Black Panther has been one of the most highly anticipated films ever, both on its own merit as a culturally significant story of the power of legacy, and because of its contribution to the world building of the MCU. It promised to transcend the genre of superhero films with its dazzling amalgam of tribal heritage and technological achievement, as well as its unabashed look at the Diasporic divide of an African nation, accomplishable only because its subject matter pertained to a fictitious nation rich in its diverse heritage.
While it contributed greatly to the superhero genre, and overcame many of its common adversities, never did it give or overcome so much than through the presence of its female characters. They represented the core of the film’s plot, and the soul of its ambitions. They didn’t exist to be stared at in tight costumes, nor to be rescued, nor to be token representations of their gender. They existed to demonstrate the power of Wakanda, its people, and its spirit. Through the grace of T’Challa’s mother Queen Ramonda, the ferocity of his bodyguards the Dora Milaje, the determination of his operative Nakia, and the technological knowledge of his sister Shuri, the women of Black Panther stole the show, and here's how!
WARNING: Major spoilers for Black Panther ahead.
15 THE FIRST APPEARANCE OF THE DORA MILAJE
When Black Panther begins, it’s not in the bountiful Afrofuturist utopia of Wakanda, but in the projects in Oakland, California. Two men are planning an act of violence out of an apartment; one of their sons plays basketball in the street below. When a sudden knock on the door sends them scrambling to secure their firearms, one of them looks terrified. He knows the knock will not come a second time. As his partner opens the door, he is greeted with an impressive sight; two regal women in red and gold armor, gold spears at their sides. Their heads are shaved, and their expressions are grim.
They enter and address the men in their native tongue; they are Wakandan, and they have come to announce the presence of T’Chaka, the King. But before the Black Panther appears, they are the first representation of Wakandan might and grace on screen.
14 WHEN T’CHALLA FREEZES DURING NAKIA’S COVERT MISSION
One of the first scenes involving T’Challa establishes him as a serious young man of purpose, but also that he is infallible. He is going to be crowned the new King of Wakanda after the death of his father, T’Chaka, at the hands of the Winter Soldier. He is aiding Nakia, a Wakandan spy and former lover, in her mission to liberate captured Wakandans from human traffickers, and hoping to request her presence at his crowning ceremony. Only, Nakia is not here for his help, and not down for his gallant intrusion into her affairs.
His loyal bodyguard, General Okoye, accuses him of “freezing” during interactions with Nakia, which is exactly what he does, imperiling her mission by almost getting himself killed. She saves his life and holds him accountable for his “superhero antics”.
13 THE ARRIVAL OF QUEEN RAMONDA
Following T’Challa’s brave (if ill-advisable) intervention of Nakia’s mission, the pair return home to Wakanda with General Okoye to reunite with the five tribes and begin preparations for the crowning ceremony. When they arrive in the capitol city, T’Challa is greeted by his mother, Queen Ramonda, played with majestic solemnity by Angela Bassett.
Queen Ramonda represents a different sort of Wakandan woman than either Nakia or Okoye. She combines power, strength, and diplomacy, while also evoking the kind-hearted familial legacy that T’Challa and his tribe come from. She reminds him of his duties as a king, but also that he is a beloved son and brother. His role is not as cut and dry as other superheroes, since he is responsible for a nation in all aspects.
12 THE STRIKING FASHION OF THE CROWNING CEREMONY
When T’Challa is to be crowned King of Wakanda following his father’s death at the hands of the Winter Soldier, he does so in front of all of the five Wakandan tribes. The Lion tribe, the White Gorilla tribe, the Crocodile tribe, and the Rhino tribe may each designate a challenger to his right to the throne, and if they are victorious, could usurp the Panther tribe’s steadfast leadership of Wakanda.
The women’s fashion is brightly colored and festive for the special day. Their hair, worn a variety of ways from long to short, is wrapped in unique styles, from intricate braids with various colors, beads, and feathers flashing in the sunlight, to short hairstyles with designs shaved into them. Numerous headwraps, headscarves, and headdresses are worn as well, to reflect the pageantry of the occasion and pay honor to the Panther tribe.
11 SHURI’S CHALLENGE TO THE THRONE
Any tribe may challenge T’Challa’s right to the throne of Wakanda, but they must beat him in armed combat to gain the title of King. The crowning ceremony begins with Zuri, a warrior loyal to his father T’Chaka, the previous Black Panther, calling on the tribes to put forth a challenger. As each tribe declares whether or not they will put forth a warrior, the right to challenge falls to the Black Panther tribe, where T’Challa’s own sister challenges him, but not for the right to the throne!
With the typical pluck and sass that would come to define the humor of her character, Shuri challenges him just so she can take off her uncomfortable corset and get the ceremony over with. In the comics, T’Challa would later give Shuri a chance to become the Black Panther herself, and she would prove herself worthy of the title.
10 GENERAL OKOYE SPEARING KLAUE’S CAR
A valuable artifact is stolen from a British museum by one of South Africa’s greatest mercenaries and thieves, Klaue. An old enemy of T’Challa’s father, the former King of Wakanda, Klaue has been a thorn in Wakanda’s side for decades, kidnapping its people, artifacts, and Vibranium in an attempt to sell them for profit.
When T’Challa, Nakia, and General Okoye track Klaue to South Korea where he plans to sell the Vibranium artifact, their identity is discovered in an underground gambling club. T’Challa is incapacitated during the ensuing fight and Nakia and Okoye jump into action pursuing Klaue’s getaway car. While Nakia drives at high speeds, Okoye adopts a warrior stance on the hood of the car and readies her spear. With one powerful throw, she hurtles her spear like a javelin and it pierces his SUV right down the middle.
9 SHURI’S VIRTUAL DRIVING
After T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye are discovered tracking Klaue to a South Korean night club for those that deal in illegal wares, Klaue manages to escape after the scuffle. While Nakia and Okoye are able to pursue him immediately, T’Challa follows after the fact, having been incapacitated in the fight. With the help of his sister Shuri remotely driving a car, he’s able to crouch on top and instantly spring into action as Black Panther against Klaue’s henchmen.
Shuri is back in her laboratories in Wakanda, making her entire role as Black Panther’s chauffeur a virtual experience. This also means the car she’s driving is a drone vehicle that obeys her every maneuver. She has quite the motor skills despite being a teenager, and she’s clearly glad to show them off.
8 GOING TO THE WHITE GORILLA TRIBE FOR HELP
When Erik Killmonger challenges T’Challa’s rule and is victorious in their fight to the death, the people of Wakanda have to pledge their allegiance to their new king or face violent consequences. Queen Ramonda, Shuri, and Nakia must go into hiding, but General Okoye is obligated to stay and protect the king as the leader of the Dora Milaje.
With four out of the five tribes swearing allegiance to Killmonger, the women of the royal family, protected by Nakia, must travel to the White Gorilla tribe and beg the help of M’baku, their leader and a warrior who once challenged T’Challa’s right as king. To humble themselves to their greatest opposer is not an easy task for the proud women of the Panther tribe, but they know the aid of the White Gorilla tribe could mean the difference between life and death for the people of Wakanda and the world.
7 SHURI SAVING AGENT EVERETT ROSS
Eventually T’Challa, Nakia, and General Okoye get their man, and Klaue, the infamous mercenary and thief, is apprehended and put into the custody of American covert agent Everett Scott (Martin Freeman) for the theft of that rare and valuable Vibranium artifact. While being interrogated by Scott, Klaue starts revealing secrets about Wakanda, which makes the agent second guess the integrity of his new Wakandan allies.
Before Scott has time to question the validity of what Klaue has said, Erik Killmonger attacks the facility where he’s being held and helps him escape. Scott is mortally wounded in the attack, and there’s only one place where he can be healed; Shuri’s laboratory in Wakanda, where the latest biotech heals his gunshot wound in a matter of hours.
6 GENERAL OKOYE IS WILLING TO KILL THE MAN SHE LOVES
Though General Okoye comes across as a no-nonsense warrior, who only cares about protecting her king and maintaining order in Wakanda, behind her cold exterior is a woman of great complexity. She loves W’kabi, a loyal friend to T’Challa who also happens to be the leader of Wakanda’s security/military force.
When Erik Killmonger takes control of Wakanda and wants to open its borders, W’kabi agrees with him. He must obey the new king, as he must obey the tradition that made his ascension possible, but he has also felt that Wakanda needed to share its resources with the world. When T’Challa turns out to be alive, and Okoye defies Killmonger and pledges herself to him, she finds herself on the opposite side of her lover. She must choose between the future of Wakanda and her love for W’kabi.
5 SHURI’S PANTHER HANDCANONS
Black Panther showcased T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri’s extraordinary intellect and perky comic timing, while the comic series was able to convey her impressive fighting skills and martial training. Along with her brother T’Challa, Shuri was given every opportunity to hone the skills necessary to embody the essence of Bast one day, and take on the mantle of the Black Panther.
Towards the end of the film, when four out of the five tribes have pledged themselves to Killmonger, the White Gorilla tribe comes to the aid of the recently recovered T’Challa. When he returns home to reclaim his throne, Shuri and Nakia accompany him. Nakia acquires Dora Milaje armor, and Shuri acquires panther-shaped handcanons. She uses them to fire laser blasts at Killmonger before he can attack T’Challa.
4 THE DORA MILAJE COMMITTING MUTINY
Erik Killmonger becomes the new King of Wakanda legitimately, besting T’Challa in hand to hand combat by hurtling him over a precipice and proving himself the superior challenger. The rest of the tribes must swear allegiance to him, including the Dora Milaje, previously the bodyguards to T’Challa. Though it pains her to do it, General Okoye and her fellow warriors must align themselves with a man that killed their beloved leader. Nakia begs her to flee with her and the rest of the royal family but she refuses.
When it is later revealed that T’Challa is in fact alive and well, she turns her back on Killmonger, committing what amounts to mutiny. Along with the rest of the Dora Milaje, she joins T’Challa and the White Gorilla tribe in taking on Killmonger and his allies.
3 THE UNIQUE FASHION OF THE FIVE TRIBES
The five tribes of Wakanda are broken up into citizens that reside in different regions of the nation and are represented by different animal totems. In the comics, Wakandans were either members of the White Gorilla Cult, the Lion Cult, the Crocodile Cult, the Rhino Cult, or the Panther Cult. This is somewhat similar in the film, although they are just as often identified by their regional location or the resources they contribute, such as the “Mining Tribe” or the “Border Tribe”.
The unique fashion of the five tribes is best displayed by the women. From intricate face painting, to gigantic fanned collars, and huge statement jewelry pieces, they revel in the specific looks that distinguish one tribe from another. Other examples include lip disks, a variety of facial piercings and of course, an extensive parade of hairstyles.
2 THEY BROKE STEREOTYPES
Many of the women we’ve seen on screen in the movies that are part of the MCU and DCEU have occupied many stereotypical roles; token estrogen-filled team member, damsel citizen in distress, girlfriend to be used as bait for superhero boyfriend, two-dimensional supervillain, or over-sexualized superheroine.
The women of Black Panther not only break these stereotypes, they make them seem like the flimsy tropes that they are. The women of Wakanda have extremely vital roles to play in shaping the future of the country, and the women of Black Panther are more the main characters than the men, especially since so many of their actions determine the plot of the entire film. They are not secondary characters, and they are not present simply to be ogled or admired. They exist because there would be no Black Panther without them.
1 THEY ARE THE POWER BEHIND THE KINGDOM
Wakanda is a nation trapped in the confines of a paradox: it boasts a utopian capitol, as well as lush jungles and open plains. It has immense natural resources, technology decades ahead of the most highly developed first world countries, and rich history. To the rest of the world it’s an impoverished country full of brutality and self-imposed isolation.
The female characters in Black Panther are the bleeding heart of the nation. Queen Ramonda presents herself as much the mother of Wakanda as T’Challa, and her daughter Shuri is behind every technological advancement of her country, acting as the Q to T’Challa’s James Bond with her intricate knowledge of science and tech. Nakia is an international spy and member of the “Dogs of War”, protecting Wakandan interests in every part of the world, and General Okoye keeps martial order as the leader of the Dora Milaje, T’Challa’s all-female bodyguard detail.