In Black Panther, the future is female. Sure, the titular hero is the man-king T’Challa, but his bodyguards, advisers, and chief technologist are all women. Same goes for the crew behind the camera: The design of the movie’s setting—the fictional African nation of Wakanda—mostly comes from production designer Hannah Beachler (Moonlight, Beyoncé’s Lemonade) and costume designer Ruth Carter (Amistad, Selma). “The challenge was imagining how something futuristic looks in Africa,” Beachler says. “What would Africans have done given reign over their own culture, without having been colonized? How would their cultures have mixed together?” The answer is a future that Tony Stark never could have dreamed of.
The source of Wakanda’s wealth, the rare (fictional) metal vibranium, powers everything from weapons to fashions. You can see the telltale silver sheen in T’Challa’s bodysuit, but you might miss subtler details in the costume’s design. “There’s a little pyramid pattern from Mali,” Carter says. “In close-up, you can see the suit’s connection to Africa.”
The people of Wakanda mostly speak English, but there is also a native language, for which Beachler developed a character set based on Nigerian pictographs from the fourth and fifth centuries. The characters show up on street signs, battle gear, and the walls of T’Challa’s court. (That last one loosely translates to “We together, under the leopard king.”)
Golden City, the heart of Wakanda, has two major forms of public transit: the Steptown streetcar and a hyperloop. Both, Beachler says, were intended to fulfill people’s visions of trains of the future. Since director Ryan Coogler grew up in Oakland, California, the BART system was an influence. Of course, with the help of vibranium, the cars are considerably more efficient.
One of Coogler’s main goals with Black Panther was to make sure all of the technology had multiple functions. For example, kimoyo beads are used as jewelry, but also as communication and medical devices. “A big question I was interested in exploring was, what makes something African?” Coogler says. “For us, we said, ‘Let’s make it human, let’s make it tactile.’ ”
There are three main aircraft in Wakanda: Talon Fighters, which are like fighter jets; Dragon Flyers, biomimetically designed helicopters that look like dragonflies; and the Royal Talon Fighter, T’Challa’s version of Air Force One. “The top view of the Royal Talon is inspired by an African mask, and the inside is luxurious,” Beachler says. “It’s techy, but it’s not your usual aircraft.”
The gleaming glass skyscrapers of Golden City have roots in African architecture—like the rondavel tops of traditional thatched huts. “We started digging deeper and grabbing textures from Timbuktu scaffolding and Mali pyramids,” Beachler says. The city also has a district called Steptown, where the hipsters wear clothes with, Carter says, “an Afro-Punk feel.”
Since the Dora Milaje—T’Challa’s personal guards—are part Secret Service, part Navy SEALs, their gear has to be regal and combat-friendly. Neck rings protect the warriors and signify rank, while beaded body armor double as family talismans that Dora soldiers can pass down to their daughters. Carter based her designs on the beadwork of the East African Maasai tribe.
All the best tech in Wakanda is the work of one woman: T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), head of the Wakandan Design Group. “She’s like Tony Stark or Elon Musk,” Coogler says. Her gauntlets use vibranium power to launch concussive sound waves—but her coolest creation might be high tech ring blades, expertly wielded by Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia.
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