My first experiences seeing black women in film are, well, not great.
I am a seven-year-old black girl and I am watching Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. She is a lounge singer on the run, moonlighting as a sister in a convent. She is helping a group of tone-deaf white women become their best selves. I am delighted. Maybe one day, I too can teach a group of elderly white nuns how to sing on key.
Two years later, I am nine years old and I am watching Whoopi Goldberg in Corrina, Corrina. She is a loving housekeeper helping a white widower and his selectively-mute daughter become their best selves. I am delighted. Maybe one day, I too can help Ray Liotta learn to love again.
Sister Act and Corinna, Corinna were my touchstones for contemporary black women in film well into my late teens. (At age 16, my hairdresser, Paulette, had the good sense to introduce me to The Wiz, the much beloved all-black reimagining of The Wizard of Oz, which helped me reset my own definition for what a “black movie” could be). As family-friendly as these two iconic Whoopi roles were, they also reinforced tired stereotypes about black womanhood, and were mostly in service of less dynamic, white storylines.
As much as I adored these films (and frankly, still do) I always wanted something bigger and better for characters and actors who looked like me. I was too young to enjoy movies like Set It Off or Waiting to Exhale, which featured fully-realized black female characters who weren’t perfect nor ideal role models, but who were complex women with agency, portrayed without the white gaze.
All of this is to say: Seeing a film like Black Panther as a child would have blown my young mind. I saw it over the weekend and it inspired me like few films have. From a humble middle seat at a multiplex theater, I was transported to a world where seemingly everyone acknowledged the talent and strength of black women.
Based on the popular Marvel comic book, Black Panther tells the story of T’Challa, Prince of Wakanda, a fictional African nation. After the sudden death of his dad, King T’Chaka, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assumes the role of both King of Wakanda and Black Panther: a badass, stealth superhero. As T’Challa steps into his role, he must work with family, friends and the CIA to defend and protect Wakanda from threats that stand to destroy everything Wakanda stands for.
King T’Challa is tough, intelligent and fun to watch — when he’s not ruling over a small African nation, he’s flirting, cracking jokes and fighting your quintessential action-movie bad guys. However, the guts, heart and oomph of the film belong to the women of Wakanda. These fully-realized, dynamic women are what set the film apart for me.
Shuri (Letitia Wright) is not just King T’Challa’s younger sister. She is a brilliant, quick-witted mastermind who creates high-tech textiles and weapons from her laboratory; she uses the same space to concept an elaborate train system for transporting raw materials. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is a courageous, ass-kicking, name-taking spy who speaks multiple languages and travels the globe on dangerous missions to protect and rescue people in need. (She’s also Black Panther’s ex, so, you know, drama!) Okoye (Danai Gurira) is a Wakandan general and leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-women, personal security detail of Black Panther. The women of Wakanda are tough, capable and relentlessly loyal to their country, and they do it all without superpowers of their own.
Directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, “Black Panther” accomplishes what few films are able to do: elevate the role of black women to more than stereotypes or props. Shuri, Nakia, and Okoye have agency and ambitions of their own. Not to mention, they’re intelligent, strong, desirable, dark-skinned black women who don’t need your permission nor protection, yet still get to feel vulnerable and tender. The film showcases their humanity, even under semi-supernatural conditions.
The whole film is engaging, action-packed, funny and surprisingly political. That’s largely in part to the women of Wakanda and their refusal to be hamstrung by traditional gender roles. They’re the fighters, scientists, fierce protectors and passionate forces for good I needed to see as a child.
When the movie ends, I think about how these are the kinds of roles black actresses like Whoopi, Nia Long, Lela Rochon, and Paula Jai Parker — women I grew up watching — have long deserved. As their once busy cinematic careers slow down with age, I hope it’s not too late for them to land compelling roles on big screens worthy of their talent.
But as quickly as that tinge of grief and regret arises, it passes. Because I am a 32-year-old black woman immersed in a cinematic universe where black women thrive. I am overjoyed for the children who will grow up seeing these confident, courageous women taking up space and telling stories that are larger than life. I think about the young black girls who will watch these women and grow up inspired to carry out big dreams of their own. I think about all of this, and I am delighted.
Photos by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage, Bennett Raglin and Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images.