It’s been four years since we were first invited into the picturesque nation of Wakanda. Now in 2022, we’re back and paying tribute to the original Black Panther (played by the late Chadwick Boseman). In the highly anticipated sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever gives us a glimpse into the lives of the country’s citizens and royal family as they grieve the loss of T’Challa and attempt to combat new threats to their sanctuary. While we are introduced to quite a few new characters and concepts throughout the film, one thing has undoubtedly remained constant — the women of Wakanda are a force to be reckoned with. And the portrayals of their characters are also indicative of a shift in the way that we should view feminism and womanhood as a whole.
Black women have served as the backbone of our community for countless years now. However, this has contributed to the production of a handful of stereotypes and unrealistic expectations. It may seem from an outside perspective that constantly being labeled as strong is a positive thing, but in this case, it has almost the opposite effect. The idea of being a “strong Black woman” often paints us as being unaffected and unwavering in the face of adversity. This can lead to the burden of supporting others without receiving the same grace and empathy in return. In the first movie, we are introduced to Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who is a former spy and current teacher at a school in Haiti. She deals with the passing of her lover, T’Challa, in a way that raises concern and shock from her family and friends in Wakanda. It is revealed in a conversation between her and Okoye, the head general of the Dora Milaje (played by Danai Gurira), that Nakia left Wakanda after T’Challa’s passing and did not attend his funeral service. In their conversation, Nakia admits that she needed to get away and “let herself break” after his sudden passing. She goes on to explain that it wasn’t fair, nor was it realistic, for her to keep going and continue living as if nothing had happened. This conversation was such a powerful moment to me because it showed Nakia, though she still is incredibly strong and reliable, as also being vulnerable and unapologetic in taking time for herself. This was such a refreshing contrast to the ways in which we are expected to ignore our own pain for the sake of being seen as resilient and dependable.
Another consequence of these harmful stereotypes (and most likely a result of colonialism), has been the widespread idea that Black women aren’t as inherently feminine or “ladylike” as other women. Seeing characters like Queen Ramonda (the kingdom of Wakanda’s ruler who is played by Angela Bassett) effortlessly radiate elegance and class never ceases to fill me with a sense of pride. She is able to lead her country effectively and make decisions while still dismissing any doubts that the nation is unprotected. In fact, when speaking about the country to others, the Wakandan citizens often refer to the country as “She.”
Another common thread in the movie’s composition is the intentional styling choices that are made for the characters. The women of Wakanda wear a range of hairstyles, from the curly frohawk and undercut worn by Princess Shuri (played by Letitia Wright) to Nakia’s dark brown, almost auburn locs as well as Okoye’s signature bald look. The hairstyles included in this movie are not an accident. Our hair is such an important part of us as Black women and the way we wear it is often a manifestation of our history and culture.
This is made evident by Camille Friend, the film’s lead hairstylist, who told Allure magazine the hairstyles were conscious choices that she made in order to depict certain aspects of the characters’ respective journeys. For example, Queen Ramonda and Shuri are both seen wearing longer styles (with the Queen having long, white locs and Shuri having hazel microbraids) in the first movie. In the sequel, however, their hair is noticeably shorter. This is used to represent the two of them going through a period of mourning after T’Challa’s passing. Nakia, on the other hand, has locs to symbolize her own personal evolution since her style is associated with her journey and self-discovery. The film uses depictions like these to do a brilliant job of highlighting the beauty of their nation and the people that work so hard to protect it.
Now, I couldn’t talk about this movie without mentioning one of my new favorite characters in the franchise: Ironheart. Dominique Thorne gives a comic book accurate portrayal of Riri Williams, a 19-year-old student at M.I.T. that becomes quite well known for her accomplishments in science and engineering. Riri’s age makes others skeptical about her skills, but she constantly proves herself to be a young prodigy who is just getting started. Her character is not only impressive but incredibly admirable and necessary for Black girls today to see that although they may not be able to use Vibranium, it is still very possible for them to excel in academic fields just like she does. She and Shuri are not put down or thought less of due to their intelligence. Instead, they are praised and often consulted for some of the biggest technology based projects in their respective countries. While the two of them make strides in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), others like Nakia and Okoye show their strength on the battlefield and act as assets to their countries in more ways than one. As it was mentioned previously, Okoye serves as the head general for the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s army that is composed entirely of women, and does her part to protect the citizens and royal family at all costs. She, the rest of the Dora, and Nakia prove that women can have a place on the frontlines and succeed in typically male-dominated fields just like the Shuri, Riri, and even the Queen do on a daily basis.
With “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” we are once again welcomed back into Wakanda and yet again, we are being shown that the women who reside there are influential to the way that the nation functions and continues to thrive.
As we delve into our current mainstream feminist movement, it is important that we begin to debunk these stereotypes and tropes that are often used specifically to harm women of color. It is safe to say that “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” with acknowledgment to its leading ladies, is a pivotal and significant step in the right direction.