Breaking box-office records and introducing millions around the world to the gleaming Afrofuturistic jewel that is the country of Wakanda, Marvel’s Black Panther is already the third-highest grossing Marvel film less than two weeks after release. Originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1966 (King T’Challa debuted in Fantastic Four #52), the king-turned-Avenger marked the first superhero of African descent to appear in either the Marvel or DC comic universe. Thanks to director Ryan Coogler, the regal hero and his homeland have served as a seismic pop cultural event, rekindling the imagination of a generation of African-Americans and creating a renaissance in the character and his world.
Or as esteemed National Book Award-winning author and MacArthur Genius grant recipient Ta-Nehisi Coates put it bluntly before a packed audience in Harlem’s venerated Apollo Theater, “It’s Star Wars for black people.” A self-described comics nerd, Coates chatted with the film’s stars Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o about the film and its instant influence on the culture. Here are ten takeaways from last night’s event.
1. Despite writing his own Black Panther series, Ta-Nehisi Coates admitted that he himself needed this film.
Coates had his own run with the franchise, having relaunched the character in a much-heralded run and cowritten a companion series, Black Panther and the Crew. And while his own take did not figure into Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s original screenplay, the author told the audience that the film was “an incredible achievement. I didn’t realize how much I needed the film, a hunger for a myth that [addressed] feeling separated and feeling reconnected” to the continent of Africa. Hence the sentiment that this film has the potential to inspire much like Star Wars did for kids back in the 1970s and today.
2. Lupita Nyong’o’s character Nakia is drastically different than the one that appears in the comic book.
The Kenyan-Mexican actress did not grow up reading the Panther comics and there was no script when she signed on to the project. So her first impression of the superhero came from discussions with Coogler. In the comics, Nakia is obsessed with T’Challa – whereas in the film, it’s the king himself who freezes up in her formidable presence. In flipping the power dynamic, Nyong’o said it made her character a woman with agency, which makes for a more nuanced and interesting love interest. She recalled “being shocked at the end of [Coogler’s] pitch … [it was] so radical and socially aware that I couldn’t believe that Marvel had green-lighted it.”
3. In creating the character of Killmonger, there’s a bit of director Coogler in there as well.
Chadwick Boseman said that Black Panther breaks the superhero film convention in that it’s easily possible for the audience to also root for the film’s villain, Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan). In the introductory scene to the character, Killmonger looks at African artifacts on display at the fictional Museum of Great Britain, accusing the museum curators’ ancestors of stealing them from his people centuries ago. Boseman admits “there’s a bit of Ryan in Killmonger” and that in researching the film, the writer-director himself traveled to London to observe such African handcrafts firsthand.
4. Nyong’o and co-star Danai Gurira have been friends for over a decade, but had never acted together before Black Panther.
Gurira plays the fierce Wakandan warrior-general Okoye, and though she’s best known for playing another blade-wielding badass – Michonne from The Walking Dead – she’s also a well-regarded playwright. Her play Eclipsed was the first play with an all-black and female creative cast and team to premiere on Broadway, with Nyong’o in the starring role. But while they had worked together and been friend for 11 years, the film marked the first time they had ever acted together on-screen. As one might glean from her characters, Nyong’o admitted that on-screen and off, “Danai is a ferocious woman.”
5. Black Panther’s character arc bears resemblance to that of a Shakespeare figure.
Boseman also noted that in creating the character of King T’Challa, he looked to William Shakespeare and one of his most famous characters, the indecisive Prince Hamlet. There’s a parallel between the dead fathers and a sense of indecision about leading, Boseman noted, but there’s also a sense of privilege in T’Challa and an unawareness of other perspectives. He perceived the prince as being born “with a vibranium spoon in my mouth,” though in the film’s turning point, such indecisiveness is overcome.
6. Personally, Boseman also identifies more with the villain.
An African-American born in South Carolina, Boseman said that much like Killmonger, he felt a sense of disconnect from Africa and its history. He himself said he went on a search for his heritage and said he personally identifies more with Jordan’s character. “Killmonger has been through our struggle,” he told the audience. “We [as an audience] wouldn’t accept T’Challa as the true king without him going through Killmonger.” He also said the experience of going to Africa for the film as a chance to “reconnect to what I lost.”
7. Nyong’o says that Black Panther is about “a family unit.”
Nyong’o noted that the main characters in the film actually form a family unit, even in the case of Killmonger, the estranged family member who – much like generations of African-Americans brought across in the Middle Passage – has “been lost across the ocean.” As an actor coming from the African side of the experience, she said that even there their heritage has been “plagued with images that diminish us and paint us as only needy.” In that manner, the film’s presentation of both the African and American side of the experience feels “healing.” She also admitted that she grew up feeling most connected to the likes of The Sound of Music and Elizabeth Taylor.
8. For Boseman, it was a relief to be on a film set well-versed in “black hair.”
At one point in the conversation, Lupita gave a shout-out to the film’s set decorators, clothing designers and hair stylists for giving the film its singular look on-screen. Boseman then told a story about being on an early film set early in his career where the hair stylists had no previous experience working with actors and their “black hair.” “Like no experience,” he told the crowd to a roar of laughter, saying one stylist almost buzzed all of his hair off with clippers.
9. A seven-year old boy in the audience dressed as Black Panther asked Boseman what it was like to wear the costume.
Boseman signed the boy’s Black Panther mask and then broke into a smile as he thought back to the first day he got to wear the Black Panther suit. Though he noted that being in films is more like blue-collar work with grueling long hours, putting on the suit reminded him that “it was like being a kid at play,” he said, adding: “Being imaginative is how things change: in the arts, in business and in politics.”
10. The film crew also shared a Snoop Dogg moment.
Filming the first fight scene at Warrior Falls, wherein T’Challa is crowned King, was particularly intense, Nyong’o said, with cold weather to go with the waterfalls and long hours of takes with many extras. Nyong’o said that to offset the intensities of life on set, in between takes, the actors often engaged in rap battles to blow off steam. But in one instance, the live drummers used in the scene began to bang out the beat for Snoop Dogg’s 2004 hit “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” Suddenly the entire film crew and all the scene’s extras shouted in unison: “Snoooooooooooooooop!”