DVD: Reginald Hudlin on Black Panther and Letting His Geek Flag Fly

Certain comic book characters remain popular on the page but seem to defy adaptation to the big screen -- Entertainment Weekly recently asked whether or not we'd ever see a Wonder Woman movie. But for filmmaker and former Black Entertainment Television president Reginald Hudlin, writing first a comic book and then an animated series of Black Panther (out today from Shout! Factory) was a way to visualize a cinematic adventure for a character that Hudlin calls the African equivalent of Captain America.

A quick Black Panther recap for anyone who's not a comics reader: He's not just a superhero, he's T'Challa, the king of Wakanda, a technologically-advanced African nation that has closed itself off from a world that is not yet ready for its futuristic devices. The country stays ahead of the game thanks to its supply of vibranium, and the mantle of Black Panther is passed along royal family lines.

In the DVD, which borrows heavily from Hudlin's comic-book scripts, we learn the origins of T'Challa (voiced by Djimon Hounsou) and his predecessors at the same time that the United States runs a covert operation -- run by a familiar-looking secretary of state named "Dondi Reese" (Alfre Woodard) to invade peaceful, neutral Wakanda for its vibranium supplies. Featuring an all-star cast (that also includes Jill Scott, Carl Lumbly, and Marvel Comics paterfamilias Stan Lee), Black Panther winds up being both a riveting animated serial and a promising storyboard for a potential feature film. (Fans who want to catch up on vintage Black Panther comics, by Hudlin or his predecessors, can find them all at the director's Reggie's World website.)

Hudlin is perhaps best known as the director of films like House Party and Boomerang, but his thorough knowledge of the comics world remained exceedingly apparent during this recent interview:

I knew you were a comics nerd, but I had no idea how deep it went.

[Laughs] Deep!

Your description on the DVD of how all this came to be sounds really serendipitous -- you were writing the comic book, you got the gig at BET, you made the series happen. Did it all fall together that easily?

Yeah, it really did! I think this may be the first time in history where someone green-lit a show based on a book he wrote and produced the show.

It's nice to be the boss.

Even in the boss role, this is pretty weird! [Laughs]

Am I right in that this never actually aired on BET?

That's correct. I green-lit it as a series, but by the time went into production, I had left the network. And by the time we finished the show, the network had kind of changed directions, and they wanted an older, more female audience, and they just didn't see how this fit. This [DVD] is going to be the debut. At one point, we had talked about a debut on iTunes, and there was some legal confusion with that. We've had airings of it outside the US, because it's been sold to a lot of territories around the world, but this is the first time it's available in the US.

You got such a dream cast, but with so many characters, I imagine most of the actors just came in for an afternoon.

Yes, exactly. I think we did a couple days with Djimon -- we had him at the beginning, and then he went off to do The Tempest with Julie Taymor, and then he came back and we did another pass with him, after having recorded all of the other folks, you know, to fine-tune his performance and so he could have more interaction with the other actors.

What's your feeling about Black Panther in the larger Marvel universe? He comes out of that era where they were kind of throwing different characters at us with "Black" in their name, but he seems to have had a longevity that a lot of those other characters didn't. Do you feel like he's moved past tokenism to become an essential part of that world?

Well, I love Black Panther because there's nothing token-esque about him. I know what you mean, and there's other characters that always felt kind of strawman-ish, and I think those characters have never really caught on for that very reason. Conversely, the Black Panther has always had a substantial following because, for me, he really is the equivalent of Captain America. In the same way that Cap represents the best of America's ideals, Black Panther is the same thing for the continent of Africa.

It's also interesting that so many of the black characters of that era -- Falcon, Luke Cage -- were very much presented as guardians of the ghetto, while Black Panther is royalty.

Yes, exactly. And one of the things I really loved, particularly about Christopher Priest's run, is that he really made it clear that this guy is royalty, and there's a level of nobility but also aloofness and toughness that comes with being royalty. And even the fact that when he joined the Avengers, he joined the Avengers because, quite frankly, he wanted to spy on them, to make sure that they weren't going to be a threat to Wakanda.

There's been a lot of talk for years about bringing Black Panther to the big screen -- Wesley Snipes was saying for a long time that he wanted to play him in a movie -- is that something you want to do?

When I first came to Hollywood, I had an overall deal with Sony Pictures who, at the time, had the rights to the Black Panther, and I was very passionate about it. I read some of the drafts of the scripts back then -- they were horrific. They had Black Panther as this guy living in the projects in America who had no idea about his Wakandan heritage or anything. So I basically said, "This is evil! Whether or not I make this movie, you can't make this movie!" [Laughs] Which probably wasn't the politically correct thing to do with the studio, but I was never one to bite my tongue. I think it's great now that it's in the hands of Marvel, it's their property, they're gonna finance the film. And whether I'm involved or not, that's gonna be up to them. The reason why I originally wrote the miniseries was, look, I don't know if there's ever gonna be a Black Panther movie, and I don't know if I'm gonna be involved in it, but at least if you read these comics -- or, now, watch this DVD -- you will see what the Black Panther should be.

You do a great job of combining an origin story with a whole other plot, and you weave them together well. That can be really clunky in some hands, and we've seen that happen in some superhero movies. But you give us the background of the character, even the historical background, and still come up with a cool new adventure for him.

Thank you, man, thank you. That was the goal. The idea was that, folks who watch this DVD, I presume they don't know who the Black Panther is, they may never have read a comic book before. But when they watch this, they'll get all the information they need.

What the hell does vibranium do? Does it do what the writer needs it to do based on the story, or did someone actually come up with its properties?

It was originally established by Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] as a mineral that absorbs vibrations. The example they gave is, a missile would never go off-course because of vibrations shaking it off its trajectory. Or let's say you're fighting Klaw, the Master of Sound -- vibranium would be a useful weapon.

OK, that is officially a geeky reference. So it's not a MacGuffin, then.

It is not a MacGuffin; they established from the beginning what the properties of vibranium are. Now, I can't speak for every issue and every use of vibranium, but they did clearly delineate its qualities at the time.

You've been directing a lot of great TV shows of late -- Modern Family, The Office -- are you getting a kick out of it? We keep hearing that TV is where the action is these days, being more of a writer's medium than the movies. How do you like working on the small screen?

It's great! For me, it's just about storytelling, and storytelling at the highest level. So when you work on a show like Modern Family with incredible scripts and thoroughbred actors, it's a joy to go to work. I just worked on Psych last year -- what a great cast! James Roday, Dulé Hill, just fun guys, a great team. The folks at Outsourced, this great cast of Indian actors, some of them American, some of them British. All super-talented, really making the most of this fantastic opportunity. I'm really having a great time.

You worked with Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder on the graphic novel Birth of a Nation -- was it awkward when you went to work at BET, given how much he's mocked the network over the years?

No -- just the opposite! I think that's the point: it's easy to criticize things, it's hard to fix things. But if all you do is complain, then you're just a whiner. It's all about rolling up your sleeves and making a difference.

And do you feel like you were able to make major changes during your time there?

Absolutely. They had never done original programming before. The first year, the goal they had for me was to deliver four original shows; I delivered eight. The next year, we delivered 16. We broke their ratings record four times in a row, so yeah, we made a difference.

[Top photo of Reginald Hudlin: Getty Images]