‘Black Panther’ takes comic book films to new places All things Africa


By LINDSEY BAHR

AP Film Writer

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.

For Ryan Coogler, the essence of “Black Panther” came down to one question: What does it mean to be African?

The Oakland-born filmmaker of both “Creed” and “Fruitvale Station” had been given the gargantuan task of shepherding Marvel’s iconic superhero to the big screen, with a budget five times bigger than he’d ever had, Hollywood’s most powerful studio behind him and the freedom to make “Black Panther” as personal as he wanted. Coogler had made his name creating films about the black experience, but both were about the black American experience. “Black Panther,” which opens nationwide next week, was an African story and when Coogler signed on for the movie, he’d never been.

Now, he’d finally get his chance.

“This is the most personal film I’ve ever made, which is the strangest statement to say because I only make films that are personal,” Coogler said. “This film for me started with this question of, ‘What does it mean to be African?’ It’s a question that I’ve always had since I learned I was black, since my parents sat me down and told me what that was. I didn’t totally understand what that meant. As kid you’re like, well wait, why? Like, so wait we’re from Africa? What’s that?

“I’m 31-years-old and I realized I never really took time to grapple with what it means to be African. This film gave me the chance to do that,” he said.

When the wheels touched down in Cape Town, South Africa, Coogler remembers being overcome with a visceral feeling that he still can’t put words to. He went to Table Mountain and thought, “I could be buried here.” In Nairobi he saw a Maasai man, wearing traditional clothes and speaking on a cell phone. “That’s Wakanda,” he thought. “That’s Afrofuturism.”

And that’s what he set out to translate into the language of cinema in “Black Panther.” It’s the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and based on 50-year-old Stan Lee and Jack Kirby-created material, sure, but this is far from being just another superhero movie.

Wakanda, a fictional African nation, is an insulated, un-colonized and technologically advanced country that’s both deeply traditional and dazzlingly modern. “Black Panther” paints a multifaceted portrait of a nation in flux, as T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) ascends to the throne following his father’s death.

Actress Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”), who plays Okoye, the general of the Wakanda warriors known as the Dora Milaje, grew up mostly in Zimbabwe. She said she was “giddy” with “childlike joy” when she understood how Coogler intended to show Africa and its inhabitants like Okoye, the spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and the scientist Shuri (Letitia Wright) – and those are just the women.

“‘Black Panther’ creates a precedent that kills the ability of folks to misrepresent and distort the continent,” Gurira said. “The things that it checks off: Complex African female characters; African language on a big screen; African characters who are varied in many different ways and heroic; The heroism of Africans for themselves and not needing a white hero – go figure – to reach their goals; Celebrating so many specific African cultural-isms. No one can really now try to put forth some product where Africa is seen begging for a white superhero to come and save it.”

“Black Panther” has the makings of an all-out a cultural event.

“It’s the biggest, blackest movie that’s ever been made,” said veteran journalist and television writer Marc Bernardin.

And it’s already signaling a seismic shift that could make an impact big enough to change the entertainment industry.

Even in the modern superhero era, where seemingly every comic book character is fair game for a film, T’Challa was pretty far down on Marvel’s list (“Ant-Man” and two “Guardians of the Galaxy” films came first). But Marvel had a plan, and introduced T’Challa in a small but impactful part in “Captain America: Civil War” to set up the stand-alone film.

Walt Disney Co. chair Bob Iger told shareholders Tuesday that ticket presales are outpacing every other superhero movie ever made. Box office analysts have projected that it could earn upward of $150 million in its first four days in theaters over President’s Day weekend (and could beat “Deadpool’s” $152 million record). In sum, it’s already looking at around $400 million in ticket sales domestically. And it’s currently resting at a cozy 100 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

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