An Ode to the Strength of Black Women
Like most Black people I know, I’ve spent months obsessively gathering every piece of information I could glean about Black Panther (2018) during its press tour. I took lots of time planning my outfit, picking out the perfect accessories and when Thursday February 15th, 2018 rolled around, I thought I was ready. I could not have been more wrong. I’m not ashamed to say that after the film was over, I sat in the theater as other people filed out, and I cried.
I’ve spent almost all my life being the odd girl out, loving all things sci-fi, fantasy, comic book and more, but as I read and enjoyed these books and watched these shows and movies there was also a sense of missing myself. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the worlds that were being presented to me, even as I found my escape in them. The first time I read a Black Panther comic, I was 12 and I marveled at the fact that I could see myself in this world, not because I imagined one of the characters to look like me, but because they were always meant to resemble me. Suffice it to say, I thought I knew what to expect when I sat in my chair to watch the film for the first time. If I’m being honest, I was even a bit wary because I know that Marvel is run by predominately white men.
What I was given defied expectations.
Black Panther opens in Oakland, CA in 1992, which seems like an odd choice considering that Black Panther is the story of an African king, but there’s a special kind of beauty in the choice given that it’s where the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, was born, and where his first major picture (Fruitvale Station—starring Michael B. Jordan) was set as well. A group of boys play basketball with a milk crate attached to a fence post while upstairs, two men plot what appears to be an armed robbery. I enjoyed the juxtaposition in this scene of the Black Panther and these militant young men who seem to be a part of a different group of Black Panthers.
From its opening scene, Black Panther establishes itself as something more than just your typical superhero film. Comics as an art form aren’t strangers to discussions of fairness, equality, and ethical standards. X-Men has been doing this for decades, in fact, but in refusing to make the focus of these debates about real people (instead of people with mutations, for example), it almost keeps the point that they’re trying to reach on the outskirts of the work. Black Panther has no such issues, making the discussions of what’s fair, what’s ethical, and how far people should be willing to go to save their own the very center of its plot.
The movie’s namesake (notice that I didn’t say hero—I’ll explain why in a bit) is T’challa (Chadwick Boseman), who wears both the mantle of King and Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda, given mystical powers thanks to a purple heart-shaped herb and made virtually indestructible by a suit constructed of the most valuable mineral in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe): vibranium. In fact, the beginning of the movie informs us that Wakanda itself is built on the largest deposit of the mineral on Earth, after a meteor of the substance crash-landed in Africa millennia ago.
Wakanda is a nation of technological wonders, but they have kept themselves hidden from the rest of the world for decades, cloaking the true bounty of their nation in a projected rainforest and presenting a front of a small, impoverished third-world country to keep the vibranium safe from those who would use it for ill-will. Wakanda is a glorious glimpse into what might have been, had the continent of Africa not been ravaged of its resources and its people centuries ago.
T’Challa, as the new king of Wakanda, a title that is passed down both through heredity and challenge, is supported by a group of people in his homeland: his younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is, at just 16 years of age, the smartest person in the MCU; his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett); Okoye (Danai Gurira), the general of the Dora Milaje, an elite all female warrior force; Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy and T’challa’s ex-girlfriend; Zuri (Forest Whitaker), the nation’s high priest; W’kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), T’challa’s best friend and protector of Wakanda’s borders; and M’baku (Winston Duke), leader of a rebellious clan that lives in the mountain region. As you can see, a lot of these helpmates are women, and there’s a level of importance in that that cannot be denied.
After T’challa wins the right to the throne in ritual combat against M’baku, he travels to the ancestral plain where he meets with his father, T'Chaka, in a scene that is strangely reminiscent of The Lion King. It’s here that T’chaka tells him that he should “surround himself with people he trusts.”
What does it say then, that almost every person that T’challa chooses to surround himself with is a woman? More importantly, what does it say then, that these same women eventually save the day (and Wakanda)? T’challa may be the titular hero, but Black Panther does an excellent job of emphasizing a narrative that has been consistent for centuries: that Black women are often the unspoken, unsung heroes. In scene after scene we are shown the strength of Black women, from our very first introduction to Wakanda.
Our first meeting with Nakia is with her embedded amongst a group of other women, being forcibly taken elsewhere. When T’challa “rescues” her, she is none too pleased with him (“You’ve ruined my mission!”) all while she easily helps knock out her kidnappers. There’s another layer in that very scene of how often Black women save our community, when Nakia steps in front of a young boy whom T’challa is prepared to “handle”, saving him from being lumped in with the criminals and ensuring that he is seen home safely. Okoye plays a role in this scene as well, stepping in to take care of the last kidnapper because T’cahlla “froze” upon seeing Nakia again. We are shown the strength of Black women in mourning, when we meet Queen Mother Ramonda who, even though it’s only been a week since her husband’s murder, is standing proud and smiling when her son returns home.
When T’challa goes on a mission to South Korea to capture or kill Klaue, it’s not his best friend W’kabi he takes, it’s Okoye and Nakia. On the way to South Korea he makes sure to make a stop at Wakanda’s technology center where the innovation is led by Shuri. Never once do we see T’challa question the functionality of anything that Shuri develops; as she walks him through the details of each piece of equipment she’s created for him, he accepts them as normal, because in Wakanda it is normal for his 16-year old sister to be leading their technological advancements. When they finally arrive in South Korea, they gain admittance to the casino thanks to Nakia’s connections, and when the fighting breaks out and T’challa is momentarily stunned, Nakia and Okoye are the ones to chase after Klaue and his entourage, noting that T’challa will “catch up.” Even T’challa’s eventual capture of Klaue would not have been possible without Shuri literally “ghostriding the whip” all the way back home in Wakanda.
When Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) is injured and T’challa brings “another broken white boy” back, it’s Shuri who heals him, with technology she created using vibranium; after T’challa’s stunning defeat at Kilmonger’s hands, it’s Nakia who has the good sense to quickly usher Ramonda and Shuri out of Wakanda, stopping to make sure she grabs Ross on the way out. She even goes so far as to make sure that she grabs some of the heart-shaped herb that imbues its user with the gifts of Bast, saving a small piece even as Kilmonger orders it all destroyed.
The lessons in the strength of Black women don’t end here, of course.
After Nakia, Shuri, Ramonda, and Ross have made their way to the Jabari, their only hope for assistance, Ramonda (an actual queen) kneels before the man who would have seen her son dethroned (by death or forfeit), as Nakia offers him the heart-shaped herb, because she believes that asking M’baku for help is the only way that they can save Wakanda. It is Ramonda who mashes up their last remaining herb and feeds it to T’challa, ensuring his survival. When it comes time to actually go do the fighting for their country, Shuri and Nakia are having no part of the sitting and waiting. Shuri promises to fight alongside the Black Panther when he goes to save Wakanda, having frittered away the necklace containing his suit and successfully manages to sneak herself, Nakia, and Ross back into the lab.
When the “Civil War” finally does unfold, it is the Dora Milaje who rush to their king’s aid, even as the Border Tribe, led by W’kabi, attack him. Okoye and her warriors are so skilled they almost manage to stop Kilmonger completely, but even when they are thrown away (thanks to that kinetic energy absorption), Nakia and Shuri step up to keep the fight going. When T’challa finally does have Kilmonger pinned down, during their fight in the (I’m just going to call it what it is) Underground Vibranium Railroad, it’s Shuri’s invention (the sonic dampeners that neutralize vibranium), that place T’challa and Kilmonger on more even footing; and it’s Shuri feeding Ross instructions on how to take down the weapon-laden ships leaving Wakanda, even as she fights off some of the Border Tribe herself. The fighting comes to an end at last when W’kabi’s rhino refuses to mow down Okoye, and when Okoye vows to sacrifice her love for her country.
Even in the very last scene of the film (not including the end credits), T’challa is still relying on and empowering the women in his life, creating the Wakandan Outreach Centers, and placing Shuri and Nakia as the heads of the program. Every scene of this film was an ode to the strength that Black women hold in our very DNA, and I am so grateful that Ryan Coogler made sure to tell that story in a complete narrative that crushes the Bechdel test to pieces, allows all of these women to have their own agency, and never once forces any of them into the role of “just” a love interest.
Of course, there are things to be said about the exposé on toxic masculinity in the Black community as well, especially in regard to Kilmonger’s character. Kilmonger, née Erik Stevens, née N’dajaka, is perhaps the MCU’s most well-developed villain. I’d even go so far as to say he’s more of an antagonist. Having found his father dead—at his uncle’s hands, no less—Erik still manages to make a success of himself, graduating from MIT and joining the Seals Ghost Ops Division. Unfortunately, he’s never completely able to rid himself of the trauma that came with losing his father so young and so tragically and so, he embarks on a quest to “make things right.”
Kilmonger’s ideology isn’t wrong. It is heartbreaking that Wakanda has had spies (or WarDogs) stationed around the world for who knows how long, watching the suffering of people who look like them and refusing to step in and offer any form of aid. Wakanda is a nation capable of saving many, but who have allowed their fear of discovery to keep them hidden in the shadows.
It’s his execution that’s flawed. From the beginning of our time with him, we see Kilmonger treat women with reckless disregard, poisoning the curator, killing his own girlfriend, choking the elder when she hesitates to burn the heart-shaped herb, completely disregarding Okoye’s insight at the council meeting after his coronation, killing one of the Dora Milaje and almost killing Shuri. He stuffs down any form of healthy emotion, refusing even to shed tears for his father in the ancestral plain because “everyone dies” (at this, N’jobu wonders “What have I done?”) and seems to exude only rage. In trying to save his people from the colonizers, he has become them, a sentiment that echoes all the more when one considers the line “The sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire” is ripped almost word for word from a phrase synonymous with the British Empire during its strongest period.
Kilmonger, and even W’kabi, serve as cautionary tales. Examples of what happen when young Black men lose their fathers or father figures to tragedy at a young age. It’s a wound that never heals and it can often foster tremendously negative behavior. Even here, we’re shown that Kilmonger’s plan could have worked, had he gone about it differently. There’s someone else in the film who has the exact same ideas as Kilmonger, the idea that Wakanda can help those around the world in need, without endangering itself or its people. From her introduction Nakia is persistent in the belief that Wakanda can be a beacon, offering financial aid, relief efforts and cures for diseases, and it is Nakia whose plan is successfully implemented after Kilmonger’s death (even as T’challa opens the first Outreach Center as a sort of memorial for him).
With that being said: Marvel’s Black Panther is a cinematic masterpiece. Every scene is full of a vibrancy that is often lacking in superhero films, the messages woven throughout are timely and necessary, the score and soundtrack (headlined by Kendrick Lamar) are riveting, the performances awe-inspiring, and the setup for future films thrilling. As of this writing, I’ve personally seen Black Panther four times in theaters, with plans to see it a fifth, and have already pre-ordered its Blu-Ray from Target. This movie has changed my world; it’s everything I dreamed of when I was a young girl and something I’m so grateful to be able to share with my son. For all its importance to me, there’s a special kind of joy in seeing the look on your child’s face when a king who looks like him fills the silver screen (and yes, T’challa is his favorite character—Shuri is mine).
Black Panther’s amazing financial numbers after it’s four-day debut weekend tell the story of what happens when a minority group are finally given some much-needed representation, and I hope Marvel (and other franchises) is paying attention. There’s a new king at the box office. Long live the king.
(P.S.: Wakanda Forever!!!!)