Wakanda Awaits: meet the characters of Black Panther
Get to know the heroes and villains of this Marvel adventure
By Jedd Jong
Filmgoing audiences were introduced to Prince T’Challa/the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War. The Black Panther movie, directed by Ryan Coogler, takes us to T’Challa’s home country of Wakanda. The technologically-advanced African nation has harnessed the rare mineral Vibranium, derived from a meteorite that crashed there millions of years ago.
Black Panther is the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and kicks off its tenth anniversary – the first MCU film, Iron Man, was released in 2008.
The character is the first superhero of African descent to appear in mainstream American comics. Black Panther debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966, and was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. Writers including Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates and artists including John Romita Jr., Brian Stelfreeze and Denys Cowan have worked on the Black Panther title.
The Black Panther film is already receiving rave reviews, with some calling it the best film in the MCU so far. The first Marvel film with a predominantly black cast, Black Panther is making an impact on the landscape of comic book films in a similar way that Wonder Woman did last year.
Before the movie whisks you off to Wakanda, here’s a primer on the characters you will meet there.
#1: T’CHALLA/BLACK PANTHER (Chadwick Boseman)
Chadwick Boseman has portrayed pioneering figures in African-American history in several biopics: baseball legend Jackie Robinson in 42, the godfather of soul James Brown in Get On Up and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Marshall. “The projects that I end up doing…have always been projects that will be impactful, for the most part, to my people — to black people,” Boseman said. “To see black people in ways which you have not seen them before. So Black Panther was on my radar, and in my dreams.”
Boseman studied with a dialect coach to perfect a South African accent, and underwent an intense physical training regimen with martial artist Marrese Crump to perform the fight scenes. The film sees T’Challa struggle with the loss of his father, as he tries to keep the growing civil unrest in Wakanda under control – and face a challenger to his claim for the throne.
#2: ERIK STEVENS/KILLMONGER (Michael B. Jordan)
While Michael B. Jordan was in the critically-savaged Fantastic Four reboot, that did not scare him off taking on another role in a comic book movie. Like Chris Evans before him, who also played the Human Torch in two earlier Fantastic Four films, Jordan gets a second chance with a different Marvel character.
Jordan starred in Coogler’s earlier films Fruitvale Station and Creed, reuniting with the director as the main villain Killmonger. Killmonger is a Wakandan exile who became an American black-ops soldier, and believes that the Wakandan throne is rightfully his. Jordan described the character as “somebody you guys can root for,” calling him “a revolutionary.” Jordan repeated the adage that the villain believes he’s the hero of his own story. “If you can kind of get [the audience] to see that other point of view, I think the battle’s won,” Jordan remarked. Having already played a boxer in Creed, Jordan brought some of that physicality to Killmonger, saying that Coogler’s action scenes “tell a story with each punch”. Jordan also had to learn how to be handy with guns – “the weapons training is a totally different muscle,” he said.
#3: NAKIA (Lupita Nyong’o)
Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, a Wakandan intelligence operative and the ex-girlfriend of T’Challa. As a ‘war dog’, Nakia goes undercover on foreign soil, risking her life for the safety of her country. Nakia is one of several memorable female characters featured in the film. Nyong’o describes Nakia, who hails from Wakanda’s River Tribe, as “determined and methodical” and having “a quiet power”. Nyong’o asserts that Nakia is “she’s not your average love interest,” and that she and T’Challa have “a complicated past.”
“Wakanda is where we could be, where women are occupying their space in the future of a nation, they’re contributing equally and they’re allowed to realize their full potential and a woman’s power does not diminish a man’s,” Nyong’o observed. Nyong’o signed on without even reading the script, having admired Coogler’s previous work. After reading the script, she said she “couldn’t even believe it was a Marvel film, because it was so poignant, so politically and socially awake and aware.” The character’s fighting style is informed by judo, jiu-jitsu, silat and Filipino martial arts. She also learnt Korean for a scene set in Busan.
#4: OKOYE (Danai Gurira)
Danai Gurira, best known as silent badass Michonne on The Walking Dead, plays yet another commanding character: Okoye, the leader of the elite Dora Milaje bodyguard corps. Gurira was drawn to “the idea of protecting the leadership of this nation, the sovereignty of this nation, even if you don’t like what’s happening,” of putting country before personal politics – a dilemma that Okoye finds herself in.
Gurira describes Okoye as a traditionalist, saying “She has a pride and a patriotism about her nation. It goes beyond patriotism; it’s something even deeper.” Gurira spoke about travelling to Zimbabwe and seeing how excited the people there were about Black Panther. Musing on the impact the film will have on children of African descent all over the world, Gurira said “they’re in the centre of the screen, their faces are what you’re seeing. Their perspectives, their struggles, their stories, their characters, their destinies. That’s what we’re focused on, and their heroism.”
#5: SHURI (Letitia Wright)
Many reviews have noted Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister, as the scene-stealer of the film. Shuri is a 16-year-old genius scientist and inventor, who has devised cutting-edge technology to aid her brother’s crime-fighting efforts. Chief of these is a new suit which can harness and redistribute kinetic energy from strikes, and which fits into a necklace. In the comics, Shuri assumes the mantle of the Black Panther after her brother is grievously wounded in combat. Coogler says that Shuri’s genius is “on par with Tony Stark”.
Letitia Wright, who is being called the film’s breakout star, was recently seen in the fourth season of Black Mirror and will next be seen in Ready Player One. Wright was inspired to become an actress after watching the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee. While she describes herself as being “obsessed” with acting, faith was ultimately where she found her centre. “I don’t really consider myself religious. I view it more as a relationship,” she said, adding that she doesn’t mind if anyone finds that “weird”. And if anyone thinks that’s weird, then okay.” Wright says Shuri has “an innovative spirit and an innovative mind,” and as the embodiment of the future of Wakanda, “wants to take Wakanda to a new place”.
#6: RAMONDA (Angela Bassett)
The regal Ramonda, Queen Mother of Wakanda, is played by Angela Bassett. She too is reeling from the death of T’Chaka, her husband, but always appears calm and composed. In addition to being his mother, Ramonda is also one of T’Challa’s most trusted advisors. “It’s a lot of strength and balance and beauty and I’m just thrilled by getting to work with Danai and Lupita and actresses and brand new faces across the diaspora, it was beautifully cast,” Bassett said, adding that “it’s going to be quite a sight and I think it’s going to be magnetic.” Bassett played Amanda Waller in Green Lantern, and turned down the role of Storm in X-Men. This knowledge is wont to make one feel a little weird, since Storm and T’Challa ended up getting married in the comics.
#7: ULYSSES KLAUE (Andy Serkis)
Andy Serkis reprises his role from Avengers: Age of Ultron as the cutthroat South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. Serkis’ company The Imaginarium was working with James Spader and Mark Ruffalo for the motion capture work, when director Joss Whedon invited Serkis to play the role of Klaue.
When we last saw him, Klaue had his arm cut off by Ultron, and it’s now been replaced with a Vibranium cannon. “He’s got a humorous side to him, he’s got a sense of humour. But he’s equally very deadly and he’s quite mercurial and transitions emotionally very quickly,” Serkis said. Audiences are more used to seeing Serkis portray characters via performance capture, so this is the rare blockbuster in which he gets to show his real face.
#8: EVERETT K. ROSS (Martin Freeman)
CIA agent Everett K. Ross first appeared in Captain America: Civil War, helping to capture the film’s villain Zemo. Martin Freeman reprises the role here. Ross crosses path with T’Challa in Korea, and winds up travelling to Wakanda himself, where he finds himself in the thick of the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger. Freeman and Serkis are the only two white actors in the main cast. “Making the film, it’s not lost on you. You think, ‘right, this is what black actors feel like all the time.’ And Andy wasn’t there often, so I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the white guy. And I’m the English white guy’,” Freeman recalled. Freeman reunited with Serkis, whom he worked with on the Hobbit movies in which Freeman played Bilbo opposite Serkis’ Gollum/Smeagol.