This article was originally posted on The Guardian where it was titled Black Panther deserves an Oscar – but is it a feminist film? No way.
Next Sunday, Marvel’s Black Panther will compete for the best picture award at the Oscars. If it wins, it will not only be a first-time victory for a superhero movie, it will also be the first time a film that celebrates black culture will take the award. After all, unlike the few black films previously nominated, Black Panther is not a story about black suffering – it is a salute to black people’s rich cultural heritage.
These cultural elements are what I enjoyed most about the film: the music, the markets, the food, the aesthetics, the mythology and philosophy, the dance and communal vibrancy. I’m rooting for all this to lead to an Academy Award.
But one trophy Black Panther does not deserve is a black feminist one, though this is the honour an astonishing amount of commentators have bestowed since its release last year. It was lauded as a “black feminist triumph” and “the most feminist superhero movie yet”. Arguing that it deserves the best picture award, Los Angeles magazine last week lauded its “depiction of female empowerment”. Even the feminist Ms magazine listed Black Panther as one of its top 15 feminist films of 2018.
Sure, the female characters – Nakia, Okoye, Shuri and Ramonda, who play the powerful roles of undercover spy, head of an all-female army, head of a futuristic technology department and queen mother, respectively – are all unique dynamos. Moreover, they all have a mutually respectful relationship with the Black Panther, their king. Needless to say, they are all beautiful, intelligent and powerful black women; a trinity of qualities black women are too seldom afforded on mainstream screens.
But do these qualities in themselves make the film feminist? Not quite, and here’s why.
The most obvious reason is that Wakanda, the fictional African country where Black Panther takes place, is a patriarchy. In other words, it is a country where men hold power and where society is organised along male lineage. Feminism, last time I checked, seeks to end patriarchy – yet the women of Wakanda seem mostly happy to support it.
Second, Wakanda is a deeply traditionalist country, and tradition is, in my view, one of the biggest obstacles to women’s liberation in Africa. Just as in real life, in Black Panther the normalisation of oppression through tradition is often subtle. But throughout the film, there are scenes where tradition trumps whatever feminism is present: for example, following T’Challa’s resuscitation by M’baku, when the four women are obediently sent away so that the men can “unsentimentally” talk about serious issues. Or when, during a fight between the potential kings, Shuri complains about her corset – a jarring symbol of women’s oppression – being too tight.
In addition, Wakanda is a monarchy, which means that whatever rights the female characters have are handed to them by their king. If Erik Killmonger had succeeded in his bid to be king, the women of Wakanda would be ruled by a psychopathic leader and have little power to do anything about it. “The hereditary right to rule,” as Teju Cole writes in an essay about the film, is “as ideas go, somewhere between eugenics and phrenology”. Indeed, monarchies are especially troubling when you consider the atrocities women have faced at the hands of African monarchs for centuries. I’m thinking, for example, of Samory Touré, who became the Mali empire’s leader in the late 19th century, and who killed his own daughters because they flirted with a palace page.
But the most important reason Black Panther is not a feminist film is because the female characters are denied complexity. The women of Wakanda are literally picture-perfect. They are goddesses, divas; powerful, sexy, fearless women, always prepared to give therapeutic, balsamic words of wisdom to their king, who in turn goes through a complex range of emotions. There are three predominant stereotypes of African women in popular culture – “the struggler”, “the survivor” and “The super-empowered African woman” – that all serve to perpetuate a simplistic view of the continent. Nakia, Okoye, Shuri and Ramonda could hardly fit the third stereotype better. They are flawlessly irreproachable.
The point here is not to quell a perfectly recognisable desire to escape into a fantasy world for a couple of hours, especially when the multi-million fantasy world was previously so white. But just because mainstream culture is devoid of black feminist films, it doesn’t mean we should slap the feminist label on to every little spectacle we’re given. You can tell the difference when you watch a true feminist story such as The Colour Purple, which was also an international success, where the complexity and human sensibility of the female characters is rich and multidimensional.
We are at a strange point in our culture where it is considered more progressive to encourage institutions such as Hollywood to offer people of colour problematic roles that they were previously denied, rather than to envision new roles that can empower everyone. I am not interested in a black feminism that is based on black women being able to perform the same patriarchal representations that other groups have perfected.
I continue to believe that black feminism is about rejecting these systems and instead envisioning new ways of existing where black women can fearlessly thrive. If we don’t, we end up with yet another story of women giving up their purpose – because, of course, a king must have his way.