The bold women of black panther
Ryan Coogler’s film Black Panther is a defining moment for Black people everywhere, but especially Black women. It is the first blockbuster Black superhero movie centered very specifically and purposefully around its blackness. T’Challa is the leader of Wakanda, a hidden, technologically advanced society in Africa. However, when his enemy Killmonger challenges his authority and attempts to topple the Western-dominated world order and its foundations that oppress Black people worldwide, T’Challa must depend upon the knowledge and strength of a surrounding team of Black women to defeat Killmonger. This film’s reliance on the power of Black women is a direct product of the Afrofuturist movement. According to author and leading expert on Afrofuturism, Ytasha Womack, she defines Afrofuturism as a way of imagining possible futures through a Black cultural lens, allowing Black people the ability to control their narrative and be at the forefront of technological change in her book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (9-10). Furthermore, she describes Black women’s role through the Afrofuturist theme of Divine Femininity: “In Afrofuturism, black women’s imagination, image, and voice are not framed by the pop expectations and sensibilities of that day…. Women develop theories, characters, art, and beauty, free of the pressures of meeting male approval, societal standards, color-based taxonomies, or the run-of-the-mill female expectations. The results are… unrecognizable” (101). Similarly, sociologists Myron Strong and Sean Chaplin also argue that T’Challa was guided by the Divine Feminine. They claim that Divine Femininity allows for Black Panther to weave a picture of powerful women decoupled from European ideas; in Afrofuturism, women are significant and celebrated (58). Black Panther does exactly this. It uses three, strong Black women – Shuri, Nakia, Okoye – to embody different aspects of Afrofuturism, illustrating different ways to envision a hopeful future for Black women.
The women in Black Panther are not only figures that show how Black people can make their own place in the world, but how Black women, who have been historically underrepresented on screen and in STEM fields, can hold strong roles at the forefront of technological change. This is evident through the lens of Shuri, T’Challa’s sister. Shuri is the mastermind behind the technological operations in Wakanda. She is an aspirational figure that represents what young African men and women can become in their near future. Shuri combines her cultural knowledge and skills from Wakanda to further advancements in the fields of science and technology, making her a part of the wave of Afrofuturism as she is navigating the past, present, and future. Furthermore, Shuri’s role as comic relief allows her to address cultural stigmas against women and provide hope to future generations about the eventual breakdown of those stigmas. When Shuri is teaching T’Challa about new technology, he asks, “You are teaching me? What do you know?” and Shuri responds by saying, “More than you.” Although she is being sarcastic, she means every word of what she says. Shuri’s response is significant because she openly stands up to her brother and is not afraid to tell him that she is smarter than him. In the past, no woman, especially a Black woman, would ever be able to say that. In line with the Afrofuturist movement, Shuri shows that Black women do not have to hide their intelligence; they can control their own narratives and be the leaders of change. Moreover, Shuri does not give up her femininity in order to become a leader. As the head of the Wakandan Design Group, Shuri creates fashionable outfits implemented with her technological innovations. She is able to be the lead innovator of Wakanda’s modern technology, while preserving her femininity through fashion design. When T’Challa enters Shuri’s lab, she confidently explains, “If you’re going to take on Klaue, you’ll need the best the Design Group has to offer” (Coogler). After she uses the Kimoyo beads she designed to sync with the suit, she continues explaining, “The entire suit sits within the teeth of the necklace” (Coogler). In addition to the technological achievement, Shuri also represents the feminine aspect of humanity which reigns free in Afrofuturism. Women Afrofuturists have the decision-making power over their own creative voice. Shuri illustrates how Black women can have a free-thinking future, consisting of science, fashion, a common “feminine” trait, or a combination of both. Shuri is the perfect image to represent the intersection of blackness, femininity, and science.
Through the character Nakia, T’Challa’s lover, the movie exemplifies a potential future for Black women in politics. Traditionally speaking, in Hollywood, the female love interest in a film is usually subordinate to the main character. She is often oversexualized and used solely for the purpose of furthering the development of the main male character. However, that is not the case with Nakia. She has the ear of T’Challa, highlighting the ability of Black women to be in positions of power and exert influence over men. When T’Challa urges Nakia to stay in Wakanda, she responds, “I came to support you, and to honor your father. But I can’t stay… I can’t be happy here knowing that there’s people out there who have nothing.” After T’Challa questions her reference to Wakanda, she says, “Share what we have. We could provide aid and access to technology and refuge to those who need it… other countries do it, we do it better.” Nakia is not only strong on her stance to continue with her work, she also advises T’Challa on what to do with his empire. The problem lies in Wakanda’s conservative nationalism. T’Challa embraces isolationism: he, and rulers of the past, reject the idea of using their technology to empower other Black people across Africa and around the world. However, Nakia holds the key to the solution regarding the problems Wakanda is facing. Even though she has the same ideas as Killmonger, her more realistic and less destructive approach of using Wakanda’s resources to assist foreign nations in the form of foreign aid and sharing of technological knowledge became the reality. This is an important Afrofuturist aspect of the film because it empowers Black women to no longer remain in the shadows of men; they can freely speak their minds as the drivers of new change and exercise authority over others. Another example of this is when Nakia tries to convince Okoye to overthrow Killmonger. Nakia states, “You cannot turn over our nation to a man who showed up here only hours ago…. You are the greatest warrior Wakanda has. Help me overthrow him before he becomes too strong” (Coogler). In the past, Black women would have never been able to discuss the opportunity of overthrowing a man, let alone a King. However, Nakia breaks down these barriers. She not only discusses the taking down Killmonger but is confident in her and Okoye’s capabilities to do so. This is yet another portrayal of how Nakia represents Afrofuturism through politics; she shows how Black women can do anything they put their mind to and are just as capable of influencing and shaping the political agenda. Nakia is a symbol of hope for Black women who want to live a life in politics.
While Shuri represents scientific prowess and Nakia political leadership, Okoye is a token of physical strength, encompassing a blend of characteristics between the technologically advanced future and her Black roots. She is depicted as a strong, bold warrior, redefining the stereotypical image of a woman. Traditionally, an army is composed of men because they are thought to be stronger than women, however, in Black Panther, the roles are reversed: Okoye is the leader of the powerful and highly advanced all-female army Dora Milaje. During a car chase, Okoye sliding out of the passenger window with a spear in hand, stabbing it into the top of the vehicle to use as a handle with her dress blowing in the wind. This visual is the epitome of Okoye: she is a strong warrior fighting for justice and embracing her femininity. Black Panther also challenges the stereotype of Black women seen as weak and swayed by emotions. After Killmonger defeats T’Challa, Okoye faces the option of defending Killmonger or leaving with Nakia. Okoye states, “I am loyal to the throne, no matter who sits upon it.” She is deeply tied to her Wakandan roots and fully embraces her Black culture. Okoye empowers Black women; she redefines their image, showing that they can be both physically and mentally strong, while yet remaining true to their black roots and femininity. Okoye represents a hopeful future for strong Black women of justice. She embodies the true essence of the Afrofuturist movement.
Black Panther consistently uses the Afrofuturist movement to show different variations of a hopeful future for Black girls and women. Shuri highlights the role of Black women as intellectuals; Nakia symbolizes the role of Black women as political masterminds; Okoye represents the power and strength of Black women as members of the special forces. All three of the women redefine what it means to be a Black woman: someone who is strong, intelligent, and independent. A Black woman embraces her cultural roots to guide her future endeavors and propagate change. Black women can do anything they put their mind to, and that is the message of Black Panther.
Coogler, Ryan, director. Black Panther. Netflix, 4 Sept. 2018, www.netflix.com/title/80201906?jbv=80211991&jbp=0&jbr=0.
Strong, M. T., & Chaplin, K. S. (2019). Afrofuturism and Black Panther. Contexts, 18(2), 58–59. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/10.1177/1536504219854725
Womack, Ytasha L. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, Lawrence Hill Books, 2013.