The Most Important Debate in Black Panther Is, Unsurprisingly, Between Two Women

Culture


Tucked into the heart of Black Panther, a complex rumination on legacy and destiny wearing the mask of a superhero movie, is an impassioned exchange between two women that only grows in significance as the film progresses. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the fearsome leader of the kingdom guards known as the Dora Milaje, encounter each other in the Wakandan palace after new king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has been overthrown by black American Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). At this point in the film, the kingdom is in crisis; emotions are high and the future is in peril. The two women are headed in different directions, physically and ideologically, and it’s here, with these two characters, that director Ryan Coogler chooses to lay out the film’s central debate in clear, well-elucidated terms.

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It’s a rare moment in film and almost unheard of in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: two women speaking alone about ideas and framing the film’s central themes. Their conversation plays like an AP Bechdel Test; even as Wakanda falls, these two women are able to engage in passionate, intelligent debate that involves men but is actually about the women themselves, and actually speaks not only to who they are, but what they want their country to be.

Black Panther Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), and Okoye (Danai Gurira)​

Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), and Okoye (Danai Gurira)

Marvel

Female characters who get a share of the action and screen time can be found in almost every Marvel movie, but no movie until Black Panther has provided so many women with so many different kinds of roles. And, while characters like Black Widow and Valkyrie (and, one hopes, the forthcoming Wasp and Captain Marvel) are model-breaking badasses, you’d probably have to go back to the original Thor in 2011 to find an extended scene in which two women talk to each other. And even in that instance, Natalie Portman’s Jane and Kat Dennings’ Darcy weren’t distilling the film’s fundamental conflict into one succinct, passionate exchange.

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Its sheer rarity aside, what’s also remarkable is that Okoye and Nakia, in this scene and in the film as a whole, act not as simple emotional signifiers for the audience but as the intellectual tentpoles upon which the central ideas of the film rest. The importance of this can’t be overstated.

Marvel

The plot of Black Panther is driven by a fight between two perspectives on the history and future of Wakanda, writ large on T’Challa and Killmonger. But these characters, unlike Nakia and Okoye, cannot clearly navigate their way through a political debate because of their personal stakes and past trauma.

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Reeling from his father’s death, T’Challa had tried to assume leadership of the thriving nation while also negotiating the question of how to relate to the outside world—a question exacerbated by Killmonger’s arrival. In taking the throne, the American wants to use Wakanda’s resources to empower African-descended people around the world whose fortunes have been oppressed by colonialism. Killmonger’s key motivation, however, is trauma. He returns vengeful, damaged, and singleminded in his rage. What begins as a philosophical divergence for the two characters quickly becomes deeply enmeshed in past and present pain.

After Killmonger bests and seemingly kills T’Challa, Nakia moves quickly to hide the vanquished king’s mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and sister Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), for fear that a similar fate will befall them. She runs into Okoye, and it’s then that the decisive scene occurs. Nakia assumes that Okoye, like her, will want to actively resist Killmonger but Okoye declines, pulling away while assuring Nakia, “My heart is with you.”

MATT KENNEDY/MARVEL

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It’s a debate that, arguably, wages in all corners of our society. One woman believes the security of her nation is tied to a peaceful transition of power; the other contends that if the power is unjust, the nation can never be secure.

Nakia says, “You are the greatest warrior Wakanda has. Help me overthrow him before he becomes too strong,”

“Overthrow?” Okoye replies. “I’m not a spy who can come and go as they so please. I am loyal to that throne, no matter who sits upon it.”

Nakia, who was once in a relationship with T’Challa, assures Okoye that her actions aren’t simply about the man. “I loved him. I love my country too.”

“Then you serve your country,” Okoye says.

Nakia answers: “No, I save my country.”

And with that they part.

The scene is masterful; it alone is worth the price of admission. It’s a brief acting showcase for two women who are ably up to the challenge, but perhaps more importantly, it’s a clear development of the themes with which the movie and its male main characters are wrestling. In an interview with ELLE.com, Gurira said of her character, “What I thought was really interesting was the idea of when someone has the responsibility of the longevity and the thriving of a nation on their shoulders….The idea of protecting the leadership of this nation, the sovereignty of this nation, even if you don’t like what’s happening.” T’Challa and Killmonger are fighting a personal battle with the tools of a nation. Nakia and Okoye are fighting a national one while putting personal feelings aside.

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T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) battle

Marvel

It’s a refreshing inversion of a dynamic that frequently plays out on screen, in which women bear the emotional weight of a conflict while men debate ideas. One wonders, upon review, what Queen Ramonda thinks of her late husband executing his brother and abandoning Killmonger; one wonders how she conceives of the fate of her nation. Coogler and cast’s Wakanda is a world in which one can easily imagine the queen weighing in, ruling, equally.

This film does not give Ramonda such a moment, but it does track Okoye’s struggle with her position. Ultimately, she and the rest of the Dora Milaje turn on Killmonger and fight for Wakanda because he reveals through his actions that he is less interested in a political shift in the country—one that aligns more closely with Nakia’s missions to save those in peril in other countries—than in destroying the nation, and perhaps the whole world, as a grand act of damaged vengeance.

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Queen Ramonda in exile, Black Panther

Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett)

MATT KENNEDY/MARVEL

Okoye doesn’t have to cede any of her significant power to change her mind and then her actions. Remarkably, she doesn’t even have to sacrifice what she believes for her relationship. Finding W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), whom she has called “my love,” on Killmonger’s side of the final battle, she stands her ground. “Would you kill me, my love?” W’kabi asks. Okoye’s answer: “For Wakanda? No question.”

While T’Challa and Killmonger’s journeys are emotionally wrenching and clearly consequential, it is nothing short of revolutionary that these two female characters get to state their beliefs, fight for their beliefs, and hold those beliefs throughout the film, without question and without hesitation. Okoye and Nakia not only provide a model for political discourse and disagreement, but also a model for cinematic representation. These women are crucial to the structure of the film and to how the film’s central ideas play out. And they’re fully human: defined by their ideas, their ability to communicate them, and the lengths they’ll go to fight for what they believe to be true.



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