Marvel’s new superstar knows that Hollywood’s first true black blockbuster will open doors. But the man who has played Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall also knows the film’s debts to the pioneers who came before
Black Panther was always going to represent a watershed moment in popular culture. With a young African-American director, Ryan Coogler, a predominantly black cast and a whopping $200m budget, the new Marvel movie is cinema’s first true blackbuster. That it is also an excellent superhero film as well – witty, thrilling and provocative – almost feels like a bonus. No wonder its 41-year-old star, Chadwick Boseman, is sitting pretty when I meet him. He has the laid-back demeanour of a man justifiably confident that the work will speak for itself. You might even say there is something regal about him, unless that’s just the role spilling over into the room. For when Black Panther is not leaping off buildings and on to speeding cars, intercepting arms deals that could unleash anarchy on the world, he is king of the (fictional) African country Wakanda. He may be known as Panther to his fellow Marvel Avengers but T’Challa is the name on his library card.
Boseman had already had a brief outing as the character two years ago in the hell-for-leather melee of Captain America: Civil War. But it is only now in the new picture that he gets a chance to explore the nuances of T’Challa and Panther when tensions arise between maintaining the prosperity of Wakanda and doing the right thing for the world at large. The pensive, molten-eyed actor, born and raised in Anderson, South Carolina, has form playing legendary figures. He was Jackie Robinson, the first major league African-American baseball player, in the by-the-books drama 42, as well as Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice, in the dreary Marshall. Get On Up, in which he played James Brown as a devilish and occasionally menacing sprite, was a slight improvement. Black Panther, though, is the only one of Boseman’s movies to be as compelling and distinctive as he is.
First, though, the matter of how to address him. “What do you think people call me?” he laughs, then suggests “CB4”, an allusion to the influential 1990s hip-hop comedy starring Chris Rock. “Chad’s fine,” he decides. And he looks it. A pale pink bomber jacket is zipped to the throat and decorated with what appear to be rhinestones. His white trainers gleam. He smooths down his black pinstriped trousers with his palms. Though he seems like he could take anything in his stride, he admits to feeling pressure while shooting Black Panther.
“Most of it you put on yourself,” he explains. “It’s not like it’s actually coming from outside. I think we all placed that pressure on ourselves with this cos we knew what the opportunity was. Everyone knew this was something that had not been done before. So you have to get it right. It’s a big movie and a big investment has been placed in you. You wanna accomplish something because it might not happen again if you don’t do it right. Everyone felt that. Ryan certainly did; he lost a lot of sleep over it. We all knew this was unique. You’re not thinking: ‘Don’t screw it up,’ exactly. It’s more positive than that. It’s more like: ‘Seize it. Enjoy it.’” He says he still does not know whether the weight has lifted. “It’s like when you’ve been carrying a heavy backpack, after a while you forget it’s there. You get used to it.” His grin says he can handle it.
Any pressure must have been allayed by the sparkling script (by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole), which seamlessly interlaces humour, action and social commentary. “It’s a story that doesn’t let anyone off the hook,” the actor explains. “Take Wakanda, this technologically advanced nation that has never been conquered and enslaved. The movie asks: well, if you’ve never been colonised, then what were you doing while that was happening to the rest of Africa? You had to just be watching, right?” There are prominent references to slavery and to the theft of African artefacts, while one of the only white characters (a CIA agent played by Martin Freeman) is referred to casually as “coloniser”. Boseman smiles at that. “If you’re a kid and you don’t know what’s meant by ‘coloniser’, maybe you’ll be, like: ‘Hey, what is that? Let me find out …’”
The film is already being regarded in the US as a positive force for social change; the activist Frederick T Joseph has grabbed headlines by raising money through a GoFundMe campaign called Help Children See Black Panther, which Joseph has said is about promoting “stories and content that’s combatting the rhetoric and racism of the Trump administration”. That sort of action certainly eclipses its mean-spirited equivalents, such as the Facebook group established with the intention of lowering the film’s score – currently at 97% fresh – on the Rotten Tomatoes site. (That page was shut down by the social media company.)
Does he get a sense that Black Panther is expected to solve Hollywood’s diversity issues in one fell swoop? “No, because this is one of many things that have happened over the past few years. This moment has been building.” He cites Selma, Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed Martin Luther King drama, as well as the same director’s upcoming Disney fantasy-adventure A Wrinkle in Time. He mentions TV shows such as Insecure (based on Issa Rae’s web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl) and Donald Glover’s oddball hip-hop comedy-drama Atlanta; as well as Dee Rees’s Netflix feature Mudbound, nominated for four Oscars (including a historic first female cinematographer nomination for Rachel Morrison, who also shot Black Panther). “So I don’t feel like it’s all on Panther to solve the problem. Panther is actually the result of all the other things that have happened before.” He is certain that the movie will have a transformative effect. “Other things will undoubtedly happen because of what we’ve done. This is just another doorway into something else, just as there are so many things that have gotten us to this point.”
He is right. But DuVernay, in a recent interview, cautioned against regarding the current situation as any sort of tipping point in Hollywood. “To think that way disregards history,” she said. “If we’re talking about different films by black film-makers coming out in a cluster, that’s happened again and again in the last 30 years. I think the question for us is how to sustain that and make it a fact, not a trend.”
So how does Boseman think diversity can become second nature in the industry, once #OscarsSoWhite is just something we get nostalgic about 10 years from now?
“Quality film-making is the key,” he says. “You don’t wanna do films with black casts and directors just for the sake of doing it. Critical acclaim and commercial success is the goal. Also the way we work together as artists; giving to one another and sharing in the work. That’s what a renaissance is: artists who wanna be around each other and work together. It won’t be a fad as long as that love and community continues to exist. And it’s about people. Not the studios or the word ‘Hollywood’. Most people wouldn’t even know that Nate Moore is black, but he’s one of the shot-callers at Marvel. It’s not just the black people, though. The fact that you have someone like Kevin Feige [president of Marvel Studios] and Alan Horn [chairman of Disney], who are white, is important because they’re progressive thinkers. Everybody’s minds are opening up, people are more conscious than they used to be.”
If this feels like a beauty contest speech, with Boseman mere seconds away from declaring his hopes for world peace and an end to all suffering, it is chastening to remember that there is a fly in the ointment. It comes up when I mention a crucial speech at the end of the film. “In times of trouble,” T’Challa declares in the final scene, “the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.” Whether these are metaphorical barriers or the sort that keep Mexicans out of the US, this can only be a reference to one man. I put it to Boseman that this is T’Challa’s big anti-Trump speech. This is Marvel versus the White House – right?
He rocks in his seat, eyes twinkling. “Heh heh heh. I guess it is. I don’t know. I would say it’s certainly ironic that you can point to it.” Then a switch flicks and he’s back toeing the party line, selling the product. “That idea of Wakanda was written in the 1960s so again this story is, you know, uh, we’re just trying to fulfil the needs of this story and if Wakanda hasn’t been conquered and other people haven’t got in, then you have to ask yourself what it’s been doing. It isn’t like we were trying to point to Trump.”
It seems pertinent in the light of the movie’s full-blooded celebration of African culture to wonder where Wakanda might fit into the president’s view of that continent’s “shithole countries”. When I enquire after Boseman’s reaction to that recent, inflammatory remark, his mood shifts. His face tightens, his diction becomes clipped. The laughter from seconds ago feels like a distant memory. “I didn’t care, to be honest with you. I don’t judge myself based on what he or anybody else says. My view of Africa is based on my pursuit of it, and my connection to it, and for me the continent is glorious. The greatest resources are there. Its history and accomplishments are among the greatest in the world. What do I care what anybody has to say about it?”
As an American, isn’t it a source of shame to hear the president referring to Africa in those terms? “As an African-American,” he says, gently correcting me, “things like that have happened throughout our history. So it’s not like it’s something I don’t expect.” Confident that his point has been made, he sits back and calm is restored.
Before our time is up, I ask if he fears that Black Panther and the attendant hoopla might overshadow the rest of his career. It is encouraging that he will star in Expatriate, a hijacking drama which he also co-wrote, to be directed by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight). But he also has two other expensive, time-consuming Avengers movies on the horizon – Avengers: Infinity War, out in April, plus another instalment next year, which is currently in production. These will have to be promoted around the world, just like Black Panther, inevitably giving him less time to act. If he is fazed, he doesn’t show it. “I’ve been making choices in my career in a certain way and I don’t feel like this has taken me outside of that. It isn’t that the rest of me is fitting under the umbrella of Panther. Panther’s just fitting inside what I’ve already made for myself.” Spoken like a king. Black Panther is in cinemas now
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