Chadwick Boseman struggled to catch his breath after he was cast as Black Panther. When he first tried on his spandex suit for 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” it felt too restricting. “It was suffocating,” recalls Boseman. “Literally, it closed off every possibility of air getting to you. I was in it, put the mask on. I said, ‘Hey, you got to get me out of this!’” By the time he headlined his own movie, as the first black Marvel superhero with his name on the poster, Boseman was more comfortable in his re-engineered costume. “I think it begins to feel like skin after a while,” says the 41-year-old actor. “But it takes time to get to that place.”

The same can be said for Disney’s long-awaited tentpole “Black Panther,” which opens in theaters on Feb. 16. For decades, actors, directors, producers and fans have wondered why Hollywood was so slow to bring black superheroes to the big screen. It’s not that there weren’t attempts along the way. In the ’90s, Warner Bros. had originally tapped Marlon Wayans to portray Robin in a “Batman” movie, before Chris O’Donnell landed the sidekick role. Wesley Snipes starred in the vampire superhero franchise “Blade,” which spawned two sequels. In 2004, Halle Berry headlined “Catwoman,” which was ridiculed by critics and tanked at the box office. And 12 years later, Will Smith, the co-star of the juggernaut “Men in Black,” popped up in “Suicide Squad” as the under-seen assassin Deadshot.

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Art Streiber for Variety

“Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler, is a movie that doubles as a movement, or at least a moment that feels groundbreaking in the same way that last year’s runaway hit “Wonder Woman” inspired millions of women. “Panther” marks the first time that a major studio has greenlit a black superhero movie with an African-American director and a primarily black cast, including Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright as Shuri, the princess of the fictional African country Wakanda.

The reality of this milestone isn’t lost on Coogler, the 31-year-old director of the Sundance darling “Fruitvale Station” and the “Rocky” sequel “Creed.” “I think progress comes in ebbs and flows,” Coogler says. “I hope things continue to open up. As more content gets made, more opportunities like ours can come about for folks. But you’ve got to put your foot on the gas when it comes to that or things can go back to where they were.”

“Black Panther” chronicles an origin story for a Marvel character who first made his debut in the comic books in 1966. On the big screen, he’s a warrior named T’Challa, who returns home to an Afro-futuristic country to inherit the throne as king. The release of the movie coincides with a crossroads in America. Racial tensions are heightened as a result of a president who continually makes reprehensible remarks about immigrants from nonwhite countries. “Black Panther” also arrives on the heels of #OscarsSoWhite, the two consecutive years (2015 and 2016) that the Motion Picture Academy failed to nominate any actors of color for awards.

Anticipation for the release of “Black Panther” is much higher than for the last outings from Batman and Thor. In May 2016, the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLIT started trending on Twitter as casting details around the movie emerged. “Panther” is poised to break box office records for February, a typically quieter time as audiences catch up on romantic comedies around Valentine’s Day. Marvel’s latest crown jewel is tracking to gross an estimated $150 million on its opening weekend. Strong business for “Black Panther,” which cost nearly $200 million to produce and roughly $150 million more to market, would send a clear message to the movie industry that certain communities are still widely underserved. While domestic ticket sales plummeted last year, the number of frequent African-American moviegoers nearly doubled to 5.6 million in 2016, according to a survey by the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

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Art Streiber for Variety

Some are paying attention. “Representation matters,” says Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, which owns Marvel. “It’s a powerful and important thing for people to know they are seen and to see themselves reflected in our films and the stories we tell.” Horn believes that “Black Panther” is part of a wave of change. “In terms of gender diversity, we’ve done very well,” he says, pointing to his studio’s own roster that includes “Beauty and the Beast,” “Coco” and the upcoming live-action “Mulan.” “When it comes to diversity reflecting color and ethnicity, I’d say yes, you will see more.”

That’s already starting to happen. In 2017, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” became a box office sensation, with $254 million in worldwide ticket sales (along with four Oscar nominations). In March, Disney unveils Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” a $100 million-plus adaptation of the popular novel by Madeleine L’Engle starring Oprah Winfrey and newcomer Storm Reid. Despite these high-profile titles, the idea that Hollywood is at a tipping point is maybe naive.

“To think that way disregards history,” says the Oscar-nominated DuVernay, who is friends with Coogler and passed on directing “Black Panther” before him. “If we’re talking about different films by black filmmakers coming out in a cluster, that’s happened again and again in the last 30 years.” She mentions such directors as Spike Lee, John Singleton, Troy Beyer and Kasi Lemmons. “I think the question for us is how to sustain that and make it a fact, not a trend.”

The Jan. 29 Los Angeles premiere of “Panther” wasn’t just another night out for Hollywood. “Every black person I talk to that’s going, the question is ‘What are you wearing?’” DuVernay told Variety during a phone call that morning. “It’s an event!” The enormous crowd of fans gathered outside, some in tears, suggested the history-making nature of the affair. Many of the cast wore African-themed garments as a nod to the “royal attire” requested on the invitation. “For people of color, a superhero — that’s something that we would hope for,” said actor Courtney B. Vance as he entered the theater. “For it to be here, it’s a testament that we can open a movie. It’s something that maybe encourages us. If we can do it here, we can do it elsewhere.”

Danai Gurira rehearses with Ryan Coogler on the set.
Courtesy of Marvel/Matt Kennedy

A few days prior, Coogler and Boseman met with Variety on a secluded road in Griffith Park. After doing all their own stunts for the photo shoot — including climbing a boulder in socks, which made a Disney publicist shriek with anxiety — the duo sat down for an interview about making “Black Panther.”

The two first met in 2015 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, when Boseman sneaked in during Coogler’s press junket for “Creed.” “It felt like we were going to be on the same page about what it was,” says Boseman, who like Coogler got his start in independent movies. Prior to Black Panther, Boseman portrayed baseball legend Jackie Robinson in “42” and soul icon James Brown in “Get On Up.” The actor studied Black Panther’s significance in popular culture. He tells a story about how he went to a local comic-book shop to buy back issues, even though Marvel would give them to him for free. He wore a hat and sunglasses as a disguise but was recognized when he returned for more reading material. “They were like, ‘This is the dude that’s playing the character!’” Boseman recalls.

Coogler realizes there is an overarching message in his films. “For me, in retrospect, I realized a lot of what I deal with as an artist is with themes of identity,” the director says. “I think it’s something common among African-Americans. For us, we’ve got a strange circumstance in terms of our view of ourselves.” He made a pilgrimage to Africa before he began shooting “Black Panther,” the first time he visited the continent. “I have to go if I’m making this movie,” Coogler says. “I’m not qualified just because I look like this.”

When asked if a white director could have made “Black Panther,” Boseman hesitates. “Well, is it possible for them to make it? It could be, yes. Would they have his perspective? Probably not. It wouldn’t be nuanced in the same way because they wouldn’t have the same conflict. They don’t have the African-American conflict that exists: Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you have an ancestry that is very hard to trace.”

Adds Coogler: “I tend to like movies where the filmmaker has a personal connection to the subject matter. I don’t know if you could find a group of films that deal with the Italian-American organized crime better than ‘Godfather 1,’ ‘Godfather 2,’ ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘Goodfellas.’ Show me a movie about Brooklyn better than ‘Do the Right Thing.’”

The journey of “Black Panther” to the big screen was a long process. In the early ’90s, Snipes wanted to play the role, even going as far as collaborating on a script and meeting with a series of directors. “We thought it would be something very cool and atypical for a Marvel comic-book character,” Snipes says. “Something that would appeal to white people, black people, Asian people, and have some martial arts in it. It would have been a culturally diverse shithole,” he says with a laugh, taking a jab at Donald Trump. The movie never took off. “At the time, there were no templates for it,” he says.

“Progress comes in ebbs and flows. You’ve got to put your foot on the gas when it comes … or things can go back to where they were.”
Ryan Coogler

When Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009, the first mandate was to create a world for the most popular characters, like Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk. However, fleeting references to Black Panther were made in the earlier films, even if we didn’t see him. It wasn’t until “Civil War” that Marvel producers had an entrance for the character. They needed a neutral figure who wouldn’t side with either Captain America or Iron Man.

As executives huddled, they thought of only Boseman for the role of Black Panther, based on his prior on-screen transformations. “I think it was 24 hours between saying his name in a creative story meeting and talking to his agent and getting on the phone with him,” says Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios. Although Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth and Chris Pratt all originally had to audition for their Marvel parts, Boseman got his offer on the spot without a reading. He accepted via speakerphone from Zurich, where he was doing press for “Get On Up.”

Actors are often afraid of being typecast as comic-book heroes, but Boseman didn’t worry about it. “I didn’t think that would be an issue, because of the other characters that I played,” he says. “I’ve already experienced a time period where I was nobody but Jackie Robinson. I’ve experienced times where I was Jackie Brown, because fans when they are excited, they have James Brown and Jackie Robinson on their mind.” Does it bother him? Not at all. “It’s funny,” he says.

Playing Black Panther meant Boseman had to enter a boot camp to understand the character physically and emotionally. He worked with a dialect coach to perfect a South African accent, and he took a DNA test to learn about his own origins. “One of the key factors was me getting a sense of my background,” he says. He spent as many as five hours a day in the gym, with a regimen that included weights, cardio and martial arts. “You can’t even stop,” says Boseman, who could slip in only two hours on shooting days. He also had to stick to a special diet. “At first, I was eating a lot of meat,” he says. “And then I felt it was too much for the amount of energy we needed to expend every day.” He wasn’t feeling agile. “So my diet became more vegetarian as we went along.”

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Art Streiber for Variety

Although Marvel films have a uniformly cookie-cutter vibe, Coogler persuaded executives to let him bring some familiar faces, including “Fruitvale Station” director of photography Rachel Morrison, “Creed” production designer Hannah Beachler and his longtime editor Michael Shawver. That’s led some reviewers to note that “Black Panther” has a more elevated vibe. “I feel like it’s definitely a Ryan Coogler film,” Boseman says. “There are certain choices that are made that are distinctly his stamp on it.”

On the Disney lot, during post-production, Coogler had a parking spot next to his pal DuVernay, who was wrapping up “Wrinkle.” “Ava is like my sister,” Coogler says. “I see her as our leader. The young filmmakers coming up right now, we look at Ava for our next move.”

Their doors faced each other in the same hallway, and they’d often bring in visitors to meet one another. Coogler introduced DuVernay to one of her heroes, the author Ta-Nehisi Coates. A short time after that, DuVernay called Coogler to the parking lot. The car windows rolled down — a certain someone wanted to say hello to him. Her name was Oprah. DuVernay laughs as she recalls the day, and says that fate brought both of them to their respective projects. “My heart wanted to do one thing,” she says. “His heart wanted to do something else. We were very lucky that we were able to do them side by side.”

There’s already been talk of the inevitable “Black Panther” sequel. Will Coogler be back in the director’s chair? “It’s too early to say about a second ‘Black Panther,’ but we certainly want him to come back,” Horn says about his directing other projects.

Boseman doesn’t want to speculate about other installments either. At least not yet. “I’m enjoying this moment,” he says. “If we start talking about sequels — if we do four of them, two of them, three of them — I just want them all to be special like this one.”

Meredith Woerner contributed to this story. Watch a behind-the-scenes video of the cover shoot below.