Prior to his vampire action franchise Blade, Wesley Snipes says he tried to work on a Black Panther project back in the ’90s but had trouble getting it made.
In the real world, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther had a record-breaking $192 million box-office opening (the fifth biggest) this past weekend—we got the Black Panther we deserved. But imagine an alternate reality in which Wesley Snipes plays T’Challa. In a recent interview with Variety, Snipes recalled he and his agent toying with the idea in 1992.
“We thought it would be very cool and atypical for a Marvel comic-book character,” says Snipes. “Something that would appeal to white people, black people, Asian people, and have some martial arts in it and expose the world of Africa in a way that most people were unfamiliar with and very contrary to the stereotypes that are projected about the continent.”
According to Snipes, three separate Black Panther scripts were floated, but matching the project to a capable director proved difficult:
It was quite challenging finding the right director. We wanted to keep it true to the comic book. In the comic book, Wakanda is a mecca of sorts of diverse culture and beliefs and systems and skills and warriors and, of course, the martial arts,” says Snipes. “African martial arts was featured in our version, which most people in our world didn’t know exist. It would have been a culturally diverse, shithole! [He laughs, referring to Donald Trump.] A very rich culturally diverse shithole.
Snipes went further into depth about the Black Panther project that wasn’t, during an interview with Slate last week . There, he says his interest in African diaspora studies (which he minored in during college) piqued his interest:
I imagined the world of technology, and the ability to do medical procedures and operations on a holographic image. The great writers of Black Panther already included these things in the storyline, the vibranium, all of these things were like, wow. They’re technologically sound, advanced, they’ve got flying things, they’ve got things that morph, and they’re blending the modern tech with the ancient traditional customs, the healing practices, with the Western medical science. That was fantastic to me. I mean, I was even down with the tights and everything, the leotard, it was all good. I would do it.
Alright. At the time, Snipes also says one of the directors in contention, John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood, Higher Learning), had a deeply political vision in mind for the movie:
He thought the idea of picking the Black Panther out of Wakanda, out of the high-tech world, and bringing him into the civil rights movement, and the civil rights mission in West L.A. was a good move, was a good idea. I was like, “My man, my man, look, you cannot sell any toys, you’re not going to sell any records, you ain’t none of that if we go down that route.”
Plus, you gonna freak people out. The white community might break out, you come talking about the Black Panther and we already got the [real] Black Panthers from the nationalists and the revolutionaries from the ’70s and the ’60s. Man, no, clearly, if there was an issue with selling the concept to the foreign market before that came along, once you throw that kind of storyline into the mix, it’s dead on arrival. It’s dead on arrival. He was like, ‘Naw, naw, because it’s about the father, and the son, and they have this rift.’ I’m like, ‘Man, this is … no, no, no, no, no.’ I love John, but he might tell the story a little differently, but that’s the way I remember it.
Who knows what could have been. Snipes went on to star in the highly successful Blade in 1998, while the Black Panther idea didn’t get past the screenplay and fantasizing stage. Despite the eventual success of Blade, Snipes says that idea was a hard sell, too, in part because studio execs made the preposterous assumption that a black action film wouldn’t do well globally. He told Slate:
I remember, one of the executives of the studio at the time, in the screening, commented after they did the focus group, and they got back the numbers, and they saw how the numbers was so high, and there was so much appeal for the character and the world, he commented, ‘I don’t understand why people like this.’ There were others who thought that black people or black talent in film doesn’t sell internationally, doesn’t sell foreign, doesn’t sell in Japan. Blade comes out, and it blows up in Japan, despite the fact that the lead is a black guy. These were testaments to the lack of cultural awareness, intelligence about the world itself, the global landscape, and the appeal that African American culture has around the world.