Wakanda is a lushly futuristic, equatorial enclave.
A secretive East African nation that was never colonized, it is the fictional homeland of T’Challa, or Black Panther, the superhero of the titular Marvel movie that has fans buzzing with excitement.
The nation has supreme wealth and medicine. Citizens travel by super-speed magnetic monorails and flying cars. Wakandans wear Afrofuturistic garments emblazoned with traditional patterns and jewels.
This is all made possible by their discovery of vibranium, an element with superpower qualities.
The Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman, is the King of the various tribes that constitute the kingdom. The thrust of the film follows Boseman as he tries to protect the nation from outside influences, not least a bootleg arms dealer who’s after the coveted power source.
The force of Wakanda, though, is female. Wakanda’s secret services – known as the Dora Milaje – royal advisors and the nation’s number one technologist are all women.
While the world is warring, Wakanda hides in plain sight deep in the tropical forest.
Behind the scenes
The production of Marvel’s “Black Panther” (US release February 16) is a remarkable feat. It’s a thrilling and refreshing spectacle on the big screen, capturing traditional African influences in a hypermodern context.
Even the trailer teases have been enough to tempt. It’s outsold every previous superhero film in advance ticket sales – and has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It is a huge technical and creative undertaking for those working behind the scenes. The production, costume, jewelry and other designers and stylists are creating a whole new world – one where nature and technology are intertwined.
The Black Panther in comic book-form, first featured in 1961 and later rehashed in books by Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates, was the movie’s template.
The film also bears with it an important responsibility on the designers and director that the images and representations of an African nation – in a continent often lazily portrayed in the West – are inspired by African groups.
There’s been some murmurings about the accuracy of African depictions in the movie, but largely reactions critically and on social media, with the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLit trending, have been positive.
It’s been a long time coming for Marvel’s first black superhero film, but the world of Wakanda awaits.
A whole new world
Hannah Beachler, the production designer of Oscar winning film “Moonlight,” is the dreamweaver of Wakanda.
The challenge for Beachler was the lack of historical precedent for such a place.
“It was such a challenge because knowing that this is a nation that had never been colonized and never experienced slavery. There’s not a lot of representation for that anywhere in the world,” Beachler said.
“There were many nights and days where I kept myself awake for work. It was a large responsibility to be the one defining the narrative,” She admits.
Dreaming of Wakanda
Under the guidance of director Ryan Coogler (previous works Fruitvale Station and Creed), Beachler created the roadmap for this secret society.
“Ryan and I started talking and he was walking me through the different tribes that lived in Wakanda and that was one of the first places we started,” Beachler told CNN.
“And then we started with the population, how big is the country, the square miles, how big might the powers be, what’s the topography, and how did they get there, and how did it affect the topography, and what do the mountains look like?”
A large part of the research process was traveling to Africa.
The team traveled up the coast of South Africa in KwaZulu-Natal, into the countryside and via urban districts.
“When I came back we reworked everything. There was a lot achieved because of my experience of being able to able to touch and feel and be there and see. I had a better perspective,” Beachler says.
“It’s a lot about taking the ideas that people have about what it is to live in Africa and what it is to be African and retelling that story, reclaiming it I guess, and having this clarification,” Beachler said.
That being said, the movie has particular saliency in the current political climate.
The alleged comments by Trump about “shithole countries” triggered outrage in Africa, and with movements like Black Lives Matter and the NFL protests it’s not surprising a black superhero has taken center stage.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has previously warned about “The danger of a single story.” When Africa, an unimaginably complex continent, is reduced to an image of poor people.
A movie can never paint a perfect picture. And while much of the movie was shot in Atlanta, not Africa, Wakanda, at the very least – and from the reactions on the continent, offers something different, a powerful place and story.
What Wakandans wear
This story is also seen in what Wakandans wear, a mesh of traditional and hi-tech Afropunk influences.
Ruth E. Carter is exactly the sort of costume designer you’d want to dress Marvel’s first black superhero.
Carter has designed costumes for history’s most famous and influential African American figures like Malcolm X (1992) and Martin Luther King. Jr in Selma (2014).
“They were speaking to the political climate of the time. I think that the Black Panther speaks to this political climate,” Carter said.
But this was an entirely new challenge. Not least because Carter was producing an entirely original fictional African attire.
Roadmapping African influences
“There were at least 10 different tribes that we gathered costume inspiration from, because Wakanda is a fictitious land in the Northern Central part of Africa, and it’s imagined as a place that was never colonized.
“We could create something that honored African history, African-American history and also would be a new-found culture that would be unique to Wakanda,” Carter said.
Carter instructed a team of over 100 buyers. This was no small undertaking, especially for Carter’s first shot at a Marvel movie.
She visited Africa and drew influence from ancient tribes to establish the Wakandan people’s unique characteristics.
“They wear things more avant-garde. Their hair is natural. They’re sometimes barefoot. I would say the Afrofuturistic model is the one characteristic that goes throughout the Wakandan community,” Carter says.
Carter was particularly inspired by the Dogon people of West Africa.
“They were a big inspiration for me because they were like astronomers and they lived in this mountainous area of Africa,” Carter said.
Other tribes of sartorial inspiration were the Turkana people in East Africa, Hemba people in Congo, Suri tribe in Ethiopia and Tuareg people in western and northern Africa, among others.
However, Carter emboldened these costume designers with edgy, high-tech touches.
Carter said it was important to show this royal African family in a futuristic model.
While previous Hollywood attempts at telling African stories haven’t always gone down well, the behind the scenes talent in “Black Panther” broke new ground.
As Carter told CNN: “It has bothered me and probably others that we could say that we are African-American and have no knowledge of the truth about Africa in the modern time and still we see poor images that are shown to us in the media.”
Fikayo Adeola, founder of African comic book company Kugali, told CNN there’s been a mixed reaction to “Black Panther” among African artists, but it importantly could open the door for future films.
And while “Black Panther” is part fantasy, it also feels part real.
“Black Panther gives us this reference to a culture that is more close to reality and a spin on the Afrofuturistic kind of fantasy,” Carter said.