With Marvel’s new “Black Panther” shaping up to be a commercial and critical hit, Heat Vision caught up with one-time wannabe Wakanda hero Wesley Snipes to yak about his abandoned attempt at bringing the character to the big screen.
The “Passenger 57” star spent considerable time in the ’90s developing a feature based on the Marvel classic but the project was an uphill battle from day-one, perhaps conceived a little before its time.
“I think Black Panther spoke to me because he was noble, and he was the antithesis of the stereotypes presented and portrayed about Africans, African history and the great kingdoms of Africa,” Snipes tells THR. “It had cultural significance, social significance. It was something that the black community and the white community hadn’t seen before.”
Marvel had approached Snipes, then a big name, and his then manager, Doug Robertson, about the project. Believing it’d be an opportunity to show the beauty and lush history of Africa, the “Demolition Man” actor signed on.
“Many people don’t know that there were fantastic, glorious periods of African empires and African royalty — Mansa Musa [emperor of the West African Mali Empire] and some of the wealthiest men in the world compared to the wealth of today,” Snipes explains. “That was always very, very attractive. And I loved the idea of the advanced technology. I thought that was very forward thinking.”
At the time, Marvel weren’t known for producing the big superhero movies they do today – Dolph Lundgren’s “The Punisher” and the buried “Fantastic Four” movie from Roger Corman (1994) were about as good as it got. The studio saw Snipes as someone that could potentially help launch the film label into bigger leagues.
Right away, the project met roadblocks – for one, nobody quite understood the picture.
“They think you want to come out with a black beret and clothing and then there’s a movie,” he says, referring to 1960s civil rights revolutionaries. Snipes had to educate many on the comic book character.
Columbia ultimately decided to do the movie but the search to find a director and a decent script would prove troublesome.
“They were trying to find the young, up-and-coming black directors,” Snipes says, adding that John Singleton (“Boyz N’ The Hood”) and Mario Van Peebles (“New Jack City”) were in the mix.
Snipes says he was intimidated by Singleton’s vision for the film.
“I laid on him my vision of the film being closer to what you see now: the whole world of Africa being a hidden, highly technically advanced society, cloaked by a force field, Vibranium,” Snipes begins. “John was like, ‘Nah! Hah! Hah! See, he’s got the spirit of the Black Panther, but he is trying to get his son to join the [civil rights activist] organization. And he and his son have a problem, and they have some strife because he is trying to be politically correct and his son wants to be a knucklehead.’ ”
Laughing, Snipes continued, “I am loosely paraphrasing our conversation. But ultimately, John wanted to take the character and put him in the civil rights movement. And I’m like, ‘Dude! Where’s the toys?! They are highly technically advanced, and it will be fantastic to see Africa in this light opposed to how Africa is typically portrayed.’ I wanted to see the glory and the beautiful Africa. The jewel Africa.”
“Thank God,” Snipes proclaims. “I love John, but I am so glad we didn’t go down that road, because that would have been the wrong thing to do with such a rich project.”
As for the costume Snipes assumed he’d wear as the title character?
“Actually, I figured it would be a leotard,” he says. “A leotard with maybe some little cat ears on it. I would have to be in shape and just be straight bodied up. I never imagined anything more than a leotard at the time, which I didn’t have a problem with because I started out as a dancer.”
Former Marvel Editor in Chief Tom DeFalco met with screenwriter Terry Hayes who he said “gave this incredible pitch” from beginning to end.
..which began with a battle in Wakanda, and baby T’Challa being put on a river in a basket to be saved. Years later, T’Challa is a grown man living somewhere else, going about his life. Suddenly he’s attacked in an elevator in an elaborately choreographed fight scene — and the story goes from there.
“I just remember as the writer was describing the scene, I could see it in my mind,” recalls DeFalco. “[I thought], ‘If this is our Black Panther movie, sign me up!’ He really had a terrific handle on the character, on the action, on the stakes and everything else.”
After a little more push, Snipes decided to can his idea.
“Ultimately, we couldn’t find the right combination of script and director and, also at the time, we were so far ahead of the game in the thinking, the technology wasn’t there to do what they had already created in the comic book,” Snipes says.
As it would turn out, Snipes would help launch Marvel’s ‘bigger league’ of movies – kicking off with “Blade” (1998). The actor would play the role of the ass-kicking vampire three times, and seemingly harbours hope to return to the role.
“I am very much open to all of the possibilities,” Snipes says. “If Blade 4 comes along, that is a conversation we can have. And there are other characters in the Marvel universe that, if they want to invite me to play around with, I am with that too. I think the fans have a hunger for me to revision the Blade character, so that could limit where they could place me as another character in that universe.”
As for whether Snipes will be lining up to see Marvel’s “Black Panther” on opening day – hard to say, but he’s supportive and hopes it does well.
“Even though I am not a part of this particular project, I support it 1,000 percent, and I am absolutely convinced that it will be a catalyst for change and open other doors and other opportunities,” he says. “And we need that kind of diversity and different flavor now. He is a young, talented actor, and I think he is going to make it his own. I hope they give him a great opportunity to really come into the fullness of the character.”