Filmmaker Joe Robert Cole is about to take on the biggest project of his career to date, with the upcoming Marvel tent-pole movie, Black Panther. Hired to write the first solo movie of the first black superhero of mainstream American comics, the pressure is undoubtedly on for the young scribe. He could not be better placed for the job, however, having written, directed and edited his own film – Amber Lake – in 2011, and then having participated in Marvel’s two-year in-house writing program. The combination of a broad experience behind the camera, along with time spent in Marvel-specific writing rooms means that his in-progress script for Black Panther is something to be very excited about indeed.
The story he will be taking on is that of T’Challa, also known as Black Panther – warrior king of the technologically advanced fictional African nation of Wakanda. Having teased his appearance with mention of Wakanda in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, excitement for Black Panther increased exponentially when he was finally seen onscreen for the first time, in promotional footage for Captain America: Civil War.
The character will be played by Chadwick Boseman who, by the look of it, is about to do a fantastic job of portraying this previously overlooked comic book icon, and with recent confirmation that Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) will be in the director’s chair for the solo movie, it is now all systems go for the Black Panther project.
The scale of the adventure he is about to embark upon is not lost on Joe Robert Cole, as evidenced in a recent interview he gave to Mother Jones, during which he eloquently explained the personal and social importance of the representation of people onscreen other than white men – and where that representation needs to start.
“Black Panther is a historic opportunity to be a part of something important and special, particularly at a time when African Americans are affirming their identities while dealing with vilification and dehumanization. The image of a black hero on this scale is just really exciting. When I was a kid, I would change superheroes’ names: Instead of James Bond, I was James Black. Instead of Batman, I was Blackman. And I have a three-year-old son. My son will be five when Black Panther comes out. That puts it all into perspective for me.
“Historically, opportunity has been afforded to a limited pool of people, excluding people of color and women. That doesn’t diminish the talent or hard work of the people within that pool, but it does narrow the field of stories that have been told, and of the creative ideas and perspectives out there. And this problem compounds itself by limiting the number of people in the pipeline to attain the experience to do larger movies or get jobs so they can familiarize themselves with a studio head and get the opportunity to deliver and impress—or maybe direct a smaller movie. It will take a considerable amount of time to rectify. It’s very difficult because it starts at the top.”
Cole also discussed the aspects of cultural difference that fans hope to see play a large part in the finished film. Wakanda is a fictional nation, but is one that is located in Africa. As such, the country and its warrior king should be specific to the region, rather than simply being a depiction of a western idea of what the culture might be.
“I think approaching the movie from a perspective that is rooted in the cultures of the continent is important.
“I write characters focusing on them as human beings, and then you wrap them within a culture. So I think I can connect with him as a person with brown skin who’s viewed differently by the world. In terms of his culture, we’re thinking about where we are locating Wakanda within the continent, and what the people and history of that region are like. It’s a process of investigation to help inform the story at this point. But we are going to be engaged with consultants who are experts on the continent and on African history and politics.
“I think you try to extrapolate from the early civilizations and cultures of the continent, kind of looking for unique ways they set themselves apart from Western civilizations, and then pursue those avenues technologically and see where that takes you.”
The filmmaker is also very aware of the part his involvement in the Marvel writing program played in securing the Black Panther job.
“Having gone through the [Marvel] writer program, I knew Black Panther was in the pipeline and I knew they were big fans of my writing. But I had to compete with the other writers who were put up for it—no one hands out jobs.
“[The program] familiarized Marvel with my work and with me as a person. Being able to interact with [studio president] Kevin Feige and have him know who I am and know me as a person, and be able to then sit down and have a conversation about story with someone who’s familiar and comfortable is invaluable.”
While the Black Panther movie is still two years away from our cinema screens, these insights from screenwriter Joe Robert Cole should turn the level of anticipation all the way to maximum. What we are expecting is a powerful and iconic introduction to a powerful and iconic character who has been excluded from our movie theatres for far too long.