The Emmy-nominated writer talks about the importance of Marvel’s big-budget origins tale uniquely centered around a black hero
Joe Robert Cole: ‘For both my son and my daughter, this is a movie full of empowered men and women of color, people who are self-determining in terms of who they are.’
Photograph: Chelsea Lauren/Rex/Shutterstock
As a child, the screenwriter Joe Robert Cole loved making up stories about his movie heroes, and he would always change them from white to black characters. Now he has helped create the highest-profile black superhero film in history: Black Panther.
The eponymous movie from Marvel Studios – expected to make $150m in its opening weekend in the US – features the warrior king T’Challa, AKA Black Panther, who comes from the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced country in the world.
Cole, who co-wrote the screenplay with the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, said: “As a kid I played a lot of make-believe and I would change every hero to black, so instead of James Bond I was James Black; instead of Batman, Blackman.
“Little brown kids, including my own, don’t have to do that. That’s amazing to me. This is the movie I wish I’d had to look up to.
“For both my son and my daughter, this is a movie full of empowered men and women of color, people who are self-determining in terms of who they are. I’m really proud of that and excited for them to see it.”
Cole said he and Coogler tackled several themes when writing the film. “One of main ones is: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ We wanted to explore what the dialogue is between African Americans and Africa.”
They read all the runs of the comics featuring Black Panther, incorporating pieces of them into their script, and spoke to experts on Africa and the diaspora.
“One of the amazing things about Wakanda is that it is an African nation that is wholly self-determining and without influence from the outside, without westernizing influence. It’s never been conquered or colonized.”
It was important that he and Coogler rooted it in real world Africa and extrapolated from there in terms of technology, mysticism and costume design, Cole said.
It is a far cry from the cliched fictional African kingdom of Zamunda in Eddie Murphy’s 1988 hit Coming to America.
Cole, who is a graduate of Marvel’s in-house writers program and was nominated for an Emmy for his work on The People v OJ Simpson, said: “It is a huge responsibility depicting a place that has been unfairly caricatured in the past. We wanted to be respectful and try to ground it in truth. That truth can show the warts also, but in truth and not in a caricature.”
Talking about the characters in the film, he added: “We try to create dimensional human beings and there’s this idea that oftentimes people of color are monolithic, the notion that they all are the same and think alike. That is obviously not true and I’m proud of the depth and uniqueness of the characters. They feel like real people.”
Black Panther comes at a time when race issues are permeating US politics. Asked whether the film serves as a rebuttal to Trump referring recently to some African nations as “shithole countries”, Cole said: “Aside from someone’s political leanings, I think that sort of behavior is embarrassing coming from the leader of a nation.
“We started writing this film a year and a half ago, long before this. The themes aren’t new concepts or topics. These are things that have existed for decades, such as representation.
“This current climate may be ripe for it and I’m excited about that because maybe our film can be something that positively adds to the conversation but I don’t think we’re looking at it as some sort of comment on politics.”
The release of Black Panther, with its almost entirely black cast, strong female characters and many women in big jobs behind the scenes, also speaks to the continuing debate about diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, and the post-Weinstein environment.
A study by the University of Southern California of 900 popular films from 2007 to 2016 showed that little had changed in terms of representation on and off screen regarding gender, race, LGBT status and disability.
Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright in a scene from Black Panther. Photograph: Matt Kennedy/AP
Referring to the #MeToo movement, Cole, who is married to the actor Polly Cole, said: “In terms of our film and the storytelling aspect of it, the inclusivity of women in positions of authority and in empowered positions is a big part of changing this systemic culture that allowed such horrible things to occur for so long. Representation and inclusivity is a step in the right direction. It’s important for people to feel that they can come forward and speak out and for others to listen and learn.
“For so long there was a limited pool of people who had the opportunity to tell stories so that limited the perspective of the story being told. I think there is a fatigue with that perspective,” Cole said. “This is a movie that steps out of that in an amazing way. There’s a hunger for new lenses on the world, new ways of seeing stories. We spoke from our perspective.
“My hope is that hunger from viewers in a broad sense will help to continue to push forward inclusion in terms of stories.”
Cole thinks the historical lack of inclusion of people of color and women in film-making is compounded by the fact there are a limited number of people in the pipeline to deliver on a high level.
“But that is changing. There’s no shortage of talented people who are hungry for the opportunity. As long as the access is granted there are people willing to step into the void to tell those stories and that’s heartening, there are so many talented people there.”
- Black Panther is out now in the UK and in the US on 16 February