Ella Alalade celebrates the brilliant depictions of black women in Black Panther.
Black women have finally been truly represented in a comic book film.
Director Ryan Coogler has cast his characters well.This is the image Black Panther offers of the black woman: bold, beautiful, and not over-sexualised. Dark-skin women have been represented better than ever before.
Black Panther, as its own film, is revolutionary. Although the revolution revolves around the first main black superhero, there is also a freshness in the fact that black women are represented as their own people, not defined by men. The women characters – leaders of the Dora Milaje, relatives of the king, and individual warriors – establish an attractive sense of authority. Wakanda is where their loyalty truly lies – not with men.
This portrayal does not seek to bash men. It raises awareness of how black women are often written senselessly and tastelessly in the media. The film’s main character, T’Challa, heir to the Wakandan throne, believes in and displays the utmost respect for the women in his life. Black Panther reminds us that black women do not only exist to serve men, but to be the people that they want to be.
The Dora Milaje are the epitome of how black women are represented in Black Panther. They are an all-female team of warriors who defend the throne – personal bodyguards to the king – and are more skilled than any other Wakandan warriors. The badass warrior Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, is one of the standout characters: she won’t be messed with by anyone and represents a black woman at the top of her field. The audience will likely perceive her as a warrior queen, even though she’s technically a general. She states that she is loyal to Wakanda only, no matter who the king is. Her relationships do not define her.
Coogler took the opportunity to cast mostly dark-skin women as the Dora Milaje. Their clean-shaven heads are symbolic of their independence – they send the message that a woman’s beauty should not be defined by her hair, or by conventional Eurocentric beauty standards.
Representations of black women are not limited to characters like Okoye. T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, is meant to be the smartest character in the Marvel comics, and that translates to the film. She is not only a princess but also a teen genius, who shares a special relationship with her brother. Her one-liners are hilarious, and her intelligence shines through as she guides Wakandan technology in its use of vibranium. The British actress Letitia Wright brought her to life brilliantly. Shuri is a true inspiration for women who want to reach the top of their field, but also maintain healthy relationships in their life.
The other main female characters, Queen Ramonda and Nakia, are strong and beautiful black women who do not waste time when it comes to solving problems. They do not rely on men, and the men do not expect them to. Like the other characters, they are strong in their own right, but still love T’Challa deeply.
The women in Black Panther show that it’s time for the media to portray black women in a more positive and varied light. Representations of black women need to follow Black Panther’s lead: to challenge the colourist issue of ignoring dark-skin black women, to give black actresses leading roles in superhero films, and, ultimately, to show that the media is disingenuous in only offering a single image of black women.
Illustration for Ruby Rowan Gleeson.