Black Panther — on and off-camera — is a woke superhero fantasy set in today’s reality
Wakanda is in Atlanta, beautiful chocolate bald women protect the crown, Dru Hill and Chaka Khan are on blast — and it only gets better
ATLANTA — Tucked away on a soundstage, about 6 miles from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was buried in 1968, a cinematic marvel, Black Panther, is being born. Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” is blaring from a neighboring stage, while crew members — a bunch of them women, rocking low-maintenance goddess braids — work.
Atlanta is one of this nation’s most recognized chocolate cities. It’s 54% black, even with the rapidly changing demographics of gentrification. Because of that, and because of the history of the American South, it’s appropriate that when Marvel Studios finally made the decision to launch a new character — the iconic tribal hero that is T’Challa, the Black Panther — it went south of the Mason-Dixon to make it happen.
There’s also a major tax credit for filming in Georgia that changed the game a few years back — it’s now the No. 3 filming location in the U.S., behind New York and California. In addition to Black Panther, Marvel filmed Ant-Man (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016) and last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy 2 in Atlanta. It was back when the studio started shooting those projects in Atlanta, that Nate Moore, the lone African-American producer in the film division at Marvel, wasn’t sure whether making a Black Panther stand-alone film would be a reality.
And yet. The day’s Black Panther scenes are being shot on the Sony Screen Gems lot, under its code name, Motherland, so that no one in the area knows what’s actually being filmed.
#BlackPantherSoLit? You bet your Wakandan ass it is.
In July of 1966, when the Black Panther character debuted in a Fantastic Four comic, America was in the midst of urgent civil unrest. Long-standing racist practices in the United States were still in effect, and black folks were past the breaking point. The actual Black Panther Party was founded in October of that year in Oakland, California.
But it took another two years (exactly 50 years ago) until keystone events like the Civil Rights Act of 1968 were put in place. James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” was loosed. Two newly minted Olympians, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, while wearing human rights badges, raised their fists in a Black Power salute on the ceremony podium in Mexico City.
But on the 26th day of shooting Black Panther, it’s the middle of Black History Month 2017. We’re 30 days into Donald Trump’s presidency. Michael Flynn has just resigned as national security adviser from the new administration. And Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is clotheslining men.
And every man going against her is getting. This. Work.
The chocolate stunner is decked out in a tight, money green cold-shoulder tribal print dress. Her auburn-tinted natural hair has a side part, and eventually, one of her clear-heeled high-heeled shoes will be utilized as a weapon. She goes through several takes elbowing men and pointing it at someone on the second floor. There’s a lot of action happening — and several high-profile cast members are in motion.
Chadwick Boseman, in a charcoal grey brocade jacket and tailored black slacks, is working through another 10-hour day as T’Challa, king and protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. He’s doing roundhouse kicks at one of his enemies that send him sailing back and landing safely on a stack of floor mats. As the crew sets back up a breakaway table that someone is going to get thrown across, someone yells, “Protect your nuts!” Time to get busy again.
Boseman goes full character actor for the film even when not filming, employing an African-sounding accent before laughing, resetting himself and going back to sounding more like the very light-accented South Carolina native he is. “I look at the internet more for what’s happening in the country than I do news about us,” he says later that day. “By the time we leave here … I want to see, like, what did he do today.”
There was no existing inside a bubble on the set of Black Panther. The real-life parallels are rich — a new power base, after all, is forming in Marvel’s fictional country.
“There are similarities,” Boseman says. “It’s a transition period. You have T’Challa taking on the leadership of the country. There’s some weakness in a transition period, and it’s the beginning of his decision-making. Who is he gonna have in his Cabinet? Who’s going to take this role or that role?” He says it’s funny experiencing the filming from that perspective. “Some themes … are similar, in terms of whether to connect with the rest of the world or be in isolation. Those are some of the things that you’re … seeing with our country right now, in terms of allies not being able to depend upon the old relationships that they used to have.”
Some viewers may think that in some ways Black Panther’s script was tweaked to reflect the current political climate, but that’s not the case. It seems that director and co-writer Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole (who masterfully co-wrote and co-produced the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning FX series The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story), were prognosticators, tapping into a storyline dynamic that seemed too fictional to actually be real life.
“It’s uncanny how much this speaks to the real world,” says Nyong’o. “When Ryan and Joe Cole were writing this film, they couldn’t have known how things were going to turn and how reality would be imitating fiction.” She says that for her, the parallels are proof-positive that there’s a larger reason for the film coming into existence. “I don’t think there’s a buoyancy that we need to maintain as we make this film.”
The constant stream of real-world breaking news — and there’s lots of it — isn’t distracting so much as it makes the cast and crew want to activate. And participate.
“Martin Luther King is buried literally about five minutes [away],” says Danai Gurira. She portrays Okoye, the leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-female team of women who operate as special forces in Wakanda. She spent time helping out with the Hillary Clinton campaign back in the late stages of her campaign and walked the streets of Georgia linking arms with civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis. “Atlanta is a very powerfully historic place. … Every day … I drive down Andrew Young [International] Boulevard. There’s a lot of powerful mojo in this city, for us to be making Black Panther here.”
But making a film that very likely will, by its very presence, push for progression in its own industry came at a cost. The cast couldn’t join in on the historic January 2017 Women’s Marches that were happening around the world — because they were shooting. “[Otherwise] we would have all been out marching,” says producer Nate Moore. “We don’t want to get so disconnected from what’s happening in the actual world.” He says that the Women’s March Day, which drew 2.6 million worldwide, was a hard day on the set. “We knew that we had to do this, but our hearts were elsewhere. … [Black Panther] tackles a lot of issues. … Hopefully we’ll make people think about them while they’re being entertained.” He says everyone will still get that Marvel fun. “But you walk away, I think in that way that Winter Soldier did, dealing with some issues … [like] Oh, wow. That’s a little bit more than T’Challa being the king of Wakanda.”
If Marvel gets this right, Black Panther will move several needles. Firstly, it will help to finally destroy the long-held idea that films with predominantly black casts don’t carry well in international markets. Can a movie with a largely black cast in a largely black (fictional) country set on a largely black (real) continent fare as well at the box office as its other superhero predecessors? Can this be a successful tentpole movie? And can a fictional superhero film somehow tap into the consciousness of the crowd that will ultimately consume it? As far as the latter? Nate Moore is certainly hoping so.
“This film … in a prescient way [is] becoming more and more topical because … even more than being inclusive and having a diverse cast — it’s about isolationism. That’s going to be a big issue moving forward for the next 10, 20 years. The world is becoming so petrified of its neighbors, and this is a story about a country that’s petrified of its neighbors. Not because they’re afraid of religious issues, or terrorism, but because they have something they know the world wants. That is something the world is dealing with in a big way right now. And it’s scary.”
Black Panther director Ryan Coogler — rocking a black scully, a black Tupac T-shirt and acid-washed jeans — is on the floor of Stage 7 looking at a bank of monitors, He’s going over the scene his crew just shot. “Let’s get it, fellas!” someone yells out before a rehearsal take. An A.M.E. congregation-like call and response follows in unison: “Roof! Roof!”
And then “Action!” is called. Everyone goes into motion. On-set explosives explode, flipped-over casino tables flip, chips fly, squibs (high-grade firecrackers) go off, and actors in character run up and down the stairs to stay clear of faux gunfire. Then there’s a pause in action, and the air is soundtracked like a SWATS summertime barbecue, the neighborhood OutKast and Goodie Mob made famous in the mid-1990s. Dru Hill’s “Beauty” is blaring on the adjacent stage. The Black Panther is coming to life.
Coogler goes over rehearsal playback on a lone monitor. He breaks focus to remind folks that he’s a Warriors fan who co-wrote the film with a Cavaliers fan and that it’s being produced by Nate Moore, who is a Clippers fan. “The post-production editing,” Moore quips, “is going to be fun …!”
This type of on-set camaraderie is commonplace while building out one of the year’s most anticipated films.
“It just feels … right,” Nyong’o says. “The Black Panther is — how do you put it? — it’s contemporary folklore. And the fact that we’re doing it here, in such a predominantly African-American environment … it’s really cool. I’ve never spent time in Atlanta; this is my first time spending time here. It’s a cultural awakening for me. It’s meaningful for us. It will be meaningful for ATLiens, and definitely for Americans all over.” Again she says, “It just feels right.”
And it seemed, even a year ago, that the art will be transformative. It’ll help to shift images of black men, black women and just, well, blackness. Striking images of beautifully dark brown, bald, black women in technicolor warrior getups saving humanity as we know it?
Yes, please. And really, Black Panther’s most important contribution is its optics — a cast of primarily dark-skinned black actors dominate the film and tell a story about a fictional African nation that harbors the world’s most sophisticated technological advances.
“It’s one thing to read the script,” says Nyong’o. “It’s another thing to see it come to life. And to even see the Dora Milaje lined up. All these women, bald-headed and fierce, and the protectorates of the nation. The other night we were at a party and all the Dora were there, and … you never see a group of bald-headed women. There’s just something so powerful about that. It’s a femininity like no other. It’s bold, it’s bare.”
She says, as well, that Coogler has been really keen to three-dimensionalize the female characters. “The thing about the whole process of putting a comic book on screen is that you have to fill it with another dimension, another sense of realness, a grounding, despite it being a fantasy. So the women, as we see them in this film, are a real departure from what they are in the comic books, in a very positive and reaffirming way.”
It’s also another chance to contribute something to popular culture that we haven’t really seen before, at least en masse: black female action figures. After the introduction of his character in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, Chad Boseman knew that seeing a black superhero figurine on big-box store shelves and seeing Black Panther Halloween costumes would be powerful. And now, there will be more coming.
“It’s almost like a Renaissance in a way,” he says, “where we can take some things for granted. We can up the ante a little bit. We’ve had a black president, we’ve had an attorney general, we’ve had all those things, but … even though in a real way this movie is celebrating a first again, it’s doing it in a way where it doesn’t feel like the characters are celebrating a first, because they go back to antiquity, their history. You’re not grabbing on to something based upon being a victim, or being in bondage, because these people have a rich history that dates far beyond that. That’s the beautiful thing to see: to not have to depend upon your history, starting with slavery. Even though this is fantasy, it pulls on things that are real, from empires that are real, from kings that are real, from warriors that are real.”
So, is the world ready for Black Panther? Early indications equal a resounding yes. According to Deadline, a few weeks back: “After tickets went on sale Monday night, Black Panther is already outstripping Captain America: Civil War as Fandango’s best-selling MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] title in the first 24 hours of presales. Captain America: Civil War kicked off the opening of summer 2016 during the first weekend of May with $179M.” That early indicator exceeds even the film company’s wildest hopes for the movie.
Earlier in the day of that big action scene in the casino, Danai Gurira, in an ornately beaded, fire-red gown, fights off two would-be assailants — both white men — with a spear and impressive martial arts skills. Her stunt double was watching from the wings — but Gurira herself has got this bit. After she successfully defended herself, whipping around that spear just so, Gurira snatches her wig off and beans one of the men with it.
Chills. Brilliant. She goes through that particular take no fewer than a dozen times inside of an hour. Each time she does it, the moment becomes far more remarkable — if that’s even possible. “There’s a lot going through her. She’s dealing with some bad guys,” Gurira says a week later.
And then she says what may sum up the film — and, quite frankly, this moment — overall: “The Wakandans,” she says, “they never think about losing.”
Photos courtesy of Marvel Studios.