On Wednesday, a group of eager audience members in Riyadh got to go to the movies for the first in more than 30 years, as Saudi Arabia's Black Panther screening ended the country's movie theater ban. According to CNN, the private showing of Marvel's blockbuster at a new AMC theater — complete with popcorn and soda — was invitation-only and limited to 500 people, including executives and officials. This marked the first time viewers could attend a public screening of a film, since movie theaters were banned in the 1980s as a result of the kingdom's conservative policies. “We are very happy,” Fouz al-Thiyabi, a guest who attended the screening told the New York Times. “They should have done this a long time ago.”
The screening is the latest in a series of changes spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir to the throne, who is aiming to relax rigid restrictions in Saudi society, according to Bloomberg. In December 2017, the country hosted its first public concert by female performer ever, and while the kingdom normally follows a strict gender segregation policy, some events, including the screening Wednesday night, have allowed men and women to co-mingle. Additionally, in June, women will be allowed to drive on their own for the first time, for which driving schools have opened in preparation, and in February, the government announced that women were allowed to join the military and intelligence service.
While films will be subject to government editing, with any sensitive material being modified to meet Saudi standards, the change has brought about much excitement.
"This is a historic day for your country," Adam Aron, chief executive of AMC told the audience before the film started, according to ABC News. "It's been about 37 years since you've been able to watch movies the way movies are meant to be watched in a theater, together on a big screen." He also drew parallels between the plot of the film and the changes taking place at the moment in Saudi Arabia.
The film follows T'Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, as he ascends the throne of the fictional African nation Wakanda. When a villain named Killmonger, portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, and an evil scientist called Klaw, played by Andy Serkis, join together to challenge T'Challa, forcing the young leader — who is also the avatar of the Panther God — to defend himself and his kingdom.
At one point in the film, Lupita Nyong'o's character, Nakia, tells T'Challa, "You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be."
Aron noted the apparent similarities between Boseman's character and Prince Mohammed, who are both young members of royal families attempting to make change in their countries, Yahoo! News reported. "That might sound familiar to some of you," he said.
However, Aron also told the Times that they chose to screen Black Panther primarily because of its popularity with audiences. In its first month alone, the film made over $1 billion at the box office worldwide, and even in the context of big-budget superhero movies, it became a phenomenon.
In Saudi Arabia, tickets for showings of the film will go on sale on Thursday, and the screenings are due to open the public on Friday. And according to The Hollywood Reporter, the cinema is the first of 350 they plan to open nationally. It seems that the general feeling of the guests on Wednesday night one of enthusiasm. Rahaf Alhendi, another guest at the event told TIME, "It’s a new era, a new age. It’s that simple. Things are changing, progress is happening. We’re opening up and we’re catching up with everything that’s happening in the world."
The Black Panther screening appears to be indicative of the increased number of freedoms and options for entertainment in the country, with more sure to come.