‘Black Panther’ Writer Joe Robert Cole Talks About Bringing Wakanda To Life

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One of the most remarkable things about Black Panther is how this entire world – all these new characters, Wakanda, everything – just come to life like they’ve always been there. True, we met the title character, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), in Captain America: Civil War. But Black Panther takes us to Africa, to Wakanda, where a whole new world awaits and this movie has to introduce us to all of that, somehow. Not to mention, it’s a movie that also gives us a villain, Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, that has a full arc and specific motivations.

Joe Robert Cole was once part of Marvel’s in-house writers program. Since then, he’s gone on to produce The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story before being tempted back to Marvel with the idea of writing a script for Black Panther, a possibility that intrigued Cole after seeing Black Panther’s appearance in Captain America: Civil War. Ahead, Cole (who shares a writing credit with director Ryan Coogler) gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how he helped bring a cinematic version of Wakanda to reality.

You’ve had to have read the reactions since after the premiere, right?

Some of them. Last night was a late night, and then I just wanted to sleep. And my mom went to the movie with me, and so I was just wrangling, I was just doing a bunch of stuff. So I haven’t had a lot of time to really take a look. But I’ve gotten plenty of texts from people saying that they’ve been looking and it’s pretty positive.

It has to be nice that people are finally starting to see it.

Yeah. I mean, it was really great being in the theater and seeing it with a crowd for the first time. I mean, I’d seen it before, but seeing it with the crowd for the first time was amazing. And then just the reaction after, people talking to me about how they felt about it, and it’s been unreal. I don’t know. It’s not sinking in quite yet because I’m still just processing it all. It was a bit of a whirlwind. And I certainly can’t wait for it to actually hit theaters in a broader way to see what the broader population thinks of it.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you were part of the Marvel writers program?

I was a part of the writers program, but this did not come from the writers program.

Okay, so you were part of that before…

So I was a part of the writer program and then once that was over I was working on other things and doing The People v. O.J. Simpson and stuff like that. But I was aware that they were thinking about doing a standalone movie. And then I had read some of the Christopher Priest run and was really fascinated by the character. And then when they introduced him in Captain America: Civil War, I was really pumped because I figured that that meant there was a good chance. And they reached out to my reps and asked if I would be interested and I jumped at the chance and had to pitch for the job, and I won the job.

“Villain” is a weird word for who Michael B. Jordan is playing because he’s a lot more complicated than a lot of other superhero movie antagonists. How important was that to you?

I mean, the best villains are ones that have a point of view that is relatable and that you can empathize and sympathize with. And sometimes it’s how far you take things that make you a villain, not the reason behind it, you know what I mean? And so, with his character, one of the things that we had a lot of conversations about and that we were exploring was the dynamic between African-Americans and Africans. And just within the parameters of the theme: Am I my brother’s keeper, and what is that dialogue? And we tried to explore that in a personal way with his character and I think it was an effective way of really humanizing him as our antihero, in a way. And T’Challa, our hero, ultimately ends up at the same philosophical place, I think, that our villain is at the end of the movie through his interaction with the villain. And so, I’m really proud. It was just a lot of conversations and trying to figure that out and work out the mechanics and work out the humanity of it, but that was definitely something we were actively trying to explore.

Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, and Letitia Wright all have major roles in this movie, how important was that to you?

I mean, one of the things that I really love about the movie is the introduction and navigating of so many characters with depth. In terms of writing the women and the roles, our view of Wakanda is not patriarchal or matriarchal, but just a level society. And the actresses are the ones who really breathed life into those roles. It was a process of collaboration and the rehearsal and finding the right calibration of different characters, and the delivery and how they went about tackling their roles that deserves all the credit.

Speaking of Wakanda, you helped bring this country alive. How did you go about that in the writing process?

It was very important that we root Wakanda in real-world Africa. It was a huge challenge – and I’m speaking in terms of the production design, which is fantastic [and] the costumes, which are fantastic – in tackling a place that has in the past been unfairly caricatured. And so, what we wanted to do was to really be respectful of the place and respectful in the sense of showing it in a grounded, real way, with the warts and the roses. I think that a big emphasis — led by Ryan for us — is that detail. And then trying to extrapolate out from there with the technology, again with costume design and mysticism, to kind of create the world. In the purest sense of the word, it was world building and world creation.

When I interviewed Taika Waititi for Thor: Ragnarock, he seemed surprised by how much freedom he had. These are very different movies, but was it the same way for you? Because I feel like this is a movie unlike any other Marvel movie we’ve seen so far.

Yeah. I think it’s… something weird just happened. I don’t know what that was. Something just started talking to me from across the room and I don’t know what that was. Sorry, man.

It’s Kevin Feige saying don’t answer that. That’s what that was.

[Laughs.] Yeah. I’m like, What is that? So they gave us a tremendous amount of freedom. And they really wanted it to be a personal story and they really wanted us to tell the story that we wanted to tell through the lens that we wanted to tell it. And they were not only supportive of that, but really urged us to continue to work in that direction. And so, like Taika, I mean, I personally think people have a misconception in terms of how Marvel approaches their films with creators. But I only can speak from our experience and some of my buddies who have written on other movies of theirs, but we didn’t experience that at all. They were nothing but supportive.

The point of view of this movie is refreshing. And there’s been a huge reaction to that. You had something in mind here for people who don’t always have this kind of movie made about them.

And I think part of the appeal for the movie… Because obviously there is a great deal of pride in the African-American community and so on and so forth. But the excitement for the movie — in my experience, in talking to people and what I see — is broader than just that. And I think a part of that is a fatigue with the same story, the same perspective. I think there is just a hunger for seeing stories seen through a different lens: new storytelling, new perspectives. I think this film in a lot of ways is like Wakanda in terms of being self-determinant. And Wakanda is this totally isolated, self-determinant nation. It chooses what it is. And I think we’re at a time when people of color, women, and people in general are asserting their own self-determination on who they are. I think that’s also something that resonates. And so, I think that even though it’s a movie through an African-American lens or an African lens or a lens of a person of color or empowered women of color, it speaks to humanity. And I think we can all be our theme: my brother’s keeper. I think it speaks to something larger. And so, I think that may be the resonance.

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