When Marvel Studios’ ‘Black Panther’ released in 2018, with Chadwick Boseman playing the titular superhero, it brought about a cultural shift that cannot be understated.
The big-budget movie centred around a fictional, technologically advanced African country Wakanda with the powerful and wise Prince T’Challa at its helm, an army of elite warrior women from the Dora Milaje, and a slew of other impressive characters. The film was a celebration of Black and African people that hadn’t been seen at this level before on the big screen.
So when news broke on August 28, 2020, that Boseman had died after privately battling colon cancer for years, the loss wasn’t just of a brilliant actor and human being — it was of a character that millions of people deeply loved. The big question was if future ‘Black Panther’ movies would be able to continue without the man who embodied the Black Panther; the sequel that’s releasing in the UAE on November 10 is director Ryan Coogler’s answer.
In ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’, T’Challa’s mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) are trying to cope with his death. Meanwhile, a new threat to Wakanda’s peaceful existence emerges when the leader of an ancient underwater nation Talocan asks for the African country’s help to protect them from outsiders — or face war.
In a roundtable interview with Gulf News, Wright said she didn’t have to dig very deep to play a sister grieving for her beloved brother.
“You’re definitely dealing with a very unique situation. You don’t have to draw from your imagination to feel those emotions, or that love that you feel for your brother,” Wright said. “It’s right there... So we just wanted to put some thing together that’s beautiful. But that also just allows the audience to go through this journey with us in a gentle way.”
Boseman’s influence on ‘Wakanda Forever’ is unmistakable and the movie’s cast members wanted nothing more than his spirit to run through the veins of the film.
“Chadwick Boseman... it seems to me he had been preparing all his life to play that role,” said Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. “There were certain skills that he brought to the table. Like he was a martial artist, he was a black belt... he was very skilled in that. He was a consummate student, and was very, very keen on understanding the history and cultures of Africa and its diaspora. He also brought a work ethic like no other.”
In the first movie, Nyong’o played T’Challa’s lover Nakia and the actress worked closely with him during its making.
“[Boseman] really set the trend and the tone of how our sets would be by being this quiet leader, extremely amiable,” she said, adding that the movie mirrors the real-life aftermath of his death.
“I think this film is very much about legacy. It’s about what is left behind when someone great dies and how they are able to reevaluate their lives and recommit to an uncertain future,” Nyong’o added. “In this film, we pay tribute to Chadwick Boseman through paying tribute to T’Challa. We see his long-lasting effects on the characters we have come to know and love. And we see them carry on his legacy. I think in uttering someone’s name you keep them alive... you keep their memory alive. And so in this film, we were intent on keeping Chadwick’s memory very much alive.”
Escape into a new world
Nyong’o was also appreciative of the escape that superhero movies could provide, while also dealing with heavy subject matter.
“I think they have incredible reach. They’re fun... I think they offer imaginative alternative universes for us to delight in and also learn from,” she said. “What Ryan Coogler has done with ‘Black Panther’ is really show how deep a comic book film can go. It’s an extremely wide genre, but it can also be deep.”
Like Shuri, Nyong’o’s character Nakia also has to come to terms with the death of T’Challa.
“I think a lot has changed for Nakia since the last time we met her. Key among the changes is her love has died,” she said. “And that is a very big thing to have to overcome. But we find her at a stage of grief that is a little bit more advanced than the other characters. And so she becomes a grounding force for us as an audience, I think. And my approach to playing her when I read her at first, I was frustrated because she was doing so much better than I was. And I didn’t know how I would get there... because I just wasn’t yet at that stage. And so it took playing her to really help me through my grief.”
In the movie, Nakia has a number of underwater scenes that Nyong’o said she needed intense training to master.
“The underwater sequences were challenging for sure. Before I started filming this movie, my swimming skills were like, maybe a four,” she said. “So I did swimming training. I did this extreme performance training thing where I would perform these tasks underwater, like carrying weights on the pool floor and stuff like that. And that was very, very helpful, because it increased my breath capacity. The thing about working in water is that it’s complex. But in order to execute it, you have to find calm. You cannot muscle your way through working in water.”
The ‘good’ villain
A brand new entrant to the MCU is the mutant Namor, who rules over the ancient civilisation of Talocan. This advanced society of super strong aquatic people, called the Talokanil, also serves as a rare instance of Latin Americans in the big-screen superhero genre.
Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta plays the benevolent ruler who has to make tough decisions to protect his secretive nation.
“I define him like an antagonist, not exactly the villain. Not exactly the bad guy,” he said. “He’s just a guy who is trying to protect his people with really deep human motivations... I just tried to make a portrait of a simple man trying to solve his problems in the best way possible. This guy is around 500 years old... He tried to create different bridges, but when everything else fails he takes this decision.”
The inspiration for Talocan comes from the mythical Aztec paradise of Tlalocan, and Huerta is keenly aware of the significance of this background.
“I think it is really important because this character has Mesoamerican roots... especially Mayan references,” he said. “That is our heritage for millions of people in Latin America, especially Mexico and Latin Americans in the United States. This movie can help to reconcile that part of our history because for many years, we were taught to feel ashamed of who we are.”
Huerta added: “Narratives matter. The representation matters. So if they are telling you all the time that you are just drug dealers, or thieves or bad guys, you eventually believe in that and the people perceive you in that way... I hope kids after watching this movie, they can look at the mirror and feel proud of the image [they see]... I think this movie ‘Black Panther’ is the perfect frame to show this representation.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ release in UAE cinemas on November 10.