If you have yet to see the movie, come back and read this later as it contains spoilers.
The unpacking of any one facet of Black Panther seems like a heavy task. The movie is so layered and so well-thought out and executed that I feel a bit of anxiety writing about it. The movie is something you want to savor, something you’d hate to diminish by missing or omitting even one part of its message. But Ima try.
The day after I saw Black Panther, I was invited to attend a press conference with the cast, where we could ask them questions about the film. I wasn’t chosen to ask anything but several of the women who were, kept talking about the “bad ass” women of Wakanda. I understand the term and the sentiment behind their use of it. And I certainly noticed the role women played in this film, it would have been impossible not to. But for me, bad ass just conjures up images of leather, unwarranted fighting, and redundant declarations of power. They called it bad ass but I prefer powerful, revered, self-assured, necessary.
In an interview about the film, this is what writer and director Ryan Coogler had to say about the women of Wakanda.
“What you see in African communities is women tend to hold it down. They tend to be the ones that are helping further the cause of the community so we wanted to highlight that. And Wakanda is an interesting place. It’s an ideal place that’s ahead of the curve. And T’Challa has a way of empowering the women around him so that their reach they maximum potential. And they’re comfortable being themselves. They’re comfortable finding their own lane. And I think that they support him tremendously. So that was something that was exciting for us and that’s something that makes T’Challa different from other heroes, the fact that he’s surrounded by these people like this.”
When we think of colonization and the enforcement of Western ideals, we often talk about loss of culture, stripping of resources, etc. We don’t often speak about the ways in which European patriarchy has disrupted the relationship between Black men and women. As a society, we don’t speak enough about the ways Black men oppress Black women because, in a White man’s world, she is the only one who is beneath him. But in Wakanda, an African utopia, this totem pole doesn’t exist. Black men aren’t being controlled by White men and therefore, they’re not exercising their frustrations out on Black women. Instead, these women move in their own interests, often without being challenged or questioned by the men around them. It’s true partnership.
The first time, we see a woman in present-day Wakanda, on screen it’s Okoye, general of Wakanda’s warriors, the Dora Milaje. Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, instructs T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) about an upcoming mission. She grabs her spear, ready to join him. But he assures her that he can handle everything himself. She raises her eyebrows doubtfully but let’s him believe that he’s going on his own. She does warn him not to freeze. Later, we learn not only that it’s a woman, Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o), who causes his paralysis but that Okoye does have to step in and assist when T’Challa does exactly what she knew he would.
It wasn’t lost on me that Nakia was out there saving girls who had been abducted in Nigeria, much like the girls who made international news when the Boko Haram snatched them from their homes and schools. To Nakia, they were a priority.
The ethos for Wakanda has been established. Women work alongside their male leader, often filling in where he lacks. Women, like Nakia, move about freely, prioritizing the well-being of others and her passions over the man she loves. Not only is this hierarchy of desires different for women in superhero movies, it’s different from the depictions of most of the women we see on screen, across genre.
When they get back to Wakanda, we see that the country appears to be farmers and herders, living in plains. But beyond that, there is a huge, modernized city. Built and maintained by the country’s secret resource vibranium. In the past our depictions of scientists are bespectacled, socially awkward White boys and men. But in Wakanda, the mind behind the country's technological advances is a young, fashion-forward Black girl, who questions traditions and constantly takes jabs at the country’s king, her brother. With Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, it didn’t take long for audiences to dub Shuri, their new, favorite Disney princess.
But in Wakanda you don’t have to be royalty or desired by royalty in order to be a powerful woman.
It’s women who make up the nation’s army. Most important to me was that the Dora Milaje possess an uncolonized beauty. There are no long-flowing tresses, in fact there’s no hair at all. And it make sense, without outside, European influence, those type of beauty standards are virtually unseen. In fact, in the one moment where Okoye has to don a wig, she is visibly and verbally disturbed by the idea of wearing hair unlike her own. It was a strong statement, one punctuated by her hurling the wig into the face of one of her attackers. To me, it was symbolic not only of her rejecting their images, literally throwing it back in their face; but in doing so, she revealed that it was her, an African woman, who fully embraced her African identity, who was overpowering him, a European man.
Towards the end of the movie, W’kabi and his men, enticed by Killmonger’s plan to arm the diaspora with vibranium, decides to fight against their own people, women included. It comes to a point where he and Okoye face off against each other, each holding their weapons up, ready to strike. After a few seconds, W’kabi asks her, “Would you kill me, my love?” And Okoye responds, “For Wakanda? Without question!” Believing her, seeing the destruction Killmonger has already caused within their otherwise peaceful nation, and yielding to her power, he drops his weapon and kneels in front of her.
Refreshing. Not only his deference to her but also to see a woman prioritize country and career over love. It's something that happens in real life, women just get shamed for it. And it doesn’t often make its way to film either.
When I learned of Killmonger’s intentions for Wakanda, I didn’t see a real problem with what he was proposing. As an African American watching the film, it wasn’t hard for me to relate to him having to, as one my friends pointed out, read about his heritage instead of experience it in Wakanda with the rest of his royal family. You don’t have to be Black for long to see and understand the ways in which we’ve been purposefully and systematically held down, across the world. Arming our people to take power from our oppressors, the colonizers didn’t seem like a bad idea to me...at all.
But the cues to Killmonger’s hate-filled nature and his inability to be an effective leader for Wakanda are most evident in the way he disposes of women. He feels no qualms about killing his girlfriend, the woman who has worked to help him carry out his plan to get to Wakanda. He instructs a woman, an elder and a healer, to burn all of the heart-shaped herb. And when she tries to educate him about its purpose, as a way to dissuade him from making such a rash decision, he chokes her, lifting her entire body off the guard. As she’s staring down at him, terrified, he reminds her that when he tells her to do something, he means that shit. The tradition of men being questioned, challenged, or corrected by women (or anyone) would cease to exist under Killmonger’s rule. Interestingly enough, while Killmonger understands the importance of vibranium, he’s equally willing to kill Shuri, the country's head engineer, responsible for harvesting and discovering its usefulness to Wakanda and eventually the world. Essentially, he’s been too consumed with his own hurt to lead an entire nation.
But even before Killmonger came to Wakanda with his new ideals, Nakia was already planting seeds about Wakanda needing to do and be more to other African nations and African diasporic people, in need. Throughout the film, it’s clear that she loves T’Challa. She’s the woman who grabs the heart-shaped herb and brings him back to life, saving him, Wakanda, and the fate of the rest of the world. Still, she refuses to be his queen because she loves her country enough to point out the areas where they could be and should be better. This time, the prioritization is righteousness over love. Lupita spoke about this in the context of her character and Danai’s. One woman was committed to serving her country, while another was committed to saving it.
And how many times have we seen Black women save the country? From rebelling against the institution of slavery, to fighting for Civil Rights, to speaking out against sexual predators, or keeping them out of political office, Black women, here in America and across the globe, do this, we save nations.