Like hundreds of thousands of people in the US, my week was defined by the opening of Ryan Coogler’s long awaited Marvel Film, “Black Panther.” Coming on the heels of the American president dubbing African countries as “shitholes” and renewed national attention on the sexual harassment and discrimination women face in Hollywood, “Black Panther” offered a stunningly beautiful technologically advanced African country that had escaped the ravages of colonialism; and storylines where Black women were central. The main character T’Challa is surrounded by Ramonda, his mother; Shuri, his brilliant younger sister; Nakia, his political comrade and ex; and Oyoke, his loyal protector, general and head of his intelligence structure which includes the Dora Milaje, a group of female elite fighters. Given the often-stereotypical depictions and thin roles often available for Black women actors, any two of these characters in a film would be notable. The presence of all of them was nothing short of path breaking. I knew I had to take my 12 year old daughter.
I watched the film through my eyes and hers. In hushed tones, she marveled at the flawlessness of Nakia’s skin in one of the many closeups of the dark skinned Black women of Wakanda who effortlessly subverted Eurocentric standards of beauty. She buried her head and watched through her fingers as Black women led the charge in one explosive fight scene after the other. And she fell in love with Shuri, the millennial princess who demonstrated that technological mastery is where the real power lies and that elder brothers can be annoying, even in advanced societies.
After leaving the theater, I reflected on the portrayal of Wakandan women. I asked myself how could a Black feminist lens enrich the vibrant conversations about the political meaning and historical resonance of this film? What political messages could be distilled? What would I discuss with my daughter, the day after?
Empire is not liberation
The rivalry between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a key plot point of the movie. Given Black feminism’s deep anti-imperialist roots it is important to start with a criticism of Killmonger’s plan to arm the children of the Diaspora with Wakanda’s weapons and technology. While this plan was introduced as a means to achieve liberation from oppression, it was intertwined with the language of empire — specifically a Wakandan empire where the sun never sets. The use of this infamous phraseology, which is widely associated with the glorification of the British colonial project, is a jarring reminder of the slippery slope between domination and liberation that has historically vexed masculinist visions of Black liberation. Killmonger, as a figure associated with the CIA (an organization presented uncritically in the film despite its well documented role in political repression, surveillance and disruption of foreign governments and murder of leaders), represents a flawed vision of power.
He is the primary African American figure in the film and carries the burdens of the afterlife of slavery and the struggle for Black self-determination in the US. He greets his father’s death with a world-weary resignation about violence that demonstrates the precarities of Black childhood. His solution is to share Wakanda’s technical prowess and military might with oppressed people of African descent so they can invert white supremacist hierarchies of race and power (not be rid of these hierarchies). His vision held the promise of selective liberation, not revolution.
Killmonger is a monarch seeking a throne, a familiar figure in the history of Black protest. Despite his flawed ideas and violent actions as a CIA operative, he is presented as having a redeemable vision of Black futurity. The struggle between T’Challa’s way and Killmonger’s alternative have fueled some of the most provocative think pieces about the meaning of the movie to Black history and politics. However, it is the women of Wakanda who have offered the most justice centered view of what Wakanda can mean in the world.
Wakadan Women as Thinkers
Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) first appears in a scene where she is coming to the aid of African women and children, an unmistakable nod to Boko Haram kidnaping of women and girls and a comment on the reality of child soldiers. From the start, her character presents a challenge to the isolationist policies of Wakanda and suggests the potential of justice driven interventions into the outside world. This history follows her throughout the film as she hints at entanglements in North Korea and other places around the globe. It is this political commitment that is the wrench in the works in her love story with T’Challa. She is an ideologue hidden in plain sight, advocating a different path than T’Challa’s isolation or Killmonger’s expansionism with her praxis.
It is Nakia’s way that seems to have the most radical potential. History is not fiction but the mechanisms that silence Black women’s intellectual production even while seeming to herald their numerical presence is present in each realm. Scholars of Black women’s intellectual history have pointed to the ways that racism and sexism combine to easily dismiss Black women as “doers,” rather than thinkers. This allows commentators and pundits to herald Nakia as one of Wakanda’s most visible and brave women, analyze her character’s bold style politics and paradigm shifting beauty, while engaging with the male characters (rather than her) as thinkers.
Hidden (leadership) Figures
Shuri (Letitia Wright), Wakanda’s brilliant scientist and technological powerhouse, steals every scene she is in. She masterminds everything from T’Challa’s fight strategy to the high speed train system that will frame T’Challa and Killmonger’s battle to the death. Her centrality and power is evident in the scene where she coaches Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) through his mission to short circuit Killmonger’s plan while simultaneously fighting for her country, family and life. However, her ability to create technology and master science is narrowed in the end when T’Challa imposes his vision of skill transfer between Wakanda and Oakland. She arrives to an impoverished Oakland confused about the location and her purpose there. Taking the role of teacher, she answers the preliminary questions curious urban youth in an ending which juxtaposes her tremendous knowledge with the contested notion that STEM education is a panacea for structural inequality.
In the end T’Challa, the king of the most advanced country in the world, has purchased a few buildings and committed to a plan of education in the inner city. This is as anti-climatic as it sounds. He has positioned his sister and comrade, his two closest allies and the two characters with the broadest and most intriguing vision of Wakanda in the world, at the helm of his first attempt at outreach. However their hand in the project is unclear and the result is a cooptation of their vision and a blunting of the radical edge of their politics.
Matriarchs and Generals
While the film revolves around the loss of T’Challa’s father T’Chaka, his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is in a supporting role in the film. Basset brings deep gravitas to her every line in her role as a royal elder but does not serve as a strong counterpoint to her son. Killmonger’s mother, and entire upbringing, is also missing in the film. Viewers are left to surmise that it is men, through their presence or absence, who leave the strongest imprint on their boys. This is an inversion of the role that Black mothers have historically played in the lives of their children.
Okoye (Danai Gurira) is fierce as a loyal general but once Killmonger becomes king it is clear that her power is channeled through the throne, a symbol of maleness. She is trapped in a structure that leaves her with few choices until the very end when she boldly decides to help T’Challa regain power and fights for Wakanda. The notion that “we were kings and queens” (and generals) resonates deeply in an anti-Black world where Black history and culture is often presented as debased and nihilistic. But these are also deeply limiting tropes. Ryan Coogler has discussed how the film focuses on the interplay between the modern and traditional , a key reminder about the perils and possibilities of making the future out of the cloth of the past.
“Black Panther” reflects a deep, global and collective hunger for cultural products that represent people of African descent with dignity and power, but that doesn’t mean that one has to swallow everything uncritically. There is potential in this moment. Activists have raised awareness about the 1960s Black Panther Party, rallied for support for political prisoners and held voter registration drives at movie screenings. Fewer have asked why the African future — as imagined in “Black Panther” — and the African past — as sold by ancestry.com — is so much more appealing to some Americans than the African present. There is no better time to launch critical conversations about what liberation could look like; connect new people to pre-existing organizations and political networks; re-center aesthetics in freedom making projects and have some frank transnational diasporic dialogue.
Perhaps the best thing about “Black Panther” is that it grounds these conversations in intergenerational soil. The day after the film, I will ask my daughter to use the tools of Black feminism to re-imagine Wakanda. How should it be organized, run and led? Could she think beyond monarchy and create an alternative system of governance based on values like egalitarianism and collectivity? How might she redistribute, rather than hoard, the wealth of Wakanda for the greater good? What would she do with Killmonger, who at the end finally grasps the splendor of Wakanda yet is incapable of imagining that it had evolved beyond imprisoning vanquished enemies. (A burning question in a country where 2.3 million people are incarcerated.) Most of all, I will ask her about her favorite thinkers and suggest that the women of Wakanda might be the leaders that we have been calling for.