The warrior women of Wakanda are worth celebrating in ‘BLACK PANTHER’

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

It’s just like Marvel to keep its audience on the edge of their seats with their fantastic, bold, creative visions. However, even in the third phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they still manage to surprise us in exciting, exhilarating and empowering ways. While the titular character in director/ co-writer Ryan Coogler’s BLACK PANTHER will assuredly inspire everyone with a pulse, it’s the women of this world that will get that pulse racing.

The society of Wakanda, a hidden technologically advanced city in Africa, is ruled by equality. The male leaders are only as strong as the physically formidable, intelligent female warriors, queens, spies and engineers they rule alongside.

Speaking at the recent Los Angeles press conference, Chadwick Boseman, who plays the man who would be king, T’Challa, felt that these concepts and sentiments are fundamentally rooted in the real world.

When you talk about what Wakanda is, and what it would have to be in order to progress to the place that we saw – even though we’re talking about a fantasy – the idea of an unconquered nation that has not been tampered with by the various means that it would have been tampered with; the idea of the next generation being smarter, being better than you is a concept that they would have evolved to. Even though we’re in the same generation, she benefits from whatever I have reached. You want your sons and daughters to be better than you were. That concept is a Wakandan concept, I think.

You see the genius that is inside the people that come after you. And if you have an ancestor around, they’re looking at you like, ‘I know you’re looking up to me, but we’re looking up to you.’ That is an African concept. 

Angela Bassett, who plays T’Challa’s impeccable, grace-filled mother Queen Ramonda, was pleased that the story – and the company behind it – supported these heartening portrayals of dynamic women.

In African culture, they feel as if there is no king without a queen. This story highlights the queen, the warrior, the general, the young sister.

One of the film’s stand out sequences that happens early on involves Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o. She’s introduced to the audience through her cunning smarts and strengths while out on an undercover mission. A true rarity for any actress, she was thrilled to participate in a film that puts the female character’s agency at the forefront.

This film represents women is that each and every one of us is an individual, unique and we all have our own sense of power and our own agency and we hold our own space without being pitted against each other. That’s a very, very powerful message to send to children, both male and female. Often times in movies, we fall into that trap where women, there’s very few of us and then we are against each other. There’s a competitive spirit and stuff like that. This film freezes all that and we see women going about their business and supporting each other, even arguing with each other, having different points of view, but still not being against each other. That’s extremely important. In so doing, the fact that in this film there’s so many of us, we really get a sense of the fabric of Wakanda as a nation. We see women alongside men and we see how much more effective a society can be if they allow women to explore their full potential. 

Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright in BLACK PANTHER. Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Letitia Wright, whose multi-faceted character, Shuri, is a triple threat as she’s not only T’Challa’s younger sister, but also an intelligent inventor and intimidating fighter. She, too, connected with the parity within Wakandan society.

The men are always behind the women, so no one’s undermined. The men aren’t like, ‘You shouldn’t be in technology, and you shouldn’t be in math.’ They’re like, ‘No, go ahead.’ T’Challa is like, ‘Go ahead, Sis. This is your department. This is your domain. Like – kill it.’ That’s the mentality of the king – and that’s brilliant. 

Another character who steals the spotlight – and, for that matter, threatens to run away with the entire movie – is the king’s bodyguard Okoye, played by powerhouse Danai Gurira. As the leader of the Dora Milaje, she’s a true badass presence, on the prowl and ready for a purposeful fight. It was Coogler’s precise, subversive vision of her character that hooked her.

When Ryan sat me down and talked to me about his vision, the story, the characters, and the women, I was just floored, because you don’t actually get to hear that often. It embodied with us being on the continent, women from the continent, but very developed, very complex. It was amazing!

She, too, was equally impressed seeing these comic book characters come to life in her and her fellow actress’ hands. It felt like a literal exercise in character building.

I was the first one to get my head shaved and, in theory, it sounded amazing, you know.  And then the day came…and I was like, ‘This is today?!’ It took a few days. And then all the girls started coming in – we’d all been balded, one by one. Then the pride started to grow – this pride around it. This sort of embracing of this sort of symbol of power in these women.

Gurira’s best sequence in the film is where her character weaponizes her wig in a fight with a villainous group of thugs. However, it’s the brief moments before walking into that sprawling casino that take on the utmost of importance.

The beauty of how [Coogler] wrote that moment where she doesn’t want a wig. She doesn’t want to cover up. This is her joy, and her pride, is in walking in with that bald head with that tattoo on it. It was so subversive in the right way, to say that’s not necessarily beauty. You don’t have to have hair to be beautiful.

Coogler credits BLACK PANTHER’s success at this kind of inclusivity to all of the women hired onto the film – both in front and behind the camera.

This film had involvement from brilliant women all over from start to finish. Our crew weren’t hired because they were women – they were hired because they were the best for the job. That was our cinematographer Rachel Morrison, our costume designer Ruth Carter, production designer Hannah Beachler and our assistant director who was responsible for getting her team going Lisa Satriano, and post production the film was edited by Michael Shawver and Debbie Berman who is from South Africa and finished by Victoria Alonzo. I was incredibly blessed to have these people, to have their perspective and had their fingerprints all over it. When you saw all those frames, that presence, it was there constantly and in full effect.

BLACK PANTHER opens on February 16. Go here for our review.

Header photo: Florence Kasumba, Danai Gurira, and Lupita Nyong’o in BLACK PANTHER. Courtesy of Marvel Studios.

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