Dismantling Narratives One Blockbuster at a Time

Adaptive Path
Aug 10, 2018 · 14 min read

By Alana Washington

Across the design continuum you’ll find designers whose work is rooted in the here-and-now, those who fashion stories and experiences from moments past; and you’ll find designers whose job it is to erect big, bold, beautiful futures not yet imagined. Hannah Beachler’s work dances courageously across the continuum — see Fruitvale Station, Creed, Lemonade, and Moonlight for confirmation. This year’s blockbuster Black Panther confronted Hannah with her biggest design challenge thus far — imagining the futures of a people whose social, political, and innovation trajectories were brutally fractured. “Wakanda forever” means so much to us all because it’s a cinematic unearthing of our diaspora, never before given to us at such a scale. It is proof that we are all connected — a celebration of the innovation that was and is and will continue to be.

I had the opportunity to speak with Hannah and have a glimpse as to what she’ll share with us at UX Week. In preparation, I read, listened, and nerded-out on Hannah’s own inspiration (Wynn Thomas and Ferdinando Scarfiotti). I focused-in on the boundaries where past interviews left off — diving deeper into diasporic identity, what it means to lead a team of 500, and, ultimately, the role of designers in dismantling oppressive systems. I’m excited to share a little bit of that conversation with you here. The rest you’ll have to hear firsthand August 21st.

You may have already paused to Google, “diasporic identity.” If so, I appreciate you. If not, that’s okay, and I’ve got you covered. A diaspora is a dispersion of people from their original homeland — in our case, of Black people from Africa. What’s resulted are identities that are as much a product of our geographies, as they are a product of our status as the “forcibly removed,” or colonized, and beyond.

Black artists bear such a weight of correctly representing the multitude of human experience.

I asked Hannah how she handled this.

Ryan [Coogler, Director of Black Panther] asked us a big question, ‘what is it to be African?’

Which is a big question because I don’t even know what it is to be ‘American.’

Africa was a place I’d never been before, and as far as America is concerned we all popped up in cotton fields and there we were. Traveling to Africa and South Africa, it’s hard to put into words but really talking to people and understanding that thousands of years of what’s in your DNA cannot be changed by what evil has been done by man. I’m from a continent that is part of who I am.

We’re this bastardized culture that’s been repeated back to us as a shameful thing, but all the things that we do are all African. I’m just an African from Ohio. For example, hanging out on the stoop is a proud African thing of displaying all your children. We’re not listening to hip hop and rap. You go back to Africa and it’s telling a story with a rhyme and a beat. You’re not being ghetto, you’re just being who you’ve always been, who you’ve been for 50,000 years of our society.

Despite all the evils that have been done, that will continue to be done, you cannot destroy who we are as a people. Diaspora for me in Black Panther, I represented that in Wakanda.

I asked Hannah about her role as an African American designer responsible for world-building the diasporic experience.

At the end of the day, I’d always say, ‘Am I the person to be designing the place that’s never been colonized?’

There was a lot of hard work that went into it, but using the things that we understand that our ancestors and people still currently use like biomimetics, plumbing, using water for energy off-coast… they had armor, they had armies, they had hierarchies.

These were empires. It went away when colonization came in, and I picked that back up. I wanted people to understand: this is who you are.

My design was all based on evolution. Considering everything that exists or existed.

I looked at Lesotho, the Dogon in Mali, and others — there’s so many — and evolved what they were doing because evolution stopped when they were colonized.

I asked myself, ‘How do I carry on that evolution?’

It was the difference between appropriation and where it might have gone had they had their own agency.

Things that seem European like the buttresses at the palace, that design is of African descent. A lot of people are like, ‘well that’s not African,’ so there’s a little bit of push-back because people don’t want to think that’s where it originated. It was a part of me understanding what the Diaspora had done and melding different cultures.

In the film, we’re taking their culture, still honoring it, and evolving it music-wise, food-wise. You don’t usually see that hope and that community as we see it in Steptown — street life, food, animals, children. Architecture from Senegal, Nigeria, things that represent tribes, altogether, that is the Diaspora. That is us evolving and evolving with each other, and specializing, coming together.

On Origins and Place

Hannah lives in New Orleans, by way of growing up in Ohio. I was curious as to how these places shaped her.

I grew up sort of oddly in Ohio. Ohio is not the odd part. My father was an architect and designed the house I grew up in. We lived in the middle of the woods, half-farm, it was pretty rural. We lived with whatever my brother shot, and whatever my mom grew in the garden. A little different than most people, and I think for that reason it was pretty imaginative. Everything was about imagination, we would go out in the woods and create worlds. Using sticks, finding a groundhog hole and making it an apartment. Of course, I was not appreciative of this then as I am now.

I grew up in a predominantly white community. There wasn’t talk about what the history was, about struggle. It was neatly brushed under the rug. Going to New Orleans, people were vocal. It’s interesting because even in the way I speak, people would ask if I’m from California. They said I sounded white. And I was like, ‘what do you mean I sound white?’ It’s a real thing. I found that I would code-switch when I would be around friends or when I was on the phone or interviewing.

A recurring theme in our chat was that of diasporic identity — especially identities of blackness throughout the United States. My father grew up in New Iberia, LA and moved to Northern California at 18. With fifty years in California, he’s still unmistakably Louisianan (you can catch him every May at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival attempting to beat his last year’s score in the eating contest).

I wanted to know if Hannah’s diasporic identity had been changed by living in New Orleans.

I started a foundation built in New Orleans. There’s no other place like it in the world. I’m learning my craft by being around craft, tradition, and culture. The safety of being in a small town, but a very metropolitan area, a cultural area. I still live there, I love it. It’s informed me in ways that I’m still learning about.

New Orleans was a group of very prideful people. I learned how to fight, speak truth to power, say out loud what you’re feeling is not right or could be better. Being in a community that when things got hard like Katrina, everyone banded together.

It gave me a certain strength being there and because it was really the first time being out of Ohio, outside of Dayton and Cincinnati, becoming a part of community making their concerns my concerns, making the neighborhood children my children. They put their problems on the front porch and it’s constant celebrations.

Ryan compounded that because he has family from New Orleans. When shooting Fruitvale Station, [his family member’s house] was the Black Panther headquarters [in 1968, Oakland]. They were there making us gumbo, making roux…

Don’t worry New Orleans fam, I said what we are all thinking: “PLEASE DON’T RUIN THIS FOR ME AND TELL ME THEY PUT TOMATOES IN THEIR GUMBO.”

No!

[deep sigh of relief]

On Leadership

One thing I’ve been surprised hasn’t been foregrounded in chats with Hannah was the sheer size of her team: 500 people! I asked her to share what it’s like to lead a team of that size. Particularly, how did she ensure that that this highly detailed vision crystallizing between the department heads translates to everyone on set?

20-hour days! Being constantly present in everything…

Hannah told a few stories in mesmerizing detail about staying present for her crew. My favorite was that of the crew working on M’Baku’s throne room.

You’ll see the bottom of his throne chair is black, it’s burned, there’s ash around the throne chair, and if you walk around the back you’ll see it’s all burned. [One day Hannah walked over to see the work being done on the throne. The crew noticed her and said,] ‘You can’t be here!’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, just checking it out.’ And they’re like, ‘who are you?’ ‘I’m the Production Designer.’

She confessed that kind of ongoing, daily presence takes a toll.

When you put that much of yourself in, it took me maybe 7 months to come back from it. I don’t know if I was mourning from it being over, or if it was my body releasing. Because it’s like, picture wrap, you’re done. Usually you get sick because the adrenaline is gone, and your body has to catch up, but this was discovery of ‘who am I?’

That’s how you make a design feel real, you have to be a believer, ‘who am I, what are my biases, how do I let go of that to make this better?’ As a Black woman, you have those biases, you are indoctrinated with those biases.

And then, because I’m a firm believer in “work smart, not hard,” I asked Hannah to share some of her learning moments so that if I’m in a position to lead 500 people, I can lean upon her wisdom.

Oh man, there were a lot! You can’t go forward if you don’t fall down. There were a lot of misses as far as designs go. We started working on the whole of Golden City until we pretty much picture wrapped. There were at least 2–3,000 iterations of it. We’d gotten really far with it. I’m one of those people that on the weekend I keep working and have ideas, people are scared to death of seeing me on Monday. There were a lot of misses on that for me, and that felt like falling down. Looking back, maybe not a lot.

I’ll tell you about Warrior Falls — 150,000 gallons of water running through — the set was 120 feet wide by 100 feet deep. It was a big boy. [In the construction — with Styrofoam, plaster, and sealant] I didn’t account for the force of the live waterfalls. I can’t believe I’m talking about this.

We started running the water. We’re running these falls for the first couple days, and then I get a phone call. I think, ‘Oh Ryan wants to say hi!’ And I walk up, and there’s this giant, it had to be 10-foot by 100-square-foot bubble. It looked like elephant skin. The waterfall was so forceful coming down, it had basically damaged the sealant and gotten down where the Styrofoam was lifting the whole floor up in a giant bubble. And, we have everyone there waiting to film.

I think I froze, and looked at my supervising Art Director… That set was a struggle. We were working on the weekends, putting metal plates down, thinking the falls would hit the plates, but still the water would get under and the bubble would start happening. It was like plugging one hole and creating another. We had to beat it back the whole time. Once we started putting plates back, then we had to run that water the next morning. That would probably be the worst moment.

I probed a little here on what the lessons learned were.

The lesson was that when I do a water set, I’m never using Styrofoam again. We need to figure out another substance to make that work, but you never give up.

The thing that was fantastic about this experience was that the whole crew was out there rooting for us. There was never a sour look… it was this constant uplifting. There isn’t real failure, there’s only learning. I’m starting to get over the idea that I’ve failed. I just receive that learning everyday.

I was the person on a set who, early on, everyone would be like, ‘I love this,’ and one person would be like ‘Oh, maybe we don’t have this prop there,’ and that’s all I’d think about. I’ve learned not to. That’s not a failure, that’s an opinion; and all I have to do is remove a prop.

On crews like that, number one, especially as a female, if you don’t ask for it, you’re never gonna get it. I can’t doubt myself. I learned that. Don’t doubt yourself. Go in strong. And be open to other things. And be ok with what you have done. As a Black person in the film industry, you do have to work ten times harder for half as much. You do have to do far more and be far more of everything than your counterpart. And that doesn’t work. That’s not how it should be. I’ve learned that if I’m gonna do that it’s because that’s who I am and I’m gonna create these worlds and I want them to mean something. I have to not be so hard on myself, and it’s going to be ok. If I stop learning, then I’m not in the business anymore.

Much has been publicized about Ryan’s ability to push and inspire those he works with. I’m so impressed by his profound impact on Hannah.

Ryan is Ryan. Doesn’t matter if you’re in the room with Bob Iger or me. I found my truth through Ryan. He would always say ‘if people don’t like you for you or don’t like you for who you are, then those aren’t the people you should create with.’

Ryan is someone who, not that he allows you to be yourself, but that is his expectation. You have integrity and discipline.

Work ethic, which is something I got from the Midwest, all comes together and culminated in Black Panther and started with Fruitvale and Creed and living in New Orleans.

I was also interested in the ways in which she’s influenced Ryan.

That’s a good question. I really don’t know! I think that I have. I’ve opened him up to seeing more of the world as far as the stories we tell. Everything about how he chooses to shoot is very intimate. I was thinking going into Black Panther, ‘How do I make this more intimate?’

From Fruitvale to Black Panther, I see that he’s seen that in me in a bigger way than was in, say Fruitvale, even though that was a smaller film. A lot of young directors are closed-in because you don’t have a lot of money, you film where you are, you’re counting on the actors and the lighting to tell the story. But he’s starting to see that the movies we love, show you the story through what you’re seeing, and there’s art direction in that. And we have!

The biggest thing is having people you trust. Your work is so important, it’s hard to let go of your babies. We originally were feeling each other out, and I knew right away that he was going to be important in the film world, giving voice to those who don’t have one.

There’s a scene in Black Panther where Ramonda, Shuri, and Nakia ask M’Baku for help after Killmonger takes over. There is a striking moment when M’Baku responds to the FBI agent by barking, his full court joining him. Hannah had a visceral reaction to seeing this improvisation unfold. She approached Ryan.

I said, ‘Does that make us look bad? Does that make us look like animals?’

I instantly went to the place that … it was already a delicate place to be, and it was the most fantastic place to be, my whole body tensed up because I felt that stereotype, and the three of us [Winston Duke, Ryan Coogler, and Hannah] stood on set, stopped filming, and we talked that out. He asked, ‘What are you feeling Hannah?’

I told him from my heart what that made me feel. [Ryan explained] that is him taking control of the situation. We had a 5–10 minute conversation. I can go to Ryan with anything like that. Anytime, any moment, because he can stop and hear me. That’s why he is who he is. I say Ryan comes from the sun. Producers talk about the stories that he tells. He’s an immensely important storyteller.

We do challenge each other. [His is] not just another human perspective. His perspective is never cut off. I always hope that I can get there… Allowing that conversation to happen when thousands of dollars are ticking by, that’s who we are. We still have a long way to go as far as aesthetics, I love Ryan because he’s always challenging me.

On Her Goals as a Creator

What was impressive to me was the way that Black Panther balances joy, pain, gravity, and levity. I believe that this balance was possible because there wasn’t a separation of our histories and ourselves. I asked Hannah how Black Panther achieved this feat.

That’s what we were feeling. I always say that I hope people feel the love. There would be days I’d be in Ryan’s office with tears in my eyes. I would call him up and he’d say, ‘Just talk to me, what are you feeling,’ and he’d always say ‘put it in your work.’

It’s not just every once in a while, it’s every day. I could be feeling joy and knowing how that affects our community. I just didn’t keep myself from allowing all of everything, the anger, the happiness, I’d let it all out. So, I’d say how do I let it all out, control the story, control the psychology of the story, and is this what Marvel people need, because it is a brand.

I’m an introverted extrovert. At work I’m an extrovert, I wear my emotions on my sleeve, it’s a huge part of my design, it’s just me, and the same with Ry. Some of the stuff he was writing or some of the stuff that didn’t show up, like the characters in the throne room, Michael’s character is the pain of the lost tribe. That anger can take you over, and I’ve been fighting that for the past few years, how do I not let that swallow me up? That was one joy to put a real narrative, I got to be a part of destroying a narrative, there is nothing more than I could have ever asked for than that.

What do you want people to take from your UX Week talk?

That there’s a different future that we can be presenting to the world. World-building isn’t about dystopian futures, it’s all about representation. What we put onto the screen comes back into our lived world. You see it and you live it. I hope in my career I can continue to release people from the ideas that have been indoctrinated into us. There are people of color in the future, not just in one character [in a movie]. That’s what I want people to walk away with thinking about.

[bonus material]

As we closed the session I thanked Hannah for her time. And, basically, told her that I was going to go “dance it out” as the only means of dealing with the fever pitch from our chat. She said she was about to go throw on some “Apes**t” and do the same.

See Hannah Beachler’s talk, Designing Diverse Fictional Landscapes by Using the Past and Present to Inform Futuristic Design at UX Week in San Francisco, August 21–24. Single-day tickets and full conference passes still available.

Adaptive Path

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A team of designers focused on the capabilities of human-centered approaches to improve products, services, and systems.

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