It was late 2015, and director Ryan Coogler was feeling the call of Africa.
Coogler, then 29, was just finishing up his second film, the soon-to-be-a-hit Rocky reboot Creed. He was starting to think about what came next. “I was grappling with something I’ve kind of been scraping at my whole life,” Coogler recalls, “which is my cultural identity, and what it means to be African. I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work, getting ready to dive into that for personal reasons. And I’d been wanting to visit Africa,” he says. “I had never been, and I felt ashamed that I had never been. So I was like, ‘As soon I finish Creed, maybe [my wife] Zinzi and I can take that trip.’
“And then,” he says, “Marvel called.”
As millions of fans are now very aware, the studio was calling about Black Panther, currently demolishing box-offices worldwide. The film, about the titular superhero-king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, raked in nearly $250 million in the U.S. last weekend, the second-biggest four-day opening of all time (just after Star Wars: The Force Awakens). It has already grossed over $700 million globally, and it seems all but guaranteed to hit a billion at some point. Meaning what’s next for Coogler is now: whatever he wants.
Yet when Marvel called, Coogler was no blockbuster director, but a promising young filmmaker with just two features to his name: the aforementioned Creed, and 2013’s Fruitvale Station, the powerful story of the killing of a young black man by police in Oakland, which he made for just $900,000 – less than what Black Panther probably spent on catering. But the character and the world fit perfectly with the stories he always loved – first as a comic-book fan growing up in Oakland, and later as an aspiring student filmmaker at USC. “I wanted to tell epic stories, stories that felt big and fantastic,” Coogler says. “I liked that feeling as an audience member when it felt like I went on a flight and felt out of breath and I couldn’t stop thinking about it days later. I wanted to make stuff that gave people that feeling – but I wanted to do it for people who look like me and people I grew up with.”
Still, before signing on, Coogler took the time to what he calls “my due diligence” with the studio. “The biggest thing for me was the themes of the story – letting them know where my head was at and making sure they would get on board,” he says. “I was very honest about the idea I wanted to explore in this film, which is what it means to be African. That was one of the first things I talked about. And they were completely interested.”
And so Coogler booked a trip to Africa. His first stop was Cape Town. He didn’t know anyone, but he befriended an employee at his hotel and asked if he could visit the man where he lived, in a township called Gugulethu. “It was a life-changing experience,” he says. “I found out that his tribe – he was Xhosa – the rituals they do are very similar to things I do with my family. Like, almost identical.” He takes out his phone and plays a video of him sitting in a circle with a bunch of South African men, taking turns chugging from a bucket of beer. “That’s me at the Xhosa ritual with the elder men,” Coogler notes. “And if you go to our backyard, I promise it would look exactly like this.” To illustrate, he plays another video, this one of his family singing at a birthday party in Oakland. “You see what I mean?” he says. “It’s the same kind of fellowship. And I realized, ‘Oh yeah – African-Americans truly are African. It takes a lot more than what happened to us to take that out of us.'”
In Cape Town, Coogler also took a solo trip to Table Mountain, a 3,000-foot promontory that towers over the city. Gazing out from the peak at Africa stretching out before him, he was struck by two realizations. “The first was how massive Africa is,” he says. “It’s just limitless – it’s one of the first places I’ve been that’s un-photographable.” The second was more personal: “I realized that this is the first place I’ve ever felt like I could be buried.'”
He says he started thinking about “this concept of us as a people” – meaning African-Americans – “being marooned in this place that we’re not from. When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them the Bay Area and there’s a sense of pride there. But the truth is, we’re really from that place. The place that everybody’s from.”
After Cape Town, Coogler went on to Lesotho, a mountainous kingdom whose geography protected it from the worst of colonization, and then Kenya, nearer the location of the fictional Wakanda. “Ryan’s trip informed as much about the movie as any of our comics,” says Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige. “It’s why the movie looks the way it looks and sounds the way it sounds.”
“This concept of us as [African-Americans] being marooned in this place that we’re not from. When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them the Bay Area. But the truth is, we’re [all] really from that place.”
–Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther
Daniel Kaluuya, who plays W’Kabi in the film (and who was born in England to Ugandan parents) says that first trip back can’t help but change you. “The first time I went, I was seven years old,” says Kaluuya, who’s up for an Oscar for his starring role in Get Out. “And going around seeing everyone is black, from the president down to the cleaner – you see your blackness in a completely different way.”
When he sat down to start writing his version of Wakanda, Coogler thought about the stories African-Americans often hear as children. “In the diaspora, the Africa we tend to hear about is this fantasy place,” he says. “Because it’s hard to tell a child about slavery – it’s so dire and so awful that you kind of have to balance it with something. So we get this fairy-tale version of Africa. ‘We were kings and queens, and we walked around and ate perfect food, and everyone was free.’
“It becomes,” he says, “kind of like Wakanda.”
The film’s version of Wakanda is a stunning place, with eye-popping costumes and dazzling, vibranium-fueled technology. (That said, Coogler tried to ensure that “with all the technological advancements, you don’t leave the culture out. Africa is a culture that has been colonized and oftentimes demonized, so it was about reclaiming certain things as beautiful and powerful.”) Perhaps most striking are the roles of women: scientific geniuses and deadly warriors and altruistic spies and majestic queens, who wind up saving the day more often than the men. “That’s African, man!” Coogler says, laughing. “That’s my tribe’s world. My wife is a black woman who’s incredibly strong and smart – and the more I get out of her way, the better my life becomes. I thought that’s one of the things that makes T’Challa brilliant. He knows how to get out of the way of amazing women in his life.”
To populate his cast, Coogler hired not just African-Americans but several Africans as well — Lupita N’yongo from Kenya, Danai Gurira from Zimbabwe via Iowa, John Kani from South Africa. (Not to mention black actors from elsewhere in the diaspora: Germany, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago.) “It’s a work environment I’ve never really had in this industry before,” says Kaluuya. “The majority of the crew was black – or [certainly] a lot more than usual. For me, it was behind the camera that was the most revolutionary. Like, ‘Oh yeah, we can do this. This is a Marvel film, and we’re doing this.'”
At the movie’s junket the day after the premiere, actor Andy Serkis, who plays the villain Ulysses Klaue, told a story about a scene he shares with fellow white Englishman Martin Freeman, who plays a C.I.A. operative. “We were about to do our scene,” Serkis said, “and Ryan came up to us and said, ‘You know, I’ve never actually directed two white actors before.'” Serkis laughed. “It was kind of hilarious, [but also] tragic and kind of insane.”
But when I bring the story up to Coogler — the sad fact that it took three movies for a talented black filmmaker to have the opportunity to direct two white guys — he disagrees with the premise. “It’s not a situation where people are denying me that opportunity,” he says. “The stories [I’m telling] just haven’t lent themselves to me doing a scene with only white people in it. I’m making the movies that I want to make.”
Blank Panther star Chadwick Boseman talks his first time trying on the Blank Panther suit, googling himself and more. Watch below.