The ‘Black Panther’ Revolution
How Chadwick Boseman and Ryan Coogler created the most radical superhero movie of all time
Two years ago, Chadwick Boseman was in a movie called Gods of Egypt. It was not a very good movie. But in addition to its not-goodness, it also became infamous for whitewashing–casting, as ancient African deities, a white guy from Scotland, a white guy from Denmark and at least seven white people from Australia. Boseman, the sole black lead, played Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and inventor of mathematics. Before the movie came out, an interviewer asked him about the criticism, and Boseman said that not only did he agree with it, it was why he took the part–so audiences would see at least one god of African descent. “But, yeah,” he added dryly. “People don’t make $140 million movies starring black and brown people.”
What a difference two years makes. Because now we have Black Panther–not just a $140 million movie starring black and brown people, but a $200 million one. It’s very overdue. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Panther, the first black superhero, way back in 1966, but he didn’t show up on the big screen until 50 years later, when Boseman stole Captain America: Civil War. Now, after a decade of Marvel Universe films starring a demographically disproportionate number of white Chrises, the world finally has its first African superhero movie.
“It’s a sea-change moment,” Boseman says. “I still remember the excitement people had seeing Malcolm X. And this is greater, because it includes other people, too. Everybody comes to see the Marvel movie.”
He’s not exaggerating. The film broke a ticket-presales record for superhero movies, and at press time it was tracking toward a $165 million opening – better than every Marvel nonsequel except The Avengers and possibly enough to crack the top 10 movie opening weekends of all time.
A quick primer: Boseman plays T’Challa, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda – the richest and most technologically advanced civilization on Earth. He also moonlights as Black Panther, an Afro-futurist warrior with superhuman powers charged with protecting his people. According to Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige, Boseman was their only choice for the role. And when the call came, he was ready. “He said yes on the phone,” recalls Feige. “I didn’t sense a lot of hesitation on his part.”
“Chad gave a hell of a performance,” says Michael B. Jordan, who co-stars as his archnemesis, Killmonger. “I couldn’t imagine anybody else.”
A few weeks before the movie opens, Boseman is trying to lay low, sipping peppermint tea at the hipster L.A. coffee shop where he used to come to write, back when he was an aspiring screenwriter freshly arrived from New York. He’s in head-to-toe black – cardigan, T-shirt, chinos, socks – except for some suede Valentino sneakers and a beaded necklace of Pan-African red, gold and green. He’s tall and lean, with long, elegant fingers and the knuckles of a boxer. (Coogler says they would sometimes spar on set to get amped up.) One of his strengths as an actor is a quiet, intense watchfulness, and he’s the same in real life, taking in the world with a skeptical half-squint. (“I see everything,” Boseman says.) When he does speak, he’s invariably thoughtful and thorough. “You’re saying I’m long-winded!” he says, laughing.
In some ways, Boseman is a funny fit for a blockbuster action star. He’s “90 percent” vegan, casually name-checks radical black intellectuals like Yosef Ben-Jochannan and Frantz Fanon, and says he gets anxious onstage or in front of crowds. (“Going on a talk show? Oh, my God. Nah.”) But he also knows he’s a conduit for something bigger: “I truly believe there’s a truth that needs to enter the world at a particular time. And that’s why people are excited about Panther. This is the time.”
It’s a watershed moment for African-Americans and Hollywood. The cast is a murderers’ row of talent – in addition to Boseman and Jordan, there’s Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and several actors of immediate African descent, including Star Wars’ Lupita Nyong’o (who grew up in Kenya), The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira (who was raised in Zimbabwe) and Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya (whose parents immigrated to England from Uganda). And it’s not just the first superhero movie with a predominantly black cast – it’s the first with a black director, black writers, black costume and production designers, and a black executive producer. Community groups are renting out whole theaters to screen it; people are running crowd-funding campaigns to buy tickets for black kids who might not be able to see it otherwise.
“We were making a film about what it means to be African,” Coogler says. “It was a spirit that we all brought to it, regardless of heritage. The code name for the project was Motherland, and that’s what it was. We all went to school on Africa.”
“The money and manpower it takes to create this entire African world – it’s a huge production,” says Boseman. “But this is not Star Wars – this is a black superhero movie!” On one hand, he still can’t believe it’s happening. But on the other hand – why shouldn’t it happen? Moreover, says Boseman, “What would it mean if it didn’t happen? You’d be saying there’s a second class of Marvel movies. A second-class citizenship.”
For Boseman, the film’s blackness is inseparable from its appeal. “Some [black] actors will say, ‘I don’t want to play a character just because he’s black,’ ” he says. “And that’s great, I’m not saying they’re wrong. But that’s missing all the richness that’s been whitewashed.”
He speaks passionately about black actors’ struggle for good material (“Very often, the humanity for black characters is not there”) and Hollywood’s double standard when it comes to identifying young black talent. (“Every year, agents fly to Australia to find the next great white actor. But where are they taking 14-hour flights to find the next black person?”)
“There’s a lot of great things happening,” Boseman allows. “If you think about Barry [Jenkins], Ava [DuVernay], Ryan – it’s a renaissance of black film. But it’s still not enough. It’s a numbers thing. If you have 15 shots, I got three. If you have nine chances to mess up, I have one. Each one of us knows that if you mess up, your career is done. I see the intensity. I see how Ryan is. If you have a dud, you’ll never work in this town again.”
He laughs. “Correct me if I’m wrong!”
We leave the coffee shop, and Boseman climbs into the back of an Escalade, en route to Larry King Now. “Let me just call my mom real quick so I don’t get in trouble,” he says.
“Hey,” he says when she answers. “I’m good, I’m just checking on you. Did you figure out what you’re gonna wear to the premiere? The African skirt. Did I bring that back from Ghana? OK. Tell her to take a picture and send it to me.”
They spend a few minutes talking about a Panther screening Boseman is setting up for 150 or so kids in his hometown. “All right,” Boseman says. “I gotta go do this TV interview.” He starts to hang up, but his mom stops him. “I love you, too,” he says. “Bye.”
Boseman grew up in South Carolina, in a small city called Anderson. His mom, Carolyn, was a nurse; his dad, Leroy, worked at a textile factory and had an upholstery business on the side. They still live there.
Chad, as he was called (“I actually don’t know why my mom chose Chadwick – it’s a weird name for a black man”), was the youngest of three sons. His middle brother, Kevin, is a dancer and singer who’s toured in a production of The Lion King and danced with the Alvin Ailey company. His oldest brother, Derrick, is a preacher in Tennessee. “I think it’s Baptist,” Boseman says sheepishly. “I just gave them money, but I can’t remember what I wrote on the check.”
Racism was a fact of life. His school district was still segregated until just a few years before he was born. “I’ve been called ‘nigger,’ run off the road by a redneck, like, ‘Fuck you, nigger’ – of course,” he says. “Seen trucks flying Confederate flags on the way to school. I’m not saying it was an everyday occurrence – but if somebody was feeling tradition that day . . .”
In the summer of 2015, two weeks after a white supremacist gunned down nine worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Boseman, who was in Atlanta filming Captain America: Civil War, drove home to see his family. “My cousins hit me, like, ‘Don’t go this way, because they’re doing a Klan rally in the parking lot,’ ” he says. “So it’s not a thing of the past.”
Boseman was a quiet kid who loved drawing and wanted to be an architect. He also loved basketball, and was good enough to be recruited to play college ball. But during his junior year of high school, a boy on his team was shot and killed. Boseman coped with the tragedy by writing a play in response to the incident, which he called Crossroads and staged at his school. He realized he liked telling stories. “I just had a feeling that this was something that was calling me,” he says. “Suddenly, playing basketball wasn’t as important.”
He applied to study directing at Howard, the historically black university in Washington, D.C., affectionately known as “the Mecca.” In his book Between the World and Me, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates – a contemporary of Boseman’s at Howard and, coincidentally, a writer of the Black Panther comics – calls it “the crossroads of the black diaspora,” where “scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits [give] dap to bald-headed Q’s in purple windbreakers.” Boseman ate it up. He got a job at an African bookstore and took a trip to Ghana. He also learned about a certain African superhero.
“At a historically black college, you’re getting turned on to all these things – the pantheon of our culture,” he says. “It’s John Coltrane, it’s James Baldwin. And it’s Black Panther.”
Boseman took extra acting classes to help improve his directing. One of his teachers was Phylicia Rashad, a.k.a. Clair Huxtable from The Cosby Show. She became his mentor. “She would do a play in D.C. and you’d go see it, and she’d drive you home and talk to you,” he says. “ ’How you eating? You look too skinny. You need a pork chop.’ We were just trying to aspire to her excellence.”
Rashad has fond memories of Boseman. “Chad was this lanky young man with big eyes and an endearing smile and a very gentle way,” she says. “What I saw in him was the sky was the limit. He never asked me to introduce him to anyone – that’s not his way. He was going to make it on his own merits.”
While taking Rashad’s class, Boseman and some of his classmates applied to a prestigious summer program at Oxford to study theater. They were accepted, but they didn’t have the money to go. “She pushed for us,” Boseman says. “She essentially got some celebrity friends to pay for us to go.” (“I don’t want to say who paid for me,” he adds. “No, it’s not Bill Cosby.”)
While he was at Oxford, he studied the Western canon: Shakespeare, Beckett, Pinter. “But I always felt like black writers were just as classical,” he says. “It’s just as difficult to do August Wilson, and the stories he’s telling are just as epic.”
After graduation, Boseman moved to Bed-Stuy, in Brooklyn, where he fell in with New York’s hip-hop theater scene, writing and directing plays featuring rapping stars and beatboxing Greek choruses. “What Hamilton is doing now,” he says with pride, “we were doing 15 years ago.” To pay the bills, he also taught acting to kids at the Schomburg Center, a black research library in Harlem. (“He was so proud and fulfilled by that,” says Rashad. “When he talked about it, he became like sunshine – he loved it so much.”) Eventually he started booking gigs on the usual shows – Law & Order, CSI: NY, Cold Case – before his big break playing Robinson in 42. But through it all, he always looked for projects that had the same emotional weight he felt when he was 17 and a bullet took his friend and inspired his first play.
“For me, doing this, it has to be meaningful,” Boseman says. “Because that’s how it started.”
When Boseman got the role of Black Panther, one of the first things he did was ask his father to take a DNA test. He wanted to know more about his roots. “,” he says. “They get specific about what ethnic group you come from, as opposed to just what country.” (For the record: Yoruba from Nigeria, Limba and Mende from Sierra Leone, and Jola from Guinea-Bissau.) He says he’s also traced his American lineage as far back as he could. “To go any farther,” he says with a wry smile, “I’d have to go to property records.”
Boseman drew from a wide range of real-life influences for T’Challa: Shaka Zulu and Patrice Lumumba, Mandela speeches and Fela Kuti songs. He read about Masai warriors and talked to a Yoruba babalawo.For his fight scenes, he trained in African martial arts – Dambe boxing, Zulu stick fighting and Angolan capoeira. He also made two trips to South Africa for research. On one trip, a Cape Town street musician bestowed on him a Xhosa name: Mxolisi, or “Peacemaker.”
“I think it was his way of saying, ‘As an African-American, I know you’re disconnected from your ancestors and your culture and your traditions,’ ” Boseman says. “ ’Here’s my way of welcoming you back.’ ”
The most important thing to him was the accent. In the movie, the Wakandans essentially speak Xhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa, and when Wakandans speak English, it’s with a Xhosa accent. “I had to push for that,” Boseman says. “I felt there was no way in the world I could do the movie without an accent. But I had to convince [the studio] it was something we couldn’t be afraid of. My argument was that we train the audience’s ear in the first five minutes – give them subtitles, give them whatever they need – and I believe they’ll follow it the same way they’ll follow an Irish accent or a Cockney accent. We watch movies all the time when this happens,” he adds. “Why all of a sudden is it ‘We can’t follow it’ when it’s African?”
And then, of course, there was Obama. When the idea for a Black Panther movie was first hatched, a black man was president of the United States. “I think his presence opened the door for it in a way,” Boseman says. He borrowed from Obama the concept of “a leader who’s not going to respond to criticism – the type of person who can hold his tongue and hold his ground.” He also says he and Coogler talked about vibranium – the ultravaluable metal that provides Wakanda its wealth and technological prowess – as a kind of nuclear weapon. “So it’s a similar thing,” he says. “Who would you want to get the call at three in the morning? I’d rather it be someone like [Obama] or T’Challa than . . . somebody else.”
Which brings us to the current officeholder. What does Boseman think T’Challa – the genius trillionaire monarch of Africa’s most sophisticated kingdom – would make of President Trump referring to certain nations in Africa as “shithole countries“?
Boseman – who last year said Trump was “giving voice to white supremacy” – today just smiles. “I’d love to answer that,” he says. “But I don’t want to give him Panther time.”
A few days later, Black Panther has its world premiere at a theater in L.A. It feels like half of black Hollywood is there: Don Cheadle munching popcorn in the balcony, Laurence Fishburne giving fist-bumps on the staircase, Donald Glover flossing resplendently in a tangerine suit, Jamie Foxx in a T-shirt that reads wakanda forever. When the movie plays, there are cheers, tears, laughter and multiple standing ovations. It’s a celebration. People are feeling it.
Later that week, Coogler is sitting on a hotel balcony in Beverly Hills, trying to process it all. “Premieres are emotionally overwhelming, man,” he says. He was mostly focused on the 50 or so family members who came from the Bay Area to see it, some of them, like his grandmother, elderly and in wheelchairs. “I was just trying to make sure they’re OK,” he says. “My mind was on ramps.”
Much has been made about Coogler being the first black director on a Marvel movie, but comparatively little has been made about his youth. He’s only 31 – shockingly young to be helming a movie this gigantic. “He’s the youngest filmmaker we’ve ever hired,” says Marvel’s Feige. “It’s a tremendous gift that he has.”
The wunderkind’s previous two movies – 2013 Sundance darling Fruitvale Station, about the killing of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man shot in the back by police while facedown on an Oakland subway platform; and 2015’s Rocky reboot, Creed, about a young boxer who grows up in juvenile detention and learns to channel his anger in the ring – were both critical and box-office hits, leaving little doubt Coogler was up to the challenge. But Jordan, who starred in both of those films, says it was still “surreal” being on the set of a $200 million movie with the same director who, five years ago, was shooting a $900,000 indie with, as Jordan puts it, “some duct tape and one camera.
“Every so often, we’d be setting up the next shot,” Jordan says, “standing off to the side, just the two of us like, ‘Man, this shit’s crazy!’ ”
For his part, Coogler has said he was too stressed to really enjoy it. “But every day, you’d see something and be like, ‘Jesus. I’m really doing this.’ ”
Coogler has said Black Panther is the most personal film he’s ever made – which seems unlikely, until he explains.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to James Cameron talk about how he made Titanic?” he says. “I’ve heard interviews with him, and he made Titanic because he wanted to explore the ocean. What he was really passionate about was deep-sea diving and finding underwater wrecks, and he looked at Titanic as an opportunity to do that, get paid and maybe get a movie out of it. He got this incredibly successful movie as a result of one guy’s curiosity.”
Coogler’s Black Panther is about many things: family, responsibility, fathers and sons, the power of badass women. Immigration, borders, refugees. What it means to be black. What it means to be African. What it means to be a citizen of the world.
But it’s also a movie about America – the America of mandatory-minimum sentencing and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It’s about how, in one character’s words, “leaders have been assassinated, communities flooded with drugs.” And it’s about – in the haunting last words of another character – “my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.”
When Coogler was growing up in Oakland, his father worked at a juvenile hall in San Francisco. “It’s called YGC – Youth Guidance Center,” Coogler says. “It’s where minors are incarcerated. And it’s shitty.”
When Coogler turned 21, he got a job there too. “Frisco is a city that’s predominantly white and Asian,” he says. “But you go in there, and all you see is black and Hispanic kids. You’d see them facing an extended [sentence] that doesn’t make sense. Or you get family-visit day and see their family: ‘Oh, man. That’s what these kids go back to? These kids don’t have a shot.’ ”
Some of the issues Coogler started grappling with at YGC would become themes of his first two movies: broken families, over-policing and over-incarceration, the dearth of opportunities for young black men. They also show up in Black Panther. Mainly it’s through the character of Jordan’s Killmonger, an abandoned member of the Wakandan royal family who grew up orphaned in Oakland and became a Navy SEAL-turned-black-ops-assassin. He returns to his ancestral country to unseat T’Challa from the throne, as well as use Wakanda’s riches and weapons to spark an international racial uprising. “Where I’m from, when black folks started revolutions, they never had the firepower or the resources to fight their oppressors,” he says at one point. His plan is to arm people of color worldwide, “so they can rise up and kill those in power.”
Jordan, like Boseman, drew from real-life figures for Killmonger: Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Huey P. Newton, Fred Hampton, Tupac Shakur. “This young black man from Oakland, growing up in systemic oppression, not having his mom and dad around, going to foster care, being a part of this system,” Jordan says. “With [Killmonger] being African-American like myself, I understood his rage, and how he could get to the point where he had to do what he had to do, by any
For Boseman, Killmonger and T’Challa are two sides of the same coin. Not quite Malcolm and Martin – because T’Challa is down to fight, too – but something similar. Radical versus diplomat, revolutionary versus peacemaker. “Those ideas, that conflict – I’ve been having that conversation almost my whole life,” he says. “But it’s never actually happened on a stage where you can hear it. So the fact that we get to have that conversation, and you get to hear it – and have to deal with it? That’s what makes this movie very different.”
In other words, enjoy your black-superhero movie. But be prepared to reckon with more than 500 years of systematic oppression, too.
“A lot of people bought tickets,” Boseman says, grinning. “But they’re not really expecting that.”
After a long day of promo, Boseman is winding down at the Dime, a hip-hop cocktail bar near West Hollywood. He’s with Logan Coles, his writing partner and close friend from Howard, and Addison Henderson, his friend and trainer. They’re here to celebrate: In addition to the movie, Coles’ lady is eight months pregnant with their first child. “She’s about to pop,” Boseman says. He raises his glass of tequila: “To new life!”
While the DJ spins Tupac and Nas, they huddle in a banquette and plot what’s next. We’ll certainly see more of Black Panther this summer, when he’ll team with Captain America to defend the world against an alien invasion in Avengers: Infinity War. But Boseman seems most excited to get back to writing. He and Coles are about to start work on a screenplay about a minister and anti-gang activist from Boston, whom Boseman hopes to play. They’re also fine-tuning a script they wrote called Expatriate, about a 1970s airline hijacking, which Oscar winner Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) has already signed on to direct.
Boseman has a lot he wants to do. “There’s a plethora of stories in our culture that haven’t been told, because Hollywood didn’t believe they were viable,” he says. “It would be cool to see slices of history that you haven’t seen with African figures. Like Africans in Europe – the Moors in Spain. Or if you go to Portugal, they have statues of black people all over the place. So not only have we been here,” Boseman says, “but we’ve directly affected everything that you think is European.”
“It’s remarkable, man,” Coles says. “I remember sitting in a coffee shop in Bed-Stuy, and we might have had enough money for two coffees. But we knew the homeboy that owned the place, they’d bring us soup, and we’d be there until night working on scripts. We never imagined superhero stuff.”
The waitress delivers more shots, and Boseman proposes another toast. “To seeing the movie,” he says. “And to knowing that it’s good!”
Before we part ways, Boseman has had a change of heart. He’s talking about the Oxford trip – the celebrity who gave Rashad money. “After we got back, we got a benefactor letter,” he says. “Denzel paid for me.”
Yes, that Denzel. “I’m sure he has no idea,” says Boseman. “It was random.” He wrote him a letter when he found out – “I couldn’t wait to write my thank-you letter!” – but unless Washington is a hoarder or has a photographic memory, there’s no reason to think he remembers an unknown college kid from 20 years ago. “I’ve been waiting to meet him, so I can tell him.”
There’s a reason he didn’t want to tell me before. “You never want to make someone feel like they owe you something else,” he says. “They’ve already given you whatever it is they were supposed to give you. But I realized this morning that I’ve gotten to a point where nobody would think that.” He smiles. “I don’t need any more help.”