This essay appeared in the second issue of Cinema Femme magazine. Read the full issue here.
When I first started my international film criticism career, I never thought anyone would be interested in what a twenty-something Egyptian feminist woman had to say. I was not Western, I had not studied the art of filmmaking at a prestigious international film academy, and I most certainly did not belong to any film “cliques.” My feelings bordered on isolation, insufficiency, and envying white privilege. A male colleague once told me—rather bitterly—that had I been born in a European country or an American state, my life would have taken a completely different toll.
“Just compare your position to a Western woman your age with a similar set of skills,” he said.
From that moment, I grew to hate white privilege and believe there was no way out of that enormous capsule of being a non-Western, nonwhite female. Fighting for my rights sounded a bit cliché and spoiled when I had to fight for a regular desk job and put food on the table amid patriarchal societal restrictions.
That’s why cinema needs to bring more films like “Black Panther” (2018) into the spotlight.
In a pivotal scene from “Black Panther,” when T’Challa is asked not to freeze when he faces his fierce, beloved warrior Nakia, Nakia—disguised as a kidnapped poor black girl among a group of stolen African females by a Boko Haram–like gang—removes her long khimar, the Muslim dress code which covers the head, neck, and shoulders, showing her glowing black skin and athletic body as she defends a young, kidnapped black boy from her heroic lover’s irrationality.
In that particular scene, director Ryan Coogler’s superhero adaptation grabbed my attention. In just one scene, multiple feminist themes were highlighted in light of stories being told from a nonwhite, non-male, non-patriarchal point of view. The female protagonist’s veil was taken off for her to have more freedom in kicking some bad guys’ asses. She ripped the conservative clothing meant to subdue women and restrict their movement without basking in sexy attire like many movies made from a white, Western point of view.
In “Sex and the City 2” (2018), the four lead women wear niqabs—the face garment covering the face, worn by a particular subset of Muslim women—as means to sneak away from angry, rabid Arab males who were both infatuated and offended by Samantha Jones’s blatant Western sexuality. Instead of discarding the niqab as means to highlight the social impact of such facial and body covering, the clothing piece is used by the four women to further decorate their sexual liberation rather than make a social commentary about the female garment and how it enhances or hinders women’s progress.
In “Black Panther,” women’s fashion statements are bold, colorful, and culturally appropriate. Seanamarena blankets, lip discs, hand dyeing, and beading form a mesh of cultural combinations, proving that “Black Panther” redefines aesthetics of beauty without losing the cultural context to which they pay homage.
Nakia handles a fight with both wisdom and nurture that’s lacking in many films with male protagonists, where murder, mayhem, and torture are the driving forces behind key action scenes. “Black Panther” uses clothing and accessories as means to heighten the complete experience of an Africa untainted by the white man’s burden. The inspiration for how people wear their clothes, paint their skin, or emblazon their features comes from the Tuareg, Zulu, Maasai, Himba, and Dinka tribes. When T’Challa’s sister Shuri complains of the uncomfortable corset she is wearing, it’s a throwback to all the uncomfortable fashion moments where women sacrificed comfort and ease of movement for beauty and aesthetics. Here we have multiple female characters with mindsets of their own, where patriarchy does not loom over their heads to conform to how men see them.
“Black Panther” matters for many reasons, none of which are superhero-specific. When a film is released, I usually surf the internet for in-depth reviews which try to analyze the content past what first meets the eye. In her piece for Black Girl Nerds, Jamie Broadnax describes “Black Panther” as “afro-futuristic and Blackity-black as hell.” In The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb describes how Coogler emphasizes history as the major African-American villain: “Black Panther … has been an inherently political character since his inception, during the Black Power era of the nineteen-sixties. He is a refutation of the image of the lazy and false African, promulgated in the white world and subscribed to even by many in the black one.”
Black teens showed their support and infatuation with the comicverse, empowered seeing themselves owning the screen instead of silently taking a secondary role. Kenneth Franklin, a high school senior, wrote in VOX Atlanta, “‘Black Panther’ is very much a ‘black’ movie. No, it’s not ‘just a superhero movie,’ it’s a black superhero film, directed and written by black people, for everyone, but with black people in mind.”
If not for the political, cultural, and feminist significance, “Black Panther” would be the last film on my to-watch list. I rarely watch superhero movies and admit, rather discontentedly, that I have no clue what the difference is between the DC and Marvel universe. I watched Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” (1992) for Catwoman; the idea of a woman dying and being resurrected by the cat gods to wreak havoc on a cruel, patriarchal world was not to be missed. I skipped all the Batman/Penguin drama just to see the meek Selina Kyle transform into a mega-sized cat who plans to avenge all the bullying she endured from her male counterparts.
Watching “Black Panther” has given me a similar experience, being from a country that most privileged nations deem “third world,” “regressed,” and “developing.” I belong to the same continent, if from a different sector with a different cultural backdrop and political history.
I saw an Africa which I dream of exploring and growing old within. The Egyptian heritage is a standalone testament to the greatness of a nation that had nothing to do with European invasion, and through a film like “Black Panther,” I could also dream of a film which tackles Egyptian history through a lens unmarred by orientalism. Something that defies “The Mummy” (1999) and “Cleopatra” (1963), where Egypt’s history and culture are decoded by people who hijacked the present and the future of its own children.
With “Black Panther” in my DVD player, I enjoyed watching black people owning up to their lives, freeing their brothers and sisters without waiting for a white savior à la Indiana Jones–style. There are no colonialists or white men carrying the burden of looking after the ignorant Africans who cannot fend for themselves.
Wakanda is not only the ultimate African dream, but more or less the fantasy for people not born with a white privilege spoon in their mouths.
Jaylan Salah is an Egyptian poet, translator, two-time national literary award winner, animal lover, feminist, film critic, and philanthropist. Jaylan’s book “Thus Spoke La Loba” is a short story collection that explores sexuality, gender, and issues of identity. Her first poetry book “Workstation Blues” will be published with PoetsIN, a publishing house with a purpose to destigmatize mental illness and support international artists.