Like many black Americans, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler never had the opportunity to travel to Africa while growing up, but once Marvel made it clear he was their top choice to head up the film, he was adamant about finally going to, and experiencing, the continent for himself.
Speaking to Empire magazine, Coogler and executive producer Nate Moore explained that while Black Panther’s plot will pull from a number of the character’s comics, they felt it was crucial that the film’s version of Wakanda—a fictional nation—was grounded in and respectful of real-world African cultures. Moore also pointed out that T’Challa isn’t just the first black superhero to headline a Marvel film, he’s the first African superhero:
“I make that distinction because it’s something that we found very important in making the film—that T’Challa and Wakanda felt very African. And so we, with Ryan especially leading the charge, were going the extra mile to get all the details of what that would mean in the film.”
For his part, Coogler knew he would need to travel to Africa, not just for the actual production of the film, but so that he could have a better understanding of what it was like to be on the continent and amongst its people. Coogler spent weeks travelling through South Africa by himself to gain a better sense of the people he was telling a story about, something he didn’t think he could automatically do just because he’s black:
“None of my family ever had the opportunity to go [to Africa]. So it was almost like a mythical place to us—to a lot us, as African Americans. And that was a very big deal for me to be able to tell this story. I frankly wasn’t qualified to do it just because I look like this.”
Coogler described the responsibility he felt as an American filmmaker to depict Wakandans thoughtfully and with care because so often, African characters and African culture are grossly misrepresented:
“Or represented in a way that’s narrow, or thin, or as a plot device. They’re represented in a way that’s damaging and hurtful. You’re dealing with all that, so I wanted to make sure I got out there and spent some time.”
Black Panther—a film with a predominantly black cast, set in Africa, and produced by major studios with a gargantuan budget—is a Hollywood first. It’s a glimpse at what the film industry’s more inclusive, diverse future might look like and from what we’ve seen so far, it looks fantastic.