For “Black Panther,” production designer Hannah Beachler not only created the fictional civilization of Wakanda as an oasis of Afrofuturism, but also a distinct written language as well. It’s a graphic expression quite separate from the actual South African language of isiXhosa spoken throughout the zeitgeist-grabbing Marvel blockbuster about black power.
In fact, there are two written languages in “Black Panther”: one based on the ancient Nigerian language of Nsibidi (which dates as far back as the 4th century), and a more evolved version that Beachler developed with great imagination. “It was a secretive language, based on pictography, so it was about how you put the symbols together and the image you create,” said Beachler, who’s collaborated with director Ryan Coogler on all three of his movies (“Black Panther,” “Creed,” and “Fruitvale Station”).
Thus, unlike “Star Trek’s” Klingon, Beachler didn’t have to start from scratch. But she took the remnants of Nsibidi and updated it like Roman numerals. “The language needed to evolve from the older hieroglyphs into a more modern version,” Beachler said. “We used it in a pictography way but the numerical system stayed the same.”
Beachler took lines and dots and then expanded with an array of symbols, initially inspired by Chinese, Arabic, and Dogon and Murci of Africa. For instance, in the Throne room, where T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) sits, there are traditional Nsibidi symbols inscribed on a large column behind him. However, smaller columns contain the more modern version of the language denoting the various names of the tribes.
“Ryan wanted a newer script that felt African but was really advanced,” said Beachler. “I started looking at different cave drawings, we looked at LA graffiti artist Retna and were inspired by his being able to create these characters that were fresh, and started playing and playing. I did three or four passes and so did a couple of the illustrators. We mixed them, bringing our own aesthetic to it and made an entire alphabet.”
It was a massive, six-month linguistic project for Beachler, who had already created two Wakanda bibles (one to impress Marvel enough to hire her and another actual one for the production). “It was a process of trying to pay homage to lost languages but also infusing the idea of Afrofuturism of reclaiming languages lost,” she said.
Finding an Afrofuturism
A research trip to the mountains of South Africa provided further inspirational: At an altitude of 6,000 feet, the production designer was wowed by tribal graffiti art with its beautiful patterns. “It also informed Ryan about T’Challa and Nakia [Lupita Nyong’o] meeting in Steptown. I just came up with that design because when building the city we had all these terrace levels that looked like steps going up a mountain and that was very much influenced by the farming and archaeology that happened in Africa before colonization.”
And so Beachler made Steptown a hipster center of Afropunk in the Golden City, and the symbols seen throughout are funky looking, inspired by signage from Honk Kong. Then she did it on a larger scale with all of the provinces in Wakanda. “I never did this kind of linguistic exploration before,” she said. “But I started to understand how deep Ryan wanted to go into this.”
And the written language needed to be embedded everywhere, with a different stylistic flourish in each location, including the underground train station and the Bond-inspired high-tech lab run by T’Challa’s teenage sister, the Q-like Shuri (Letitia Wright).
In terms of tech applications, Coogler sent Beachler a TED talk about interactive furniture that found its way into the cool vehicles. She also studied Microsoft touch advancements that could be utilized by Shuri, as well as wearable tech, which enabled her to discuss its use in necklaces and beads with costume designer Ruth Carter.
“I wanted it to feel grounded so that an audience could look at it the way they look at ‘Star Trek,'” Beachler said. “And what you see in the movie is just scratching the surface of what we created for the whole civilization.”