We’re about a month away from the release of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and so far even just the trailers have made me weep because of the tender and dignified way they show a nation grieving after the death of King T’Challa, the Black Panther. The first trailer, set to a mashup of Tems’ version of “No Woman No Cry” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” has its emotional climax in Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother, proclaiming, “Have I not given everything?”
Ramonda’s grief — shattering and shrill — mirrors our grief over the loss of Chadwick Boseman, whose work onscreen and off uplifted and celebrated Black life before he died of cancer at just 43 years of age. In the wake of Black Panther, Boseman took it upon himself to become an avatar of “Black male dignity” and welcomed being a symbol for Black people who needed someone to look up to. In the first trailer for Wakanda Forever, the death of T’Challa looms large over Wakanda in the same way Boseman’s death looms over the premiere of the sequel. Who can step up with the gravitas required to fill T’Challa’s shoes?
Well, how about Michaela Coel? Please understand: I have no proof that Coel is going to be the next Black Panther. But I have become convinced that she will be. Let me present my evidence.
First, Shuri is too obvious. She’s the most straightforward contender. Everyone thinks it’s going to be Shuri. Some people think the new trailer even confirms that it’s Shuri (they are wrong). And I get it: It’s true that audiences fell in love with Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister and the genius behind many of Wakanda’s scientific and technological innovations.
Shuri is great! But while she has multiple compelling fight scenes in Black Panther, Shuri is not positioned as a warrior. It’s possible that the Black Panther title might immediately go to her after the death of T’Challa — but even if it does, the first Black Panther has already established the process through which the tribes of Wakanda may challenge for the Black Panther title, so making Shuri the Black Panther by default would be too obvious a play. I cannot imagine a bigger disappointment than Wakanda Forever delivering the obvious answer. Why would director Ryan Coogler spend so much time in the first film laying out the Wakandan rules of disputing Black Panthership, then not make use of these rules when the role becomes vacant?
Offscreen, there’s also the tricky matter of Wright’s reported anti-vax views. She’s far from the only celebrity to articulate such ideas, but she plays a character that is explicitly about celebrating scientific achievement. Elevating Shuri to the Black Panther may draw unwanted attention to Wright’s comments, and indeed just the speculation that she is the successor has made fans angry.
Second, there’s a lot of mystery surrounding Michaela Coel’s casting. She’s only billed as “Aneka, a Wakandan warrior.” On the face of it, this isn’t abnormal — lots of characters get added to casts with brief descriptions. But Coel is simply too big to be added to an already star-studded film as a distant, insignificant character. Since her breakthrough with Chewing Gum and the universal acclaim for her Emmy award–winning HBO show I May Destroy You — which she wrote, directed, and starred in — Coel has proven she has the acting charisma to carry the mantle. The vague description of Aneka only serves to raise more questions. What’s Coel doing in this movie? I’ll tell you what she’s doing: She’s being THE NEXT BLACK PANTHER.
Third, Coel is on the cover of November’s issue of Vogue! A month before the release of Wakanda Forever, Coel is the only star of the movie on the cover of a major magazine. In the accompanying Vogue profile, Coel reveals new details about her character, a queer woman and a combat instructor. Coel is a curious choice for a cover star — this is a cast that boasts Oscar-caliber household names like Bassett and Lupita Nyong’o! It’s extremely interesting that it has fallen to Coel to carry the promotional weight of the film.
I am right about this. I am also excited about this! Coel’s ability as an actor would elevate the role in the same way Boseman’s did — let’s remember that Black Panther is the only Marvel film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar — and it would cement the franchise’s role as a transformative moment for Blackness. If I am wrong when the movie comes out, please do not come for me, as I will find out the same day you will. But that won’t be necessary. ●