BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA — For Ryan Coogler, the essence of "Black Panther" came down to one question: What does it mean to be African?
"It's a question that I've always had since I learned I was black, since my parents sat me down and told me what that was," the Oakland-born filmmaker said. "I didn't totally understand what that meant. As kid you're like, well wait, why? Like, so wait we're from Africa? What's that?
"I'm 31-years-old, and I realized I never really took time to grapple with what it means to be African," he said. "This film gave me the chance to do that."
Before filming "Black Panther," Coogler would finally visit Africa. When the wheels touched down in Cape Town, South Africa, Coogler remembered being overcome with a visceral feeling he still can't put into words.
He went to Table Mountain and thought, "I could be buried here." In Nairobi, he saw a Maasai man, wearing traditional clothes and speaking on a cellphone. "That's Wakanda," he thought. "That's Afrofuturism."
That's what he set out to translate into the language of cinema in "Black Panther." For Coogler, it wasn't about making just another superhero movie.
"Black Panther" paints a multifaceted portrait of a nation in flux, as T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) ascends to the throne following his father's death. Wakanda, a fictional African nation, is an insulated, un-colonized and technologically advanced country that's deeply traditional and dazzlingly modern.
Actress Danai Gurira ("The Walking Dead"), who plays Okoye, the general of the Wakanda warriors, grew up mostly in Zimbabwe. She said she was "giddy" with "childlike joy" when she understood how Coogler intended to show Africa and its inhabitants.
"'Black Panther' creates a precedent that kills the ability of folks to misrepresent and distort the continent," Gurira said. "The things that it checks off: Complex African female characters; African language on a big screen; African characters who are varied in many different ways and heroic; The heroism of Africans for themselves and not needing a white hero to reach their goals; Celebrating so many specific African cultural-isms.
"No one can really now try to put forth some product where Africa is seen begging for a white superhero to come and save it."
"Black Panther" has the makings of an all-out cultural event. With a projected box office gross of nearly $150 million this weekend, its release signals a seismic shift that could make an impact big enough to change the entertainment industry — not that it hasn't taken decades to get the African King and warrior to the big screen.
"Black Panther" is the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The character is based on 50-year-old Stan Lee and Jack Kirby-created material. Wesley Snipes tried for years to get a "Black Panther" film off the ground, bumping up against antiquated thinking about how "black movies don't travel" (code for a film's potential to make money internationally).
Even in the modern superhero movie era, where seemingly every comic book character is fair game for a film, T'Challa was pretty far down on Marvel's list. But Marvel had a plan, and introduced T'Challa in a small but impactful part in "Captain America: Civil War" to set up the stand-alone film.
Coogler brought along many of his most trusted collaborators like actor Michael B. Jordan to play the villain Erik Killmonger, cinematographer Rachel Morrison and production designer Hannah Beachler. He even got his hometown in the film.
"Get Out" star Daniel Kaluuya, who plays T'Challa's best friend, says he's still processing what he saw in "Black Panther."
"To even have 90 percent of the cast speaking in an African accent? To me, it's like, what is that? No one has ever seen something like that before." Kaluuya said. "I think it's going to mess with people. I think people are going to stand straighter. I think people are going to be emboldened. It's like, wow we can do this. We can do this at this level and bring it home."
Jordan, who has been by Coogler's side since "Fruitvale Station," said that a storm is brewing with this movie.
"Other studios are going to want to make movies like this and understand what the representation of this thing means," Jordan said.
Time will tell if "Black Panther" is a turning point or an anomaly. For now, Coogler just hopes people like it.
"My experiences (when I was in Africa) eased a lot of questions that I had, a lot of pain that I had. And I tried to put all that into the movie," Coogler said. "I don't want to let the audience down."