Chadwick Boseman talks becoming the new king of Marvel in Black Panther
If you read Marvel comics during the 1950s until the mid-1960s you knew two things: almost all the superheroes featured were white men — that was a given — and New York City served as their home base.
Headquartered in the Big Apple, Marvel’s staff of writers and artists created characters that lived and worked in the streets they knew so well. Iron Man/Tony Stark grew up in a Manhattan mansion, Captain America/Steve Rogers is a Brooklyn boy, Spider-Man/Peter Parker hails from Queens and the Fantastic Four work out of the fictional Baxter Building, a Manhattan skyscraper located near the United Nations.
However, in July 1966, in issue #52 of The Fantastic Four, writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby introduced a superhero who was unlike any character they had previously created together — he was a Black man, and he had no connection to New York, or America, for that matter.
Black Panther, a.k.a. King T’Challa, was the first Black superhero in comic book history, hailing from the fictional African nation of Wakanda. To outside eyes Wakanda is a poor, isolated country, but in fact it’s the world’s most technologically advanced nation due to its discovery of the rare element vibranium, a sound-absorbing, impenetrable metal (Captain America’s shield is vibranium).
So it was only a matter of time before Marvel welcomed Black Panther into its Cinematic Universe. The task of playing him fell to acclaimed actor Chadwick Boseman, who made his debut as the steely superhero in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, and now headlines his own movie, this month’s Black Panther, helmed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed).
The movie finds T’Challa defining his role in the fractured Avengers family and dealing with the responsibility of governing a nation, one that must fend off an attack from unscrupulous arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and the Wakandan exile Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who blames T’Challa for the death of his family.
“T’Challa’s first allegiance, according to his rites of passage and the mantle and the crown, is to the people of Wakanda,” says Boseman on the line from Los Angeles.
“And there may be times when what is best for his country may not coincide with what’s best for the world. He doesn’t make decisions without having to hear from his constituents and counsel, and having to deal with the politics of those decisions. He can go out and save the world but somebody is going to wonder why didn’t he show up at the meeting he was supposed to show up at,” says Boseman with a chuckle.
The 31-year-old actor, who was born and raised in South Carolina, is no stranger to the notion of responsibility having been tasked with portraying African-American icons so early in his career — Jackie Robinson in his breakthrough film 42, James Brown in the bio-pic Get on Up, and most recently U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in last year’s Marshall. Black Panther represents the first time the African continent and its various cultures have taken centre stage in a massive Hollywood superhero pic. Although the film wasn’t shot in Africa, but rather on a soundstage in Atlanta, Boseman says he and the cast realized they were making something special.
“That’s been the beauty of this,” says Boseman. “Wakanda is not real, yet it must be based in things that are real that are from the continent. The wardrobe designer, Ruth Carter, brought a myriad of different things from the culture in terms of jewellery and clothing, and the hair department, all of that stuff was present.
“There’s so many different things that I could draw from, especially music. I think the key thing for me was to have drums present on set that were playing. I wanted to make sure that we had a drummer, or drummers, there all the time so I brought along a drummer named Jabari Exum. He was helpful not just for me but I think for the whole cast.”
And the film’s predominately Black cast is exceptional, melding together established stars — Angela Bassett portrays T’Challa’s mother Ramonda, Forrest Whitaker is spiritual leader Zuri — and vibrant, young performers representing a new wave of Black acting talent — Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira as warrior Okoye, Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s best friend and the head of security W’Kabi and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s ex-lover and Wakandan spy Nakia.
“It’s been fun having this cast figure out what this film will look like, sound like and feel like. We were all kind of trying to build on what was started in Civil War and explore that.”
Boseman did not grow up wanting to be an actor. He graduated from Howard University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in directing and only started acting so he could better learn how to relate to actors. The story of how Boseman was drawn to the arts in the first place stems from a tragedy.
“I wasn’t a theatre kid,” he says. “I wasn’t in drama classes in high school, I was more into sports and my artistic passion was more drawing and painting, it was more quiet; I would be the person who wouldn’t get up in front of an audience.”
“But I think what pushed me into the direction of the theatre,” he continues, “was there was a friend of mine on my AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] basketball team who was shot and killed. So my response to it was, you know, I started writing a story related to the reasons why I felt like that happened, and how, essentially, the community had let him down in allowing that to happen.
“It was a play, not textbook in terms of how plays work, but it was influenced by what I knew about storytelling at that time, which is probably a lot of Spike Lee, probably a lot of John Singleton, and we performed it a few times. And that’s how I essentially started as a storyteller.”
Boseman hopes audiences respond to Black Panther’s storytelling and come out of theatres feeling energized.
“I want them to be inspired when they leave. I want them to want to see it again, and I don’t mean that because I want high numbers at the box office — even though I do want high numbers,” he says with a laugh.
“I say that because I like to make movies that could one day be classics. The ones that come on HBO or TNT or whatever, and you say every time this comes on I have to watch this. I want Black Panther to be the type of movie that you say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to watch at least 15 minutes of this. I know I should be doing something else but let me get 15 minutes of this before I do what I’m supposed to do.’”
Black Panther is more than a superhero film.
An achievement in every way , this record-breaking phenomenon could be the first Marvel film to earn a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.