The Heartache and Hope of ‘Wakanda Forever’: Why Ryan Coogler Put the Focus on Chadwick Boseman’s Favorite Character
Forced to rethink the sequel to the Marvel blockbuster after Boseman’s death, Coogler and his collaborators came together to make a movie filled with grief, sadness — and optimism: "It's about rebirth." (Spoilers ahead!)
[This story contains spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.]
The weekend before cameras rolled on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, filmmaker Ryan Coogler led a team of about 30 people to Chadwick Boseman’s resting place in South Carolina, where actors and key crew were joined by members of the late star’s family.
It was a solemn and reflective moment. Yes, it was a way to acknowledge the actor’s death, something several of them had done before at Boseman’s memorial service. But it was something deeper — reaffirming a commitment to the great undertaking ahead.
“You just felt very blessed and very humbled to be able to stand there,” recalls Angela Bassett, who was reprising the role of Queen Ramonda, the onscreen mother of Boseman’s hero-king, T’Challa.
Just a few days later, cameras began rolling in the Egyptian Theatre in Atlanta for a scene that involved Bassett making a powerful speech about the world whispering that Wakanda is weak after the loss of its leader and protector, the Black Panther.
Ramonda’s quiet fury in the scene implies that the Wakandans are stronger than the world thinks — a metaphor about resilience that could apply to the production itself as it faced whispers, some louder than others, from inside and outside Hollywood, about the Black Panther sequel’s possible fate.
The filmmakers of Wakanda Forever had been devastated and torn apart by the sudden and unimaginable loss of their leader, Boseman. The actor’s death in August 2020, after a battle with cancer that he kept hidden from even those closest to him, including Coogler, reverberated around the world.
As they mourned, Marvel executives and Coogler were haunted by questions: How would they move on, both professionally and personally? How would they honor the man who embodied the qualities of a superhero king not just onscreen but offscreen as well?
“Ryan was guiding all of us through that,” says Marvel chief Kevin Feige. “Ryan wore a necklace with Chad’s picture on it every day of the shoot. There was no doubt that this was a tribute and celebration of Chad.”
But getting to this point would take a strength not normally called upon for a film production.
Before Boseman’s death, the Black Panther sequel had been motoring along. Coogler was writing a script with Joe Robert Cole, as he did for the first installment, with Boseman occasionally checking in with Feige and producer Nate Moore as he recorded lines for the animated Disney+ series What If …? Now, their star and friend was gone, and with him, maybe also the sequel itself.
For Coogler, who perhaps more than anyone weighed the emotional and professional scales of whether to continue, part of his grieving process included immersing himself in videos of Boseman. He eventually came to the realization that the star would have wanted him and the cast to keep going. (Spoilers ahead.)
A path forward came to light when Coogler watched footage of Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan on a Korean talk show, where the actors were asked who was the best character in Black Panther. Nyong’o and Jordan chose their own characters. Boseman went the opposite way, and picked the character of Shuri, the genius scientist sister played by Letitia Wright. “I love my little sister, man,” Boseman said, shyly smiling as the others exploded into ribbing and chiding him. “I’ve loved my little sister from the day I met her.”
Coogler recalls, “I was looking at that and I remembered the conversations Chadwick and I would have about Letitia all the way back when we were doing chemistry reads with actresses. He really responded to her. And I realized that maybe we could build a film around her character since that was his favorite character.”
He set about writing a new script focused on Shuri, who would ultimately don the helmet of Black Panther. Coogler kept many elements from the script he wrote when Boseman was to star, including the underwater Mesoamerican kingdom of Talokan and its king, Namor, played by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta.
“One of the early ideas that Ryan had wasn’t just, ‘Let’s have the cool guy from the comics who flies around with wings on his feet and lives underwater,’ ” says Feige. “It was having another culturally specific kingdom that had been allowed to evolve separately from the colonized world.”
Coogler built his script knowing it had a bit of an “odd structure,” where a chunk of it almost feels like a two-hander.
“You can make the argument that either Ramonda or Shuri is the protagonist,” says Coogler of early portions of the film. “But I knew early on that Shuri would have the biggest arc in the film.”
The focus on Shuri also allowed for a bigger arc for a main protagonist, something he and Boseman were struggling with previously. In one sense, Black Panther, aka T’Challa, was too much of an ideal — smart, wise, handsome, rich, powerful. Those were qualities co-creator Stan Lee had imbued T’Challa with as a way to poke at racists, according to Coogler, who dove deep with the Marvel legend when filming Lee’s cameo in the first movie.
“The challenge for the script I had written before T’Challa passed away was finding a meaty arc” for him, Coogler says. “With this pivot, with Shuri in there, I saw that we could do a coming-of-age story. It could be a Trojan horse in this action adventure that people won’t see coming, but it could happen before their eyes.”
While Shuri was being prepped for superhero-dom, the actress who portrayed her found herself on her own journey of grieving for Boseman. Wright had been in England when she found out the news, and with pandemic lockdowns on both sides of the Atlantic, she couldn’t make it to the States for any kind of in-person memorializing.
“We were here in the States and were able to participate in the mourning rituals that were extended to us,” says Coogler. “We were able to go see his family, we were able to go see him off. She wasn’t allowed to do that. She was isolated in the U.K. She had to deal with his passing in isolation. I think Chad’s passing had a bigger effect on her than I even knew at the time. She was just really sad.”
But he was confident that Wright was more than able to carry the movie on her shoulders. “She has big shoulders when it comes to acting,” says the director. “She can hold a lot. And I think she’s better when she’s holding a lot. She struggled with the role in the first movie. It was hard for her to be funny, or comedic relief. She always wanted more.”
As for the other family members carrying on in T’Challa’s absence, Bassett recalls being “crestfallen” when reading the fate of the queen, who dies rescuing Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) after Namor attacks Wakanda. The actress even asked Coogler if he would rethink her character’s death.
“Isn’t there something else you can do?” she recalls asking the filmmaker, who then referenced the film’s mystical ancestral astral plane. “He was like, ‘In this world, death doesn’t always mean death.’ ” Bassett ultimately reconciled her conflicting feelings and accepted the decision, and kept it secret even from her husband, actor Courtney B. Vance. (During her interview with THR, which occurred on the movie’s opening day, texts from friends were rolling in, with one reading, “The entire theater was bawling, screaming. People were weeping.”)
When the first day of shooting arrived, it wasn’t as emotional or fraught with traumatic land mines as Coogler might have expected. For one, the director was focused on acclimating some new crewmembers, including cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw, stepping into the shoes of the first movie’s Rachel Morrison.
Some days were easier than others. Any scene with a new set or a new location helped assuage the grief. The production had a brand-new laboratory built for Shuri, but one set in particular hit Coogler hard. “The throne room. Walking in there was, ‘Ooooh.’ Rough. Because that was his space, you know?” he says, referring to Boseman.
One of the more emotional moments came relatively early in production, when the team filmed the funeral procession for T’Challa, with Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter designing distinct white funeral garb for each tribe of Wakanda. Oscar-winning production designer Hannah Beachler modeled the buildings in the streets they dubbed North Triangle after the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe — a nod to the homeland of actress Danai Gurira (Okoye) and the area of Wakanda where her character lives.
The team was very careful about showing Boseman’s image in the film and even was judicious about using music cues that belonged to T’Challa. After much consideration, the funeral procession scene included a mural of T’Challa.
“That was a really hard decision, to do the mural. Ryan and I talked about it a lot, and I think he went back and forth with it a lot,” says Beachler, who notes its inclusion was cathartic for the cast and crew. “When people saw the mural, that was the extra sort of layer of grief that was really hard on the cast, really hard on Ryan.”
Making the funeral procession scene did, however, scorch an enduring image into Beachler’s mind, one of Coogler holding his daughter, who was reaching up toward the mural of T’Challa, when the cameras were not rolling.
For the first Black Panther, Beachler prepared a 500-page bible detailing all things Wakanda. This time around, she and the team had the additional task of creating the underwater world of Talokan, which generated an additional 450 pages of material. She talked to Mayan experts every day, getting granular about their insights on topics as disparate as trade, privacy and food. “We tried not to make any missteps or say anything particular about the Mayan culture that may not be right,” says Beachler. “If we didn’t know it to be true, we didn’t talk about it.”
Back in Wakanda, Shuri was slowly making her way toward becoming the Black Panther, which required a new suit designed by Ryan Meinerding at Marvel and overseen by Carter, who had to approve countless models the team made before constructing the suit.
She recalls the power of the finished product when she saw Wright in costume in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where the battle between Shuri and Namor was filmed. Says Carter: “I remember walking over to both actors and saying, ‘My God, this feels like we’re really making something that’s going to last.’”
Months into production, Coogler, crew and Marvel would be called upon to prove their tenacity to persevere when Wright suffered a serious on-set injury and was knocked out of commission.
The actress was shooting second unit in Boston. It was a chase sequence and she was on a motorcycle that had a camera rigged on it. With Wright riding, the bulky bike clipped a median and tumbled. Wright ended up in the hospital with at least one broken bone and a concussion. Shooting on the movie was halted as the actress returned to England for months of recuperation and healing.
Coogler wasn’t on set when the accident happened, but coming close to losing another member of his movie family brought back the trauma of losing Boseman. “It’s the worst nightmare for a crew, the worst nightmare for a director,” he says. “Injuries happen with the work that we do, but it’s never good. And this was tough. It was triggering. Having lost Chad, the idea of something befalling Letitia was my worst nightmare.”
The director, however, praises Wright for bouncing back in a way that impressed everyone. “To bounce back and to deliver a performance like that? She has an incredible comeback story just off of that,” he enthuses.
While the movie barreled through obstacle after obstacle, one aspect came together almost serendipitously: landing Rihanna, who had not made any new music since 2016, for the movie’s closing song.
Ludwig Göransson, who scored the first movie, returned in the same capacity for Wakanda Forever. He spent time in Mexico City studying Mayan instruments with music archeologists and incorporated things like turtle shells and a flute called the death whistle for Namor’s action scenes. “It creates this most haunting, scary ear scream and it’s so loud,” says the composer. Göransson was working with Mexican Mayan specialists in the day, and recording contemporary singers and rappers at night.
For the film’s closing song, “Lift Me Up,” Göransson wrote the music and then asked Coogler to come up with some lyrics. Coogler came back with what would become the chorus, channeling not only the experience of losing Boseman, but the idea of being a parent (“Lift me up. Hold me down. Keep me close. Safe and sound”).
At the same time, as Coogler puts it, Rihanna was “coming up for air” after taking a sabbatical to become a mother. Coogler had reached out to the artist several times before, getting a polite, “She’s not really doing music, but let’s stay in touch,” signal from her management. But now, after the trailer, she wanted in, and added some words and “her flavor,” says Coogler.
“It’s her experience with loss in there, and her being a mother. She’s a new person now. [Parenthood] changes you to your core. I hear it in her voice,” says Coogler. “It’s her, but it’s a new her.”
Coogler saved perhaps the film’s most impactful moment for near the end of the shoot, when Shuri burns her funeral garb and says goodbye to her brother while on a beach in Haiti. In a scene that was saved for the mid-credits, Shuri — and by extension, the audience — learns that T’Challa has a son, Toussaint (Divine Love Konadu-Sun), whose Wakandan name is T’Challa.
The scene was filmed in a single day on a beach in Puerto Rico, with Coogler wanting to capture the setting sun. It was an emotional final day of shooting for the actors and the small number of crew present. It was also one of those rare days on a film set where everything seemed to go right.
“It encapsulated exactly what I think this movie is,” says Durald Arkapaw of the scene, filmed with natural light. “It’s about family and it’s about rebirth. And it’s about trying to let go of grief, but also [how] it does stay with you and you sometimes just have to carry it.”
Carolyn Giardina contributed to this report.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.