Wakanda forever, indeed. While “Black Panther” joins the small list of films with predominantly black casts to be nominated for best picture, it’s been less forever and more accurately never that an African-American has received a nomination in the production design category. On Tuesday, Hannah Beachler changed history with her nod for the rich African world she helped imagine for “Black Panther.” It’s a highlight in a career already filled with cultural touchstones, including Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight.”
[Read more about the nominations | Check out the full list of nominees | See the snubs and surprises.]
Beachler found out about the nomination — one of seven for “Black Panther” — while working on set in Cincinnati for Todd Haynes’s latest feature. They were in the middle of a take when she got the call from her agent.
“I had to run to the back of the warehouse where the catering was so I could yell,” she said, speaking by phone. “And then I cried.”
The major Oscar categories like acting, directing and picture are the ones often most scrutinized for diversity or lack thereof, but the so-called below-the-line or technical categories have been even slower to recognize achievements for craftspeople of color.
Beachler said that she was grateful to the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, who has hired her for all of his features. “When I met him, everything changed,” she recalled. “He’s my filmmaking family.”
Their collaborations, which include “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” put Beachler’s talents in the spotlight. Those include the smoky, sensual, feel-the-humidity-through-the-screen design texture she brought to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and the low-key, yet crackling with personality sets she put together for Barry Jenkins’s best picture-winner, “Moonlight.”
Extensive research has been crucial in each of her projects, even the smallest, so she was prepared for something with a Marvel-size scope. That meant studying the ancient ruins of Mpumalanga in South Africa and bringing elements of its design into Wakanda, the fictional setting for “Black Panther.” She said, “I started by asking, if there existed a culture that was that advanced, where would they be now?”
The production designer hopes that opportunities for diversity in the industry will continue to advance as well.
“You never think a girl from Ohio, in the middle of nowhere, can get here,” she said. “It’s a mission to let other girls and women of color know that they can do the same.”