Wakanda Forever! How an Imaginary Country Won the Oscars for Black Panther

Originally envisioned by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the Academy recognized the artists and filmmakers who breathed life into Wakanda.

The first time anyone saw Wakanda, it was in the pages of Fantastic Four #52. Published in 1966, the comic featured the Fantastic Four visiting the secretive African country and meeting its guardian-king, the Black Panther. Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, Wakanda was an early vision of Afrofuturism, where black people commanded soaring space ships and pocket-sized satellites to the bewilderment of three privileged New Yorkers — and a mostly white readership.

The idea was that Wakanda was never subject to the indignities of western colonialism. Free from the inhumanity of the slave trade, and boosted by the precious metal Vibranium, Wakandans thrived a cut above the cutting edge.

Five decades later, the Academy of Motion Pictures awarded two black women (costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler), along with composer Ludwig Görranson, coveted Oscar trophies for their work in bringing Wakanda to life in Black Panther. While Ryan Coogler’s seismic superhero film did not win Best Picture (and the director himself wasn’t even nominated), Wakanda was still celebrated in a big way that earned juggernaut Marvel Studios its first Oscar wins ever.

The first victory on Sunday night belonged to Carter, who won Best Costume Design. “Marvel may have created the first black superhero,” she said in her speech, “but through costume design, we turned him into an African king.”

Later that night, Hannah Beachler accepted the award for Best Production Design. Like Carter, Beachler was the first black woman ever nominated in the category. In between tears, she thanked director Ryan Coogler “who offered me a different perspective in life.”

“I’m stronger because of Marvel,” she continued, “who gave me the opportunity to do my best and supported the vision of this film.”

Görranson also thanked Coogler. The two of them started out as USC film school kids who collaborated together before graduating to the big leagues.

Watch: The trailer for 'Black Panther.'

Costume, production design, music — it’s these areas that paid special attention to Black Panther’s exercise in world-building. While filmmaking is a collaborative effort involving hundreds of talents to coalesce, these areas impressed Black Panther upon the world just as it did George Lucas’ Star Wars and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Not since Middle-earth and a seedy cantina far, far away has there been a place as textured as Wakanda.

A benefit that Black Panther, the film, had over its comic book ancestor was in the amount of time spent on research. Working under deadlines in the 1960s, Kirby — a middle-aged Jewish artist who fought Nazis in World War II — was probably unable to conduct comprehensive research into African cultures. Nor did that likely occur to anyone at Marvel at the time, as Kirby told The Comics Journal in a 1990 interview that is rather awkward to read in 2019:

“I came up with the Black Panther because I realized I had no blacks in my strip. I’d never drawn a black. I needed a black. I suddenly discovered that I had a lot of black readers. My first friend was a black! … And here I am a leading cartoonist and I wasn’t doing a black … Then I began to realize that there was a whole range of human differences.”

Black Panther Wakanda Fantastic Four
The first appearance of Wakanda, in 'Fantastic Four' #52.

Still, readers resonated with Jack Kirby’s Wakanda. After Stan Lee died in late 2018, Evan Narcisse ruminated for Polygon on the significance of Wakanda and how Kirby and Lee could have come up with it, given their worldview as two white men in the middle of the 20th century. Turns out, Narcisse reckons, that’s quite the ideal time to explore such ideas.

“On the African continent, former colonies were fighting to become their own sovereign countries,” he wrote. “Here in America, the civil rights movement swirled all around Lee and Kirby, who themselves hailed from a persecuted group that had stereotypes flung it.”

Narcisse continued:

“T’Challa is evidence that Stan Lee, his co-creators, and the writers and artists who followed in their footsteps knew that black people existed in a fuller way than was often shown in comics. Some of their well-meaning efforts were clunky and embarrassing, but they were gesturing in the right direction. That was enough for me.”

After decades of Black Panther stories, which soon featured black creators such as Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and artist Brian Stelfreeze, it was time for the movie. Though Wakanda was indeed “clunky” in its earliest depictions, its cinematic form was anything but.

In featuring black perspectives and allies who make art with empathy, Wakanda came to the screen bursting with life.

In an interview with Inverse, Ruth E. Carter explained how research into various African tribes, such as the Himba, Turkana, and Masai, shaped the costuming for the Wakandan royal guard, the Dora Milaje.

“When you look at the Turkana or the Masai, you see them wearing this beautiful red that’s vibrant,” she said, “So I bumped up the red so that if you see ten Dora Milaje together, it felt like twenty, because of that imposing color coming at you. This fiery red.”

The Ndebele people of South Africa, whose women wear brass and copper rings that symbolize a bond to their husbands, also influenced both Carter and Coogler to give the Dora Milaje a unique piece of tactical gear .“Ryan wanted them to feel like armor,” Carter said.

For Beachler, there were ten months of research and careful thought into the lifestyles Wakandans lead.

“I drew from a lot of different places,” Beachler told Film School Rejects, “and keeping the tradition involved in the aesthetic and the design language was of the utmost importance, because it’s about black representation, the black future and agency using architecture and history and science and myth and biomimetics, and biomorphosis, and all of that went into the design.”

Watch: Behind the scenes with the Dora Milaje in 'Black Panther.'

Philosophically, Beachler said it’s not Vibranium that defines Wakanda, but the people.

“Technology is there to serve our lives, not for us to serve technology,” she told CityLab. “And I think that’s why people responded to Wakanda on this massive level: people.”

In an interview with Pitchfork, the Swedish-born composer Görranson revealed his research that involved traveling to West and South Africa to absorb its musical identities. He traveled with local musicians “for months in preparation.”

“After I read the script and learned about Wakanda, I thought a lot about what music they would have there. It could be anything!” he said. “But it’s still in Africa, and music from Africa is a language—it has a purpose. You don’t just play music for people to hear, every rhythm is written for a specific reason—for a ceremony, for the king.”

Part of Görranson’s research involved discovering music lost to colonization. An archive of 20,000 records recorded by “a British guy who went around to thousands of different tribes in Africa” was one of Görranson’s biggest resources. “A lot of that music doesn’t exist anymore because of colonization. So I spent a lot of time listening to these recordings and discovering.”

Just as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced a revelatory idea such as Wakanda — a technologically advanced, free African nation — in mainstream comic books, so have the filmmakers of Black Panther to a worldwide audience. While the film isn’t deemed “Best Picture,” that Wakanda was celebrated amidst the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown’s premier night is its own reward. As Carter said onstage during her speech, “This has been a long time coming.”

Media via Marvel Entertainment, Marvel Enteratinment, Inverse