There’s something wonderful about watching ‘Black Panther’ and not immediately thinking of T’Challa.
Heading out amongst the buzzing and ecstatic droves, many dressed for the occasion, and sitting on the edge of my seat instantly transformed into that impressionable little black girl who, growing up, never saw much of herself or who she could be in the media.
To me and many, ‘Black Panther’ (2018) is the healing of a wound.
We watch, we gasp, we cheer, we cry and we spill out into the real world having soothed something that we have carried with us since we were children. The painful and dull idea that we are incapable of taking a sparkling, successful and awe-inspiring centre stage.
Practically skipping out of Wakanda after the Ster-Kinekor Maerua Mall premiere of the record eviscerating film, the first person I bump into is Mpingana Dax, a graphic designer and aspirant filmmaker who gulps out one, shocked and delighted word…
That’s T’Challa’s little sister.
The inventive genius behind the efficiency of the hidden and technologically advanced African kingdom of Wakanda, Princess Shuri – a terrific Letitia Wright – is smart, cool, black, a woman and the fiercest of warriors.
Not as fierce, however, as General Okoye, the leader of the Dora Milaje.
Out there weaponising wigs, red dress billowing in Busan fight sequences and car chases before stopping her treacherous lover’s combat rhino with just a look, Okoye, played perfectly by Danai Gurira, is the name I yell back at Mpingana.
I can’t take my eyes off her.
Her strength, beauty, passion and fire steal scenes and as she leads Wakanda’s spear armed guard, I already know who I’m going to be come Halloween.
As for Nakia, T’Challa’s former lover played by Lupita Nyong’o, we find her deep within a mission to stop Boko Haram style villains from smuggling a group of frightened village women to Lord knows where.
A voice of reason whose love for T’Challa does not mean the relinquishing of her passions and convictions, Nakia is just one more incredible woman of Wakanda.
Though T’Challa is the title character, incredibly his respect for and dependence on the women in his life is underscored.
Close to his mother, trusting his life to Okoye, Nakia and his little sister Shuri who fashions his Black Panther suit and joins the trio virtually as they chase down a villain in South Korea, the women of Wakanda are no simple and periphery love interests, arm candy, distressed damsels or tragic and dispensable figures.
While black women in film and real life are often portrayed as angry, thwarting of ambition, tearing down black men, gold diggers or almost supernatural in their ability to withstand emotional and physical abuse, in ‘Black Panther’, the black woman is strong because she chooses to be not as a byproduct of being belittled, abused, hypersexualized, devalued or metaphorically crushed.
This is air sucked deeply into oxygen deprived lungs.
Wakanda is a fictional place but there are many women who will see this film and see their spirit as it is or as they wish it to be. There are countless women who will watch and be thrilled that the spectrum of black women’s personalities, smarts and strength is depicted in a film that is a cultural and commercial success.
This kind of representation may seem a small thing to people looking in, baffled by all the excitement.
But representation matters. Even if it is fictional.
Superheroes illustrate us as our best possible selves via unbridled imagination.
Enhanced, powerful, trying to save the world.
When all the biggest superheroes are white and mostly male, the subtext is that not even in our wildest dreams can black people be the strength and power the world needs.
Black women need to dream.
Black people need to dream.
We need to dream, escape, dress up, geek out, get excited and draw on that special kind of magic that fiction gifts, a shaping force all the more powerful when bestowed upon children.
Watching ‘Black Panther’ and experiencing the women of Wakanda should be required viewing for every black girl and boy in the world.
The women aren’t real but the feeling of pride, possibility and childlike wonder they inspire as technological whiz kids, benevolent undercover agents and warriors is as real as it gets.