SPOILER WARNING: Black Panther discussed freely below!
Not only did Black Panther provide us with a rich background for T’Challa’s character, but it also retold Eric Killmonger's story in a way that made it relevant in an epic way. Furthermore, each supporting character was allowed to express multiple levels of their personality and their role in Wakandan society. And that's all thanks to its screenplay.
I had previously spoken to Joe Robert Cole about his collaborative writing process with director Ryan Coogler. Here, I continued the discussion about how they made some of the decisions they did with the characters, and the impetus for some of the really funny lines in the film.
Let's talk a little bit about source material. Shuri’s character is from Reginald Hudlin's run and R,,oss is from Christopher Priest's run and Ramonda’s depiction definitely felt like Brian Stelfreze’s work during Ta-Nehisi Coates' run. And of course Klaue was from Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. How did you choose which comics to pull from, and when did you feel it was OK to deviate from it? Did Marvel mandate certain things?
The studio never put a mandate on us to not be able to make adjustments based on how we wanted the film to play. We wouldn't go too far, but the idea of being able to kind of play and use characters that we thought were relevant for the tapestry of the story, but in a way that we felt would help our narrative, was kind of left open. That was something that was presented [by Marvel]; they just wanted the story to be personal and meaningful and entertaining.
Yes, Nakiya, M’Baku, and Killmonger are the characters most different from the comics, and in my opinion that was for the better.
They gave us that freedom. It was like, well, you know, how do we want this? We don't want Nakiya the villain who goes crazy. We want Nakiya the love. We want to empower, you know, we want the fighter, the spy, the war dog. If this is what a war dog is going to be, then let's use her as a great love interest. So really it's like finding ways to, in a modular way, use the world of Wakanda in a way that would tell the kind of contemporary movie that we wanted to tell. And yeah, we knew Man-Ape had to change [from the comics], that was a given.
Did you come up with the storyline of T'Chaka actually killing his brother, or was that given to you?
No, that wasn't handed to us. It was part of the process of figuring out what the history of Killmonger was, what his origin story was. That was another change [from the comics]. We wanted that to be for him and how we wanted to tie him into Wakanda.
Although there was a lot of emotion in this film, there was also a lot of humorous moments. How did you make those choices?
I'm not a comedy writer per se, and neither is Ryan, but when we approached it, I think we knew that Marvel movies have fun. So we tried to put some things in there as we went along and finesse it and try to kind of rework scenes and try to find the right jokes.
It was a great way to bring balance in the story, because some of it was pretty heavy.
I give the actors a lot of credit getting the delivery in finding things. Some of that stuff from rehearsals. We knew that there was lightening things up and actually breaking attention is important, especially because we wanted to explore a subject matter that is probably more serious and meaningful than in a lot of movies.
When Shuri's teases Ross about being a "colonizer" and when she teases T'Challa about his sandals, they were both hilarious moments. Were you surprised that Marvel let you get away with so many nuanced comedic moments so specific to the black community, in a mainstream film?
I think we were constantly trying to calibrate having those conversations while making it a distinctly black movie. By calibrating I mean where a line like "colonizer" lands in the movie. If we give it to someone different than Shuri, does it land different?
Right. If W'Kabi or Erik said it, it would mean something completely different.
Yes. So it's really like how do we make this movie our movie and make it in a way that is representative but also tonally what we wanted. And that was, you know, it's trial and error. You kind of, you know, going through the work. You work through.
That nuanced conversation that we were hearing between Killmonger and T'Challa. Between an African-American and an African. How did you get there?
Trying to find a way to navigate, in a personal way, the connection between African-Americans and Africans was one of our biggest challenges. What is that? When does that come in? What is different about being in a place that has not been colonized, has not been conquered? A lot of times as African-Americans, we make so many decisions based on white people, as opposed to “I just want to do it” and this has nothing to do with anything outside of me.
[We also looked at] what isolationism is and Wakanda being a place that monitors the world but then understanding that there is a greater responsibility beyond that, in just humanity and empathy. You know, one of the themes we started talking about early in the process is being your brother's keeper, and that idea that there is so much that is not right in the world, and if you could make a difference, just step out and make a difference.
What is the one thing that you want people to come away from the film with?
Well, when I was a kid I used to play make-believe a lot. I was an only child and I moved a lot, so I didn't have a lot of friends. So I did a lot of make-believe, and I used to change every character to black. So instead of James Bond, I was James Black. Instead of Batman, I was Black Man.
So like, little brown kids don't have to do that now. And that, that to me is what I like. Just the idea of being able to see yourself can be transformational. This is the movie that I wish I had to look up to when I was a kid.