By Marjorie H. Morgan
The film “Black Panther” (2018) is a typical Marvel action movie that’s not typical in its casting. A large amount of the action is performed by the women, main characters who don’t exist solely to assist the goals of a male character. They each have their own agendas and missions.
The groundbreaking film “Black Panther” features Chadwick Boseman as the eponymous superhero from Wakanda who officially spearheads the battle on the villainous players, while surrounded by the skills and expertise of an army of women. The film is exceptional for a number of reasons, and this essay will focus particularly on the power of the female agency in the film. This agency is heralded in the opening sequence when the panther goddess Bast is highlighted as the fountain source of truth and power in Wakanda. Bast’s gift of the secret, potent, heart-shaped herb is handed to the Wakandans via a vision, and is tended and guarded by mainly female gatekeepers.
The film’s principal stars are the country of Wakanda and the many women, not the titular “Black Panther” persona. The strong representation of women gives innumerable female characters a performance range and depth that is not traditionally seen in superhero films or mainstream movies.
The all-Black female characters are not conflicted by their roles; they are strongly independent, unflinching, loyal, reliable, and trustworthy in varying measures. From Angela Bassett, as the ever-elegant Queen Mother Ramonda, to the reclusive warrior women of the Jabari Tribe who fight to rescue Wakanda from the outside villains, the women of “Black Panther” teach the viewer about feminism without the need for a single white woman saviour feminist in sight.
The first human females introduced set the tone for the entire film: When the highly trained royal guard, Dora Milaje, knock on the door of Californian-based Wakandan spy, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), he immediately shows both fear and respect to their presence. He says to his soldier companion, “Open it. They won’t knock again.” Throughout the movie, the ceremonial honour guard and high-security protection duties for the royal Wakandan family and status of the throne are led by the all-female Dora Milaje.
During the entire film, Okoye (Danai Gurira), general of the Dora Milaje, commands respect from everyone with her quiet, dignified presence, her ever-ready status, and her unflinching loyalty to her position within the royal household. The female “Black Panther” characters are multidimensional and able to show both strength and tenderness without fracturing their personalities. An example of this occurs when General Okoye stops the rebellion of the Border Tribe, led by her “love” warrior W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), with the following exchange:
“Drop your weapon.”
“Will you kill me, my love?”
“For Wakanda? Without question!”
The tripod of power that is central to “Black Panther” is embodied by two women and a man: King T’Challa, General Okoye, and international spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who are present at the high points of the movie, especially at the beginning—in the first ten minutes when their triangular connection is established—and later in the centre, and at the conclusion of the story when they resurface together to restore equilibrium to Wakanda and expand its global reach. Ayo, another senior Dora Milaje, joins the trio at the United Nations press conference in Vienna at the film’s ending, making the concluding image of the Wakandan Empire mostly female.
From a Black female perspective, “Black Panther” is the cinematic equivalent of Michelle Obama’s 2018 book “Becoming”; it is a testament to the reality and life of a people who are often ignored. Both pieces of media focus specifically on the individuality of the Black female body, and the movie, like the Obama book, is a celebration of a circle of strong women who always lift each other up.
“Black Panther” disrupts the social constructions around the portrayals of race onscreen. From the protagonist (Chadwick Boseman) to the antagonist Killmonger aka N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan), this film populates the story with a wide range of dynamically complex characters who are a mixture of realistic positive and negative traits. Even Killmonger’s female partner is depicted as a highly skilled hacker and undercover agent, despite the fact that she is later assassinated when she is of no further use.
“Black Panther” is a revelation and celebration of Black spaces personified by Wakanda that have been protected from the disruption of Western influences. It is also a filmic imagination and cultural restoration of the possibilities that may have occurred if Black African history was uninterrupted by white colonialism.
The women in “Black Panther” are central to this story; they are never invisible. They are the scaffolding, spine, and substance of the action within this epic creation; their actions and individual choices are essential to the shape of the narrative. In the closing scenes of the film, the titular Black Panther thanks Nakia for saving him and his family, before the powerful Wakandans stand before the world at the United Nations to reveal their true identity and offerings of their rich culture to the world.
Director Ryan Coogler uses a firm yet delicate and detailed touch with the direction of this film. The inclusion of historical and traditional African tribal garments is a bow to the long history of the African continent, and the oft-overlooked strength, innovation, and intelligence of the people who originated from there (production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter).
The character of Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), along with her female design team, mirrors the vibranium that is at the centre of the story, and is an illustration of the hidden riches of Africans. Shuri is a perpetual innovator and a punmaster whose philosophy is summed up in the following sharp dialogue between her and her brother, King-elect:
“How many times do I have to teach you? Just because something works doesn’t mean that it cannot be improved.”
“You are teaching me? What do you know?”
“More than you!” Shuri counters and walks away to continue her research.
Realistically, not all members of the Wakandan Tribes accept Shuri’s technological advancements. M’Baku (Winston Duke) from the Jabari Tribe demeans her with his initial reference to her as “a child” and views her position as a researcher as a person “who scoffs at tradition.”
M’Baku has some of the funniest lines when he interacts with the American CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman) in the mountain home of the Jabari. The humour of the film is not to be overlooked, especially when it so smoothly tackles both patriarchy and white supremacist ideals. An example of this is the discussion of beauty in the scene in South Korea. The film covers individuality and the choice of whether or not to wear Western hairstyles. When Okoye comments on the wig Nakia wears to blend in on their mission, Nakia—referring to American singer Willow Smith’s 2010 song “Whip My Hair”— smoothly responds, “Just whip it back and forth, eh?”
The normally naturalistic women complete their mission and eventually capture the elusive villain Klaue and, in the process, humorously use the abhorred wig and necessary high-heeled shoes as weapons against their opponents in the Busan, South Korea, nightclub.
The message of “Black Panther” is that the potential and influence of women must not be ignored or discounted. From the strategic actions of Nakia as an undercover spy and refugee saviour on a personal mission who will not abandon her calling, to the knowledge centre of Shuri, who has the final words of the film when she says to the injured Westerner Sergeant Barnes, “Come, there is much more for you to learn,” all the women excel as examples of depth and variety of the Black woman.
The women of Wakanda break all current Black women stereotypes: the Wakandans are strong, they have choices, and they are independent. Nakia, from the River Tribe, was T’Challa’s chosen one, yet she left him and her home in Wakanda to follow her calling and her dreams for happiness by using her skills to emancipate and aide others in the world beyond the Wakandan borders. Nakia reinforces her agency when she reminds King T’Challa that she could be a great Queen if she wanted to, but her choice is to do something else.
The central question of this epic movie is “Who are you?” and what do you choose to do with all of who you are.
The Wakandan women are glorious from the commencement of the film to the closing credits and they present a varied representation of Black women’s lives. However, the follow-up Marvel story of the Dora Milaje is eagerly anticipated with the hope that the role of Ayo—a high-ranking royal protection officer—will be expanded to include more of the same-sex relationships that exist amongst women.
Marjorie H. Morgan is a writer, playwright, and journalist with special interest in cultural and social politics. Marjorie writes both critically and creatively for a number of national and international publications, such as The Guardian and Reader’s Digest, and she was also recently shortlisted for the 15th Windsor Fringe International Kenneth Branagh Drama Award in 2018.