Cul­tural hero

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.

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