On Wednesday, The Knockturnal was on the scene for a special BAM screening of “Black Panther” at Harvey Theater in Brooklyn.
The screening was presented by OkayAfrica and D’usse. Notables in attendance included Spike Lee, Shaun Ross, Ty Hunter, Elle Varner and Chef Roble. After the screening, guests were treated to an insightful conversation with the film’s co-writer and director Ryan Coogler. It was moderated by OkayAfrica publisher Abiola Oke. Below are a few highlights from the talk.
On his initial conversations and meetings with Marvel:
Ryan Coogler: It started with Marvel Studios. What they do, under the guidance of Kevin Feige, is they try to adapt the comic books that they have the rights to. These books have been written for over 50 years. And from day one that the character was invented, it was always a story that dealt with political issues.The character himself is a politician. He’s an African King from a land that has autonomy and control of their resources and it has found a way to maintain their traditions. It’s a very political thing these days. For fifty years, writers have been adding to that lore, so it’s one of those things where to be true to the books, the film has to deal with those issues. It has to deal with the continent, it has to deal with colonization, it has to deal with Africa’s control of their resources, and an African that you’re not used to seeing in media, which is what T’Challa was. Over time, you had these amazing black writers who had custody of the characters … Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and right now it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. For me, being a fan of the books, and I think for Marvel Studios, and Nate Moore, a black man who was an exec on the project, we kind of had an understanding, when I first sat down to talk to those folks there, I said that we should explore these themes, and they were totally open to that. It was a collaboration and it was never an issue of ‘can we get this through or not.’ It was always something that we wanted to do on both sides.
On the complicated relationship African Americans have with Africa:
Ryan Coogler: I can remember having a conversation about my own identity when I was very young that my parents had to sit down and have the ‘you’re black’ conversation. It’s honestly a conversation that parents have to have in this country, and I think all over the world. It’s a real thing and people don’t understand. Not the fact that your skin is like this, but if you don’t understand that the world is gonna treat you a certain way because of that, and you have to be ready for that. You know, it could cost you your life if your parents don’t have that conversation with you. So I had that conversation at an early age, and I was a curious kid, so it was like ‘you’re African American’ and I was always big on ‘why?’ ‘what does that mean?’ So we come from the continent of Africa. We come from this place that you see on a map in school and you see on the globe at home. But I was in the Bay Area. I was as far away from the continent as you could be, and still finding black people, you know what I mean? The next question is ‘then, why are we in this place?’ So you gotta have the slavery conversation. And hear about how your people got to this place. Slavery is a heavy thing to tell a kid. And with our film and doing research and talking to some more friends and other folks is that with the heaviness, what was it like before that? What you get is this mythical idea of Africa. We were kings and queens, we had the best fruits and vegetables, nobody was sick. You could go wherever you wanted … Almost like a fantasy, like a mythical Africa. I think it’s alive in the African American. It’s no coincidence Stan Lee and Jack Kirby who invented these characters, they were two Jewish guys who came up in New York, surrounded by African Americans. They made contact into the zeitgeist here. What they were trying to do was a business move to pull African American readers into reading Marvel comics. So I think that in many ways Wakanda is wounded … You see these ideas of the continent that are African American fantasies that counterbalance this horrible thing that’s very tangible that happened to us.
So, my relationship with the continent was an interesting one. I grew up loving this place, and always wanting to go there. I remember watching Spike’s movies in the 90’s when Afrocentricity was big and you see they rock the leather, African medallions. I made my Dad go get me one. Like I said, we were really far, far away from the place and every image that you would see of the place, [in] the media … It was images that would make you feel ashamed, to be honest. As African Americans, we have a complicated relationship with the continent. And, the biggest thing is there’s an anger there … When you want to tap back into your history you keep meeting this wound. This wound that happened four hundred years ago. I got a German name. My last name is Coogler. It means maker of hooded clothes. This film was very much involved in our identity. The biggest thing that happened to me is that I went to college and I met people who were from the continent, who were my age and had come here for school, and I asked them questions. What’s it like? How come this is that way? How come that is this way? What I found out is that the Africa they were from was nothing like the Africa that was in my mind, but it was still beautiful none-the-less. What I really found out was that they needed to escape some of the same things that happened to us on the continent. For them, they were still on their homeland … They could count their history back to their ancestors, but they still got hit by colonization, which is the cousin of slavery, what happened to us. I found that we had so much in common. The biggest thing that saved me was this movie. And I had a lot of pain inside me due to not being able to know my ancestry. I wanted to be able to access that wound. What we were talking about was that we would talk about our own African American culture [as] a bastardized culture. We lost the things that made us African. We don’t have them anymore. We’ve got to make due with the scraps. When I sat down with Marvel and I said for me to write this script, I need to go to the continent. I need to go, like right now. They were like, ‘go.’ And I went. It started in South Africa it was really cause Chadwick and John Kani they speak Xhosa, the dialect on the continent.
On his collaborative process with the cast and allowing for changes in the dialogue:
Ryan Coogler: Look, I think filmmaking is incredibly difficult … I use a lot of sports analogies. I grew up playing sports. It’s a lot like being a coach. I could draw the plays up all day but I can’t go on the field… I don’t now how Spike used to do it, he used to act in his own stuff, but I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine making Malcolm X and spending 30-35% of the time in front of the lens too on film with no digital playback. I’m overwhelmed every time I step on a film set and I know that for the audience to engage, they’re not engaging with me. They’re engaging with the actors. If it’s not working if it’s not feeling real for them, then what are we doing it for? What I try to do is cast actors that are really really talented of course, but also actors that understand storytelling, that are really sharp. The last thing you want to do is be in Avid months later and just pulling your hair out. I’d rather take the five or ten minutes on the day to get it right.
On the strong female characters portrayed in the film and universe:
Ryan Coogler: The women of Wakanda have always been very interesting, very prominent. All of the characters we have in the film are based on characters that exist in the books. We changed a few of them, in terms of their function in Wakanda but they were always there. I think that we wanted to make an African story. What you see in an African community is that women tend to hold it down, they tend to be the ones that I hope will further the cause of the community. So we wanted to highlight that and Wakanda is an interesting place. It’s an ideal place that’s ahead of the curve I think and T’Challa has a way of empowering the women around him so they reach their maximum potential. They come from being themselves, they come finding their own land and they support him tremendously. That was something that was exciting for us. That’s something that makes T’Challa different from other heroes the fact that he’s surrounded by his people like this.
After the screening, guests headed to a reception at BAMcafé. Guests were treated to delicious cocktails, a photo booth, and African tunes.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Black Panther will open Friday at the Steinberg Screen at BAM’s Harvey Theater.
Photo Credit: Travis Matthews (@bamcinematek)