Black Panther has risen to plenty of challenges, shattering every expectation to far surpass the ticket sales of any film by a Black director, with a cast populated by African and African-American performers, on its way to a $1.3 billion global gross. But there’s one challenge remaining: can the film overcome a clear Academy prejudice and get a fair shake as a Best Picture candidate?
It’s a prejudice that, for once, is nothing to do with race. If history is a guide, what Black Panther must overcome is the kneejerk reaction of Academy voters to dismiss superhero movies outright. If it gets its Best Picture nomination, it’d be a first. Not even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy cracked that recognition, even as it spurred the Academy to broaden the Best Picture category from five to a possible 10 nominees. The challenge facing Marvel and Disney this season is preventing Black Panther from being marginalized as just another high roller in the Marvel Cinematic Universe assembly line. It is so much more.
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Beyond the big business, Black Panther is as landmark for the superhero genre as Get Out was for horror, tackling deep-seated issues, often for the first time in mainstream cinema. When Wakandan king T’Challa addresses countries at the UN about nations building bridges and not barriers, it’s hard not to see his speech as an answer to Trump’s isolationism.
Among the bona fides worth considering this awards season: after playing color barrier-breakers Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall, Chadwick Boseman brings the same quiet dignity to T’Challa, convincingly infusing intellect and physicality to a character first created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in recognition of the changing world of 1960s Civil Rights reforms. Both in front of and behind the camera, Black Panther featured a strong contingent of women, like production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who indelibly stamped the film as a celebration of African culture and created a living, breathing world in Wakanda. Michael B. Jordan, making his third film with Ryan Coogler after Fruitvale Station and Creed, left an indelible mark as Erik Killmonger, turning the grudge-holding cousin of T’Challa and rival for the Wakandan throne into a whirlwind of rage without making himself a scenery-chewer.
Black Panther’s living, breathing scale comes from its depiction of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which brims with technological advancement and a profound connection to its imagined history and culture.
But what may not be evident on screen—except in the most subconscious ways—is how profoundly everybody involved in its creation invested pieces of their personal journeys into Black Panther. As they searched for their own identities as African-American descendants of the continent of Africa, theirs is a celebration of a place so often depicted as volatile or violent. In the mix are subtle infusions of the Black Power movement, the unforgivable history of the slave era and the ravaging of Africa’s natural resources. All that wrapped up in a Marvel movie destined for maximum reach.
Ryan, what did you see as the biggest opportunity—and challenge—of taking the reins of a film of this scale, tackling issues this deep-seated while addressing a huge audience?
Ryan Coogler: A lot of the challenge was personal. I had only done two feature films so far and never worked with a budget this large. Beyond the subject matter, just that alone is enough to stress you out. Then, a studio that hadn’t really had a film that didn’t work in a business and critical sense, and not wanting to be the one who failed in trying to get the theme right.
Coogler: For all of us, it was: what does it mean to be African? When I was approached, I had never been to the continent. Even though my ancestors are from there, I view myself through the lens of being African from an African-American context and being part of the diaspora. I wanted so badly to get that right and questioned if I was the right person for the job. The insecurity I felt all the way through the process stemmed from one or all of those things. Each day, we conquered those things by bringing on people, our key collaborators, department heads, and eventually our cast. We shared the burden of all of those things, and through our own individual perspectives, we got through it together.
What was your connection to Africa before you started this? Stories told by your parents as you grew up in Oakland, CA?
Coogler: Yeah. When you come from where I’m from, the way you learn about the continent is through your elders and usually in the context of the slavery conversation. The “how did we get here?” conversation is something that is alluded to in the start of our film.
With the short history that introduced the Black Panther Africa mythology through drawings that included slave ships?
Coogler: Yeah. The tough part about it is, you find out you’re learning about this place from people who haven’t been there themselves, due to circumstance. I remember having conversations about the continent with my grandmother, who’s 90 now and just had a chance to go a few months ago. She lived her entire life up to that point in the United States, so you’re hearing about a place through her idealized lens; an almost fantastical lens because it’s often the flipside to the deepest negative story you could have, which is the story of how we actually got here. So you hear about this other place that has to be counterbalanced as being beautiful and perfect and peaceful; the idealized version of Africa that lives in the head of a lot of African-Americans, especially when you’re young. And one that runs contrary to what I saw in the media about the continent—overwhelmingly negative stuff—when I was growing up. It was never the full story. So there was definitely an emotional connection; one of pride, one of mystery, and also one of shame when you look at how it’s portrayed.
Before writing the script with Joe Robert Cole, you spent almost a month in Africa. Will Smith once said he didn’t understand how Africa had changed Muhammad Ali until Smith went over there to prepare to play him. What did that trip mean to your own search for identity, and the formation of the film?
Coogler: Growing up African-American, there’s an anger that exists in you, the more knowledge that you get about history and what happened to your ancestors. On this quest, you find out why you didn’t grow up in this place, one that tends to be hostile towards people who look like you, and towards your culture. So I guess I had 29 years’ worth of that anger and this deep sense of loss. Because the African-American culture that we have, it’s something we built from scraps. We were cut off from our religion, from our language on the continent. Systematically, that was broken and then what we call African-American culture, is kind of bastardized in what you’re taught by white media. You’re taught that from other Black people and when you come in contact with Africans from that continent that you are different, and not really a part of its history.
So when I actually went to the continent for the first time, what surprised me most was that I found I had so much in common with people from the continent. I spent time with Lupita’s family in Kenya. I went to South Africa first, and it blew my mind that I looked so much like the people there. If I closed my mouth and didn’t talk, people would come up to me and speak their own native languages and expect me to answer. That was extremely moving. I discovered that a lot of the rituals and cultural practices we’re doing as African-Americans, they are originally from the continent, and my ancestors actually did hold on to them. They call it different names but we still hold parts of that in our history, our heritage. It replaced a lot of that anger I felt with hope. It put me at ease and made me feel like I had a bigger family than I ever thought I did.
And changed your sense of self-identity?
Coogler: Absolutely. Yeah. Afterwards, I came home and took… you ever heard of that African Ancestry site?
Lupita Nyong’o: Ancestry.com?
Coogler: Not that one.
Michael B. Jordan: The 23andMe one?
Nyong’o: Oh, the AfricanAncestry.com one that Chadwick is always talking about.
Coogler: Yeah. Chad put me on it. They have a huge database of ethnic genetic information from the continent and they compare and contrast it to the information you give with a swab. They can tie you to different ethnic groups and tell you where your ancestors most likely were from. It turns out my wife [Zinzi Evans] and I found out that I’m from the Tikar people from Cameroon and that her people were Tikar as well. On my other side, I’m Yoruba from Nigeria. It was crazy to find that out.
The film just connected me to that continent. We all tried to tap into that feeling with this film; we talked about it all the time on the set. We had many different people from the two continents, and everybody had a stake in the film and a sense that this had got to be right because our families were going to watch this. People I’m connected to are going to see this. It has got to tell our story and tell it with authenticity and dignity.
Lupita, when you were growing up in Kenya, aspiring to do the things you’re doing now, how did the movies you watched influence your sense of self-identity?
Nyong’o: You’d be surprised how prevalent American cinema is around the world. I grew up watching predominantly American cinema and British television. And Mexican television. A lot of my influences were foreign, and worlds I did not know. I grew up watching Jackie Chan and Steven Seagal and Bruce Lee, because we had a lot of these fantastical action films. I also grew up watching The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. When you watch things from other worlds it expands your imagination and it connects you to humanity in a more empathetic way because you’re experiencing people that look nothing like you and yet they’re going through things that you’re going through. Like the Von Trapp children, who can’t get their father to pay them attention. I felt that way about my dad, you know.
What’s the impact of consuming culture that largely excludes you?
Nyong’o: It draws the world closer to you, but what it also does is it estranges you from yourself because you do not have the opportunities to see yourself reflected on screen. It breeds this idea that to be something else is better than to be yourself. So you’re striving and aspiring for things that are totally out of your grasp. A film like this was so important and so vital for me to be a part of and to commit to, because it was offering a mirror that I just never had.
I went to Nigeria in May, shortly after the film came out. Black Panther was still in the cinema. That longevity doesn’t happen on the continent. It’s not our primary source of entertainment, because watching films in cinemas is extremely expensive. But people were going in droves. I met people who went with their mother, their grandmother, and their children. It was totally bringing in different generations.
One man in his 60s turned to me and said, “I am so mad because I didn’t know I needed that; a reflection of myself.” It was such a powerful validation to so many, including me, who worked on it. What I think then it does for people who are not Black and who are not African is that it offers them the opportunity that Jackie Chan and Steven Seagal offered me. To see we are not any different. So it’s so important to have that cross pollination and that’s what this film did.
I grew up a white Marvel Comics kid and never thought about how it would be to not see heroes who share my skin color. The overwhelming success of Black Panther might change that for future generations. Michael and Ryan, you guys were also comic book kids. How did a lack of Black characters make you feel, and what did Black Panther mean to you as the rare exception?
Coogler: That’s how I found Black Panther. I was into comics, coming up in the late-’80s, early-’90s, and there was a comic book shop right across the street from my elementary school. We would go there in between school and basketball practice. We would read the books. We didn’t have money to buy them, but they’d let us thumb through them. I went in and asked the guy, “Are there any Black comic book characters in here?” I really was searching for it and that’s how I found out about Panther. He took me over and showed me some issues that Panther was in. He kind of pitched me who he was and so I learned about him at an early age, literally seeking out—there wasn’t a word for it yet, but representation—I was looking for it there. That’s how I found him.
Jordan: Similar thing for me, but I didn’t have a place like that. I watched the X-Men cartoons—Saturday morning cartoons—and that got me into comic books. There was a pool hall in Montclair, New Jersey. My dad would take me, and he would teach me how to shoot pool. There was a comic book store downstairs right next to an old Blockbuster Video store where we would rent movies and stuff. That was our tradition. He would take me and my little bro to go play pool and we would stop downstairs and grab a movie and I could get a comic book. I’d go through them and try to find different things I liked. Black Panther was one of them because he was one of the few that looked like me. Black Panther and Bishop [from X-Men]. Bishop was one of my favorite characters growing up.
Coogler: With the mullet and the curl and the tat on his face?
Jordan: Yeah. Those were ones that I really connected with. Black Panther was just always that dude. I guess at that age you are not really connecting the dots with the whole representation aspect, and it wasn’t something I knew I needed at that time, but once I realized that’s what I was missing out on…
Now that I’m making films, I want to produce and create more projects that are aspirational. A guy like me could be a doctor, an astronaut. So when this project came up, everything was magnified. It was an intense feeling; an opportunity even if wasn’t so specific or articulated. But a feeling that this generation needs to see themselves on the screen because this is what it’s going to do for them. This Halloween, we saw all these young kids, women, little girls and boys dressed as Killmonger or Nakia. You feel like, man, this is what they’ve been waiting for. They didn’t even know they needed this. They didn’t understand what representation could do for a person, in moving forward and having dreams. Lupita, when did you become aware of Black Panther?
Nyong’o: When Chadwick got cast. Back in 2014. I was like, “Oh, there’s a Black superhero? That’s cool.” It goes back to the difference for me when we talk about being aware of people that look like you in the media and it being so rare. I loved comic books but I grew up reading Tintin and Popeye. I grew up in a predominantly Black world, but in my little child mind anything worth writing about was white. I remember drawing my family and coloring them with beige because all my children’s books had beige characters. I thought that was how you draw. That’s how unaware I was of how warped it was. Those were the images that I had. My dream to want to be an actor was born really young. I watched The Sound of Music and said, “I want to be her!” I had no problem connecting with people that didn’t look like me. Until I saw The Color Purple and I’m like, “Wait a minute, these people look exactly like me. They have kinky hair like mine.” Sometimes the hunger to see yourself is totally silent and unconscious until you finally see it, and then it’s like a floodgate opens.
Jordan: You want to make up for lost time. You want to catch up to that.
Nyong’o: I had no problem, because I didn’t grow up in a country whose structure was racial in the same way that America is. So the ability to connect was straightforward until such a time that it wasn’t. There’s a lot of hurt when it comes to all African peoples. [Ryan and Michael] have explained the African-American situation. For Africans, Africa has been a continent that has been exploited often, in all sorts of ways. A lot has been taken from the continent and one thing that Africa does not receive is the acknowledgment for the things it has contributed, way back to the origins of the world as we know it today. This goes in all areas. You’re talking resources. You’re talking culture. You’re talking art. All of it. I grew up with a deficit of an appreciation for my culture. There is also a lot of condescension that we experience from the world. There’s a lot of, I would say, underestimation from people from the continent and it’s something that we grapple with all the time.
Coogler: There’s surprise when someone sees you’re intelligent.
Nyong’o: Like, “You mean there are skyscrapers on the continent? Wait a minute, you’ve got Wi-Fi?” Even though, right now, mobile commerce in Africa is more advanced than it is here for certain. There is also a very comfortable ignorance that people are never called on. It’s not OK to not know about England and the River Thames, but the idea that you’d know anything about the Nile and where it starts and where it ends, that’s not expected of anyone in the world. Even to this day I hear doctors that refer to Africa as a country. We had to grapple with a narrative of a country that has isolated itself from the continent, and from the world, and what does that mean for an African nation to turn its back on its own continent? But it is also self-loving and…
Nyong’o: And totally independent. There’s something very aspirational about that. The fact that you could have a completely contemporary, traditional society that is operating on a level that is aspirational for everybody else. That was the healing factor. That’s the thing that I feel we wanted to make sure we highlighted and celebrated, that in a sense this is an incubator for an Africa that will never exist but one that we can reclaim in our minds and aspire to be. Bringing those sensitivities to the table to make a film representative of African peoples—both African and African-American—that both parties would watch and feel like it was authentic to their story. We were successful in that. When I was in Nigeria, an elderly man said to me, “How are my cousins Boseman and Jordan?” I’ve never heard that sentiment before. In a sense, the film allowed us to meet in the middle of the Atlantic, saying we are cousins. We are related and there is a connection to be made and to be fostered.
Michael, Killmonger was a much more grounded and layered villain than we’re used to in superhero cinema. What went into keeping him from being a one-dimensional bad guy?
Jordan: I can’t take credit for that. It was all the research and work Ryan and Joe Robert Cole put into crafting this character, understanding the pain that we have because we are African-American and we’re here. Erik became a product of his environment, he’s what circumstance and his country made him. As a kid he heard stories of Wakanda, this place he’s never been to, that is in his blood, but which he doesn’t even really know exists because he is in Oakland. How could Wakanda exist for someone like me?
That hope being taken away from him at a very young age sent him down a path of where he decided to become the best version of himself under his circumstances, and he’s going to find this place by any means necessary. If you have empathy for Killmonger, it’s because you understand his motive. You understand how much pain he has in this heart, and that he wants the injustice done to him to be heard. He doesn’t care if he dies. He had to make an impact on T’Challa. At the end of the movie, you see him go back into Oakland and buy those buildings. So Killmonger did win, in my eyes. It wasn’t about living or dying. It’s about just getting the point across and having a conversation, one that has never been had on screen before. About what it means to be African, seeing what African-Americans have been through.
I go through that same type of pain. I know what oppression feels like. I know what that is. Maybe we’re not so different. I think that’s one of the biggest takeaways from the movie. To bring some humanity to somebody who was constantly looked at as not human.
Did you find yourself having a similar transformative experience when you visited the continent?
Jordan: I did, but not in preparation for this movie. I had a chance to go a few years ago when I shot this movie Chronicle out there in Cape Town, South Africa. Crazy; that location for a movie set in Seattle. That was my first time going and honestly, just hearing Ryan talk about his experiences and his anticipation of going, my experience was similar. I expected to see something else. My parents are pretty aware. They’ve never been to the continent either. I’d always been told as a kid stories about Nigeria and the Yoruba culture and Kenya and Ghana. I have a lot of family and friends from Ghana and so a pretty 360-degree understanding of it, but all that was nothing compared to actually going there and being around your people and visiting Robben Island and that prison where Nelson Mandela spent so many years, and learning about apartheid that isn’t in the textbooks. Which is a very narrow window of what they want you to know, and kind of how to feel and view yourself.
To be able to go and visit the shanty towns and see what life is like over there and what they’re going through, but then also being able to see very strong, Black, powerful, wealthy, educated people. People will actually ask, “Did you see wild animals walking around?” No, not at all. It’s actually a big, huge city with tall skyscrapers and buildings and all that other stuff. I was 23 or 24, and going over made a big impact on me. And then to be a part of this movie, giving me the point of view from the African-American perspective, it was really important to me. I took it very seriously and I am going back. For Thanksgiving.
Nyong’o: Where are you going?
Nyong’o: You haven’t had enough of South Africa, I see.
Jordan: No, I know, I’ve got to get up north.
Nyong’o: You’ve got to come east! Come on! You can’t sit across from me and not go to Kenya.
Jordan: I know!
It sounds like there’s a dinner invite in there somewhere.
Nyong’o: It’s an open invitation.
Coogler: Take that up, Mike. Her family is amazing.
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