For all its sci-fi sparkle and requisite fate-of-the-world stakes, the most salient aspects of Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther” may be the most basic: It is the first major superhero movie with an African protagonist; the first to star a majority black cast; and in Ryan Coogler (“Creed,” “Fruitvale Station”), the first to employ a black writer and director.
Those distinctions may add up to a public relations victory for the blockbuster factory responsible for “The Avengers” and the rest of the $13 billion Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s a mixed one — to count the film’s racial milestones is to acknowledge the homogeneity of its predecessors. (There have been 17, since we’re counting.)
As often happened in the comic books, however, the house that “Iron Man” built can ably dismantle the very norms it once codified. And in that sense, “Black Panther” may punctuate an emerging trend. It follows the mold-breaking work of James Gunn’s stylish “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies and Taika Waititi’s self-aware “Thor: Ragnarok,” suggesting — after 10 years of Tony Stark — that Marvel’s tolerance for risk might be growing along with its financial clout.
“Black Panther” is also, of course, a shrewd bet on the social and economic muscle of black filmgoers. Mr. Coogler’s film, based on an unsung 1960s creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, has inspired a level of anticipation that wildly exceeds the name recognition of its title character — owing, in part, to pent-up demand for a megabudget movie devoted to black life.
As with “Wonder Woman” last year, another movie that spoke to an underserved population at a moment of acute political anxiety, audiences have reacted with partisan fervor.
#WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe and showing their support for the #BlackPantherChallenge (a spontaneous campaign to buy tickets and popcorn for children). The film recently broke the advance ticket sales record for any movie released in the first quarter, according to the online vendor Fandango, surpassing “The Hunger Games” and the 2017 live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast.”
The morning after a red-carpet premiere in Hollywood last month that left Twitter swooning, the stars, director and producer of the film gathered for a spirited conversation about their role in challenging standard depictions of the African diaspora on screen.
Taking part in the discussion were Mr. Coogler; Chadwick Boseman, who plays T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda; Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia, a Wakandan spy and T’Challa’s love interest); Michael B. Jordan (Erik Killmonger, an African-American adversary of Black Panther’s); Danai Gurira (Okoye, Wakanda’s greatest warrior); and Kevin Feige, a producer of “Black Panther” and president of Marvel Studios. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
I read a funny tweet the other day that said this movie is basically reparations.
CHADWICK BOSEMAN I still want my reparations! I still want my reparations!
RYAN COOGLER [laughing] I think only reparations can be reparations.
It’s silly, but is there a kernel of truth there for any of you? The idea that Disney and Marvel investing so much in a movie with a black cast and crew can count as something like restitution?
DANAI GURIRA What it does in such a beautiful way, to me, is it sets a precedent. We’ve read a lot of subtitles for German and Russian — we can read subtitles for African languages now. People can’t go back and say, “No, that’s going to be too hard, it’s Africa.” They can’t do that. And that is so thrilling to me.
MICHAEL B. JORDAN It couldn’t have been done on a bigger level. If Marvel is behind it, then it’s gotta be O.K. Moving forward, everybody’s going to start to have the courage to tell bold stories that people didn’t think were lucrative, didn’t think that anybody wanted to see. All of that, I feel, is getting ready to dissolve.
BOSEMAN It has to.
GURIRA No, it will.
COOGLER What I’ll say is, this is my second time working in the studio system, and they say it’s the studio system, but it’s really the people system. It’s who’s running the studio? How are they running it? When you look at Disney with [Tendo Nagenda, executive vice president for production at Walt Disney Studios, and Nate Moore, a producer at Marvel Studios and an executive producer of “Black Panther”], it’s a place that’s interested in representation, not just for the sake of representation, but representation because that’s what works, that’s what’s going to make quality stuff that the world is going to embrace, that’s what leads to success.
Kevin, there’s long been this idea in Hollywood that movies with black casts don’t perform well internationally. Does that end with “Black Panther”?
KEVIN FEIGE I certainly hope so. One thing I would always remind Ryan of when we would talk about humor and entertainment value in the film was that the biggest statement this movie can make is to be a success around the globe. And I think he’s delivered a movie that’s going to do that, and that disproves [beliefs] that had maybe never been true but had never been tested.
For the actors, what did joining this film mean to you and how did it feel different from other movies you’ve done?
BOSEMAN I’ve done other films that have had historic significance because of what has happened in the past, but this not only refers to the past, it sets the stage for where we’re going.
GURIRA I’ve had a passion for telling African stories for a really long time, being American-born and Zimbabwe-raised. That biculturalism is something that I try to address in my work as a playwright [her 2016 drama “Eclipsed” was nominated for a Tony for best play], but nothing can address it like a Marvel movie. I had a childlike glee after my meeting with Ryan — I kind of floated around, found my car somehow. You think you’re alone in the struggle until you meet someone and then you think, “Oh wow, we’re all in it together? And y’all are doing this already? And I just have to be in it?” It was just so beautiful.
LUPITA NYONG’O Seeing it yesterday, I’m even more excited about the celebration of pan-Africanism, because this movie is really about a contemporary Africa relating very intimately with a contemporary America via the characters of Black Panther and Killmonger. We’re talking about some really deep issues that we don’t often voice but we all feel. [Ms. Nyong’o was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents and raised in Kenya.]
BOSEMAN A lot of times, being [a black man] in Hollywood, when you get material you’ll read it and you’ll be like, “That’s not us.” When I got the initial call from Kevin Feige, my hope was that they would have the courage to give Black Panther its true essence and put somebody behind it that would have my same passion for what it could be. And they did that.
On set, did you have that feeling of “This is important” or did you just try to do good work like normal?
COOGLER I learned a skill from playing football. I was a wide receiver — they throw you the ball, you can’t drop it. So I learned that you gotta tune everything else out.
If I get to set and there’s a hundred black people on the side of a waterfall and Lupita is dressed in this adornment and Danai is dressed in this adornment and they’re like, “Hey Ryan, do I stand here or here?” I can’t think, “Ah, this is amazing, I’m making ‘Black Panther’ and there’s all these black folks on screen!” I really gotta tell Danai that she needs to move over here, and I gotta tell her five reasons why she’s gotta move over here, because she’s gonna wanna know ’em! [Laughter]
But seriously, I grew up reading these comic books and watching all these movies. If I really thought about the fact that I’m making one of these things right now, with people I know and love, I would break down emotionally. I wouldn’t be no good to anybody.
NYONG’O A moment when I really felt a vibration was when we were shooting [the waterfall scene]. There were hundreds of extras and we were all in these traditional clothes and there were all the tribal colors and drumming, and between takes, the drummers started riffing to [Snoop Dogg’s] “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” The whole crowd started to go [sings the melody] and we were all dancing as Ryan figured things out below.
In that moment, I was like, “This is big.” I had never been on a set with so many black people before and we were all so focused and I could feel a vibration in the air. We all felt so privileged to have an opportunity to be a part of this moment in history.
Michael, one of the interesting complexities of the film comes from Killmonger’s identity as an African-American, which contrasts against T’Challa’s African-ness. What did you want to bring to the character?
JORDAN Ryan [and I] started getting into the back story of where he came from and how his upbringing really affected his personality, his outlook, his rage, his agenda. We felt like we could show where Erik is coming from and make people feel why he is so angry, why he is so lost. He doesn’t know who he is, but he knows the answers are out there.
BOSEMAN For me, [Killmonger and T’Challa] are two sides of the same coin — African and African-American. As an African-American, if you’re disconnected from your ancestry and your past, you have this conflict that comes from that and so there is a healing experience that is possible because of that.
COOGLER The fracture that Killmonger has, that’s the fracture I lived with my whole life. I’m from a place that I’d never been to and that nobody who I loved had been to because they couldn’t afford to go [to Africa. Mr. Coogler grew up in Richmond in Northern California]. So I would hear stories from them about this place that they didn’t even know anything about, and those stories were a counterbalance to the awful things that we did hear about them.
In the movie, Wakanda disguises vast technological resources from the world, and white people who aren’t in the know refer to it dismissively as a primitive backwater. That’s a very real view that a lot of people hold about Africa, as recent comments attributed to the president made clear. What do you hope will be the effect of introducing audiences to this counternarrative about the continent?
COOGLER The narrative about the continent that we know is actually a fairly recent narrative, if you think about human history. It’s a narrative that was born out of what happened when the countries of Africa were conquered.
But the truth is that some of those places that people might refer to as backwaters — and these recent comments definitely aren’t the first time somebody has said something like that — were the cradle of civilization. They were the first places to do anything that we would consider to be civilized.
All the structures that we built in Wakanda, they’re taller structures of what you’ll find in Africa. Some of them we switched up — instead of mud we used [the fictional supermetal] vibranium — but those are buildings that you’ll really find in Mali, in Ethiopia, in Nigeria.
I spent about three weeks in Africa [doing research for “Black Panther”] and I truly felt that seeing it for myself was necessary for my growth as a human being. That experience made me not only capable [of writing] this film, but it made me whole as a person.