Seeing Black Panther was an experience. It’s a gorgeous film, with a strong storyline and probably the tightest narrative I’ve yet seen in a superhero film.* The Afrofuturism of the setting—technology so advanced it may as well be magic, tied to what’s clearly a long historical tradition—is a glittering vision** of possibility, undercut with the tension between Wakanda’s technologically advanced isolationism and the scars of colonial imperialism that affect the rest of African history.
[Note: Possible spoilers ahead for Black Panther.]
It’s also a film that, while it centres on a man—and on questions of kingship, legitimacy, and responsibility—is the first superhero film I’ve ever seen to surround its main male character with women who are in many ways equally powerful, and who don’t depend on him for purpose or characterisation. No, seriously: this is the first superhero film I’ve ever seen—maybe the first SFF film I’ve ever seen—where pretty much the hero’s entire back-up team, his entire support network, were women. Women who teased him and challenged him and demanded he do better.
Black women, which is an important point. (The delight on the faces of the girls pouring out of the cinema when it was over was something, for damn sure. I live in a town where a significant proportion of the residents are of West African extraction, either first or second generation immigrants, and I really hope they enjoyed themselves as much as it looked like they did.)
We first see T’Challa in this film as General Okoye (Danai Gurira) gives him advice and tells him not to freeze when he encounters his ex again during his “rescue” of her from a military convoy. At least, as viewers, we’re cued to see it in terms of a rescue, but it turns out his ex, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) doesn’t need a rescue and is ready to read him the riot act for interfering in her undercover mission. But T’Challa’s father is dead, and he’s come to invite her to the funeral and his coronation—it’s more “hey, I’ve come to give you a lift home” than a rescue, in the end, despite the excellent action sequence.
In Wakanda, we meet T’Challa’s irreverent younger sister, genius inventor Shuri (Letitia Wright), who’s head of the Wakandan research programme. Gleefully willing to make fun of her older brother (and also deeply invested in making really cool things work) we later see a more serious side to her, when the film reaches its darkest hour and throughout the climax and conclusion.
In Wakanda, too, we meet Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) whose understated, powerful presence is compelling even in her handful of scenes. When disaster strikes and it appears T’Challa is dead, it is in part her determination to protect her country and its traditions—as well as her family—alongside Shuri and Nakia, that determines Wakanda’s future.
Nakia and Okoye are, to me, the most interesting pair of characters in the film. Okoye’s affection and loyalty for T’Challa is plain, but her loyalty to her country and its laws is stronger yet. Her principles divide her from the people she cares for most: first from T’Challa and, later in the film, her lover/partner. (I’m really—look, Okoye is fantastic and I want the collectible figure.)
Nakia is T’Challa’s ex, and it is clear that one of the reasons their relationship ended is because Nakia’s principles put her at odds with Wakanda’s isolationist policies, and her desire to do something out in the world would have had to be put away as the partner of the heir apparent. Her character is, in a way, Okoye’s mirror: her principles, too, divide her from the people she loves, but she chooses people over abstract loyalty to her country, when circumstances put her to the test.
Between them, Okoye and Nakia are presented as the right and left hands of their prince—later their king—T’Challa, whose sister is a James Bond Q-type inventor and whose mother is an elder stateswoman. And I’ve never in my life seen a tentpole action film give me so many different kinds of competent women.
Also, bloody hell, in the action scenes the women are in together?
It’s just amazing.
Black Panther: for a superhero film about inheritance, power, and responsibility, it’s got a strong feminist side. Also, it’s awesome.
*Captain America: The Winter Soldier may come close, but while I love Wonder Woman, it’s nowhere near this tightly plotted, with the theme of the beginning returning at the end in a way that feels like an inevitable echo.
**Though I can’t help wondering how Wakanda has an open invitation to the U.N., if it doesn’t do reciprocal diplomacy with the world. Maybe there’s a whole fake capital that they keep foreign embassies in?
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.