Ryan Coogler is more of a listener than a talker. The 31-year-old director of “Black Panther” wants details of each reporter’s outlet before he hears our questions at a small gathering of press. He is there to talk about his third film, the story of a Marvel Comics superhero who is also an African king named T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Coogler took notes on the reporters to refer to as he considered our questions, and when he did not feel he answered a question completely he made more notes and promised to think about it and get back with a more complete answer later.
Coogler told us that even before the days of social media, he was aware of the anticipation around an important film, particularly those about the black community. He was only four when “Boyz in the Hood” was released, but his father took him to see it. And when “Malcolm X” came out, his father said, “You’re not going to school tomorrow. We’re going to see this movie.” Although he is not on social media, his sister is, and she keeps him up to date on the excitement about this film.
“I would qualify as a fanboy,” he said with a smile. So he understands the intense scrutiny comic book films are subjected to, starting when the earliest details of their production are made public. “The big thing was the casting …casting is mad important in these movies. You have to sit with that cast for two years.” “I wrote the script with certain actors in mind,” he said. Michael B. Jordan, who starred in both of Coogler’s previous films, plays T’Challa’s opponent, Erik Killmonger. But he had something else in mind as well. When he was growing up in the 1990’s, the three most successful black actors were Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and Wesley Snipes. “They could front any kind of movie. They were funny, they were sexy, they could do action.” But they never appeared together on screen. “For me, it was like an opportunity to make that Denzel/Will Smith movie I never got to see.”
“The theme of the film is, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Each character has a different answer to that question and only one changes his answer,” he said. The movie presents this question in a complex and nuanced way likely to leave audiences debating who really is “the good guy.” “My favorite action movies have themes that are deep, that you can chew on, and that what we were trying to do, to make a movie that functions the way it was supposed to but also has some depth to it.”
It was also important to him to include very strong, heroic female characters, played by Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira. “As we were writing them, we fell in love with them even more … You have to understand Wakanda through these people. Another theme of the movie is tradition versus innovation, characters that base everything off of what’s happened in the past and have reverence for the past, and characters that are innovators, that are breaking from tradition.” The two women present that conflict, “and their scene together is one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever directed. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen something like this in a movie before.” He said that directing “Fruitvale Station” made him want to be a father, but it was this film that made him want to have daughters someday.
The Black Panther first appeared in comics in 1966, and Coogler tried to include elements of all of the characters’ portrayals through the decades. The film’s striking, richly vibrant visuals, with production design by costume designer Ruth Carter and “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” production designer Hannah Beachler are based on the comic books and on extensive research into African design. “We wanted the film to feel African and grounded and tactile and building stuff for real helps. Even though Wakanda is technologically savvy, we wanted to challenge what the idea of a technologically advanced place looked like. We still wanted things to feel hand-made and ancient, with the ancient and the new existing side by side. Wakanda isn’t the place to knock a building down. They’ll add a little bit to keep it propped up. If it decayed and collapsed and they like how it decayed and collapsed, maybe they’ll leave it. We knew it would be a heavy VFX movie but we wanted to have as much real as we could.”
The movie places an African and an African-American in opposition. “I’m an African-American male born in the 1980’s in Oakland,” he said, “and there’s a dynamic between being African and African-American that’s very interesting.” This is a key element he explored in the film, with African characters from the fictional country of Wakanda, which has never been colonized or even had any trade relationships with western countries, and African-American characters, who reflect the stress of living in a country still confronting racial divides.
“The question for me is what does it mean to be African? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I first knew I was black, since my parents sat me down and said, ‘You’re black and that’s what this means. You’ve got to navigate the world in a certain way.’ That’s the conversation every person has had to have because of the way the world works. If you don’t have that understanding you could be in a situation that costs you your life,” as Coogler’s first film, the fact-based “Fruitvale Station,” showed. “Nobody who was telling me what being African means had ever been there. My parents had never been, my grandmother had never been.” So it was essential for him to spend time in Africa, researching the cultures that Wakanda would represent.
“The African culture the world knows best is the African-American culture,” he said, citing the worldwide dominance of hip-hop. But working on the film and spending time in Africa helped him realize that the African culture he thought was erased by bringing Africans to the United States as slaves was much more intact than he thought. “I grew up thinking the African culture had been taken away from us, that it was lost. But the truth is, we didn’t. We hung onto it.”