Kate Erbland | via IndieWire
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 force 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.”
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