Traditionally, even in a fantasy world, it’s a farfetched scenario to see dark-skinned black women with African features onscreen.
But with the “Black Panther” cast, I got it all.
Lupita Nyong’o is Kenyan and Mexican. Letitia Wright was born in Guyana, and Florence Kasumba hails from Uganda, though they both spent much of their childhood in Europe. Danai Gurira grew up in Zimbabwe, and I saw my own heritage in her. These are all dark-skinned black women with an undeniable variation of African features.
The film was so highly anticipated that, before seeing it, I worried it wouldn’t live up to its promise of black excellence for its female characters. I have grown tired of seeing sexed up sidekicks with little to no agency. Oftentimes, it feels like if a cast includes black women in a superhero film, they are pretty ornamental and only exist to give an illusion of inclusion — attempting to pacify black audiences.
But in interviews, these actresses assured us that women were part of the filmmaking process. After watching “Black Panther,” it was clear that director and co-writer Ryan Coogler saw this as a collaborative project. The entire film was a love letter to African cultures, black art and the strength of women.
I saw so much of myself in these fierce, brilliant characters, many of whom had their perfectly coiffed, kinky textured hair on full display. All the things that make my appearance distinctly African were celebrated in this movie.
Visually, these characters embodied a demeanor of strength through a carefully crafted aesthetic spearheaded by costume designer Ruth E. Carter. Carter studied fashions worn by the ancient indigenous people of Africa and modernized certain looks for the women of Wakanda. The costume design in “Black Panther” accepts and acknowledges the “black female form,” Carter told the Cut.
Hair versatility – led by Camille Friend – also added depth and detail to the film, which helped shape the personalities of the protagonists.
In “Black Panther,” we meet Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and Okoye (Danai Gurira). Both women are bald, with tribal tattoos on their heads. They are part of the Dora Milaje, an army of bodyguards meant to protect Wakanda and its king, T’Challa, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman).
Without saying much, Okoye’s presence exudes her indispensability. She is T’Challa’s chief general who he listens to and takes direction from. Okoye is intuitive, ready for action and alert. She is the driving force behind Wakanda.
Letitia Wright steals almost every scene she’s in as Shuri, T’Challa’s spunky little sister, whose hair is styled in fun micro braids. With a neverending curiosity and fearlessness, she is the backbone of Wakanda’s technological infrastructure. Shuri is someone we rarely see represented onscreen or in real life: Black women who work in tech.
Then there’s Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Nakia, who had flawlessly executed twist knots throughout much of the film. The audience first meets Nakia, a Wakandan spy, during a rescue mission that appears to pay homage to the missing girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. But this is fiction, of course: Rather than people losing interest in a campaign like “bring back our girls,” Nakia helps liberate the women in a brief yet tender scene. She is a philanthropist at heart. Nakia is also T’Challa’s love interest, but the importance of her role is independent of their relationship.
Ramonda, played by Angela Bassett, stood stoic throughout the film as the matriarch of the kingdom. Dressed in a 3D-printed African-inspired headdress to match her ornate costumes, she never wavered in remaining grounded, even in the most chaotic scenes involving the fate of her son, T’challa.
Yes, Wakanda is a fantasy world, but the emotions experienced while watching these strong women were very real.
“Even though Wakanda is made up, it is still a part of the continent from which our ancestors came, and it gives people a context with which to think of people of color in a positive way,” said Carter, the costume designer.
So often, blackness is reduced to a painful experience. In spite of what we collectively endure, “Black Panther” shows us how we can transform that pain into art and triumph. For centuries, we have been endlessly resilient and that is especially due to black women.
Toward the end of the film, all of the female characters make a decision to rally around Black Panther and Wakanda, despite a level of betrayal. In real life, black women shoulder movements, too, despite the disposable way in which society engages with us. “Black Panther” is a story of unwavering loyalty, regardless of the pain endured.