‘Black Panther’ production designer Hannah Beachler on representation, Afrofuturism and becoming Wakandan

Flyover Fest: “Representation Matters” with Hannah Beachler

Shambaugh Auditorium — Saturday, April 28 at 7:15 p.m.

Production designer Hannah Beachler will give a talk in Iowa City for Flyover Fest on April 28. — illustration by Cheryl Graham

Later this month, production designer Hannah Beachler will come to Iowa City to participate in Flyover Fest. Beachler is the acclaimed visionary behind the designs of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Creed and Fruitvale Station, as well as Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade.

In a recent conversation, however, Beachler informed me that her very first production design was in Iowa, for a horror film called Husk. With nothing but fond memories of the shoot — “It was awesome!” she said. “I had so much fun.” — Beachler is eager to return to the Hawkeye state for an event created to amplify the stories of underrepresented and marginalized groups in fashion, politics and culture.

The theme of this year’s Flyover Fest is Dream the Future, and Beachler’s work on Black Panther has been lauded for its Afrofuturist aesthetic. Although the term was coined in the ’90s, the concept dates back to the ’60s. Afrofuturism is a way of looking at the past to reimagine new identities and possible futures related to the African diaspora.

Beachler, when she thinks about the future, asks herself: “What can we be? We know what we were, but what can we be: as a society? As a community? As a country?” She said Afrofuturism played a huge role in Black Panther in terms of how she and the crew viewed the diaspora. And even though the fictional African nation of Wakanda provides an opportunity to imagine part of the diaspora free from the painful histories of colonization and slavery, Beachler proposes that the film is grounded in a very real call to action.

“There’s an important line in Black Panther when T’Challa’s in the astral plane the first time, and his father says to him, ‘You are a king. Stand up.’ And I think that’s really what Ryan was saying to all black and brown-skinned people: ‘Stand up. We understand the pain … But even beyond that, we need to unite. We need to move forward. What is our future? Let’s talk about that.’”

To prepare for their work on Black Panther and depicting the world of Wakanda, Beachler and the crew traveled to South Africa.

“A big question we asked ourselves,” Beachler explained, “was, ‘What is it to be African?’ Simply because I have dark skin does not make me an expert on Africa.” She added, laughing, “You know, I’m from Ohio!”

The crew traveled from Cape Town to Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal to learn about various cultures, and thousands of tribes and languages. But what Beachler ultimately discovered surprised her.

“I think really what I found out is that I am African … We’re all the same. You can’t destroy thousands of years of DNA, no matter where you are. I’m just an African from Ohio.”

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Of course, the production design for Black Panther and Wakanda’s Golden City isn’t just about a shared African past, but an innovative technological future. In the film, the character responsible for Wakanda’s state-of-the-art technology is King T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), considered to be, according to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the smartest person in the world. In our universe, the person responsible for knowing how all those gadgets in Shuri’s lab might work is Beachler.

“I was like, ‘Okay, so how does it work?’ And everybody kind of looked at me, like, ‘Yeah, how does it work?’” she said. “And I was like, ‘I’m gonna need to make some calls.’”

Beachler was thorough in her research. The three-dimensional images in Shuri’s lab are based on the practice and images of sand divination in the Dogon tribe of Mali. The earpiece technology is based on real-life technology that works off of sound wave vibrations, while the symbol on the earpiece is the Nsibidi symbol for “human talking.” Nsibidi, a script native to Nigeria, also provided the symbols found on the Kimoyo beads, which Beachler describes as one of her favorite design pieces. However, because the Kimoyo beads break down into sand, they were designed mostly for effect — meaning there weren’t many practical Kimoyo beads made for the film.

Kimoyo beads featured in “Black Panther.” — film still

“I wanted one so bad,” Beachler said. “I’m pretty sure Angela Bassett got one.”

Beachler credits director Coogler for the diversity and inclusivity of the behind-the-camera crew, which also included Rachel Morrison (director of photography), Ruth E. Carter (costume designer) and Camille Friend (lead hairstylist).

“Ryan pretty much created a family on Fruitvale Station, and we very much are still that way,” she explained. “We’re still in each other’s lives. We still talk on the phone. We still cheer each other on. When we need advice, we call each other. So it’s a tight-knit family.”

But according to Beachler, the crew’s diversity also has greater significance: “Representation matters. It’s important that the people who the story is representing are also behind the scenes, making sure that that representation is truth.”

In this way, Beachler is more alchemist than production designer. For her, there is no difference between the real-life locales of Oakland (Fruitvale Station), Philadelphia (Creed) or Miami (Moonlight), and the imaginary world of Wakanda. As part of her prep work for Black Panther, Beachler and her team wrote entire thousand-year histories for every tribe of Wakanda.

“We had to make these histories. We had to understand them. We had to believe it. I had to be a believer in the world,” Beachler said. “And the more I told myself these stories, the more I understood who the people were … I think being believers, and being Wakandans for a year, helped the audience to believe it.”

When the film wrapped, Beachler said she went through a mourning period.

Reflecting finally on her own legacy, Beachler is at once practical and contemplative.

“I’m a worker,” she said. “As Cardi B would say, ‘I’m a worker. And I don’t gotta dance no more, but I’m a worker.’ That’s how I feel about it. I just want to keep my head down and keep making stuff. Things that will be there past me. That’s also important to me. More so than anything else. I just want it to be there for people, to inspire people … Because [film] is important. And it’s powerful, because it can change minds. And it can change the way we that operate in the world, as I think Black Panther is proving.”

Leah Vonderheide is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Cinematic Arts at the University of Iowa. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 241.