There are many elements of Marvel's Black Panther that make it sure to be a blockbuster: Its historic undertaking as the first-ever major Black superhero movie, its action-heavy yet relatable storyline, and its surprising inclusion of plenty of kickass, girl power moments.
But on the surface, Black Panther's most alluring element is its eye candy. And no, we're not talking about the way Lupita Nyong'o steals every scene she's in, or the plethora of shirtless scenes from Michael B. Jordan (although both certainly do qualify). One of the many things that sets Black Panther apart from its Marvel predecessors is the film's luscious, sweeping sets, which manage to be both spectacularly grand and painstakingly detailed, down to the buzzing mechanisms in a tech lab and the tribal symbols inside a spaceship.
It probably comes as no surprise, then, that the woman responsible for the Ryan Coogler-directed movie's stunning visuals is also the same person who dreamed up the succulent Southern scenery of Beyoncé's Lemonade and the Miami-hued vibes of Oscar-winning film Moonlight. Production designer Hannah Beachler — who got her breakthrough working on Coogler's Fruitvale Station in 2013 — explained to us the role of a movie production designer in 2016: "Everything you’re seeing on screen is the production designer, outside of the camera work and lighting. I'm basically the architect of a movie's visuals."
This week, Beachler's latest collaboration with Coogler hits theaters, and it's as much the kind of sparkling work of science fiction that's made for IMAX as it is a poetic love letter to the beauty of Africa. We chatted with Beachler about her inspirations — and exactly how she brought the imaginary world of Wakanda from comic books and scripts to the big screen.
Refinery29: There was so much hype surrounding not just the first Black Marvel movie, but first big budget Black superhero movie ever. Where did you begin, and how was the process different from projects like Lemonade and Moonlight?
Hannah Beachler: "It was much bigger in scale as far as the amount of time that I had — about a year. And the research is really where everything began. I sat down with the director, Ryan Coogler, to hear what’s important to him about the story and what his vision was for the look and the tone of everything. From there, I started in the macro sense, answering basic questions: Where is the fictional world of Wakanda set on the continent of Africa? How does that inform my design decisions? What tribes exist in Wakanda, and what do they each as a people specialize in? Then there's the topography of the land. It's fictional, so we had to decide where the mountains and lakes and things of that nature were, and all of that has an influence on the sets."
How much of the visuals that we see in the film are special effects versus actual sets that you built?
"Ryan and I made a pact to make sure that that any special effects were intended to extend the scene, rather than create the scene. I think that's what makes Black Panther feel different than some of what Marvel has done in the past, where the films featured a lot of enhanced effects. We wanted it to feel believable and authentic. But with Wakanda being 25 to 50 years in the future, there’s of course a lot of stuff we couldn’t build, like levitating trains and spaceships. So the effects weren’t in lieu of real sets, just used where was necessary."
Where did pull your inspiration from?
"Once we decided that Wakanda was located on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, and Uganda, that influenced the topography of the land. We also pulled from Omo valley tribes in Ethiopia and South Sudan, the Igbo people of Nigeria, as well as large cities like Nairobi, Johannesburg, and Lagos. You'll see a lot of that when you're in the center of Wakanda, with the buses and people walking through town — that feels a lot like Lagos. As for the individual tribes you meet, I had to imagine who the tribes were that realistically would’ve migrated to the land of Wakanda based on where it was situated. Which tribes were that old and that historic? There are several, with the Dogon being one of them — more than 50,000 years old! They specialized in crafts and wood, so they influenced the Jabari tribe in the movie."
My favorite scenes were the ones at Warrior Falls, where the Black Panther challenges any claims to his throne. Did you have one set that was your favorite?
"[The Black Panther's sister] Shuri’s lab! That was a ton of fun to do, because she was this inventor who was the technological and creative brains behind everything the Black Panther does. And she's such a badass. So I really put a lot of time and thought into what her laboratory would look like."
What was the most challenging part of taking on Black Panther?
"Myself. I found myself stressing out because it was a lot of pressure. I wanted to make sure that Ryan's vision and the beautiful words from him and Joe Cole's script were translated perfectly on screen. But I also wanted to get it right for the community, and for the culture. I was tired of seeing the same bullshit about the continent of Africa. I wanted to really bring it to life, and hopefully inspire people to be more curious, to do their research about this continent and understand that it's much more than what you've seen in movies before. I think doing that through the story of Wakanda is a fantastic start. I also felt that I had a responsibility to my five-year-old self, and to the eight-year-old Ryan Coogler, who walked into the comic book store and saw a reflection of himself in the first Black Panther comic that he picked up. And to all of us that want representation, because you can’t be it if you don’t see it. But I can't lie, it was also a challenge shouldering that feeling of I got to get it right, because if I don’t, Black Twitter is gonna drag me!"
I know we talked in 2016 about how there aren’t really any other Black female production designers…
"Still the same story!"
How meaningful was it for you personally to be asked to work on such a historic film?
"It was fantastic. I’m so proud. It’s an absolute honor to be a part of this, to be on the ground floor of the Black Renaissance that's happening in Hollywood. Maybe one day there will be a little girl who says 'There was this woman who did some crazy sets, and I really looked up to her!' And she will be inspired to have a career and fight for what she wants and loves and is passionate about. That’s what’s the most important to me."
The conversation surrounding Hollywood right now is all about how we can better support women. As someone who works behind the scenes and doesn't see many people like herself, what do you think needs to happen?
"Anyone in this business with power needs to take a lesson from Ryan Coogler and know that women are as capable as anybody. That’s all there is to it. That's the lesson the main character T'Challa talks about in Black Panther, the responsibility we all have to do the right thing. And that needs to happen in real life, too. The right thing is making sure your movies and sets look as real as the real world does."
What’s next for you?
"I’m hoping for a really awesome next story. I would love to work with Ryan again! I choose my work based on what resonates with me and what I feel the world needs to see. And right now, the world needs to see Black Panther."