Black Panther: Representation, gender, and decolonization

Maisha Maison, left, and Khairat Salum discuss gender, representation and decolonization in Black Panther.
Maisha Manson, left, and Khairat Salum discuss gender, representation and decolonization in Black Panther.

This article contains spoilers.

Released in February, Black Panther has enthralled audiences with its action-packed tale of T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), battling for his place as King of Wakanda. But part of what makes this film notable is how it breaks the mold of the superhero movie, as the first to feature a black director and black actors in all the leading roles. We spoke with Khairat Salum ­­and Maisha Manson, master’s students in Cultural Studies at UW Bothell, about why this film has resonated with black audiences across America and the world.

Why do you think Black Panther has had such an overwhelmingly positive reception, especially from the black community?

Khairat: Well it’s a movie made by a black director with an almost entirely black cast, and it’s not depicting the typical way of showing the black community or life in Africa. Also, so many Marvel movies feature white superheroes. And for black children to be able to relate to different characters — the warriors, Black Panther, or even the villain — I think that’s what is making it so popular.

It just makes you proud, and not just for black community. It makes people of color proud of where they come from. It makes me proud of where I come from.

Maisha: I think this movie has had such a positive reception for a couple reasons. One is representation: this is a film that is full of so many different black people, and it has a variety of black bodies in it. When people saw the poster, there was a lot of excitement, because this is a Marvel film with black people I can physically identify with.

Another reason — and this idea isn’t fully formed yet — is because of the hype of white people around the film. There is a slew of white people who don’t want this movie to be real, and that uproar is a direct conversation to the racism in film and in large-scale popular media. I think that’s another reason the film has come to the forefront. We know that what makes this film good — not just good as in go see it because it’s cool, but also good as in good for society — is that there is not a film that’s about black people and for black people that’s not also about religion, misogyny, or ghetto-centrism.

Do you see this as a film that’s about and for black people?

M: Yes and no. Yes, in that it’s a movie acted by black people and targeted toward a black audience. No because it’s still supporting Marvel films. Black Panther is only here to support Marvels’ business of making Infinity Wars [films about and targeted toward white people].

Let’s talk about the treatment of women in the movie.

M: I loved all the female characters in the film. All the “anointed ones” (The Royal Guard) have a lot of power, and I love it. But the film still doesn’t pass the Bechdel test: that is, two female characters never engage in a conversation that isn’t about a man. The female characters are not fully developed people unless in relation to men.

Also, the women in the film are ignored, infantilized and dismissed.

K: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) at the beginning of the film says we need to open Wakanda to help fellow people, because she’s a spy working outside Wakanda and she has seen what other black people are going through. But (the male characters) tell her no, we can’t open the doors to immigrants because they bring their problems. It’s not until the end of the film that the idea is brought back, by N’Jobu (Michael B. Jordan). So it was very interesting how Nikita brought up the idea but then in the end N’Jobu takes credit for it.

M: Then there’s Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s teenage sister. She runs all of the technology in Wakanda. She’s a genius and amazing, but she’s still depicted like a silly little girl. She crashes the car, and, in the middle of an important ceremony, is asking “Can we go?”

K: One thing I liked is when Shuri says that the CIA Agent Everett Ross is “another broken white boy to fix.” It reminded me of in Scandal, when Khandi Alexander’s character Maya Lewis (aka Mama Pope) gives a speech about the normative roles black women have fallen under in society as people who are only there to pick up others — their children, their man, white people — but no one is picking them up. And for me that was one of the scenes in Black Panther where the film addressed the roles black female characters are often given in Hollywood as well as the roles they take in society.

Do you see the film as a kind of social commentary?

M: I see this film as speculative fiction. It’s not a fantasy film like most super hero films are. It’s speculative because it creates a fictional world to look for solutions to real-world problems.

Black Panther is creating and imagining an African community that has not been touched by colonization. It tries to work out “what does liberation look like in the hands of black people.” Killmonger wants to pursue liberation of the black community worldwide through colonial means. He wants to hand everyone weapons and help them liberate themselves through violence.

But ultimately the movie says liberation through violence and colonization is wrong — Killmonger dies and the plan is stopped. The film says the right way to decolonize is through education, specifically a non-Westernized black education. That’s why T’Challa builds schools at the end of the film, to liberate the black community.

K: I saw a post on Facebook recently that said, “What if Wakanda was real?” I think there is truth in this idea, that Wakanda is real.

M: It’s what is being lost when we’re not paying attention to indigenous communities.

Maisha Manson studies the performance of queer and trans people of color as resistance. Maisha is also interested in how comics tell narratives of resistance and marginalized identities.

Khairat Salum studies how the women in her life and in the Swahili culture use the Swahili language, customs and traditions to create spaces where they can tell their stories. Khairat is a visual artist interested in artwork responding to social events.