Movies have the power to shape our perception of different groups (gender, age, ethnicity etc.). Today, I want to focus on women of colour (WOC) and the issues of not only being seen on screen, but being seen as complex individuals. If black women and girls are absent from cinema, what should the world then understand about this group’s ability to exist in that space? Without a doubt, black female actors need to be in movies, but they also need to take on characters that are multidimensional and do not feed negative stereotypes.
What struck me immediately on seeing Marvel’s Black Panther earlier this month was not only that the cast was predominantly black, unheard of for a movie of this kind, but that the female characters in particular were complete and, on the whole, positive depictions of black womanhood.
You see, black women as a group have battled for a long time with perceptions that they are unlikeable (can we please lay the ‘angry black woman’ trope to bed?), unattractive (Western beauty ideals are hardly compatible with ‘black’ features) and unsuccessful (WOC are glaringly absent from many leadership fields). What we see in Black Panther then is a very necessary vision of the world where each of these myths are debunked… and the result is glorious.
Representation allows the world to see WOC as multidimensional
My favourite character in the movie is without a doubt Shuri, the Princess of Wakanda. She isn’t ‘sassy’, sexualised or submissive. Instead, she is a brilliant, well-rounded character that’s fundamentally likeable. Played masterfully by Letitia Wright, Shuri is a young engineer who has single-handedly masterminded the greatest technological innovations, in the most advanced society in the universe. Smart? Check. Shuri also delivers some of the best one-liners in the movie, with the most endearing confidence I might add (“Is this Wakanda?”, “No, it’s Kansas.”) Witty? Check. She also goes to battle without hesitation when the time comes, using one of her own creations as a weapon of course. Brave? Check. Shuri is far from the only strong female role-model in this movie, though.
From Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o, who is a highly skilled spy and humanitarian to Okoye, leader of the Dora Milaje – the elite, all-female warrior group, played by Danai Gurira, who is fiercely loyal and a total badass, Wakandan women display a diverse range of awesome attributes.
Representation allows the world to see the many different forms beauty can take
Whilst Nakia is very much positioned as the love interest, all the women present different, equally viable depictions of beauty in this movie. Indeed, the film is in part a visual ode to black beauty in all its forms. Most noticeable is the treatment of black hairstyles – from traditional African looks to styles reflective of the current natural hair movement, the film’s head of hair, Camille Friend, does an amazing job of showcasing how versatile black hair can be.
This not only inspires WOC to embrace their kinks and curls, as I have (If Lupita can wear her hair in Bantu knots and still be one of the most celebrated beauties on the planet, then maybe I can too!), but informs the beauty industry, helping to widen the scope of Western beauty standards. For me, the most powerful (and hilarious) moment in the movie pertaining to this is when Okoye wears a wavy-haired bob wig on an undercover mission.
When a fight breaks out, she swiftly snatches it from her head and throws it at her attacker, saying everything that needs to be said about rigid Eurocentric beauty ideals in one action.
Representation allows the world to see WOC as leaders and intellectuals
Black Panther presents a vision of the world where it is in fact an African nation that is the most powerful on Earth. As race relations worsen following Brexit and President Trump’s increasingly erratic so-called leadership, this is a timely re-imagining that is hugely empowering for the black community, women in particular. For example, in both the UK and the US, WOC are underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
It seems the prejudices that prevented black women from breaking into STEM fields in the past (see the 2017 biopic Hidden Figures if you haven’t already) have had a lasting impact. However, in Marvel’s world, the most intelligent and accomplished scientist is a 16-year-old black girl. I believe a mainstream movie that places WOC in such roles could have a very real impact on what black women and girls perceive to be possible in the future.
Black Panther is uniquely empowering for black women and acts as a good template for increased diversity in cinema, which I think is reason for us all to celebrate. Whether you’re a fan of comic book movie adaptations or not, it’s inarguable that Ryan Coogler has achieved much with this multi-layered movie. Whilst it’s not perfect, it does somehow manage to dissect race issues and celebrate African culture whilst staying true to the genre and providing audiences with a visual feast (were Wakanda real, I’d be on the next flight!). Massive box office success everywhere seems to suggest that the world is in agreement. Diversity sells and representation really does matter.
Main image credit: Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios