Black Panther director Ryan Coogler kicks the tights and capes genre up a notch with a powerful celebration of Africa
LOS ANGELES — Director Ryan Coogler admits he was surprised by the initial feedback he got from the bigwigs at Marvel Studios when he began sharing his vision for its next franchise, Black Panther.
After all, he was set to make a $200-million epic blockbuster; a popcorn movie that mixed dazzling special effects, heart-stopping action sequences and sprawling set design. Presumably, the idea was to ensure it received the widest audience possible.
But when he met with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and other producers, Coogler was honest about wanting to make a superhero film that dug deep into the themes he had already explored in his first two films. It would be a superhero movie, but it would also have more than a few hints of the intimate work the filmmaker had already delivered in his relatively short five-year career.
Feige’s response? “Great. Let’s get going.”
“I was not expecting that,” says Coogler during a press conference in Beverly Hills earlier this month alongside Feige and the Black Panther cast. “But as I got to know these guys, specifically Kevin, this is what they are all about. He is all about making something that entertains people, that works as a piece of entertainment but leaves you with something to think about. He was very encouraging. I was getting notes while we were working on this: ‘Make it more specific, make it more personal.’ “
Four years earlier, Coogler had become an indie sensation thanks to his debut film, Fruitvale Station. It was a powerful, heart-wrenching drama based on the real-life police shooting of a young black man. While he entered the more mainstream world of the Rocky franchise with his 2015 followup, Creed, the critically acclaimed entry did nothing to diminish his reputation as an uncompromising filmmaker who asked tough questions about race, poverty and division in his country.
Still, he says the idea of making a mega-budgeted superhero flick was not all that foreign a concept to him.
“I grew up loving comic books,” he says. “Not just comic books, I loved pop culture. I loved toys, action figures, video games. When I got older and realized I wanted to make movies, that’s when I fell in love with international cinema and cinema that left you with something to chew on, something to think about. But I never fell out of love with those types of stories. The best version of those stories do both things.”
Judging from the early reviews of Black Panther, this is exactly what Coogler has achieved. Critics have pointed out the filmmaker’s ease with the superhero hallmarks that make these movies so much fun: the snappy one-liners, the non-stop action, the scenery-chewing villains, the vast, visual creativity. But many have also marvelled at how Coogler and his crew have deepened the genre by adding snippets of African culture, by exploring isolationism and colonialism, by introducing a group of empowered female characters and by asking provocative and timely questions about power and social responsibility.
All of this is wrapped into what at first seems like a fairly traditional origin story. After his father is murdered by a terrorist while giving a speech at the United Nations, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda and inherits the role of its protector, the Black Panther. To the outside world, the country looks like an impoverished nation of farmers. In reality, it is technically advanced and incredibly wealthy.
But Wakanda is also isolated, thriving in secret with little interaction with other countries. At the heart of the film is a question about how it should use its power. Wakandan spy, and Black Panther’s former love interest, Nakia (played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) believes it should be used to better the lives of those suffering in surrounding countries. A villain with the revealing and not-so-subtle moniker of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) emerges with a very different idea.
Coogler and his team present a unique vision of Africa, celebrating its colour, diversity, tribal culture and resourcefulness. For actress Danai Gurira, who grew up in Zimbabwe and plays the fierce, baldheaded Wakandan general Okoye, seeing Africa portrayed this way was an emotional experience.
“That’s something that you always want,” says Gurira, who is best known for playing Michonne on The Walking Dead. “You see the power and the potential of where you’re from, but you see how skewed it’s viewed by the world and how misrepresented it is and how distorted it is perceived by the world. This is kind of a salve to those wounds to see this world brought to life this way and to see all the potential and power of all the different African culturalism and aspects of our being that was celebrated.”
That includes having a superhero — the first African superhero in a major blockbuster — who speaks with an African accent. Boseman, who up until now is probably best known for his uncanny performance as James Brown in the 2014 biopic Get on Up, studied at Oxford. But prior to that, he went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., a school where the majority of students are African-American and taught “to respect our writers and our classics.” For a character whose ancestors have never been conquered, it was important that T’Challa had an accent that reflected his coming of age in a world untouched by colonialism, Boseman says.
The Black Panther made his cinematic debut with a cameo in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. But as a comic-book character, he has been around since the mid-1960s when he and Wakanda first appeared in a Fantastic Four story. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther was the first African hero to appear in a mainstream comic.
“Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and the whole Marvel bullpen created Wakanda and created T’Challa and created Black Panther and made him a smarter, more accomplished character than any of the other white characters in the mid1960s,” Feige says. “So if they had the guts to do that in the mid-1960s, the least we can do is live up to that and allow this story to be told in the way it needed to be told and not shy away from things that the Marvel family didn’t shy away from in the height of the Civil Rights era.”
Black Panther opens Friday.
Director Ryan Coogler met with Marvel Studios wanting to make a superhero film that dug deep into the themes he had already explored in his first two films, Creed and Fruitvale Station.