T'Challa May Rule Wakanda, But Women Ruled 'Black Panther'
If you were one of the many, many people who saw Marvel’s wonderful Black Panther this weekend, you know that there is no shortage of elements we can pick apart and discuss. The movie was just chock full of stuff, from the performances to the visuals to the soundtrack to the themes, and every facet could hold down its own think piece. But there is one aspect of the film that brought tears to my eyes in the theater, and has stuck in my mind ever since, and that’s the women. So let’s take some time to show our appreciation for 3 fabulous individuals: Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri.
I say “individuals” quite intentionally, because walking into the theater I knew the roles these characters would play in the narrative. Or at least I thought I did. Okoye (Danai Gurira) would be T’Challa’s bodyguard. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) would be his love interest. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is his brainy little sister. I made the mistake of assuming the women of Wakanda, just like the women in so many other films, would revolve around the central male character. Sure, they might be smart or kick some ass, but their stories and motivations would only exist as elements in the service of his arc. I was so wrong. They were more than I could ever have anticipated.
Okoye isn’t a bodyguard, she’s the General of the Dora Milaje, an elite all-female squad of warriors who serve the throne of Wakanda. And that distinction in terms of loyalty is a key part of her motivation in the film. She doesn’t serve or protect T’Challa, she serves the rightful ruler — and her belief in the traditions of Wakanda causes her a certain amount of internal conflict when Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger seemingly defeats T’Challa in one on one combat to become king. She doesn’t believe in the man, but she won’t abandon her post. The scene I keep coming back to is when Nakia is fleeing with Ramonda, Shuri and Everett Ross to seek the help of M’Baku’s tribe. Okoye doesn’t accompany them, and the conversation between her and Nakia lays out their characters so beautifully. Okoye acts in service to her country, while Nakia is acting to save it. They aren’t arguing, they aren’t mad at each other. They accept each other’s position, and do what they feel they need to do. There is no bitterness that Okoye isn’t abandoning her post to join Nakia on the journey, because there is room for women to follow both paths. As Gurira explained it in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered:
I thought that was just such a combination that you don’t often get to see. One gets sacrificed for the other in some sense, but it’s — I know so many fierce and feminine women, you know? And I was like, “When do we get to see that on screen?” And so the thing that really connected me in a really powerful way was her love and her loyalty to this thing called Wakanda, this nation that was never colonized and consequently became the most advanced nation on the globe, in terms of technology, and used its resources for its own people, which Africa never got to do. The idea of being a guardian of that place, of being a protector alongside the king and protecting him, alongside Black Panther. To me, that just resonated so deeply as something that, you know, you are loyal to — to the death and beyond. You are upholding the traditions and the brilliant ideals of your foremothers and your forefathers and you do that at all costs. And she’s a traditionalist. I’m not a traditionalist, but in a sense I am because I always wonder — Africans always wonder — “Who would we have been if we weren’t colonized?” And she protects what we would have been, and to me, it made her very palpable.
That protection only extends to the king so long as his position is legitimate by the traditional rules, which T’Challa’s return calls into question. Since he isn’t dead, Killmonger didn’t “win” — and the contest is ongoing. That is the loophole Okoye needed to act, so she rallies her soldiers and faces off against those of her “love,” W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), who has thrown his support behind Killmonger. She isn’t picking sides, she’s defending the traditions of Wakanda. And just as she chose to serve her country over protecting her friends, she will serve her country even as it pits her against her love. What impressed me most was the complexity with which these decisions played out, and the simplicity with which they were demonstrated. Okoye could do it all. She wasn’t sacrificing anything, she was prioritizing. She could feel love and loyalty for all those people in her life, while still making the choice to do what she felt was right. And she could kick ass while doing it.
Nakia is also a hell of a warrior, but her role as spy set her apart. She has gone out into the world, and sees Wakanda in an international context. Knowing what she knows of the needs of people around the globe, she will never be content to turn her back on it and live in the comfort of her home country. And while she is T’Challa’s love interest, their story is peripheral. They used to be together, they broke up, they still have feelings for each other, and they both have their own roles to play now — roles that seemingly keep them apart. We may not know all the gritty details of their history, but we don’t need to. Nakia, like Okoye, has chosen to follow her own path and do what she believes, even if it takes her away from her love. Her instincts and skills as a spy lead her to save one final piece of the hearth-shaped herb from destruction, which eventually allows T’Challa to regain his mystical powers. They also lead her on the aforementioned trip to M’Baku for help. She wants to save her country, which means forging uncomfortable political alliances. And it pays off, not only in the climactic fight but beyond, as it appears M’Baku’s tribe will participate in T’Challa’s government for the first time.
And as for her love story? She doesn’t decide to abandon her place in the world to follow her love. Instead, T’Challa finds a way to offer her both: He decides to begin a global outreach initiative, which will give her the chance to do more good in the world than she could as a spy. It’s the right move, and the fact that it will keep her in his orbit is the icing on the cake. Nobody has to give up their beliefs or fundamentally change in order to have a chance at a happy ending — but it’s also clear that their “happy ending” as a couple is in no way crucial to the end of the film. They are both strong individuals with a lot on their plates. If they find a way to stay together, that’s extra. But there is no question why T’Challa would be drawn to her, even when surrounded by so many strong, beautiful, capable women. Her heart sets her apart from the others, even as it often keeps her apart from him.
Speaking of hearts, Shuri in many ways was the heart the movie. And she certainly was the humor! On one level it’s always gratifying to have a woman in STEM feature prominently in a movie, especially when she’s not an outlier. She wasn’t surrounded by men working in the lab, she WAS the lab. She was the Q to T’Challa’s James Bond, only better — her innovations may have helped her brother, but that wasn’t her only focus. It was clear she was working to create technology to benefit her people as a whole. But more than that, she’s doing it for herself, to explore her own interests. As a member of the royal family, you’d think we would need to talk about her on the spectrum of serving or saving Wakanda, but she’s a piece apart from Okoye and Nakia. She’s not interested in tradition. She’s cracking jokes at ceremonies and flipping her brother off in public. She doesn’t express political opinions or seem to have any interest in ruling. She wants to make things work better, full stop. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t see the bigger picture. In the climactic battle, she steps out to join the fight with her fancy gauntlets, but she’s splitting her attention trying to help Ross shoot down the planes carrying Wakandan weapons to the outside. While everyone was focused on the battle for the throne, she was pulling double duty securing the rest of the world. Even when she’s not in the middle of the action, her technology helps her be there virtually. It may seem strange, but walking out of the theater and trying to imagine how Wakanda will fit into the larger MCU moving forward, all I could think about what how badly I want to see Shuri go toe to toe with Tony Stark. Seeing the outfit she made for her brother, you just know she’d never build anything so clunky as an Iron Man suit.
And now that she’ll be in charge of sharing Wakanda’s innovations for the betterment of the world, maybe that’s a showdown we’ll get to see someday. Just as T’Challa found a way to do the right thing for Wakanda while offering a great opportunity to Nakia, he did the same thing for his sister. Shuri may not have been itching to move beyond the borders of her country, but T’Challa recognized that, in many ways, the best thing Wakanda could offer the world at large isn’t vibranium — it’s Shuri herself. Their biggest export is her brain, and all the things that spring forth from it.
I never thought I’d watch a movie named after a male superhero and find so many compelling, well-drawn female characters — each with their own interior lives and beliefs and perspectives. Sure, they helped T’Challa. In fact, he couldn’t have reclaimed his throne without Okoye’s fighting prowess, Nakia’s survival skills, or Shuri’s quick wits and tech. But they were each defined by their own characteristics and not by their relationship to him. In the landscape of Wakanda created by director Ryan Coogler, women stood shoulder to shoulder with men in every scene. But that representation wasn’t just a visual trick — women of power and passion moved the story forward the whole way. Black Panther may be about the battle for the throne of Wakanda, but for my money it was the women that really ruled Black Panther.