Interview Date: 01/03/2011
Run Date: 01/21/2011
It’s one thing for a guy to be a writer, director, and producer, but how often do you see someone with those credits make further jumps to comic book author and, from there, to network president? That’s Reginald Hudlin for you: always leaving ‘em guessing. After doing the writer/director thing on “House Party” and “Boomerang,” along with writing “Bebe’s Kids” and directing “The Great White Hype” and “The Ladies Man,” he stepped into the world of television, helming episodes of “The Bernie Mac Show” and serving as executive producer on “The Boondocks.” Even Hudlin was surprised, however, when Marvel Comics offered him the opportunity to write the adventures of one of his all-time favorite superheroes, Black Panther. After taking over the reins of BET, an animated “Black Panther” series got the green light, but due to various circumstances, the show never saw the light of day…until now. With Shout Factory releasing “Black Panther” on DVD as part of their animated Marvel Knights collection, Hudlin is happy to chat about the experience of bringing the adventures of the man known as T’Challa to life, and as Bullz-Eye soon discovered, he doesn’t mind talking about some of his other projects, either.
Bullz-Eye: So what was your original introduction to the Black Panther? Do you remember the plot of the first story you ever read?
Reginald Hudlin: Sure! It was the introduction of the character in Fantastic Four, and he was fighting Klaw. It was an incredible story. We meet this guy, he’s the king of this technologically advanced African kingdom and he beats the Fantastic Four. And you know, it’s a guy, an African king with no super powers, who beats all four of them. (Laughs) It was incredible!
BE: Now, at that point, he was pretty much the first real African American hero that Marvel had had, is that right? He was pre-Falcon.
RH: Yes, pre-Falcon. But remember, “black man,” not “African American.”
BE: Whoops. Sorry.
RH: But, yes, he was the first. They basically had a character before him named Gabe Jones, who was a member of the Howling Commandos. He was, I would say, the first non-embarrassing, normal human black character in comics. But the first superhero was the Black Panther, yes.
BE: How far back did you actually want to take a stab at writing “Black Panther”?
RH: Well, I have a rejection letter from Marvel that I got when I was in elementary school. (Laughs) It wasn’t specifically about the Black Panther, but I was just, like, “How can I get a job there?” You know, I never imagined that I would actually be able to write comic books. It was just something that I wanted to do. And it was just a weird series of introductions that led to me meeting Joe Quesada, them finding out my love for comics, and going, “Well, what do you want to do? What do you want to write?” So suddenly, you get asked this question that you’re not prepared for, and so I said, “The Black Panther,” and they said, “Okay.” So I was left with an assignment. Originally it was just going to be six issues, and I turned in those six issues and they said, “What if you kept going? What would happen?” So I told them what I would do next…and that led to five years.
BE: Wow. So how hard was it to adapt your stories from comics to television? I mean, obviously, film and television is your usual medium, but…did you follow any particular template?
RH: Well, it was actually great. It’s great to get a second whack at a story because when you do it…once it gets out into the public, people respond to it, and you see what worked or what didn’t work, there are certain things you kind of want to spend more time with, so I got a chance to do that. So I got to spend more time on certain action sequences. I got to introduce Storm early. She wasn’t in that original storyline at all, but I put her in because, well, who doesn’t want a beautiful woman who can shoot lightning bolts? (Laughs) And the nicest compliment I got was from my editor at Marvel, who saw it and said, “You know, it’s actually better as a television series than it was as a comic book…and I loved the comic books!” But for him, the humor in the writing came through more clearly when actually hearing the words spoken by actors.
BE: I was very impressed the way it was adapted into animated form. I mean, it pretty well mirrors John Romita, Jr.’s style.
RH: Yeah, and that was a big thing for me. I mean, I was really grateful to Denys Cowan, who is my head of animation at BET, because it just came from us sitting around talking about what shows we should do, and then he goes, “We should do a Black Panther show.” And I said, “Yeah, that would be a cool idea.” I kind of let it go, and then he comes back six months later with the first three minutes of the series, and it looks just like John Romita, Jr.’s art. I was, like, “Oh, my god, what have you done, Denys? This is revolutionary!” (Laughs) But Denys and John Romita, Jr. are close friends. John was so happy to hear that Denys and I were working on it. He was also blown away to see that we were very faithful to the work. That’s one of the things I like most about the series. Everyone kind of copies whatever the style of the moment is and it’s, like, “No, we’re not doing anime. No, we’re not doing the great stuff that they did at Warner Brothers with the Batman series. We’re creating a new look here.”
BE: And in a sense, it was a little bit ahead of its time, anyway, because you have kind of the stop-motion comic look like DC did with “Watchmen,” and like Dark Horse has been doing with “Buffy.” I mean, it’s obviously more than just motion comics, but it has a resemblance to them because it maintains the original art so much.
RH: Yeah, I mean, exactly. I don’t really know what to call it. Some folks call it a motion comic. At the same time, there’s way more animation in the “Black Panther” series than there ever was in anything that Hanna Barbera ever did. So…I don’t know what you call that, you know? I just figure that I’m going to put it out and let people decide.
BE: What’s your favorite addition to the Black Panther continuity that you brought to the table, that makes you most proud for people to look back and say, “Oh, that was Reginald Hudlin’s idea”?
RH: Well, you know, I guess there are two things that I’m very proud of. See, one thing I didn’t think I was adding, and since I don’t know if I added this or not, I don’t know if it counts or not. (Laughs) But when I was a kid, there are certain ways I interpreted the character. One of my interpretations was that Wakanda had always been this advanced civilization. This wasn’t anything new. So then when I kind of made that explicit in the book, some people were, like, “Wait a minute, you’re changing things.” I’m, like, “I’m not changing anything. It was always like that.” So I don’t know if I changed that or not, or if it is just more matter of it was a gray area that I made more specific. But the fact is, there are certain tribes in Africa that were building metal alloys when people in Europe were still living in caves, so my idea is, like, “Okay, so at different times, different cultures are in the lead in terms of global advancement, right? If at one point Africa – or at least a certain tribe in Africa – was that advanced, what if they never stopped? They would still be advanced as they were several centuries ago.” So that’s where that impulse came from. The other is…you know, look, if you’re a king, one of the most important parts of your job is to have a queen and have heirs. I mean, that’s kind of the number one part of the job, I would think. Like, continuation of the blood line. So when they asked me if I wanted to continue doing the series, and I said, “Yes,” and they asked what I would do, I said, “The Black Panther has to get married. You know, he’s a king, he can’t put that off and go around putting his life in danger.” So we talked about it, and the thing I’m most grateful for was when Marvel said, “Yeah, you can have Storm. He can marry Storm.” I’m, like, “Are you kidding me? That is the marriage of the century!” I mean, two high powered superheroes like that coming together, it’s fantastic. So that is something that so many people can’t believe it happened. They’re so grateful that I was able to make that dream come true for so many readers.
BE: Did you have some fan boys grousing about, like, “Oh, he’s just doing it to get Black Panther involved with the X-Men books and up the circulation”?
RH: Oh, yeah, there was definitely the “he’s not worthy of Storm,” “Storm should hook up with Wolverine,” “he’s not famous enough.” There’s all of that kind of stuff, which I guess is typical for any wedding, right? (Laughs) And that’s the whole point of having a better half, you know, the cool guy marries the hottest chick he can get. And I don’t think you get hotter than Storm. I mean, the fact is, she’s a princess, you know? That’s in her back story. And he’s a Wakanda king. So it actually on every level makes all of the sense in the world.
BE: So tell me a little about the birthing pains of the animated series. Obviously, it was coming along swimmingly, and yet we kept waiting for it show up on BET…and waiting and waiting. It kept being postponed and postponed, and now finally, we’ve got it on DVD, but…
RH: Right. Well, you know, it was many complications. The easy part, thank goodness, was putting together the cast. And we got an amazing cast. “We need a guy who plays T’Challa.” “There’s a really good African actor who looks like a superhero, and he got nominated for an Oscar. Let’s see if we can get him,” you know? So, boom, we get Djimon Hounsou, which is amazing. And then Alfre Woodard and I have been friends for years, we’ve been dying to work together, so I called Alfre and was, like, “This is it, this is our first chance to work together.” She said, “Oh, great!” And Kerry Washington is a friend, I called her. And we couldn’t do this thing without Stan Lee; we got Stan. The most amazing call had to be Jill Scott’s. I have been a fan of hers for awhile, you know, we’ve met a few times, so I called her and I said, “Would you be interested in Storm?” And I started telling her who the character is, and she says “Oh, I know who Storm is.” Apparently, when she was a kid, she wrote this list of things she wanted to do…and one of them was to play Storm.
RH: I was, like, Wow! It’s destiny, I love it!” (Laughs) So we get this awesome cast, but fine tuning the process of the animation was tricky because no one had really done flash animation like this before. So we kept doing a lot of experimentation with it. Then, as we’re in production, I decided that I wanted to leave the network. So the project was in this kind of limbo because, basically, it was really my baby, you know. It was adapting my work. I was basically hands-on producing it and writing it. I was doing all of this stuff. So it was kind of a transition as I left the network, and then we had to kind of do a deal that formalized what I was doing on the show as a writer and producer. So we had to sort all of that out and then get back to work. So that caused a tremendous amount of delay. And then, all of the energy I was putting toward running an entire network, I was putting into this one show. So I was kind of, like, “Do that over, do that over.” So a lot of work put in to getting it to where wanted it to be. And, of course, if you ask me, I would probably re-do the whole thing, but people see it and like it, so… (Trails off) Basically, we ran out of money, so I stopped. (Laughs). So it took a long time. By the time we had finished it, the network decided that they wanted to take the whole network in a different direction. Kind of older, more female, and they didn’t see how this fit into the kind of demographic thing that they wanted to reach. I was, like, “Okay...”
BE: “Your loss.”
RH: Yeah. I mean, I just know when Nickelodeon put Marvel superheroes on, theit ratings went up 1000%. I mean not a hundred, a thousand. So it’s, like, “Okay, that’s your decision.” But Marvel, of course, was still very gung ho about the thing, and they had a relationship. They said, “Look, we’ll just put it out on DVD and we’ll get this whole thing going.” So I was, like, “Great, let’s just go!”
BE: Setting aside Black Panther for this question, what would you say is your favorite project you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
RH: Oh, gosh. Well, I guess “Cosmic Slop.” It was a science-fiction series I did for HBO. And, you know, it didn’t go to series, but so many people email me and stop me all the time. “Oh, where can I get it on DVD? We love that! Why don’t you make more?” So, you know, people really love that show ,so I can’t complain, I just wish we were able to do more. You know, I hope one day they kind of revisit those concepts and do it bigger. I guess the best compliment was…the first story, “Space Traders,” which is based on a South African story, won a Cable Ace award for best actor and best short piece or whatever. And I remember talking to Quentin Tarantino and it was, like, “Why couldn’t you make that a movie? You did it as a TV series. What’s wrong with you?” He’s cursing at me, and I’m, like, “I know, I know…” So after being browbeaten by Quentin Tarantino, I’ve learned my lesson. (Laughs) One day I will revisit that portrayal, maybe in feature form.
BE: Are there any actual films that you feel are underrated?
RH: Well, you know, it’s funny. I mean, “Bébé's Kids” is a movie that is really beloved. I mean, I talk to adults, young adults now who grew up on “Bébé's Kids.” They were, like, “Oh, my God, Reggie, we watched that DVD every day.” I mean, I look back at the film and I like it, but I could make it 100 times better now because…I have kids of my own now, so I feel like I know how to make products for children better now than I did when I was young myself. But, again, it’s something that is very beloved by a lot of people, so I appreciate that. Again, to know that at least one generation, if not two, have grown up on it is just…when you talk to a room full of kids and…you know, I went and talked to a Boys and Girls Club once, and they were, like, “This is Mr. Hudlin and he made ‘House Party.’ “ No response. “’Boomerang.’” No Response. “’Bébé's Kids.’” And there’s just this roar! And now my six year old daughter says, “Make a movie for us!” Those kinds of marching orders you really can’t ignore, so I hope to do something else for kids some time.
BE: We did a feature at our website called “Animated and Forgotten,” about our favorite underrated feature films that aren’t remembered as fondly as we thought they ought to be, and we had “Bébé's Kids” on there.
RH: Oh, wow, that’s really nice! That’s great.
BE: Well, you obviously have been keeping busy on television: you directed an episode of “Outsourced,” you did a couple of episodes of “Modern Family.”
RH: Yeah, “Outsourced,” “Modern Family,” “The Office,” “Psych.” I’ve been cranking out a lot of stuff. Also…I mean, we haven’t officially announced it, but I just set up a couple of pilots. I just shot a pilot for Comedy Central, and I’m developing some more stuff for them and for some other networks. So I cannot complain. I feel very blessed and working really hard developing some new feature projects. So, you know, I am dancing as fast as I can. (Laughs)
BE: I see on IMDb that they have you as the director of “The Bill Burr and Kevin Hart Project.” We’re huge fans of Bill Burr here.
RH: Oh, my God, Bill Burr is so unbelievable. He is so funny, he’s such a nice guy. And Bill and Kevin together are unbelievably funny. I mean, those guys…because they really are friends in real life, and the contrast of their personalities is hilarious. So I’m really excited about that.
BE: Now, is it a traditional sitcom, or is it variety?
RH: No, no, it’s a single camera comedy. It’s basically not far from their own lives, meaning two guys who care about each other but really different personalities. You know, Bill, who’s just, like, this brilliant, respected comic; Kevin, who’s just a hot Hollywood guy on the rise; and them navigating this world together. It was just one of those great things where, even if we weren’t shooting, you hear the two of them talking and I’m, like, “Oh, my God, turn the camera on right now!” They are incredible. Really exciting stuff. So, like I said, I know the testing has gone well, so it’s just up to the final decision by the people who make those decisions.
BE: Okay. And last one. A Black Panther feature film: why have we not seen one yet, and do you think we ever will?
RH: I think we will. Obviously, it’s not my call, it’s up to the fine folks at Marvel. So hopefully the success of this DVD would help tip things in that direction.
BE: Would you be interested in participating in it if they did one?
RH: Sure. Again, that’s Marvel’s call if they offered it to me. I mean, doing the animated series was great, but it’s just one of those things where you keep going, “I just want to move the camera right here.” You know, just these impulses that can only be satisfied actually doing it in live action. So I feel like I have told the story twice, in comics and animation, so I would love to do it one more time.
BE: Excellent. Well, it’s been really great talking to you. I hope that this is finally a success, because, like I said, I’ve been waiting for it for ages…and I’m sure I’m not the only one.RH: Well, thank you, man!