Womanist Perspectives on Gender & Black Identities In Black Panther (2018)
by: Sibongile Mpofu & Thabani Mpofu , June 25, 2022
by: Sibongile Mpofu & Thabani Mpofu , June 25, 2022
It has been argued that Black Panther (Coogler 2018), the American blockbuster released in early 2018, is culturally significant (Joseph & Williams 2018) for black communities around the world in that it has brought diversity in terms of the stories normally projected by Hollywood, and that it portrays black culture in a positive light. Black Panther was produced by Marvel Studios, a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios, both of which are major players in the Hollywood film industry. More importantly, the film has been described as phenomenal in its representation of black womanhood (Chikafa-Chipiro 2019). According to the producers and marketers of the film, ‘Black Panther is wrapped in blackness, but it’s not inherently American blackness, it’s actually an African blackness and that layer of the black existence is fundamentally global’ (Joseph & Williams 2018: [n.p])—and herein lies the problem, particularly for feminism and feminists.
The element of essentialising blackness perpetuates a narrative that stifles diversity and the distinctiveness of blacks and black cultures. While for some Black Panther ‘celebrates blackness in all its complexity’ and is a ‘wonderful affirmation of the diversity of a people who sometimes are forced into the category African American or something else’ (Joseph & Williams 2018: [n.p]), some critics have warned that celebrations of black empowerment in Black Panther might be short-lived (Anyangwe 2018: [n.p]). This is because, as Anyangwe (2018) further posits, this black empowerment is packaged and branded in a mercantile manner, and thus it represents the branding of black feminism. In other words, there is very little divergence from the typical stereotypes about black women, and black culture in general, which have become synonymous with Hollywood movies. Research suggests that mainstream film normalises white supremacy and black people’s outsider status in the dominant social order (Young 1996: 194), through its representation of blackness and black culture.
Black Panther, a film by a black director, Ryan Coogler, and featuring a majority black cast, has been labelled a ‘feminist’ film (Allen 2018 & Chikafa-Chipiro 2019) and lauded for bringing a fresh cultural perspective to the normative Hollywood Marvel superhero film. However, taking a cue from experiences of other blockbuster movies that have employed female lead actors, such as Wonder Woman (Jenkins 2017), we are reminded of the business imperatives that override the realities which force cultural texts, such as film, to perpetuate certain ideologies, particularly those that reflect the interests of Marvel and Disney. Having made a return of over one billion USD from a budget of 200 million USD, the fact that Black Panther is a financial success is beyond doubt (Kopf, 2018). Representation of gender in film has largely focused on the binaries between whiteness and blackness, negating other issues such as specific histories, contexts, including the political, economic, social, and cultural factors, which are critical in storytelling. This, we argue, negates the multifaceted and diverse nature of experiences and lives of black culture in general, and black women in particular. Furthermore, employing the Afro-futuristic paradigm, scholars such as Chikafa-Chipiro (2019) have argued in support of the possibilities of Black Panther, especially the fact that the film casts positive imaginations of an African space in the future. We, however, argue that these imaginations of a liberated black culture in the future should not overlook the articulations of gender roles and black identities in the present. Further, the implications of these re-articulations of black empowerment—and specifically black female empowerment—should be assessed.
In this article, we apply the womanist paradigm to identify and analyse the representations of gender and black identities in the film, in order to assess how—if at all—Black Panther projects black female empowerment. Previous scholars have reviewed the representations of blackness and black womanhood in Black Panther (see, for example, Faithful 2018; Chikafa-Chipiro 2019), and while their findings reveal the complexity of the black experience, they do not assess the implications of these representations either for the discourses that permeate the film, or for black empowerment in general. Chikafa-Chipiro (2019) utilises Africana womanism to theorise the black woman experience in Black Panther, but she does so within the context of Afro-futurism, and thus she concludes that Black Panther both centres black womanhood and shifts the conversation on Africa and futurity (p.17). However, what is missing from her analysis is the juxtapositioning of the roles and discourses of both female and male characters in the contexts of black women’s lived experiences, the ultimate ideologies perpetuated, and whether these contribute to black empowerment.
Thus, focusing on Afro futurism is an insufficient strategy, as it takes us away from the relevant contemporary issues and critiques. This is the gap this study intends to fill. We utilise the womanist frame to identify the representations of women and men, and to unpack the dominant discourses (messages) the film circulates with respect to black women and African cultures. The essence of this article lies in the fact that rather than limiting our analysis to identifying the discourses that permeate in the movie, we further assess the ideological effects these discourses have in the context of the social, political, and economic struggles that black women face. This aspect is fundamental to determining the narratives and discourses apparent in black films such as Black Panther—and whether these discourses are a departure from the stereotypical representations and categorisations of blackness by Hollywood (in this instance, of black women and black culture in general). Since films in general, and classic Hollywood films in particular, transmit specific ideas about such critical topics—usually in very indirect, subconscious, and entertaining manner (Dutt 2013: 40)—they are critical sites for the examination of cultural images and ideologies transmitted to different identities and cultures. In other words, through portrayal, film images expose us to certain types of people and the contexts in which they live, and subtle ideologies may often be perpetuated in the manner these stories are told. Previous research has posited that stereotypical portrayals and the lack of complex female roles have remained common, not only in Hollywood but in the media in general (Milburn, Mather & Conrad 2000)—more so for black women, whose roles, we argue, remain undervalued. One major argument has been that the ideologies perpetuated by popular film reflect the interests of those in power, and therefore such ideologies work to legitimate social inequalities (Dutt 2014: 5). Because Hollywood is profit-driven—and of course Marvel and Disney are no exception to this—previous studies have pinpointed the particular types of narrative framework that fit with this profit-motive. These include the packaging of empowerment as individualism, where challenges are overcome through exceptionalism as opposed to collective effort (see, for example, Cotter, Hermsen & Vanneman 2014). Other examples include disregarding the stories of black and minority women (for example, Escholz, Bufkin, & Long 2002), and perpetuating the naturalness of both ‘white’ supremacy and the outsider status of black people within the dominant social order (Young 1996: 194).
The application of womanism enables an assessment of whether Black Panther conforms to the heteronormative representations of black women, or resonates with their lived experiences. Consequently, this enables an identification of the kind of political discourses that are apparent, and whether or not these discourses empower black women. Women’s stories, particularly those of black women are often annihilated in Hollywood film. Therefore, analysing stories on and about black women and black culture in Black Panther, not to mention the imagery the film projects, is critical. Pratibha Parma, cited by hooks, reminds us that ‘the deeply ideological nature of the imagery determines not only how other people think about us but how we think about ourselves’ (1992: 5).
The film’s plot follows T’Challa who, after the death of his father the King of Wakanda, returns home to this isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne as both King and Black Panther (the country’s super-heroic protector). T’Challa is surrounded by an all-female bodyguard contingent, the Dora Milaje, headed by a female general, Okoye, who—despite her powerful position in the Kingdom—speaks very little in the film. T’Challa is tested when he is drawn into a formidable conflict that puts the fate of both Wakanda and the entire world at risk. Faced with treachery and danger, the young King must rally his allies and release the full power of the Black Panther to defeat his foes and secure the safety of his people and their way of life (Marvel Studios 2018: [n.p]). Although his family—his mother Queen Ramonda, his sister Shuri, and his ex-lover Nakia—rally around T’Challa and assist him in overcoming his hurdles, there is wide power difference between him and the key women around him. Thus, the power relations evident in these interactions can be argued to be asymmetrical, with the women serving the needs of the leading male character. Indeed, the fact that power is baked into the character’s circumstance as monarch serves as a subtle reminder that power remains the dominion of men.
Hollywood: The Long Walk to Freedom for Black Women
Classic Hollywood films are critical sites for examination of cultural products, particularly for feminists seeking the re-representation of black women and the re-articulation of black women’s stories—and, ultimately, the dismantling of ideologies that naturalise inequalities and subordination. According to Kellner (2011: 7) radio, television, film, and other products of media culture provide materials out of which we forge our very identities, our sense of selfhood, our notions of what it means to be male or female, our sense of class, ethnicity, and race, of nationality, of sexuality, and of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Kellner (2011) further argues that through media products, we are shown and told who has power and who is powerless, who is allowed to exercise force and violence and who is not. Film specifically plays a significant role in our lives, since it disseminates particular ideas not only about behaviour and identities, but also critical topics in political, economic, social, and cultural spheres. In a sense, because imagery is so strong in entrenching ideologies, the feminist project is concerned with the consistent parade of negative stereotypical images of black women in Hollywood that have become normalised over decades.
Historically, the majority of portrayals of African American women in American cinema have perpetuated stereotypical ideas about black women and black culture (Jones 1998). Black women have been portrayed as decentralised, marginalised, and unempowered individuals (Jones 1998: 35). It has been argued that this is because Hollywood is predominantly a white and male sphere (Lauzen 2008). Further, Garcia-Sola (2021: 13-14) reiterates that black women in Hollywood have endured a double burden in seeking visibility in cultural products such as film: first as black women, and secondly in trying to do so in a male-centred world—thus ‘oppressions multiply by race.’ Such negative depictions and misrepresentations are problematic in that they reinforce racial and gender hierarchies, and seek to buttress the patriarchal ideologies. At the same time, these depictions overlook the ‘real’ black women and their lived experiences, their individual agency, and their potential. Therefore, the portrayals lack the multi dimensions of black women’s lives and their cultures. This is all despite the efforts that women in general—and black women specifically—have made in contemporary society in terms of visibility in the political, economic, and socio-cultural spheres. Young (1996: 180) posits that when looking at most images of black women in film, many of us are troubled and find it very difficult to equate what we see with what we ‘know.’ Thus, there is a disjuncture between these representations and women’s lived experiences. She further argues that this perplexity may be located in the knowledge that the reality of black women’s lives is different to the way in which it is portrayed.
Similarly, hooks (2003: 94) explains how black women are not only underrepresented in film, but that in addition their gaze is forbidden. She argues that black women are not allowed to ‘look’—because looking indicates a sense of power with which a female body is not sociologically endowed. Therefore, it is critical to identify the circumstances under which black women are made to look or gaze in our assessment of the empowering effects of Black Panther. Similarly, other scholars such as Dutt (2014: 5) have alluded to the fact that Hollywood films rarely reflect women outside of the men’s world.
Furthermore, while the Blaxploitation era and the women’s liberation movements have over the decades witnessed slight modifications in representations, especially of black women cast as action heroines, such female characters have still been sexually objectified, and directed to the male gaze and male audiences (Garcia-Sola 2021: 16). Thus, black women in Hollywood are still subdued and not fully represented. A study by Smith and Choueiti (2011a) reveals that black female characters are still more sexualised than male characters, and that black women are more likely than men to be shown in sexually revealing attire, and as physically beautiful. According to Smith and Choueiti (2011a: 4), repeated exposure to this ‘reinforce[s] males’ and females’ beliefs that black women are to be valued for how they look rather than who they are.’
Riding on the commercial success of Black Panther, film analysts have argued that the diversity of the cast and production crew (largely black) has led to the success of the film, as it reaches a wider audience. ‘Every movie that breaks down these barriers is another step towards more inclusion in mainstream Hollywood movies,’ Dergarabedian argues (cited in Luchina 2018: [np]), pointing out that ‘[i]f you have grown up and never seen someone like you on screen then you’re looking at the world through other people’s eyes. When people see themselves on screen it can be a very powerful experience.’ Other scholars posit that both female and male characters in Black Panther have opportunities for growth (Faithful 2018: 3). While there have been attempts to improve the visibility of blacks on the big screen over the years, such representations of black culture, and particularly black women, have remained negative and stereotypical. The Hollywood Diversity Report 2020 reveals that the top films of 2018 and 2019 show an overall increase in acting jobs for people of colour and women. The Report further highlights that in 2019, women had 44.1% of lead acting roles (up slightly from 41% the previous year) and made up 40.2% of the total cast in the 145 films surveyed. Bennett and Griffin (2016: 170) argue that the objectification of black women in mainstream media mutes the black female voice and minimises black female agency. Therefore, while audiences have arguably been exposed to progressive representations of black women and black cultures in the media (by virtue of the increasing numbers of people of colour and women, especially in superhero films), there is a need to probe the stories that are being told through Hollywood cinema, their contexts, and the kind of ideologies perpetuated through the characters, and more specifically, black female characters. This is because, as Young reminds us, construction of meaning in cinematic texts cannot be exclusively attributed to those directly involved in the production of the film.
We further add that the use of black characters, and black women specifically, should not denote that the film is ‘feminist’ or is ‘cultural’ or is ‘black empowerment.’ We argue that a film text, in concurrence with Young (1996: 200), should be analysed as part of a complex web of interrelated experiences of diverse peoples, and these experiences located in their historical, political, and social contexts, so that the stories told resonate with the lived experiences of the audiences, and are reflective of the many dimensions of black women. This nuanced understanding of the film text can then help us assess how film is a site of both struggle and resistance against counter ideologies, and how it can be a tool for black empowerment and social transformation. Black Panther, with its casting of black superheroes (both women and men) provides an opportunity for the analysis on gender and representation.
Theoretical & Methodological Approach
Womanism is in essence the type of feminism preoccupied with the different realities and experiences of diverse women. Womanism emanated from Afro-American scholars such as Walker (1983) and Hudson-Weems (1993), the latter refining it into Africana Womanism. This approach has been further appropriated to suit various contexts by African feminists. Womanism is a distinct type of feminism which takes into account the complexities and peculiarities of black females of African ancestry (Ebunoluwa 2009: 228). We use womanism because it embodies Afrocentric forms of feminism, is multicultural, and offers feminist interpretations of the political economic and cultural spheres where black women live. Therefore, it is context based. Overall, womanism challenges the status quo, especially the ways in which black women are constrained and prevented from realising and imagining their potential, outside of the patriarchal confines of gender roles. This paradigm helps conceptualise how black women in Black Panther are empowered through their representation, how they express their agency—if at all—and whether or not they have balanced power spheres with their male counterparts. Key tenets of womanism, as appropriated and modified by African feminists (for example Gqola 2001; Koyana 2001 & Mangena 2013) guiding the study are: self-expression, self-assertion, black female liberation/empowerment, spirituality, community, and positive interdependence of women and men for survival.
Womanism unpacks the messages and dominant ideologies that are perpetuated by the film text. African feminists argue that womanism allows for a specific discussion of women of African descent’s existence in reality and in imagined existence. Therefore, it takes into account African culture in understanding women’s lived experiences. One other distinct feature of womanism relevant to this study is that it argues for women’s rights and empowerment from the premise of African cultural values (Mpofu, 2017). Furthermore, womanism seeks to achieve a society in which both women and men depend on each other for survival, and as Sunday (1996) argues, both women and men should have an equal balance of power. This is critical for this study, as it affords a nuanced understanding of Black Panther as a film text: how both women and men are projected, how they converse, and the content of their conversations. Therefore, womanism demands that for black women to be empowered, they need to engage in activism that empowers themselves as individuals and others. Black women need to facilitate community-building, they need to be able to express and assert themselves. Thus, at the core of womanism are the concepts of black female liberation and empowerment, spirituality, community, and dialogue, all of the factors that relate to the outlined womanist tenets assessed in the film.
According to Reid (1991: 387), the use of womanism in film has pioneered creative processes in the reception and production of racialised, sexualised, and engendered black subjectivities. In other words, through womanist discourses in such media as films, women’s issues are no longer confined to the private space, but rather brought into the public sphere for deliberation. Thus, the womanist framework enables researchers to situate black women within their contexts, in which political, economic, and social influences are also analysed, allowing the accentuation of ‘sacred discourses on blackness’ (Reid 1991: 387).
We deconstruct the content, not only to understand the identity portrayals being projected in Black Panther, but also to assess what is missing, silenced, or absent, in order to draw the ideologies being perpetuated. This is because texts, as cultural artefacts, do not simply reflect social norms and values, they are central to how norms and values come to be shaped (Reinharz 1992: 151). For feminists, texts are products of a given time and space, from technologies of production and reproduction to the cultural norms that guide all aspects of social life, and they can be sources of feminist resistance (Hesse-Biber & Leavy 2007: 229). In line with our inquiry, we employ deconstruction in order to examine and expose what is centrally located versus what is forced to the peripheries as argued by Hesse-Biber and Leavy (2007: 230). The intention is to assess if Black Panther, dubbed a ‘black’ and ‘feminist’ film, is resistant to normative Hollywood narrative strategies.
Five themes guide this analysis: isolation from their culture; silenced; beauty and sexual objectification; lack of agency, choice, or power; and lack of independence. In coding the film text, we employed Miles and Huberman’s (1994: 57) descriptive, interpretive and pattern coding.
Feminine characteristics portrayed in the film are identified by analysing the characters and performances—comparing in particular female and male characters and their performances. We further interpret and analyse the dialogues the female characters engage in: how many times they speak, in comparison to their male counterparts, the content of the conversations, how female characters relate to male characters. These indicators are then allocated to each of the above themes. The presence and/or absence of the themes identified, as well as modifications of these, enabled us to assess, from a womanist point of view, the black empowerment potential of Black Panther.
Womanist Interpretations of Black Panther
Importance of Embodied Acts, Self-naming & Self-assertion
The womanist interpretation by Hudson-Weems (1993: 50) grounded in African culture, encompasses the experiences of women of African descent. Hudson-Weems posits that a primary goal is to enable women of African descent to create their own criteria for assessing their realities, ‘’both in thought and in action.’’ This approach helps us to understand inherent values of African culture which recognise the importance of non-verbal communication and embodied acts that are in some instances political in nature. Self-naming, according to womanism, denotes the authenticity of one’s identity, and essence of women’s existence as critical in African culture. According to Hudson-Weems (1994), naming is a critical component of African culture, and is a prerequisite for the survival of a woman of African descent. This, together with self-assertion, buttresses the womanist identity and cultural experience.
In Black Panther, Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, is the head of the fearsome, all-female bodyguard contingent known as the Dora Milaje. The General, as she is called in the film, is skilled in martial arts and spear fighting (Marvel Studios 2018: [n.p]). Her presence in the first scene, while presenting the illusion of women being present (as on object) and yet absent from this conversation, conforms to the hegemonic patriarchal representations of women in Hollywood. However, what Coogler achieves in this portrayal, in order to bridge the normative power differential between women and men, is her non-verbal communication and bald features. In other words, her embodied acts: womanist tenets which lead us to identify the importance and political significance of this character. Okoye serves the monarch of Wakanda—T’Chaka and T’Challa—and the fact that this female character is portrayed in this way lampshades the patriarchal nature of the film’s fictional society, and the narrative itself. However, this power is visible only when Okoye is around a powerful male figure—in this instance the then-King T’Chaka. The feminist approach to the characterisation of Okoye conforms to the Hollywood stereotype of black women, that is, the fact that she is silenced in the first scene concurrently denotes her invisibility and absence. Further she is portrayed as personally powerless, lacking individual agency to self-express. She is not independent, nor does she have independent agency and power.
Through a womanist lens, however, the portrayal of Okoye’s non-verbal communication and stoic presence in the room denotes visibility and power. While self-expression is an important aspect of black female liberation and empowerment, womanists also remind us that non-verbal communication may be a form of resistance and power for women in particular contexts (Mpofu, 2017). Thus, womanism enables us to identify the multi-dimensions of black women’s lives. While the producers conform to the normative standards of patriarchal authority by perpetuating stereotypical representations of black women, womanism allows us to identify the realistic side of Okoye as a brave soldier. Further, when T’Challa embarks on a mission to Korea to arrest Ulysses Klaue, he is accompanied by Okoye and Nakia. Again, here we see the centring and empowerment of female characters in a high-speed car chase scene. In this scene in Korea, we are also reminded how the black women’s gaze has historically been forbidden (hooks 2003:94). While the intentional highlight of Okoye’s gaze through the camera angles is made to look animalistic and devilish—which is associated with the stereotype of sexual objectification, synonymous with the representation of black women by Hollywood cinema (Bennett and Griffin 2016)—we argue, from a womanist perspective, that Okoye’s defiant stare signifies her power and agency. However, this stare is undermined purposely because her stare is animal-like, allowing for her fetishization. Despite the power that she exudes, she is objectified, so that her power is fetishized and contained. Because womanism allows us to glean the positive aspects of black women’s portrayal, we are therefore able to identify the powerful aspects of Okoye’s defiant stare despite her objectification in this instance. This leads to our argument that womanism therefore allows for a re-conceptualisation of the concept of the gaze to empower black womanhood through identification of the empowering traits within the gaze itself. Thus, reading this character we argue that while on one hand the character of Okoye speaks little, on the other, she embodies black empowerment and assertion through her non-verbal communication, in particular her defiant stare.
With regards to the dialogues Okoye engages in, while she speaks only twice in the first scene (a discourse on power between the king and his brother), the character is tasked with demanding identification of the king’s brother, asking ‘who are you?’ and ‘zibonakalise ukuthi ngubani’ (‘identify yourself’). Soon after uttering these words, she is silenced. We argue that because womanism speaks to both women and men, the demand for men to self-identity shows that the character of Okoye emphasises the importance of self-naming and self-definition before a conversation on power can begin. However, these aspects of empowerment are filtered when the character is around male counterparts, and there are always deliberate efforts made to prop up the male figure, which, to a certain extent, we argue is an effort to maintain the power differentials between women and men, which are synonymous with Hollywood cinema.
Another female character, Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o, is a spy and ex-lover of the incumbent king T’Challa. Nakia is portrayed as a woman who is adamant and knows what she wants. We see a womanist characterisation of self-assertion and self-expression, for example when T’Challa says ‘if you were not stubborn, you will make a great queen.’ Nakia then responds: ‘I would make a great queen because I am stubborn if I wanted to.’ These two womanist elements of self-assertion and self-expression are also prevalent in the character of Nakia through the significant conversations that she engages in throughout the film, such as the discussion about the present and future of Wakanda.
Interdependency of Women and Men, Connectedness & Community
The elements of interdependency of women and men, connectedness and community, are key womanist tenets applied in this study. Hudson-Weems (1993) reminds us that African culture encourages compatibility and congruity between women and men, and thus the concepts of family and community are key. For example, the element of community is expressed through loyalty, which is emphasised when Okoye refuses to rebel against the new king Killmonger, and pledges to serve the office of the King. While this over-emphasis of loyalty by women may be perceived as demeaning, as it connotes subjectivity and lack of ambition to challenge men for power, from a womanist perspective loyalty and selflessness for the benefit of community are positive traits and represent the lived realities of black women and African culture. Therefore, the few instances that Okoye breaks her silence are also in the service of the monarch and community. Thus, womanism allows black women to demonstrate all their positive qualities (Mangena, 2013). Therefore, while the characterisation of Okoye does conform to the stereotypical representations of women in general—and black women in particular—those of sexual objectification, being silenced, and lack of independence, womanism equips us with a new lens to critically decipher the positive, liberative aspects of black womanhood in Black Panther that are deviant from the norm.
The first time the audience is introduced to Nakia is in the insurgency scene, where we are reminded of the stereotypes and depictions of women as victims in wars and conflicts. However, Nakia is brought in alongside T’Challa and Okoye to intervene and save the kidnapped women from human traffickers, and thus we see the element of interdependence of women and men for survival. However, we again observe that this particular scene is also about power—not of women but of men. Nakia’s power is only visible around T’Challa and benefits his success in that mission. Therefore, in concurrence with Dutt’s (2013: 10) findings that black women in Hollywood are depicted as lacking independent agency, we argue that Nakia, in common with Okoye, is not given independent agency, but what we call associational agency. We argue that her power is only activated in service of patriarchy, to make men look successful. In the depictions of Nakia, we see that her prowess is only to charm and win back her ex-lover T’Challa. At the end of the film, when the King thanks her for saving his life, she says ‘there is nothing to thank me for, it was my duty to fight for what I love.’ To an extent, Nakia refers here to T’Challa, reinforcing the Hollywood sexual stereotype of black women as being prepared to risk their lives for the sake of love. However, Nakia is also referring to the country of Wakanda, and its traditions and social structure. Thus, we see the resilience of Nakia in saving her community and her culture. Although the power distance between her and T’Challa is prevalent throughout the film, the conversations that are crucial for Wakanda’s liberation balance the power relations between her and the King; thus, the aspect of the interdependence of women and men for survival, another womanist characteristic, is apparent.
In addition to the positive aspects of black womanhood identified through womanism, we again observe that femininity is prevalent in the film, through costuming and use of accessories to beautify the female characters. We further argue that the representation of hair styles—braids, bald heads, and jewellery—are all attempts to portray black culture. Therefore, similar to findings by Ross, cited in Dutt (2013: 10), we observe the dualism in the depiction of female characters. While we identify positive representations of the female characters, such as embodying some form of power, we are simultaneously reminded of women’s positions in a gender stratified society via the fact that the power that female characters exude always meets the expectations of the dominant character, T’Challa.
Shuri has been described in previous studies as presenting the most powerful representation of a woman of African ancestry (Chikafa-Chipiro 2019). She has been identified as the only female character in the film whose representation is outside of the normative representations of black women. We further argue that while the character is overtly endowed with such power, which is not the norm for black women (especially one of her age), her power also emerges around the storyline of T’Challa. She is important to the narrative and valuable in keeping her brother in power—thus, in addition to her power of being a technocrat, she also embodies other womanist characteristics such as that of the interdependence of women and men for survival, self-expression and assertion, family/community, as well as black women empowerment.
Lastly, Ramonda is the Queen Mother of Wakanda, wife of King T’Chaka, and mother of T’Challa and Shuri. The role of the Queen Mother is a typical representation of how a Queen Mother behaves and conforms to womanist characteristics—that is to support her family and nation, and to safeguard the throne. The manner in which the Queen Mother is dressed, in the Zulu traditional head dress, depicts a real African culture. The Queen Mother stands by her son, T’Challa when he becomes King of Wakanda. She is either silent or speaks less in most of the scenes. For example, she is seen and not heard in Royal Council meetings, where crucial decisions are made. Again, we see her character alongside the protagonist, T’Challa. The elements of community, interdependence and familial support are evident in this character. For example, during the coronation, Ramonda is there to cheer her son. While we observe the positive attributes of African culture, the text subtly denies her individual agency outside of the main male character, to whom she plays the motherly role of keeping the family together.
The interdependence of men and women is also observed in the dialogue between female and male characters. We argue that while women are intentionally placed on the margins of power discussions in their respective scenes, and therefore stripped of individual agency, their mere presence around significant discussions about the Kingdom is symbolic and affirms the womanist tenet of the interdependence of women and men for survival. In the old King’s death scene, Nakia and Shuri speak three times between themselves, while in the insurgency scene, Nakia and Okoye speak five times between themselves.
Furthermore, in the T’Challa and Nakia scene, the four women speak a total of nine times, compared to the male character in the scene (T’Challa), who speaks seven times. Here, Nakia offers condolences on the death of T’Challa’s father. In the Museum scene, the museum director—a white woman—speaks nine times, while Killmonger speaks ten. Arguably, the men dominate the conversations. However, the museum director also speaks a lot more in one scene compared to the black female characters, which we argue denotes the superiority of whiteness. At the same time, this befits the character’s status as director of the museum. Her whiteness is also important to the point that Killmonger makes when he mentions the historical legacies of African wealth forcibly taken by colonial states. The conversation, we argue, denotes African resistance as well as assertion and is disconcerting to the colonialists even today.
Further, womanism, as informed by Hudson-Weems, conforms to its historical communal past and places strong emphasis on interconnectedness and community. Hudson-Weems, cited in Ntsiki (2001: n.p) claims:
What makes Africana womanism different from any other female-based theory is that we are inseparable and one—as the other, I should say the other side of the coin from the Africana man—collectively struggling, as we have always done as Africans: A people collectively working. We come from a communal past. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ as the old African adage goes. Well, it takes a village to do everything, because we work together.
With regard to the representation of Wakanda, we argue, that ‘rescue’ of the Wakanda and African culture in general denotes a sense of community and interconnectedness between people and adaptability for the betterment of society, regardless of gender or race. Wakanda is projected as needing ‘rescue’ right from the onset—a narrative that is synonymous with storylines about Africa by Hollywood cinema. However, the ‘rescuer’ is in fact the country’s King. The womanist lens enables us to understand this rescue as adaptability, and as connecting with others for the benefit of all: community. Overall, the Wakandan and African cultures are portrayed negatively; for example, negative stereotypes of Africa as poor and isolated, are evident. In the opening scene, the blackness of the continent and its backwardness from the perspectives of the coloniser are highlighted, and not through the perspectives of those who have lived through it. While these instances represent Wakanda negatively, the overall story of the technological prowess and mineral richness of the continent denotes empowerment.
In addition, the fact that Wakanda depicts various African tribes and cultures digresses from the normative view of Africa as homogenous. Black Panther successfully exhibits the diversity of African cultures, through the various techniques such as dress, ornaments, art, regalia, and paintings. According to an earlier study by Chutel and Kazeem (2018), the tribes represented in Black Panther include the BaSotho, Ndebele, Igbo, Maasai, Zulu, Himba, amongst others. Of essence in this representation of African tribes is the fact that while African cultures are diverse, African value systems and beliefs, share a lot of similarities—commonalities that overall speak to one black culture. Therefore, the depiction of Wakanda and the cultures of its people project the lived realities of people of African descent, both women and men.
Discussion of Findings
As outlined in these findings, womanist characteristics such as self-expression, including embodied acts, self-assertion, back female liberation, interdependence of women and men for survival, interconnectedness, family, and community are evident in the representation of the four black women characters in the film, as well as in the discourses they engage in. The latter group of characteristics is also evident in the representation of Wakanda and African culture in general. We highlight that women’s roles centre on family ties, the need for peace for the entire community, self-expressions and assertions and the ability to locate one’s strengths within our bodies. These characteristics, which conform to the womanist paradigm, are what enable us to celebrate Black Panther as a black empowerment film.
While there are limitations to this empowerment, especially the fact that black women are only seen as powerful in the service of patriarchal needs, as well as other negative stereotyping, overall, we argue that Black Panther does offer possibilities for imagining new formulations of the black woman’s identity. Other virtues we see espoused by womanism in the film are dedication, for example, Okoye’s loyalties for her country as army general: she is forced to choose the bigger family which is country at the expense of love—a strong African cultural virtue. Further, the pain of loss is evident in the four women when T’Challa is ‘killed.’ Here, again the strong bond of family is evident. The other womanism tenet evident in the film is spirituality, particularly in the ancestral burial, rebirth, and coronation scenes. Traditional rites, synonymous with most African cultures, are conducted prior to the inauguration of the new King. However, men oversee these ceremonies, which denote that the revered cultural space is not a woman’s space. There are instances in the film where audiences are reminded that kingship is a man’s domain. For example, when T’Challa doubts himself, and his father King T’Chaka says: ‘a man who does not groom his sons [note: not daughters] has failed to be a father.’ Here we argue that power and kingship are associated with men. King T’Chaka goes on to say, ‘surround yourself with people you trust’—in other words, power requires the interdependence and connectivity of people, which are key tenets of womanism. And of course, the people T’Challa trusts are predominantly women.
Furthermore, through womanist readings of Black Panther, there is the projection of black people’s resistance against colonialism. This is highlighted in the museum scene, which explains how artefacts were seized from Africa by colonisers. Clearly, although the white woman in this scene is in a position of superior power by dint of being entrusted with African history, the black man challenges the interpretation of that history. This is quite refreshing to see—the realities of colonialism, and how black people in general are conscious and resisting the injustices that are still being propagated today. In other words, black people, and specifically black culture, are asserting themselves on a world stage, conforming to self-assertion propagated by womanism.
The character of Killmonger plays an important role in the movie, highlighting the resistance narrative of black people as a whole. This, we argue, is one key aspect of lived blackness as a culture that the directors manage to highlight, and possibly represents the winning formula for Black Panther in terms of box office records. However, we argue that this critical storyline is projected from a colonialist viewpoint as it is presented in such a way that audiences are forced to hate the character of Killmonger for claiming what is rightfully his, and his birth right. Killmonger has a huge point (to claim his birth right) but chooses to go about proving it in a troubling way (through mass murder). We therefore posit that the negative portrayal of this character, particularly in this instance, arguably leads the audience to favour T’Challa as king of Wakanda. This is in line with the naturalised portrayal of black resistance in Hollywood, which outright stifles voices of decoloniality in order to maintain the status quo. Nevertheless, despite this negativity, the overall projection of the assertion of black people and black culture contributes to a celebration of African resistance, black womanhood, and general black culture. The fact that T’Challa mourns Killmonger and takes on board the challenges he made to the status quo, leads to the royal family changing the way the country operates at the end of the film—an acknowledgment and celebration of African resistance.
With regards to the stories of black women that are highlighted in the movie, we identify: love, between T’Challa and Nakia (although this is subtle) as well as between Okoye and W’Kabi (although entirely unexplored), support and family, and the black resistance story—and all these affirm womanism. However, despite its inclusive approach, womanism has its limitations in that it fails to meet the heterogeneity of African women, as not all women can identify themselves as ‘woman’ (McWilliams 1995: 103). McWilliams’ argument is that the female subject is a site of differences that are not only racial, economic, or cultural, but all of these together and at odds with one another (1995). Despite this, womanism provides an overarching approach to understanding black women’s experiences and their interpretations of the world.
Black Panther overtly and painstakingly challenges the normative behaviour of stereotyping black women and culture, first and foremost by placing women at the forefront of the plot. However, on a few occasions, it covertly perpetuates the negative stereotypes and ideologies about black women, and black culture in general. The progressive elements that make the film a ‘black culture film’ are enhanced by employing womanist interpretations of it, particularly how black women are represented, how many times they speak, the dialogues they engage in, and general representation of Wakanda and African cultures. The characteristics of womanism such as embodied acts, self-expression, self-assertion, family and community, interdependence between women and men, black female liberation and empowerment are all present in this film. These positive characteristics overall show the consciousness of the self by the female characters, and a realisation of the importance of their individual power to the transformation of their communities (and the world in general). Black Panther is, therefore, empowering as a black culture film. Notwithstanding the negativity observed in the film, such as objectifying women and perpetuating the ideology that power is a male domain—especially the fact that power of black women is projected to support male hegemony—womanism does generate a fresh angle from which we are able to glean the positive aspects of the film. Our concluding argument is that the positive aspects of Black Panther as a black culture film far outweigh the negatives. This is politically significant—to be able to analyse films in relation to positive representation. Therefore, while Black Panther, on one hand to a large extent perpetuates the ideology of male superiority, the film does moderate the black people’s outsider status in the dominant social order, contributing to black empowerment.
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