Chadwick Boseman was bound to haunt Wakanda Forever, the sequel to 2018’s Black Panther. The most important American film of its decade (although I acknowledge this must sound like a startling claim for a comic book movie) and one of the ten biggest box-office blockbusters of all time, Black Panther was more than a hit; it was a phenomenon. Boseman, who already had blown away anyone lucky enough to see his Oscar-worthy if un-nominated portrait of James Brown in 2014’s Get On Up, was arguably the biggest Black star since the emergence of Denzel Washington in the late 1980s.
Boseman’s death from colon cancer in 2020 touched a nerve in the public that might have surprised even him. With the poise of a Wakandan king, the actor did his dying privately in plain sight.
Chosen over two dozen contenders for the Black Panther role, Boseman became the face of more than just a social moment in the second year of a presidency that routinely stoked and weaponized racial division. He was the face of the most American movie of any America worth believing in. After kicking around for ages—at one point, attached to Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton and, at another, to Selma’s Ava DuVernay—Black Panther’s story of a lost African civilization hidden from the eyes of the world represented both a consolidation of and a quantum leap for African-American filmmaking.
Released only months after white supremacist torchlit parades in Charlottesville and with hate crimes on the rise, Black Panther was a double-barrel revelation of Afrofuturism and female-futurism, and in Wakanda Forever, the women are back in a big way, with added gravitas from Angela Bassett as the Wakandan queen and Boseman’s mother (grieving for both the character and the actor). If anyone can be called the new Black Panther, it’s Letitia Wright, Boseman’s screen sister and nerdy sidekick. At 28, the Guyanese Wright already has won a SAG award for Black Panther and BAFTA’s Rising Star Award, along with an Emmy nomination for Black Mirror. Now, as in the case of Boseman, she’s on the cusp of stardom.
Even more crucial to the franchise is the return of Oscar-winning production-design genius Hannah Beachler. Coming off a series of smaller pictures such as Miles Ahead, Creed, and Fruitvale Station, Beachler didn’t merely up her game with Black Panther, she launched it into space. Wakanda Forever is a further exponential leap. Building on the first film, which displayed the most enthralling and indispensable world-building since Lord of the Rings, Beachler has woven into the new film’s tapestry Mayan and Aztec influences, creating something not third world or fourth world but fifth world—multidimensional, multi-universal, multi-wondrous, something we’ve never quite seen before, which is the most you can ask from movies.
The new Black Panther in Wakanda Forever is arguably Letitia Wright, Boseman’s screen sister.
Boseman’s death occasioned a spirited public conversation about whether Ryan Coogler, the director of both the original movie and the new one, should recast Boseman’s role of King T’Challa or even try to digitally re-create the departed actor, a truly awful prospect. Wisely, Coogler rejected both options. Even considering the second movie’s more pronounced association with the dim and dreaded “Marvel Universe”—labyrinthine in its horde of superheroes, superpowers, and super-conflicts that are grasped only by overgrown fanboys—the Black Panther films remain singular in a way other comic book movies do not: they’re pop art as sociological events, creative milestones, and the stuff that cultural history is made of. Boseman’s presence in the new movie may be more felt in his absence than if he were actually in the film, and the enterprise was always bigger than he was anyway, something he might have been the first to suggest. Coogler, Wright, Beachler, Bassett, and everyone else in Wakanda Forever do Boseman the honor of understanding that although he wasn’t replaceable as an actor, what he represented was, to the extent it needed replacing at all since it hardly vanished with him.
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This story is featured in the November 2022 issue of Los Angeles