Ryan Coogler and the Cast of ‘Black Panther’ Discuss Bringing Wakanda to the Screen

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Black Panther Press Conference

After years of anticipation, Wakanda is finally making its way to the silver screen. King T’Challa of the fictional land of Wakanda was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby over 50 years ago at the height of the civil rights movement, and now the iconic character is headlining his own movie in the latest blockbuster to emerge from the hit factory that is Marvel Studios with Black Panther. To say there is buzz surrounding Black Panther is an understatement. As with all Marvel films, there’s a built-in fan base ready to eat up the latest superheroics. But with Black Panther featuring a predominantly black cast and directed by wunderkind Ryan Coogler, the mastermind behind the magnificent Creed, Black Panther has all the makings of a seismic cultural moment. At recent press conference in Los Angeles, Coogler and the cast of Black Panther talked about bringing the iconic comic character and the fictional land of Wakanda to the screen.

“Oh man, I just felt incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to make the film this way, to make the film with this studio, working with [Marve Studios head] Kevin [Feige] and his team – Victoria Alonso, Louis D’Esposito, and Nate Moore,” said director and co-writer Ryan Coogler. “And it’s not something I ever imagined would happen.”

Black Panther features a social consciousness rarely seen in the comic book movie. Producer Kevin Feige gave Coogler the room to weave societal issues into the screenplay that he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole. For Feige, that social conscience has its roots in the four-color pages of Marvel’s past.

“Well I think it’s happened for the comics, it’s happened with the movie. Ryan wrote this for the most part a year and a half ago, two years ago so things have happened in the world which makes the film seem more relevant,” the producer said. “There are other things in the film that have been relevant for centuries, but the truth of the matter is 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 mid-1960s. So 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 the way it needed to be told and not shy away from things that the Marvel founders didn’t shy away from in the height of the civil rights era.”

When it came to bringing T’Challa to the screen, Coogler was eager to pull from every available source in his cinematic version of the longstanding comic character. “We actually pulled from all of them, you know,” the director said when asked if Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run on the comic book influence the film. “We pulled from like pretty much, you can go to our film and see something in there probably from every writer that has touched T’Challa’s character in the Black Panther comics. You know Stanley and Jack Kirby’s initial runs through Don McGregor, you know, Christopher Priest, Jonathan Hickman, you know and it’s on East Coast Black Age of Comics and Brian Stelfreeze’s run was a big part of it as well. So we just kind of grabbed from all.  The characters got a long history and it’s such a rich stuff to mine. Each kind of writer kind of left their own mark on it like Claude’s been around for a long time. But you know Agent Ross was about Christopher Priest and that run and Shuri’s character was about Reginald Hudlin and his run, you know, so each run kind of leaves something for us to pull from, but we pulled from absolutely all of them.”

Stepping into the role of T’Challa, the Black Panther, is Chadwick Boseman, who had already made his debut as the character in Captain America: Civil War. When it came to casting the role, Kevin Feige said there was only one choice, Boseman.

“It may not have been this fast, but in my memory, we were sitting around a table, we were coming up with the story for Civil War – Nate Moore, our executive producer suggested bringing in Black Panther, because we were looking for sort of a third party who wouldn’t necessarily side with Cap or side with Iron Man. And almost instantly, we all said Chadwick,” Feige said.

“And in my memory, although maybe it was the next day, we got him on a speaker phone right then. And he was in the back of a limo, and – where were you, in Switzerland?” Feige asked Boseman.

“Yeah, in Zurich,” Boseman replied. “I was coming off of the red carpet for Get On Up and my agent was like, ‘You’ve got to get on the phone.’ The crazy thing is I didn’t even have international calling on my phone until that morning and I heard, literally we heard somebody say, ‘Hey, get international on your phone.  Call your mom.’ It’s some important stuff, literally, that happened, and then that night he called.”

Though he plays the villainous Killmonger in Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan can’t help but get wrapped up in the socially conscious Marvel world. “I couldn’t describe that feeling before actually sitting down and watching that film,” Jordan said. “Seeing yourself on screen – not me personally, but people who looked like you – you know, empowered, and having those socially relevant themes, but in a movie that you want to sit down and watch, and you can enjoy, that Marvel does so well. So I think it was a really good balance, and everybody won; everybody did amazing, amazing jobs in performances.  And it was an incredible film last night.”

As much as Marvel movies and superhero films in general aim to appeal to young boys, Black Panther places a lot of its power in its women characters, none of whom are a generic damsel in distress.

“I think in this story, it highlights the queen, the warrior, the general, the young sister,” said Angela Bassett who plays T’Challa’s mother Ramonda. “So I was so proud to have my daughter, and my son there last night, because in their faces, and in their spirit and they were feeling themselves. They stood taller after last night.”

One of the standouts among the fantastic women of Black Panther is Danai Gurira as Okoye, the dedicated warrior sworn to protect Wakanda. “When Ryan sat me down and talked to me about his vision, and the story, and the characters, and the women, I was just floored because you don’t actually get to hear that often,” Gurira said. “You don’t actually get to hear that often. You don’t actually get sat down and hear that type of a vision. And then it embodied with us being on the continent, women from the continent, but very developed, very complex. It was amazing. I mean, it was just like, this is going to – like, this is something else. Like, I just want to watch it. I get to be in it?”

Ready to emerge as the breakout star of Black Panther is Letitia Wright, who plays T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri, a technological genius who is always developing new tech for the masked hero.  “What I love about it with how it was written is that the men are always behind the women,” the young actress said. “So no one’s like undermined – like, the men aren’t like, ‘You shouldn’t be in technology, and you shouldn’t be in math.’ They’re like, ‘No, go ahead.’ So T’Challa is like, ‘Go ahead, Sis. This is your department. This is your domain. Kill it. I’m gonna work with you to finalize it,’ – cause he’s dope. But then it’s like, ‘Just do your thing. Stay in your lane.’ That’s the mentality of the king, and that’s brilliant.  So everybody’s got their own lane.”

Wright was sure to add, “But [Shuri]’s cooler than him, but not smarter than him.”

That relationship between T’Challa and Shuri is unique for a number of reasons, but for Chadwick Boseman it takes on an extra layer of resonance because of the mythology of Wakanda. “I think, when you talk about what Wakanda is, and what it would have to be in order to progress to the place that we saw – even though we’re talking about a fantasy – the idea of an unconquered nation, that has not been, you know, tampered with by the various means that it would have been tampered with,” Boseman added. “The idea of the next generation being smarter, being better than you – is a concept that they would have evolved to that. So even though we’re in the same generation, she’s my younger sister. She benefits from whatever I have reached. So you want your sons and daughters to be better than you were.”

Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o stars as Nakia, a spy that is also the ex-girlfriend of the Black Panther. Nyong’o has worked steadily since taking home the Oscar, but much of her work has been obscured by special effects. Now she gets to stand tall on the screen and fight beside T’Challa as well as the powerful women of Wakanda.

“I would say what I love about the way this film represents women is that each and every one of us is an individual, unique and we all have our own sense of power and our own agency and we hold our own space without being pitted against each other,” Nyong’o said. “I think that’s a very, very powerful message to send to children, both male and female this idea. I think often times in movies we fall into that trap where women, there’s very few of us and then we are against each other. There’s a competitive spirit and stuff like that and this film freezes all that. We see women going about their  business and supporting each other, even arguing with each other, you know; having different points of view, but still not being against each other and I think that’s extremely important and in so doing the fact that in this film there’s so many of us, we really get a sense of the fabric of Wakanda as a nation and we see women alongside men and we see how much more effective a society can be if they allow women to explore their full potential.”

Best Actor nominee for Get Out Daniel Kaluuya plays W’Kabi, T’Challa’s best friend and Okoye’s lover. Kaluuya was attracted to the film because its varying themes that are explored through these characters. “There’s good and bad in every situation and that’s what is amazing about this film for me was that there’s no right decision, there’s just a take,” Kaluuya said. “When I watched it last night it’s about grief and what you decide in grief and how you decide to handle grief especially between T’Challa and Killmonger, how they decided to handle that bet. That they got through means that they’re different people, but they come from the same root, you know, the pain is the same root and that shows the testament of T’Challa’s character and why he is what he is and Killmonger can’t overcome that for whatever reason because he’s in an environment where the pain is visceral because he’s in the western world and, you know, it’s a constant reminder of worthlessness at times. So yeah that for me was, I don’t think there is a right and wrong. I just think is the cause just and if the cause is just you just do what you need to do and then sometimes there’s sacrifices, but there’s also sacrifices if you don’t do it and that’s the battle that we’re in. We’re putting it out there and everyone makes their own decisions.”

For Oscar winner Forest Whittaker, who plays the Wakanda high priest Zuri, the continuing evolution of Ryan Coogler has been a joy to behold. “I’m just blown away,” Whittaker said. “Just watching his growth, every time, to see him really – how he’s able to just manifest so much importance, and you know, in socially relevant moments, inside of things that we want to sit and watch. So it’s been quite a powerful experience for me last night to watch that.”

Also rounding out the cast are Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman, two veterans of the MCU with Serkis having appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Freeman in Civil War.

“It was very funny ‘cause you reminded me of a story of Ryan saying to us before we were about to do our scene. Ryan came up to us and said, ‘You know, I’ve never actually directed two white actors before,’ Serkis recalled. “It was hilarious, it was kind of hilarious, but at the same time it was just like, fuck, that’s tragic, you know. It was kind of insane and kind of like weird, but it really was, I mean it was an incredible experience working with Ryan. He is one of the most brilliant, you know, wonderful, warm, humble, incredibly clever, articulate visionary directors.”

Serkis continued, “It was just an incredible experience, you know, and to be part of it was and I just think this film is so important and to be able to be part of something that is so groundbreaking and yes should have been made many years ago, you know, but now is the time and now is a brilliant time because things are changing rapidly in every single aspect of filmmaking and so it should and the needle should swing right the other way because we need to really change things.”

“We both agreed that we didn’t want him just to be a schmuck, you know, and we didn’t want him just to be a comic foil,” Freeman said of the development of his character with Ryan Coogler. “It needs to be a little bit more 3D than that and I was very pleased when I was reading bits of the script and then new bits of the script that were coming in. They were making it more emphatic, a more sympathetic and a bit more can do, you know, because clearly it’s not Agent Ross’s film by a long way, but he plays his part, you know, and there is sort of an ambivalence about Ross I think ‘cause you’re not quite sure if he’s gonna be down with T’Challa or not, but he ends up with, well, he ends up having his eyes opened by this country that he knew nothing about and a civilization that he knew nothing about and realizing that it had something to offer and that he went away learning a bit from it.”

For Chadwick Boseman, though, it was important that T’Challa spoke with an African accent. “You know I think as actors this is separate from the movie, but there is, when you’re trained you’re trained very often from a European perspective. What is considered great or classical is very often British and it’s certain writers and I happen to come from a background that does not believe that,” he explained. “I went to Oxford to study, but I went to Howard and we were taught to respect our writers and our classics just as much and believe that it takes the same skill level and same technique and sometimes techniques that are a little bit different to pull that off. So I think you have to be, you have to tell the stories and be true to yourself as an artist. In this there’s no reason for it because there was a time period where people were asking me questions about whether or not an audience could sit through a movie with a lead character who spoke with that accent. It was not Kevin by the way, so just making sure you know that. People outside Marvel as well and so I became adamant about the fact that that is not true. That the intonations and melodies inside an African accent are just as classical as a British one or a European one and that all of the emotions and aspects of a character can be shown and expressions can be shown through that accent and we have to take this opportunity to show that and he just wouldn’t, if he had never been conquered, if his ancestors had never been conquered and he’s never been conquered and Wakanda is what it is, he doesn’t have to go to Oxford to study. He doesn’t have to go to Cambridge or Yale or any place to study. He actually got his education at home and he would not then assimilate a language that is the colonizer’s language in order to speak to his people. So he had to speak with an African accent.”

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