Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler took the dais at Vulture Festival LA to talk about two of the biggest films of 2018. DuVernay’s is adapting the classic children book A Wrinkle in Time into a fantastical Disney blockbuster while Coogler is stepping into the Marvel Cinematic Universe to bring the mysterious world of Black Panther to life. The talented directors not only talked about making their highly anticipated box office grabs but how each are huge wins for people of color and marginalized communities.
DuVernay and Coogler are currently neighbors of sorts, housed in editing rooms across the hall from each other on the Disney lot. As DuVernay puts the finishing touches on Wrinkle, Coogler is chipping away at Black Panther. On stage, the two clearly share a bond as they go on their journey of two black directors coming up in an industry that is, in a word, being color-corrected. There’s a shift in the industry as more and more projects are being created by minority filmmakers featuring people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community and other underrepresented voices. But what makes Wrinkle and Black Panther even more of a milestone is the fact that they are gigantic studio films. Wrinkle includes a diverse cast while Black Panther is the first superhero movie released by a Marvel Studios with a majority black cast. And both include people of color as the main hero driving out-of-this-world stories helmed by two black filmmakers.
When DuVernay first started on the adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved novel, she had yet to read it. When she met with Tendo Nagenda, Executive VP of Production at Disney, he told DuVernay about the story, which excited the Selma director. But what stood out to her was when he said: “Imagine the worlds you can build.” In the book, Meg (Storm Reid) does a fair amount of “planet hopping” and this gave DuVernay the chance to design and create spaces that were unmapped.
“I’m excited to share a sci-fi vision through the lens of a black woman because so often we’re watching sci-fi films through one specific lens – a predominantly white male lens for decades and decades,” said DuVernay. “Not that mine will be radically different, but there might be a softness, edge or a color change to it that we may have not seen — or have seen, but skewed. The bottom line is we don’t know until we see it, so why don’t we just see it?”
DuVernay talks about working with the source material, envisioning Jennifer Lee’s script, and the choices she made with creating the planets. But for DuVernay, she wanted to capture the spirit of the story, but not feel tethered to how everything was in the book — especially with the characters. The movie features characters played the aforementioned Reid and newcomer Deric McCabe as well as Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon as the main “Mrs.” roles. All of them are of different ethnicities.
“There are no black or southeast Asian ‘Mrs.’ in the book,” said DuVernay. “In the book, the girl is not bi-racial and the little boy is not a little Filipino-American boy. We took liberties to be true to the spirit, but we freed ourselves and freed our imagination to bring these fairytales and fantasies into the current time, which is one that should be much more inclusive.”
For Coogler, his source material was different. In novels, the point of reference is constant. For Black Panther, the narrative is ongoing. “Stan Lee and Jack Kirby invented this character in the ’60s,” said Coogler. “Christopher Priest, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Reginald Hudlin have added on and updated the pages as time goes on.”
Fitting a standalone Black Panther movie into the MCU was a challenge for Coogler at first because to him, the film’s hero T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has everything going for him. “In a way, I thought it was going to be tough, because I’m not sure I like this dude,” said the Creed director. “He’s so different from what I am used to. But through the process of making the film and working with Chad and trying to explore and find ownership in it, I’m incredibly attached to this character now.”
He adds, “In our film, you find him at a time where he lost his father, the most important person in his life. He’s inheriting this incredible responsibility. He’s inheriting it at a time when Wakanda is struggling what its identity might be and the people have different ideas of what they should do. He’s incredibly conflicted but is aware of his responsibility of what to do.”
To that, Coogler talked about one of his favorite moments of making Black Panther. It wasn’t anything that had to do with the spectacle and scope of a Marvel film (although he spoke excitedly about that) it was about a moment between Boseman and co-star John Kani, who plays his father T’Chaka.
Coogler says the two were rehearsing a scene (presumably a flashback, not a spoiler considering T’Chaka dies in Civil War) and they were talking in the South African language Xhosa. For Coogler, there was something about that moment that resonated with him.
“Realizing that we were going to have this film where a father and son talk to each other in this native African language in a superhero movie — it hit me for a moment,” he said. “It was emotionally moving. That was a big one.”
Both DuVernay and Coogler were both breakout directors with socially relevant films that arguably changed the cinematic landscape for minority representation. DuVernay’s Selma caused an enormous amount of buzz while Coogler’s Fruitvale Station was a Sundance hit. This was a major moment for DuVernay considering she didn’t pick up a camera until she was 32 years old and for Coogler, he was an unknown director who simply made a phenomenal film based in the Bay Area — where he grew up. That said, the two talked about what it would have been like to see movies like Wrinkle and Black Panther when they were 10 years old.
“I have a niece who is the real Meg,” said DuVernay. “I want her to see all that’s possible for her and to show her that she doesn’t have to wait until she’s 32 years old to figure it out. She should be able to know that she can walk through any door — even if the door is not there. If you start walking towards it, it will appear for you. And it’s not only for black girls but all kinds of girls — and boys too. A hero doesn’t have to be defined so narrowly.”
Coogler says that when he was 10 years old, he would have never imagined that there would be a black president or a president like Trump. In regards to Black Panther, he said: “I am making this film for my 10-year-old self.”
During Comic-Con, producer Charles King was at the Black Panther panel where Coogler screened footage. King’s two young sons were the first to approach him after the panel and told him how much they loved the footage and gave him a hug. “Their world is different from our world. These kids they are gonna save all of us,” said Coogler.
He adds, “We got to do our part to keep pushing things forward. To see a movie where somebody looks like me that is a king and knows their ancestry and has an army of incredible folks around them and who believe in them? I don’t know what that would have done for me when I was 10 years old.”