Following its premiere at the Dolby Theatre on January 29, 2018, Black Panther has become a landmark moment in the history of cinema.
Among other achievements, Black Panther – a film that has ushered in Black Superheroes into a world where they were previously underrepresented – quickly became the 12th highest grossing worldwide movie of all time after it generated $1.237 billion after six weeks at the box office.
And last week, on Wednesday, April 18, Ryan Coogler’s Hollywood Blockbuster added another accomplishment to its list as it became the first commercial film to be shown in a public cinema in Saudi Arabia since 1983.
The invitation-only viewing in Riyadh came three months after Saudi Arabia welcomed films back into the public sphere with ‘test screenings’ of both The Emoji Movie and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie at a state-run cultural centre in Jeddah.
The test screenings were the first big move since Saudi Arabia lifted the three-decade long ban on cinemas late last year (even if Saudi officials selected two appallingly rated films to share with their citizens). Now, the reopening of a cinema in the capital city promises to herald a new era for not only Saudi filmmakers, but also for everyday Saudis.
In December last year, when announcing the move to open 2,000 new screens across the country within the next 12 years, Awwad Alawwad, the Saudi cultural minister, said:
‘Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification. By developing the broader cultural sector we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the kingdom’s entertainment options’.
Since then, both AMC Theatres and Vox Cinema have won licenses to operate movie theatres in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With the licenses come the plans to build 300 new cinemas, generating over 30,000 new jobs and injecting a much-needed boost into the Saudi economy.
This is particularly good news for the women of Saudi Arabia who, despite graduating from university in far greater numbers than men, only account for 22% of the workforce.
Beyond creating jobs, the introduction of public cinemas in a heavily-censored Kingdom will add to the diversity and imagination of young Saudis. It will also provide an outlet for Saudi filmmakers to tell the stories of their fellow citizens which have been kept largely silent for decades. More than revenue, it is this impact on culture that will prove to be the invaluable benefit of introducing cinema to the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has long now been an ultra-conservative country with an absolute monarchy that has become infamous for its political prisoners, its limits over expression, and its hard-line foreign policy.
Yet from darkness comes light. And the light from within Saudi Arabia may well come from the Cinema Screens.
Indeed, Najah Alotaibi even argues that showing Black Panther in Saudi Arabia is one of the first steps towards fighting radical Islam. This may not be as far-fetched as it first seems, but it remains to be seen.
For now, Saudis eagerly wait for the first public screenings; which officials have said are expected to open to the public in May.
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