Black Women Are Black Panther’s Mightiest Heroes

Okoye (Danai Gurira), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Nakia
(Lupita Nyong’o), and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) in Black
Panther.Photo: Marvel

As more and more of the public flocks to theaters to catch a
Black Panther screening, much of the conversation’s
been dedicated to comparing and contrasting T’Challa and
Killmonger’s opposing views on the role Wakanda should be
playing—and should have played—outside of its borders. But the
reality is that Black Panther’s female characters are
engaged in a much more nuanced, and ultimately more
interesting, dialogue about the film’s ideas.

Though he’s the film’s titular hero, T’Challa is, in a lot of
ways, kind of a cipher for the audience throughout most of the
film. We’re introduced to Wakanda through his eyes at a point
in his life where he’s unsure of exactly who he is, both as a
hero and as a king; these are pieces of his identity that he
looks to the women closest to him to help him work through and
understand. In that very first scene where we meet Nakia
(Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s quite literally gone out of his
way to interrupt her mission abroad specifically because he
needs her support in the wake of his father’s recent death and
his impending coronation.

While Nakia and T’Challa’s romantic past undoubtedly factors
into why he seeks her out, it’s important to read somewhat
deeper into T’Challa’s impulse to immediately reach out to
Nakia, given her ideas about what role Wakanda plays in the
world in the wake of T’Chaka’s death.

Unlike Killmonger, who comes to argue in favor of a radical,
expansionist Wakanda that subjugates the rest of the world for
its own good and as a kind of payback for centuries of black
disenfranchisement, Nakia champions a more complicated and
humanitarian sort of diplomacy. It’s telling that Nakia is the
person we see T’Challa conferring with at such a pivotal moment
in Wakanda’s political history, because by the end of the film,
it’s her perspective that T’Challa chooses to see
things from.

Again, because T’Challa is something of a cipher, he doesn’t
exactly spend much of the film trying to argue against Nakia.
Rather, he listens to what she has to say, takes her words to
heart, and asks that she stay close to him as they embark on
Black Panther’s larger epic adventures around the
globe. Here, it’s T’Challa’s respect for Nakia (and all of the
women around him) that makes him strong and introduces us to
the chorus of powerful voices that do, in their way, clash with

The ideological gap between Nakia and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the
general of the royal bodyguard/special forces unit the Dora
Milaje, is without a doubt the source of Black
’s most narratively-fascinating and
well-thought-out debate. In them, we see the merits of both
sides of the argument about whether Wakanda should reveal
itself to the world. Nakia, who spends time out in the larger
world because of her duties as a Wakandan spy, intimately
understands the potential her nation has to become a
transformative agent of empowerment and liberation for
countries in need. Okoye (and to a lesser extent Queen Mother
Ramonda, played by Angela Bassett) is the staunchest of
traditionalists whose beliefs represent the reality that
Wakanda’s might is the direct result of their isolationism.
Where Killmonger sees Wakanda as having committed an
unforgivable sin by closing itself off from the world, Okoye
understands the fundamental necessity of the country’s secrecy.

Though it’s easy to argue that Wakanda could and should have
intervened in the world’s affairs long before the events of
Black Panther, the difficult truth of the matter is
that Wakanda was not always and perhaps still isn’t entirely
invulnerable. There’s no way of knowing at which point in
history Wakanda leapfrogged the rest of the world in terms of
technology, or when it could have safely revealed itself and
potentially gone to war with other nations. The ancient
vibranium pickaxe Klaue and Killmonger steal from the fictional
British museum is invaluable, but it’s a snapshot of
where Wakanda was at the time. The weapon was undoubtedly
formidable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Wakanda was
in a position to wage open war with the world with any hope of
emerging as the victor. In shrouding itself in secrecy, Wakanda
was able to become the formidable force we know it to be, and
Okoye keenly understands that. That doesn’t
necessarily mean that that stance is the morally right
one—and we see Okoye coming to grips with the difficulty of
that truth when she’s torn by her compulsion to remain loyal to
the throne after Killmonger takes it.

The scene toward the end of the film when Okoye and Nakia voice
their ideological differences is self-contained, but it’s also
an encapsulation of the debates that T’Challa has been
subtextually party to throughout the entire film. Their
discourse is the foundation upon which T’Challa—and by
extension, the rest of Wakanda—builds his new ideology. What’s
most profound about the split between the two women is
that the film goes out of its way to make sure the audience
understands that neither of them is really in the wrong and
that their parting of ways ends up being the right decision.
Were it not for Nakia, Ramonda, T’Challa’s sister Shuri
(Letitia Wright), and CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman), T’Challa
would without a doubt have been murdered. But Okoye staying
close to the throne with the other Dora Milaje ends up putting
her in the perfect position to rally her troops to rise up
against Killmonger in Black Panther’s climactic

Black Panther wants us to listen to its women both
because it’s the right thing to do and because that’s part of
the egalitarian political society that it depicts
Wakanda as being. A number of the other tribes that make up
Wakanda’s ruling elites are shown as being led by women, and
Nakia herself is the appointed champion of the River Tribe who,
should they choose to do so, would challenge T’Challa in ritual
combat for the throne. T’Challa has faith in Nakia because of
his personal relationship with her (and because she’s right),
but no matter what, Wakanda’s culture still would have elevated
her as a rightful potential claimant to the throne because
she’s the woman for the job.

Even outside of Wakanda’s politics or Black Panther’s
message about Wakanda’s responsibilities, the women in the film
are the force that propels the story forward. Shuri is the not
only the scene-stealer of the film, but she’s also the driving
force behind Wakanda’s most recent technological innovations.
These end up not only saving her brother’s life, directly and
indirectly, on multiple occasions, but also all of Wakanda;
without her, T’Challa (and Ross) would be dead, Killmonger
would rule Wakanda, and the entire world would be engulfed in
vibranium-powered conflict. Meanwhile, the warriors of Okoye’s
Dora Milaje are the primary force that keeps Wakanda from
collapsing entirely.

Put simply, it’s the voices of Black Panther’s women
that ultimately make the movie so dynamic and help the movie
lay a larger groundwork for future additions to the Marvel
Cinematic Universe. Wakanda is the future—and the future is

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