One could very easily write a long research paper about Black Panther. Much has already been said about the importance of its powerful and groundbreaking mainstream representation, from Time Magazine’s February 19 cover story by Jamil Smith, to the Twitter campaign #WhatBlackPantherMeanstoMe begun by Kayla Sutton of the website Black Girl Nerds, to a flood of think pieces covering its commercial success and social impact. There have even been crowdfunding efforts to send children of color to see Black Panther in theaters, like this campaign that went viral. When I first saw it opening weekend, I did not even have the means to verbally process the film’s multifaceted and spectacular vision. The first thing I could verbalize was the wish that all my introductory art history classes had actually discussed African art instead of glossing over it, so I would have a better visual base for analyzing this film. Since opening weekend, I have been thinking a lot about Black Panther. It has stayed with me and prompted a lot of thought and reflection in me in a way few movies, if any, ever have. Since I will only be able to barely scratch the surface of what makes this film exceptional, I would still like to share some of my reflections on this film. In particular, there’s plenty for me to say simply about the contributions of women, both on- and off-screen, to Black Panther’s visual and narrative impact.
Before I go into further detail, if you have not seen the movie yet, *** spoilers ahead.***
I found Black Panther to be a revolutionary breath of fresh air in a number of ways. As Smith puts it in Time, “It may be the first megabudget movie—not just about superheroes, but about anyone—to have an African-American director and a predominantly black cast. Hollywood has never produced a blockbuster this splendidly black.” As a superhero blockbuster, it breaks new ground on what types of movie can succeed with black leads in mainstream white Hollywood, territory which has until now been defined by historical pieces like Hidden Figures (2016), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Django Unchained (2012), and The Help (2011).
(Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out (2017) was similarly groundbreaking in the horror genre.)
Black Panther was one of the most anticipated Marvel films before it was released, and it has been dominating at the box office since it opened. As Forbes reported on March 7th it had made just over $512 million in the US and $922 million worldwide. As of Saturday, March 10th, the worldwide total profits have breached the $1 billion mark. It raked in $201.8 million of that domestic total in its three-day opening weekend, making it the fifth biggest domestic opening weekend ever. If you consider its four-day opening weekend totals, its $241 million gross was the second highest opening weekend ever domestically.
This huge financial success is undeniable proof of what so many people of color (POC) have been saying for so long—that movies starring people of color can be just as financially successful, if not more so, than movies starring white people. It’s also a testament to the importance of giving POC creators control over their own stories. Ryan Coogler and his creative team have given their superhero narrative the same grandeur and integrity of any white superhero, while telling a nuanced story about the complicated relationship between African Americans and Africans that only they could have told. Marvel’s track-record with race is far from spotless— recently, 2016’s Doctor Strange was heavily criticized for erasing the Asian identity of an important character, the Ancient One, from the story by casting Tilda Swinton in the role instead, and the director gave an explanation/apology for the casting decision which still seems pretty racist to me. So Black Panther’s success in this arena feels like a direct result of its creative team’s perspective.
Crucially, this creative team also features some remarkable women, and their contributions to the visual richness of the film are a major part of its impact. Production designer Hannah Beachler did an incredible job of bringing Wakanda to life—I was simply stunned watching it. As production designer (this title is sometimes used interchangeably with that of art director), it was her job to figure out what would be the overall look of Black Panther. Her creative vision is most notably and powerfully seen in the visual design of the nation of Wakanda, from its skyscrapers to its streets.
Black Panther is revolutionary for its vision of afrofuturism seen in the nation of Wakanda. Wakanda is an incredibly wealthy nation that is far more scientifically advanced than any other, and yet still retains its rich cultural traditions. This seamless blending of high-tech and tradition is presented in a way that is so natural it seems to say, “Yeah, of course we can have a setting like this in a sci-fi movie,” and makes you wonder why we haven’t seen anything like this before.
Most importantly, Wakanda was never colonized. Because of this, Wakanda presents to us what could have been had Europeans not ravaged the continent. This depiction of Wakanda has real-world implications: it shows that African countries are important voices in the global dialogue of how to shape the future, and that African countries are not merely the “starving children of Africa” or people to gawk at in National Geographic. It is a dazzling vision of what future cities could be, grounded in and showcasing traditional African architecture and culture. Although fictional, I as a viewer felt Wakanda to be real while watching the film. Black Panther transported me to Wakanda, just like any award-worthy film does, making me invested in the story and walk away from the theater with opened eyes to the power and possibilities of afrofuturism. It makes it hard for any movie-goer to dismiss the value of Africans and African Americans.
Wakanda feels authentic not only because of the built environment the film depicts, but also largely due to costume designer Ruth Carter’s sartorial choices. She directly references and incorporates traditional clothing from real tribes across the continent. For example, the neck rings the Dora Milaje wear came from the Ndebele tribe in Southern Africa. The Himba tribe inspired some of the rich red colors and styling choices of one of the Wakandan tribe leaders. The River Tribe of Wakanda, which includes Nakia, was inspired by the Suri tribe. The fabulous headpiece T’Challah’s mother, Ramonda, wears was inspired by the headpieces of the married women of the Zulu tribe. Thanks to these beautiful visuals,the audience unmistakably feels the presence of the rich cultures and traditions that compose Wakanda.
Music also very strongly adds to the presence of the identity of Wakanda and of the main characters in the film. Composer Ludwig Göransson uses African beats and instruments that provide a strong feel for Wakanda, and helps differentiate vibes between characters. The two most notable examples of this to me are when Okoye and the Dora Milaje fight, they used a group of Senegalese women performing a “yipping sound,” and Erik Killmonger typically gets music with more American hip hop elements. (If you like, you can read more details about the leitfmotifs and musical analysis here.) Music in Marvel movies is generally forgettable, but not in Black Panther.
I personally love the role women played in the film. There seems to be true gender equality in Wakanda, showcased by their preeminent warriors and inventors. T’Challa, king of Wakanda and the Black Panther, surrounds himself with strong, powerful, capable women. The elite army that most closely protects the king is the Dora Milaje, composed entirely of women. They are the best warriors in the land, are fiercely loyal to Wakanda, and at least in the case of their general, Okoye, very well could be a more capable fighter than Black Panther himself. Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, is a veritable genius in charge of science and technology in Wakanda. She creates many innovations for their already extremely technologically advanced society. Tony Stark has always been presented as the genius in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it is clear that Shuri is miles beyond him and could put his inventions to shame (note to Marvel, pretty please have a scene in an upcoming film with Shuri completely schooling Tony Stark scientifically/technologically—that would be such an amazing moment). Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend and member of the River Tribe, is a fierce fighter who is committed to making a positive difference in the world and wishes to help alleviate others’ suffering. Her encouragement that Wakanda is strong enough to help others and protect itself at the same time helps T’Challa recognize by the end of the film that it is wiser to build bridges instead of walls, even though all of his ancestors hid the truth about Wakanda’s wealth and technology out of fear.
These women provide a huge amount of support to T’Challa. They give him the help he needs to overcome the obstacles he faces in the movie, as he struggles to decide which direction to take Wakanda as a nation and fights to reclaim his throne from Erik Killmonger. T’Challa would not be successful or where he is without them. However, the way the women are treated in the film, from the way they are written to the way they are shown on the screen, it is clear that their sole function is not merely as ancillary supporting characters. They are fully fleshed out characters: while this movie focuses on T’Challa as the main character, it is clear that these women are the heroes of their own stories.
Men and women in the film take on contrasting roles. It is the men who hold onto anger and vengeance, allowing it to negatively shape their actions. On the whole, the women do not do that, though each reacts in her own way when faced with difficult and anger-inducing situations. There is a scene in which Nakia and Okoye are both distraught at Erik Killmonger taking the throne, but they differ in their opinions on how they should proceed. Okoye believes her duty is to protect the throne, no matter who sits upon it, while Nakia believes she must act to save her country from the threat of Killmonger. Rather than fight each other or try to convince each other that they are wrong, as would usually happen between male characters, Nakia and Okoye recognize that they both have the same love for their country and respect that they have different opinions on how to show it. They do not let their anger or frustration with the situation blind them to their shared convictions. Conversely, W’Kabi sides with Killmonger because he is so upset that T’Challa was unable to capture Klaue, the man responsible for his parents’ death. W’Kabi is so frustrated that T’Challa seems to be ineffective like his father T’Chaka, W’Kabi blindly follows the newcomer who promises change. Even though Killmonger is clearly trying to take Wakanda down a violent, war-torn path, W’Kabi holds onto his frustrations and readily fights against T’Challa and Okoye, his own lover. W’Kabi justifies siding with Killmonger because he would rather be the conqueror than the conquered. At the end, W’Kabi and his men fight from a place of anger against the Dora Milaje, who fight to protect the integrity of their nation.
Ultimately, T’Challa finds a better solution to resolve the frustrations and desires of his people. Guided by the women in his life and by his desire for peace, T’Challa rejects Killmonger’s idea that armed resistance is the only solution to lift up oppressed people across the globe. T’Challa arms them with knowledge, science, and culture instead.
While I won’t discuss any more points here, Black Panther brings so many issues to the table for discussion. It raises the complicated relationship between African Americans and Africans, with particular regards to cultural identity. Erik Killmonger’s character sheds light on Western patriarchy. It brings up the issues of isolationism and of colonialism, while prompting viewers to think about racism in a powerful way. We have said this before on the blog and we will keep saying it, but representation matters. When you do not see people who look like you in media, or only see people who look like you portrayed negatively, it subconsciously negatively affects your own image of yourself, your abilities, and of what you think you are capable.
Black Panther is worthy of all the praise and success it is receiving. If it were up to me I would have Black Panther win best picture at the Oscars next year, without question. I would also give it several other awards, including best costumes, best visual design/art direction, and best soundtrack. Black Panther, while a cool superhero movie, has so much to say and every element down to the last detail work so well and so strongly together that it is simply a phenomenal movie.