When “Black Panther ” star Chadwick Boseman died in 2020, many wondered how filmmaker Ryan Coogler was going to handle Wakanda’s future. Was he going to recast T’Challa/Black Panther/ King of Wakanda? Coogler and the film’s cast and crew were also grieving a huge loss.
But Marvel announced the film would move forward without recasting. Instead, Coogler would drop a superhero first — he would put Black women front and center for the sequel to his 2019 blockbuster “Black Panther.”
Coogler didn’t just put his leading ladies, Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright and Dominique Thorne, center stage. He turned that directive toward his crew by hiring female department heads up and down the roster — Black female department heads. It was a no-brainer, he says, to bring back the best in the biz, but also recruit rising talent. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler returned and the Emmy-nominated Autumn Durald Arkapaw (“Loki”) stepped in as cinematographer.
Arkapaw fit into the family effortlessly and her fellow department heads embraced her. Together, they worked to tell a story of emotion, grief, rebirth and motherhood. Those themes were important to Coogler, Durald Arkapaw says.
“In addressing those aspects we really had room to expand on what had been done previously.”
The pandemic meant early prep was done over Zoom. Carter praises Coogler.
“He took on the mantle, as our hero behind the camera, to take us on this journey. To see their children and families on Zoom did really bring us together differently.”
The new film opens with T’Challa’s funeral in Wakanda. The department heads worked closely with historians to discuss the unification of color for the scenes.
“We wanted it to be pure white, not off-white,” Carter says. “For shooting a scene, there was great concern because you can’t put bright white on the screen because it jumps out at you. But we wanted to unify the tribes and honor the traditions of Africa.”
She admits it was a difficult scene to shoot because “it felt as if we were having our celebration of life or our acknowledgment of Chadwick’s passing. The white did uplift us in a really beautiful way. When you see the tribes walking through and recognize them it created this unification of all the tribes acknowledging the death of the king of Wakanda. We buried our king that day.”
Having spent a lot of time in New Orleans, Beachler was also inspired by jazz funerals and second-line parades, which she says, were also part of funerals.
“It can be a celebration of sending someone to the ancestors, and that’s found throughout the diaspora.”
A notable moment during the procession was a mural of Boseman. Beachler recalls that when both Kobe Bryant and Boseman died, murals appeared. “People wanted to remember him. I thought it was appropriate to do a realistic mural of him. There’s Wakandan script, which is another way of telling a story. We wanted him looking over everyone, as we shot those scenes and have him with us,” she says.
With her brother’s passing, Shuri (Wright) spends her days in her lab, which Beachler rebuilt from scratch (“It blew up in the first film,” says Beachler). She’s feeling anger, frustration and despair, so the lab becomes her refuge. Beachler built a floating elevator in the lab modeled after an egg. “I did research and realized how important the egg is in African culture because it symbolizes life. Shuri is finding that science is her escape, and she finds she can’t escape it.”
Coogler set about expanding the world of Wakanda by introducing another city: Talokan. The world, protected by Namor, played by Tenoch Huerta, is an underwater marvel, inspired by Mayan warriors and Aztec civilizations.
While prepping and working closely with the film’s historians, “I was super- focused on Mesoamerica, post-classic Maya and having all of the influences and beauty and pageantry of the culture and understanding it,” says Carter.
And her process was about constantly tweaking and testing while incorporating fins, fish and coral to create the world and bring the Talokan to life.
Carter relied heavily on historians. “A lot of things that you see in art were tainted by the Spaniards, and you can’t risk relying on the images you see. You need a historian to tell you whether it’s Aztec or propaganda,” she says. “Aztec culture was heavily documented, and it’s also very much adorned and the Mayans were coastal, and they were smaller.”
But the trio didn’t want to root their creations in time and place.
A 400-page bible guided Beachler’s work for Talokan, which was largely built with stone and featured Mayan-inspired architecture. She also discovered that red surprisingly worked well underwater, so she used that for Namor’s throne room. The hieroglyphs, she says, also tell a story.
Durald Arkapaw went through a lot of testing to see how Carter’s colors and Beachler’s set pieces would react. The key for her was to ensure nothing looked fake. “Light travels differently, and so does water. We put as much stuff as we could in water to test it before we shot.”
The new environments required more conversation and collaboration than before. Durald Arkapaw tested a lot of lenses. “We shot with underwater anamorphic lenses just to get more scope. And Hannah had put so much research into building those worlds, and there’s so much width. When you think of water, you think of height, but since the expanse was so big, it was nice to have width.
The lenses didn’t just give a “center punch on the main character, but you feel the people behind them, and you’re seeing the width of the set,” adds Durald Arkapaw .
Her style was to center-punch a lot. “It feels so right to me. It gives both the image and the women so much power. You have these amazing costumes and headdresses that the women are wearing, and your focus should be on them.”
When it came to outfitting Angela Bassett’s queen, Carter aimed for impressive.
In an early scene, the queen speaks at the United Nations wearing regal purple. “Ryan wanted to make an impact. That [purple] costume was designed for the throne room and palace. I remember in one of our meetings, they chose that sketch. It was for this grand entrance for her claiming dominion over Wakanda.” Carter adds the cut was impactful. “It was sleeveless. It showed the strength of women, the vulnerability, the beauty, and it has so many metaphors.”’
The crown was made of vibranium and accompanied with a collared piece. “It was important to introduce her again in this manner.”
Coogler’s film showcases the power of women, women of color, not just on camera but also behind it.