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Greif Professor Partners with Black Panther Oscar Winner for Case Study

Greif Professor Partners with Black Panther Oscar Winner for Case Study

Greif Case Program Director Jeremy Dann released a case study with the help of Oscar-winning production designer Hannah Beachler.

12.19.23
Color photograph of Hannah Beachler posing in a hut on set.

Production Designer Hannah Beachler poses on the set of Black Panther.

[Photo courtesy of Hannah Beachler]

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In winter 2022, JEREMY DANN, a professor of entrepreneurship and director of the Case Program at the LLOYD GREIF CENTER FOR ENTREPRENEURIAL STUDIES, attended a conference hosted by The Atlantic. He listened to speaker after speaker present on the nature of progress, but one person stood out to him: HANNAH BEACHLER, the Oscar-winning production designer of Black Panther. After her talk, Dann approached Beachler with a proposal — to create a case study based on her work. Beachler didn’t hesitate. She and Dann exchanged contact information and started discussing the logistics of building a case study. 

From April to October, Dann and Beachler worked hard to compile information on Beachler’s career, creative process, and philosophies toward design, particularly in the Black Panther universe. Despite her hectic schedule and assortment of projects, the production designer was always eager to hop on a Zoom with the professor. Now, nearly a year since they met, that case study (titled “Hannah Beachler: Worldbuilding in Wakanda”) has been published for use in classrooms around the world.

Dann believes the case has a number of applications for teachers and instructors, whether it be in classes on innovation, entrepreneurship, or the cinematic arts. Whereas other cases are dilemma-driven, this material capitalizes on Black Panther’s prominence in pop culture, engaging them in discussions of future technologies and sustainable business models. Dann especially hopes students recognize these valuable lessons to be learned within the world of Wakanda itself.

Beachler was surprised at first her work would become an academic case study in understanding innovation, sustainability, or city design.

“I thought people would think what I was doing was stupid,” Beachler laughed. “I thought people would think, ‘this isn't real.’ I didn't know that there would be interest beyond what I was doing. I was interested in it and it came mostly from my dad.”

Beachler’s father was an architect who used sustainable building materials at a time when that wasn’t the norm. The family grew up in a home he designed.

“It was all about sustainability and biomimicry, and what was important about sustaining the earth, basically,” Beachler said. “My dad wanted a better world through architecture, and knew that was something that was possible, but in his lifetime he wasn’t able to attain it.”

During pre-production of Black Panther, Beachler envisioned a futuristic African society, technologically advanced and untarnished by the influence of colonialism. She consulted with architects, technologists, and other experts to construct a realistic vision for Wakanda. The result was a practically built world with a glacier-sized amount of research beneath the surface. Everything viewers saw on screen, from the urban planning to the city’s mining structure, was buoyed by Beachler’s design “Bible,” which detailed every facet of Wakanda society in meticulous yet imaginative detail.

“You could even look at it in a way [Beachler and her team] did: Imagine an alternate history where when electrical automobiles look like they might become the standard, a little over 100 years ago. Imagine how that might impact your city, your home, the way you store your car, the way you use your car, the infrastructure of the city, the infrastructure of a society, and even the relations of different economies in the world.”

— Jeremy Dann

Professor, Entrepreneurship / Director, Greif Case Program

Perhaps, Dann thought, governments, innovators, and academics could glean something from Beachler’s creation.

“[Beachler and her team] use an alternative history to develop an alternative future in a way,” Dann said. “Now, it was just applied to [Wakandan] society, but it had many implications in the way they manage their natural resources, the way they transport themselves.”

In the films, Wakandan society is fueled by a powerful substance called “vibranium,” which accounts for many of the society’s technological advances. Beachler resisted the urge to use the fictional material as a magical utopia-creating wand, instead choosing to imagine how such a resource could create a “protopia” — a society making incremental changes over countless generations. Dann believes this type of scenario planning could inspire other innovations in industries like architecture, technology, and sustainability.

“You could even look at it in a way [Beachler and her team] did: Imagine an alternate history where when electrical automobiles look like they might become the standard, a little over 100 years ago,” Dann said. “Imagine how that might impact your city, your home, the way you store your car, the way you use your car, the infrastructure of the city, the infrastructure of a society, and even the relations of different economies in the world.”

According to Dann, Beachler’s work and their collaborative case study may result in a new type of creativity in the classroom, one unbound from what’s “possible.”

“Maybe building from that ‘clean slate’ thinking you can start to envision — maybe with a little more license and independence and more degrees of change — the cities of the future or even smaller scale communities of the future,” Dann said.

Dann used a student trial to experiment with the case study. As he hoped, the students took to the material immediately. An informal poll revealed that over 90% of them had seen the first Black Panther movie. The group was roused by the relevant subject material and Beachler’s deep well of research. In fact, some students even offered insights that expanded Dann’s approach to the case.

“One student in a trial teaching was very educated and really eloquent about Afrofuturism and the way they had found that fascinating in several works of fiction and movies they had seen,” Dann said. “That let me know [it] was a good theme to put in the class because that by itself is a whole genre of alternative history that leads you to alternative futures as well, both aesthetic and potentially societal.”

Well over 100 hours of interviews, research, and writing have led to the case study’s publication and distribution. As far as Dann is concerned though, this is just the beginning.

“When we write a case, it doesn't always have that final period or exclamation point. Almost all of the points we have in a case are ellipses, right? It’s not always the definitive answer,” Dann said. “A student can still take things in a lot of their own direction via my narration or Hannah’s quotes. The table is set and then students can take a lot of points in their own direction.”

Beachler agrees, hoping the main takeaway for students is awareness.

“A lot of the projects that I work on are about being aware of other cultures, other ways of life, other ways of understanding our presence on Earth," Beachler added. “I hope that people would take that away from even just the movies that I do.”

Black Panther grossed over $1.34 billion worldwide in 2018, but thanks to Beachler and Dann, its impact may be felt even more significantly in our visions of the future.