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Viewing “Black Panther” through a “Black women” lens

Wmc Features Black Panther Okoye 022618
General Okoye (Danai Gurira), one of Wakanda's greatest warriors

Perhaps the most interesting aftershock of Black Panther, Marvel’s latest superhero film, directed by Ryan Coogler, is the renewed interest in the field of ophthalmology. If social media is any indication, everyone has an opinion about the “right” set of lenses necessary for understanding this film. The most fun-loving (it seems unfair to call them anti-intellectuals just because they want to enjoy this film) prescribe a set of lenses called “take several seats.” They want their patients to enjoy the film, resist the urge to overanalyze, and let beauty be beautiful without all the extra talk. My world-weary friends prescribe graphic realism — those special lenses that train your eyes on the grim realities of real Africans in the Diaspora — the ones the movie’s villain, Erik Killmonger, blames Wakanda for forgetting. Comic book enthusiasts answer Killmonger loyalists with their own prescription: historic Marvel lenses. If we just knew the real story, they say, we’d divorce Wakanda from our own reality and let it live in Superheroic naïveté. A subset of comic book enthusiasts prescribe X-ray glasses, asking us to look through Coogler’s Wakanda to the queer relationships that could have been, should have been, portrayed. I’ve worn this prescription before, looking through Hollywood to imagine a world that more accurately reflects my own. This time around, my go-to glasses, the Black women pair, failed me. For over two hours, I watched a film full of gorgeous, brown-skinned women and didn’t see a Black woman anywhere in Wakanda. 

On the same Friday that Black Panther brought in over $29 million in box-office sales, a Maryland jury awarded over $37 million in damages in a civil lawsuit against the Baltimore County police department brought by the family of Korryn Gaines. The jury determined that Cpl. Royce Ruby violated Gaines’ civil rights by killing her and shooting her son in August 2016. Before that day, Gaines had been arrested and detained multiple times for minor traffic violations. Throughout her months-long ordeal with Baltimore County, Gaines publicly accused the police department of violating her rights. In an Instagram post following her two-day detainment, Gaines wrote, “I needed to get this out because no one reported me missing and no one seemed to know that i was kidnapped ... i could've died in a jail cell just like Sandra Bland nd the rest nd my own ppl wasnt gonna speak up about it. So here i am. This is real life.”

Wakanda is not real life, and perhaps that’s the magic of this movie. The women of Wakanda have no reason to know Korryn Gaines, Sandra Bland, or any of the Black women harmed by law enforcement across the Atlantic Ocean. Their nation is hidden from would-be colonizers by a vibranium shield. This may be the reason I didn’t recognize any of the women as representative of the brand of Black womanhood I associate with Gaines and Bland — a Black womanhood always already poised to defend itself, its family, and its community from its country. Wakanda bends reality by imagining African women who will sacrifice themselves and their personal relationships for their country.

Ryan Coogler’s Wakanda is anomalous in its representation of an Africana womanhood (a name for women of African descent coined by Africana womanists) impervious to European colonization. King T’Challa’s little sister, Shuri, calls a wounded CIA agent “Colonizer” as a tongue-in-cheek joke. Then she commences to share that vibranium, the most powerful element in the Marvel universe, is the secret to Wakanda’s wealth and technology. After my initial viewing, I thought Shuri’s blossoming friendship with an agent of the CIA incredibly naive and borderline ridiculous, especially because of the film’s title. Documentarian Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is clear about the collateral damage from the collusion between the CIA, FBI, and local law enforcement to eradicate the party. In Nelson’s documentary, survivors of police ambushes still shudder when narrating the trauma of being hit by this nation’s long arm of justice. I couldn’t see any non-Wakandan with deep brown skin trusting an agent of the CIA with secrets about power. Given America’s history of foreign relations, it seemed dangerous to reveal such information to an agent of a government that brutally settled the landmass now called North America.

Friendship with the CIA agent isn’t the only difference between Wakandan women and Black women I know. Shuri, her mother Ramonda, and Nakia all flee their community when Eric Killmonger challenges and (fairly, if not popularly) wins King T’Challa’s throne. None of the Black women I know had any place to run when both the 43rd and 45th presidents rose to power after losing the popular vote. Wakanda is replete with options Black women don’t have. 

Yet another difference is the women characters’ ideology concerning romantic love. General Okoye, one of King T’Challa’s guards, threatens her lover, W’kabi, when his alliance to Killmonger threatens Wakanda. She tells him she will kill for Wakanda. In my reality, Black love is imagined as a shield from the country’s brutal forms of alienation. Angela Davis, Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, Ramona Africa, and others found in their romantic relationships momentary respite from American racism — the serpent’s sting. There is no such serpent in Wakanda. General Okoye aims her spear at W’kabi precisely because Wakanda, her greatest love, loves her back. I cannot imagine a similar patriotism on these shores. While Black womanhood cannot be reduced to ill-fated romance with an abusive country, neither can it be reduced to skin. 

A Facebook friend and comic book enthusiast pushes me past complexion and into the magic of Wakanda. Through the lens he prescribes, I see beneath my favorite characters’ familiar flesh tones and into their very souls, which are not the souls of Black folk. Wakandan souls know safety, abundance, and peace. Wakandan souls do not know the terror of separation, isolation, or harms too manifold to name. They do not intimately know the pain of seeing children sold away, hanging from trees, or replaced by hashtags. They have never aimed small vibranium weapons at police officers with bigger guns who threatened to kick down their doors for traffic violations.

Perhaps the most stable link between the women of Wakanda and Black women of America is freedom. Wakanda is an imagination of brown skin unmarked by Blackness, a condition of colonization that has been reimagined again and again in Hollywood. Hollywood first imagined Blackness in the original Birth of a Nation, a propaganda film that reanimated the Klan and made the visual case for the further restriction of Black folks’ fledgling freedom during the period of Reconstruction. Black Panther may be the first Hollywood film to imagine an African country that has never provided free labor for the birth of a fledgling nation or spent years and resources fighting off colonizers. Their vibranium shield acknowledges these atrocities while promising that those within the border will not suffer outsiders’ fate.  Wakanda, then, is a metaphor for freedom. I see now why Black women look at Wakandans and see ourselves. If I map the fantasy world onto our struggles to protect ourselves and our communities from “outside,” I see Wakanda everywhere.

I imagine Korryn Gaines holed up in her apartment, holding close her son. Her home is Wakanda. Her children are vibranium. Men with guns have discovered her hidden freedom from the claws of colonization. She loads her single weapon, then aims it with the determination of Okoye at a barrier that should not be breached. She holds tight her son, tells him to never be afraid. She takes a deep breath. She knows she will die for Wakanda when the first bullet pierces skin. 

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