With its almost entirely black cast, director and lead writing team, an African setting and a titular hero offering an unapologetic nod to Huey P Newton, founder of the revolutionary Black Power political organisation of the 1960s, the film was a refreshing antidote to the #OscarsSoWhite movement that had begun after the 2015 ceremony’s winners were announced.
It went on to pick up three awards at the 2019 ceremony, although it missed out on Best Picture to Green Book. The results almost didn’t matter, though. Black Panther was there at the Oscars’ top table, and with its $1.3bn global box office it had put well-and-truly to bed Hollywood executives’ often-repeated argument that films starring or dealing with diverse ethnic groups “don’t sell”.
The film was guaranteed a sequel the minute the box office tills started ringing, if not before, but a lot has happened since 2018. Diversity is Hollywood’s new all-American — we’ve had Asian superheroes (Shang-Chi), African historical epics (The Woman King), and consecutive female winners of the Best Director Oscar in Chloe Zhao in 2021 and Jane Campion in 2022.
And then Black Panther died. Or rather Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played Marvel’s all-conquering King T’Challa, aka Black Panther, died of colon cancer in August 2020, which he'd silently struggled with since his diagnosis in 2016, long before Black Panther made its mark.
Unsurprisingly, the loss of the film’s central character, on and off-screen, made an indelible impression on the cast and crew as they returned to shoot the sequel.
Letitia Wright, who plays T'Challa’s sister Shuri, reveals that it was the first thing she discussed with returning director Ryan Coogler when the matter of getting back on set inevitably arose.
“We had that heart-to-heart conversation of ‘how do we take a step forward?’ A gentle step, because it's so raw,” she tells The National. “It was just Ryan talking me through how the different characters, the world, was going to expand, but also how we were going to grow.”
Wright says it's not only the film’s cast who have had to grow into to a world without their lead. As we return to the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, we find another Black Panther-shaped hole, as the kingdom’s citizens struggle to adapt to life without their figurehead, too.
Shuri is no exception and Wright says the grinning teenager we met in the first film has done a lot of growing up since. “We meet her in the first film and she is that ray of sunshine. She's clothed and protected in royalty and love, and so proud of her big brother following his father's legacy. I love Shuri in the first one because there was no limit to her. She was the person her brother went to for his protection, his armour.”
This time around, however, we can expect to see a darker side to the child prodigy inventor of Wakanda’s defensive armoury. “What does it look like when your heart is broken?” Wright posits. “How do we create a full arc of this human being? Of this young woman going through something alongside her family, and all Wakandans?
"I think with the way it was written, the gentleness of how we approached it [and Coogler's guidance], we were able to bring something that felt real, that felt truthful. I was able to really give my heart to it and give Shuri a full arc. Hopefully people can resonate with that and find some healing alongside us.”
Lupita Nyong'o, who plays T’Challa’s trusted lieutenant and former lover Nakia, concedes that she was fighting her own battle with the loss of her beloved co-star. In her case, the hardest part was perhaps that her character seems to be dealing so well with the situation in the new film. “I remember reading the script, and I was so envious of Letitia because she gets to be chaotic, and that's how I felt. I felt raw and wanted to express it, and Nakia is someone who is a little further along in terms of her processing,” she explains.
“It's not like she has it all figured out, but in the first film Ryan described her as T'Challa's oasis, and that really resonated with me. So when I was reading this script and thinking about where she is, I realised that what she was once to T'Challa, she now has the opportunity to offer Shuri, and that made a lot of sense in terms of the structure and architecture of the story.”
Just as Nakia is on hand as a tower of strength to Shuri in the film, Nyong'o says she hopes her character can serve a similar role for audience members who may still be struggling to process the loss of their onscreen hero.
“When we're talking about exploration of grief, it's grounding to have someone who is, I want to say, ‘befriending’ of the change, for the people in the story, but also for an audience. The fact that she was T'Challa's love, in a way, I guess it allows an audience to know that it's OK, you know? It's OK.”
Coogler is famously humble and, for most of the conversation, has been content to let his stars do the talking. It’s fitting, though, that the creative force behind Black Panther’s success should be the one to deliver perhaps Boseman’s ultimate epitaph.
The director explains that all of the film’s lead cast and even Rihanna, who performs the new film’s theme, were in some way introduced to him by Boseman. “Chad brought us all together, you know what I mean? He just keeps on giving.”
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is in UAE cinemas from November 10