When bringing Wakanda and its citizens to life on the big screen for Black Panther, makeup artist Joel Harlow tried to stay as authentic as possible. His commitment to authentic African designs and aesthetics have helped make Black Panther the global hit that it is. Check out Harlow’s thoughts on his design process and how real African tribes influenced the look of Black Panther.
Black Panther Makeup: Tribal Influences
When designing the makeup looks for Black Panther,Harlow and his team didn’t pull inspiration from the comics as much as they did real life. “We have the five tribes that make up Wakanda. For the looks of each of those tribes, we used real African tribes as inspiration. Since the characters in the film belong to a specific tribe, their looks followed in line with their tribe.”
“When you’re dealing with the film like this, you have to remain true and respectful to the heritage that you’re representing. Our designs were absolutely inspired by tribes in Africa.”
“That was one of the things that we wanted to make sure, in borrowing from actual tribal looks, is that you have to make sure there is a continuity to the film. Rather than doing a makeup design because it looks interesting or fun, if it didn’t have that thread back to the actual tribal designs, then we didn’t do it.”
Updating the Looks for a Modern Wakanda
Basing the tribal looks of Wakanda on real African tribes adds authenticism, but how did they update those looks for a modern society like Wakanda? “Because Wakanda is an advanced civilization and they have the benefits of vibranium and all the advancements that that brings with it, we tried to keep the look and the feel of the tribes we were using, but sort of update that into the future.”
“If you were applying makeup or tattoos or scars or piercings or whatever it was, what would that look like in an advanced technological society while still maintaining the history in the tradition of its source material?” Harlow posed.
Designing the River Tribe Lip Plates
Harlow’s team also worked on the River Tribe, which was visually marked by their large lip piercings. “There’s a lot of pretty complicated makeup in this film, like the lip plate on the River Tribe elder. That was an extremely complicated thing to make up because we had to build a system where we could support a weighted plate off of his lower jaw and make it look like his bottom four teeth were removed. That’s traditionally how this is done in the tribes.”
“Then we had to sculpt a piece around the plate so that it looked like it was under tension. Something that may not look as complicated, when you see it done right, is actually very complicated when you’re building it and applying it.”
Designing Killmonger’s Scars
In addition to the makeup design, Harlow and his team also built the M’baku mask, T’challa’s panther mask — the wooden one, and Killmonger’s jackal mask that he takes from the museum. Speaking of Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan’s character in the film, Joel and his team also designed the scar tissue for Killmonger’s entire chest and back.
“Every scar on his body was a kill. It represented a life that he had taken. On his front it was a little more orderly, but on his back he obviously can’t reach as well.”
“Building that makeup was very complicated, very time-consuming. There are roughly 80 different pieces, Different modes each with about 100 hatch marks. Four makeup artists would apply those to his body at 3 AM, that work takes about 3 1/2 hours, then we would take him to set and the real work would begin.
“Now he’s fighting in the water and he’s got full contact in battle. He’s in the heat and humidity, which is the natural enemy of makeup. Maintaining that makeup just as hard as the application.”
“Initially the test that I had done in the beginning of the film was much more ornate. It was much more design-driven, but that was against his reason for doing it. It wouldn’t be a design — orderly — but not ornamental. We ended up going with this [final design] because we really wanted to drive home that he was a very proficient warrior.”
When all of these unique design elements are considered in combination with the set design, the acting, the writing, the directing — everything — it’s easy to see why the film is a theatrical and critical success.
Black Panther is currently in theaters.