From the episode on 2/9/2018
S - Simon Mayo, L - Lupita Nyong’o
S: Tell us about your character in Black Panther.
L: I play Nakia, an undercover spy for Wakanda. Wakanda is a fictitious African nation that has kept to itself; it’s isolated, it’s secret, and it’s one African nation that was never colonized. And as such they have been able to advance in ways that people are unaware of. I am a spy who goes out into the world, observes and reports back to Wakanda, and Nakia also has a complicated past with T’Challa, who is the Black Panther and the King of Wakanda.
S: When you first talked to the director (Ryan Coogler), what was it that hooked you in?
L: First of all, I felt like he was telling quite a radical story, and I was surprised that it was a superhero film and that Marvel had greenlit it. […] In regards to Nakia in particular, he definitely wanted her to be a love interest but not your typical love interest. She is more than just the man who’s pursuing her or the man she’s pursuing. She has her own agenda, her own drive and ambition and we see that. It was a refreshing take on that aspect of storytelling: the romantic story is more in the background than it is in the fore, because Wakanda has a lot to deal with. And she’s part and parcel of what Wakanda has to deal with and what the future will look like for Wakanda. I just thought it was really refreshing to have that kind of love interest who affects the narrative so directly.
S: When you said you were surprised that it was a superhero film and it being greenlit and it being radical, was that what you were talking about or was it the political side of things?
L: Well I think the film is just very honest about a lot of pan-African issues. It’s a film that honors the past in terms of African culture and historical context, but it also offers a future. We see a country in Wakanda that has figured out that the way forward is to allow all its citizens to realize their full potential. So women alongside men are allowed to assume positions of power, and their assuming those positions of power don’t diminish or threaten the men in their lives. So you see kind of an idyllic society in terms of gender relations. That image becomes that much easier to image in this world that we live in. And just the issue of what borders mean…the film is so layered and deep, and it’s allegorical, folkloric, mythological, it’s like a new kind of mythology that we’re offering the world in the Black Panther story.
S: It’s also very much a Marvel film, with all that history that ties completely into this 52-year-old comic book story, that’s an astonishing achievement.
L: It really is. The very fact that Black Panther was born of the Civil Rights movement and came into being then, the radical nature of it is in its origins. Marvel honoured that, and has allowed for this particular part of the universe to stand on its own, have its own rules and its own identity. I think Marvel does a really good job of that with all its superheroes, each one fits a different genre within superhero genres. It does have that kind of reach: Marvel is appealing to the masses, and so the fact that this story gets to go around the globe and that it’s made of such strong and deep stuff, is really amazing. We dream to be a part of something that is both popular and meaningful.
S: It’s certainly the most African film I’ve seen in the mainstream, though I would mention that David Oyelowo was on the show a couple of years back for Queen of Katwe, and you were in that, and that was blazing a trail.
L: Yes, that’s why I signed up for it. I’m obviously very attracted to stories that demystify what it means to be African and really puts the African context on a global scale, as is Black Panther. In a way it feels really futuristic, but it also honors and pays homage to real African cultures. Ruth Carter, the costume designer, pulled from real ancient African cultures that are unfortunately dying. This film brings them to light in such a special way, because Wakanda is a country that was never colonized, never interrupted by that assault, there is identity; their relationship with their ancient tradition is modern. And we see the way in which those cultures are modernized and how they are preserved, not in a way that keeps them archival, but practical. We see tradition and modernity, and the modernity of those traditions. That’s such a rich image, and a key one for those of us of African descent to look at and ponder on, that conquest does not mean the dismissing of traditions.