PATERSON, N.J. — "The Black Panther!" someone shouts as Carolina Panthers safety Mike Adams walks out of the theater where he and 100 other residents of Paterson, New Jersey, just watched the history-making Marvel movie. It's Saturday, a day after the film's official release, and though Adams is wearing a superpower-less version of the Marvel hero's necklace, their similarities go deeper than a costume.
Adams and the other athletes who sponsored screenings of Black Panther around the country over Presidents Day weekend are also stronger, faster and have better instincts (as the movie's introduction explains of its titular character) than most people. They want to make the world a better place too.
"The way a lot of us grew up, we feel an obligation to give back, because for some kids that superhero, or that football player—that's all they have," Adams said. "If they don't see that, there's no hope."
Black Panther is the first Marvel film with a predominantly black cast, and one whose box office success quickly became a cause: The better it does, the more likely Hollywood studios will be forced to prioritize representing their audience onscreen. Serena Williams brought a group from Black Girls Code to see the movie. The Dallas Mavericks' Harrison Barnes bought 150 tickets for kids in Dallas. The New Orleans Pelicans' Rajon Rondo hosted a screening in Louisville.
Kavon Frazier @Kay_BlackSimba
We are so grateful to the Principal of D A Hulcy Middle School, Jonica Crowder-Lockwood, with the help of Judge Martin, for allowing us to take OVER 600 bright young stars to see Black Panther last night! We had a blast! #StrongerTogether #BuiltForIt 🍿❄️ https://t.co/9RdOSReCcc
But it's NFL players—many of whom are back in their hometowns for the offseason—who've taken up the mantle en masse of bringing people to see the groundbreaking film. The Cowboys' Kavon Frazier took 600 kids in Dallas. The Jaguars' Jaelen Strong took 60 kids in his hometown of Philadelphia. The Buccaneers' Clinton McDonald and retired player Arian Foster both sponsored screenings, and from the Chargers, Russell Okung and Jason Verrett brought even more families to theaters.
"It's like with movements like Black Lives Matter: We're trying to build and get recognition for the power of black culture," Verrett told B/R Friday before bringing 350 people to see the movie in his native Fairfield, California. "Black Panther is a historic movie for us, and the first thing I thought when I heard about it was that it would be cool to get the community involved."
In Paterson, Adams recruited his high school teammates (and longtime friends) to help him check people in and hand out Panthers gear. His wife Ariana handed out popcorn and Panthers cups for soda. Adams appeared to know most of the moviegoers personally and offered up hugs, selfies and autographs. The movie started about 20 minutes late as Adams did his best to make sure the theater was as full as possible.
"You want kids to be able to see the tangible, but you also want them to be able to use their imaginations—like, what if I were invincible? What if I could fly?" Adams said of his semi-superhero status and why Black Panther transcends it. "It's good to finally have both."
After the movie, six-year-old Shevane didn't even have words to explain how she felt, just holding up her hands in a heart shape. "It was very awesome for someone to do that for us, because we don't really get to do a lot of things like this," explained her mom, Shevanti. "So, so super-duper awesome!"
The movie broke Presidents Day weekend box office records to the tune of $235 million—a stunning success in the eyes of Disney and the athletes who bought out theaters across the country. Adams, a self-professed Marvel fan, explained that he was rooting for Black Panther to gross more than $200 million. "Hopefully me buying out this theater contributes to it," he said. "I want it to blow everything else out of the water."