by Erin Gibson
Two words: Ryan Coogler. If you don't know who he is, Coogler is the director of the new hit film Black Panther. He also directed the award-winning film Fruitvale Station, the true story of Oscar Grant who was senselessly shot and killed by police officers in San Francisco in 2008.
Coogler is young, talented, and at the beginning of what looks to be a long, successful and culturally significant career. The reason I'm praising Ryan Coogler is for the way he chose to portray the women in the Black Panther film. It's a stark contrast from the original Black Panther comics, which have misogynistic undertones and treat female characters as petty, emotionally out of control, and only thinking with their—well—“lady parts.”
He also represents a more progressive approach to socio-political issues around race and gender in Hollywood. Coogler has created a story that represents all voices involved in the conversation surrounding race. He conducts a narrative that points in the direction of social progression and tolerance, racial equality and the transcendence of gender norms. I’ll get into why in a bit, but first a glimpse at the movie itself….
T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman is the new king of the fictional African nation Wakanda and assumes the role of the Black Panther. The Black Panther is a role that gets passed down from generation to generation in the royal bloodline, and makes the recipient of said role essentially the protector of Wakanda. What makes T'Challa a good, fair ruler and an incredible defender isn’t just his royal blood and the way he was raised by his father; it’s inarguably the incredibly strong women he's surrounded by—his sister, mother, bodyguard, and friend/ex-lover.
Sure, Wakanda has a rich history of technological supremacy, and access to a sacred plant which grants the recipient of said plant superhuman abilities, making the Black Panther superior to most other superheroes. But these women represent loyalty, strength, valor, and a shit-ton of other important traits one might need to run a country/save the world. The most fantastic thing Coogler did with the story was to adapt it so that the backstories of these women from the original comics don't overlap or subtract from their immensely strong presence in the film. If you look up any of the origin stories of some of these women, they may be represented as feeble, vengeful, jealous, or downright petty. That’s so not the case in this movie.
The roles of women in not only Marvel films, but a lot of superhero films (shit—most fucking films) aren't the most flattering. We're either helpless sex objects (damsels in distress), unforgivable sluts, or vengeful villain bitches (likely for misplaced or unreturned love of some male figure). We don't have a lot to work with from there.
As much as I love a good comic-book heroine, we're often portrayed as almost pathetic unless provided the help or guidance of some guy. Even given specific powers or abilities, we use them for evil because some dude likes another chick, or daddy didn't give us enough love. And I know what you’re thinking: what about Black Widow? Well, if you examine her backstory, the problem is that she’s so prone to being brainwashed by people (read: men) that you never really know which side she’s on, because neither does she. Her fate literally lies with the men she comes into contact with, either by mistake or intentionally.
There are some awesome exceptions to this rule: Storm, Misty Knight, Gamora, Princess Shuri, Valkyrie – who find their strengths either from other women guiding them or from within themselves, never letting their emotions or romantic interests affect their roles as heroes.
Take, for example, Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o): In the film she's a spy and soldier of Wakanda and the love interest of T'Challa. In her back story from the comic, she is a soldier of the Dora Milaje: “the adorned ones,” wives-in-training who are soldiers and bodyguards to the king, and also betrothed to him. But as she develops feelings for him (after a hallucination he has, leading to their making out), she becomes obsessed with the idea that they're meant to be together.
She eventually kills T'Challa's girlfriend and is banned from the Dora Milaje. Then, she assumes a new identity as the villain Malice. There's a whole story that continues, which all leads up to one summation: she does all these evil deeds and fucked-up things because she can't have her life as the wife of T'Challa. She's so hungry for his love that she's willing to discard all her teachings in the Dora Milaje and her loyalty to Wakanda because of her female emotions.
Can you say “clingy” or “crazy bitch?” Apparently that’s what women are all doomed to become, if they aren't already. Because estrogen, I guess.
However, Coogler rescues this narrative and restructures it. He portrays Nakia as someone almost turned off by the idea of being in a relationship, because her duties to Wakanda and her will to help people is stronger than any of her potential emotional desires. She is a strong warrior and diplomat, interested in spreading Wakanda’s knowledge and technology to different parts of the world, despite the objections of her people. She’s also a badass spy and isn’t involved in the Dora Milaje as much as in the comic.
Originally, the Dora Milaje were protectors of the king and in the running to be his wife. It was to preserve harmony between the 18 different factions of Wakanda, I guess, but still created an image of these women which was largely sexual. In the earlier issues of the comic, they wore miniskirts and heels, some with long, straight hair, and all hoping to eventually be chosen by the king to be his wife.
But in the movie, Coogler has costume designer Ruth E. Carter portray the Dora Milaje in a very different light. She uses the aesthetic from later comics which attempted to correct the sexist vision Marvel started with, and also references the styles of samurai, ninjas, various African tribes, as well as some Filipino influence. The result: Cleavage is nowhere to be seen under their armor, hair is literally non-existent, they’re either wearing minimal foot protection or none at all. And they’re viewed as the best soldiers in the country—not sex objects in any way, shape, or form.
There’s a scene where Okoye (the general and main bodyguard of the king, played by Danai Gurira) goes undercover dressed as the Dora Milaje were dressed in the original comics. She openly makes fun of how ridiculous she looks and feels, scoffing at the idea of having to wear a dress. She does get to remove both her wig and heels as soon as combat ensues, and it’s quite the righteous moment.
Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), the half-sister of T'Challa, has an interesting backstory in the comic as well. Shuri is a genius and has the same desire to be Black Panther as T'Challa. But when she attempts to enter the battle arena to challenge her uncle for the title, her brother arrives sooner, wins, and is appointed King and Black Panther.
Upon realizing his sister’s desire to be Black Panther, T'Challa offers to teach her combat skills and Martial Arts, should he ever fall and she be appointed Queen and defender of Wakanda. Eventually he does fall, and it is her duty to be Black Panther. But when she tries completing the ancestral ceremony to become the Panther, the Panther God will not grant Shuri the superhuman powers of the sacred flower. It’s said that it’s because she was jealous of her brother for so long. She’s just essentially too petty to carry on the tradition.
Shuri wears the Black Panther costume anyway (because she’s a gangster badass and don’t need no magic), and saves Wakanda and her brother. After this, the Panther God grants her the powers and she has the superhuman strength, agility, and skills that her brother has. Later in the comics she's in a state of being half alive and half dead, and visits a spiritual plane where she receives even more training and powers (bringing back the dead, transforming into a large bird, having stone-like, impenetrable skin), which make her arguably one of the coolest characters in the whole comic.
While we don’t see any of this in the movie, Coogler did something cool and worthy of her character. There obviously wasn't enough space or time in the movie to cover that whole original story, so he gave her a somewhat physically passive yet extremely important and prominent role as the tech genius. Most of the accomplishments or progressions in the story wouldn't exist if not for Shuri.
She's the reason Black Panther wins so many of his fights, as the creator of his suit and high-tech weapons. Shuri is also the reason that FBI agent Everett Ross lives and single-handedly takes out the drones which would've aided in the destruction of the outside world. Her role isn't as violently charged as in the comic, but what she lends as a scientist and a wealth of information (and comic relief) is unmatched. I'm just glad Coogler didn't expose the sibling rivalry in a way that a) undermined Shuri as an important and level-headed character in the movie or b) took away from the original plot. She was still an incredible and prominent piece of the puzzle.
Okoye in the comic and the film is the general of the Dora Milaje, and quoted as being the greatest warrior in all of Wakanda. She’s an all-around badass, providing superb advice to T’Challa when most needed, protecting him, and having his back in the stickiest of situations. She’s loyal through and through, to the king and Wakanda.
While there are moments where we do see some of her emotions come through (when T’Challa loses his first battle against Killmonger and when she might have to kill her own husband in order to protect the king), she puts them aside in order to maintain her duties as the general. I don’t think they had to do much as far as appropriately adapting her character from the comics to film.
Her combat skills are unmatched. She’s intuitive, courageous, loyal, and doesn’t stand down from anything. She is a warrior to the core, and it’s a large part of her identity. Being a wife is just a small piece of who she is, and we barely even witness much of that relationship unravel.
Last, but not least, we have T’Challa’s surrogate mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett). The movie doesn’t at all touch on the fact that Ramonda is Shuri’s biological mother, but not T’Challa’s biological mother. His mother actually died while giving birth to him.
This detail doesn’t place much importance in the movie, so I can understand why they left it out. However, it does give some substance to the story of how Ramonda came to be the Queen of Wakanda, and explains her character as a strong female presence. She was originally from South Africa and went on a walkabout to find a way to fight apartheid. That’s when she ran into T’Challa as a small boy, lost and separated from his father.
Ramonda helped reunite the two and was offered refuge in Wakanda. She decided to stay in Wakanda, to help take care of T’Challa. Later in the stories, Ramonda is captured, then tortured and sexually abused for years before her son finds and rescues her. She’s seen as resilient and strong, despite this occurrence. Later she ends up in a coma from a bomb exploding during a terrorist attack. She eventually wakes and has to walk with a cane.
None of this affects her ability to lead or ends with self-pity or a vengeful spirit. Anyway, the reason I’m briefing you on her history is so you can see that silent strength in her character throughout the movie. She is ever dedicated to her son and his success as king, is deeply loyal to the nation of Wakanda, and is actually the reason T’Challa is brought back to life after suffering a massive fall during combat. She offers him wisdom and guidance no one else can and is greatly respected and loved by her people. She represents the strong feminine and maternal presence that nurtures and guides the energy and culture of the nation.
There’s one last aspect of the movie I mentioned before and would like to end with. One of the major themes in the film was the current socio-political climate in America regarding race. Specifically, though, it covered more than one voice on the black side of this conversation. Here’s how I saw it:
Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is the villain. In his first scene, he creates a conflict with a white woman who works at the museum he’s about to steal from. In his dialogue with her, he not only corrects some of her knowledge of the relics in the museum, but proceeds to take the “us vs. you” approach, as a means to vilify her as a white person. He talks about stealing from them as they have from us for centuries.
He clearly doesn’t like white people and thinks that there should be some sort of revenge for blacks and their enslaved ancestors. His whole evil plot revolves around killing anyone who isn’t “one of us” (pretty much white people).
Killmonger, from my perspective, represents the side of the conversation in America wherein a racial hierarchy exists—the conversation where black people feel owed something by whites and intend on making all whites pay for the mistakes or deeds of other whites from the past. It’s a conversation that contributes to the division of the people and furthers the nation from any true racial or social equality. It perpetuates the cycle of hate, judgment, and lack of empathy or understanding. It also creates the idea that all black people are angry and vindictive, and feel superior to whites. This just promotes fear and social unbalance for anyone who isn’t black.
Now, T’Challa doesn’t see things in quite the same vein. While he’s aware of the misfortunes and injustices that have occurred and continue to occur, he believes in all people being equal. He doesn’t care about the color of a person’s skin or feel the need to have reparations be a thing of the present. He represents the side of the conversation that promotes social and racial equality, the unification of the people and the ability to overcome obstacles together. I like that this voice was represented at all, as I don’t think most people know it even exists (no thanks to the media).
People in America today are pissed. Constantly. And looking for reasons to be unrightfully angry about really anything. Even if not consciously aware of it, there’s a collective anger and unwillingness to forgive anything that’s not sensitive to the feelings of the oppressed. But, believe it or not, there are some black people who don’t feel the same way Killmonger does and do actually want peace for all.
Thanks to Ryan Coogler, that conversation was intertwined throughout the movie in seamless and powerful ways. His directorial style revolves around exposing the truths of contemporary America and hopefully having a hand in changing the direction we’re all headed in. We hope the eventual outcome for our country will be one of mutual understanding, fellowship, and compassion.
It will take some time, but using your creative power and resources to invite people to question their own beliefs and perceptions is an important piece. Because sometimes, just changing the narrative from its original course—like having women be multidimensional characters—can have more power, more impact, more influence than simply trying to continue it.
About the author: Erin Gibson slings drinks and babysits adults for a living, but she most enjoys talking shit on paper. Painting, reading and travel keep her sane and curious.