“Wait, are we hopeful or sad?” That’s what Winston Duke jokingly says after a creative director asks him and the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever cast to look into the klieg light for the group’s next shot. Duke and his co-stars Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Dominique Thorne are nestled together inside Hard Rock Hotel San Diego for EBONY’s digital cover shoot.

The cast’s cosmic synergy radiates for the next 90 minutes as they giggle at inside jokes and exchange anticipatory glances at how the Comic-Con audience across the street will respond to the first glimpse of their long-awaited sequel. Duke’s quip causes everyone to break into laughter, but the sentiment is real. Will the film be a somber reflection of what will never be or a heartfelt celebration of the late Chadwick Boseman?

Danai wears a Hanifa dress and Bea Bongiasca earrings. Photographed using Google Pixel 7 Pro.

Pressing the cast for clues goes nowhere fast. “You don’t want me to tell you everything. Come on,” Gurira says with a wicked grin. What happens in Wakanda stays in Wakanda—that is until Nov. 11 when Black Panther fans return to theaters, dripping in ceremonial white with accents of gold and purple in honor and reverence for their fallen hero.

Boseman’s death in August 2020 sent shockwaves throughout Hollywood because so many didn’t know the beloved actor had been quietly battling colon cancer. Revisiting the Afrofuturistic world centered around his seminal character T’Challa required the heavy reality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe carrying on a franchise without its leading man. But for his onscreen family, Boseman was more than a billion-dollar star. He was their brother.

Gurira, who portrays the fierce general Okoye, describes the circumstances of filming the sequel without Boseman as being “unprecedented” and taking an emotional toll on the crew. “There’s a grief navigation that we were going through as we were stepping back into living in this world without our leader, our King and our brother. That was a really specific journey to take in it,” she explains.

For Wright, who’s back as Wakanda’s chief scientist Shuri, continuing the celebration without her “bro” was bittersweet. “I knew that he was in a better place, but I selfishly wanted him to still be here … with us, with me. But for myself, I use the film as a love letter to Chad. Every scene, every word I utter is with fullness and with life as he would want me to live it, you know, as he did live.”

“It was hard,” continues Wright, who has begun producing films as well. “But we all used the time to grieve together and support each other. We used the time to fuel the story with our energy, with our love and with the power that was within us because it had to go somewhere, you know?”

“We almost felt like somebody’s trying to stop us from finishing this film but it wasn’t gonna win.”
– Danai Gurira

Filming during a global pandemic added another enormous weight to the process. Gurira found her way through by connecting off set with Wright (“She’s younger than me, but that is a wise, powerful woman.”) but also by being still. “We were definitely facing challenges, but I remember coming back to my home and being very quiet. I wanted to protect this thing,” says the actress, who’s also an accomplished playwright. “We almost felt like somebody was trying to stop us from finishing this film, but it wasn’t gonna win. We pushed through and we got it done. And I’m very, very proud of that.”

Winston Duke wears A September Man by Courtney Mays suit and Romeo Hunte overcoat. Photographed using Google Pixel 7 Pro.

Boseman’s untimely passing happened just as director Ryan Coogler was deep into writing Black Panther’s sequel. After deep reflection, the director and the MCU team decided against recasting T’Challa and leaned into honoring the Boseman’s spirit as authentically as possible. The director and his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, went back to the drawing board and rewrote the film with the intention of paying homage to his dear friend and moving the Black Panther franchise forward. Once the MCU higher-ups were satisfied, production resumed in June 2021, but fans were kept in the dark about how a return to Wakanda would look and feel.

This July, the wait was over when Coogler and key cast members walked across the stage in the storied Hall H during San Diego Comic-Con and presented the Wakanda Forever trailer. In a carefully crafted two-minute,11-second teaser, backed by Tems’ soulful cover of “No Woman, No Cry,” we learn the utopian African nation is mourning the death of its leader and must decide who will serve as its king and warrior, the Black Panther. This leaves them vulnerable, and a potential enemy comes to the surface in the form of Namor, a half-human, half-Atlantean fighter who has a rich history in Marvel comics. As the trailer ends, Kendrick Lamar spitfires, “we gon’ be alright,” which perhaps assures fans that Boseman’s sendoff will be fit for a righteous king.

“Every scene, every word I utter is with fullness and with life as [Chad] would want me to live it.”

Letitia Wright

Letitia Wright (above) wears a Jason Wu dress and Mischo Designs jewelry. Photographed using Google Pixel 7 Pro.

Still, with T’Challa gone, who will take the throne? Who will protect Wakanda? Almost immediately the internet began brimming with theories: Resurrect Killmonger with the heart-shaped herb! Create two (or more) Black Panthers! Bring back the White Wolf! Name M’Baku as King! Earlier this month, Marvel released the official trailer and seemingly put to rest the speculative chatter with an end scene featuring someone wearing a Black Panther suit with very feminine curves. But who? Shuri? Nakia? Okoye? Ayo? Will it be one of the film’s new characters, Riri–who’s already beloved in the MCU as Ironheart–or Aneka, the ex-Dora Milaje who helped create the equally badass Midnight Angels? The cast’s lips are sealed. However, Duke, who plays M’Baku, isn’t shocked Wakanda’s national security is in the hands of a woman because for him Black Panther’s origin story has always placed Black women at the center.

“In the first movie, two Black male figures were at the forefront. But the women were always the ones trying to pick up the pieces,” Duke says. “Black Panther has always been about a mother grieving the loss of her husband, and now has to support her son in ascension. It’s been about the sister who’s trying to keep up and create her space around a brother who has a presence that’s larger than her. The women whose duty to their country has to take center stage over their own personal needs. A woman who has to support her country, do all the dirty spy work, and who can’t just be with the man that she’s in love with. Wakandan culture is deeply, deeply impacted by how the women in their world function and their responsibilities. They’re always ready to take up the crown or the spear.”

Dominique Thorne (above) wears a Bibu Mohapatra dress and UNOde50 jewelry. Photographed using Google Pixel 7 Pro.

Gurira agrees that shifting the film’s focus expands the canon of strong Black women leads onscreen. “It’s definitely a different story from the first one, as it must be. There’s a lot of very powerful, rich narratives and the beauty, I think, is that everybody has a very full story to tell in their own singular way,” she says. “Seeing Black women get this type of storytelling and the idea that they’re continuing and evolving and going through complex things is an ongoing component of representation of Black women. This movie accomplishes that in spades.”

“The presence of Black Panther also illuminates the absence of an investment in Black fantasy, Black history epics, Black grandeur.”

Winston Duke

The reverence for Wakandan women is as palpable as watching the real actresses embody their characters on set. Hannah Beachler, the first Black woman to win an Academy Award for production design for her work on Black Panther, knows Coogler created this safe space. “He just loves Black women and I think he saw the power there,” she says of the director, who she’s partnered with on several films, including Fruitvale Station and Creed. “In the past, Ryan has said that women are better storytellers and better filmmakers, and I’m not disagreeing.” Along with herself and the film’s leading women, including new cast members Dominique Thorne as Riri and Michaela Coel as Aneka, Beachler also found a sisterhood with returning costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who also won her first Oscar for designing the looks in Black Panther, and returning cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw. “We come on set some days and get into a circle [and start dancing]. Ryan would be like, ‘Okay, y’all done? You know, we got to shoot this thing,’” Beachler says, laughing.

“This type of storytelling is an ongoing component of representation.”

Danai Gurira

Danai Gurira (above) wears a Hanifa dress and shoes and Bea Bongiasca and We Dream in Colour jewelry. Photographed using Google Pixel 7 Pro.

“We invoked [Chadwick’s] spirit on a daily basis. All of us found a way to pay tribute to him in different ways.”
– Lupita Nyong’o

Thorne, who’s making her debut not only in Wakanda Forever but also in the MCU as Ironheart (look out for her Marvel series in 2023), is still pinching herself from her first day on set. “My first scene I shot was with Miss Angela Bassett. I don’t know if it’s possible for you to set the caliber any higher,” she says. Thorne knows a thing or two about high standards as the rising actor was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts in 2015. She found working on the sequel just as impactful because, she says, “the original already established a safe haven for Black brilliance and Black excellence, and an elevated telling of Black royalty.” From that first encounter with Bassett, who befittingly returns as Queen Ramonda, Thorne says for her “it was a very real commitment to telling this story in the best way and executing things as they exist in Wakanda.”

With barely any additional story details unveiled by the MCU, there’s already a fever pitch of excitement at the addition of two Mexican actors Tenoch Huerta and Mabel Cadena, who play villainous first cousins Namor and Namora, respectively. They already sparked enormous pride amongst Latinos when they made their appearance at Comic-Con in July. “What I love about Ryan and his vision for this story and storyline is how he’s opened it up to another group of underrepresented people and the inspiration that has been taken from Mesoamerican culture,” says Nyong’o, who returns as Nakia. “I know for a fact that the community is going to be invigorated by the experience. The Black Panther world has expanded quite exponentially in the second movie. And the multiculturalism is so specific to the African diverse experience, and now to the Latin diverse experience, [this film is going to be] really, really, really powerful.”

To bring in an authentic Mesoamerican backstory, Beachler thoroughly researched their culture with the same intensity that she did for Black Panther. (She created a 400-page production guide, known as the “Wakanda Bible,” for the first film, and confesses she added another 400 or more pages for the sequel.) “Our underwater people are Talocan and they’re inspired by ancient Mayans,” she explains. “I had to completely immerse myself 100,000 percent in talking to experts. I can’t just throw up a culture, even if it’s something that’s specifically not that culture or inspired by that culture. You need to know the rules before you can break anything. You need to understand it before creating something that’s an amalgamation of that or an evolution of that.”

When Black Panther premiered in 2018, it became a benchmark for Afrofuturism because it was rooted in the realities of African cultural traditions and explored how an African country could exist that was never colonized or conquered. The film’s worldwide box office made $1.3 billion dollars and remains ranked in the top five MCU films—and in the top 15 movies of all time. However, when Duke is reminded of this accolade, he quickly points out what’s missing in Hollywood. “The presence of Black Panther also illuminates the absence of an investment in Black fantasy, Black history epics, Black grandeur,” he says. “I did a lot of traveling this past year. I went to Rwanda, Central Africa. I went through all of Europe, I went through Mexico … There are a lot of people who are hungry for great content, but because there are these antiquated ideas of where the press tours go and where the main audiences are going,” he feels many communities around the world are getting “a skewed reading” of Black storytelling.

Clockwise from left: Dominique Thorne wears a Bibu Mohapatra dress, Guiseppe Zanotti shoes and UNOde50 jewelry. Letitia Wright wears a Jason Wu dress and Mischo Designs jewelry. Winston Duke wears A September Man by Courtney Mays suit. Lupita Nyong’o wears an Azzi & Osta dress and LeSilla shoes. Danai Gurira wears a Hanifa dress and shoes and Bea Bongiasca and We Dream in Colour jewelry. Photographed using Google Pixel 7 Pro.

“My first scene I shot was with Miss Angela Bassett. I don’t know if it’s possible for you to set the caliber any higher.”

Dominique Thorne

Duke asserts that if studios would showcase films where people in “places where they’ve dealt with colonialism and imperialism in the past and their internalized oppression is similar…the history of their shared experience will resonate and the people are gonna feel it.” He believes this is why the escapism of films like Black Panther, the historical The Woman King, and even the aspirational Crazy Rich Asians, are worthy examples of when antiquated narratives are broken down and presented in more global regions. The Yale University-trained actor hopes the release of Wakanda Forever and its anticipated financial and cultural impact, will be “a continued catalyst for the change that we need to see in all the industries that we’re in,” Duke concludes by reciting one of M’Baku’s breakout lines from the first film, “It’s challenge day.”

Although a 2020 study from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative states that “the number of Black directors working in 2019 (nine movies) was not different than in 2007 (eight movies),” there have been great strides made by Black creatives since Black Panther’s release. The global success of the 2018 film ushered in the “Ryan Coogler effect”—a term coined by Wired senior writer Jason Parham, who hoped there would be a rise in Black directors on large-scale projects. A shortlist: Clemency director Chinonye Chukwu became the first Black woman to win the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic entry at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival; the following year, director Radha Blank was honored with Sundance’s prestigious Vanguard Award for helming The Forty-Year-Old Version. In 2021, Candyman director Nia DaCosta became the first Black woman to have a film debut at No. 1—ever. Over the last five years, the Academy Awards gave Oscars to Spike Lee, Peter Ramsey, Mahershala Ali and Regina King (2019); Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver (2020); Daniel Kaluuya, H.E.R., Tiara Thomas, D’Mile, Travon Free and Jon Batiste (2021); and Ariana Debose, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Will Smith (2022).

Winston Duke wears A September Man by Courtney Mays suit. Photographed using Google Pixel 7 Pro.
From left: Letitia Wright wears a Jason Wu dress and Misho Designs jewelry. Lupita Nyong’o wears an Azzi & Osta dress.

In 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa prophetically says, “In my culture, death is not the end,” which aligns with many African religions that celebrate one’s passing. Coogler and his cast and crew uplifted this tradition from the page to the soundstage. “We invoked [Chadwick’s] spirit on a daily basis. All of us found a way to pay tribute to him in different ways,” Nyong’o says. “The line producer proposed not having a number one person on the call sheet, and so there was no number one. And we started with the number two onwards, and when Ryan told me that I just wept, because everybody just wanted to carry him with us.”

When asked how proud Boseman would be of what they’ve done, the Oscar winner doesn’t hesitate. “We visited his resting place before we started filming and we had that moment as a cast. We went with the new cast who hadn’t met him as well. It was our way of continuing this journey. It really doesn’t feel like we have anything to prove to his spirit. I feel very, very centered about how we brought him along with us. Ryan had an artist make this necklace that has Chadwick’s image on it and he wore it every day. So he’s been with us, he knows what we did. He inspired what we did,” Nyong’o shares. “We honored him unabashedly and unapologetically.”

Long live the King.

Cori Murray (@corimurray) is an award-winning storyteller and she writes about arts and entertainment for InStyle, Apartment Therapy and Playbill.

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & SVP, PROGRAMMING MARIELLE BOBO
CREATIVE DIRECTOR RASHIDA MORGAN BROWN
PHOTO DIRECTOR/PHOTOGRAPHER KEITH MAJOR
ASSOC. CREATIVE DIRECTOR/HEAD OF VIDEO STEVEN CORNELIO
EBONY STUDIOS & EXEC. PRODUCER CHRIS KARNAK
VIDEO MEGA MEDIA
DIGITAL PRODUCER ANDREW FAIRBANK
2ND SHOOTER ERIC DAVIS
DIGITAL IMAGING TECHNICIAN SETH DACIO
GAFFER JAMES ALLEN
KEY GRIP BRANDY HOLIDAY
SOUND MIXER NICK BOZZIO
VISUAL EFFECTS SOLOVFX
VFX SUPERVISOR AND PRODUCER SOHEIL ASGHARI
VFX ART DIRECTOR DYAN JONG
CGI SAEED SALARVAND
FX MOHAMMAD DEHBASHI
COMPOSITE AYDA GHAZI
PHOTO ASSISTANTS SHAWN CULLEN, CODY HOWELL
DIGITAL TECH JIMMY GALT
WOMENS STYLIST WAYMAN + MICAH
WINSTON DUKE STYLIST COURTNEY MAYS
STYLIST ASSISTANTS JASMINE WOOLFORK, PATRICK LYNERE
TAILOR MARC LITTLEJOHN
HAIR STYLISTS VERNON FRANÇOIS, VERNON SCOTT, MARVA STOKES, NIKKI WRIGHT
MAKEUP ARTISTS NICK BAROSE, TASHA REIKO BROWN. TYM BUACHAREN, AUTUMN MCKENNEY
GROOMER RISHA ROX
PROP STYLIST ALEXA POLANCO
PROP ASSISTANT NICK MARRONE
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER TRACEY WOODS
PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS OMAR DAVID, MARISSA ROXAS
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