It’s been a journey for Ryan Coogler to arrive at this weekend’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and the acclaimed director says the late Chadwick Boseman has been beside him every step of the way.
“We just took it one step at a time,” Coogler said in a recent, lengthy sitdown with Shadow and Act when speaking about putting the sequel together. “We set out our goals, and the goals were to make something that was worthy of our time and worthy of the audience’s time. We knew we wanted to push things forward, we wanted to go deeper with Wakanda, deeper with the characters and also open the world up.”
However, no one could have foreseen the tragic death of Boseman.
Moving on after the death of Boseman and deciding how the film would press forward.
“We were in shock at first, man. And oftentimes, the body’s reaction to shock is to shut down. That’s what we did. We shut down, we allow ourselves to think crazy thoughts and then let those thoughts pass and recalibrate and go through the grieving process. But the grieving process isn’t something that you can set on a schedule. You can’t say, ‘I’m going to grieve for two, three days, take off from work and then I’m going to get back to it.’ It goes at its own pace and sometimes there is no pace.”
When the team came back to continue work on the sequel, after the decision was made to move on without T’Challa, everything else came together, including their initial goals.
“We made the decision to make another film and to make the best film that we can make. I think what that meant was to make a decision to not have T’Challa come back as a character. Once we made that decision, we went back to those same goals. We went back to, ‘What’s a Black Panther film? How can we deliver on the audience?’ The film naturally became a film about a lot of things, but really [about] Ramonda and Shuri. And it became a movie about motherhood now and it became a coming-of-age story and a film about maturity and what that means.”
The true meaning of Wakanda Forever
The director continued, “Most importantly, if you’re going to say ‘Wakanda Forever,’ if you going to say this concept, man– Wakanda is going to go on. It is been here before all of us and it’s going to be here after us. Then you have to do what comes with that. And what comes with that is when you lose somebody that’s important to you, that means a lot. You got to find a way to keep going. You got to find a way to keep pushing forward…and what an opportunity for us now.”
The film presented an opportunity for the cast and crew to mourn on camera and while making the movie.
“We miss our brother and the whole world misses him,” he added. “The whole world misses him and our hearts are broken for him. Not only the time that we not going to get to spend with him, but also the time he was going to get to spend with other people he hadn’t had a chance to meet yet cause he had such a profound effect on us. But there’s a flip side to that. There’s the gratitude…that, ‘Oh my God man, this man spent some of the last years of his life with us intentionally. He knew what he was dealing with and still decided.’ It shows, ‘Hey man, y’all are important enough for me to spend 12, 15, 14 hour days with and call you and check in on you and let’s work through this. Let’s build something together. Let’s celebrate it together, let’s go tell the world about it together.’ He made that decision for us…and man, what gratitude that we got to be around greatness like that unfiltered.”
Because of Boseman’s decision, Coogler said it gave them more of a reason to give this project their all.
He continued, “Then you say, well s**t we got to pay it forward for him. If he could be sick and come to work and do great work…man, we can work through this grief and make something great for people and give it to people to echo all the ripples that he laid down. So that was what it was…that was how we moved through it. Some days we were really sad [and] some days we were really happy.”
Coogler says they felt the late actor’s presence when they had the film’s world premiere.
“Bittersweet isn’t the word man…it was a full cup of life,” he said. “It was like a full cup of life…because he wasn’t there physically, but man, he was there. I missed him being there in the physical cause nobody did a premiere like Chad, you know what I’m saying? He always did something surprising. He always did something he didn’t tell anybody about. He always popped up somehow wearing something you didn’t expect him to wear or doing something [laughs]. So I did miss that. It did feel slightly more boring than if he would’ve been there. But man, I appreciated him being there spiritually. I felt him, man. I felt him in every smile, in every garment people wore. And every time I heard a drum somewhere, I felt him. And when we hit play on that thing, no doubt about him being there with us.”
Using ancient Mesoamerican cultures to bring Namor's home of Talokan to life and providing Latinx and Indigenous representation
On conceptualizing Talokan, Coogler said, “My research for the first film dealt with colonization pretty head-on. And you have to when you’re making a Black Panther movie in this day and age. I think that the world is reckoning with the idea of colonization and its affection and what it means and the concept of can it be repaired. Can this be undone? How do you do it? I think that the recontextualizing of T’Challa and Wakanda was done in the comic books after the original run, it was like, man, ‘Look at this African prince who’s rich and smart and can fight and is amazing enough to trick the Fantastic Four and capture them.’ I thought it was a novelty of it. But as those books got deeper and they started to add Black writers like Christopher Priest and Reggie Hudlin, this concept of Wakanda being this place that hadn’t been colonized, that had managed to escape this thing that washed over the continent like a flood, that became very integral to who T’Challa was and what Wakanda was.”
He further explained, “We did a deep-dive study on colonization and cultures that managed to avoid it and escape it for extended periods of time. And in that, you can look at specific African cultures, but you also got to look at cultures that are here in North and South America and see these parallels. And as a Black man from California, I understand that juxtaposition very well. I grew up on streets and in cities that had Spanish names and grew up in the east Bay Area where the African American community and the Indigenous community are very close-knit. We’re very tight and our culture crosses over and they’re our family. They’re literally our street family but also our family. I got Mexican cousins and aunties and Puerto Rican cousins and aunties.”
The cultural connection that was already present in his background further showed the need add this to the film.
“I think that side of it was always in my mind as a create and as a viewer,” he said. “And it was time to open it up if we were going to bring Marvel Comics’ Atlantis to our world and you had this opportunity, it still had to be a Black Panther movie. We had to do it in a way that made sense and also we have to do it in a way that made sense with the zeitgeist. You have a lot of representations of that Greco-Roman concept of Atlantis in media. So we want to be respectful of the audience. We don’t want to give them the same thing [that’s] cooked a little different. It’s like how do we give them something that’s completely unique, that’s completely bespoke to our film, while honoring all of the things that made these characters in these books great. So that was our charge. And that was how we arrived on an Indigenous North American culture and an Indigenous Mesoamerican culture. Once we made that decision, it started to really gain some creative momentum [and] it started to make a lot of sense. It was really satisfying and it was a lot of weight for us to get it right.”
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is in theaters now.
Watch the full interviews below, which also feature Letitia Wright, Tenoch Huerta, Lupita Nyong’o, Mabel Cadena and Alex Livinalli.