On his first day at work on “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Tenoch Huerta gave an impromptu speech.
Hanging above his colleagues on wires in his Namor regalia — pointy ears, piercings, the shortest of short green shorts — the Mexican actor addressed everyone present to express his thanks and to convey his excitement about what the role and opportunity meant to him.
“This is the first superhero with an Indigenous background, a Mesoamerican background,” says Huerta, who will be making his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut as Namor, the king of Talokan, in the “Black Panther” sequel, in theaters Friday. “It’s a brown-skinned guy. This ancient culture is in his roots. And he speaks like me. We are making history. I told them, ‘Let’s do something to be proud of.’ “
If Huerta’s unwavering enthusiasm for Namor and “Wakanda Forever” is any indication, the “Black Panther” team did just that.
“It was crazy heartfelt,” says “Wakanda Forever” director Ryan Coogler of Huerta’s speech, which commanded attention from everybody working on the scene. “He was saying that he wasn’t going to take the opportunity lightly, playing the first Indigenous, Latin American hero in the MCU. It was crazy, but he is simultaneously the guy who does that, [and] also the guy who walks around in green underwear joking around.”
Huerta’s playful, down-to-earth charm and gentle spirit are a sharp contrast to the simmering intensity he brings to the role of Namor, the ruler and superpowered protector of an underwater kingdom descended from an ancient Mayan civilization. What they share, however, is a fierce passion for their culture and the people in their community.
With his enhanced strength, speed and ability to fly, Namor is the definition of superhuman. But what drives him, as shown in “Wakanda Forever,” is incredibly human.
“He’s a guy who’s trying to protect his family,” says Huerta. “He’s protecting his culture. He’s protecting his city and the things that he loves the most: his memory, his legacy and his heritage. I think everybody, all around the world, can understand his motivations.”
One of Marvel’s oldest characters, Namor, also known as the Sub-Mariner, made his comic book debut in 1939 in “Marvel Comics” No. 1. A half-human, half-Atlantean mutant, Namor’s commitment to protecting his people has meant that he has fought with and against superhero teams like the Avengers, X-Men and the Fantastic Four over the years.
Coogler, who also wrote the “Wakanda Forever” screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, describes comic book Namor as “kind of an a—” who is “very magnetic.” His frequent clashes with T’Challa on the page made Namor a character Coogler was interested in introducing onscreen from the time he was developing the first “Black Panther” film, but rights issues then kept the character off limits. With Namor’s film rights no longer an issue for the sequel, the filmmakers were finally able to focus on developing a version of Namor that made sense for the world of “Black Panther” for the character’s live-action debut.
Since the “key ingredients” of a “Black Panther” film include “a deep sense of cultural specificity,” including engagement with topics like colonization and resistance, the filmmakers looked beyond conventional representation of classical Atlantis as inspiration for the MCU’s version of the submarine society.
The similarities and differences between the histories of Africa and the Americas drew their attention to Mesoamerica. Like Wakanda, Talokan is a fictional place that draws on a number of specific cultural influences in order to feel authentic and real. It’s a place that, Coogler hopes, will “give audiences a reason to feel the same type of feelings that they felt when they watched the first film.”
“Wakanda Forever” is also a movie about grief and how the leaders of two different nations that share similar wounds respond to their pain. It’s a particularly resonant theme, not least because of “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman’s unexpected death in 2020.
For Coogler, Huerta’s “passion about race relations in Mexico” was “the icing on the cake” in his casting. The filmmaker had already been impressed by Huerta’s work on films such as Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre” (2009) and Sam Fleischner’s “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” (2013) before the actor was brought before the “Black Panther” team as a candidate for the role of Namor.
“The depth this dude has and his passion when he speaks about his Indigenous, Mesoamerican identity, I thought it was just brilliant,” says Coogler. “I thought he would fit in with my cast because I got a cast that’s filled with actors that are passionate about human issues and causes. He feels like he’s one of us.”
“In Latin America we have a serious problem of racism,” says Huerta. “It’s a different dynamic [than in the U.S.] because here, the people are segregated, and in Mexico and Latin America, it’s integrated by force.”
This forced integration, Huerta explains, involves the erasure of non-Western and non-white identities, customs, languages, faces, voices and more.
“They erase everything,” says Huerta. “You need to adapt to Western culture to be able to reach goods and services. You need to erase your identity to have a life. That’s cruel.”
It’s a vein of racism that manifests in history books that describe Indigenous people as savage and uncivilized while turning a blind eye to inhumane acts perpetrated by white Europeans. And one to which Angelenos have become more attuned after leaked audio of three L.A. City Council members and a county labor official, all Latinos, making racist remarks made national headlines in October.
This anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism also affects media representation. Huerta notes how TV and film in Latin America predominantly consists of white performers outside of minor, stereotypical roles.
“Brown-skinned people, Black people, [the representation] is not there,” says Huerta. “We are invisible to them. If you’re invisible, you don’t exist. There is nothing more cruel than denying the existence of the people. They [have been] denying us for a long time.”
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