Let’s Dig In To The Design Of BLACK PANTHER

What can we tell from that incredible first trailer?

The first image we see in the Black Panther trailer is a white man in chains.

Ulysses Klaue, audibly Afrikaner, speaks of a futuristic African paradise not meant for his eyes. A myth. A legend. Something kept from him… But he is not the real subject of this scene, and this is not his story. King T’Challa and his royal guard Okoye observe him from behind a mirror. Are they worried? Is their kingdom in danger? There’s plenty of room to speculate. To Klaue, this place is almost supernatural in its telling. “El Dorado,” he calls it. The colonial goldmine. This is our introduction to the world of the film.

It is immediately refuted.

Welcome to Wakanda. This is a real place. It has real people and a real history. A real culture born of pan-African tapestry, uncorrupted by forces that changed the face of cultural identity the world over from the fifteenth through twentieth centuries. It lives. It breathes. It dances. It may be a legend to the likes of Klaue, but to those who reside within its walls, it’s home. And with this trailer, we’ve just been welcomed in.

I don’t usually enjoy breaking down trailers based on out-of-context screenshots. Black Panther is still eight months away (250 days as of today, to be exact) and we’ve all been through the trailer hype machine enough times to know that picking apart story details from teasers doesn’t yield the most interesting (or accurate) results, but there is undoubtedly something in the ether. I’m going to steer clear of plot prognostication the best I can, but I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to discuss the film’s spectacular design.

Black Panther looks nothing like any Marvel movie we’ve seen, and that’s partially because director Ryan Coogler was allowed to move away from Marvel’s in-house production paradigm. He brings with him Director of Photography Rachel Morrison (his eyes on Fruitvale Station), veteran costume designer Ruth Carter (Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, Amistad, Black Dynamite and Selma) and Hannah Beachler, the production designer on not only his last two films, but on Lemonade and Moonlight. It’s an on-set dream team made up primarily of female department heads – Ryan Coogler knows what’s up when it comes to talented women and Hollywood opportunities – and they’re even joined, at Coogler’s insistence, by Claudia Castello & Michael P. Shawver (his editors on Creed and Fruitvale Station), composer Ludwig Göransson (also Creed and Fruitvale) as well as The People Vs O.J. Simpson co-writer Joe Robert Cole.

There’s every reason to get excited given the aforementioned résumés (I envy Bucky Barnes right now; I wish I could be put on ice until February 16th), but it’s only the former group of Coogler, Morrison, Carter and Beachler who we can really talk about right now...and only then in bits and pieces. Then again, the morsels we’ve been teased feel like an embarassment of riches, so as much as most of us want the movie NOW NOW NOW, there is plenty to tide us over in the meantime.

These two shots feels definitive of what Wakanda is meant to be. The first is a seeming contrast between its technology and its people, a futuristic airship against a backdrop of indigenous colours; tribal leaders assembled during what appears to be T’Challa’s coronation. These are not the kinds of images that usually share the frame unless tribespeople are looking up at modern marvels in wonder. In Black Panther, the wonders are their own creation, and past & future are not mutually exclusive.

The second is a seeming blend of Wakanda's technology and culture. Structures resembling huts, domes and mud-walled houses adorn massive skyscrapers, as if the original ideas at the heart of civilization were allowed to grow unfettered. These are all things we normally compartmentalize based on our post-colonial understanding of infrastructure. Here, they are one and the same (It’s hard to tell, but foliage appears to be intertwined with some of the buildings. What is usually a signifier of post-apocalyptic rot in American media may very well be a symbol of life here).

Like his introduction in the Civil War trailer, we meet Black Panther as he stands his ground amidst a hail of bullets. Unlike the chopper that shot him from afar, this is more of a point-blank scenario. It’s hard to get a good look at his armour just yet, and this appears to be the first of two costumes in the film, but we’ll get to that momentarily.  

Here we get our first good look at Forest Whitaker’s Zuri, a spiritual figure with ties to T’Challa’s departed father. 

 Alright, let’s talk about Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger.

At least I think that’s Killmonger above, based on his armour when he’s being escorted by Daniel Kaluuya’s W’Kabi. Erik, formerly N’Jadaka, is an outsider to Wakanda (and a discgraced one, at that, if they’re sticking to the comics), so he’s the only Wakandan character whose outfit feels like your run-of-the-mill American action fare. It has hints of colour to it, maybe even vibranium, but it lacks any discernible African influence in the design, which makes for a pretty glaring clash with that tribal mask (which could just be a disguise for all we know).

Then again, it’s not too far off from what he wears in the comics when he fights T’Challa. Whether it’s a staple of his outfit or just a neat little Easter egg is yet to be seen. And speaking of fighting T’Challa…

I’m trying really hard not to speculate here, but there’s something really intriguing about Black Panther and Killmonger having to do ceremonial battle in front of tribal elders, stripped of their respective armours. 

The Dora Milaje - Black Panther’s fearsome, all-female royal guard - are a force to be reckoned with, but the fact that it takes so many of them to challenge Killmonger makes him seem like a handful.

Then again, maybe he’s not alone. It’s hard to tell if this is the same scene, but Florence Kasumba’s Ayo and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia being in a tight spot at the hands of Wakandan tribesmen means one of two things: either these two members of the Dora Milaje have gone rogue (Ayo is one of the Midnight Angels in the comics), or not everyone in Wakanda is as loyal to T’Challa as he might’ve thought.

What’s really interesting about the design here though is those blue blankets, seemingly inspired by the costume designer’s own Basotho tribe:

In fact there’s a lot of direct and unapologetic African influence to be found, like the leader with the emerald Suri lip disc and matching emerald suit. One foot in the west, one foot in Wakanda. 

The Dora Milaje themselves appear to be heavily Maasai-influenced. Kudos to @KendraJames_ for providing the reference after speaking with Carter:

Here’s a better look at their accessories and at the natural black hair of some of the other women, but it’s also a brief insight into T’Challa as a kind leader, greeting a kid walking by.

He’s also wearing sandals, something no leader or cinematic hero would do in the West. Oddly enough, that minor detail is what made me feel most connected to him. Despite the American money and talent behind it, this does not feel like an American film, and rightly so. A rarity amongst Hollywood productions set elsewhere in the world.

He has pretty big shoes to fill, speaking to the United Nations (on Climate Change, no less), the same platform where his revered father T’Chaka was killed right in front of him. 

Not only that, it seems like there’s going to be some kind of rift or misunderstanding between him and his people. That might seem like speculation, but Coogler is rarely vague about the way he frames the relationship between background and foreground (remember the shadowboxing scene in Creed?), so his intentions being obscured by refraction, possibly from the heat of a fire, separates him even further from the rest of the characters.

What’s more, the reverse-shot almost feels like some kind of surrender.

But hey, there will probably still be those who are loyal to him, like Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia. She’s a Dora Milaje and love interest, but what’s great about her in this shot here is that she’s walking around a casino like a Bond femme fatale. 

She also accompanies… excuse me for a second.

*clears throat*

ANGELA BASSETT’S WHITE LOCS LOOK PICTURE PERFECT AND oh hey, there’s Black Panther’s sister Shuri!!!

Sorry, back on topic. She also accompanies Queen Ramonda, Shuri and Everett Ross to some unknown territory. Maybe it’s an unexplored part of Wakanda where it snows for some reason, maybe it’s somewhere else in the world, but they appear ill-equipped for the cold. The tribesman behind them however, does not.

M’Baku a.k.a. Man-Ape seems like he’s from that same frigid region, and he’s also straight-up holding a dude up by the neck. Whose side are these folks on? By the looks of things, I sure know I’d want them on mine.

I can’t be certain, but their designs appear to be Swazi and/or Zulu influenced. I think with enough interest in the inspirations for the film, we’ll probably end up with a pretty hefty making-of book that confirms or debunks this.

The actual conflict within the film is under wraps for now, but I’m curious about whatever leads to this scene of Klaue seemingly robbing a display of African artifacts. There’s going to be a lot to talk about come February, but for now, let’s get back to getting lost in the designs.

This is the only good look we get at an interior location, and it appears to be some kind of council chamber. Killmonger is probably on trial for something or other, and his fate is likely up to the folks at the center: King T’Challa (there’s his throne from the poster) and a comittee of leaders made up of six different tribes.

This chamber feels like another wonderful example of the film’s Afrofuturism. The pillars feel right out of a sci-fi film, but they’re engraved with tribal symbols. The walls also appear to have mud paintings or sculptures on them (on appears to be of a tree), and that same Earthly material forms the central platform in the room’s otherwise transparent floor.

Perhaps the only thing that gives me pause is T’Challa’s new mask. Old mask? His mask we haven’t seen yet. I’m not sure if the eyes belong to a new helmet or if this is some kind of Spider-Man thing where they change shape to match his expression. They certainly make him look less intimidating and more concerned or surprised, but perhaps that’s the intention. Let’s see! I don’t think they’d change this without good reason.

And finally, the duo of Nakia and Shuri.

There are a lot more women characters in this than your average Marvel film, and that they’re all dark-skinned black women is a thing of beauty. In the comics, Shuri is easily as capable as her brother, if not more so (maybe she’ll take up the mantle at some point, who knows?) and here she appears to have her own set of Iron Man-esque repulsor canons.

At first I thought they were meant to resemble some kind of rock formation in keeping with the design of the chamber, but on closer inspection, her canons appear to be in the shape of panthers! How cool is that? She may not have the ring and the vibranium suit, but she wields the symbol of the Black Panther in her own way.

I’m sure there’s much more to be explored in this vein. The trailer isn’t even a day old and we’ve seen less than two minutes of footage from what I hope is a film well longer than two hours. I want to live in Wakanda, and gaguing from the reactions over on Twitter, it seems like this version of it has gone over like gangbusters, especially with black audiences.

The integration of culture and technology has always been key to Wakanda, and it feels like the folks in charge have gone down the right path and then some. Black Panther hits theatres February 16th, and it’s probably going to knock box-office pundits on their arse.

Oh, and since you were obviously wondering, the song is “Legend Has It” by Run The Jewels. What a time to be alive.