City Press catches up with Black Panther's African stars in Jozi

Johannesburg - “Your culture in South Africa contributed so much to Black Panther. We’re so sorry we couldn’t be there with you,” said director Ryan Coogler of the country that inspired the first black superhero film.

Much of Black Panther’s wardrobe, computer-generated locations and art direction – as well as the isiXhosa spoken by the inhabitants of the fictional country Wakanda – were inspired by South Africa.

Coogler was addressing the excitable and brightly-dressed crowd at Montecasino in Joburg on Friday night by video. On stage, emcee Anele Mdoda called four of the film’s stars to join her: Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, John Kani and Connie Chiume.

In creating Wakanda, a secretive sub-Saharan African country, Coogler flipped the script on how Africa is portrayed in Hollywood.

While appearing to the world as a rustic, Basotho-inspired kingdom with quaint crafts for sale, the real Wakanda is cloaked from the world’s eyes by a technology driven by fictional metal vibranium. It is so advanced that uncolonised Wakanda is a peace-loving, gender-equal world leader that does not accept foreign aid. In fact, it is America that will ultimately need aid from Wakanda.

Catching up with Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o

Ahead of Friday’s release of the film, projected to rake in up to R2bn across the globe on its opening weekend, City Press interviewed Kenyan-raised Nyong’o and Zimbabwean-born-and-raised Gurira, who are today the world’s most sought-after and influential African stars.

The two are clearly delighted to bring a film to Africa that respects the continent and can inspire black children with superheroes that look like them. But it has taken decades of training and striving.

Not many know that the two are best friends who have known one another for over 11 years. Both studied acting – Gurira at New York University and Nyong’o at Yale University. Both were taught by the legendary Ron Van Lieu – and touted as significant talents.

“I first knew Danai professionally,” says Nyong’o. “She wrote [Emmy-winning play] Eclipsed when I was at Yale. It was the very first play that I understudied. Our friendship was born out of a creative professional relationship. And of course I fell madly in love with Eclipsed and swore to do it one day.”

The play, about women in a rebel war camp in Liberia, became Nyong’o’s Broadway debut.

“When we were working on Eclipsed, I was cast in Black Panther. But we didn’t know we were in it together.”

Gurira, who appears in horror TV series The Walking Dead, was frustrated by the “mangled” roles available to black women.

“The mission is to give women of African descent powerful, juicy roles to exercise their craft in, for goodness sake,” she says, adding how picky she became after that. It was her performance in Nigerian film maker Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George that drew Coogler’s eye. He had found his warrior chief Okoye.

The two describe a Black Panther set that was entirely collaborative, humble, hard-working; a place of bonding, not diva-ing, where their input was accepted and whole, rounded African woman characters could be crafted.

“There is a hunger for this kind of representation, this kind of cultural communion that is taking place with this film,” says Nyong’o. “Cinema is an opportunity to really affect popular culture and to shape agendas.”

Gurira adds: “It’s definitely a celebration of things that are very authentically from the continent. It is definitely something that sets a precedent. Now people can’t go back and do the whole distorted and marginalised version of Africa again.”

Catching up with John Kani and Connie Chiume

Chiume and Kani are elders of Wakanda, grand ancestors in the Marvelscape.

About the Hollywood premiere, Kani says: “You’d think that we were just going to walk across the red carpet because nobody knew who the hell we were. Then suddenly there’s screaming 'John! John!' and I thought you’re too young to be screaming John. Where do you know me from?”

Chiume adds: “Sometimes you watch these things from afar and you know that you might be there one day, but you don’t know when.”

About their TV work together in new drama series Thula’s Vine, Kani and Chiume say South Africa’s standards are up there with the world’s best – but not our budgets.

“For instance, I was told that $5m (R58m) was budgeted for costumes for Black Panther,” says Kani, chuckling. “That’s five South African movies.”

Chiume says the role she auditioned for was not gender-specific and she was the only woman in her group with the late Joe Mafela.

Kani rose to Black Panther through Captain America: Civil War. It was through him that isiXhosa became Wakanda’s language and you can bet that both will be seen in the Marvel Universe again.

The movie has only two white characters, one of whom is greeted as “Coloniser” when he enters the room. “This is one movie that bridges the gap across the Atlantic, from Africans in the motherland to Africans in the Diaspora,” says Kani. “We had an opportunity not only to make an action movie, but also to make a statement about who we are. Africa is no longer just a place to deliver aid to.”

The Johannesburg premiere followed the one in Kenya, in Nyong’o’s hometown of Kisumu earlier this week.

The cinema erupted with cheers when Babes Wodumo’s hit song Wololo was heard during one of the scenes.

“There is something beautiful about being an African in Africa at this moment. We are coming for everything,” Babes said after the film.

(Photos: City Press/Tebogo Letsie)