Will Marvel Comics’ Black Panther Ever Make It To The Big Screen?

January 24, 2011  |  

In recent news, Marvel Comics just announced that a Black Panther movie is in development; while in other news, reports are coming in from around the country about a rash of unexplained fainting spells among self-proclaimed comic book nerds.

Yes, this is a very big freakin’ deal.

For those people who are behind the times and haven’t the slightest idea of who The Black Panther is, I say shame on you; however, I will try to do my best to bring those people hip to the game with a brief synopsis: The Black Panther, also known as T’Challa, is the first black superhero in mainstream American comics with superpowers. Created by Marvel comic super duo Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character first made his appearance in 1966 in the Fantastic Four comic series.

As the legend goes, T’Challa is a super genius warrior king of the African nation Wakanda, which of course is the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. Thanks in part to a huge meteorite made up of Vibranium that crashed into Wakanda, the country is rich with resources too. As such, the Black Panther is charged with protecting the kingdom from foreigners (ahem…America), who seeks to manipulate and/or destroy Wakanda for these valuable resources.

Seems like a great concept: a positive black superhero defending the freedom and and interest of his people. Makes you wonder why has it taken so long for the Black Panther to come to the big or even little screen. Or maybe not.

To be fair, Marvel Comics has tried before to bring the comic book character to life.  In 2008, Marvel Comics announced a deal with BET to turn the Black Panther into a primetime half-hour animated series. Later that year, the comic book world got its first glimpse of footage from the 12-week series called Black Panther: Who is the Black Panther? During the screening, promises were made for the series to run in its entirety on BET sometime in 2009.

However, that was two years ago and the live action animation series, which featured the voices of Djimon Hounsou, Kerry Washington, Jill Scott and Alfre Woodard, never made it to BET.  In fact, no other station in the States agreed to pick up the series and The Black Panther was mysteriously banished to – off all places – Australia. It would later become a hit on the underground circuit thanks in part to episodes showing up on YouTube.

Critics believe that the crudely drawn series never aired because it did not amount to the computer-generated animation of today. However, others believe the unapologetic political nature of the series’ storyline is one of the reasons why the series got passed on.

It is true that the series, which was produced and written by Reggie Hudlin, portrayed America as a war mongering country hell-bent on getting its hands on the Wakanda’s resources by any means necessary.  And of course, the Black Panther and his fellow Wakanda countrypeople not only defeat the evil American army, but also defeat iconic heroes such as Captain America and the Fantastic Four.

But as pointed out by the LA Times, Hudlin’s dual role as BET head of entertainment and executive producer of the series ignited ethical questions on whether his personal involvement in the TV series benefited him financially, while also clashing with his responsibilities as a network chief, which could explain why BET opted to pass on the project.  Even still, Hudlin left BET shortly after the series had been announced.  None of this seems to explain why the series couldn’t find a home on any of Viacom’s other channels, such as Cartoon Network.

This only leads me to believe that perhaps the world is not ready for an out-and-proud Black Superhero.

Sure, we’ve had superheroes before like Steel (Shaquille O’Neal), The Meteor Man (Robert Townsend), Storm (Halle Berry), Hancock (Will Smith) and the widely successful Blade series. But the reality is that none of those aforementioned characters can be considered black superheroes fighting for the progression of black folks, but rather just superheroes that all happen to be black.

And despite his best attempt, not even Blade, aka Snipes, could bring The Black Panther story to the big screen. After a decade or more of trying, the project kept getting push back in favor of more mainstream superhero films.

The silent elephant, or in this case panther, in the room is that in this politically charged climate we find ourselves in, stories like The Black Panther only seem to fan the flames of racial tension. Moreover, how do you market the character’s proverbial blackness without offending a large portion of America and/or whitewashing all of the key elements of what makes The Black Panther a black icon?

Time will tell if this latest attempt to bring The Black Panther to live animation will ever come to fruition. But it will be interesting to see how generic the film is compared to the version written by Hudlin, and if white audiences would be willing to watch a movie that doesn’t gloss over the atrocities of what is happening in Africa.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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