For Ryan Coogler, the essence of “Black Panther” came down to one question: What does it mean to be African?
The Oakland-born filmmaker of both “Creed” and “Fruitvale Station” had been given the gargantuan task of shepherding Marvel’s iconic superhero to the big screen, with a budget five times bigger than he’d ever had, Hollywood’s most powerful studio behind him and the freedom to make “Black Panther” as personal as he wanted. Coogler had made his name creating films about the black experience, but both were about the black American experience. “Black Panther,” which opens nationwide next week, was an African story and when Coogler signed on for the movie, he’d never been.
Now, he’d finally get his chance.
“This is the most personal film I’ve ever made, which is the strangest statement to say because I only make films that are personal,” Coogler said. “This film for me started with this question of, ‘What does it mean to be African?’ It’s a question that I’ve always had since I learned I was black, since my parents sat me down and told me what that was. I didn’t totally understand what that meant. As kid you’re like, well wait, why? Like, so wait we’re from Africa? What’s that?
“I’m 31-years-old and I realized I never really took time to grapple with what it means to be African. This film gave me the chance to do that,” he said.
When the wheels touched down in Cape Town, South Africa, Coogler remembers being overcome with a visceral feeling that he still can’t put words to. He went to Table Mountain and thought, “I could be buried here.” In Nairobi he saw a Maasai man, wearing traditional clothes and speaking on a cell phone. “That’s Wakanda,” he thought. “That’s Afrofuturism.”
And that’s what he set out to translate into the language of cinema in “Black Panther.” It’s the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and based on 50-year-old Stan Lee and Jack Kirby-created material, sure, but this is far from being just another superhero movie.
Wakanda, a fictional African nation, is an insulated, un-colonized and technologically advanced country that’s both deeply traditional and dazzlingly modern. “Black Panther” paints a multifaceted portrait of a nation in flux, as T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) ascends to the throne following his father’s death.
Actress Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”), who plays Okoye, the general of the Wakanda warriors known as the Dora Milaje, grew up mostly in Zimbabwe. She said she was “giddy” with “childlike joy” when she understood how Coogler intended to show Africa and its inhabitants like Okoye, the spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and the scientist Shuri (Letitia Wright) – and those are just the women.
“’Black Panther’ creates a precedent that kills the ability of folks to misrepresent and distort the continent,” Gurira said. “The things that it checks off: Complex African female characters; African language on a big screen; African characters who are varied in many different ways and heroic; The heroism of Africans for themselves and not needing a white hero – go figure – to reach their goals; Celebrating so many specific African cultural-isms. No one can really now try to put forth some product where Africa is seen begging for a white superhero to come and save it.”
“Black Panther” has the makings of an all-out cultural event.
“It’s the biggest, blackest movie that’s ever been made,” said veteran journalist and television writer Marc Bernardin.
And it’s already signaling a seismic shift that could make an impact big enough to change the entertainment industry – not that it hasn’t taken decades to get the African King and warrior to the big screen. Wesley Snipes tried for years to get a “Black Panther” film off the ground, bumping up against antiquated thinking about how “black movies don’t travel” (code for a film’s potential to make money internationally). But Marvel had a plan, and introduced T’Challa in a small but impactful part in “Captain America: Civil War” to set up the stand-alone film.
Coogler brought along many of his most trusted collaborators such as actor Michael B. Jordan to play the villain Erik Killmonger, cinematographer Rachel Morrison and production designer Hannah Beachler. He even got his hometown in the film. “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya, who plays T’Challa’s best friend, said he’s processing what he saw in “Black Panther.”
“To even have 90 percent of the cast speaking in an African accent? To me, it’s like, what is that? No one has ever seen something like that before. You think, ‘Oh I’ve been deprived,’” Kaluuya said. “I think it’s going to mess with people. I think people are going to stand straighter. I think people are going to be emboldened. It’s like, wow we can do this. We can do this at this level and bring it home.”
Walt Disney Co. chair Bob Iger told shareholders this week ticket presales are outpacing every other superhero movie ever made. Box office analysts have projected it could earn upward of $150 million in its first four days in theaters over President’s Day weekend (and could beat “Deadpool’s” $152 million record). In sum, it’s already looking at around $400 million in ticket sales domestically. And it’s currently resting at a cozy 100 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
Jordan, who has been by Coogler’s side since “Fruitvale Station,” said a storm is brewing with this movie. “Other studios are going to want to make movies like this and understand what the representation of this thing means,” Jordan said. “It was important for the biggest studio in the world to get behind that. Now it’s safe for everybody else to kind of do the same thing.”
Some are a little more skeptical this will happen.
“The optimist in me would like to believe that this is going to be the dam strike that unleashes a wave of Afrofuturism and this torrential onslaught of awesome,” Bernardin said. “The realist in me who has been working in and around Hollywood for 25 years knows that it is far more likely, sadly, that Hollywood will interpret this as a unicorn.”
Of course, only time will tell if “Black Panther” is a turning point or an anomaly. For now, Coogler just hopes people like it.
“My experiences when I was there on that trip eased a lot of questions that I had, a lot of pain that I had. And I tried to put all that into the movie,” Coogler said. “I don’t want to let the audience down.”