Black Panther is an anthem of female empowerment!
My first experiences witnessing black women in movie are not that great.
As a seven-year-old black girl, I’m watching Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. She is a lounge singer on the run, moonlighting as a sister in a convent. She is helping a group of tone-deaf white women become their best selves. I am delighted. Perhaps one day, I can also teach a group of aged white nuns how to sing right.
Two years later, I am nine years old and I am watching Whoopi Goldberg in Corrina, Corrina. She is a caring housekeeper aiding a white widower and his selectively-mute daughter become their best selves. I am delighted. Perhaps one day, I can also help Ray Liotta learn to love again.
Sister Act and Corinna, the latter were my touchstones for contemporary black women in movie well into my late teens. (At the age of 16, my hairdresser, Paulette, had the good sense to introduce me to The Wiz, the much adored all-black re-feature of The Wizard of Oz, which helped me reset my very definition for what a “black film” could be). As family-friendly as these two iconic Whoopi roles were, they also reinforced tired stereotypes about black womanhood, and were mostly in service of less dynamic, white storylines.
As much as I adored these films (and frankly, still do) I always wanted something bigger and better for characters and actors who looked like me. I was too young to enjoy films like Set It Off or Waiting to Exhale, which had fully-realized black female characters who weren’t flawless or ideal role models, but who were troubled women with agency, played without the white gaze.
All of this is to say: Seeing a film like Black Panther as a child would have blown my young mind. I saw it last week and it inspired me like few movies have. From a humble middle seat at a multiplex theater, I was transported to a world where seemingly everyone acknowledged the talent and strength of black women.
Based on the famous Marvel comic book, the film is about T’Challa, Prince of Wakanda, a fictional African kingdom. After the sudden death of his dad, King T’Chaka, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assumes the role of both King of Wakanda and Black Panther: a badass, stealth superhero. As T’Challa steps into his role, he must work with family, friends and the CIA to defend and protect Wakanda from threats that stand to destroy everything Wakanda stands for.
King T’Challa is tough, smart and entertaining to watch — when he’s not ruling over a small African kingdom, he’s flirting, cracking jokes and battling your quintessential action-movie villains. However, the guts, heart and oomph of the film belong to the women of Wakanda. These fully-realized, dynamic women are what set the film apart for me.
Princess Shuri (the brilliant Letitia Wright) is not just King T’Challa’s giddy little sister. She is a brilliant, quick-witted mastermind who creates high-tech textiles and weapons from her laboratory; she uses the same space to concept an elaborate train system for transporting raw materials. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is a fearless, butt-kicking, name-taking secret agent who speaks many languages and travels the world on life-threatening missions to protect and rescue those in need. (She’s also Black Panther’s ex, so, you know, drama!) Okoye (Danai Gurira) is a Wakandan general and leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-women, personal security detail of Black Panther. The Wakandan women are tough, resourceful and forever loyal to their nation, and they do it all without superpowers of their own.
Directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, “Black Panther” accomplishes what few films are able to do: elevate the role of black women to more than stereotypes or props. Shuri, Nakia, and Okoye have company and dreams of their own. Not to mention, they’re intelligent, strong, desirable, dark-skinned black women who don’t need your permission nor protection, yet still get to feel vulnerable and tender. Black Panther brings out their humanity, even under semi-supernatural conditions.
The entire movie is intriguing, action-packed, entertaining and surprisingly political. That’s largely in part to the women of Wakanda and their refusal to be hamstrung by traditional gender roles. They’re the fighters, scientists, fearless protectors and full-of-passion forces for good I needed to see as a child.
When Black Panther movie ends, I think about how these are the kinds of roles black actresses like Whoopi, Nia Long, Lela Rochon, and Paula Jai Parker — women I grew up watching — have long deserved. As their previously busy cinematic careers slow down with time, I hope it’s not too late for them to handle such compelling roles on big screens worthy of their gift.
But as quickly as that tinge of grief and regret arises, it passes. Because I am a 32-year-old black woman immersed in a cinematic universe where black women thrive. I am too excited for those kids who will grow up seeing these confident, fierce women taking up space and telling tales that are larger than life. I think about the young black girls who will watch these women and grow up inspired to carry out big dreams of their own. I think about all of this, and I am delighted.