When director Ryan Coogler started work on a sequel to his celebrated hit film, Black Panther (2018), he based it around the loss of time. The initial premise for the sequel, which takes place after Avengers: Endgame (2018), would’ve seen King T’Challa aka Black Panther deal with the repercussions of his return after being blipped for five years.
In case you needed a reminder, half of all living beings in the universe were erased by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, and the King of Wakanda was one of those who disappeared. The sequel would’ve centered on T’Challa grieving over that loss of time, but as it turned out, life had other plans.
Chadwick Boseman, the actor who brought the Black Panther to life, passed away in 2020 due to a previously undisclosed cancer condition, and with no desire to recast the role of T’Challa, Coogler had to scrap his original plans and write an entirely new script.
As it turns out, the new film would still center on loss but this time, the movie will accurately reflect the real loss of Boseman as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever would focus on the loss of a King, a brother, a son, a superhero and a friend.
“The shock turned into ‘What do we do? What should we do? Should we do anything?’ and I think relatively soon, it was determined that this amazing ensemble of characters and this world that had been created on screen needed to continue, and Ryan pours everything and all of himself into everything he does, and had been working for almost a year on a version of the movie with T’Challa in it,” said Marvel President Kevin Feige at a press conference for the film that Geek Culture attended.
“And then when we lost Chad, all of that obviously was then poured into this movie as well, and keeping the idea of a celebration of Wakanda and the character at the forefront in addition to the grief, that, of course, is going to come with it.”
The creators felt like the only respectful way of honouring Boseman’s legacy is to be as honest as possible about his passing in the sequel, and for the characters within the world of Black Panther to be affected by that loss too.
Producer Nate Moore wanted to showcase the various stages of grief experienced by those closest to King T’Challa in Wakanda Forever – but that’s not the only grief and loss felt in the movie. The film introduces Marvel Comics’ first mutant, Namor, but unlike his comic book origins as the prince of undersea kingdom Atlantis, the film has Namor be the king of underwater kingdom Talokan, which was designed based on Mesoamerica and Mayan culture. The producer states that grief was also explored through Talocan’s history with colonisation, and the violence they had to endure before fully seeking abode under the sea.
“I think as storytellers, you just want to be as honest as possible with what the characters would experience in the film after they experienced the loss of T’Challa and it is not just grief, it’s also sometimes joy, sometimes humour. it is all the emotions anyone feels with any profound loss,” explained Moore.
“But we had such a collection of talent and such a collection of characters who all have a different point of view with that loss that I think Ryan found ways to express all the different colours of grief through that the ensemble (cast). And that’s not just the Wakandans by the way, but it’s the loss Namor and Talacon feel because of the loss of their homeland.”
This approach made sense to director Coogler, who states that the process and collaboration on Wakanda Forever was healing not just for him, but for the returning cast, which includes Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, Letitia Wright as Shuri, Winston Duke as M’Baku, Danai Gurira as Okoye, and Martin Freeman as Everett Ross. He was grateful that the movie allowed all those involved to lean on each other for support, and to process their grief in a safe and loving space.
“That’s one of the great things when you get to do a series of films, is that you get to have these mini-reunions. Four years have passed and it was just great to see everybody again and catch up and see how everyone had grown. We were also coming off of a pandemic – we actually started the film right smack in the middle of it – and I think everybody experienced a sense of loneliness during the years that followed,” noted Coogler.
“It was just great to see some of these folks and give them a big giant hug again. We were all processing these feelings of grief and loss, but it’s great we don’t have to do it alone, you know? We’re able to build that sense of community, and we’re able to welcome new members.”
While many of the stars had an opportunity to reflect on the loss experience by their character, it was no mystery that some did so more than others, including Queen Ramonda and her daughter, Shuri, the Crown Princess of Wakanda and T’Challa’s little sister. The grief of losing her brother created a huge shift in her personality as when fans first met her in Black Panther movie, she was a light, so bright and full of joy. Here, she has become consumed by anger.
“We meet her in the first film and she is that ray of sunshine. She’s so clothed and protected in royalty and love and proud of her big brother taking this step following on his father’s legacy, and she just wants to create. I love Shuri in the first one because there was no limit to her as well. She was the person her brother went to for protection, she was his armour, and he encouraged her, her family encouraged her to be a genius and to be fearfully and wonderfully made,” reminisced Wright.
“So we follow on from that – ‘What does that look like when your heart is broken?’ – and I think it was just Ryan’s guidance on how do we create a full arc of this human being, of this young woman going through something alongside her fellow family members, general and Wakandans and I think, the way it was written, and the delicacy the gentleness, we were able to bring something that felt real, that felt truthful, and I was able to really give my heart to it and give Shuri a full arc and hopefully people can really resonate with that and find some healing alongside us with it.”
Nakia, on the other hand, processed death in a different way. Where the royal princess Shuri was always angry and heartbroken, Nakia was much calmer and grounded. Nyong’O was initially unhappy with this particular portrayal of Nakia, especially since Nakia was T’Challa’s lover as much as Nyong’O was a close friend to Boseman.
“I remember like in the beginning, reading the script, and I was so envious of the decision because Shuri gets to be chaotic and that’s how I felt! I felt raw and wanted to express it and Nakia is an example of someone who’s just a little further along in terms of her processing. It’s not like she’s 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 and so when I was reading the script and thinking about where she is, I realized that what she once was to T’Challa, she now has the opportunity to offer to Shuri,” shared Nyongo.
“And it made a lot of sense in terms of the structure and architecture of the story. When we’re talking about the exploration of grief, it’s really 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 and the fact that she was T’Challa’s love in a way I guess it allows the audience to know that it’s okay,’ she explained.
“And as much as I was frustrated with Ryan, with doing that with Nakia, actually playing her was very therapeutic for me because I had to look beyond my frustrations with losing Chadwick and learn from her. Learn from that wisdom that she seems to possess and for that I’m really grateful to Ryan.”
It was also a similar feeling for Gurira, who plays Wakanda’s most fearless general, Okoye. For the first time, viewers will see a different side of the fan favourite character who has long been portrayed as strong and willful. Just like Nyong’O, Gurira was initially not pleased with this new development in her character, especially after all she’s done to protect Wakanda, even going against her own husband to protect the Crown at one point.
“Well, you know, there are two sides of me. There’s the side that’s like ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! Do we have to?’. That definitely came out when I first heard it, and then the other side took over and understood that this was actually great and I’m very thankful for the idea that these characters get to explore so many facets of their humaneness. I think that is something that is crucial, honestly, with the platform that’s presented is that we see the kaleidoscope of their humaneness, and the world gets to see that because it isn’t very common,” said Gurira.
But in time, Gurira too understood why it was necessary. Okoye, after all, is grieving as well, so throughout filming, Gurira kept Boseman close to her heart and allowed the memories she has of him to guide her in her portrayal.
“I think in direct contrast with what Nakia was going through, I felt quite displaced in the process and I think that was connected to what my character was experiencing. And that was connected to the loss of our brother so the key thing that anchored me was the goal of honouring him and the way he loved,” continued Gurira.
“He loved excellency, he loved to see us shine and love to see us do our thing and we would go to him and say, ‘What do you think about this? What do you think about my character?’ and he would always give us so much encouragement about doing great things, and he had such great taste. So, you know, I think that was really an anchoring aspect throughout the process for me.”
These themes of grief were also explored in the movie’s soundtrack. Performed by Rihanna, Lift Me Up is a raw and emotional ballad that carries the grief of a mother. Coogler felt that the award winning singer was the right person to carry those emotions, especially after being a new mother herself. The movie’s trailer also moved the singer to take up the project.
“Rihanna has given us a whole career, a catalogue of music and now she’s given us you know, makeup and clothing and I think the world would understand if she hung up her mic. But the truth is, we were looking for a great artist who could tell the story of the film, embrace the themes of the film, and present them to the audience in a different packaging. That’s what Kendrick (Lemar) did so beautifully with the first film, and this film is different! it made sense that it would be a woman in the sense that it could be someone to speak to not necessarily the words, but the feeling of motherhood because that’s a major theme in this film,” explained Coogler on Rihanna’s contribution to the film.
“I think it timed up that she was in that kind of space in her life and she was open. It was really the trailer. I think that when she saw the performances that everybody was putting down in the trailer, it kind of put her over the edge and she said ‘Hey, I want to see this film. I want to see if I can figure this out,’ and we collaborated with this incredible singer.”
Lift Me Up also marks Rihanna’s first song since her hiatus from music in 2020. A lot of love and effort were put into the making of the track. Rihanna, Nigerian singer Temilade Openiyi and Coogler himself wrote and composed the song for Wakanda Forever. The song was recorded in three different continents and when the track was finally completed, Rihanna admitted that she agreed to do it out of love and honour for Boseman.
Whilst sharing what it was like to collaborate with Rihanna, the director began tearing up and expressed how Boseman is the reason why the Black Panther cast existed in the first place. That without him, Coogler would not have been able to cross paths with the likes of Nyong’O.
“The truth is, once she played us the record, she said straight up, ‘I did it. I did this for Chad’. It was him. Sitting here thinking about this is hitting me right now, these four actors that are next to me, I watched you guys work way before I knew you. I remember seeing y’all work and saying, man, I’d love to work with them someday. Huerta Tenoch in Sin Nombre, that’s the first time I saw you; Danai, Mother of George; Lupita, we came up together with 12 Years and Fruitville. At the same time, I saw you in My Brother the Devil, 2012 – and Chad brought us all together. He just keeps on giving,” shared an emotional Coogler.
“So I’m just really thankful that Rihanna was the latest gift to join the family and can’t wait for folks to see how it’s used in the film.”
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now showing in theatres.