On the morning of April 19, dozens of Oak Park River and Forest High School students were greeted with a salute, in part, because “Black Panther” star Mark Willis dropped in to visit his alma mater.
Willis, an Oak Park native and class of 2009 OPRF graduate, summed up his experience in Wakanda, saying it was huge “being part of the first, predominately-black superhero movie” as a member of the jabari warrior tribe.
The film follows the journey of T’Challa and his ascent to rule the African kingdom of Wakanda. The movie, released in February, has amassed worldwide attention. Willis said he is hopeful that projects such as “Black Panther” will open the door for greater diversity in film.
“I knew it was going to be impactful, but I didn’t know how impactful,” Willis said, noting the film’s box office success. “I knew it was definitely going to be huge for the black community. To see so many strong people in it is so huge.”
The actor/model has appeared in “Chicago PD” and “Empire.” Since “Black Panther”, Willis noted he had been cast in two TV pilots.
Willis credited the impact of his high school experience, in part, for getting him to where he is today. At OPRF, Willis was a member of the basketball and football teams.
Willis said it was not until after he graduated from the college that he got hit with the acting/modeling bug. When asked how it feels to return to his alma mater, Willis said it’s great.
“I’ve not been here since I graduated in 2009,” he said. “It’s so crazy to see everybody.”
He said “Black Panther” features “a message for all of us because, like I said, life’s going to knock you down, but it’s important to get back up.”
Willis said it’s important for people to recognize that there is beauty in all walks of life.
“With how Wakanda was set up, it’s masked to look like it’s nothing,” he said. “It’s a third world country and doesn’t have any money, but actually there’s so much money in it. There’s so much history and knowledge that [they] can give to the world, but nobody knows it. So, people might think that [they’re] nothing, but you have so much to offer. It’s important to share that knowledge.”