'Black Panther': Why Not Queen Shuri? (Guest Column)

Penn professor Salamishah Tillet writes, "the gender equality of Wakanda feels both utopian and urgent" in the era of #MeToo.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

In 1998, I made a monthly sojourn to a comic book store in downtown Philadelphia. Unlike most people in the shop, I was neither an avid collector nor a comic book nerd, but simply a young woman who longed for the healing power of superheroes. Fending off depression, my 22-year-old self was even more desperate to find one that looked like me.  

Each month, the young, African-American man who worked there would show me the latest gear, such as action figures, posters or pins that were selling. And unlike Wonder Woman (I bought the book bag) or even an African-American male character, like Green Lantern (I bought the T-shirt), he knew he couldn’t promise me paraphernalia featuring the one superhero that I wanted to wear. Storm, the lone black member of X-Men. Despite her being one of the most powerful figures in all of the Marvel universe, Storm existed only in the comic books or, at the time, on the television cartoon. My quest to blazen the face of a black woman superhero fizzled early, that is, until now.

Already an instant classic, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is a magisterial movie that achieves the rare feat of being both high-tech and historically grounded. Through a sleight of hand as cunning as Wakanda’s own secret technological and financial wealth itself, Coogler brilliantly wraps up his deft commentary on slavery, colonization, revolution and racial freedom in the genre of a comic book movie. Less attention, however, has been paid to how progressive its gender politics are.

Black Panther does not only imagine a world in which black people live free of racism, but as importantly, thrive in a society void of sexism, too. Unlike Wonder Woman’s Amazon warrior-led hidden island of Themyscira, both the girls and boys of Wakanda grow up with this egalitarian gender ethos, making this Marvel’s most feminist movie yet.  

Coogler’s previous work offered some compelling female characters, but nothing like the radical gender statement he makes in Black Panther. In his indie debut, Fruitvale Station, about the 2009 murder of the 22-year-old Oscar Grant III by a BART police officer, Grant’s mother, girlfriend and daughter are sympathetic and complicated, yet they are the surrounding characters, female catalysts for Grant’s own maturation and metamorphosis, a journey made even more tragic because it is never realized due to his wrongful death.

In Coogler’s follow-up blockbuster Creed, Bianca (Tessa Thompson who also played Valkyrie in Marvel’s Thor: Ragnok) is a hearing-aid-wearing, aspiring musician who is the neighbor of and main love interest for Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan). Bianca is both fierce protective and fearlessly independent; and though their romance is one of equals, the movie is ultimately about flawed fathers and forgotten sons in which Adonis follows the pugilistic footsteps of his father, Apollo, by befriending Rocky Balboa.     

In Black Panther, Coogler and his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, offer up a wider range of black female characters; women differentiated by age, body type, skin color, skill set, and political ideologies. Not only does the movie surpass the Bechdel test, but those scenes in which two or more women are talking to, disagreeing with, or fighting alongside each other without a man present are some of the movie’s most riveting ones.

The movie ponders and plays with the intersections of race and gender equality by providing one of the most nuanced and multilayered representation of black women in all of the Marvel universe. The main black female characters are sisters, sidekicks, soldiers and even most impressively, have such ingenuity, moral clarity and physical prowess that they really are the only true rivals to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the King of Wakanda’s leadership.

The most obvious contenders are the Dora Milaje, the women warriors who loyally protect Wakanda’s leader. In the movie, Okoye (Danai Gurira) is not simply a highly skilled soldier, but is called “The General,” who as the head of the Dora Milaje is the main military strategist for the wealthiest country on Earth. Nakia (Lupita N'yong'o) is as sophisticated a fighter, but also functions as the love interest for T’Challa and a political visionary for Wakanda. As Jonathan Gray writes in The New Republic, “As it is, Nakia’s approach recalls the new generation of female activists rising in Africa, like the Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who has promoted the cultivation of soft power to diffuse war.“ In this way, the film moves us beyond the standard tropes and binary of black male political leadership–Uncle Tom/Nat Turner or Martin Luther King, Jr. /Malcolm X–to a third space that is more communal and closer to the grassroots organizing that has upheld the most successful social justice movements.

Coogler makes an even more explicit critique of the sexual and economic oppression that women face in the real world when he introduces Nakia in disguise as a female victim of a Boko Haram-type group in Nigeria. Though Nakia’s cover is blown by T’Challa and Okoye, we imagine that Nakia is there not only to rescue these kidnapped women and children, but also we imagine she is there to overthrow the entire military group itself.

By doing so, she shows a willingness to violate the Wakandan Prime Directive, a policy that prevents Wakanda citizens from sharing her country’s advanced technologies with and intervening ino the politics of other nations. Nakia, on the other hand, embodies a global black feminism in which she both recognizes and resists the ways in which European colonialism and contemporary American foreign policy harm Africa's development. She assumes that her fate is not simply tied to those who live under the veil of Wakanda’s vast wealth but also tethered to those who live throughout the continent and the African Diaspora. Though she, as a Dora Milaje, practices armed self-defense, it is her desire to share peacefully rather than withhold the technological innovations and political freedoms of Wakanda with others that initially puts her at odds with T’Challa and makes her a viable alternative to the violent rhetoric of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).

One especially striking scene occurs when Nakia and Okoye chase the villain Ulysses Klaue on the streets of South Korea in order to retrieve stolen vibranium, Wakanda’s unique mineral with energy-manipulating qualities. Without hesitation, they, in haute couture dresses and stiletto heels run out of the Seoul nightclub without T’Challa. “He’ll catch up,” a defiant Nakia says, providing a glimpse into another theme running throughout the movie: it is clear that T’Challa as King and Black Panther cannot live without these women; however, we are left wondering why they are not in charge in the first place.   

Though Coogler builds on the Black Panther comic book series, he cannot entirely rewrite it. Wakanda, from all appearances, is a patrilineal monarchy and T’Challa inherits the throne when his father, T’Chaka, dies in an explosion at the Vienna International Centre. The only way to challenge this tradition is during the royal succession ceremony in which a leader from one of Wakanda's five ethnic groups is given the opportunity to object, and then duel T’Chaka. The movie’s main adversaries are men, first from M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a neighboring group, and then the outsider and T’Challa’s prodigal cousin, Killmonger.

But during the ceremony, Coogler hints at an alternative succession: when T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), appears to begin to question T’Challa’s claim. And after her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), looks at her with annoyance and T’Challa with a mix incredulity and fear, she reveals her true intention: she was kidding and begs everyone else to quicken this inevitable march toward his kingship.

“But, why not a queen?” the movie seems to ask. Shuri is not only the smartest person on the planet (surpassing even the debonair Tony Stark), but she, as we later learn, is also a superior fighter. Taken together, Shuri is sui generis in Hollywood: a young black woman who is revered for her genius, wit, killer smile and military guile.

In an interview with Vulture, Reginald Hudlin, the writer-director of the Black Panther comic book series from 2005 to 2009, said he first created Shuri because, “it just seemed for me that, again, when you’re royalty, you’re not just gonna have one kid. You gotta have an heir and a spare, right?” He went on, “I wanted girls who read the book to feel as empowered as boys. So, I wanted her to be smart and tough and brave and everything you think of as a Black Panther, so that eventually she would be a Black Panther as well.”  

Coogler expands Hudlin’s vision by giving us a Shuri who grows up without being limited by white supremacy and the male gaze. Not circumscribed by the shadow of slavery and colonialism, we are able to witness Shuri come of age — alongside boys and surrounded by men — with the utmost sense of safety, visibility and autonomy. And in this era of #MeToo, as women — ranging from Hollywood actresses to hotel workers all over the country — demand equal pay, equal protection and workplaces, classrooms, and homes free of sexual violence and harassment, the gender equality of Wakanda feels both utopian and urgent.

Though Black Panther hints at her future reign in Wakanda (for whom else is that third vibranium suit back in her lab?), Shuri represents something far more valuable than a comic book movie franchise. She is fully free, and thereby occupies a political status that most black girls and young women, here in the United States and throughout the world, have rarely seen on the big screen, much less ever had in the real world.

Salamishah Tillet is the Robert S. Blank Presidential Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to empower young people and end violence against girls and women.