It’s almost been a year to the day since Black Panther production designer Hannah Beachler walked The Root (and our readers!) through the enticing world of Wakanda—a world we’d come to uphold forever.
Speaking to Beachler, her husky voice warms over you like the homegirl you always had—or wanted. Making history as the first African American to receive an Oscar nomination for Production Design, naturally, the first thing I had to ask during our phone interview was for Beachler to take us back to the day when she heard her name on the list of this year’s nominees. (After screaming my “congratulations,” of course.)
“Tears,” she confirmed. “Screaming first—let’s be clear. Just, like ... wow. I think it’s going to take some time to sink in. And then, [I’m] glad that I may have broken that ceiling.”
Yes, shatter that damn ceiling! Related to that, I asked what she hopes her nomination (and hopefully, her win) represents for black women who wish to become production designers or are already grinding in the field, each hoping to be recognized in the same way one day.
Beachler, who immediately struck me as no-nonsense, rightfully placed the onus on the current gatekeepers of the industry, noting people had to take a chance on her in order to land where she is today. As she pointed out, the women of color are there—they have been there. So, where are the opportunities? Where is the step ladder to help them truly fly?
“[I hope] this opens the door for people to actually open their eyes to the talent and the women of color that are designers,” she said. “There’s talent there and that you have to give the opportunity. You can’t just keep going to the same people over and over again.”
It’s true. Beachler was the first-ever female production designer hired for a Marvel film. The first. “Not even ‘woman of color,’” Beachler noted. There are definitely [already] qualified women to be able to do a superhero film.”
She spoke of the high stakes surrounding the film; specifically, the collective “gamble” she, Ryan Coogler and Marvel were taking at that time—Marvel on them, and them, in terms of the future of their respective careers.
“We could not leave. We couldn’t quit. We could not fail. This had to be a success in the way that Marvel films are successful,” she mused.
Exactly. Not only was failing not an option, neither was mediocrity. Which, given Marvel’s standards, would be the same as failing. As we now know, Black Panther would far exceed anyone’s expectations and that momentum is still going—now with renewed speed leading up to Oscar day.
“Every morning, my cast was overwhelmed with tears, looking at people going to the movie and dressing up, dancing, smiling, reaching out to each other and celebrating their heritage, even if [their heritage] wasn’t African,” Beachler recalled. “They were there to celebrate it.”
The connection was real; from the pressure she and longtime collaborator Coogler were under to the subsequent celebration they got to enjoy after the film’s explosive success.
Naturally, I had to touch on the undeniable creative chemistry between her and Coogler. Having worked together before on Fruitvale Station and Creed, Beachler confirmed the two have a “shorthand,” at this point in their professional relationship.
“He brings out the best in everybody; he’s able to see people and know what they can do and know how to then apply that for them,” she said. “I’ll forever be intrigued by his perspective, his take on things, and where he comes from with storytelling. You’re just always learning from him.”
Coogler, of course, feels the same way about Beachler. I recently ran into the Oakland-born helmer during the 10th Annual AAFCA Awards ceremony, where he was being honored. At the mere mention of Beachler’s name (noting that I’d interviewed her prior to meeting him), his face lit up, hoping she was in the building. Alas, she wasn’t, but their binding connection was present.
In our admiration for Coogler, we’ve all highlighted the way he doesn’t assimilate to mainstream culture, despite his highly mainstream status. He is certifiably A-List, at this point, but he’s still ... him. You have to respect that. Beachler most certainly does. In fact, it only reaffirmed her choice to apply it in her own life.
“That’s helped me because I did do that,” she recalled. “I did try to assimilate or fit in a little bit. But, when I met Ryan he was like, ‘If people don’t like you, they don’t like you and they’re not going to like you anyways for whatever reason, so just be yourself and live your best life.’ And I once had this idea that I wouldn’t succeed if I was too black. [Now, it’s], ‘Oh I am black, so if that’s too black, then I’m too black for you.”
And yes, I asked my “what was your blackest moment on set” question to Beachler as well. The blacker the movie is, the more difficult this question gets for folks to choose from. Imagine Black-motherfucking-Panther.
When I asked, Beachler actually guffawed before toggling between “line dancing in the Hall of Fame,” rapping Biggie songs during the Warrior Falls shoot with Angela Bassett at the lead, and Letitia Wright’s infamous rap battles.
(I asked Coogler the same question at the AAFCA Awards, by the way, and he also cited Warrior Falls as his blackest moment.)
As for Beachler’s future, she said there’s a science fiction/futuristic project she’s “pursuing very hotly right now.” She’d also love to do a “gritty fairy tale,” as she believes the foundation of fairy tales is “oppression.” And of course, “whenever Bey calls, I’ll work with her,” she said.
She can’t say much about her future big project, but she did declare one thing: “Black people should be in space in the future!” And I responded, “And hire you!” Beachler hit back with, “Okay!” It was a delightful black girl affirmation moment, to say the least.
“If and when [the project comes to fruition], think back to this interview because your life is about to be changed—it’s going to be black as shit,” she teased.
So, I’m sure—much like any Oscar nominee—Beachler is gearing up for Sunday’s big event with a Wakanda’s worth of butterflies in her stomach. I asked her to forget about the possible trophy for a moment, and relish in the vision of a little black girl watching her sit in the Dolby Theatre seats on Sunday evening and thinking, “Wow, I want to be like her.”
“What do you tell that little black girl?” I asked.
“That you are stronger than you can even imagine,” answered Beachler. “You don’t know all of that right now. And everything that happens to you happens for a reason, the good the bad and the ugly, I promise you ... because I’ve been through it all. All of it. As a little black girl, I was that same girl that had a lot of pain and a lot of joy, as well. And you just have to keep going because the only thing is forward. And we’re opening doors for you. So, it won’t be half as hard, I hope.”
We hope. I have a feeling Beachler’s open door will create a shift. And given its highly talented architect, it’ll be a beautiful door, indeed.