In “Black Panther,” the audience first gets to know King T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda, played by Angela Bassett, when her hair is covered in a series of headdresses, the height and stateliness of which befit a queen mother. After the film’s climax, in a moment of both existential and emotional vulnerability, the queen’s hair emerges. It is downy, white and in dreadlocks. Taupe and brown hair accent the ends.
“That was intentional,” said Camille Friend, head of the “Black Panther” hair department. “In her day-to-day, Ramonda was regal.” And Ryan Coogler, the film’s director, “really wanted to show a transition,” said Friend. “He wanted her to be more regular looking to show that they were going through a hard time.”
Much of “Black Panther” occurs in the fictional, wealthy and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda. That world is animated by visual references to African cultures, combined to sumptuous effect. The hair, in particular, punctuates character and plot. T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, wears an understated mini-Afro that contrasts with the semi-shaved head of M’Baku, a fierce rival played by Winston Duke.
“M’Baku is the leader of the Jabari tribe, who are great Wakandan warriors,” Friend said. “Each of the Jabari guys has his own look. And they’re all inspired by the hair of Senegalese warriors.”
Princess Shuri, T’Challa’s young sister and the genius tech master of Wakanda, has microbraids, but in some scenes she has them up in two buns, a girlish look.
“The girl is on the brink of womanhood,” Friend said. “She’s super-smart, but with her brother she acts kind of bratty. That personality translates to her hair. Her clothes were really high-end and stylish, but her hair keeps that innocence.”
Inspiration came from books, like the collection of black hairstyles shot by Nigerian photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere and the images of tribal cultures compiled in “Before They Pass Away,” by photographer Jimmy Nelson. The film used a crew of 25 hairstylists and a rotating team of braiders from Atlanta, where much of the movie was filmed.
“We’d start our days at 5 a.m. and work on our first wave of actors,” Friend said. “People come in, get breakfast and talk ‘trailer talk,’ which is just like salon talk. We’re discussing what’s happening in People magazine.”
Actors weighed in on their characters’ hair, especially in defining moments. Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, is the head of the Dora Milaje, the elite all-female Wakandan special forces that protect King T’Challa. The Dora are bald, with their heads sometimes painted in geometric designs. When Okoye goes incognito on a mission, she must, to her disgust, cover her head with a straight-haired bob wig.
“Danai had a lot to say about this,” Friend said. “We were trying to figure out if we were going to do something more Afrocentric for her. And she goes, ‘No, it should be something that Okoye would not wear.’ That’s when we started looking for straight hair. When Danai said that of her character, I totally got it.”
The moment lasts only a few seconds in the film, but it is striking and lasting in its message. Straight hair isn’t bad, of course, but the notion that it is somehow preferable to kinks or curls or a bald head is. Okoye’s wig moment rejects that idea, nonchalantly.
“We did a totally Afrocentric, natural hair movie,” Friend said. “There was not a pressing comb or relaxer on set. That wasn’t happening. We’re in a moment when people are feeling empowered about being black. And that’s one thing you see when you watch ‘Black Panther.’ The hair helps communicate that.”