter’s first superhero movie,” Roberts said. “She was so excited to people who had hair like her.”
“I wanted my wife, my daughter and my son to see that representation matters. And us being able to come out to this event and have it in Chicago was important. No matter what we hear about the city in terms of violence, it’s good to come out to events like this. WakandaCon is black and beautiful.”
After seeing the initial success of WakandaCon despite its timing, Barthwell hopes the demand for the event continues over the years.
“Putting on an event like this is difficult, but now we have some good people and we think we can replicate this,” she said. “We hope the energy and the passion behind the film is still there. We want to continue to create spaces for black creatives.”