"In an emotional tribute to actor Chadwick Boseman, who passed away on Friday at the age of 43, director Ryan Coogler revealed the moment that he knew he wanted to make “Black Panther.” It was while watching Boseman act in an unfinished cut of “Captain America: Civil War” — speaking his lines in Xhosa with South African actor John Kani.
“Chad and John began conversing in a language I had never heard before,” Coogler said. “It sounded familiar, full of the same clicks and smacks that young black children would make in the States. The same clicks that we would often be chided for being disrespectful or improper. But, it had a musicality to it that felt ancient, powerful, and African.”
Boseman’s commitment to speaking Xhosa on camera was one of the reasons Coogler signed on to direct the film. It was just one way Boseman helped show that centering Africanness — putting African aesthetics, language and accents front and center — is a fight worth having.
It was only after his death that the world learned that Boseman had been fighting colon cancer for four years, including while playing T’Challa. Alongside his health battles, he was fighting Marvel itself to ensure Africa wasn’t presented through a colonial lens. In 2018, he told the Hollywood Reporter that Marvel initially thought that the accents would be “too much.” “I felt the exact opposite — like, if I speak with a British accent, what’s gonna happen when I go home? It felt to me like a deal-breaker,” he said. “I was like, ‘No, this is such an important factor that if we lose this right now, what else are we gonna throw away for the sake of making people feel comfortable?”
In choosing to fight for African accents, Boseman was fighting against the legacies of colonialism. The fictional kingdom of Wakanda is supposed to be a powerful African nation, one that is self-sufficient — a representation of what could have been if African nations had not been colonized and plundered for their resources by outside powers. Marvel would have undermined one of the central motifs of “Black Panther” if it had gotten its way and forced its actors to adopt British accents, to mimic the tongue of one of Africa’s most powerful colonizers.
Boseman worked with a dialect coach for his role, to take on a Xhosa accent to match the heritage of Kani, who played his father, T’Chaka, in the films. Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o spoke in her native Kenyan accent. The other accents were “all over the place” as Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo said at the time. “They wanted to base the accents on Xhosa from South Africa, but some of it sounded Nigerian, others sounded more Ugandan. It was very confusing, and I understand perfecting an accent is difficult, but oh, my goodness, it was so messy!”
As a first-generation American with roots in Ghana, I recognize what Boseman did to champion a fantasy rendering of Africanness on a big screen may have been messy to our ears. But it was important for global Black culture. Back in 2009, when I lived in Accra, Ghana, as a media researcher, I remember attending radio journalism classes where the instructors lectured aspiring radio presenters in the class to approximate the accent of Queen’s English. (The instructors tried to correct my American accent, too). The message they were sending was clear: To be seen as authoritative, respectable, worthy of being listened to, you needed to speak in the same accent as the very people who helped to subjugate Ghanaians.
“Black Panther” is proof that isn’t true. And today, more and more Black creators of African heritage are finding their way onto the big and small screen, and bringing African accents and languages with them.
It was affirming to see that, in the brilliant and provocative HBO series “I May Destroy You,” the main character, Arabella, played by the show’s writer and creator Michaela Coel, goes home to her Ghanaian household, where her mother speaks Twi and Twi-accented English. Arabella’s brother even teases her for not knowing enough of her own language. On television, the American sitcom “Bob Hearts Abishola” is about a White man who falls in love with a Nigerian nurse. My mother, who grew up in Nigeria, always tries to catch the show when it comes on, chuffed to see Nigerian accents and immigrant culture represented on an American sitcom.
“Black Panther” now holds its place in history as one of the most successful superhero movies of all time, grossing more than $1 billion in global box office sales. But to many of us, Boseman and Coogler’s artistic commitment to centering Africanness was the true victory. It’s why Boseman’s sudden death hurts so much in this moment. When icons and heroes pass on, it is always painful. But it feels especially cruel to lose Boseman so suddenly in a year in which the fight for Black life and against white supremacy has gone global.
Our Black Panther has gone to be with the ancestors. But we can take comfort that Boseman opened a portal, proving that future stories rooted in Africanness and Blackness deserve to be fought for."
Opinion | Why Chadwick Boseman’s fight for African accents in ‘Black Panther’ was so important