After seeing Black Panther on opening night, I knew that there would be endless articles of people’s reviews on the highly-anticipated film: Theories of the symbolic meanings; ideas on what the film did for black identity; black progressiveness; successful black films; black superheroes; black characters outside of the negative images of pimps and prostitutes and unnecessary nudity, slaves or in positions of destitution, drug dealers and addicts; black community and unity; and overarching themes of a new black pride that the 1960s and ‘70s would have been proud to birth. With all of this in mind, I thought, “Where will my ideas fit outside of the already published posts?” And I knew that I had to post SOMETHING about the film, considering my passion about the uplift of black women.
What I considered obvious topics: The ongoing identity battle between Africans and those of African descent caught in the Middle Passage, dedication to a common goal and people, black people excelling past stereotyped standards and demonstrating their knowledge and power in technology and national development, and comfort in black skin, I wanted to focus more closely on how black women were displayed and portrayed in the film. Of course, black women showed confidence in their “blackness,” throwing away society’s standards of beauty and hair maintenance (one of my favorite moments was Danai Gurira’s Okoye tossing the wig), but that also seemed nearly too clear to explain.
Wakanda is nearly a paradise within itself. A black Garden of Eden before biting the colonial fruit. A headspace where we, as black people, have 100 percent security within ourselves, a place where we are at perfection. Collectively, we have come to agree that Wakanda is the mental space where we would like to go back – having self-love and cultural awareness in our blackness, in our femininity, masculinity. Though an artificial location that only seems to thrive in the Marvel Comics universe, in reality, it is a place hidden in each one of us of African descent. It’s a place where society’s stereotypes have refused to acknowledge exists. It’s something that media has taught us to forget about. It’s somewhere that was beaten out of us when we tried to acknowledge our original languages, wear traditional attire, celebrate our ancestors, proudly shout our names and heritage. It’s a place raped from us when our history was being sterilized and forced to assimilate. It’s a place that we were told to forget when we migrated to other countries; when we were told that Africans were poor and lived in huts, plagued with disease; when we were told that people of all African nations were grouped together, void of identities and self-worth. But Wakanda still exists if we aren’t ashamed of her regal pastures, free-living wildlife, gems of the Earth, and her mystical infrastructure.
Women were also held to a different standard in Wakanda, a higher level of respect. Even in our post-Wakanda societies, it’s never an issue to say that black women hold black men near and dear to their hearts, but can it always be said about the men?
The film shouted black feminism. Yes, in the traditional sense of women fighting for their country and being vocal. But similarly, how men view women is equally as important. Men can say all day how we should have equal rights and opportunities, but do they really mean it? Would they really fight for us to be individuals? Or are they only fighting for our equality in the workplace to renege and “put us in our place” at home?
Military leaders, spies, and royalty: Black Panther displayed women in every sector possible. They fulfilled their roles in whatever way that meant to them. With so much freedom, they held their duties as personal interests. And the men never downplayed their positions or rankings simply because they were women. They were respected of the same magnitude. They were equals.
This image didn’t become more questionable to me until I saw the only black fair-skinned woman in the film. After being introduced to our major players of Wakanda, the audience meets Erik Killmonger – our alleged-villain and antagonist of the film. (Though, I don’t consider for this dynamic character to be the traditional villain, more so that he represents an overall battle that a community must conquer to right their growing list of wrongs.) Nonetheless, he always had a woman with him during the beginning. She was the Bonnie to his Clyde, and while working for the U.S. government and battling a man who the expected to be the bad guy — an outside white man with a foreign accent. Anyways, Killmonger gets caught in a tough situation with this “outsider white guy,” who threatens to shoot the “Bonnie” in order for Killmonger to give the “outsider white guy” what he wanted. And, as none of us expected, Killmonger kills “Bonnie” himself and then takes care of the “outsider white guy.”
As the estranged cousin of our superhero, King T’Challa, Killmonger’s father was from Wakanda and moved to the U.S. where Killmonger was born to an American mother. His father was killed by his family in order for Wakanda to preserve their natural resources for themselves rather than share globally, and childhood-Killmonger was left to fend for himself, bitter and hating life and all that the world had done to him. (Sounds like any other black person in the ‘hood, right?)
All in all, he represented African-Americans and our continued fight for an identity after being displaced along the African diaspora. Of course, this could apply to others of the Middle Passage as well. However, where West Indians seem to have more of a sense of culture, African-Americans still struggle with who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going. We can’t even decide on a collective group name for ourselves, while many of us still deny our African relations and only attribute our good genes to myths of Native American ancestry.
As Killmonger represents African-Americans, his murder of the woman who was supposed to have been his ride-or-die hits home a little more. Beforehand, we see a nation of people where their women are respected. In the U.S., we see the one black woman, who happens to be of a lighter complexion, killed by the man she was fighting for. He used her to get closer to the power he wanted until she was no longer needed and became more of a liability. She never was his equal. She was just a step on his social status ladder.
Is this truly how our black men see us in America? Romantically, we see it with promiscuous behavior when men boast about the women they sleep with, how some women are just feats obtained for bragging rights. We see it with work when our male colleagues compete with us on our salaries. We see it when we are expected to put our career ambitions on hold to fulfill their purposes as “men of the house.” We hear it when black men say that the Feminist Movement of the ‘60s wasn’t for black women because black women have always had rights. Riiiiiiiiiiight.
Don’t get me wrong, the treatment of black women globally is a topic for discussion and no country is perfect. Many are far from it. However, we see through the eyes of Killmonger how the respect and value in black women has especially diminished in the African-American culture since our fall from natural grace. We can’t put a timeline on when that admiration faded, but we know that there is a level of male chauvinism that overpowers our community, even in a community that is already racially oppressed. It’s simply ironic to see a marginalized group attempt to marginalize their own subgroups.
Even further, the only woman of a lighter shade in Black Panther is killed. Maybe it’s by coincidence but that would be hard for me to believe considering the amount of detail placed into every other aspect of the movie. Maybe it was to prevent reverse colorism during critics’ reviews of the film, or maybe it’s presenting a larger message. After being pounded to assimilate into whiteness, African-Americans subconsciously adhere to those standards, and we see it in our men. Our men who parade their blackness, showcase how “real” they are, in our music, music videos, displaying our culture and proudly wearing it like a new pair of Jordans — only to share it with the least possible black woman they can get. And over time, black men’s ideas of female beauty relies only in black women of lighter shades, and then to non-black Hispanic women, maybe Asian women, and now we’re at a point of them openly saying how they’re only into white women while ensuring their alleged black confidence. Maybe they can’t change their skin color, but they can choose the woman they’re with and use her as a societal come-up to possibly trick the masses that maybe they’re not THAT black, that they can denounce their blackness but only so much in order to subconsciously play Token.
Despite the obvious theories explained, Black Panther goes to show just how our culture as African-Americans has truly slipped away from the mentality in which our inner-Wakanda lives. Our inner paradise, our inner Eden. Our perfection before we even knew what it meant. Our glory that others wanted so much that they tricked us to think it was hideous. Over time, we have allowed for history’s elements to change and alter our foundation so we end up acting out of character, losing our sense of respect and regality even for our own people. Even for people who look like us.