Black Panther and Its Leading Ladies
The success of Black Panther has shown that this kind of superhero movie was long overdue. While I can only see the impact of a black superhero movie on the world from an outside perspective, I can relate to another aspect of this movie that has also been long awaited for. Black Panther has shown that it is possible to have strong women in your movie and these characters can make the movie all the more better for having them as key contributors.
One of the big successes of this film, in my opinion, is how the story showcases a strong male lead, both a king and superhero, who surrounds himself with strong female characters. And in doing this, T’Challa’s strength is not diminished- in fact, he is made all the better for listening to the women in his life and seeking out their advice and talents. Let’s look at each one of these females and their contributions to the film.
The biggest star in T’Challa’s life has to be his sister. Shuri stole the movie in an unexpected way for many. She is the youngest character (beyond the flashbacks to Killmonger’s childhood) in the film, but she is never spoken to as if she is the baby. Shuri’s brilliance in the technological field is unsurpassed - one could even argue she is a rival for Tony Stark at this point (and I’m sure many would love if she inherited the Iron Man suit, which I’m sure she would make even better). The entire country of Wakanda, including its king, acknowledges Shuri’s intelligence and defers to her expertise, never questioning or second guessing her work. Shuri’s character shows that being young is not a hindrance and being a nerdy girl is not something to be ashamed of, but instead embraced and nurtured. Many young girls tend to hide the fact that they’re smart and have a brain in between their ears as these are not typically characteristics valued in females. But here we have a smart young black woman who is respected by the entire nation and her “coolness” is not lessened by her brains. By having this character in such a crucial role in the film, truly T’Challa would most likely fail without her tech, Black Panther encourages young girls to embrace their smarts and pursue fields often thought of as “not girly”. I’m excited to see a ton of young girls cosplaying as Shuri at Cons and for Halloween.
Another female character is Okoye, T’Challa’s general. First, I need to highlight the fact that the king’s elite bodyguards are all female, which is totally kickass. A king/leader who surrounds himself with skilled female warriors has roots in African history (here’s a great blog that highlights 5 of them - http://www.blog.kugali.com/five-kick-ass-female-warriors-from-african-history/). While the role of these women in the comics is quite different than what is portrayed in the film, the change from the source works even better with the tone and themes of the overall film. Again, T’Challa’s might is not diminished because he has female bodyguards- both the king and these ladies are respected and admired for their strength. This is something that could easily have become something for Killmonger to mock T’Challa about, particularly with lazy writing, but it is not even touched. No one throughout the film even thinks to diminish the strength or prowess of these women, which reinforces their strength.
Okoye also shows that not only does she act as a bodyguard and general for T’Challa, but she is also one of his closest advisors- she has her own seat on the council and is allowed to speak freely. She lets T’Challa know when she thinks he is messing up and she doesn’t back down just because he is the king- she ribs him for freezing when he sees his ex and the viewer can tell that there is a deeper relationship between these two, but not in a romantic way. The fact that there can be a relationship between a male and female but be completely platonic also lends to the strength of the film- neither character is made more powerful or weaker in the relationship, which so often happens with boy/girl relationships in storytelling. Both are on equal ground and the mutual respect is clear. We also see that Okoye is not just a robot doing her duty for Wakanda. Okoye’s strength lies not only in her battle expertise, but also in her will. When her loyalty to Wakanda is tested, she never backs down or waivers in her conviction to her nation, even to the extent that she would be willing to take down her lover rather than let Wakanda be destroyed through infighting. However, her character is also given the opportunity to show that, despite her strong sense of loyalty to her nation, she also has personal feelings towards what is going on- though she doesn’t allow herself to be swayed by her emotions as her duty comes first. Okoye is a fantastic mirror to T’Challa- she has a fierce loyalty to Wakanda and her king along with supreme warrior status, but also is allowed to be emotional, humorous, witty, smart, and powerful all at the same time. The character was supremely well written and doesn’t allow itself to get caught into typical female cliches that can usually trip up a female character.
We also need to talk about Nakia. We are introduced that she is something special to T’Challa via Okoye’s point not to freeze when he sees her. We find out later that she had a significant role in T’Challa’s life, and that he of course still has feelings for her, but never is the status of their relationship something that interferes with the story. Of course T’Challa freezes when he sees her again, but this doesn’t cause the mission to fail, mainly because Okoye has his back, as well as an understanding of him and knowing he would likely freeze, she was there. Nakia also is not put down because she is no longer T’Challa’s significant other- she is still special to him, and to Wakanda, which is highlighted by the fact that she is allowed to continue her efforts as a spy. He doesn’t force her to get back with him now that he is king; he doesn’t diminish her views or beliefs; and he never uses their past relationship as leverage to keep her close. T’Challa actually listens to her beliefs that Wakanda should be helping the surrounding peoples, which plays a significant part in the end of the film. Too often when a female is expressing her beliefs or saying something of import, the male tends to brush it aside or change the conversation, usually by initiating physical intimacy. Instead T’Challa shows that although he does not necessarily see things the way Nakai, who has been out in the world, does, he is willing to listen to what she has to say and ultimately brings Wakanda’s technology to others for both aid and enrichment.
The strength of T’Challa lies in his ability to surround himself with powerful people, be they male or female, and understand that this does not detract from his own power in any way. While I focused on the females in his life, T’Challa also shows that he is willing to show weakness if it means making Wakanda better. T’Challa is not above asking M’Baku, the chief he initially defeated in the challenge for the throne, for help when his kingdom was at risk of being ruled by Killmonger. T’Challa again shows that he is strong enough to know when his strength alone is not enough and he requires someone else to help him achieve his goal. I appreciate that this movie not only gives people of color someone to look up to in T’Challa, but also specifically gives female these three strong characters, Suri, Okoye, and Nakia, multiple figures to admire and emulate. The women are not overly sexulalized, though they are all gorgeous in their own right with amazing wardrobes, and their strength and contributions to Wakanda and T’Challa are the highlights of their characters.
After Wonder Woman and Black Panther, the bar is very high for subsequent female roles in superhero movies. I am looking forward to see how Wasp is handled in Ant Man, and even more so, how Captain Marvel is treated since she will be Marvel’s first female solo movie.