As more and more of the public flocks to theatres to catch a Black Panther screening, much of the conversation’s been dedicated to comparing and contrasting T’Challa and Killmonger’s opposing views on the role Wakanda should be playing – and should have played – outside of its borders. But the reality is that Black Panther‘s female characters are engaged in a much more nuanced, and ultimately more interesting, dialogue about the film’s ideas.
Though he’s the film’s titular hero, T’Challa is, in a lot of ways, kind of a cipher for the audience throughout most of the film. We’re introduced to Wakanda through his eyes at a point in his life where he’s unsure of exactly who he is, both as a hero and as a king; these are pieces of his identity that he looks to the women closest to him to help him work through and understand. In that very first scene where we meet Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s quite literally gone out of his way to interrupt her mission abroad specifically because he needs her support in the wake of his father’s recent death and his impending coronation.
While Nakia and T’Challa’s romantic past undoubtedly factors into why he seeks her out, it’s important to read somewhat deeper into T’Challa’s impulse to immediately reach out to Nakia, given her ideas about what role Wakanda plays in the world in the wake of T’Chaka’s death.
Unlike Killmonger, who comes to argue in favour of a radical, expansionist Wakanda that subjugates the rest of the world for its own good and as a kind of payback for centuries of black disenfranchisement, Nakia champions a more complicated and humanitarian sort of diplomacy. It’s telling that Nakia is the person we see T’Challa conferring with at such a pivotal moment in Wakanda’s political history, because by the end of the film, it’s her perspective that T’Challa chooses to see things from.
Again, because T’Challa is something of a cipher, he doesn’t exactly spend much of the film trying to argue against Nakia. Rather, he listens to what she has to say, takes her words to heart, and asks that she stay close to him as they embark on Black Panther‘s larger epic adventures around the globe. Here, it’s T’Challa’s respect for Nakia (and all of the women around him) that makes him strong and introduces us to the chorus of powerful voices that do, in their way, clash with Nakia’s.
The ideological gap between Nakia and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the general of the royal bodyguard/special forces unit the Dora Milaje, is without a doubt the source of Black Panther‘s most narratively-fascinating and well-thought-out debate. In them, we see the merits of both sides of the argument about whether Wakanda should reveal itself to the world. Nakia, who spends time out in the larger world because of her duties as a Wakandan spy, intimately understands the potential her nation has to become a transformative agent of empowerment and liberation for countries in need. Okoye (and to a lesser extent Queen Mother Ramonda, played by Angela Bassett) is the staunchest of traditionalists whose beliefs represent the reality that Wakanda’s might is the direct result of their isolationism. Where Killmonger sees Wakanda as having committed an unforgivable sin by closing itself off from the world, Okoye understands the fundamental necessity of the country’s secrecy.
Though it’s easy to argue that Wakanda could and should have intervened in the world’s affairs long before the events of Black Panther, the difficult truth of the matter is that Wakanda was not always and perhaps still isn’t entirely invulnerable. There’s no way of knowing at which point in history Wakanda leapfrogged the rest of the world in terms of technology, or when it could have safely revealed itself and potentially gone to war with other nations. The ancient vibranium pickaxe Klaue and Killmonger steal from the fictional British museum is invaluable, but it’s a snapshot of where Wakanda was at the time. The weapon was undoubtedly formidable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Wakanda was in a position to wage open war with the world with any hope of emerging as the victor. In shrouding itself in secrecy, Wakanda was able to become the formidable force we know it to be, and Okoye keenly understands that. That doesn’t necessarily mean that that stance is the morally right one — and we see Okoye coming to grips with the difficulty of that truth when she’s torn by her compulsion to remain loyal to the throne after Killmonger takes it.
The scene toward the end of the film when Okoye and Nakia voice their ideological differences is self-contained, but it’s also an encapsulation of the debates that T’Challa has been subtextually party to throughout the entire film. Their discourse is the foundation upon which T’Challa – and by extension, the rest of Wakanda — builds his new ideology. What’s most profound about the split between the two women is that the film goes out of its way to make sure the audience understands that neither of them is really in the wrong and that their parting of ways ends up being the right decision. Were it not for Nakia, Ramonda, T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman), T’Challa would without a doubt have been murdered. But Okoye staying close to the throne with the other Dora Milaje ends up putting her in the perfect position to rally her troops to rise up against Killmonger in Black Panther‘s climactic battle.
Black Panther wants us to listen to its women both because it’s the right thing to do and because that’s part of the egalitarian political society that it depicts Wakanda as being. A number of the other tribes that make up Wakanda’s ruling elites are shown as being led by women, and Nakia herself is the appointed champion of the River Tribe who, should they choose to do so, would challenge T’Challa in ritual combat for the throne. T’Challa has faith in Nakia because of his personal relationship with her (and because she’s right), but no matter what, Wakanda’s culture still would have elevated her as a rightful potential claimant to the throne because she’s the woman for the job.
Even outside of Wakanda’s politics or Black Panther‘s message about Wakanda’s responsibilities, the women in the film are the force that propels the story forward. Shuri is the not only the scene-stealer of the film, but she’s also the driving force behind Wakanda’s most recent technological innovations. These end up not only saving her brother’s life, directly and indirectly, on multiple occasions, but also all of Wakanda; without her, T’Challa (and Ross) would be dead, Killmonger would rule Wakanda, and the entire world would be engulfed in vibranium-powered conflict. Meanwhile, the warriors of Okoye’s Dora Milaje are the primary force that keeps Wakanda from collapsing entirely.
Put simply, it’s the voices of Black Panther‘s women that ultimately make the movie so dynamic and help the movie lay a larger groundwork for future additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wakanda is the future – and the future is female.