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The Women of ‘Wakanda Forever’

When Marvel released the trailer for the sequel “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” in July, it garnered 172 million views in its first 24 hours. That was nearly double the viewership of the original “Black Panther” teaser in 2017. In the intervening years, much had changed. The first one, directed by Ryan Coogler, smashed not only box office records but also expectations and stereotypes about whether overseas audiences would watch films with predominantly Black casts. “Black Panther” also became the first superhero movie nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards.

At the same time, T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, and his alter ego, Black Panther, both brilliantly inhabited by Chadwick Boseman, became fan favorites in the battle with Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). The singularity of Boseman’s measured, charismatic yet playful performance helped shape the legacy of “Black Panther,” making role and actor almost synonymous and inspiring millions of children worldwide to see themselves in a Black superhero.

But even then, I thought the most obvious rival for T’Challa’s throne wasn’t Killmonger but the Dora Milaje, the women warriors who loyally protect their country’s leader. Okoye, played by the marvelous Danai Gurira, was the chief military strategist for the wealthiest nation on earth. In the teaser for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” we see the Dora Milaje, including Ayo (Florence Kasumba reprising her role) and Aneka (Michaela Coel, joining the cast), taking an even more prominent role and confronting a new enemy, Namor, the Sub-Mariner, played by Tenoch Huerta. Also making an appearance is his cousin, the mutant hybrid Namora, with Huerta’s fellow Mexican actor Mabel Cadena in this role.

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But, in addition to protecting Wakanda, the Dora Milaje also must secure the throne without T’Challa. After Boseman died in 2020 following a private battle with colon cancer, Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, announced that the character would not be recast, raising speculation about the destiny of Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is T’Challa’s sister and heir apparent as well as Wakanda’s chief scientist. That seemed to be the thinking until the trailer arrived, and the hashtag #recastTChalla went viral, followed by a Change.org petition with more than 60,000 signatures contending, “If Marvel Studios removes T’Challa, it would be at the expense of the audiences (especially Black boys and men) who saw themselves in him.”

What risks being lost in this debate are the powerful women of Wakanda — Okoye and Shuri, of course, but also Nakia, the spy played by Lupita Nyong’o, and Ramonda, the queen (the legendary Angela Bassett). In the trailer, you can see they are warriors, mourners, healers, mothers, leaders, sisters and defenders of the legacy of T’Challa (and, for that matter, Boseman). They might also expand the meaning of the Black Panther superhero imagery beyond one man or even one moment in time.

In advance of the Nov. 11 release of the sequel, with the plot still under wraps, I spoke to several women of “Wakanda Forever,” including Bassett, Cadena, Gurira, Kasumba, Nyong’o and Wright. Though they experienced the making of the film quite differently from one another, they found ways to grieve together, overcome injuries (Wright suffered a critical shoulder fracture and a severe concussion) and forge a real-life sisterhood on-set that mirrors the feminist spirit of the fictional Wakanda.

These are edited excerpts from our conversations.

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Were you surprised by how huge a hit “Black Panther” was in 2018?

ANGELA BASSETT I was very pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of love for the story, for the actors, for the representation, for the entertainment of it all. Not being a comic book person myself coming into this project, I expected those who love the Marvel Universe to show up. But for the rest of humanity to show up in droves was mind-blowing.

DANAI GURIRA We were able to create very full characters that killed a lot of stereotypes about what a superhero or heroism looks like. We all have stories, but one that jumped out at me was when this 11-year-old white boy would not let go of my hand. His dad was like, “I’m so sorry.” But, that whole experience shattered the larger idea that “Oh, the only way you can resonate is as a white male in these types of roles.”

LETITIA WRIGHT It’s been really beautiful to see so many young people be inspired. I always feel really proud when someone says that Shuri has expanded how they think about themselves.

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Given that past success, how did you prepare for this sequel, both in terms of its intense fandom and the loss of Chadwick Boseman?

LUPITA NYONG’O Let me speak for myself. There was a lot of stillness, reflection, prayer and meditation to bolster me up as emotionally, mentally and spiritually as possible. It was a unique experience to step back into this world without our leader. When you have a sophomore film, there’s a lot of expectation. But I think the loss of Chadwick kind of took all that away. I found myself having to radically accept that this was going to be different, and that showing up with as much openness as possible was key.

WRIGHT In addition to what Lupita said, which was perfect, the preparation process coming back into this was definitely a spiritual one. I remember connecting a lot with Danai. When we got to Atlanta [where filming took place], we went for a walk in the park and just sat with each other and processed what it meant to begin again and what it would take. The beautiful thing I found was that I wasn’t alone. Coming back to the world of Wakanda, I felt like I had family that understood.

GURIRA There are ways that you as an artist can try to have some control over what you’re stepping into. And for me, a lot of that is the training we do as the Dora Milaje. But it was also clear that there was another journey that we had to take. I remember sitting with Ryan, and he helped me process what felt different this time: It was grief. So grief intermingled with our process. There were things I couldn’t prepare for, like stepping into the throne room and remembering the last time I was there and getting really hit by that. And then, as Letitia said, we leaned on each other.

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FLORENCE KASUMBA I had to learn that I’m still not ready to speak about everything with everyone. I didn’t know when I was going to be triggered. But if that happened, I knew there were people I could be open with; coming to work felt like coming home. Also, the training helped a lot because we had to be so focused. It was a combination of losing ourselves but also making sure that we move as one again after such a long time.

Mabel, you’re the newest member of this cast. What was it like becoming part of this “Black Panther community”?

MABEL CADENA It was incredible. I didn’t speak the same language at the beginning, and the fight training was really hard for me, too. There were points when I felt really tired, but I was also inspired by these women every day. I’d say, “If these girls can, I can do more one day.” And then I’d speak to Ryan, and he’d give me the opportunity to build out my character as a Mexican woman. So, I was able to confront my fears and, at the same time, felt entirely safe with and grateful for these women.

How intense was the training for your battle scenes?

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KASUMBA You have to be physically and mentally so sharp. I started training for this role in May 2021 because mentally, you need to understand that your body has to function for about a year. And because we work with weapons and can hurt ourselves, we also had to be confident enough to do our strikes while also making sure we didn’t harm our colleagues. The training from the first movie helped us because there’s a lot of muscle memory.

GURIRA The literal training is very dependent on the story we’re telling. In the first film, there was a specific enemy and a specific response. Now, we are telling another story, so there are very specific drills to unify us. And then there’s a lot of individual work. I had a couple of injuries over the course of this one, and I had to fight through them. But I love it because, ultimately, it grounds the world. You have to know how to move and live in sort of an instinct of warriorness that is specific to your character.

Letitia, you were severely injured on set, right?

WRIGHT My experience was different. There were a lot of physical challenges that I faced as well, but alongside that I came away really proud that in the face of adversity, I could bounce back and give that extra life and strength to my character. I think Mabel said it beautifully. Seeing everybody give 110 percent inspires you each day. The journey wasn’t pain-free, but you can stand on top of the mountain and say you did it. Hopefully, that transfers to the film, and people walk away feeling ecstatic and empowered because that’s definitely how we feel after making it.

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That is such a powerful image. Do you think people are more receptive to Black women as superheroes?

BASSETT I think that remains to be seen. “Wakanda Forever” is poised to be the next film to really garner excitement for lots of people. Over a billion dollars’ worth of people hopefully will go to the movies. And who will they see but our faces? Black women’s faces. I love seeing it. In this day and age, you don’t have to wait for a few folks in a few offices at the top of a few buildings to make it happen. You know? Our voices are so compelling that they must be told.

GURIRA [The first] film allowed us, as women characters, to gain even more complexity. And it’s important that it’s not just a one-moment thing, but you see Black and women of color characters grow and have more dimension.

WRIGHT Today a girl told me, “I came out of the cinema feeling I can do anything after watching the film and seeing what Shuri presented to the world.”

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GURIRA If putting these characters in a heroic space propels that sense of ownership of self and what one can do with their own potential as young women and girls of color, that’s everything, really.

WRIGHT It should become the norm because there are so many women out there that are so heroic and amazing. We just show a piece of that onscreen.

“Black Panther” gave us a utopia that we do not necessarily have in real life. What excited you the most about the sisterhood you had as actresses or the female solidarity that your characters had for each other in “Wakanda Forever”?

CADENA [It’s been said that] when a woman raises her voice, we all bloom. These words are really inspiring to me, and I think this is the legacy of the first movie. Before this, I had only worked in Mexico City, so working with these women and Ryan completely changed my life and the way I thought about my career. Now, I have new dreams and new expectations about the way I want to make women characters.

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BASSETT It all played out beautifully that I’ve had a bit more experience in my career and that they are coming up and doing the same great work. There’s a lot of respect. But it’s not only about the work that we do; it’s also about how we work with one another. If we lock arms, then it’s a much stronger piece.

NYONG’O The undervaluing of women because of their gender doesn’t exist in Wakanda. We saw that in the first film, which is why it resonated. This new film continues with the conceit that this is a world where those things don’t exist. But the question we’re tackling is not their womanhood. It’s their beliefs, passions, loves and arguments, and it creates a robust drama. Hopefully, the world as we know it watches and is empowered by it, despite itself.

What I love about the Wakanda story is that it offers us a version of a world that we are striving to get to.

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