Playback: Ryan Coogler on ‘Black Panther’ and What It Means to Be African

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Ryan Coogler is the center of the universe this week. The sky is apparently the limit for his bold, block-busting, record-smashing Marvel Studios tentpole “Black Panther,” which sits at $270 million domestic just six days into release. Before the whirlwind reception, which drew an emotional open letter from the writer-director to the masses who made history with him, Coogler sat down for a conversation covering the personal passions that drove him in making one of Marvel’s most successful launches to date, just shy of the company’s 10-year anniversary.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

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“For me this opportunity was unique because I could make something I truly hadn’t seen before,” Coogler says. “As an African American, our history with the continent is very fraught. We’re not generally able to tie our lineage back as a result of a very specific traumatic experience that happened to us. So how we learn about the continent is skewed through that lens, through that relationship, and how we learn about ourselves is skewed. There was a gap in my own identity. So in many ways this is my most personal film.”

Coogler traveled to Africa for the first time while prepping the film, and unsurprisingly, it was an inspiring trip. He went to South Africa, spurred by the Xhosa language spoken by Chadwick Boseman and John Kani in “Captain America: Civil War,” then to the land-locked Lesotho, which became a model for Wakanda in “Black Panther.” He went to Kenya, hosted by actress Lupita Nyong’o’s family, and there he began to better grasp general human connections to the continent. He ultimately came to understand an entire identity that could be better represented in pop culture.

“You see representations of this place in media, and a lot of times, the representations that you see are sources of shame,” Coogler says. “You see starving children, people that are in need of aid from other places, strife — they aren’t things that will make you feel proud. What I discovered — it’s kind of what I knew all along — is that to be African just means to be human. It means you love art so much that you put it everywhere. You put it on your clothes. You’ll put it on your body. And you’ll make art out of anything. If you’ve only got dirt and wood and sticks, you’re going to find out how to make art out of that. To be African is to be beautiful, is to love your family so much that even when they die, you still don’t let them go; you talk about them as if they’re still right there. To be African is to love to dance and to dance until you can’t move anymore and still dance some more. And you can say that about any human being, because that’s where all human beings come from. It’s scientifically proven. So to be African is just to be human. For whatever reason, I hadn’t seen much media that showed that. So it was really exciting to be able to explore that on this canvas.”

Given that Coogler is still very much focused on getting this massive undertaking out into the world, he’s ambivalent to think too far ahead. One pressing project on his plate, however, is “Wrong Answer,” which tells the complex true story of the 2014 teacher cheating scandal at Atlanta public schools. Coogler’s frequent collaborator Michael B. Jordan is attached.

“It’s an incredible story,” Coogler says. “It’s about an amazing guy named Damany Lewis who is actually from Oakland. It’s a story about a person who finds their calling, which is educating kids, but is in a system that is so broken that they, for whatever reason, only see one way to do their job, which is to do something illegal. It’s a heartbreaking story but incredibly interesting and awe-inspiring. I hope I get to make it.”

For more, including talk of Ruth E. Carter’s eye-popping costume designs on “Black Panther,” Coogler’s first experiences with the character in comic books and why he won’t be directing “Creed 2,” listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

Ryan Coogler photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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