Black Panther rolled into its opening weekend like a juggernaut, emerging on the other side with a $235 million domestic haul and a $404 million worldwide haul. It’s broken release records, inspired millions of moviegoers, and introduced the world to blockbuster newcomers like Letitia Wright and Winston Duke. It’s the kind of celebratory welcome that prompts one burning question: why, exactly, did it take so long for a Black Panther film to be made in the first place?
Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying. For quite some time in the early 1990s, Wesley Snipes attempted to get a movie based on the Marvel hero off the ground, leading to a brief series of false starts that almost brought T’Challa and the fierce crew of Wakanda to the big screen. At the time, there were about three scripts floating around, Snipes recently told Variety, one of which he actually contributed to. However, finding the right filmmaker to execute his vision was “quite challenging,” he said.
“We wanted to keep it true to the comic book,” Snipes explained. “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. African martial arts was featured in our version, which most people in our world didn’t know exist.”
In an interview with Slate, Snipes said that his proposed film would have served a dual purpose in that regard, “a fantastic way to help address some of the stereotypes about Africa and the Africans’ glory, the African history, African people of the day, of the time.”
But in those days, it was difficult for executives to separate Black Panther the comic-book hero from the civil-rights group of the same name, Snipes told The Hollywood Reporter..“They think you want to come out with a black beret and clothing and then there’s a movie,” he said. But eventually, Columbia Pictures snapped up the property, and a serious hunt for a director began. On the short list was Mario Van Peebles, who had most recently helmed Snipes’s blockbuster New Jack City, and John Singleton, the newcomer who had exploded onto the scene with Boyz n the Hood. Snipes met with Singleton, but the two didn’t see eye to eye on the character. Singleton wanted to place T’Challa in the civil-rights movement, Snipes recalled, which was different from the more traditional approach he was aiming for.
“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,’” he told T.H.R. “I wanted to see the glory and the beautiful Africa. The jewel Africa.”
In his Slate interview, Snipes added that he thought Singleton’s ideas would have befuddled white viewers. “If there was an issue with selling the concept to the foreign market before that came along, once you throw that kind of story line into the mix, it’s dead on arrival,” he said. “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.”
Another director in the mix was Reginald Hudlin, who made early-90s films House Party and Bébé’s Kids. In an interview with The Washington Post, he said that he read some of those early Black Panther scripts—one of which had a Princess Diaries–esque twist, imagining T’Challa growing up in the United States with no idea of his royal background.
“They were all awful,” Hudlin said of the screenplays. “I just read [them] and said, ‘God, this is everything the movie should not be.’”
And it never was. Black Panther remained a dormant property until Marvel returned to the blockbuster fold as a comic-book power player in the late aughts, churning out box-office hits like *Iron Man,*Captain America, and The Avengers.Chadwick Boseman was officially cast as the character in 2014—and the rest is royal history.
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:The Must-See Looks from the Black Panther Red CarpetYohana DestaYohana Desta is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com.