By Michael Cavna
The Washington Post
Much is being trumpeted about how significant “Black Panther” is in terms of black representation in front of the camera and in the directing chair, but what can too easily become lost is just what this Marvel movie could mean for “below the line” talent, too.
This global blockbuster with a mostly black cast, as led by Ryan Coogler, Hollywood’s hottest major director of his generation, could become a beacon to inspire the next generation of Hannah Beachlers.
Who is Hannah Beachler? Well, she is not simply a major black female production designer. A little more than a year ago, Refinery called her “Hollywood’s only high-level black female production designer.”
Some film fans might be surprised by that fact. Beachler certainly was.
“A couple of years ago, the thought hit me, like, ‘I can’t be the only female of color working at this level. That can’t possibly be right!’ But talking to friends of mine and just being on sets, I haven’t seen women like me in this kind of position,” Beachler said to Refinery, calling that reality “heartbreakingly sad.”
Production designers are Hollywood’s ultimate world builders — the magicians at providing scenes that the director and cinematographer can capture on screen.
And in five short years, since she worked on Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” Beachler, who is in her 40s, has emerged as an uncommon talent in that cinematic world. The Emmy-nominated designer has also helped build the look of Coogler’s “Creed” and “Black Panther,” as well as Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning “Moonlight” and Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” and Beyoncé’s pop-culture-rattling “Lemonade” — a dizzying range that has required creating visions of Oakland and Philadelphia and Miami and New Orleans, as well as of a fictional Africa, that radiate off the screen like a deeply textured character.
Beachler, who started out as a set decorator, was drawn into this world as career by such midcentury films as “Last Year at Marienbad” and “The Spider’s Stratagem” — finding a profession even she didn’t seem to fully envision early on.
But “Fruitvale Station” moved her career onto a higher trajectory as a designer, and now, re-teaming with Coogler and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (“Mudbound,” “Moonlight”), Beachler has helped create a Wakanda of stunning detail. This fictional, mineral-rich nation soars with undulating architecture partly inspired by the great Zaha Hadid, and disparate districts that reflect each tribe’s own organic aesthetic. Beachler paints like a story whisperer, one in which even topography is psychology, and where people cannot be separated from their environment’s predominant color patterns.
Beachler, too, helped build scenes where rich tradition and futuristic tech fuse as harmonious parts of the whole, as if each half feeds off the other to stay in balance.
Beachler has heeded the professional wisdom of her predecessors, like frequent Spike Lee collaborator and production designer Wynn Thomas. And she has pointed to the future of film as becoming more diverse behind the camera.
Beachler once told Film Comment about tuning in to a true color pattern for each of her scenes: “I don’t fight that, or try to impose upon it; I follow it.”
Hollywood and film schools should not fight the change that is coming. For the good of a richer industry, long-underrepresented talents should follow Beachler’s lead.