Of the seven Oscar nominations that Marvel Studios’ blockbuster Black Panther received this year, two are historic firsts: It is the first superhero movie to contend for best picture, and Hannah Beachler, its production designer, is the first African-American ever nominated in that category. Beachler, who was a Rouse Visiting Artist at Harvard's Graduate School of Design last fall, conceived and oversaw creation of every element of the complex environments in which the Afrofuturist feature plays out, from individual rooms to urban and natural landscapes and the now-famous fictitious African nation of Wakanda.
Since Black Panther’s release in February 2018, an estimated 170+ million people have journeyed from their theater seats to the lush and high-tech world Beachler created with her team. Black Panther was by far the greatest triumph–and test–of her career, she says. The film’s director, Ryan Coogler, with whom Beachler had worked on Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015), trusted she could deliver. But to secure the job, she had to give a live presentation of her concept to Marvel Studios. “I needed to prove to the executives and producers that I could design and manage a department of that magnitude on a tent-pole blockbuster, with the biggest film I had done at that point being Creed at approximately $35 million,” she remembers. [Black Panther had a $200 million budget.]
Her presentation was the result of two intense weeks of research, which, as she described in conversation with Jacqueline Stewart and Toni L. Griffin in 2018, forms the basis for all of her projects in “pre-pre-production.” She started with the scenes that moved her most as she read the script, storing them as “screen shots” in her mind. Those images became richer in subsequent days as she poured over literature and images, and as songs, passing scenes, or flashes of color inspired her and added texture to those mental snapshots.
For Black Panther, she started with the history of the comic, going back to the superhero’s creation in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby all the way through to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2016 comic book series illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze. Knowing that the set had to reflect both African-American and African cultures, she went looking for the right African influences to incorporate—“the countries, tribes, languages, geography, economics, trade, militaries, conflicts, on and on, specifically before colonization, but also through time,” she says.
Next came Wakanda, its landscape, architecture and defining details, such as how Wakandans would use technology and interact with nature. It was a values-driven and iterative process:“I just kept creating a place where there was a sense of agency, where the people did not carry the weight of their skin color on them, where the future was their past and is their present.”
For her final presentation to Marvel, Beachler worked with illustrator Vicki Pui to develop a one-minute animatic and preliminary drawings of Golden City, capital of Wakanda. With Coogler in the room offering moral support, she won over the executives and seized the opportunity to spend a career-defining 13 months working on Black Panther. Beachler is not new to important projects or to accolades. In addition to Coogler, she has worked notably on Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight (2016), which won the Best Picture Oscar, and with director Melina Matsoukas on Beyoncé’s powerful 2016 visual concept album, Lemonade, which earned Beachler two major design awards.
I hope that diversity doesn’t just fade out as another buzzword, but that we enact the things we’ve been committed to talking about so that, soon, there will no longer be firsts.
It was her final year in film school at Wright State University when Beachler decided to become a production designer. Since then, she has found her way into the work using what she calls “story design,” an approach that places the characters at the heart of creative decision making. “I always enter into the design through the people that inhabit or inhabited the spaces. For instance, on Creed it was understanding the people of Philly, the history of the city, its current state, people’s stories, accents and colloquialisms.” From there, Beachler makes the links to the design: What social, cultural, emotional and economic environment could yield these characters? And what does that environment look like in a living space? Each answer, honed in collaboration with the director, costume designers and cinematographer, brings her closer to the final set design.
Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, Beachler’s Oscar nomination is a huge endorsement of her work and another important win for diversity in the film industry courtesy of Black Panther. “The nomination means everything–it’s the highest honor you can get in the American film industry, so it’s quite humbling and breathtaking. I hope it means more opportunities are given to people of color in below-the-line positions. That diversity doesn’t just fade out as another buzzword, but that we enact the things we’ve been committed to talking about so that, soon, there will no longer be firsts.”
Words by Sala Elise Patterson & photography by Chris Britt. Sketch art for Black Panther courtesy of Marvel Studios.