02.26.18

The Black Panther as Afrofuturist Womanist Vision

Spoiler Alert: I’m telling it all. Stop right now if you can’t handle knowing what happens before seeing the movie!]

If you haven’t seen “The Black Panther” movie yet, you trippin. Get to the theaters right away to see what has to be one of the best—if not the best—film in the Marvel universe so far! I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a superhero movie that left me reflecting for weeks on its meaning. It’s that good. And the more you know about the peoples and cultures of Africa the better it is!

But here’s my take-away in a nutshell: The Black Panther movie is a movie about Black women. More specifically, it’s a Black womanist’s vision of Black womanhood and of a Black-centered culture and universe. The main characters are men, but they’re appropriately relativized and complemented by the women who actually dominate the screen and the viewers’ hearts.

The Womanist Approach

Womanism is a term coined by novelist Alice Walker. Womanism has become a very broad and varied field of study, critique and assertion. While it’s impossible to include all the nuances necessary, we might simply say womanism is an attempt to frame the basic feminist goal of gender equality in terms more resonant with African-American culture and relationships. Womanism uses Black culture and identity as the frame through which to think about femininity. Contrary to much of second-wave feminism, womanism calls for the full valuing, dignity, and equality of Black women without white cultural norms and without what can be feminism’s strident anti-male stance.

Walker understands southern sensibility. She knows there is such a thing as “acting womanish” (and “manish” for that matter). In that vein, a womanist might at the same time push the socially accepted boundaries of womanhood while (by?) she “appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility” and “is committed to the survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically for health… loves the spirit…. loves struggle. Loves herself. Regardless.”

I contend that Black Panther gave us our first blockbuster depiction of this womanism, this wholeness of Black women, sexual and powerful, committed to the survival of the entire people, male and female, regardless. We can see this by thinking about the various types of women in the film.

The Down Black Woman

If womanist thinking is about survival and wholeness, then nowhere do we see that more clearly than in Lupita Nyongo’s “Nakia.” We meet the sister sitting covered among the Chibok Muslim women captured by Boko Haram. She’s there as a covert operative. Her mission is to deliver these women from oppression. She feels a calling to help the marginalized and mistreated and risks her life to do so.

She could be a princess or a queen in the lap of luxury. But she chooses to fight for the welfare of women and young boys like the kid forced to be a child soldier by the terrorist group. The folks who think it’s Killmonger who introduces the idea of Wakanda caring for outsiders and who forces a conflict of conscience for the king and the nation do err. It’s Nakia who brings this tension to the screen in both her self-sacrifice and her influence on T’Challa. It’s Nakia who represents a vision for responsible international engagement and a Pan-Africanism that humanizes as it serves—not Killmonger. This is womanism at its finest.

The Genius Black Woman

Then the movie treats us to the genius of Princess Shuri! She’s apparently a teenage (or maybe young 20-something) prodigy who oversees all the technological advancement of Wakanda from her lab—or, if the situation requires, from her bracelet! Frankly, she steals the show with her womanish behavior. She’s a bit irreverent, pushes against tradition (as Mbaku makes so plain on challenge day), and yet at the same time manages to protect and serve all that’s valuable in Wakanda.

Shuri embodies that aspirational element of womanism, that longing for unhindered femininity that explores and even dominates those “male” fields of inquiry. She becomes the face of STEM in the Marvel universe and does it all without the hindrance of a glass ceiling. Mbaku’s comments notwithstanding, there’s no glass ceiling in the afrofuturist vision of Wakanda. Black genius—male or female—gets to flourish in a way entirely consistent with being a Black girl or woman. No one is threatened except the cave-dwelling traditionalist whose clan seems largely without women except for one glimpse in the final mass fight scene. Shuri depicts feminine genius in full Black girl magic.

The Loyal Black Woman

Who can forget Okoye, the commander of the all-women Dora Milajie? Fierce.

Here, I want to point out something that womanism holds promise for that gets lost in the secular culture of feminism and the Christian culture of complementarianism. One can be an incredibly strong, competent, and loyal soldier while simultaneously a modest, feminine, beautiful and suitable spouse. Our world does not hold those things together very well. The vision of “Black Panther” holds it together beautifully in Okoye.

Regarding strength and competence, just check the fight scenes. Regarding loyalty, recall the moving scene where contrary to Nakia she asserts her commitment to the throne after Killmonger deposes T’Challa—or (my favorite) the scene where she stands in front of the charging rhino to oppose her husband as he fights to divide and destroy Wakanda. Okoye is loyal as a matter of principle, not merely as a matter of position in her vocation or her home. It’s that kind of loyalty from Black women that has quite literally made the survival of Black people in America possible.

The Beautiful Black Woman

Regarding beauty and modesty, I love the scene with T’Challa, Nakia and Okoye heading into the club in South Korea. Okoye complains about the wig she’s wearing and Nakia half-jokingly tells her to “flip it.” Here’s where womanism stylistically casts off the white normativity of feminism as Okoye rejects such superficial feminine displays as “foolish.” Later she’ll toss the wig itself and get to the business of being herself. But in that scene and throughout the movie the viewer gets treated to Black feminine beauty without excuse or explanation. It’s un-self-conscious and that’s part of the marvel (excuse the pun).

And it really is beautiful. Because it’s beautiful, it can be modest. There’s not one hint of sexual impropriety or looseness or titillation. The romantic interests are obvious, but they are not indiscreet. The women are fly—whether in western-style dress or African-inspired Wakandan wear—and yet there’s nothing cheap about it. Nothing tawdry. Nothing that debases beauty and femininity itself.

One last thing regarding beauty: Black Panther puts an end to colorism and the myth of light-skinned superiority and preference. The hues vary but the beauty shines. Womanism delights in feminine beauty wherever it’s found.

The Motherly Black Woman

I’ve been a fan of Angela Bassett for as long as she’s been making movies. For my generation she has been the big screen’s very best offering of beauty, poise, dignity, and regal bearing. She brings all of that to her role as “Ramonda,” Queen Mother.

But she brings more. The Black Panther really is a movie whose central question is “Who am I?” That’s the question that dogs African Americans and other African diasporic people because of the disfiguring and identity-robbing effect of colonialism and enslavement. The movie raises the question from the onset, when N’Jobu tells his young son the story of Wakanda. The movie asserts the question most obviously when Killmonger enters Wakanda’s throne room to challenge T’Challa. “Ask me who I am?” he shouts. Ironically, he really doesn’t know.

But the question is there in the first challenge between T’Challa and Mbaku. Mbaku is beating the would-be king like a rag doll. T’Challa, limp and bent over backwards in Mbaku’s bear hug, is about to lose the throne. His blurry eyes catch a glimpse of Queen Mother who shouts the words, “Show him who you are!” T’Challa snaps to and defeats Mbaku.

In that scene, we learn that Black women are the true carriers of Black identity. T’Challa walked with his father from infancy but that only left him questioning if he’s man enough to be King. It’s Queen Mother who in that moment defines her son and gives him strength from that definition. It’s the women of the film who are the good counselors that surround this good man in order to make him a good king. That’s womanism.

What Happens Without the Womanist Black Woman

To see the identity-shaping role of Black women more clearly, you only have to think of Killmonger. More tragic than the loss of his father is the total absence of his mother. All we know is that she’s an African-American woman who helped radicalize his father. We never see his mother. There’s no sense that she helped shape his identity.

We’re not surprised, then, that Killmonger doesn’t know how to treat women. All the women who die in the movie die at his hand. There’s the “girlfriend” he shoots without hesitation. There’s the old Wakandan priestess he chokes with the strength of the black panther, strength meant to protect wielded as a weapon against this woman. There’s the woman soldier in the Dora Milajie whose throat he slits with a grin of enjoyment. He may just as well be named “Killmother.”

The brutal fact of the matter is Killmonger is what happens when a Black mother is not part of your life. You need a good Black mama in your life in order to turn out right! Black women carry the answer to the question, “Who are you?” If you cannot answer that question you certainly cannot honor and love the Black woman who gave you birth and nourished your life.

Equal but Different

But at the heart of the womanist vision of The Black Panther, there’s still space for an essentially complementarian understanding of gender roles. Wakanda remains patrilineal—not patriarchal in the pejorative sense. It’s still a kingdom, and though Shuri, for example, could make a claim to the throne and Nakia is at one point encouraged to challenge Killmonger, the culture values the role of men in society. To be womanist is to be pro-male and to want happy male flourishing as surely as you want happy female flourishing.

But womanism includes and insists on a vision of men who can honor women and nurture their callings. Much has been made of this in other reflections. But I want to underscore that Okoye heading the Dora Milajie does not prevent her from loving and appropriately honoring her husband, just as it does not diminish his love and respect for his wife. T’Challa will find a way for Nakia to be his queen while also fulfilling her calling—he even uses the language of “calling.”

For us to be fully human, we have to find ways of supporting one another at being fully male and fully female, both in relation to each other but also in relation to the callings the Lord places on our lives, callings which may not be circumscribed by or essentially defined by the marital bond. It’s a womanist vision and it’s healthier than both renegade feminism and oppressive chauvinism.

Conclusion: My Nit to Pick

Let me return to one of my opening sentences: The Black Panther is one of the best if not the best movie in the Marvel catalog so far. Go see it multiple times and enjoy every moment of it.

I have one complaint, though: I do not think we know much more about Wakanda as a culture than we did before the movie. We can intuit the fact that it’s an honor-based culture. We can see that it blends the traditional with the futuristic. The moviegoer familiar with the peoples and cultures of Africa can recognize many things as “African” or “traditional.” I loved all the allusions. But the folks who know little of this history, culture and people are likely just as uninformed after viewing the movie as before. So while we get a little bit of Wakanda’s primordial history, we still don’t know what informs the traditions of Wakanda. The moviegoer may be inspired but they’re not educated. I think the movie misses the chance to make “Wakanda” a 4-D character in the story.

Now, I don’t want to turn Black Panther into a documentary. It’s an action film and a very good one. But with just a few lines of dialogue here or there, I think the movie could have put education about Africans and Africa into an appreciative context that would have gone a long way in dispelling myths and stereotypes. I could write a whole post on this, but I’ve already gone on too long. Time for y’all to get off the Porch and go see the movie!

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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