Black Panther stars Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o took the stage at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater on Tuesday night to discuss the Marvel film that’s become a worldwide phenomenon. Outside, the words “WAKANDA FOREVER” lit up the marquee, and inside, fans from all over New York came out to show their love for the film (including a very cute 7-year-old dressed like T’Challa who got his mask signed by Boseman).
In a conversation moderated by author and Black Panther comics writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, the stars shared their perspectives on making the movie, which has now grossed more than $700 million globally, and what it’s been like to witness the film connect with so many people.
Here’s what we learned during the talk.
For Boseman, T’Challa’s accent was key
Before there was ever a Black Panther movie or even an onscreen version of the advanced African nation of Wakanda, Chadwick Boseman was tasked with bringing the character to life in a believable way in Captain America: Civil War. Audiences would be meeting the prince out of his element and away from the culture that built him, so it was up to Boseman to bring a level of authenticity to the character’s comparatively small role.
What that meant in an immediate sense for Boseman was finding an accent that worked. He found inspiration in speaking with people from South Africa, who by his ear, over-articulated and weren’t using the verbal shortcuts he was used to. The voice would also have to be something that wouldn’t grate on an audience listening to it for an entire film. Even then, Boseman understood the importance of that accent, and now there’s an entire cast using it and riffing on it. For instance, Winston Duke, who plays M’Baku, infused his character’s voice with some Nigerian inflection.
Nyong’o didn’t think Marvel would make it
When director and co-writer Ryan Coogler approach the Oscar winner about the role of Nakia, there wasn’t a script—just a pitch, which he delivered to Nyong’o. Her first impression of the story that Coogler was angling to tell was that it was great, but so unlike anything Marvel would conceivably produce. It was too political, too socially aware, but the studio gave him the go-ahead to make the movie he wanted.
And a major part of that vision was redrawing the character of Nakia, who in the comics essentially becomes T’Challa’s stalker. Coogler wasn’t interested in that mold for one of the most prominent female roles in his story. He had a nobler idea for how the sexes in Wakandan would interact and work together. As Nyong’o put it, the story updates the notion that behind every great man is a great woman. “Beside every great man is a great woman,” she said.
Killmonger was who Boseman initially identified with
Coates, in one of his questions, pointed out a major response to Black Panther was the audience’s allegiance to Erik Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan’s character, who hopes to arm and thus free oppressed black people around the world with Wakanda’s futuristic weaponry. And Boseman understands that reaction. He experienced it himself when first reading the script because his own experience growing up South Carolina is closer to Killmonger’s Oakland upbringing than T’Challa’s, who was “born with a Vibranium spoon in his mouth.”
But Boseman came to understand that for T’Challa to be a hero for the world, he needed to engage with what Killmonger believed and go through it, to find what was lost by Wakanda’s isolationism.
Nyong’o’s most emotional scene was one she wasn’t in
Nyong’o snuck on set during the filming of the tribal council scene — one Nakia wasn’t appearing in. She wanted to see the assembled leaders of the five Wakandan tribes, dressed in modernized, though still traditional, garb. For her, the experience was a cathartic one that tapped into remembrances of a being a child uncomfortable in her own skin. Nyong’o said she saw the characters gathered in that scene and knew that Black Panther had the power to connect the African and the African-American experiences. She believes that a lack of celebratory imagery in pop culture and mass media has created a disconnect across the black experience. What she hoped before the film’s release and what she has seen since its debut have encouraged her.
Boseman had some bad hair experiences on previous movies
Looking back on his timing making Black Panther, Boseman worries that he’s become spoiled. With a cast and crew so diverse, the level of authenticity brought to the film is going to be hard to match. As an example of the difference between the Marvel movie and his other projects, the actor recalled a time working on an unnamed movie when the stylist had no idea how to work with his hair. The stylist set out every clipper attachment and kind of looked to Boseman to point them in the right direction. Thankfully, he got out of there without losing any of his hair, and it wasn’t a problem again.