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Black Panther, the trailblazing Marvel-Disney superhero franchise with a cast and crew full of Yale alumni, has exploded in theater sales since its domestic release on Feb. 16, yielding record-setting revenue at the box office and garnering widespread critical acclaim.

Lupita Nyong’o DRA ’12, Angela Bassett ’80 DRA ’83 and Winston Duke DRA ’13 starred in principle roles, as a spy, queen, and Jabari tribe leader, respectively, in the fictional nation of Wakanda. Shaunette Renée Wilson DRA ’16 and Zenzi Williams DRA ’15 acted in supporting roles: Wilson portrayed a member of the Dora Milaje and Williams portrayed a member of the Jabari tribe. Behind the scenes, Sarah Finn ’86 directed the film’s casting and Beth McGuire, a professor at the School of Drama, worked to develop the actors’ African accents.

“I’m completely moved, humbled, in awe and thrilled,” Finn said. “It’s an emotional reaction for all of us, because not only is the film commercially successful, it’s resonating with people emotionally, culturally, politically and socially. That’s kind of a rare and special thing.”

Black Panther has been hailed for its majority-black cast. Other milestones include the titles of highest grossing film with a black director, Ryan Coogler, and Marvel production with the highest Rotten Tomatoes score. And when Black Panther grossed over $100 million in its second weekend, it became just the fourth film to do so. With more than $700 million in global revenue, it seems likely that the blockbuster will become the latest member of moviedom’s exclusive $1 billion club.

The film’s runaway success defies a longstanding hesitation among Hollywood producers to fund big-budget movies starring primarily black actors in non-stereotypical roles.

“The film speaks to a need that hadn’t been fulfilled,” McGuire said. “I had a moment 20 minutes into the film as I was watching the premiere. It just came over me — I couldn’t believe that we had to wait until 2018 to get that.”

Marvel took a gamble with the film, both in spending $200 million dollars on production costs as well as hiring Ryan Coogler as director. Coogler was still a relatively up-and-coming director in Hollywood: his largest success before “Black Panther” was 2015’s “Creed,” which also starred Michael B. Jordan, who plays the villainous Erik Killmonger in the more recent movie.

According to Finn, Coogler, “an incredibly passionate, hardworking individual,” was a key part of the film’s success. It was of the utmost importance, she said, to “find actors whose dedication was going to match his.”

Finn succeeded by casting Nyong’o, Bassett and Duke, whose performances have received critical acclaim.

“The camera loves Lupita,” said Christopher Bayes, an acting professor at the School of Drama who directed Nyong’o in a Yale production, “The Really Big Fat Show.” “She’s just gorgeous on screen, and she’s kinda translucent — you see everything that she’s thinking in her eyes and her face. She’s a really strong and a really fierce talent.”

Bayes also taught Duke, and praised the actor’s impressive performance, saying he “steals the scenes he’s in” and that his role in Black Panther “is going to be a big leg up in his career.”

Yalies said they were not surprised by the links between Black Panther and the University.

“In general, Yale students are aware about empowering minorities, so I’m not surprised that that there were six Yalies in the movie,” Devika Kedia ’20 said. “It just reflects the general mindset here.”

The character Black Panther will next appear in “Avengers: Infinity War,” set for release on May 4.

Brianna Wu |