Roughly 400 costumed cast members and some 400 crew members. Dozens of makeup artists and 100 wigs. In “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” the production team was tasked with memorializing not only the country’s fearless leader King T’Challa, but also the actor Chadwick Boseman, who shook up the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Panther.
And the team did so with a swiftness.
Minutes into the movie, tribes across Wakanda unite in celebratory dance and song, dressed in white beads and fabrics, as members of the Dora Milaje carry T’Challa to the ancestral plane. As the film progresses, the nation is faced with external challenges from above and below the sea, and Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, must grapple with a renewed responsibility to protect her homeland while mourning the brother she has lost.
The director Ryan Coogler and his creative team, who were still grieving Boseman’s death (in August 2020, after a bout with colon cancer), transferred fragments of their sorrow onto the big screen in the sacred grove funeral and the celebratory procession in the Golden City.
“We had to open the film with a moment introducing what the main conflict is in the movie, and it should be an emotional as well as a plot-driven one,” Coogler said.
To make it all work, he collaborated with the costume designer Ruth Carter; the production designer Hannah Beachler (both of whom won Oscars for their work in the first film); the makeup department head, Joel Harlow; the hair department head, Camille Friend; and the composer Ludwig Goransson. Below, these artists discussed how they worked together to create one of the film’s most heartfelt moments.
African artistry, from textiles to tribal wear, usually explodes with color. But here, the hair department head Friend explained, white was chosen because it symbolizes evolution and awakens the scene with the blinding hue. To create a sea of white garments, the costume design team silk-screened patterns onto white and cream fabrics that resembled traditional garb worn by tribes like the Zulu and Xhosa people of South Africa and the Tuareg and Dogon tribes in Mali.
Return to Wakanda
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Letitia Wright and Lupita Nyong’o, arrived in theaters on Nov. 11.
- Review: “The director Ryan Coogler feeds his own and the public’s grief into the story, infusing the movie with somber notes of family loss and collective mourning,” our critic writes.
- Angela Bassett: The veteran star, who returns as Ramonda, the queen of Wakanda, told us how she tried to talk Coogler out of a plot twist.
- The Politics of Colonization: In the “Black Panther” universe, heroes and villains are deeply layered, reflecting real-life issues facing people of color around the world.
- Still Processing: The hosts of The Times podcast discuss how “Wakanda Forever” doesn’t shy away from big subjects like grief and colonization.
Featured in this image is Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o, at T’Challa’s funeral. In a style inspired by the Surma tribe in Ethiopia, said the costume designer Carter, Nakia’s hair is decorated with an assortment of dried, white flowers. The chalklike markings on her face are specific to her fictional clan in the film, the River Tribe.
“Each one of those specific tribes has their own specific markings, and those were taken from actual tribal markings and modified, extrapolated into what they would be with the addition of technological advancement like vibranium,” the makeup department head Harlow said.
As mourners gather around T’Challa’s coffin, the steady rhythm of the talking drum begins to play, a recognizable sound that was heard every time T’Challa entered a scene in “Black Panther.”
“It starts with just two hits of the talking drum and that’s a specific rhythm,” the composer Goransson said. “The talking drum is saying that ‘the king has died.’”
The New Matriarchy
As the procession begins, carrying T’Challa’s coffin are the valiant Dora Milaje, each in a floor-length gown with an exposed shoulder. The exposed shoulder, the costume designer Carter said, symbolizes the women’s vulnerability coupled with their strength.
The surviving family follows, including Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who wears a white 3D-printed isicholo, or married woman’s hat, similar to her multicolored headdresses from the original film. However, this one has an enhancement that reflects her shift as the ruler of Wakanda. “Because she’s the queen and they are an advanced nation, it was important that she have something that was exclusively all her own to represent the technology of their nation,” Carter said. “They could actually present the queen with her crown based on the traditional isicholo, but it would be a perfect sphere.”
Behind her is Baaba Maal, a Senegalese musician who can be heard singing along to the opening piece, “Nyana Wam,” during the procession, accompanied by the talking drum player Massamba Diop. As “Nyana Wam” (“my son” in the Xhosa language) plays, African instruments like the sabar and djembe drums are also heard.
“When we go from the mourning ceremony to the celebration, right before the switch you hear the sabar drum playing a rhythm —- ‘tak a tak tak, tak a tak tak,’” Goransson said. “As soon as you hear the sabar drum, you know there’s going to be a whole drum ensemble coming in a couple of seconds. It’s like a calling for the beat to start.”
And it does. Hundreds of people from the neighboring River Tribe, Border Tribe and others descend onto the oldest district in the Golden City, the North Triangle, and break into dance as the score erupts with a cacophony of percussion, guitar and a singing chorus.
“Throughout the diaspora, that’s part of the funeral,” the production designer Beachler said. “Part of grieving and loss is a type of procession, whether it’s like a jazz funeral or whether you’re in West Africa, it is people walking down the street (maybe not a brass band, but in that way) — there’s sort of this song or celebration or some type of movement.”
A Seismic Celebration
During one moment, the dancers perform in front of Bashenga’s Triangle (shown in the top image), where Bashenga, the first Black Panther, is memorialized. The architecture, like the building materials, draws inspiration from the Kingdom of Kush of ancient Nubia. A carved statue of Bashenga is modeled after Mansa Musa, who was the king of the ancient empire of Mali in West Africa. At the center, the open doorway is integral to African culture and symbolizes a passageway into another realm like the ancestral plane. Beachler, who prepared an extensive Wakanda bible to use for design reference, said she hoped the scene would show “the celebration of life, while also showing the pain and the loss.”
The Burden of Sorrow
Shuri is no longer the comic sidekick. With the death of her older brother, she carries great anguish and even anger in this image. Her necklace, made up of more than 100 white, beaded seeds, and her earrings, in the shape of elephant tusks, are symbolic of the added weight of her obligations, Carter said.
Light illuminates the geometric pattern of hearts and triangles within Shuri’s cloak. They represent the heart-shaped herb responsible for giving the Black Panther his powers and the Okavango triangle, which refers to family, Carter said, and can be seen on both T’Challa’s and Shuri’s panther suit.
“Even the hood goes down all the way to close her face,” Carter said. “So the weight of the responsibility is what she’s adorned in.”
“There was so much beauty that lies within that substory that I could have watched the funeral procession for the entire two or three hours,” Carter said. “I would have been fine with that.”
Reggie Ugwu contributed reporting.