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Film

How the 'Black Panther' Team Pulled Off Its Vision (and Why It Took This Long)

There's no question about it: Black Panther is already a hit. The expectations have been high for the Ryan Coogler-directed film that stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong'o, but as pre-sales and reviews prove, the movie is everything audiences want it to be.

In advance of the film’s release this week, Playboy caught up with Black Panther executive producer Nate Moore and screenwriter Joe Robert Cole to discuss responses to the film so far, developing the character of Black Panther from script to screen, the importance of diverse representation in media and plans for sequels.
 

Black Panther hasn't yet arrived in theaters, and already the film is receiving critical acclaim. How has the response been behind-the-scenes, finally getting to see this project on the big screen? What do you think audiences will be most surprised to see, and what are you most excited for?
Joe Robert Cole [screenwriter]: The response has been unreal. There’s such a groundswell of enthusiasm, it’s hard to know how to process it all. I’ve been doing a lot of smiling. Within the African-American community, there’s obviously a great deal of pride that I’ve witnessed, but the excitement for the movie stretches beyond one group. I think there’s a hunger for something new, new lenses on the world, new storytelling. I have a feeling audiences may be surprised by the seamless way the film introduces and navigates so many characters with depth. At least, I hope so. I’m excited to see it in a theater with non-industry moviegoers.

Nate Moore [executive producer]: It’s definitely exceeded expectations. When you spend a lot of time on a movie, you’re often so focused on the details of making sure everything is as good as it can be that it almost doesn’t allow a lot of time to consider how people might receive the film. Now we’re sort of in this interesting position where reviews are starting to come in, but we still haven’t had a chance for general audiences to weigh in. For me, I’m most excited for the moment when the entire world gets to experience this film.

"[M'Baku] wasn't a character who was at the top of Ryan [Coogler]'s list when we first met him; initially, he was like, 'You've got to be kidding.'"
Through the development process, were there particular storylines from the previous Black Panther comics that went on to influence the film, either in terms of offering insights about the character or shaping the plot?
Moore: One of the comic runs that I’ve always found very inspirational on a character level is the work by Christopher Priest. What Chris did extremely well was to show the balance between being a superhero and actually being the head of a nation, having to make decisions that either alienate the world at large or the country you’re ruling in an effort to do the right thing. There’s a great sense of nobility and self-sacrifice to his character in Priest’s entire run that I think we tried to instill and bring to the screen. For Ryan [Coogler], Ta-Nehisi Coates’ current comic run is also really interesting because Ta-Nehisi, I think, is very interested in the geopolitics and the way Wakanda might fit into the world.


Cole:
As a starting point, we read all of the runs. We were obviously influenced by Panther’s introduction in Captain America: Civil War, but got inspiration from all the different stories about the character. Each one brought something different, and I think we were able to fold them all into the work we were doing.

Did your idea of Black Panther, as a character and in telling this story, change over the course of bringing the film to life?
Cole: I think it changed. You have to find things—it’s a process of exploration. Beginning with early references that you’re thinking about, there are themes and ideas you explore and discussions you have about who T’Challa really is, what the nation of Wakanda is and what the story wants to be. I think we went through that process and landed where we should have.

Moore: Working on the script with Ryan and Joe, everything coalesced in a way that is representative of what’s on the screen. Of course, there’s always that extra layer, which we were fortunate to have here, of actors infusing something that you cannot anticipate on any given day of production. From top to bottom, I think this cast really took ownership of these characters and the story and made them their own, so it sings in a way we couldn’t have anticipated.

Speaking of, Black Panther has some incredible female characters. There’s the all-female Dora Milaje special forces operatives led by Okoye (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira); T’Challa’s 16-year-old younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), who designs new technology for Wakanda; T’Challa’s mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who helps advise the new king …
Cole: And Lupita Nyong'o, who plays an operative and undercover spy for Wakanda in the outside world. The actresses who brought the characters to life did an absolutely amazing job. And impressive women weren’t just onscreen, they were behind-the-scenes also: Our production designer, costume designer, first assistant director and cinematographer were all women. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison just became the first woman in history to be nominated for an Oscar in cinematography. Ryan [Coogler] fosters a climate of inclusion and representation that feels so common sense that you sometimes forget how uncommon it is.

Moore: Female characters are also not just included for inclusion sake; they each have strong narrative roles—specific, well-drawn story arcs—and the movie benefits for it. The actresses and crew members were so great at creating life in these characters and behind-the-scenes on the set.

"Many black people will tell you that not much has changed since the comic was introduced."
M’Baku is one character from the Black Panther comics who plays a critical role in the movie. His original moniker in the 1969 comics was “Man-Ape,” a troubling title that refers to the animal symbol of this character’s tribe. What influenced the decision to include M’Baku, and what was it like to adapt this controversial character for the film?
Moore: It was a challenge because the source material is offensive. And considering the time, it was unintentionally so to some degree. But there was a detail in Christopher Priest’s comic run that we gravitated towards, which is that he is the head of the religious minority in Wakanda.


Cole:
The Jabari Tribe, which he leads, represents a pivotal point-of-view in Wakanda that we felt was important to the story. His inclusion in the film allowed us to reclaim him with his traditional name, M’Baku.

Moore: Outside of putting him in a giant white gorilla suit—which we were never going to do—the notion that there was somebody who was the voice of the opposing party in Wakanda and felt like they had a right to be heard, much like in any government, is really interesting. It wasn’t a character who was at the top of Ryan’s list when we first met him; initially, he was like, "You’ve got to be kidding," but when we explained the reasons why we thought including him was important, Ryan was very interested. And we found a great actor in Winston Duke, who does such a great job of bringing him to life and making him a real person, that it paid off.

On the surface, it would seem that there are elements of Black Panther that audiences are familiar with from previous Marvel movies—a son inheriting his father’s throne, advanced suits of high-tech armor, two fighters formerly united under the same flag going head-to-head. Was navigating around existing Marvel properties a concern during production?
Moore: I think we’re concerned about that with every film; the nature of superheroes is that a lot of concepts are universal or probably borrow from each other. And 18 movies in, at some point, you’re going to run into ideas that feel familiar. With Black Panther, we were very conscious of not re-making Thor, which is also about a prince with family-dynamic issues. But because of the specificity with how Ryan approached the story, it didn’t feel like something we had seen before—it always felt new.

[Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige always puts it best: We’re going to get tired of seeing this before audiences [do] because we’ve been looking at this for a long time. So it’s usually pretty good if something feels unique to us because we’re really hard on this material. And the response hasn’t been that this feels like pieces of other films we’ve seen, so that’s good. [Laughter]

In the 50-plus years that Black Panther has existed in comics, should there have been a movie made about this character sooner? Or in 2018—a time when it has to be literally declared to law enforcement and politicians that black lives matter, when the U.S. president continues to promote initiatives that challenge civil liberties, when white supremacists carry tiki torches and rally behind confederate flags and symbols—is Black Panther actually arriving in theaters at a perfect time for this country?
Moore: Unfortunately, as far as what is happening culturally in America, I think the timing of this movie feels more relevant than ever. As for whether Black Panther should’ve been made before, it’s difficult to say. Making a good movie is hard, regardless of subject matter. And internally, we had tried to find ways to bring Black Panther to the screen earlier, but the circumstances may not have allowed for it in this specific way. Could we have made a Black Panther movie earlier? Sure. Could there have been an Avatar movie earlier? Maybe. You know what I mean? Sometimes things happen when they happen because the time is right.

Cole: Many black people will tell you that not much has changed since the comic was introduced. There may be a broader awareness outside of communities of color, but the conditions have more or less remained the same. The historic exclusion of people of color and women from storytelling in film and television misrepresented the world we live by narrowing the field of perspectives and stories that were told for so long that there’s a fatigue with that point of view and a desire for something new.

In his famous 1994 essay, “Black to the Future,” author Mark Dery coined the term "Afrofuturism" and asked: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” How important is it for people worldwide to see a future where African traditions mix with modern pop culture to create a narrative that black audiences can claim for themselves?
Cole: Extremely important. This is the movie I wish I had to look up to as a kid. Art has the potential to be transformative, and Wakanda provided an opportunity to create a self-determinant, hyper-advanced African nation untouched by outsiders. Our goal was to root Wakanda as much as the work would allow in real-world Africa, then extrapolate out from there in terms of technology, culture, language, design, costume and mysticism. It was, in the truest sense of the word, world-building.

Moore: Afrofuturism was written in the story and built into production. Hand-in-hand with Hannah Bechler, our production designer, we found ways to make Wakanda technology feel as real as possible. Because if the technology is so outlandish as to be unrealistic, it’s gonna break the veil of reality, and audiences will start to disconnect.

I know it’s early, but what’s the plan post-Panther? Can audiences look forward to a Black Panther trilogy, or can other stories from Wakanda make it to the big screen?
Cole: I certainly hope Marvel continues with the character, but that's not up to me.

Moore: The only thing I can say for sure is that Black Panther will be part of Avengers: Infinity War. As far as where we are right now, our focus is getting the movie out, and we hope that people enjoy it. Audiences generally will tell us if they want to see more of a character, so once the film is out, and we get to feel the general audience reactions, we hope there’s enough energy behind it, so we can get to tell more stories because there are definitely more stories here to tell.


 

Black Panther debuts in theaters on Friday, Feb. 16.

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