If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already visited Wakanda—maybe two or three times during Black Panther’s record-breaking opening weekend. Otherwise, I know you wouldn’t want to spoil your upcoming trip by reading the incredible conversation The Glow Up had with the film’s production designer, Hannah Beachler. (Consider yourself warned: There might be spoilers ahead. For instance, did you know that from the aerial view, the Royal Talon Fighter is modeled after a mask from the Dogon tribe?)
Long before the movie premiered, we were in awe of how many incredible women were involved in Black Panther—both on- and offscreen: from director of photography Rachel Morrison to costume designer Ruth E. Carter and lead hairstylist Camille Friend. But it is Beachler, the visionary hired by director Ryan Coogler to help him bring Wakanda to life, who is the architect of this new corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as she told The Glow Up:
You know, we had to create all of this history—just like you’d know about any city, or your own hometown. That’s how much we had to go in on Wakanda, because Ryan said to me one day: “What are the names of the streets? What do they do in that building? What is it about this park that makes it unique? What’s the history of that area? What different parts of town are there? Who lives there?” ... So we just started from the beginning. We started with a timeline and made a timeline of, like, 10,000 years ago. We started 10,000 years ago, and we worked our way up to 2018. ...
I always say the production designer is the believer. I have to believe in this world; I had to believe that I was a Wakandan architect to create Wakanda, and I had to be there 24-7 for a year. That was my mindset. So it was all about that, always. And for each film, you do that in the different world you’re telling the story of.
To not only believe in Wakanda but also treat it as its own character was vital to making a fictional country real for both the characters and viewers to inhabit. In doing so, Beachler drew from Coogler’s relationship with his own hometown of Richmond, Calif.—right outside of Oakland, where the Black Panther film begins:
The first thing I knew that we would do was figure out the place, because it’s such an important thing to Ryan. You know his relationship with his hometown of Oakland is a very strong one, and when we did Fruitvale, I started to understand, like, what that relationship—how that forms who he is, and formed the way he tells a story and what he tells a story about.
Yes, this isn’t Beachler’s first adventure with Coogler. He initially recruited her to work with him on his first feature film, the critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station (also his first of three films starring actor Michael B. Jordan), followed by 2015’s Creed. It’s almost inconceivable that the epic that is Black Panther is only Coogler’s third major film, but Beachler has been on his team every step of the way:
I just kind of followed Ryan along. And I just allowed him to take me on this adventure of things I never imagined I’d be doing in my life, and just trusting him wholeheartedly and understanding that he is an important voice. ... Just everything I’ve learned from Ryan throughout our filmmaking friendship in the last six years, everything culminated to Black Panther.
Beachler told us that if people actually knew the amount of work that went into designing Black Panther, “their heads would explode—literally just explode.” But as the second person hired behind Coogler himself, Beachler said that the first step was going to Africa to do research. While Coogler made two sojourns to different countries on the continent, Beachler was sent to Cape Town, South Africa, arriving two weeks ahead of the crew to do research before they all traveled throughout the country, as she told The Glow Up:
We spent as much time in each place as we possibly could, and saw as much as we possibly could, because it was important for me to get the vegetation right, the rock color right—the way that the rocks are sort of different. They’re horizontal, as opposed to what we’re used to seeing in the West. To make sure that the color of the sand was right, to make sure the color of the water inland was right, as opposed to what it looked like on the coast of Africa.
You know, all those little details were so very important to get right for us to create this world in a way that interpreted the beauty that I saw when I was there. Because even your eyes can’t do you right when you’re in the Motherland, because it is so beautiful, and it’s so big. You become a little swayed with the size of everything, and the fact that you lose a sense of proportion. ... It’s godly in the sense that you feel how small you are.
But those weeks in Africa taught Beachler something else: the still-existing connection between Africa and its displaced children in America, even after so many miles and centuries apart:
What [Ryan] has said since is: “We’ve been African all along. We’re just doing what we’ve been doing for thousands of years, but we’ve been told that it’s ghetto, or it’s hood, or it’s wrong, or it’s shameful, or it’s bad. But we’re just being who we are. All the horrible things that happened to us in this country, and they can’t wipe that out—they can’t wipe out who we are. That’s the connection.”
And that’s what I saw when I went to Africa. ... I’ve always been this way. I didn’t know why. I didn’t how in my DNA I’m doing these things that, no matter what environment I’m in, I’ve always been that person because it is part of me. You know, my ancestry doesn’t begin in a cotton field.
Representing as much of the African Diaspora as possible within one fictional country was a specific challenge. It was equally important to Beachler to depict the African people with a distinct sense of pride and joy. To do so involved breaking through some of her own biases, which she told us was imperative in creating Wakanda:
There’s no part of Africa that looks like the other. It’s not homogeneous, where you can just pick one certain tribe and link it to another for no apparent reason. It’s all different, and they’re different countries. So that was, I think, where the eclectic nature of everything came in, because it’s hard. You know, you can’t represent everything, but I can certainly interpret the fact that there are so many different things within Wakanda and within that one culture.
And the other thing was ... I had a lot of work to do to get past my black American idea of what Africa was. I’m not gonna lie. I remember when we started out, I was very nervous about how things would be perceived because it was this shell that I was in and how I was perceiving it. You’re made to feel ashamed about some of the things that you see in Africa ... you know, huts and mud floors. We’re told they’re not “civilized”—black Americans are a bastardized piece of the culture. And it’s not true at all. You’re there and you see the joy, and you see the pride that people have in their tribes.
Beachler is the first-ever female production designer of a Marvel film—let alone a black female production designer. She told us that she has mixed feelings about being a pioneer in her traditionally male-dominated field:
That is both heartbreaking and exhilarating, all at the same time. Like, I don’t know that it’s celebratory, in the sense that I’m glad to be out there—you know, if you don’t see it, you can’t be it. And I’m hoping those young women and young men of color are looking and saying, “I can do this.”
Along with her work on Black Panther and Coogler’s other two films, Beachler’s production-design credits include the Oscar-nominated Miles Ahead, the groundbreaking visual album Lemonade and last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Moonlight.
And while the title of production designer may seem vague, it’s only because it involves overseeing so many components that are instrumental in creating the visual narrative of a film, combining elements of architecture, interior design, graphic design and more. Equally important for Beachler, it is an opportunity to control and change the narrative around black lives and representation:
You know, for me, it’s always been so very important to have representation behind the camera, because I understand that there are certain decisions that are being made behind the cameras that affect what you see in the end, and how you understand it to be. And at one point, I realized—probably on Fruitvale—that having a black voice behind the camera is as powerful as having one in front of it. ...
And I felt like I was becoming this—in a sense, not a “gatekeeper,” for lack of a better word, of the process; of making sure that the process didn’t misrepresent [us] because there was not that representation behind the camera. ... So I’m very protective of that—of what it is—what it really is.
For Hannah Beachler, imagining the world of Wakanda involved testing the limits of our own historical knowledge and cultural consciousness: What would our culture be if we had our own agency over it? Beachler assured us that there’s much of Wakanda that we’ve haven’t even seen yet, which will hopefully be made possible by Black Panther’s record-breaking performance at the box office:
We designed quite a bit more than you actually see. So hopefully you’ll see other parts of Wakanda that might pop up, because there are several other regions that are pretty spectacular. We have barely even scratched the surface of Wakanda.
Most important, Beachler told The Glow Up that she hopes young black women and men walk away from this film having seen themselves, and with a stronger interest in filmmaking and a greater sense of their own possibility:
You know, we represented different sexual orientations, we represented different colors, we represented different incomes, we represented different religions. We all came from different backgrounds, and we came to do this. And I’m hoping the kids are looking and saying, “We can get more done together.” You can do anything that you want to do. And look, we just proved it, because we’re breaking records.