Chadwick Boseman thought he already had a sense of how significant the Black Panther is to the fans who love him. But it wasn’t until Saturday afternoon, while he was on stage at the Marvel Studios panel at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, that he got hit with the full weight of the love and enthusiasm surrounding T’Challa. Those same fans are trying to help Boseman embody the role in the best way possible.
Before I sat down across from Chadwick Boseman this past Sunday afternoon, the mandate was made clear that this was an opportunity to talk about Captain America: Civil War (which comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray September 13), not tease out details of the yet-to-film Black Panther movie. That was okay, though, because I really wanted to ask him about the character and his continuing approach to Marvel’s first black superhero. In the conversation that follows, Boseman talks about how T’Challa’s popularity across the decades has catalyzed an energetic crowdsourcing.
io9: When did it first hit you how much this character meant to the fans?
Chadwick Boseman: Yesterday! Obviously, I know how important it is, particularly for people of African descent. In terms of seeing everybody’s response to it, all types of people have responded to me since Civil War came out. I’ll go certain places and they’ll come up to me and talk about the movie. But this is the first place where I’ve seen them all together—black people, Asian people, Latino people, middle-aged people, young people, old people… It’s something to see all in one spot. So, I’d definitely say yesterday was the first time it just hit me.
One of the things that makes the Panther different from other superheroes is that he’s the political and spiritual leader of an advanced, isolationist nation. How’d you go about getting into that kind of mindset?
Boseman: There are a lot of different things to pull from. You can look to all these different civilizations that existed in Africa. The Egyptians. The Mali, who are believed to have been a satellite nation of ancient Kemet. The Zulu. You can go so many different places. It could be Ethiopia, which went a long time without being conquered as well. So, just pulling from all those things and finding an attachment and a pride to them and then being very specific and doing my own DNA test and finding where I come from, what my ancestry is. Once you have the role, people want to give you things. People will reach out and say “hey, I want to train you” or “hey, I want you to meet this babalao who wants to read you.” I’m being approached with all types of things that have been helpful to the process.
That’s beautiful to hear, that people are just feeding stuff to you. What’s your favorite aspect of T’Challa from the comics?
Boseman: The thing that I like the most is him being challenged, taking criticism and finding a way to keep his focus and intent intact despite those criticisms. That’s what world leaders have to do. If you waver too much, if you give things away… sometimes you do have to give things away. You might give away something that you intended to give away to make it seem like you’re being accommodating. I think it’s that strategy and strength that I like. It’s not necessarily his physical attributes or anything like that. It’s his mind and being able to maneuver as a leader.
He’s a king so he doesn’t necessarily have to take feedback at all so that’s a good observation. What do you think prevents T’Challa from being a Magical Negro in Civil War? Part of the formula is there: he’s an otherworldly character who could be fixing these white folks’ problems [Boseman laughs].
Boseman: Well, he’s there for his own purpose. He’s not there… usually what happens is “well, he did this in this scene and now he’s doing [something else contradictory] and that doesn’t even fit the character.” That’s the Magical Negro thing. But, I think we were very cognizant about making a character that had his own through-line, his own intent and he wasn’t going to waver for anybody else’s story. Anytime that I felt like that was about to happen, I’d be like ‘nah, this is what he wants. You can do whatever you wanna do but this is what I feel like he needs to be doing.’ I feel like that’s the key. Sometimes… I won’t say more than that. I could go into the Magical Negro and talk about that forever but…. [laughs loudly]
I’m not gonna stop you!
Boseman: Nah, I think the main thing is just keeping it very clear that he has his own arc and his own things that he wants and desires. He only changes that when something strikes a chord at his core. It strikes a chord at what I think is his lineage and heritage and what he’s been taught, at what he’s been groomed to be. He can’t make that shift at the end of the movie unless he’s been groomed to make that shift already. And even though we don’t see that grooming, that’s actually the first glimpse into Wakanda before you see that tag at the very end.
Okay, I have a weird ask and you can turn it down if you want. I have two favorite lines of dialogue from the comics…
Boseman: Noooo, I’m not going to say them in the accent! [laughs loudly] I promised myself I wouldn’t do that.
I have a follow-up, then! Do you have a favorite moment from any of the material that you’ve read so far?
Boseman: Hmmm, wow. Let me think, because there’s a lot of different stuff. One of the moments was when he traps into his ancestral realm and all of the ancestors are standing around and they’re panthers…
So I have to stop you because one of the lines I was going to have you read was from that same exact scene. [turns laptop to show screen]
Boseman: I love that moment, mainly because before I’d even read that series—I’d read the Reginald Hudlin versions and the Kirby series…
Damn, you read the Kirby? I’m a lifelong Black Panther fan but that is some hard reading in 2016.
Boseman: Well, you have to read it, right? There was a book that had all of them collected. But that specific image of those panther ancestors came to me before ever seeing it. So, when I saw it in the book, I was like “Oh, wow.” I didn’t have the role yet but that image already manifested in my head.
It taps into something primal, particularly for black folks. It’s ironic how the creation of two white dudes taps into a collective desire of what we want our ancestry and our present to look like.
Boseman: I think that’s the reason that people react so strongly to the character.