Without a doubt Black Panther is a game changer. Ryan Coogler, director of Creed and Fruitvale Station has established himself as an incredibly insightful storyteller. A superhero movie that uses the genre to explore identity and the experience of the African Diaspora is very much worth the 1 billion it has already surpassed at the box office. Not only does the film break ground on creating the platform to imagine thriving African nations who are free to rule themselves, and the relationship between the continent of Africa and African-Americans, Coogler puts forth the best treatment of women that I have seen in any movie. Period. So much so that the Black Panther, T’Challa, is not actually the hero of the story. It’s Nakia.
Played flawlessly by Lupita Nyong’o, the character of Nakia at first seems like a love interest and a female supporting role with her own cool skills. But when I watched the movie a second time, I realized that the story actually pits her as the hero who stands in opposition to the “villain” Erik Killmonger. (Killmonger is a very complex and sympathetic character, the most poignant of the film for me. I think his approach is erroneous, but the question of the film is less “who” is the villain than “what” is the villain.)
(Warning: contains spoilers)
They both see the pain outside of Wakanda
Killmonger grew up in inner city Oakland, and also served in the military traveling extensively. He felt personally the pain of the African-American experience and the deep injustices that plague the world. Nakia has also spent extensive time outside Wakanda as a spy on missions around the globe. When we first meet her she is on a mission among human traffickers, not only rescuing the women who have been kidnapped but also protecting a male child soldier. They each have intimate knowledge of the ways that black people are suffering and in need of empowerment. Where they differ is in how they want to address it.
They both want to empower black people
After T’Challa is crowned king of Wakanda, he and Nakia have an important conversation as they stroll through the marketplace. T’Challa asks her what she would have him do as king. Without hesitation she replies, “Share our resources.” She is the first person in the film to suggest that Wakanda needs to look outward and move away from their seclusion. Herein lies a key difference between her and Killmonger: she looks at the mistakes of the world and wants to learn from them to improve upon what has been done before. She says to T’Challa, “Other countries offer aid and refuge, we could do it better!” Killmonger on the other hand looks at the mistakes of the world and seeks to recreate destructive patterns against the original perpetrators. When he and T’Challa are fighting he tells him, “I learned from my enemies that you have to beat them at their own game.” He sees suffering in the world and wants to use the resources of Wakanda to arm black people so they can turn the tables of colonization back on their oppressors. In the process he has no problem killing several black people. His plan would continue the cycle of death and endless power struggles. Nakia’s plan is to break the cycle entirely. When she rescues women and the child soldier from human trafficking she tells them, “Carry yourselves home now. Take the boy with you, get him to his people.” She gives them power to immediately take ownership of themselves and power to help someone else. Her every move preserves life. To learn from what has failed in the past and do something new and different that could truly change the world.
They are both offered the heart shaped herb
Killmonger wins the right to be Black Panther and wastes no time consuming the heart shaped herb, the secret to the Black Panther’s abilities. His immediate next step is to destroy it so that no one other than him can have it. In that same moment Nakia slips in and plucks one last herb, again showing her drive towards preservation. As Nakia journeys with Shuri and Ramonda, T’Challa’s sister and mother, Ramonda urges Nakia to take the herb herself. Nakia is trained in combat and would make a very good Black Panther. But she refuses to grasp for power that is not rightly hers. She declines to join the power struggle and in so doing is later able to use the herb to save T’Challa’s life. She understands in a profound way how to use power in ways that are rightly ordered for the flourishing of all, not just for her own advancement.
They both exert power in Wakanda
Killmonger becomes king of Wakanda through an endless series of death. We see him kill multiple people on screen in his quest towards Black Panther, and he tells T’Challa about all the people he has killed along the way. “All this death just so I could kill you.” Killmonger is a man whose life has tragically been marked by death since childhood, and he sees no other way of living than to kill. When Nakia sees Wakanda teetering on the brink of destruction under his rule, she has a choice. She can support Killmonger as king and serve Wakanda in the hopes that things will turn out all right. She responds vehemently when asked to serve her country, “No, I’ll SAVE my country!” She partners with other women to fight Killmonger, and ultimately T’Challa tells her, “You saved me. You saved our nation.” The way they each exert power is diametrically opposed. Every choice she makes is for the furtherance of flourishing for all people.
They both interact with women
I did not see it clearly until my third viewing of the film (it really is that good), that Killmonger only has two significant interactions with women other than Nakia. We never see or hear of his mother, he is always surrounded by men and addresses men. He has a girlfriend who only has two lines of dialogue, and whom he treats as expendable. Then we see him strangle a female shaman when she initially balks at destroying the heard shaped herb. He threatens her, “When I tell you do to something, I mean that s***.” The only way he interacts with women is to dominate and treat them as objects. In refusing to be interdependent with women, Killmonger ultimately cuts himself off from true power and success. His life is lopsided and unidimensional. He can only see one way of being and succumbs to the cycle of death. In sharp contrast, Nakia has thriving relationships with women and is nearly always working collaboratively with them. Together these women are creators and protectors, imagining many ways of being that can result in vibrant lives.
This is one of the strongest aspects of Black Panther, that the female characters are complex and diverse and all have meaningful relationships with each other. Part of what makes Nakia strong is her willingness to be interconnected with others, specifically other women. These women are also what make T’Challa and Wakanda strong. Their society is one that is marked by creativity and equity. When the women are shared partners in their national life, the possibilities become boundless. Wakanda is a fictional place that is giving all black people the opportunity to imagine different possibilities for themselves and their communities. Wakanda is also giving the whole world a chance to imagine what a shared future could look like for us all. If Nakia is leading the way, I’m here for it.