If you’ve been following all the buzz leading up to Black Panther’s release, then you’ve probably seen the viral video of a group of friends hugging and enthusing over the movie’s poster. Their energy served as a stand-in for the excitement of folks all over the world; now’s your chance to find out who they are.
When I got in touch with Lee Colston over the phone last week, he told me that his spirit was full and he was feeling joyful and beautiful and black that day. It was Colston and his friends Clinton Lowe and Chris Holland who shot and appeared in that video, which was retweeted by luminaries like director Ava DuVernay on its volcanic ascent through social media feeds. The three friends all work in the performing arts, as actors, writers, and activists. When recounting the story of the night the video was made, Lowe told me that the conversation didn’t even start with them.
Thanks to bad projection, they’d endured a poor movie-going experience at a screening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. When they left the theater, they saw a man posing in front of a Black Panther display. “The man had his family with him and was trying to tell them why this was so important to him,” Lowe said. “[The family with him] were younger so you could tell they were hearing him, but they weren’t hearing him.”
“We walked up to the poster, politely waiting our turn and he looked at us. He was beaming. The whole thing had us talking shit, improvising but not to make fun of him. Then Lee turns the camera on and what’s in the video is in response to how dude reacted,” he said. “The context was off an elder’s response. There was a generational connection; he’s been waiting longer than we all have.”
Colston says the older gentleman motioned for someone who was presumably his grandchild to take a picture for him in front of a poster. “He was just like ‘look how beautiful you look, look how beautiful she is,’” Colston recalled. “And he was just so proud to be seen and to have people who look like him validate his experience. So I said to Clint and Chris, ‘look how proud and represented he feels.’ This is what white people get to feel like all the time. And that started a conversation about equity in Hollywood and representation. All three of us were aware that we were poking fun with a sort of satire. The reality is that actually white people don’t feel like that all the time because it’s so common for them. They don’t have to fight. They’re not starved for images in the media that represent their full humanity.”
Once Colston uploaded the video to his Facebook and Twitter pages, he had a feeling it would go viral. “My social media goes viral pretty frequently,” Colston offered, “because I do a lot of commentary about, you know, art awareness, social justice, and anything that’s like, the intersection of black and brilliant.”
Still, he was shocked when people like Michael B. Jordan and DuVernay retweeted it. “I was over the moon because Ava DuVernay is one of the most brilliant directors working in Hollywood. She’s absolutely brilliant. She’s literally one of my dream directors to work with. Her and Ryan [Coogler].”
Holland didn’t expect it to blow up. “Not at all,” he said. “I was thinking ‘Okay, we’ll put this up, maybe we’ll get a couple of clicks and likes but I didn’t expect that moment of joy to take off the way it did.”
Lowe thinks the energy he and his friends put into arts and activism can be felt in the video. “That was a moment in the life. If you hang out with us, it’s like that 24/7,” Lowe says. “I co-founded a group called Artists 4 Change NYC after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Individually and collectively, we’ve all been doing work around anti-injustice issues, racism, sexism, and homophobia.” Lowe says the energy they put into that work is what was animating them in that moment.
As far what they thought of the Black Panther movie itself, the three friends all loved it. Colston says he appreciated how the female leads were “so mighty and powerful and strong... It’s just amazing to get gorgeous black women in such an incredible display!” he said. The film’s villain got to him, too.
“Killmonger was just so broken, y’know? I recognized that his [actions] aren’t the answer but his argument made so much sense because it came from a place of being forgotten and brutalized. It’s basically, ‘If Wakanda is not going to do the moral thing and stand up for people who can’t protect themselves, then I’m going to make sure that the people who are marginalized, at-risk, and under attack, have the resources and equipment to defend themselves since this moral superpower [of Wakanda] is failing them. Who can argue with that?”
“My reaction to the movie is that it’s a celebration of all that we were, all that we are, and all that’s to come,” Lowe told me from Alabama, where he’s acting in a touring production about the life of football legend Bear Bryant. “It was the dream of the slave. There’s still a long way to go but [Black Panther] represents the beginning of the next phase of work.”
“[In Black Panther], we’re not ornaments to a white narrative,” Holland said. The NYU grad student had an intensely personal connection with the movie because of where he grew up. “I’m originally from East Oakland, California; I’m from 79 and MacArthur. My dad works for BART and, growing up, my BART stop was Oakland Coliseum. As soon as that opening shot came up—“1992 Oakland, California—I was lit. I was screaming in the movie theater. Then, that line that Michael B. Jordan says at the end about a kid from Oakland running around believing in fairy tales really got me, too.”
Of the three, Colston had the deepest connection to comics before seeing the movie. “I think my first introduction to comics was the Tim Burton Batman films when I was a kid,” he said. “I remember how much they inspired me. Then I got into X-Men and Spider-Man. My first introduction to Black Panther was an animated Fantastic Four series and I went back to go research him and fell in love with the character.”
Colston hopes that Black Panther can spark similar epiphanies in the audiences going to see it. “We’ve seen these films with white people’s humanity on display,” he offered. “But the inverse isn’t really that true. There’s something powerful about having a six-year-old white kid walk into the film and be completely enraptured with the glory, beauty, and humanity of the characters in this film.”