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'Black Panther' movie sparks parties, buying frenzy of African attire

"Black Panther" is sparking a new interest in African fashions and culture. Some see an opportunity for African Americans and African people to forge a new unity.

Ngozi Oguekwe, left, the owner of Ngozi African Fashions, stretches out one of the dresses she has sewn for a customers.
Ngozi Oguekwe, left, the owner of Ngozi African Fashions, stretches out one of the dresses she has sewn for a customers.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Ngozi Oguekwe had barely opened the doors of her shop when her first customers arrived Tuesday morning.

Cousins Mildred Burden, 68, and Dolores Ryans, 69, visited Ngozi  African Fashions & Fabrics in the city's Logan section to buy African attire for a service at Burden's North Philadelphia church for Black History Month.

"Oh, my God, it's been busy," Oguekwe said, "between Black History Month and this movie, the Black Panther."

"This movie" has become a bit of a cultural phenomenon. For generations of black superhero fans, the film finally provides protagonists who look like them. But the film, based on the Marvel comic book hero and featuring a nearly all-black cast in the fictional African country of Wakanda, also has inspired people to throw Black Panther parties or to go see the film, both while wearing  African attire.

In the three days before Black Panther opened Feb. 16, Oguekwe's store was so packed "You couldn't walk through here," she said.

"I had the mother, the father, and the children all wanting me to make outfits for them to go see the movie. I was here until 8 o'clock one night." 

It's a cultural moment that could unify Africans in the diaspora, some say.

"The broad way of looking at it is as a movie," said Oguekwe, 65, who is Nigerian. "But it has a lot of meaning to it. The meaning of unity, of forgetting the past and bringing us together."

Black Panther set opening-weekend box office records, earning $235 million in North America and $170 million around the world.

At Ngozi's, people were coming to find anything from Africa, from dashikis to dresses, scarves, and  hats.

Qaasim Rose, 19, came to buy a dashiki in a vivid red print specifically to see the movie with his father and three of his four brothers.

"I wanted to get in the right mood," said Rose, a recent graduate of Central High School.

So much of Oguekwe's inventory was purchased, leaving naked walls, that she had to remove some clothes from the floor racks to replace them, said her daughter, Ijeoma Codrington, a human resources professional who went to help her mother in the store Tuesday.

"They cleaned me out," Oguekwe said.

But some African Americans who have long worn African clothing said they worry some people are dressing up to see Black Panther without thinking of the apparel's cultural significance.

Carniesha Kwashie, director of workforce development for a nonprofit, wears traditional dress all the time — headwraps to work, prints to business meetings.

"I hope the movie inspires people to dig further and deeper into what African culture and African American culture means to them," Kwashie said.

Atiya Strothers, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who went to the store to try on a dress for her church's Black History Month celebration, believes African clothing is symbolic of a connection to the continent.

"It's an external or outward example of an inward belief," Strothers said. "For most black people, we don't know where [in Africa] we are from. I feel like something is missing inside because I don't know where I'm from."

Estelle Acquah, 31, understands that connection as a first-generation black American of Ghanaian descent. She views Black Panther as a force to connect people all over the world, so she threw a party asking people to wear any clothing that represents their heritage and to bring a potluck dish from that culture.

"We share a lot more in common than we think," said Acquah. "There's a shared experience with colonialism, slavery, and systematic oppression."

That can work to ease a brewing tension among some African Americans and African immigrants, who both often claim they are viewed through stereotypes. Even for the much-anticipated  Black Panther, there's been criticism leveled that the movie is an approximation of African culture.

"It's incumbent on all of us to know our history," Acquah said, pointing out that Kwame Nkrumah, the first Ghanaian president after independence, was educated in the United States, at Lincoln University.

"That had an impact on his worldview," she said. "That gave him a different lens and an understanding of what black people struggled with."

In the meantime, Ngozi customers have been emailing Oguekwe their photos in front of the Black Panther movie poster wearing the outfits she made.

When business settles down, her daughter and four other children plan to take her and her husband to see the film.