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Black Panther will be the first film shown in a Saudi movie theater in decades

Allowing citizens to watch Black Panther is one thing. Making Saudi Arabia a Wakanda-like place to live is another.

Chadwick Boseman plays the prince of the fictional African country of Wakanda in Black Panther
Chadwick Boseman plays the prince of the fictional African country of Wakanda in Black Panther.
Marvel Studios

Black Panther will play in a Saudi Arabian movie theater on Wednesday. It’s the first film shown in a Saudi Arabian movie theater in 35 years. Yes, you read that right.

Saudi men and women will attend the screening at a swanky new theater in Riyadh featuring 500 leather seats and marble bathrooms. Choosing Black Panther was perhaps a no-brainer: It’s already raked in $1 billion worldwide to become the 10th-highest-grossing film of all time. It’s also a deeply enjoyable movie.

But it’s also a little ironic that a brutally repressive regime that consistently violates human rights has chosen to showcase a film that champions gender equality and cultural and racial diversity.

Heck, viewers will even be able to watch scenes where women drive cars.

The announcement that Riyadh will screen the superhero flick is another indicator that Saudi Arabia is changing — and it wants people to notice. The kingdom announced it would open movie theaters last December. AMC Theaters — which owns the cinema that will show the first Black Panther screening — plans to build 100 theaters across 25 cities in Saudi Arabia by 2030.

That’s a massive shift. Saudi Arabia started closing movie theaters after it embraced an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam in 1979. The recent decision to reopen theaters to the public was a massive blow to the country’s religious establishment: Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking religious authority, Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, warned against the “depravity” of commercial theaters in January 2017.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture also said that movies shown in the country “will be subject to censorship according to media policy standards of the Kingdom, stressing that will be in line with values and principles in place and do not contradict with Sharia Laws and moral values in the Kingdom.”

But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, says he wants to modernize his country. He told 60 Minutes in March that opening theaters was one part of his decades-long campaign to do just that. Still, Saudi Arabia is a country that treats women as second-class citizens, that is committing severe war crimes in Yemen, and that beheads prisoners.

So keep in mind: Allowing citizens to watch Black Panther is one thing. Making Saudi Arabia a Wakanda-like place to live is another.