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6 Things We Learned About Wakanda From the BLACK PANTHER Set

From its very first 1966 appearance in Marvel’s Fantastic Four #52, Black Panther’s homeland, the fictional country of Wakanda, was envisioned as a sort of Afro-futurist utopia – a fantasy of what a modern African nation could be like if it were able to cultivate its own natural resources without the threat of foreign interference. It also, for a brief time, existed on a soundstage in Atlanta during the filming of what might be the most anticipated superhero movie of 2018, Black Panther – and for one single day last year in February, Nerdist got to experience its majesty firsthand.

Well, okay, technically we didn’t ever set foot on any part of Wakanda itself – the scene being filmed that day, which appears briefly in the opening moments of the Black Panther trailer, actually takes place in a South Korean safehouse. But producer Nate Moore, production designer Hannah Beachler, and costume designer Ruth Carter were all on hand to describe the elaborate worldbuilding process they went through to ensure that Wakanda felt as real as possible.

Find out about the production of Black Panther from the cast right here!

The production team had specific Black Panther artists in mind to emulate.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows comics that the movie’s visual identity took a lot of cures from Brian Stelfreeze, the Atlanta-based artist who worked with Atlantic writer Ta Nehisi Coates on the most recent, widely acclaimed Black Panther series. “I think there were definitely some inspiration points, especially design-wise that we got form both [Christopher Priest] and Ta-Nehisi’s run,” producer Nate Moore said. “Brian Stelfreeze is an amazing artist, and some of his version of Wakanda – and even Wakanda technology – was stuff that we borrowed pretty liberally from.”

But not everything comes from previous depictions of Wakanda, of course. Much of what you’ll see on screen in Black Panther is borrowed from or inspired by real African cultures, architecture, and design. “It was important or us to keep that tradition,” Beachler noted. “Because we wanted to honor and have reverence for the continent, and bring it to the screen in a way that you haven’t seen before, as being a prosperous place.”

Wakandan culture is not a monolithic one.

The trickiest aspect to designing an entire fictional country is making sure that there are recognizably different types of people living in that country Aim your sights too broadly, and your world ends up seeming like a planet on Star Trek, where everybody looks and behaves the same. For a kingdom that’s inherently comprised entirely of African people – who are already all-too-unfairly lumped together as a single stereotypical culture – that challenge becomes even more important.

As a result, Black Panther’s crew was extremely careful to make sure that Wakanda – which is only about the size of New Jersey in the comics – felt as though it were full of different kinds of people and places. “A lot of early work in pre-production was defining Wakanda and giving it districts and giving it neighborhoods and showing you where the different hives may live and why they live there and how their society was built,” Nate Moore said. “It allowed us to map out a story that felt organic rather than trying to force in different things. We wanted all of these ideas and all of these characters to live in a real world so that relationships are even defined by what tribe you’re from.”

Although, they did concede to one idea they came up with as a way of explaining Wakanda’s similarities to many real-life tribes and cultures – that Wakanda was the birthplace of “one of the first peoples” of Africa. “They spread out, they took their traditions and their architecture and their pottery with them, and that became the basis for Kenya and that became the basis for the Central Republic of the Congo,” Moore noted.

Each of Wakanda’s tribes have their own unique identity – and their own fashion.

Like the different families in Game of Thrones, each tribe has their own sigil and cultural signifiers that set them apart from their neighbors. The Border tribe is especially important, noted Hannah Beachler, as they exist on the border of Wakanda and serve as the country’s front lines against foreign threats. Inspired by the Lesotho people of South Africa, their appearance as rugged horsemen not only sets them apart from the the rest of Wakanda’s people, but indirectly serves to distract outsiders from the paradise that Wakanda actually is.

Each of Wakanda’s many tribes also has their own visual aesthetic, which is often represented through color. For example, the River tribe wears a lot of green, natural hues and shells; the royal family wears mostly black and purple, with clean, tailored lines and a few colorful accents here and there (including some created by the the Ikiré Jones label, led Nigerian designer Walé Oyéjidé); the Jabari, who eschew vibranium technology in favor of Wakanda’s ancient traditions, wear wooden armor and animal furs.

Costume designer Ruth Carter said she used primarily New York neighborhoods as metaphors to understand which parts of Wakanda were dressed in what way. “I took each district and I gave it a name that I could relate to and remember easily, so I said one was like Brooklyn or NYU, and then I’d say another district was like the Upper West Side where there’s more families and it’s more settled down, but it’s still New York,” she said. “And then I’d say, how do I make it look unique to us? It’s a barefoot culture, very advanced in technology – what are they wearing?”

“You can, after watching this film, see things that you can point at and say, ‘That’s Wakanda,’” she added.

When Wakandans are not actually in Wakanda, they tend to wear clothing that’s a bit more nondescript as a way of moving through the world incognito. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t still embracing their heritage in some way or another – in the scene filming that day, Lupita Nyong’o wears a green jacket by the late Tunisian-born fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa (whose name should sound familiar if you’ve ever seen the movie Clueless), dyed and manipulated to match Nakia’s style.

In fact, Nyong’o’s character, Nakia goes through the most striking change over the course of the movie; since her character is a Wakandan spy operating in Nigeria, the more time she spends back among her people, the more her color palette changes from nondescript earth tones to vibrant colors. “We start seeing a little more layer to her origin of being a Wakandan girl – the highest warrior of the River Tribe,” Carter said.

The Jabari will be very different than what Marvel Comics fans might expect.

Black Panther may be be an important figurehead in black representation, but he was invented by (admittedly well-meaning) white men, and they didn’t always get it right. Case in point: one of Black Panther’s iconic nemeses, a M’Baku, wears the skin of a white gorilla and goes by the name “Man-Ape,” which conjures up some extremely problematic implications when viewed through the full scope of racial imagery that’s existed in Western culture.

With that in mind, the production team reimagined the character to better emphasize his humanity, both in his costume design and his role in the movie. “The idea of the character that we especially borrowed from the Priest run specifically, of this guy who is the head of the religious minority in Wakanda, that’s fascinating. That’s something that’s real,” said Nate Moore. “That’s something that we felt we could ground and give him a real character story that made him worth including. So defining the world of Wakanda and how M’Baku and the Jabari fit in that world was important in making that character work at all. Otherwise, we would have just taken him out.“ The Jabari were also moved also from their comic-book location – giant gorilla-shaped palace within “the Crystal Forest” – to a home up in the mountains, where they live seperate from the rest of Wakanda and conform to more ancient traditions.

Wakandan architecture might be what ours look like 30 years in the future.

For Hannah Beachler, the blend between old world and new was particularly important to get right in the architecture of the Golden City, Wakanda’s capital, which was inspired by modern architects who’ve designed buildings in Nigeria Kenya, Uganda, the city of Johannesburg,and particularly the work of Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. To achieve that balance, Beachler often added elements of old-world construction, combining glass, metal, and maglev (magnetic levitation) technology with mud, sand, and Timbuktu pyramids. “A lot of the things that we’re doing is things that they’re foreseeing 25 to 30 years as being something that we’ll all be able to experience.”

Of course, Wakanda’s advancements are in part due to its use of vibranium, which also wormed its way into the design via the constant use of circular motifs. “The idea behind it was, there were always these circles and it has to do with vibration and sound, and a lot of the stuff that we’re doing is sonic and based on sound, and vibrations. Vibranium is about vibrations and soaking that vibration in,” Beachler said. “So then we starting bringing it in as a design language. And really a lot of the society is based on that: vibration and sound as communication and sound as life, as well as water and air.”

Black Panther has something in common with Béyonce’s Lemonade.

On the off-chance that you’ve been living under a rock since 2016, Lemonade was initially released as a 65-minute visual album on HBO, in which Beyoncé’s music was accompanied by evocative images of black women as southern gothic belles and Yoruba goddesses.

Hannah Beachler, who worked on both projects, says that the comparisons don’t just begin and end with her involvement. “The thing that is similar, I would say, is this idea of going back to an older time and modernizing it and reclaiming it — and owning it in a different way. And I think that’s what we did in Lemonade. Where we were like, ‘Hey. We’re going back to the 1800s.’” she suggested. “So we just sort of retold the story in a different way […] we’re taking it and mixing it up and re-owning it. So that’s what we did a lot in Lemonade and I think that’s kind of what’s happening here in Wakanda a little bit.”

Black Panther hits theaters on February 16. Which part of Wakanda are you most excited to see on the big screen? For a look at the film with interviews with the cast right here!

Images: Marvel

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