How the director’s trip to Africa informed the making of his record-breaking blockbuster: “I wanted to explore what it means to be African”
It was late 2015, and director Ryan Coogler was feeling the call of Africa.
Coogler, then 29, was just finishing up his second film, the soon-to-be-a-hit Rocky reboot Creed. He was starting to think about what came next. “I was grappling with something I’ve kind of been scraping at my whole life,” Coogler recalls, “which is my cultural identity, and what it means to be African. I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work, getting ready to dive into that for personal reasons. And I’d been wanting to visit Africa,” he says. “I had never been, and I felt ashamed that I had never been. So I was like, ‘As soon I finish Creed, maybe [my wife] Zinzi and I can take that trip.’
“And then,” he says, “Marvel called.”
As millions of fans are now very aware, the studio was calling about Black Panther, currently demolishing box-offices worldwide. The film, about the titular superhero-king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, raked in nearly $250 million in the U.S. last weekend, the second-biggest four-day opening of all time (just after Star Wars: The Force Awakens). It has already grossed over $700 million globally, and it seems all but guaranteed to hit a billion at some point. Meaning what’s next for Coogler is now: whatever he wants.
Yet when Marvel called, Coogler was no blockbuster director, but a promising young filmmaker with just two features to his name: the aforementioned Creed, and 2013’s Fruitvale Station, the powerful story of the killing of a young black man by police in Oakland, which he made for just $900,000 – less than what Black Panther probably spent on catering. But the character and the world fit perfectly with the stories he always loved – first as a comic-book fan growing up in Oakland, and later as an aspiring student filmmaker at USC. “I wanted to tell epic stories, stories that felt big and fantastic,” Coogler says. “I liked that feeling as an audience member when it felt like I went on a flight and felt out of breath and I couldn’t stop thinking about it days later. I wanted to make stuff that gave people that feeling – but I wanted to do it for people who look like me and people I grew up with.”
Still, before signing on, Coogler took the time to what he calls “my due diligence” with the studio. “The biggest thing for me was the themes of the story – letting them know where my head was at and making sure they would get on board,” he says. “I was very honest about the idea I wanted to explore in this film, which is what it means to be African. That was one of the first things I talked about. And they were completely interested.”
And so Coogler booked a trip to Africa. His first stop was Cape Town. He didn’t know anyone, but he befriended an employee at his hotel and asked if he could visit the man where he lived, in a township called Gugulethu. “It was a life-changing experience,” he says. “I found out that his tribe – he was Xhosa – the rituals they do are very similar to things I do with my family. Like, almost identical.” He takes out his phone and plays a video of him sitting in a circle with a bunch of South African men, taking turns chugging from a bucket of beer. “That’s me at the Xhosa ritual with the elder men,” Coogler notes. “And if you go to our backyard, I promise it would look exactly like this.” To illustrate, he plays another video, this one of his family singing at a birthday party in Oakland. “You see what I mean?” he says. “It’s the same kind of fellowship. And I realized, ‘Oh yeah – African-Americans truly are African. It takes a lot more than what happened to us to take that out of us.'”