“It had to be great.”
This comment comes late from Ta-Nehisi Coates in a roundtable discussion between three filmmakers of Black Panther — director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, co-writer Joe Robert Cole and executive producer Nate Moore — and three formative writers of Marvel Comics’ Black Panther — Don McGregor (1970s), Christopher Priest (1998-2003), and Coates himself (2016-present) — that is featured on the film’s Blu-ray and DVD set.
“It had to be great.”
This comment comes so late that no one has a chance to discuss it, but really, what is there to discuss? The men’s solemn nods say everything, Coogler’s heavy one in particular.
Black Panther had to be great. Everything about it had to be great, or else … well. With the benefit of hindsight and the weight of ever-present history, it hurts to even think about the alternative.
I don’t have to tell you Black Panther is one of Marvel’s best films, a game-changer for Hollywood and pop culture both. If you’re like me, you probably saw it more than once in theaters. You picked out the details and the layers that you missed on your first viewing and marveled to witness during your second, third or fourth. It’s all those details and all those layers that make Black Panther truly astounding. But even repeat viewings barely scratch the surface, because there is just so much and all of it means something and all of it, all of it, is simply great.
It’s nice, then, that the special features that accompany Black Panther’s DVD / Blu-ray / digital release help to illuminate the details. Four short featurettes focusing on various aspects of Wakanda — from King T’Challa himself to Wakanda’s culture, women and technology — along with the aforementioned round-table discussion make up the bulk of the behind-the-scenes bonus features. Each one is worth a view not just for its pithy interviews with producers and stars alike, but for the thought processes behind the world-building that creatives like Coogler and his team reveal in pieces throughout the special features.
Of exceptional note is the wonderful work by production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter, highlighted most specifically in “The Hidden Kingdom Revealed.” Although guided by Coogler, these two women were the ones responsible for making Wakanda feel like a place that could actually exist on Earth as opposed to another Asgard — to make it feel magical but not otherworldly or mythical, as Moore comments. It’s endlessly fascinating to hear Beachler and Carter talk about the inspirations they pulled from all around the continent of Africa to create Wakanda and ground its culture in reality.
Not only that, but as co-star Letitia Wright says, it’s refreshing to see and to experience because no other big-budget American film has ever embraced the languages (both visual and spoken) and cultures of Africa like this before — and, most importantly, Black Panther does it without Othering its source material. Quite a few of our foundational science-fiction films rely on subtle to overt appropriation of non-Western fashion and architecture to make their futuristic societies seem more unfamiliar to Western audiences. Many of Black Panther’s featurettes show the careful thought from people like Beachler and Carter to explicitly not do that by instead blending the traditional with the modern — and the most basically human, too. Coogler says at one point that a place on film doesn’t feel real until you see people eat, and it’s small touches like the street vendors selling their sizzling wares in the Golden City that really make Wakanda come to life.
Part of me wishes Black Panther had something similar to a long-form documentary like The Director and The Jedi, which director Anthony Wonke filmed alongside Rian Johnson’s production of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, to really delve deep into Coogler’s creative process. He says in the roundtable that he always starts his films with a question he wants to answer, and for Black Panther he had two: “What does it mean to be African?” and “If Wakanda had really existed all this time, how would that make [a black man from America] feel?” He elaborates on his answers in the roundtable and in other features like the commentary track with him and Beachler (side note: how often do we get commentary from production designers?!?), but it still doesn’t feel like quite enough.
Coogler is so intelligent and insightful about the historical and cultural implications of a hero like T’Challa, a villain like Killmonger and a miraculous place like Wakanda that by the end of the special features, I felt like I could listen to him for hours and still want him to keep going. The bonus features on a DVD can never answer all your questions, but in a way it almost seems appropriate that Black Panther’s leave me wanting more. That tells me there is so much left to discover, both in this film and whatever comes next.
Of course, it’s fitting that the remaining special features remind you that there is indeed more to come. There are ideas in the four deleted scenes, especially in the one featuring an intimate conversation between Danai Gurira’s Okoye and Daniel Kaluuya’s W’Kabi, that could easily be worked into the inevitable sequel, while a longer featurette highlighting the interconnectivity of Marvel’s first 10 years of films elaborates on Wakanda’s role in Avengers: Infinity War.
The “First 10 Years” featurette and the behind-the-scenes preview for Ant-Man and the Wasp don’t really tell MCU fans anything they don’t already know, but can you really blame Marvel for including some fun marketing for the rest of their 2018 output on the DVD for one of their most successful films to date? No, because they know Black Panther is great. They know you know Black Panther is great and that you’re probably going to watch this DVD until it breaks. And, bottom line notwithstanding, they must know how blessed they are to count this one-of-a-kind film among their ranks.
Black Panther is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s well worth a purchase, if only to visit Wakanda again. And again.