When Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” opens later this week, it will mark a major step forward in the world of comic book movies: a multi-million dollar franchise film centered on a black superhero, directed by a black director, and populated almost entirely by black actors. Although financial forecasts for the film are sky-high — it’s expected to break a slew of box office records, and the most recent predictions expect it to turn in a crushing $165M opening weekend — its impact goes beyond commercial metrics, and even the underlying value of a black superhero. “Black Panther” also gives women of color their due, as its cast is dominated by them.
For fellow Marvel Cinematic Universe member Tessa Thompson, who made her debut in November’s “Thor: Ragnarok” as the badass warrior Valkyrie, it’s a film that will speak to the kind of representation that’s been sorely lacking in the franchise world for years.
“I think when you’re accustomed to seeing yourself represented on film, you don’t understand what the [big deal] is about it. But if you’re not, it means so much,” Thompson said. “[It’s] not just that we want to see ourselves projected on screen in nuanced ways, but we also want others to see us on screen as complex characters, drawn with real humanity.”
Another person eager to see women like her on the big screen: “Black Panther” co-star Dania Gurira, already known to TV audiences for her role in “The Walking Dead.” The actress plays General Okoye in the feature, a trusted ally of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther (AKA King T’Challa) and one of the breakouts of a film filled with them.
“All I can do really is say, ‘Does this excite me? Is it something I would love to watch whether or not I was in it?’ and I really had all those feelings from the minute Ryan sat me down and told me his vision,” Gurira said.
For Gurira, much of that vision was rooted in the women that Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole had made central to their story, including not just her own character, but roles for T’Challa’s mother, sister, and a love interest.
“He would describe these women characters in ways that I’ve never heard women described,” Gurira said. “I want to see stories told authentically, given accessibility, that’s my thing. What was also really thrilling was that he wrote them as women of integrity and women of complexity and women of strength.”
Gurira, a lauded playwright who has long been compelled to tell stories about Africa and its own people (she wrote the Broadway hit “Eclipsed,” for which “Black Panther” co-star Lupita Nyong’o was nominated for a 2016 Tony), was also enthused by the amount of research that Coogler applied to his own work, including fact-finding visits to Africa. Although she was born in America, Gurira’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from what was then Southern Rhodesia, before moving back to an independent Zimbabwe when Gurira was just five years old.
“Being that I was raised on the continent and I have some Zimbabwean parentage, being able to speak an African language on a movie this scale was also just something I felt was so unprecedented,” Gurira said. “It excited me and I knew how much it would excite people back home.”
It’s the kind of large-scale representation that’s rarely seen in Hollywood blockbusters. “I would really get blown away with the scene they were shooting or a thing that we were doing, I’d walk on a set and I’d see what they had going on or I’d see a moment play out and I’d be like, ‘Man, this has never been seen before, this is so exciting,'” Gurira said.
Another element that sets “Black Panther” apart from its big screen superhero brethren is the way it views women. Strong female characters have long played a huge role in the kingdom of Wakanda, from individual characters like Shuri (who, in some incarnations of comic book lore, actually becomes Black Panther) to larger groups like the Dore Milaje, an all-female special forces outfit tasked with protecting the king.
Compelling representations of women are all over “Black Panther,” played by some of Hollywood’s most talented actresses. As Gurira put it, “It’s like iron sharpening iron, your team only makes you better.”
For one, the Dore Milaje play a major role in the film, as both Okoye and Nyong’o’s Nakia are members of the Wakandan military arm, and some of the film’s most jaw-dropping fight sequences gracefully show off their skills. During one of the pivotal sequences in “Black Panther,” T’Challa sets off on a mission to South Korea, accompanied by the pair. The only other person helping him: his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), using her own advanced technology to help the trio out during a massive car chase. A powerful superhero only protected by women? Now that’s new.
“It isn’t like a typical thing where he’s surrounded by loads of guys. He has women who are there protecting him,” Wright said. “To us, it’s normal, especially in Wakanda, it’s so normal, but because it’s hardly seen in the world of cinema, everybody’s taking it like, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ and I’m so grateful. Hopefully it just continues to become the norm.”
The film also makes it clear that T’Challa conspicuously surrounds himself with women — it’s not just a matter of convenience because his sister is a woman or the Dora Milaje are made up only of women. “I thought that was so cool that these are people he can trust, and trusting people as a leader is no small thing,” Gurira said. “He chooses the team around him to be women, and that’s pretty awesome.”
Wright’s character in particular stands out, a self-assured genius who is able to use her prodigious gifts for the good of her people in clever and tangible ways. Shuri isn’t just some wonky lab geek, though, but a vibrant young woman who is blazing her own trail while also forging strong bonds with her family. The scenes of Shuri and T’Challa interacting are some of the film’s most emotionally rich, and it’s Wright that really makes them sparkle.
When asked if she’s ever read another part as well-rounded and compelling as Shuri, Wright was quick to answer: “No, never. No, never, never. I’ve not really, no, not at all. This was the first one, and this is the most exciting one, too. I was just really, really happy that she was written that way, really positive and well-rounded.”
Thompson also noted the range of women characters on display. “They’re all so different and layered, and complex, and funny, and beautiful, and strong,” she said. “I think every woman is going to see themselves inside one of those characters, whether they’re black, white, whatever. That’s so exciting.”
Thompson herself has a vested interest in Marvel getting hip to exciting new female characters, as she recently pitched an all-female Marvel movie to president Kevin Feige. Asked if they would want to participate in such a feature, both Gurira and Wright both said they’d happily be on board. “It’s pretty hard for me not to be interested in all-female stuff,” Gurira said with a laugh. “I think that’s always a very needed thing to see.”
Gurira, who has long been a passionate activist for the enrichment of women around the world, is focused on the message that the film can deliver to some of its youngest audience members.
“If in any way, shape, or form this film can empower a young girl, that’s everything to me,” Gurira said. “Even if it’s a mindset of hers being shifted or a realization of how to experience and express her own ferocity and femininity. Those sort of things, that sort of impact, if little girls have that and have images now to refer to that are cool and empowered and hip, that they can say, ‘Listen, I don’t have to fall into anyone else’s ideology of what I can be,’ that’s everything. That’s just everything.”
“Black Panther” hits theaters on Friday, February 16.