Marvel Studios' latest film, Black Panther, will mean different things to different people. For director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, it was a way to explore some of his deepest personal thoughts on identity and culture, but through the highly accessible entry point of a superhero movie.
"My whole life I've dealt with issues of identity," Coogler told io9. "Pretty much ever since my parents sat me down and told me I was black and what that means - which is a strange concept to explain to a child. I couldn't imagine having to do that myself. I don't have kids yet, but it's something that's necessary for you to know. As you get older, you've got to understand who you are and how people see certain conflicts. Or it could cost you your life, frankly."
Coogler's exploration of this weaves throughout the film but starts almost instantly in the film's second scene. Just when the audience expects to be introduced to the technologically advanced country of Wakanda, Coogler instead cuts to a much more unlikely location. In doing so, he quickly lets everyone know Black Panther is more than just a typical, fun, Marvel Studios movie. (Note: Minor spoiler ahead.)
After a brief prologue, the film opens in Oakland, California, circa 1992. "That was the first scene that I wrote," Coogler said. "Writing it was a test of what this movie could be." The scene has a few crucial goals, the first of which is a unique spin on the tried and true mantra that you can't judge a book by its cover.
"The interesting part about being black is until you open up your mouth, people don't know where you're from," Coogler said. "I thought it would be cool if you start on the scene in Oakland. You have these two black dudes, they talk and [you go] 'Oh, it's two black dudes from Oakland.' And then at some point the guy switches and starts talking with the African accent. 'Oh shit, wait, this dude's from Africa?' You realise, 'Oh yeah, I can't tell the difference. He [looks like] the same people you know.'"
That idea is something that fascinates Coogler in his daily life as well. "Like, I could be a black man dressed just like this, I open my mouth and I have an English accent like Idris Elba. 'Oh, this dude's British.' Or if I talk like I'm talking right now, 'OK, this dude's American.' Or if I open up my mouth and talk with an African accent, 'This dude's from the continent.' Just from looking at me, you can't tell. Which for me is so interesting," Coogler said.
In the Oakland scene, that idea is established once we realise where the character's African accent is from. Of course, it's Wakanda, and with that information comes the introduction of the Black Panther himself. But it's not T'Challa, the main character of the movie played by Chadwick Boseman. This is 1992 — so it's his father, T'Chaka (played at this younger age by Atandwa Kani). A distinction between the suit and the character was also a crucial message for Coogler.
"If you meet Chadwick first in that helmet, you think, 'Oh, the Black Panther is just this guy,'" he said. "But to be somebody else, [you think] 'Oh wait, this thing has been around. It's ancient. It's been passed down.' So that scene was a way to square all those things. Quick. Fast. It kind of served the language of the movie."
But that's just part of it. Oakland is also the birthplace of the Black Panther party of the 1960s. It's where Coogler grew up and where his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, went to college. Later in the movie, it becomes an even more crucial location.
"[Starting in Oakland] was never a question," Cold told io9. "That was Ryan. That's his heart. That was where that was going to be."
This world of Wakanda and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is right where Coogler wants to be. Though he said it was still too soon to talk about if he'd come back to make another Black Panther movie, there's no hiding what this movie means to him. "I made this movie for deep personal reasons," he said. "[And] the ownership that I feel over this film is insane. It feels like a part of me."