Finally! Black Panther has hit theaters in all of its glory. In case you haven’t heard, the movie is everything that we hoped it would be, and then some. It’s become something of a nationwide event for Black folks, and my timeline has been flooded with friends decked out in head to toe tribal print, all black outfits, or bold statement tees to go see the film. I seriously haven’t seen this many people dress up for a movie since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 was released. What’s clear is that Black people have been anxious to see ourselves in Hollywood on such a major stage, and the proof is in the painted faces and berets. That Black Panther is such an excellent example of Black representation is only overshadowed by how it takes a fresh dive into themes that speak directly to the Black experience.
And Black Panther delivers on this promise in ways I didn’t expect. Anticipating a bold statement against white supremacy, I was surprised to find the movie to be a cautionary calling out of Black elitism and respectability. And while T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the Black Panther, is obviously the protagonist of the film, moviegoers looking forward to a narrative that centers Black men and masculinity as the only eligible leaders of Black communities are also in for a rude awakening. Instead, it is a visual lesson in how Black men can and should lean into the power and aptitude of their female peers. In scene after scene of Black Panther, the message is clear: trust Black women.
Early reviews of Black Panther have done well to point out the role its main female characters, all of them Black, play in carrying the film. Refinery29's Anne Cohen found the movie to be a call-out of a sexist film industry. “Black Panther is basically the poster child for intersectionality, a public shaming of a Hollywood industry that has long defended its male-centric projects by claiming that audiences could only handle rooting for one group, and then only in one movie, at a time. There are no token female sidekicks here.” And Arianna Davis profiled its breakout star, Letitia Wright, who plays Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister and Wakanda's lead engineer who spends her time on technological innovations that keep her country thriving and her brother alive. Despite no shortage of big, muscular men, T’Challa and the rest of the royal court are protected by a queensguard who literally glow with their heads shaved bald. To put it simply, neither Black Panther nor Wakanda would exist in their current glory without Black women.
It’s a reflection of what the rest of the country already knows about Black women. According to the 2017 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, between 1997 and 2017 the number of businesses owned by Black women grew 605%. In the 2016 presidential election, 94% of Black female voters cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton, using their voting power to take strong stance against Donald Trump, the candidate that ran on a platform of bigotry that impacts all people of color. We watched this play out on a smaller scale in Alabama when they helped Democrat Doug Jones win the senate seat. Black women typically make less than Black men despite more of us receiving college degrees.
However, sexism within our communities still equates Black achievement and liberation with male superiority. From the need for Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech in 1851 to the sexism within the Civil Rights movement and beyond, Black men have proudly stood as the face of both Black struggle and resistance. Activist Angela Davis has spoken openly about the chauvinism she experienced with the Black Panther Party as she advocated for Black liberation. And in recent years, #SayHerName has existed as separate entity to acknowledge the women impacted by anti-Black violence as male victims dominated news cycles and Black Lives Matter conversations.
Despite this, the idea that Black women could possibly be guiding forces for their own people has been surrounded by stigma. In 1965 (when white women were just beginning to address the issues plaguing their households like domestic violence, workplace inequality, etc.), Daniel Lee Moynihan penned The Negro Family: The Case For National Action, also known as The Moynihan Report. In it, he blamed Black female-headed homes for the high rates of crime and poverty among African-Americans. He insisted that the emasculation of Black men and lower marriage rates could be traced backed to slavery, while altogether ignoring the systemic racism that still exists as a result of said institution. Despite the fact that many sociologists have countered and denounced Moynihan’s report, its influence and ideological frameworks have helped fuel generations of Black folks who think that an alignment with patriarchal family values — and a call for Black women to let Black men lead — is the only way to achieve the American dream. The result has been a celebration of a specific type of Black masculinity that is celebrated and encouraged (by both men and women) despite its toxicity and danger to Black men.
And this is not the version of Black masculinity you will find in Wakanda. In no way does Black Panther downplay the role that Black men play in Black communities. T’Challa is faced with impossible decisions that test his own morality in addition to his fealty to Wakanda and Black people everywhere. It is male warriors from an isolated Wakandan tribe that act as reinforcements at a vital moment in the story. But the film actively rejects the notion that the participation/existence of Black men in the “good fight” negates the vital necessity of Black women. Similarly, the route towards realizing our maximum potential and freedom in the real world does not require a toll of reverting back towards romanticized ideas about Black male supremacy. In this fight, Black women are the equals of Black men and should be treated as such.
One of the most powerful scenes of Black Panther illustrates this. It happens when the tension over what’s right for Wakanda has escalated into all out civil war, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the queensguard, faces off with her lover W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) mid-battle. Staring down the point of her superpowered spear with a boyish smile, he asks, “Would you kill me, my love?” It’s a question that conjures a conundrum that Black women have been forced to inherit: to abandon what is right for ourselves, our children, and our communities or act out an undying loyalty to Black men for the sake of upholding their place as patriarchs? Okoye’s answer, “For Wakanda? No question,” is the call to rethink our centering of masculinity, not just for Black women, but for all of us. Aware of both her honorable allegiance to her country, and her ability to actually end him, W’Kabi drops his own weapon and kneels before her. At that moment, he trusts her leadership more than his own. It’s a role-reversal we need to normalize.
For better or for worse, Black Panther knows not only what to say, but who among us needs to hear it the most.