Marvel’s Black Panther will undoubtedly be one of the Blackest movies of all time. Other than the cast and setting, one of the things we’re most excited to see come to life on February 16th is the beautiful depiction of our natural beauty. In Hollywood, as in most industries, our hair is either an afterthought or styled in a way that doesn’t honor our rich history.
This isn’t the case with Black Panther where our beauty, in all of its natural glory, is placed front and center. ESSENCE got the chance to speak with Camille Friend, Black Panther’s hair department head to discuss the film and all things hair of course.
Friend is well acquainted with Marvel’s cinematic universe. She’s worked on several of their films including Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. She is also one of the first African-American department heads at Marvel. It’s official: not all superheroes wear capes.
Friend shared where she drew inspiration for all the hairstyles, dropped gems on how to break into the business, and told us what it meant to her to work on a film that highlights Black excellence.
What exactly are the responsibilities of a hair department head?
The hair department head is in charge of designing and executing the hairstyles in the movie. I’m in charge of getting all the supplies we need; the wigs and hairpieces. And also hire all of the staff.
It’s a big job, but… I love what I do and I’m very passionate about doing it.
Did Marvel have any guidelines when it came to choosing the hairstyles? If not, how did you conceptualize the looks?
Black Panther was a creative open field! When designing a character, I start with their facial shape and their best features because that’s what the camera sees. I want to pick a hairstyle that accentuates that. I consider what the character does for a career, what’s their socioeconomic status, and their age — all of those things make a difference when we’re choosing a hairstyle.
Tell us how you drew inspiration for the hairstyles we’ll see in the film.
I started with traditional Africa, focusing on hair, wardrobe and textures. I looked at different magazines and periodicals and went to the library for art history books to research different tribes all over Africa. Then I looked at modern Africa including the whole natural hair movement and Afrocentric movement we have going on right now, pulling in elements from Afropunk with their cutting-edge looks and experimentation.
Finally, I thought about a futuristic Africa. Wakanda is the richest nation in the world. They have technology that no one else has, so we tried to incorporate that into the hair.
Let’s get into the actual hairstyles. Can you break down the hairstyles of a few main characters?
On Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia:
I wanted to give her a different look that nobody had ever seen. And she’s the Black Panther’s love interest, so every time you see her on camera she needs to look gorgeous. So we developed the ‘Wakanda knots.’ People want to call it a Bantu knot, but I’m like, no, it’s the Wakanda knot!
Then there’s the color. At first, we were going to go with a basic brown color, but it didn’t make her face pop. I looked at what [Black Panther costume designer] Ruth Carter was doing with the wardrobe. Once we established her color palette, I knew we had to give her a color. We made it ombre so it looks really natural.
On Letitia Wright as Shuri:
She was the hardest character, she’s the young, hip and tech-savvy girl. I went back and forth with Ryan [Ryan Coogler — the director] and he wanted to see a new hairstyle with every wardrobe change so we did individual braids. They’re like hair, so you can style them up, down, or twist them. We used gold and red tones to highlight her skin.
On Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger:
Michael grew out his hair about four or five inches. We went in and added dreadlock extensions and faded the sides. We braided his locs to give them a little crinkle and texture. Killmonger rocks them to the side, and you can really see the strength of the character when he’s on screen.
On Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther:
That’s his hair, so we just used some product and a hair sponge to define his curls. No chemicals, no nothing.
On a personal note, what does it mean to you to be involved in Black Panther?
To be responsible [for] creating looks that will stand the test of time makes me feel emotional. I felt so honored to be able to do this movie. I’m emotional at the response that people of color have given this movie. If the 70-year-olds and then the 20-year-olds are talking about it, then we’ve covered everyone.
What are your thoughts on diversity and representation behind the scenes?
I hire people of color, but ultimately I hire the right people for the job. You come with your skills and qualifications, come to work and do your job. I always think there’s room for improvement regarding diversity. Things are changing but I’m very interested to see how things will continue to change.
What advice would you give someone that wants to break into the business?
You always have to be persistent, always be a student and strive for excellence. You can attend Hair Scholars, my teaching company. Also know it’s a business so you do need an agent, a lawyer and a CPA. You need all these things because you are a business.
This article was edited for brevity and clarity.