Me and ‘Black Panther’: part 4 — the women

2019/02/12

The moment I knew I was going to probably love this film came in the third minute.

Fearing a raid from authorities, as the Oakland 1992 duo plan what we think is a heist or somesuch, N’Jobu and James check a knock at the door.

James: It’s … these two Grace Jones-lookin’ chicks. They’re holding spears.
N’Jobu: Open it.
James: You serious?
N’Jobu: They won’t knock again.

dora in 92

Right then, you know those women more than just mean business: They ARE the business.

The women characters in this movie were so inspiring, similar to the Amazons of “Wonder Woman.” But a criticism of the 2017 super heroine film was that Robin Wright’s character of Antiope should have been Phillipus, who is the lead general of Themyscira in the comics. Phillipus is a black woman. My friend Sherin of Geek Girl Riot (https://idobi.com/show/geek-girl-riot/) rightly says Philipus (and other people of color) were effectively erased and shoved to the background as usual to give white women their shine.

There’s no erasure here in “Black Panther.” Every single heroine in this film is full of agency. There’s not one damsel in distress (save one for about 10 seconds of screen time, and that’s only because she’s going toe-to-toe with the movie’s villain in the final act).

Take the film’s opening action sequence. On its surface, it looks like T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is embarking on a rescue mission to save Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from some Boko Haram-esque militants in Nigeria — the classic hero saving the damsel in distress. And that’s how it goes for the next minute or so, until:

  1. Nakia appears to rescue herself.
  2. And then she rescues one of the militants, merely a child soldier with a gun forced in his hands, from T’Challa’s attack.
  3. And then T’Challa freezes.
  4. And then both he and she get bailed out of a jam by another Wakandan woman, General Okoye (Danai Gurira).
  5. And then Nakia complains to T’Challa about him ruining her mission.

She was never in distress.

The kicker, though? It doesn’t come until deep in this first act.

Ostensibly, T’Challa has retrieved Nakia (and ruined her mission) so she can witness his coronation. They are old friends/lovers and it seems he just wants to celebrate with her. But the truth is that part of the Wakanda coronation is Challenge Day, when any of the five tribes of Wakanda can choose a champion and wrest the throne by ritual combat.

Nakia is the chosen champion of her tribe.

So T’Challa hasn’t just sought her out for selfish reasons; he’s done so knowing that she might have a chance at becoming the Black Panther. Far from a damsel in distress; she’s a rival warrior*.

(And a lover. And a friend. And a spy. A patriot. A confidant. An agent of change. One rarely sees fully realized female characters like this in the superhero/action genre.)

Here’s the other great thing about Black Panther, both the film and its titular hero. T’Challa is willing to risk a battle with Nakia to have her by his side — not for anything as basic as he likes the way she looks (although let’s face it, Lupita Nyong’o is pretty much the most beautiful woman in the world. FIGHT ME). Rather, he needs her perspective on the world. He values her wisdom. And we see him (and the film) greatly value the strength of the women around him.

* A cynical viewer might say T’Challa was simply trying to stack the odds in his favor in case he had to fight her in the duel. But in the film’s closing act, Nakia alone is able to disarm Killmonger in solo combat, something even five Dora Milaje working together couldn’t quite accomplish. “I’m not a Dora,” Nakia protests in an earlier scene. But that’s clearly because it’s not what she wants, not because she’s unqualified.

Okoye. Shuri. Ramonda. I could deconstruct these heroines’ roles as I did Nakia’s, showing how this film respects each in her own power, and share multiple favorite moments involving each. I could talk about just their HAIR as power. But that would double the length of this post, easily.

(And you know what? This is my blog and no one’s giving me a word count but me. So LET’S GO)

RAMONDA

Ramonda

So, first of all, I love Angela Bassett and have ever since her small part in 1991’s “Boyz N the Hood.” And here again, she does SO MUCH with another relatively small part. Like the queen mother she plays — and actually is in real life, let’s be honest  — she manages to low key rule every scene she’s in.

Like, the first moment she speaks in this film, I was at first amused by Bassett using this accent we’re not used to hearing from her. But within seconds, I stop seeing and hearing Bassett and she’s become the Queen Mother Ramonda.

Key queen moments/quotes:

“…Shuri!” — Ramonda to Shuri as the girl delivers a rude gesture

She doesn’t even have to turn and look to know her youngest child (who’s flipping off her brother) needs a scolding. And all it takes is this one word to correct her. QUEEN. MOTHER.

“Show him who you are!” — Ramonda to T’Challa as her son duels M’Baku

This exhortation to T’Challa during his first challenge absolutely gave me [strongexpletiveforemphasis] CHILLS and THUG TEARS the first time I heard it. Not only is it representative of a woman’s ability to call a man into his potential, it is also, as it happens, another core line to one of the movie’s themes — identity (and T’Challa’s character arc. We’ll delve into that in Part 7).

And of course, she is absolutely instrumental in bringing T’Challa from the brink. It’s she who opens the appeal to M’Baku and who closes the deal with her knowledge of the Panther ritual.

  

Shuri

Somewhat the opposite is teenage SHURI (Letitia Wright), who gets some shade thrown at her during M’Baku’s challenge as he derides her as “a child who scoffs at tradition.”

It’s a bit unfair to single her out (and in truth, M’Baku is calling out the rest of the tribes), but Shuri at this point is indeed still childish. Look at her rude gesture to T’Challa. Her silly corset quip (that even makes an actual child embarrassed). Her giddy excitement at joining in her brother’s adventures, even (especially) remotely. She’s constantly talking back to everyone except her mother (QUEEN!) and scary M’Baku.

But there’s also a wisdom to her well beyond her years. She’s speaking one of the film’s core messages when she tells her brother, “How many times do I have to teach you? Just because something works, doesn’t mean it cannot be improved.” And of course, there’s the fact that she’s an wunderkind inventor whose genius outstrips even T’Challa’s (a shift from the comics, where she is the one playing catch-up).

In the final act, Shuri is instrumental in bringing the fight to Killmonger, first tactically, then up close and personally. The girl who was once cowed at M’Baku shouting at her now stares death in the eye, defiant and unbowed.

And we can’t leave out the ones who impressed me in the first place, the DORA MILAJE.

dora milaje

Their body language and discipline alone speak to their power. Note, for instance, that during the Warrior Falls duel, the slim Dora are matched against the burly Jabari guards, and no one bats an eye.

And consider this: a mere score or so of Dora, along with the Black Panther, are enough to battle almost to a stalemate a far greater force of Border Tribe warriors during the climactic Great Mound battle.

Of course, if one mentions the Dora, you gotta talk about their general: OKOYE (Danai Gurira).

okoye on car

Oh, Okoye. So many of my favorite moments in the film are her moments. Here are just five of them.

1. “Hmm.” — Okoye

In their first scene, T’Challa has just told Okoye that he won’t need her help. It’s not her line here but her facial expression that is perfection — it’s a mix of surprise, pride in her prince but also skepticism because SHE KNOWS HIM. She immediately goes to the literal heart of the matter when she exhorts him not to freeze in Nakia’s presence.

In just this exchange, we learn so much about Okoye.

  • She is completely confident in her abilities and her role.
  • She is highly respectful but unafraid to speak up when she thinks a friend might be about to mess up.
  • And she is very wise and perceptive.
  • But she does not have a great poker face at all.

 

2. “[I want to] get this ridiculous thing off my head. … It’s a disgrace.” — Okoye, on wearing a wig

Now, it’s a treacherous thing to talk about black women’s hair, but I said I was gonna talk about hair and this my blog so I’m gonna do it.

One of the grand things about “Black Panther” as a project was that the usual hot combs, presses and other hair-straightening processes that many black women use in Western culture were completely banned from the set. Because these are never-colonized Africans, there would be no pressure, social or otherwise, to attempt to emulate the straight hair of Europeans.

Consequently, for the story, it becomes necessary for Okoye, whose head is shaved bald (and tattooed, showing it’s her longtime hairstyle), to blend in better at a South Korean underground casino by wearing a straightened-hair wig — the aforementioned “ridiculous thing.” Nakia says the wig looks nice on Okoye and it does. But Nakia also tosses in a sarcastic quip about the general whipping her new hair “back and forth,” a universal beauty gesture in other cultures that is difficult at best to achieve with short African hair.

I love, love, LOVE what the film is doing here in this scene. It’s subverting the usual makeover tropes and symbols of beauty imposed on us Africans by the Western world and calling them WHAT THEY ARE: ridiculous and disgraceful. And so when Okoye later flings the wig off into an opponent’s face, black women cheered the move worldwide as a blow struck for them.

 

3. “Can we please focus? …Thank you.” — Okoye, to T’Challa and Nakia

Also during the S. Korea scene, over hidden mic, the general attempts to keep the new king and his beautiful spy on task instead of flirting with each other. It’s really low-key flirting, but Gurira’s delivery of the lines telling them to cut it out never, ever fails to put a smile on my face. She’s all business and discipline.

And yet it’s Okoye who winds up blowing the team’s cover, as her frustration with the slightly loose-cannon Nakia boils over. She’s not perfect — there’s that lack of poker face again — and one of the movie’s best action set pieces ensues.

 

4. That lack of perfection shows up during the following car chase, when the general seemingly recklessly climbs onto the roof of her car (ostensibly exposing herself to gunfire, but seeing as she’s JUST said that guns are “so primitive,” she clearly has some Wakandan tech that makes her have zero fear of it), and takes out the nearest vehicle with one of her vibranium spears.

And then she has this absolutely feral smile, the grin of the lioness pursuing a slow antelope, in probably my favorite shot of the whole film.

Might there have been a better way to handle their foes? Sure. But would it have been as fun for either Okoye or for us watching? Doubt it.

 

5. “For Wakanda? Without question!” — Okoye, on whether she’d kill a dude.

She speaks the above line to her beloved husband, W’Kabi, during the film’s closing conflict, after he’s asked if she would battle him to the death. To W’Kabi’s credit, he looks about and realizes that his is a losing cause and that this is not the future for Wakanda he wanted.

More importantly, he is belatedly asking the question Queen Mother Ramonda posed during the film’s bleak middle: “What has happened to our Wakanda?”

He might’ve saved himself and the nation some trouble by listening to the women instead of his own rage.

For in these women and the royal guard, the Dora Milaje, we see how the strength of Wakanda and the Black Panther is bound up in the black woman. And so it is with us in the real world.

They are like Nakia, the stubborn, independent queens speaking truth to power, urging us to do it better.

They are, like Ramonda, our elder advisors, reminding us who we are and urging us not to walk into traps.

They are like Shuri, our genius youth, teaching us anything can be improved.

They are like Okoye and the Dora Milaje, our fellow warriors and often our generals in the struggle.

They are the servants and saviors of our nation.

And so I quote: “PHAMBILI!” (Onward!)

———

The rest of the series:

Intro — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/01/22/me-and-black-panther-part-1-intro/

PART 2: Wakanda — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/01/29/me-and-black-panther-part-2-wakanda/

PART 3: Blackest Film Ever? — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/05/me-and-black-panther-part-3-blackest-film-ever/

PART 5: Killmonger — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/16/me-and-black-panther-part-5-killmonger/

PART 6: The Score — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/19/me-and-black-panther-part-6-the-musical-score/

PART 7: Yes, this is a king of a picture — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/23/me-and-black-panther-part-7-black-panther-is-the-best-picture/

And an epilogue: My Oscar Screening Party 2019 — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/24/personal-oscar-screening-party-2019/

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