When actors take on a vernacular different from their own, they’re often held up to scrutiny by native speakers for accuracy’s sake, and for all its accolades and blockbuster business, Black Panther is not immune to such criticisms. To find out about the process that went into building the world of Wakanda through language and preparing the actors—who hail from across the globe, including the U.S., Tobago, the United Kingdom, and South Africa—I spoke with Black Panther’s dialect coach, Beth McGuire. McGuire is the director of speech and dialects at Yale, author of African Accents: A Workbook for Actors, and previously worked with stars Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira on the latter’s Tony-nominated play Eclipsed. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Aisha Harris: You’re working with Wakanda, a fictional nation that’s been imagined as existing in eastern Africa, somewhere near Kenya, Sudan, Uganda. How did that inform how you approached these dialects?
Beth McGuire: Visually, that’s where we were. Linguistically, what we did is we honored the genealogy of the precursor to Black Panther—Captain America: Civil War. T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, played by John Kani, is in the previous film. John Kani is from South Africa and he’s Xhosa, and he’s playing the king of Wakanda. So, Ryan and I went back-and-forth and talked about it, and I said it just makes sense. If that’s who you started with, that’s your king of Wakanda, that’s who it is, that’s the language. And so we did. We chose Xhosa, and it’s a very challenging accent, but it was kind of the kosher thing to do if we’re going to look at the genealogy of who they started with in the Marvel story. What was interesting, also, was that the young T’Chaka is played by John Kani’s real son, Atandwa Kani, in real life.
Atandwa was really invaluable on set in terms of cultural advisement, and, as you notice, there’s a lot of Xhosa language. There was a lot more. I’ll tell you, I would just be on my phone, you know, hoping someone was awake in South Africa, saying, “How do you say this, please?”
Were you at all involved with the language aspect, or was there someone else on set to help with that?
Oh, honey, I wish. I wish. No, I was terrified but I did the best I could, and when Atandwa was there, I was eternally grateful. But, yeah, I am accustomed to working with somebody on set who speaks the language, but I wasn’t able to get that.
So the few times when we see characters speaking and there are subtitles, that’s Xhosa we’re hearing?
Yes, so that was a mishmash. Like for instance, a number of the actors had private Xhosa people that they knew, so we’d get in touch with them and I’d listen to the recording and make sure that [the actors] were saying it correctly. And then of course, if something was off, we had the advantage of [automated dialogue replacement], to be able to doctor it after the fact.
And the work was so fast and furious that it was very challenging to keep track of. You know, there was a lot of improvisation going on. But I can’t even tell you how proud I am of those actors. They were just extraordinary. They worked their fannies off, they really did.
I was just reviewing this morning where all these actors are from. What was really interesting is, you’ll hear that they all sound like the same world and they’re all speaking with a Xhosa accent, but they’re slightly idiolectical. Daniel Kaluuya’s accent is a little different than Letitia Wright’s accent, even though they’re both Brits, because Daniel’s parents are from Uganda, whereas Letitia was born in Guyana.
So you know, you have South America and Africa, and yet they’re both black Brits. There’s all sorts of interesting overlapping and you’d have somebody like Chadwick, who is a very trained actor but who’s from South Carolina, and Angela Bassett, who’s also a very trained actress, who is from, she’s like New York and Florida and, I think, North Carolina as well. You know, you have all of these original primary accents folding into another accent, so you get what I thought was a really great sort of natural distinction that had to do with all of the mix of tribes that are in Wakanda. Although we were really gathering and using Xhosa as our hub, this sort of just naturally happened and I thought it was kinda cool.
In general, even if you’re a classically trained performer, do you think there’s a greater jump from an American accent to an African accent than there would be from a British accent to an African accent?
I think so. It depends on the country, because if you’re doing Liberian, then American’s gonna help you. If you’re doing Rwanda, neither British or America’s gonna help you because it depends on who colonized the country. But if you’re doing Nigerian, then yes, definitely British is gonna help you. If you’re doing South African, you know, that’s a call, because you had the Dutch. Honestly, it depends on who the damn colonizer was.
In past interviews you’ve stated that often, actors don’t get much time to practice. It’s usually the lowest of priorities for a filmmaker or for producers. How did Black Panther compare to other films you’ve worked on?
Well, I gotta tell you, what time they could give, they would. It’s just everybody wants a piece of the time. And I think that one of the things that I so appreciate, I mean, Ryan Coogler … I just can’t sing him enough praises. He’s a really in-tune, listening, collaborative man, director, full of integrity for whatever the project is, and he understands that part of this project was dialects.
One of the challenges of the day is, of course, they’re just on a daily shoot, hair and makeup, pre-shooting is where the actors go, and sometimes an actor would walk in and I would not have had any time with them even to prep them. So you get creative. A lot of the time what I would do is I would get the [assistant director] to let me know when they were out of hair and makeup, and I would meet them in transport and I would literally prep them in their accent or dialect in transport to the set, and then I’d just be in the sidelines and be able to jump in whenever Ryan was finished with them and I saw a space, you know, I’d be on deck, as it were.
One of the terrific things about that dilemma is that it teaches me to be extremely economical and really get to what the intersection of that dialect with that speaker is, so that I can get the product really fast. And the most important thing, of course, is to help them fold that into transformation and not interfere with whatever they’ve worked on. So it’s a dance of sensitivity, really, what’s gonna help them, and what’s not. And this is for people I didn’t get to prepare with. All the major players, almost all of the major players minus maybe two, I got to prepare with.
What did some of that prep look like?
They’d come in and we’d listen to sound samples that we had for them of people speaking, and I’d give them a playlist and I’d say choose your favorite three. I always like to work in threes because it keeps it from being binary, this one or that one. And that meant that they have to really start to create what I would call their own “idiolect.” They’re not imitating somebody but they’re starting to find the sounds and the rhythms in the music that are their own.
So I would say, OK, listen to three, boil it down to three, and then I’d like you to pull what I call “key phrases” from the sound samples. Bring me three key phrases and I want you to learn them inside, outside, backward, and forward, and I would try to get them to memorize 30 seconds’ worth so that they could really get phrasing and musicality.
And then, once they had learned their key phrases, we would often, if I could get two people together, we’d do [partner exercises] in order to start creating a cohesive palette—not that everybody’s sounding the same, but that everybody’s in that same texture, as it were. And then we’d do text work [with the script], basically figuring out what word you need to get the point across to do what you wanna do. And then once they’ve done that, then we just get down and dirty. Sometimes we get to do a little scene work back-and-forth, not often, but sometimes.
One of the first things you tell actors who pick up your book is to remember that they’re an actor and not a linguist, and that they’re supposed to be, above all, illuminating and embodying the character. As you know, audiences can be highly critical of these kinds of accents—Will Smith playing a Nigerian doctor in Concussion, for instance. My immediate and extended family are not from Africa, but I can only imagine being someone from an African country and watching these movies, when there’s already so many misconceptions about where you’re from. I can see why they would take issue with them.
I am so on board with what you’re saying, which is why I spent five years of my life working on it, so that we would raise the bar. One of the challenges, of course, is, and it’s the big reason I took a semester off from Yale and did this, was to raise the bar, because I actually felt it was racist. If we’re looking at something with an Irish accent and it’s so exact, why are we not having that kind of exactitude and that kind of respect for the incredible dynamics of all of the different African accents?
In the movie you’ll notice that Winston Duke’s character is speaking an entirely different accent than everybody else. Because he was up in the mountains for three centuries, I said to Ryan, let’s give him a Niger-Congo accent. Even though it’s not place-oriented, for an American ear, they’re gonna really hear the difference of that. Niger-Congo accents, there’s a … the effort of it is much more of a carve. You carve into it and carve it up and carve and jab and carve like this, whereas the Xhosa is much more like lifting a ball and tossing it and playing around like this, you know, so there’s a whole different feel to it. And that kind of distinction creates character, creates people, creates point of view.
But the challenge of course is that we are not linguists, but we must bring our best selves to it, our best acting selves to it.
One of the things that we had to really work with was intelligibility of somebody who doesn’t hear African people speak, like we do on the East Coast and the West Coast, or even St. Paul, Minnesota, where there’s a lot of immigrants. So how far can we go? And as we were creating the palette, it would be said, “This is not intelligible,” and I’d say, “OK, we gotta pull this back.” So, a big part of this is working with your audience. I kept thinking of the 9-year-old Xhosa kid in South Africa. That was my audience. So, I just wanted to represent for that kid. But there are—dare I say it—the economics of filmmaking, which is not anything I’m involved in. But also that’s my boss. But I feel like I just about killed myself trying to keep this really as consistent, respectful, and honest as I could. I feel absolutely committed that we did.
My last query for you is, I’m interested in hearing if you’ve had any experience with people not wanting to take you seriously as a white person teaching African dialects to actors.
Of course, yes. And one of the first things I like to do is acknowledge that. I mean, I am the elephant in the room. I say, “Listen, I’m not here to appropriate in any form, I am here to assist and serve, and hopefully we will create a palette together that means something to you and means something to the audience and serves the play or the film. That’s our focus.”
When I started teaching there were no written resources for my actors of color. There were just none, and it really annoyed me. So I started writing them, putting things together, finding samples for them [and eventually wrote my book] … One of the sort of sad things in my profession is that there are very few people of color in my profession, which, in fact, I am trying to change through teacher training right now, and I have some people on scholarships for teacher training with me, people of color, because it’s absurd and we really need more representation.
But I’ve also had such enormous gratitude and respect from people that it far, far outweighs the pushback. And I only want to be the first book on this, and I just really—it’s not my intention to be the expert on African accents. I work on them and I enjoy them and I’m good at them because I worked my tail off, you know, but I’m also damn good at a Russian accent, pretty good at northern Mexican, I mean, there’s all sorts of things.