Hannah Beachler is the first African American to win an Academy Award for best production design but she’s certain she will not be the last.
The Centerville High School graduate and Wright State University film and production design alumna received the Oscar for “Black Panther,” the game-changing Marvel blockbuster that redefined what Black artistry could be and achieve. The 2018 superhero movie earned $1.3 billion worldwide.
The first female production designer to work on a Marvel film and reportedly did so with a $30 million arts budget, Beachler is currently in Atlanta working on the highly anticipated sequel, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Directed by Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”), the film, reuniting much of the original cast, is expected to finish production in April and hit theaters in November.
As Black History Month is being observed, the history maker talked about her current project and reflected on her career.
“It’s another level – we’re taking it to another level,” said Beachler, 51. “Understanding the bar was set high, this wasn’t the time to rest on our laurels. This wasn’t the time to be complacent. We had to challenge ourselves and push ourselves even more and dig deeper within everything.”
Since production began in 2020, the voyage to Wakanda has seen its share of setbacks. In addition to filming while navigating COVID-19, the death of Chadwick Boseman (King T’Challa/Black Panther) from a private battle with colon cancer and controversial anti-vaccination statements from Letitia Wright (T’Challa’s sister Shuri) have been cause for concern. Still, Beachler says the film’s foundation, which includes the return of Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth Carter, remains strong. And as with any project, the script is the starting point that allows her to follow her instincts to bring Wakanda to life.
“We have a foundation that we built on, but now is my opportunity to become more detailed and intentional about design and world-building to really take the audience to (Wakanda),” she said. “The production designer technically (oversees) departments such as costumes and makeup, but there is collaboration, particularly with colors and patterns. I’m hoping we’re really bringing something fresh and new within the world we’ve already created.”
‘This isn’t an impossibility anymore’
Reflecting on the 91st Academy Awards three years ago, Beachler, who accepted the Oscar alongside set decorator Jay Hart, describes the evening as “surreal.” She immediately felt the history of the barrier-breaking moment, knowing the recognition surpassed individualism into something greater and more meaningful.
“It was bigger than me,” she said. “I felt that and understood that very deeply. It wasn’t about me getting an award. It was about my community, all the faces of my ancestors who survived, all the people who came before me who opened the door. But it was also sad that I was the first in 90 years. Now we know this is possible again and again and again with other young Black creatives. So, don’t ever think you can’t get there or let other people make you feel like you can’t. Because I’ve been through that, and I kept going. You keep moving forward. Your determination is the light that’s inside you. (Oscar night) was my moment to shine my light on everyone who will be in my position one day. And I hope it illuminated them. This isn’t an impossibility anymore and that’s really what I wanted people to see when I was standing up there. They weren’t used to seeing it but get used to seeing it.”
‘My reality exceeded the dream’
Beachler studied fashion design at the University of Cincinnati, but her love of film brought her to Wright State, where she was a student of longtime WSU film professor and Academy Award winner Julia Reichert (“American Factory”). She graduated in 2005 but her journey wasn’t easy. A single mother working three jobs, she often brought her toddler son to classes.
“I never thought in a million years I’d be where I’m at,” she noted. “It felt so far away. It felt like an impossibility. I’ve found myself in many places over the last 15 years I would have never imagined. My reality exceeded the dream.”
In addition to receiving the WSU Alumni Association’s “2018 Alumna of the Year,” she established a scholarship fund for Wright State and Dayton-area high school students interested in careers in the arts and entertainment industry. The scholarship is named in honor of the memory of her Wright State classmate and friend Carol Trevino of Wilberforce, who was killed at age 31 in an automobile accident while working on a film near Shreveport, Louisiana, in 2007.
“Hannah Beachler has created such an exciting and impressive body of work,” said Joe Deer, WSU artistic director and former chair of the Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures. “She’s been a generous and vocal supporter of Wright State’s Motion Pictures program, for which we’re really grateful. She’s inspiring for all of our students because she has developed such a clear sense of personal mission and her work is always perfect for each film she designs.”
“When I’ve returned to Wright State, I remind the students to be resourceful,” Beachler added. “There’s nothing they can’t do if they put their minds to it.”
‘Art in film is still relevant’
In addition to the aforementioned “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” Beachler’s production design credits include “Miles Ahead,” “Dark Waters,” “No Sudden Move,” and the 2016 Academy Award and Golden Globe Award-winning best picture “Moonlight.” She also received an Emmy Award nomination for Beyonce’s visual album “Lemonade.”
Her upcoming projects include directing episodes of a new Netflix series concerning women in hip-hop and curating an exhibit on production design at the newly opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. She’s also excited about designing “Mandela,” a new musical directed by Dayton native Schele Williams (“Aida,” “Motown”) slated to premiere in London’s West End later this year.
Assessing the current state of cinema, Beachler says there is still important work to be done in front of and behind the camera.
“Art in film is still relevant,” she said. “(Films) don’t always have to have explosions, and while that is fun and I think you can do a lot with those vehicles, I really want to see more stories told, different stories told, more Black stories told, and younger, fresher, newer directors being mentored in the business.”
SPECIAL COVERAGE: This is part of a series of Life & Arts stories celebrating Black History Month.
Jan. 30: ‘Black Life as Subject Matter II’ ranges from everyday life to protest
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