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The women of ‘Black Panther’ are empowered not just in politics and war, but also in love

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Black Panther” enjoyed a record-setting four-day opening weekend, earning a whopping $235 million at the box office. Fans rallied and showed up to experience a fictional futuristic African nation called Wakanda.

Praised for its strong feminist characters, “Black Panther” is described as a post-gender film for depicting the women of Wakanda as savvy warriors who are conscious of their power and know how to use it. Even the harshest critics of the film commend “Black Panther” for its gender politics.

We get to witness the power of the Dora Milaje, the all-female protection squad, and two of Wakanda’s fiercest warriors, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), who pair up to execute the nation’s most dangerous missions.

From the start, the story avoids the sexist tropes we are accustomed to watching on film. The women’s sex appeal is obvious but secondary to their personality and skill. They are strategic opponents in battle, saving the life of Black Panther T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) several times over. Equally entrusted with guiding and protecting the nation, they do not need to be rescued, sustained or lauded by men.

When romances are revealed between Nakia and T’Challa, and Okoye and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), we get to see the dynamics of each relationship play out.

Many fans in 2018 used "Black Panther" to celebrate a shift toward a more positive, empowering portrayal of people from the continent of Africa. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

Nakia’s rescue mission is interrupted when T’Challa finds her to extend an invitation to his royal coronation. Nakia agrees to go but reminds him that her life is outside of Wakanda fighting for those who are oppressed. She plans to resume her mission after his ceremony concludes.

King T’Challa is later seen strolling through Wakanda alongside Nakia while wistfully implying she would make a great queen if she were not so ambitious. Nakia defiantly asserts she would, in fact, make a great queen because of her ambition (if she chose to marry). Despite his admission, their relationship is characterized by mutual respect, not a struggle for domination.

Nakia is a woman in dogged pursuit of her calling. Though her adoration for T’Challa is apparent, she views her vocation as equally important and is not willing to abandon it to join him because he rose in position.

He disagrees with her personal politics but honors her decision. Nakia only returns when T’Challa recruits her for an important mission because he missed her. Later in the film, she realizes she has fallen in love with him, too.

There is little screen time devoted to Okoye and W’Kabi’s romance, but one scene stands out. The couple reaches an impasse when he aligns himself with an outsider, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), to overtake Wakanda. As they confront each other on the battlefield, W’Kabi in a manipulative way asks whether Okoye would kill him, the man she loved. He quickly surrenders after Okoye refuses to drop her weapon and makes it clear her loyalty is to her country. A staunch defender of the throne, she is unwilling to abandon her responsibilities at the whims of a man.

Like Nakia, Okoye remains committed to her cause and undeterred by the desires of her lover.

“Black Panther” contains powerful messages about gender roles based on how Wakandan women navigate life and love. Nakia and Okoye are allowed to be the full expressions of themselves, as women pursuing their passions while determining how their lives will unfold.

Rarely do we see women on film who are as graceful and determined. Even while in love, they are assertive and capable of independent thought. When faced with choosing between their dreams or the love of a man, they quite simply choose their dreams.

We do not learn the fate of Okoye and W’Kabi’s relationship, but T’Challa finds a way for Nakia to continue her community outreach and remain with him in Wakanda. Ultimately, Nakia finds love and happiness by staying true to herself.

“Black Panther” offers a refreshing reprieve from the misogynistic media with which we are regularly bombarded by showcasing empowered women that are inspiring because of their contributions to their country and the way they show up in their own lives. Women who know that love does not keep you from your life purpose, romance does not come before your personal values and you are a better partner when you are in purposeful pursuit of your calling.

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