The “Black Panther” narrative allows Black women to be both angry and tender, both strong and vulnerable, both independent and interdependent on each other and those around them.
[This essay contains spoilers for Marvel’s “Black Panther”]
“Black Panther” is not your typical superhero blockbuster. It’s a political epic, it’s Black as fuck, it’s critical of white supremacy, colonialism, and imperialism, and it delivers a monumental story about the tension between Black Americans and continental Africans. Setting up a battle between young King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan), nicknamed Killmonger for the many lives he seemed to enjoy taking during his time as a CIA operative, it tells this story in a way that subverts expectations about both Blackness and Africa on film.
What it also does is magnify the Black women within the story, and that is something that should not be considered secondary to its other achievements, because the Black women of “Black Panther” are central to its narrative and ultimately determine the direction that it takes. Not only are Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia each integral to the plot, driving the story with their actions, voices, and decisions, but their characters also provide positive, determined, and humanized images of Black women and girls. These are characters who are multifaceted, imperfect, capable, intelligent, and authentic. I see myself and the Black women and girls that I have the privilege of knowing reflected in the characters of “Black Panther,” and that, unfortunately, is something that I cannot say often enough about Black women in media.
After last year’s “Wonder Woman”, I contemplated the trend of “feminist triumph” in mainstream U.S. action films as an achievement largely for and about white women. Essays, think pieces, and manifestos flooded the internet to celebrate its apparent feminism after its release — with one even marveling at the fact that Diana’s thigh apparently jiggled — in the same way that countless articles were written to praise the feminism of Imperator Furiosa and the women of “Fury Road” and Rey of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and several other actions films of years past. In these roles, white actresses portray characters who are larger-than-life, innovative, and unapologetically badass.
Now, “Black Panther” finally makes a way for this triumph to be realized for Black women, and it does so in ways that extend beyond the strength granted to the individual women, because the ways in which the women of “Black Panther” are celebrated highlights the differences in social understandings of white womanhood and Black womanhood. Historically, being “strong” has never been a point of “feminist triumph” for Black women. We have and continue to face stereotypes of hyper-masculinity and animality, while white femininity has largely been viewed as delicate and docile.
For white women, strength is something that expectations of white femininity have never afforded them, and the strength given to heroines like Wonder Woman can be used as a means to subvert the infantilizing expectations of white womanhood. Conversely, the “Strong Black Woman” stereotype goes hand in hand with the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype, and has been used as a convenient excuse to impose superhuman expectations on us, abuse us, gaslight us, and police our emotionality. The “Black Panther” narrative instead allows Black women to be both angry and tender, both strong and vulnerable, both independent and interdependent on each other and those around them.
Among this long and distinct history of harmful stereotypes about Black womanhood is the phenomena of colorism and anti-Blackness, both in the media and in our lives, that is especially apparent in the way that dark-skinned women are treated in Hollywood. Light-skinned Black women are granted more visibility and often better roles that do not utilize the kind of misogynoiristic stereotypes that dark-skinned Black women are frequently limited to. This is especially limiting for older and/or fat Black women, who are at once recruited to play “Mammy” characters and also routinely mocked by Black men in drag and fat suits for “comedy.” One of the most significant aspects of this film is the celebration and normalization of seeing dark-skinned Black women front and center, as the heroes, the masterminds, and the love interests.
Wakanda has been able to thrive untouched by white colonialism and its imperialist violences, its anti-Blackness, its body terrorism, and its gender violence through sexual and reproductive violations. White aesthetics and beauty standards are not dominant within its society, and therefore, it is Black aesthetic and beauty and African tradition which are respected. This is apparent in the presence of dark skin as well as in the abundance of natural Black hair and traditional African hairstyles. I cannot express how important it is for Black women and girls to see these things celebrated.
Equally as significant for us to see is a Black girl being a fucking rockstar in the STEM world. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the most important character in the entire story, as she developed the new Black Panther suits and the technology that ultimately allows T’Challa to defeat N’Jadaka. At only sixteen, she is among the smartest in the world and directs all technological development in this advanced nation, including armor and weaponry.
She has become a huge inspiration and an emblem for Black girls in STEM, so much so that Disney just donated one million dollars to Boys and Girls Clubs across the country to operate STEM centers, including in Oakland, CA, where Shuri herself ends up directing the technological engagement at Wakanda’s first Outreach Center. Her character has also created momentum for the upcoming “Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur” series, in which a 9 year-old Black girl genius named Lunella Lafayette shares her consciousness with a big, red dinosaur. Larger-than-life would be an understatement.
The Dahomey-inspired Dora Milaje occupy the same sphere of epic characterization, as the all-woman special forces made up of mighty warriors who command every space they enter into, with their shaved heads and bright red armor adorned with spears — sensible armor and shoes meant to protect them in combat rather than to appeal to the male gaze, and designed by the incredible Black visionary, RuthE. Carter.
Their general, Okoye (Danai Gurira), is the greatest warrior Wakanda has and everyone knows it. Watching her fight is an enviable experience. Her character also subverts the heteropatriarchal expectation for Black women to be “ride or die” for Black men to the detriment of our mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Okoye rides hard for T’Challa, but she rides hardest for Wakanda. At all times and without question. Not for a man, but for a nation that she loves and that loves her in return. She is proud to call Wakanda her own because of how it loves her, and she is always invested in protecting her people, while also deeply committing herself to tradition and ritual.
“Would you kill me, my love?” W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) asks her — and you’re fucking right she would. She determined his actions to be detrimental to Wakanda and to herself, and her battle against both W’Kabi and N’Jadaka were in service of herself and her people. Okoye’s loyalty to Wakanda goes so deep that she would not hesitate to drive her spear through her lover’s chest. I will always be here for Black women choosing themselves, loudly and proudly, especially in the face of the Black men who expect us to choose them.
Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is also a lesson for Black women in choosing ourselves. She ultimately makes her own decision regarding her relationship with T’Challa, and that is largely due to his willingness to find a compromise that would support her calling. During her work as a spy, she has witnessed others suffer due to the effects of colonialism in a way that people in Wakanda do not. It is Nakia who first presents the concept of Wakanda offering aid to others because she recognizes that there are others in need and that her nation has the capabilities to help them. I feel Nakia’s passion and empathy, but I wish that I could be even half of what she is. That so many look past her to glorify N’Jadaka as the true “revolutionary” is beyond telling, and reflective of how Black women of the Black Panther Party and other civil rights/social justice organizations were/are treated.
Too many look past Elaine Brown, Ericka Huggins, Kathleen Cleaver and other Black women involved in the Black Panther Party to revere Huey P. Newton, Fred Hampton, and Eldridge Cleaver, despite the fact that Newton was once accused of murdering a 17-year-old sex worker and Cleaver was an admitted sexual predator and rapist. Sexism and misogynoir were blatant within the organization, but the Black women who experienced these things were made to suffer in silence, because publicly reprimanding the men for their violence would be interpreted as an effort to stall the revolution that Black men fancied themselves the rightful pioneers and champions of.
This is something that Black women have to wrestle with in these spaces even now, and fans’ identification with N’Jadaka over Nakia is indicative of this continued struggle. Nakia reflects the Black women and other non-men on the front lines of Black Liberation work, and her character is a charge for Black men to trust, listen to, and respect Black women. That charge extends to others, too.
Black women have been unable to find ourselves in these types of roles in the various action-packed dramas that have received feminist praise in the past, because we have been denied visibility within them. As such, the feminist acclaim has felt hollow for many us. It is my hope that “Black Panther” marks a new beginning. One in which Black women are permanent fixtures in these epics, with the representation and visibility that we deserve. Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia are the true stars of “Black Panther” and no one will ever convince me otherwise.