MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now, mention the words Black Panther and you might think of the black empowerment group that was active in the late '60s and '70s. But before the political group, Black Panther was the first black superhero in mainstream American comics. Now more than 40 years later, the superhero is back in a new animated TV and DVD series based on the original comic.
The 12-episode series is a partnership between Marvel Knights Animation and the cable network BET. It is inspired by a graphic novel written by filmmaker and former president of entertainment for BET Networks, Reginald Hudlin. And Reginald Hudlin is with us now from our studios at NPR West.
Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.
Mr. REGINALD HUDLIN (Filmmaker): Thank you. Glad to be here.
MARTIN: Now, you're too young to have been a devotee of the original Black Panther, I think. So how did you get interested in it?
Mr. HUDLIN: That is not true. My older brother would bring home copies. He would not let me touch them unless I washed my hands first. But I grew up reading "Fantastic 4" 52, which was the debut of the Black Panther.
MARTIN: OK. So you did know about it from childhood. So what made you want to do this new version of the series?
Mr. HUDLIN: Well, the amazing thing about the Black Panther, first of all, the Black Panther comic book and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, debuted in the same year, in 1966. So you had these brothers in Oakland and these two Jewish guys in New York who have the same brilliant idea at the same time, which is Black Panther is a very cool name.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HUDLIN: And the Black Panther superhero is a perfect idea. He's an African king who's also a superhero. He has this technologically advanced country that is completely independent. He's wealthy, he's intelligent, he's brave and strong. He's as perfect a creation as Superman or Batman or any of the, you know, great comic book characters.
MARTIN: Can I just ask - I think what I'm wondering is, did you always have this idea rattling around in your head that this was something you wanted to do something with at some point? Or was there a eureka moment for you that made you think, yes, now is the time?
Mr. HUDLIN: I always wanted to write comic books. And the irony is it's easier to break into film and television than it is to break into the comic book business. So after years of success in film and television, I got to get a meeting at Marvel, and I told them about my passion. And they said, well, what do you want to do? I said, I want to write "Black Panther." So I left that meeting with a job.
MARTIN: OK. Well, here it is. Let's play a clip from the first episode. This is where Black Panther encounters Captain America in his kingdom of Wakanda. This is just after the end of World War II. Let's play a short clip. Here it is.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Black Panther")
Unidentified Man: (As Captain America) Maybe you just lop off the head of every newcomer who hits town.
Mr. DJIMON HOUNSOU (Actor): (As Black Panther) If we did that, you wouldn't have yours.
Unidentified Man: (As Captain America) But those Nazis were here for a reason.
Mr. HOUNSOU: (As Black Panther) Yes. To steal our vibranium, the mineral that can only be found here in Wakanda. Hitler needs it for the next generation of their missile systems, as do you.
Unidentified Man: (As Captain America) These are dangerous times. You need to choose a side.
Mr. HOUNSOU: (As Black Panther) We have: our own.
MARTIN: So I want to mention that you've got some big-name talent voicing the characters. The voice of Black Panther is that of the Academy Award-nominated actor Djimon Hounsou, originally from Benin in West Africa. You've also got Kerry Washington, Alfre Woodard, singer Jill Scott. That must've been fun.
Was it hard to get people to participate in this? Or was this one of those things where people saw the same thing as you, which is, oh, no brainer. Let me in.
Mr. HUDLIN: Fortunately, it was the latter. I approached Djimon first, and Djimon said, yes, I've been tracking this project. So he was immediately on board and enthusiastic. Same with Kerry Washington, who's a dear friend of mine. Alfre Woodard, another dear friend of mine. My favorite story is actually from Jill Scott, who is, of course, very well known as a singer, but also as an actress. She was in an HBO series playing an African detective.
And so when I approached her about playing Storm in the animated series, she said, you know, when I was a kid, I made a list of things - of goals, and one of them was to play Storm. So I'm happy you called, but I'm not surprised.
MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Reginald Hudlin, the creator of a new animated series based on the comic superhero, the Black Panther.
Now, the series, to this point, has aired on Australia TV. Do I have that right?
Mr. HUDLIN: Yes.
MARTIN: Is it slated for a U.S. appearance?
Mr. HUDLIN: It is not. You know, it's - actually, when we created the series, it sold in a lot of territories all over the world, but right now BET, has the rights to air it in the U.S. And when we originally produced the series in the time in between, they've changed programming direction, and they're saying that the show is too male and too young for their audience.
MARTIN: I am curious about who you think will be interested in it.
Mr. HUDLIN: Well, I can tell you, in the U.S., because we've released it on DVD for about a month now, and it is one of the fastest-selling DVDs in Marvel history. You know, it's outselling similar DVDs about X-Men and Iron Man, and those are characters who've had major feature films. But Black Panther is selling faster than both of those.
MARTIN: But it is curious, though, that you haven't found, yet, a distribution platform, you know, over the air. I mean, I think some might argue that it is violent. I think it's rather violent. I don't know if you think so. But it is not more violent than a number of video games that are widely available and are shown. I'm just wondering if you have an opinion about why there hasn't been a broadcast or cable distribution yet.
Mr. HUDLIN: Well, I mean, most animated shows on television, they fall into two categories. One of them is programming for children. And as you said, this is a little sophisticated in terms of the violence, in terms of some of the political stuff. And most of the adult-oriented stuff tends to be family comedy, a la "The Simpsons," "Family Guy," "The Cleveland Show," things like that.
This is a different kind of thing. It is dramatic. It is, you know, politically provocative. And all those things, I think, are a plus, which is why it's been a huge success to a very, very broad audience. I have to say that the reviews have been uniformly enthusiastic. Again, you know, the sales have been great. The first week, we sold out in stores all over the country. So the question isn't is it something that people want to see, because the numbers speak for themselves. The, you know, the DVD is selling incredibly well.
MARTIN: Yes, you've mentioned that about three or four times. Thank you.
Mr. HUDLIN: I'm sorry.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HUDLIN: I'm sorry.
MARTIN: Nicely done. But...
Mr. HUDLIN: No, because - but I emphasize that only to say that one of the most frustrating things is that there's this so-called convention of wisdom about black superheroes, that black comic books don't sell and black superheroes don't sell. And a lot of the battle for black creators is overcoming these really erroneous presumptions.
And, for example, look at Blade. Blade has had three movies, each of whom who have made over $100 million. But Blade comic books don't sell. So you go, well, is there a problem with the character? Well, no. Is there a problem with the audience? No, clearly there's an audience. There's a disconnect between getting the audience that wants to see it access to this character.
And that is the frustrating thing when you do a - something like the Black Panther, because, you know, you know there's an audience, and when the audience does get a chance to grab it, they're very enthusiastic. I've talked to parents who actually, when I wrote the comic book, as well, they would read the comic book to their kids at night, like a bedtime story.
I know adults who said, look, forget my kids. I just want to watch this. And it's not a male/female thing. It's not black, white, Latin, Asian thing. I have talked to 40-year-old white men who said, I dressed up as Black Panther when I was seven years old for Halloween. So it's a very broad audience. Whatever you think might be the stumbling blocks aren't really there.
MARTIN: So we know what your costume will be for this Halloween.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: But before we let you go, you mentioned that when the original Black Panther came out, it came out at the same time - the original comic, it came out at the same time that the movement - the political movement was born, and it clearly was some of a resonance. What is it you think people are responding to now in your series?
Mr. HUDLIN: Well, I think, you know, the idea of an uncompromised, unabashedly heroic black man. I mean, black men get a lot of bashing in the press. At the same time, there's so many heroes from - in popular media, from Sidney Poitier to Denzel Washington, to Will Smith. And I think there's a tremendous hunger from all audiences for a black superhero - not an anti-hero, but a hero, a guy who is independent, who stands on his own feet. The same way we cheer for the independence movements that's happening throughout Africa and the Middle East, because you see people standing up and fighting for what's right. The Black Panther represents those ideals played out on a big, fantastic scale.
MARTIN: Reginald Hudlin is one of the creators of the animated series "The Black Panther." He's a filmmaker. He's also the former president of entertainment for the cable network BET. He was with us from NPR West.
Reginald Hudlin, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. HUDLIN: Thank you.
MARTIN: If you want to find out more about the "Black Panther" series, we'll have a link on our website. Just go to npr.org and click on the Programs tab, and then on TELL ME MORE.
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