Taft High School football star-turned-actor lands ‘Black Panther’ role
Excitement is growing for Marvel’s newest superhero movie, “Black Panther,” and it turns out that San Antonio has a special reason to cheer.
Abongo Humphrey, who was a star athlete at Taft High School, has a role in the culturally rich, visually stunning, action-packed and already critically acclaimed film. It opens Feb. 16 in theaters nationwide.
“This is the first black superhero movie of this magnitude,” Humphrey said in a phone interview from Atlanta, where he makes his home and where the movie was filmed.
“I think this is going to be one of the most empowering films for African Americans to connect with their African ancestry. This will shift the cultural dynamics in young children by exposing them to their roots in a positive way and enrich their pride.”
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In the movie, the former varsity football player and mixed martial arts fighter plays a Jabari warrior, one of six trusted sidekicks to M’Baku (Winston Duke, “Person of Interest”), a powerful foe of the Black Panther.
“I’m in quite a few scenes. When you see M’Baku, you’ll see me,” Humphrey said. “I have speaking lines, but they’re not singular speaking lines. I’m actually speaking together with the other warriors.”
He also had a memorable time with the stellar cast — which includes Chadwick Boseman (“Marshall”), Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett — absorbing their knowledge and acting techniques.
“It was a learning experience,” he said. “I got to watch a level of professionalism that I’ve never seen before — the way they prepared before going on screen. Amazing.”
“Angela Bassett was one of the people I enjoyed working with most. Very down to earth. Her movements, the way she interacts with other characters.”
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He also said he was blown away by Whitaker’s all-out intensity.
Before diving into more of Humphrey’s history and how he nabbed the part, let’s look at the roots and plot of “Black Panther.” The film from director and screenwriter Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) is based on a comic book figure co-created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966.
Black Panther is considered to be the first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics.
The title character, aka T’Challa (Boseman), is the ruling king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. He also is Black Panther, protector of the nation and avatar of the Panther God.
Along with the enhanced abilities that he achieved through ancient ritual, T’Challa also depends on his vast intellect, rigorous physical training, martial arts skills and access to advanced technologies — a hallmark of Wakanda — to combat his enemies.
One is the film’s main villain, Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan (“Creed”), who is out to dethrone T’Challa.
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But more relevant to our S.A. actor is another adversary, M’Baku, who leads Wakanda’s Jabari warriors, one of whom is played by Humphrey. Like M’Baku, they have removed themselves from mainstream Wakandan society and don’t believe in the importance of technology, which T’Challa has embraced.
“M’Baku is a traditionalist. He and his men isolate themselves from Wakanda proper and don’t accept or believe in popular Wakanda culture and letting outsiders into their world,” Humphrey said.
These beliefs resonated with Humphrey, whose main line of work is all about preserving the history, traditions and spiritual practices of pre-colonial people and societies.
“I have an organization called International Indigenous Knowledge & Development Society,” he said. “The goal is not only to preserve indigenous spiritual teachings, but also to transmit them to future generations. I travel to a lot of indigenous parts — such as the northern regions of Ghana — and study with medicine men and women. I also educate, bring back programs for people to learn. … I’m kind of an urban medicine man.”
The skills that caught the attention of “Black Panther” stunt coordinator Andy Gill likely were more physical than spiritual, however.
“I was at a gym in Atlanta, doing jujitsu, and it just happens they were holding auditions for the film,” he said. “I didn’t even have a portfolio.”
“I told Andy Gill that I’m a retired mixed martial artist and was part of Strikeforce on Showtime with lots of experience fighting.”
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Humphrey said he always has wanted to get into film, so when Gill asked if he were interested, he said yes. “He took my picture on the spot and gave me a shot.”
He said he was cast as a featured stunt performer — “not behind-the-scenes stunts or a stunt double. I was still considered cast, one who supported the principal actors.” .
Humphrey was born in California and, as a military brat, traveled the world with his parents; he moved to San Antonio at 13.
“It was my years in Texas that molded me into a man,” he said. “I’m proud of my San Antonio roots. My competitive years at Taft allowed me to see that hard work can produce amazing things.”
In high school, he got into sports big-time and played nose guard for Taft’s football team.
”He was the man!” recalled former KENS-TV anchorwoman Karen Grace, a Taft grad and close friend of Abongo and his family. She knew him as Ronald Glenn Humphrey in school. “He was our strongest football player and was really talented — Mr. Popular.”
Humphrey, who graduated in 1995, also credits Taft for helping him gain direction. “Being at Taft helped me achieve an athletic scholarship to Missouri Valley College,” he said.
Married and the father of three, Humphrey is now eyeing another possible career, thanks to “Black Panther.” “I’m quite interested in pursuing (acting) further,” he said.
Most of all, he added, “I am honored that I am part of a film that is so culturally impactful.
“(It) shines a light on Africa. It’s important for children and adults to see black superheroes and characters that belong to the most technologically advanced society on the planet.”
Jeanne Jakle’s column appears Thursdays and Sundays in mySA.