How do you create a world from scratch?
Meticulous research and a lot of imagination, for starters.
For Hannah Beachler and the rest of the crew on “Black Panther,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster released in February, creating the fictional African country of Wakanda that is the backdrop for the film was no easy feat.
Wakanda is meant to be a country that was never colonized or invaded. Sitting on a treasure trove of a rare and powerful mineral, vibranium, it developed into a wealthy, technologically advanced nation, isolated from Western influences.
Production designer Beachler was in charge of turning that world into reality. She said it was important to the design team to base Wakanda in both real art, architecture and traditions from across Africa while also imagining what those might have become without the ravages of colonization and the slave trade.
“As black Americans, we’re not taught that our history goes any further back than slavery … it’s all some fuzzy thing back in the past that we don’t really know,” she said. “This was about putting that pain to bed and saying, ‘This is what our future can be.’ … Really, its reclamation of the story and a retelling of it.”
To find that story, crew members traveled to Southern Africa, taking in everything from the landscape of Lesotho’s mountains, which kept out colonial invaders much the way Wakanda’s mountains in the movie do, to the painted houses of the Ndebele culture in South Africa to trendy, art-fueled neighborhoods in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
All of those found their way into the film, which also draws on details from the rest of the continent, like a pre-colonial written script from Nigeria, Malian architecture in the capital city and costumes drawn from fashions from Namibia to Ethiopia and beyond. The world is so carefully imagined that they wrote up a 500-page “Wakandan Bible.”
“Every single thing has a reason it was built the way it was,” Beachler said. “We developed everything — the systems of how the country works, where the rivers are, how the different provinces relate, how the river tribe fishes … You’re having an out of body experience the whole time because you’re so focused. You become Wakandan … it was super intense.”
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She said it was important that things like mud huts had places of prominence and pride in Wakanda, countering Western ideas of what advanced civilizations look like.
“I had this image of shame in dirt, in huts … those things are portrayed as savage … But it’s the things we’re supposed to feel shame for that we celebrated in Wakanda. This is beautiful, this is tradition, this is history. That had to be at the top of everything we did, this sense of pride, in a forceful way.”
Beachler also was production designer for “Moonlight,” “Creed,” Beyonce’s “Lemonade” video and other projects. She spoke to The Gazette by phone from California, where she said she is working on a new project for Beyonce, though she couldn’t provide details.
Beachler will be in Iowa City Saturday for Flyover Fest, a three-day festival focused on centering diversity and inclusion in the arts. The weekend will feature everything from body positivity workshops to art installations to live music to panel discussions. Headliners include Women’s March artistic director Paola Mendoza, rapper CupcakKe, and costume designer Machine Dazzle, along with a companion performance by Taylor Mac at Hancher, appearing in Dazzle’s creations.
Originally from Dayton, Ohio, the first film Beachler worked on, “Husk,” was shot in Des Moines. She said she likes returning to the Midwest to speak at things like Flyover, in hopes of inspiring the next generation of filmmakers.
“I want to give my time back to the 20-year-old me. Twenty-year-old me was figuring out what my life was going to be and figuring out who I was as a black woman in this country and in this industry. I was figuring out, how do I get out and how do I do those things?”
Flyover co-founder Simeon Talley said Beachler’s appearance on the heels of the runaway success of “Black Panther” is a perfect illustration of the power of representation in the media.
“She’s one of the only black female production designers in Hollywood to work on films that are at that level,” he said. “It’s important for people to see themselves on the big screen …. And for it also to be a primarily black cast, black director, black production designer — there are interesting conversations there.”
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Talley launched the festival as Flyover Fashion Fest three years ago with Amanda Lesmeister, who is now in an advisory role. But Talley said, in some ways, this is the first year for an entirely new festival, born from the fashion festival but focusing much more broadly on the arts beyond fashion, as well as on deeper cultural issues.
“We heard back a lot that although what we were doing was pretty cool and creative, we could be doing better by centering on specific folks that … aren’t on the covers of fashion magazines,” Talley said. “We want to explore issues around inclusion and representation in fashion, but also film, media, the arts writ large.”
Beachler said those issues are central to the stories she wants to tell in film. “Black Panther was a really cathartic project and an important project, not just in my career, but for so many people to see a reflection of themselves on the screen that really celebrates them and reminds of us of everything that we were.”
Flyover Fest presents “Black Panther” production designer Hannah Beachler: “Representation Matters”
- WHERE: Shambaugh Auditorium, University of Iowa Main Library, 125 W. Washington St., Iowa City
- WHEN: 7:15 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday (4/28)
- ADMISSION: Free
- DETAILS: helloflyover.com/schedule/
- WHEN: Thursday (4/26) to Saturday (4/28)
- WHERE: Various venues around downtown Iowa City
- COST: Full festival pass $55. Some individual event tickets available, free to $20. If cost is a barrier to attend, scholarships and discounts are available; email email@example.com for details.
- TICKETS AND FULL SCHEDULE: Helloflyover.com
- Machine Dazzle: A Dazzled Life (3 to 4 p.m. Friday, Iowa Memorial Union, 125 N. Madison St., free);
- Dazzle Crawl (5 to 7 p.m. Friday, starts at 287 N. Linn St., free);
- “Beyond Protest” with Women’s March artistic director Paola Mendoza (6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Big Grove Brewery, 1225 S. Gilbert St., $10);
- CupcakKe & The Haus of Eden (10:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday, Gabe’s, 330 E. Washington St., $20);
- “Look, But Don’t Touch” with Momo Pixel (3 to 3:50 p.m. Saturday, MERGE, 136 S. Dubuque St., festival pass);
- “Representation Matters” with Hannah Beachler (7:15 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Shambaugh Auditorium, University of Iowa Main Library, 125 W. Washington St., free);
- Arima Ederra & CHIKA (8:30 to 10 p.m., The Garden Club, 117 E. Washington St., Iowa City, $5);
- Closing & Dance Party with #GetWoke (10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday, Studio 13 & The Yacht Club, 13 S. Linn St., $10)