Black Panther Is The Ultimate Love Letter To Black Beauty

People aren’t just excited for Black Panther, which finally comes out on February 16, because it’s a big-budget Marvel film with Michael B. Jordan’s abs and Chadwick Boseman’s charm. From the moment the trailer surfaced late last year, people of color of all ages took note of the kings, queens, and warriors of Wakanda (a fictional East African nation) that look just like us, with rich brown skin and textured hair.

This major moment of beauty representation required painstaking detail from hair department head Camille Friend and makeup designer Joel Harlow, who were among the group of creatives on the Atlanta-based set who took direct inspiration from African tribes along with the original comic books. “It’s a very empowering film. I hope that aside from being very entertaining, there is a message here,” Harlow tells Refinery29. “I hope that message is received and embraced. Certainly that was first and foremost, being respectful and honoring the heritage we were drawing from. We didn’t go down a path for our makeup looks simply because they looked interesting and cool. There’s meaning behind all of it, and we were very conscious about making sure that came first.”

And with that meaning, there’s an intentional message: “Black is beautiful. It doesn’t matter to me what you do with your hair — if you wear it straight, or curly, or nappy, or a weave, or an Afro. We’re all beautiful,” Friend says. “In this movie, we have the greatest opportunity to showcase natural hair and showcase Africa. Africa has never been seen culturally like this.”

Of course, there’s hope for a Black Panther sequel, but the behind-the-scenes beauty team hopes that the film’s impact goes far beyond the Marvel universe. “We hope that this spurs more Black-generated movies, too,” she says. “I think Black Panther doing well economically at the box office shows that there is an audience for this type of movie. As people of color, if we support, we’ll hopefully see more movies like it.”

Ahead, get the spoiler-free details on Lupita Nyong’o’s “Wakanda knots,” Danai Gurira’s head tattoos, and much more.

On The African Inspiration…

“We wanted to make sure we stayed true to the source material and used as many actual African tribal looks as possible,” Harlow says of the makeup looks. “We have five tribes in the film: Jabari, River, Border, Mining, and Merchant. Basically, what we had to do was figure out what those tribes would look like, and in return, figure out what those members would look like.

“We used inspiration, say, for River tribe, who wear lip plates from an actual tribe called the Mursi (of Ethiopia). For the scarification looks seen within the Border tribe, we used inspiration again from the Mursi, as well as the Bumi (of Ethiopia). A lot of real tribes factored into the various facial markings and body paintings for our five, including the Himba (of Namibia), the Maasai (of Kenya), and the Nuba (of Sudan). It was important that we distinguished them at a glance, so you’d know who everyone was, even though Wakanda is modernized. We still wanted to create looks that you could trace back.”

For hair, Friend turned to African culture and sought inspiration from reference books along with movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and the original Blade Runner. “I also looked at lots of modern references, like Afropunk,” she adds. “Plus, Black Panther was my fourth Marvel movie, and they really gave me a lot of free range to design looks. As far as my process, the first part was African culture — looking at styles and tradition, texture, textiles, and clothes. The second part was the modern natural hair movement happening right now in real life, where women and men are proud of their texture. The third part of that was [futurism]. Wakanda is a technologically-advanced society, so I wanted to look at how that fit in to the hair.”

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.

On Finding The Best Base…

Because there was a glorious overload of melanin in the movie, it took a variety of foundations to achieve a perfect base for everyone — and that included a few drugstore brands.

“We used Lancôme, Black Up Cosmetics, MAC, Jordane, Iman, and more,” says Harlow. “We didn’t stick with one specific product line. We were all over the place. As with any show, you use what works. You don’t necessarily have to use same product every time, and you can combine tones. Some formulas were alcohol-based, some were inks, some were foundation creams, some were airbrushed, some were hand-brushed.”

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.

On The (Many, Many) Wigs…

When the movie trailer dropped in October, everyone was flipping out about the characters’ hair. The main cast wore an assortment of locs (as seen on Angela Bassett, who plays Ramonda), twist-outs (like on Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Nakia), braids (as modeled by Letitia Wright, who plays Shuri), and, as seen on Danai Gurira’s Okoye, even completely-shaved heads, which were not bald caps (more on that later).

“We’re really proud of the fact that a lot of the hair pieces, aside from the ones for the main cast, were custom lace-front wigs,” Friend tells us. “We probably made a couple-hundred. Everything was thought out and planned carefully. There’s no 1-800-African-Hair in the industry. It took ingenuity and the creativity of us as hairdressers to translate our ideas and put them on the screen.”

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.

On Nakia’s Bold Lips And “Wakanda Knots”…

Lupita Nyong’o is known for rocking some of the most innovative natural and natural-textured hairstyles we’ve ever seen on-screen, so Friend knew she had to bring that same energy to her character in Black Panther.

“Her first look is what we call Wakanda knots,” she says of Nyong’o’s character Nakia’s loose twists, which resemble Bantu knots. “We used a natural hair wig done in an ombré color, so it’s dark at the roots and almost auburn at the ends. The hair is cut into a wedge shape.”

For a second look, Friend pulled inspiration from Casino Royale — fitting, because the Black Panther characters spend one scene in a casino themselves. “We wanted her to look very upscale,” Friend says. “We did some two-strand flat twists and pulled them out to create that explosion of hair and color.” To keep Nyong’o’s hair moisturized underneath her wigs and headdresses, Friend used Leonor Greyl’s Masque Fleurs de Jasmin and Serum de Soie Sublimateur.

Regarding the female cast members’ royal purple and fiery crimson lipsticks on display throughout the film, Harlow says that Carter had a very specific color palette for each tribe. “Within that, depending on what Lupita was wearing, we chose her lipsticks and eyeshadow that way,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.

On Okoye’s Shaved Head And Tattoo…

Friend says that the entire cast was committed to pulling off their looks. So committed, in fact, that Danai Gurira (who plays Okoye) shaved her head every day while filming — along with the rest of the king’s warriors. It was a necessity for the actress, as her character rocks a massive head tattoo that denotes her military ranking. “Any kind of stubble would ruin the stencil,” Harlow says. After buzzing Gurira down, Friend would slick on Leonor Greyl’s Huile Secret de Beaute to prep her scalp for makeup. On average, it took three hours to apply the stencil, along with a half hour for shaving.

“That tattoo was incredibly difficult to create, because the head has a lot of compound curvature and shapes,” Harlow explains. “It’s not something that you can easily transfer a tattoo or a stencil on top of. The stencil had to be made to conform specifically to Danai’s head, and then the outline of the tattoo was cut into the stencil so that we could airbrush a layer of illustrator ink onto her head. That would give us the outline, and then we could go into little pieces to fill in the blanks.”

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.

On Princess Shuri’s Half-Moon Braids And Tribal Markings…

If you shudder at the thought of spending three hours in the chair for a dye job, you’ve got nothing on Letitia Wright. It took over eight hours for Friend’s team to braid up Wright, who plays Princess Shuri. “They’re very small, so we had local Atlanta braiders come in and help,” Friend says. “Technically, they’re box braids, but we didn’t do box parts. I actually don’t like them on camera, because you can see all the lines. So I did a half-moon shape, which takes away those edges so you’re not seeing right down the scalp. It just blends in better.”

But it was impossible for Shuri’s tribal makeup to go unnoticed. “Since Wakanda is so advanced, Shuri embraces that advancement completely,” Harlow says. “What we wanted to do with her tribal markings is give her something authentic, but make it very crisp. If you took that same pattern without the benefit of modern tools — fingers or sticks or what have you — it’d have the same feel, but it wouldn’t be as precise. That was the idea with everyone. Even though they had come from those specific tribes, the look was clean and precise because you’re applying modern application techniques, as opposed to those in the past.”

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.

On Erik Killmonger’s Locs And Scars…

“Michael B. Jordan grew his hair for a long time. When we started filming, he had like five inches on the top, and his sides and back were faded,” Friend says of the actor, who plays Wakandan outsider Erik Killmonger. “We added loc extensions to his hair to give him the look, and so he could remove them after the movie. He normally wears his hair short.”

Jordan’s scarification looks just as believable, thanks to sculpture — not makeup. “We plotted out the look on a lifecast,” Harlow describes. “We plotted everything out two-dimensionally, and then we transferred that 2D guide to a piece of Formica, then sculpted those raised scarification marks. By the time we finished, we had something like 788 separate molds containing about 100 hashmarks each.”

If you’re counting, that’s at least 78,800 scars total!

“It was designed to be like a puzzle, where you basically cover Michael’s body,” adds Harlow. “And you know, Michael’s not a small guy. He’s worked out a couple of times. He’s muscular, so it was a lot of purpose area to cover!” Sounds like such a tough job.

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.

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