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How Ryan Coogler took a deep dive into African culture to make Black Panther

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Dec 28, 2017

Since 2013's Fruitvale Station, director Ryan Coogler has slowly been upping the ante in terms of his cinematic projects. From Fruitvale, he graduated to the Rocky spinoff Creed in 2015, and from there he got the job to direct Black Panther for Marvel Studios.  Having made a splash in Captain America: Civil War, King T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) now returns home to the technologically advanced kingdom of Wakanda to take over the throne after the death of his father. But Erik Killmonger (longtime Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan) and Ulysses Klaue (Star Wars's Andy Serkis) pose a threat to the stability of the African nation and, by extension, the world.

It's Coogler's biggest movie so far and, according to Empire Magazine, a deeply personal experience for him as well. As a kid, he'd follow around his older cousin, who was a major comic book nerd who crossed Marvel and DC fan lines. When he got a bit older, the filmmaker would go into the comics shop across from his elementary school, and while he was an X-Men fan — his fave at the time was the black mutant Bishop — Coogler was looking for something that would speak to his demographic.

"I was going in there and wanting to find a superhero comic book where the main character looked like me," he told the British publication. "So I walked in a talked to the guy and he pointed me to Black Panther ... to have a dude with his own comic book named after him and he had this whole run and this pretty cool history -- I thought it was amazing."

 

When he was tapped by executive producer Nate Moore (also a Panther fan since childhood and the character's champion at Marvel Studios), Coogler returned to the very same comic shop with his wife to take a picture of himself with a comic from Ta-Nehisi Coates' Black Panther series and send it to head honcho Kevin Feige. The movie itself draws its plot from the greatest hits of Black Panther runs over the years, reaching all the way back to the 1970s, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were writing his books. 

He was also extremely committed to making the film's African setting as accurate as possible before principal photography began, telling Moore and Feige he needed to visit the continent before he could start writing the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole.

"None of my family ever had the opportunity to go," he said. "It was almost like a mythical place to us -- to a lot of us, to African-Americans. And that was a very big deal for me to be able to tell this story. I frankly didn't feel qualified to do it just because I look like this." 

Despite the fact that Wakanda is a fictional location, Coogler is delving deep into what it means to be African. His goal was to make this world as realistic as possible, so the characters and culture being depicted don't become one-dimensional caricatures or stereotypes of themselves. Reducing such things to insular plot devices is both "damaging and hurtful," he stated. The job of avoiding a biased misrepresentation was certainly daunting, but he found a way to do it. 

"We're trying to explore that through every means of communication. Through the music. Through the language. Through clothing. Through production design. Through the structures of the building and the color of the walls. And through the ugly stuff, too. Through conflict. Through weapons. It's all those things. We tried to look at both sides, and as you would with any human being or human society."