Marvel Studio’s latest superhero flick, Black Panther, is everything you hoped it would be and more. The ambitious project is the most-talked about film of the year, and after raking in a whopping $218 million during its opening weekend, Black Panther is poised to become one of the biggest movies of 2018.
And, of course, Black folks have been doing the absolute most to celebrate, creating hashtags like #BlackPantherSoLit and getting decked out in dashikis, ankara prints, and even King Jaffe Joffer costumes to see the film. But while the world basks in the majesty that is Wakanda, the women of Black Panther are the real MVPs of the show.
Typically, superhero films revolve around one main, male character. Spider-Man. Iron Man. Superman. You get the picture. Though Black Panther centers on the title character, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who assumes the role of Black Panther after his father T’Chaka (John Kani) is killed, he isn’t alone in his quest to protect his homeland of Wakanda. Instead, he is surrounded by a fierce group of women, who offer their unwavering loyalty, protection, wise counsel, and unconditional love.
At the beginning of the film, we see T’Challa preparing to save Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his former flame, and bring her home so she can be there when he officially ascends to the throne. As he prepares for the mission, an overly confident T’Challa tells the general of his fighting forces, Okoye (Danai Gurira), that he won’t need her help this time around. He can apparently handle it on his own. Okoye gives him a suspicious look, but lets him leave anyway. When he encounters Nakia among a group of female hostages in Nigeria, T’Challa ambushes their captors and begins to fight them off. But when he sees the woman he loves, he freezes, and almost pays the price. Luckily, Okoye is there to protect him and she and Nakia, who didn’t need saving after all, help him dispense of all the men.
From the first minutes of Black Panther, we quickly learn this isn’t your average superhero film, where the women are helpless and the man saves the day. Instead the women of Wakanda not only hold their own, but without their leadership and immense talent, the kingdom would be lost.
Okoye and Nakia, who’s a master spy, aren’t the only formidable women in Black Panther. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), T’Challa’s mother, affirms her son’s capacity to lead, even when he’s doubtful about his own abilities. Shuri (Letitia Wright), his little sister, is the smartest person in Wakanda and is responsible for most of the nation’s advanced technology, including T’Challa’s kickass suit and the weapons he wields. The Dora Milaje, T’Challa’s all-female personal guard, protect the king at all costs. And when T’Challa is at his lowest, it’s the women of Wakanda who rally to his side and help him regain his rightful position.
The choice to encircle T’Challa with so many powerful women — and allow them to shine in their own right — was an intentional one, according to Ryan Coogler, the Black Panther’s director.
“What you see in African communities — women tend to hold it down,” he explained in an interview with OkayPlayer. “They tend to be the ones that help further the cause of the community. So, we wanted to highlight that.”
“Wakanda is an interesting place and kind of ahead of the curve,” Coogler continued. “T’Challa has a way of empowering the women around him so that they reach their maximum potential. They’re comfortable being themselves, they’re comfortable finding their own lane, and they support him tremendously. That’s something that makes T’Challa different from other heroes.”
While Black Panther fans know it’s just a movie, seeing badass, gorgeous Black women on screen being respected for their intelligence, physical strength, and beauty feels revolutionary. “We can have really strong Black women who don’t have to be damsels in distress, who are independent and powerful, who can also fall in love at the same time,” Boseman said in the March issue of ESSENCE.
In Black Panther, it’s clear Nakia has T’Challa’s heart. On several occasions he asks, almost begs her to stay with him, but she isn’t ready to simply settle down and become his queen. Instead, she feels compelled to help others who aren’t fortunate enough to live in Wakanda’s peaceful and prosperous society and refuses to trade that in for T’Challa. In the end, Nakia decides to stay in Wakanda (we think) but only after T’Challa joins her cause to do more to help those outside of the kingdom.
Okoye, who leads the Dora Milaje, also grapples with her loyalties when her love, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) betrays T’Challa and incites a civil war. As the best fighter in Wakanda, Okoye could easily kill W’Kabi and he knows it. When the two finally face off toward the end of the film, he asks her, “Would you kill me, my love?” And her answer, “For Wakanda? Without question,” forces him to surrender because he knows she would easily cut him down. While Okoye could have been depicted as just a killing machine, seeing her relationship with W’Kabi shows that she is more than just a spear-wielding warrior. Like the rest of the women of Wakanda, Okoye is a complicated, competent woman who loves hard, but takes her duties seriously.
Black Panther has been hailed as Marvel’s best film yet, but what sets it apart from its superhero peers are the women who steal the show. Queen Ramonda, Shuri, Nakia, and Okoye are not clichéd representations of Black women who are forced to the margins; instead they are fully realized characters who are integral to the narrative and are arguably the best part of the film.