‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ production designer Hannah Beachler on paying tribute to Chadwick Boseman

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” starts with an emotional gut punch: the death of Wakanda leader T’Challa from an undisclosed illness. But for the filmmaking team behind the blockbuster Marvel sequel, the opening sequence had an even greater significance: a chance to pay tribute to Chadwick Boseman, who played Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before his tragic death in August of 2020 from colon cancer.

So when it was decided that “Wakanda Forever” would include T’Challa’s death and memorial, director Ryan Coogler, producer Nate Moore and other key department heads – like production designer Hannah Beachler – sat down to discuss what the king’s funeral should represent. 

“Myself, being from New Orleans, we have the jazz funeral, we have second lines, and grieving is really as a celebration as well as mourning,” Beachler tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. “When you look throughout the diaspora, you find that’s very much the same in many African cultures and Caribbean cultures. So we wanted to do that too.”

Beachler, an Oscar winner for the first “Black Panther,” spoke to numerous experts in West African culture as part of her research for the T’Challa memorial service. But her conversations also extended to what the citizens of Wakanda might to do celebrate their fallen leader. From there, the decision was made to include a mural of T’Challa – but without his Black Panther costume. The result is an image of Boseman as T’Challa that became instantly iconic after the “Wakanda Forever” trailer debuted earlier this year. 

Brandon Sadler, who was the muralist for Shuri’s lab on the first ‘Panther,’ he painted that mural. It took a long time to sort of figure out what that was going to be and what that was going to look like – but he only had a day to do, and do it in the rain. So he did it beautifully, driven by passion,” Beachler says. “Not all the actors knew that was going to be there. So when they came to the set, there was another moment for them just sort of take that in. And I think all the extras as well.”

Set after the events of 2018’s “Black Panther” as well as 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” focuses on the aftermath of T’Challa’s death, specifically how it affects his family, including Shuri (Letitia Wright) and Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett). The final entry in Marvel’s Phase 4 – which has included films like “Thor: Love and Thunder” and “Doctor Stange and the Multiverse of Madness” – “Wakanda Forever” also introduces some new characters, including legendary Marvel antagonist Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejia) and Riri Williams, a.k.a. Ironheart (Dominique Thorne). 

In creating Williams’ lab, the location of one of the film’s best sequences – a race to escape the authorities that Coogler shot seemingly in one take – Beachler says she drew a lot of inspiration from the comics and Riri’s love of Tony Stark. Fans of the MCU would also do wise to revisit that sequence to search for clues and Easter eggs about where Williams will go next (a series focused on Ironheart will debut on Disney+ next year). “There’s a couple of those Easter eggs. I won’t say yet – we have to get down the road a little bit,” Beachler says, “but people will figure it out.”

At the Academy Awards in 2019, Beachler made history as the first Black woman ever nominated for an Oscar in the production design category – and Beachler’s victory that night led to an emotional speech where she thanked Coogler for helping her find agency and self-worth. Coogler and Beachler have worked together from the start of the director’s career – from “Fruitvale Station” to “Creed” to the “Black Panther” franchise.

“He’s taught me a lot, and it has just been a fantastic working relationship and a friendship outside of work. He’s just always been one of the most important people to me because I feel like he’s made me a better designer, and he’s made me a better person because he’s allowed me to look at the world through a different lens,” she says.

Beachler is a top contender for awards recognition again this year. She keeps her Oscar in plain sight, not just because of the historic nature of the trophy but to remind her “never rest on your laurels, never become complacent, and always be creative and always work different creative muscles.”

“So I look at [the Oscar statue] and I think what a privilege it was to receive that award and never to take that for granted,” she says.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is out in theaters now.

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