When screenwriter Joe Robert Cole first saw the character of Black Panther appear on screen in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, he was excited. Not only because it marked the debut of the world’s first mainstream black superhero in a live-action film, but because he knew that a standalone movie starring Black Panther would likely be on the way next—and he wanted to get involved.
Cole, whose recent work on American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson earned him an Emmy nomination, first begun writing screenplays in college at UC Berkeley. His writing credits include the 2006 coming-of-age drama ATL and the 2011 indie thriller Amber Lake, which he also directed. In 2012, Cole was invited to join Marvel Studios’ writer program, where in-house writers help develop possible screenplays for lesser-known Marvel characters; Guardians of the Galaxy screenwriter Nicole Perlman and Thor: Ragnarok screenwriters Eric Pearson and Christopher Yost are also alumni of the program. Next up, Cole’s writing and directing All Day and a Night, a crime drama starring LaKeith Stanfield (Atlanta and Get Out) and Golden Globe winner Jeffrey Wright (Westworld and Casino Royale).
Cole’s biggest project to date though is Black Panther, the first Marvel film to feature a primarily black cast, with a story responsible for delivering both an exciting new chapter in the MCU as well as having a style and aesthetic that incorporates African culture and heritage. It’s one of the highest anticipated films of the year and breaks new ground in the superhero genre. Complex connected with Cole to talk about all things Black Panther, working in the Marvel writers program, and the importance of diversity in the entertainment industry.
How did you get involved with the Marvel Studios’ writer program?
I got into the program in a different way than everyone else that I know that was in it. From what I understand about the normal process is that you apply, I think by submitting a spec screenplay of some kind, they meet with you and then make their decision from there. I had written a Chinatown-style cop script and they met with me about it. At that meeting, they also said they were thinking of doing a War Machine movie. I pitched a concept and won that job to write the script but they decided, based on what Iron Man 3 was going to be, they weren’t going to do War Machine anymore. But they asked if I’d be interested in joining their writer’s program instead.
What was the program like?
The way it works—and I’m only speaking for myself here—is they give you an office and a character. You read all the comics with that character, then you come up with a story you see for that character. You present it, get notes and if everything moves along, you’re greenlit to write the script. When I was in the program, there were only three writers at a time and each of us were just working on our scripts. I took the place of Nicole Perlman, who wrote [the first] Guardians of the Galaxy in the program. For me, it was a really great experience.
Were you working on Black Panther while you were there?
Not at all. I remember reading some of Christopher Priest’s Black Panther comics while I was in the program and have always found the character fascinating. But it wasn’t until a couple years after I was out that [Marvel producer] Nate Moore told me the studio had an interest in doing a standalone Black Panther film and they reached out to my rep to see if I’d be interested. I jumped at the chance. But there wasn’t an immediate segue, this came a few years later. I was out of the program and working on People v. O. J. Simpson when they reached out to me about Black Panther.
This is a character with an incredible cultural impact. Was there a lot of pressure writing the screenplay to live up to the legacy of this iconic superhero?
I’ve personally always been interested in heroes who show honor in the face of sacrifice, for even those who may not deserve it, because it’s the right thing to do. Doing the right thing is easy when it doesn’t come at a cost.
I wouldn’t say pressure. You just try to work from a place of truth. You ask a lot of questions and try to answer them in the work. With [Black Panther director] Ryan Coogler, we looked at the Black Panther canon and read all the comics and from there, crafted our own twist on who T’Challa is and how to tell his story. This character is unique and we tried to remain grounded in the realities of today and where he fits in the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also tackling how this character, who is relentless, emotional, and wise, would navigate the hurdles we wanted to throw at him. We tried to challenge him in a way that I feel like the comics did. You just have to kind of pour your heart and everything you have into projects like this.
What can you share with us about Black Panther? What should we know about T’Challa?
To me, one of the amazing things that separates T’Challa from many other superheroes is that in his eyes, he’s not a superhero at all. He’s much more pragmatic than that. When we meet him in Civil War, he’s the protector of his people. And then once his father dies, he must also now lead as king and hold Wakanda together. I’ve personally always been interested in heroes who show honor in the face of sacrifice, for even those who may not deserve it, because it’s the right thing to do. Doing the right thing is easy when it doesn’t come at a cost.
But for Panther, his victories always seem to come from some personal cost yet he consistently chooses the greater good. Ryan Coogler and I love that nobility about him because it makes him a hero that doesn’t easily get in his own way. As storytellers, we tried to put T’Challa in situations that challenge his selflessness to see how far we could push it.
From the trailers, fans have been particularly excited about seeing Black Panther’s production elements inspired by African art, clothing, and culture. To create the fictional city of Wakanda, what was the process like to imagine this technologically advanced nation while also keeping it unique and distinct from Western technology?
That’s a good question because you’ve got Wakanda as a creative setting for this story but also the creation of new technology in the film as a whole. It was a fluid collaboration—we were writing the screenplay while Black Panther’s production designer Hannah Beachler, who worked on Moonlight and Lemonade, and costume designer Ruth Carter, who worked on Malcolm X and Marshall, conceptualized the clothing, the history, and the physical production elements. It was very much a back-and-forth process and what we tried to do was to root as much of the story in cultures and people from the continent. Each of Africa’s nations has its own history and mythology, so there was a wealth of materials to draw from and imagine how the presence of an element like Vibranium would’ve led to Wakandan technology emerging apart from Western styles.
Black Panther also boasts an incredible cast of black actors and actresses, including Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and Forest Whitaker, among many others. Will it continue to be a struggle for Hollywood to showcase diversity in film and television or are we finally reaching a turning point where we’ll see a wider range of ethnicities represented on screen?
We tried to remain grounded in the realities of today and where Black Panther fits in the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also tackling how this character, who is relentless, emotional, and wise, would navigate the hurdles we wanted to throw at him.
There’s a lot of work ahead. There’s an old justification that “movies that feature people of color don’t make money,” which is being proven wrong consistently. Historically both on-screen and behind-the-scenes, opportunities have been afforded to a pool of people that exclude those of color and women. This limits the number of people in the pipeline who are able to attain experience to creatively deliver on a high level, and move into decision-making positions to choose what movies are being made, who should make them, and who should be in them. That doesn’t diminish the talent or hard work of people within that pool but it does misrepresent the world we live in by narrowing the field of perspectives, life experiences, and stories that are told.
Reversing a system that has been broken since its inception takes time. But the good news is the talent is out there, eager for the opportunity. And there’s a desire from the public for change. It’s a business—if people are spending money to see more diverse stories on screen, then more diverse stories will be made.