By Jim Beard
During the dark days of World War II the United States boasted many champions, but none more patriotic and powerful than that of the Sentinel of Liberty, Captain America. Still, other nations caught up in the struggle possessed their own warriors whose stories remain untold to this day.
One such hero’s tale will finally see the light of day early next year in CAPTAIN AMERICA/BLACK PANTHER: FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, a four-issue Marvel Knights limited series. The Golden Age protector of Wakanda meets America’s original super soldier in boisterous battle against the Nazis, as told by writers Reginald Hudlin and Denys Cowan, with Cowan also providing art.
"Denys and I had never done a comic together before," explains Hudlin of the story’s origin. "We’ve been talking about it since his days at Milestone, and the Black Panther/Captain America team up seemed the most natural. Design-wise, Denys is really taking a very fresh take on the classic characters. Just his treatment of Panther’s cape alone is brilliant."
While readers may be familiar with other men who proudly carried the mantle of the Black Panther before the modern champion T’Challa and his father T’Chaka, Hudlin claims this series’ Panther makes his own way through the jungle.
"This is actually T’Chaka’s father, T’Challa’s grandfather, Azzuri the Wise," he notes. "We saw him beat and school Namor in an early issue of BLACK PANTHER, but we’ll get to know him much better in this issue. He’s a family man with wife and kids, with years of leadership under his belt. He’s also pretty prescient about how the outcome of this war will lead to even greater battles to come, like Civil War."
In FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, the Nazis set their collectively malignant eye on the sovereign African nation of Wakanda and its rich vibranium reserves. The action comes in many forms and involves an unforgettable cast of characters, including Sgt. Nick Fury and his Howling Commandoes.
"Wakanda has never been successfully invaded," Hudlins points out. "So it’s not about whether the Nazis win, it’s all about the details of the ass whipping handed out. It’s a combination of conventional forces and super powers on both sides, so it’s hell of a series of battles. And yes, there’s as much political intrigue as there is foot to ass. You start with reality then add a fictional utopia and guys who can bend steel. You try to remain true to the emotional truth of these characters who have been around for decades."
Below the surface, the series will also illustrate how heroes like Captain America, Nick Fury and the Black Panther attempt to relate to each other, coming from different backgrounds and even beliefs.
"The Panther admires young Steve Rogers’ unquenchable optimism," says Hudlin. "He recognizes the greatness within him. He wants to help Cap be the best he can be.
"As for Nick Fury, Azzuri sees not only the war hero he is, but the cold warrior and master spy he will become."
One other character receives Hudlin’s specific time and interest, a Howling Commando whose unique star ultimately rises in the series.
"A key player and point of view for the story is Gabe Jones," he explains. "Historically, Gabe Jones is one of the first ‘normal’ black people in comics. By ‘normal,’ I mean, not a racist caricature. Gabe is the first of the great breakthroughs in realistic depictions of black characters that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did in the 1960’s. He was the forerunner of Robbie Robertson and the Black Panther.
"I’m going to flesh out who Gabe Jones is. As an African American, he seemed like the perfect person to be the point of view of this story. He would take pride in both the Black Panther and Captain America, and also would find himself in conflict with both."
Jimi Izrael : How did Boomerang come your way? On paper, you would like a strange choice for a romantic comedy.
Reggie Hudlin: Why strange? It wasn’t like my first film was a slasher flick.
In any case, I was approached by Eddie Murphy, who saw HOUSE PARTY and liked it. He said “you guys get the joke; you go for the joke”. We actually pitched projects back and forth to each other for months. Then he sent the script for BOOMERANG, and I knew this was the perfect project for us to do together.
JI: The thing I dig about Boomerang was that it wasn’t a black romantic comedy-there isn’t a lot of shucking and jiving. It screens like it could have had a black cast or a white cast, and I know two white cats wrote it, yes? Did you rely on your actors to season or did you go in with a mind towards a very specific timbre?
RH: There was a lot of rewriting…both in rehearsals, and through production. The writers resented it, but there was a lot of work that needed to be done. There was no turning point where Eddie’s character definitely rejected Robin’s character, and the end was completely rewritten. And of course millions of jokes were added. I did a lot, I got help from friends like novelist Trey Ellis, and of course the cast made great contributions.
JI: This film looks really unique — it feels warm and colorful, without being too bright and cartoony, like a lot of the black films of this time screened. I see this same kind of cleanness in White Hype. What is your approach to cinematography?
RH: Well, comedies tend to be bright and colorful. You don’t want flat or cartoony…it is still a film, not a sitcom, but “grim and gritty” ain’t the look for that subject matter. Black folks yearn for the lushness that we have in our lives to be reflected on screen. It’s not a class issue, it’s a world view issue.
JI: How did this film test with audiences? It seems like such a great, broad comedy, yet I seem to remember it being kinda pigeon-holed as “black comedy.”
RH: Tested great. I mean great. There where critics who were offended that their stereotypes of black people were being challenged, but I took those comments as a sign of victory.
Even though HOUSE PARTY made 1/5 of the gross that BOOMERANG did, it is perceived as more of a “crossover hit”. Part of it is the nature of the films…HOUSE PARTY is a very accessible look into hip hop culture, while BOOMERANG is a very R & B film that showed a very culturally specific side of the world’s biggest crossover black star. Public Enemy crosses over better than Luther Vandross..
JI: We haven’t seen a story quite like Boomerang, which just shows people living, loving and learning, who just happen to be black—- why is that?
RH: The system isn’t built to produce stories like that. The movie was Eddie’s premise, and he empowered me and my brother to make the movie, and those are unusual circumstances.
JI: See, I have to push back on the “the system won’t let us do it” thing. It seems to me that all the black filmmakers could get together and form your own distribution network—what’s up with that?
RH: I’m gonna push back on your push back with real experience.
Any time a sentence starts with “why don’t all the so-and-so’s get together and…” Sscrreeeeee – STOP. First of all, people as a rule don’t pool money to get ahead. The Korean community does, and I admire them deeply for it, but I don’t see that happening in business generally.
How it works is there’s a person with the vision and the drive and the willpower to make it happen. That person is the boss. Everyone else plays their position.. Secondly, knowing how to make films doesn’t mean you know beans about marketing and distribution. Third, usually film collectives fail. Look at United Artists, First Artists, The Director’s Company. I can’t find an example in mainstream Hollywood that worked. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but I am saying that whole “all you need to do is” tone needs to stop.
JI: Okay, man…I’ll take that hit. On the treadmill this morning, it occurred to me that black filmmakers already have an anti-Hollywood distribution model: the straight-to-DVD market. I don’t know that many major black directors/producers have explored it, and beyond QD3 and Tyler Perry, I don’t know that many have had more than moderate success with it. The product, over-all (story, cinematography, acting, et al), is often sub-par. As a major name in the game, do you see yourself exploring straight to DVD releases as an option to the Hollywood Hit Machine?”
RH: It’s really Master P that pioneered the straight to DVD market for black audiences with I’M BOUT IT, although it’s been very successful for black product overall, from Tyler Perry’s straight to DVD releases, QD3’s BEEF series and pretty much all of the 70’s and contemporary blaxsploitation product.
Unfortunately, DVD is currently in a market freefall. It’s a combination of causes, from shrinking retail outlets (the closure of Circuit City was a huge blow to Hollywood), high speed downloads of free product, and the overall maturation of the market. Folks feel like they have enough movies in their collection period. Actually, seeing movies in theatres has actually held up very well, some might even say prospered in this recession, while DVD is hurting.
This is not a black problem; it’s a huge problem in Hollywood in general. Studios treated theatrical releases as a way to break even, with DVD being where you made money. With that revenue stream gone, the number of films released every year is being cut back. That’s why contemporary media companies have to play in multiple media streams in case there’s a downturn in one format or the other to really survive.
JI: What do you think about all the talk of a “post racial” America, and how do you think that will affect Hollywood and the stories it chooses to tell?
RH: [President] Obama’s success has created a global opportunity for all black people, including those in the entertainment business. I think people want to understand the world that created Barack Obama more. I think people want to hear new stories that reflect and extend the vision of this new era. If we as storytellers, as professionals, don’t take advantage of this opportunity, shame on us.