'Black Panther' Reflects Hollywood 'Moving Out Of The Same Old Stories,' Author Says

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"Who is the Black Panther?" by Jesse J. Holland. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Who is the Black Panther?" by Jesse J. Holland. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The much-anticipated Marvel superhero movie "Black Panther," the first to star a majority black cast, opens Friday.

Journalist Jesse J. Holland wrote the accompanying novel "Who is the Black Panther?" and says the film's release comes as part of a growing trend in Hollywood.

"As we're seeing in a lot of entertainment, Hollywood is trying to diversify," Holland (@jessejholland) tells Here & Now's Lisa Mullins. "Hollywood is moving out of the same old stories that they've been using for years and years and years. And in fact, we're seeing a renaissance, especially for black superheroes."

Interview Highlights

On the significance of the new film "Black Panther"

"The Black Panther was actually the first black mainstream superhero. So the character itself has a long history in comic books, going all the way back to 1966. The excitement about the movie is about the fact that there's never been a mainstream superhero movie with a cast like this ... like Chadwick Boseman, you have Forest Whitaker, you have Angela Bassett — you have a majority black cast in a major Marvel movie. Marvel has been ruling the Hollywood movie world for the last few years, but they've never put money into a major movie like this, a movie where young black kids can go see superheroes who look just like them. The entire cast looks just like them. So just as we saw a huge movement behind 'Wonder Woman,' which was the first female-led superhero movie, we're seeing the same thing behind 'Black Panther.' "

"We don't see ourselves in just one color or two colors anymore. We see ourselves as a huge, diversified country whose heroes can be of any race."

Jesse J. Holland

On how buzz surrounding the Black Panther character fits into a larger trend with black superheroes

"You have the CW with its series 'Black Lightning,' you have 'Luke Cage' on Netflix. So we're seeing Hollywood realizing that you can tell these types of stories, with characters of different colors and gender, and everyone will want to see them."

On the fictional African nation Wakanda, where the story takes place

"Wakanda is the only country on the planet that has a rich deposit of this metal called vibranium, and vibranium sort of does exactly what the name implies — it absorbs vibrations. So that is one of the materials that Captain America's shield is made from, and the only place you can get it is from this African country that is very isolationist. They don't want anybody coming into that country.

"The Black Panther's costume has veins of vibranium running through it. So when you shoot at him, the bullets just hit the suit and stop, and his whole family, their entire existence has been about protecting that mound of vibranium, and Wakanda, from the rest of the world."

On where he began with his book

"The original origin of the Black Panther comes from 1966 from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Marvel then hired Reginald Hudlin to rewrite that origin in the 2000s. Well, when they got ready to start filming the movie, Marvel came to me and said, 'We want you to update that origin to 2017-2018, and it will fit the world of today.' In fact, I start part of the book right here in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which of course didn't exist before the last couple of years. So I get to play with things I get to see every day."

On updating the Black Panther's origin story for the present day

"We had to take into account that some things that happened in the 1960s weren't really appropriate for the world of today. For example, the Black Panther comic book used to be called 'Jungle Action,' so that would never work for today. But what we tried to do is we tried to take these themes, especially the themes of the Dora Milaje, who is the all-female bodyguard unit of the Black Panther, and explain why something like that might exist. In fact, the Dora Milaje exists only because way back in the past, they were considered to be trainees, wives-in-training, for the Black Panther. But over the years, instead of becoming wives-in-training, what they became is an elite unit of warriors, and they were, I have to say they were some of the best parts of writing this book, to be able to write this strong sisterhood of women for whom the Black Panther depends on, and his country wouldn't work without them. So you take those old themes that the comic book writers used in the past, and you try to make them make sense in a world of today. And I think, once again, the Dora Milaje are gonna be the best parts of the movie, and they definitely were some of my favorite parts of writing in the book."


On other places where the black superhero resurgence is being seen

"One of the places that I'm seeing them more and more is, not just on the screen, but being used as symbols in American culture. Back when I was reporting in Ferguson after the Michael Brown death, I started seeing images of the black Captain America, that's being used by Marvel, being used in protests. And I think we'll see a lot of the images of the Black Panther around the country now that the movie is about to hit, and then the book is out.

"So I think not only are they going to be entertainment on the screens, but they'll also be used as icons, as symbols of the way this country is diversifying, and about how we see ourselves as a country. We don't see ourselves in just one color or two colors anymore. We see ourselves as a huge, diversified country whose heroes can be of any race. It's not just a story of a man running a country, it's a man and his family and the women around him. And I'm hoping that's the next thing that Marvel does find — a strong, black female superhero, and put her on screen."

This article was originally published on February 13, 2018.

This segment aired on February 13, 2018.



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