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Wakanda has at least two precious natural resources: a trove of the rare Vibranium mineral that has helped vault the secretive African nation a century (or more) ahead of the rest of the world – and a population full of valiant, fire-hearted women.
While Chadwick Boseman breaks new ground in Black Panther as Marvel Studios’ first black leading man, the film also showcases an abundance of female warriors who each save the day in unique style.
Emphasis on style.
While Boseman’s T’Challa must both protect and rule his kingdom, he depends a lot on the powerful women in his life. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira plays Okoye, the general in charge of Wakanda’s defense and the head of the all-female Dora Milaje secret service, while Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o steals his heart as Nakia, a Wakandan “war dog” spy who’s like James Bond and a Bond girl rolled into one.
Meanwhile, T’Challa’s brilliant little sis Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, is a Vibranium gadget-master on par with Tony Stark, fashioning everything from Black Panther’s kinetic armor to remote control fighter jets.
Finally, there is Black Panther’s foundation, his home base, his home — his recently widowed mother, Ramonda, played by Angela Bassett, who despite her grief summons history and wisdom to her son’s throne. He’s going to need that, too.
“Watching the movie for the first time, I was seeing the different women occupy the same space and be their full selves, acting not with competition but with agency,” Nyong’o says. “Their personal motivations are what leads them forward. They are not eye candy. Although …” She leans forward to look at the other women. “We do look pretty damn fly, I must say!”
Entertainment Weekly sat down with the Women of Wakanda just a day after they saw the film for the first time. They still seemed awestruck and praised director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) for allowing their characters to stand tall alongside the iconic male hero. He was backed up behind the scenes by powerful women as well, with cinematography by Mudbound Oscar-nominee Rachel Morrison and dazzling African-inspired costumes by Ruth E. Carter.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Wakanda is ahead of its time technologically, but it’s also ahead of its time in terms of equality. What is it about the culture of this fictional country that makes it such a place of resilient, brilliant women?
ANGELA BASSETT: It’s a nation that respects and reveres women. They think of us not just as Queen but Queen Mother. Mother is nurturer and the first teacher. That position is embraced. She’s not someone who is off to the side. Every mature woman is your auntie or your mother.
DANAI GURIRA: And in contemporary African cultures, it’s exactly that. It doesn’t matter if she’s a literal mother or not, an older woman is considered with respect. If you go into a store and you’re greeting someone or calling out to someone you call them “amai” in my country. [She was born in Iowa, but grew up in Zimbabwe.] That’s something Wakanda brought to the forefront that was beautiful.
Is part of it also the lore of Wakanda? That this is a fictional place that has never been conquered, so it never had to adopt the outside world’s views?
GURIRA: They were a nation uninterrupted. They got to go through their full evolution. Other countries on the continent were very interrupted and traumatized through colonization. Wakanda didn’t have that disruption. It was such an advanced nation, it actually allowed for evolution of gender roles. It recognized that you allow all your citizens to advance to their full potential.
LETITIA WRIGHT: Wakanda as a nation is so open to forward movement. It will, hopefully, inspire us in reality to go “Okay, cool, don’t limit the women to what they want to do.” [Gestures to Lupita] For example, Nakia is allowed to go out and be a spy and gather information for her nation, and she gets to choose whether she stays or goes. She’s not controlled by anyone. That’s powerful. She’s motivated by what’s in her soul and what she wants to do.
The same goes for your character, Shuri. She’s trusted with creating the tools that keep her brother safe as he keeps Wakanda safe.
WRIGHT: Her brother doesn’t look down on her like, “Ugh, you’re a kid, you can’t make a suit for me.” He’s like, “No, this is your domain! Kill it! Do a great job and make sure I’m protected. And I will respect that.” Life for women in Wakanda is beautiful. It’s inspirational. It’s something I’m gonna take from watching this film in my own life and for the future of my children as well, [laughs] when I have a family.
LUPITA NYONG’O: It was such a breath of fresh air seeing men and women living in their power with out one dwarfing the other. To me it was reflective of the fact that sexism is learned. To see a society where that’s not the focal point, where gender is not the fabric with which society is built and the delineations of sex are not oppressive, that’s really cool. And it’s possible.
That’s the value of a story like this, right? It’s a fantasy country and an imaginary world, but it’s nice to imagine things can be better. Why not?
GURIRA: Why not! It really does make you say, “Why Not”? To me, it’s about equality, and allowing each gender to come to the fullness of their potential without discriminatory hindrances. That is what this nation figured out.
Ramonda is queen of Wakanda, but now she is widowed. Her son is taking the throne. What would you say makes her powerful? What makes her a hero?
BASSETT: I think in her position she has a great deal of wisdom – and appreciation for generations coming after her. Her son is becoming king. She has the fine balance of mothering him, of being there for him and being proud of him and letting him go. She’s visionary in that she perhaps sees what he will become more clearly than he can. I think in another time and another place she was a warrior as well. She’s a support for these women around her and all that they are truly capable of being and doing. She loves unconditionally.
That is truly a mother’s power, isn’t it?
[Bassett gets called to leave early for work on Fox’s 9-1-1 series and departs the group.]
BASSETT: I love you. Kisses all around!
In the case of Shuri, you can tell her brother T’Challa really respects his little sister because he takes so much abuse and mockery from her.
WRIGHT: She’s a relatable character to other young girls with that brother sister vibe. Not only does he respect Shuri, but all the women. He holds his own as a man and a king, but he respects everyone and what they’re doing.
Same question for each of you that I asked Angela. What is it about your character that makes her a superhero?
WRIGHT: I’ll go first. What makes Shuri a superhero is not the physical side. Superheroes are usually very strong or masculine. They’ve got some muscles. But… [Starts giggling] This is why mum needs to be here, because she keeps us balanced! But I think what makes Shuri a superhero is the way she thinks. Her mind is a weapon.
What surprised you about her as you found the character? What’s below the surface?
WRIGHT: When I read the comic books, she’s serious all the time. With the script they wanted her to be smart, but she is so much fun. She picks on her brother, and she makes jokes – even if it may not be a joke. [Laughs] She’s witty and sharp. Always got something fiery to say.
NYONG’O: What I love about Nakia is she’s worldly. She speaks many languages. And she’s a chameleon in a sense. She is at once extremely rebellious and wants to do her own thing, but wants to do well by her country. I love that tension in her. I love her relationship with T’Challa. It’s … complicated. [Laughs] That’s the Facebook status.
She makes him stronger. But she’s also sort of his Kryptonite, to steal a reference from another universe. Just the sight of her makes him freeze.
NYONG’O: Yeah, exactly!
WRIGHT: [Quoting Gurira in the movie] “Don’t freeze!”
It humanizes him. It takes the …
NYONG’O: … the edge off. He’s just a guy.
I love the distinction between Okoye and Nakia, who insists she’s not a member of the Dora Milaje.
GURIRA: She didn’t go through the process. The training!
The Dora are all about collective consciousness, moving in unison as one. Nakia is more of a rebel. More independent.
NYONG’O: [Nodding] A lone wolf.
That unifying power seems special to Okoye, like that’s one of her strengths.
GURIRA: I envision her as a very intense young girl, who was competitive, but in a good way. She’s part of the border tribe, and very connected to the idea of nation protection. She’s a protector. I imagine her as a very focused 12-year-old. [Laughs] There was this idea I had whenever Okoye or any of the army are in the streets, that little girls look up to them and want to wear that uniform one day. She was once that little girl. She has been a very one-track-minded person. She is a very strong traditionalist. She believes in holding the country together.
It’s a great time to be a female warrior. When shooting this, Wonder Woman hadn’t come out, and some people were wondering if women would turn out for a superhero movie. Do you feel a change in the way audiences want more and different kinds of female heroes?
GURIRA: I never doubted that. People decide things based on lack. You don’t provide and then you say people don’t want things. But they didn’t have options on the table, so how can you really make that assessment? I actually think it’s the opposite. It was then learned through Wonder Woman, which was no surprise to most women. We were all ready to flock out to that.
That’s what I wondered. Something changed, but was it the gatekeepers who decide which films get made, or the audience?
ALL OF THEM: Gatekeepers.
GURIRA: I’ll see some films and some storylines, and whatever, and I’m like really? Maybe because I’ve been doing The Walking Dead, and that’s a gender-neutral world. … I’m always wondering, what is this representation where women always need to be saved by men? What is that about? That’s gatekeepers deciding that that is what we need to see. And it’s time to change that. Please.
We’re living in a time of women rising up in real life, too. Black Panther is hitting right in the heart of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement. Does it connect or draw energy from that with its many powerful women characters?
NYONG’O: I feel very strongly that change is not an event, it’s a process. What we see happening in this moment is pivotal. It’s not over. We cannot assess it yet. We have to keep going.
When I visited the set Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and executive producer Nate Moore both said I would be surprised by how topical and political it was. And I was surprised.
GURIRA: This is a movie so full of relevant arguments. We’re not short of those. One of the things we were concerned about was [Michael B. Jordan’s] Killmonger as a villain, because he has a very, very good argument. Very believable. It’s valid. The audience can’t sit there and only root for Black Panther. They have to come to terms with what all the villains are saying.
NYONG’O: [Pointing at Gurira] She’s spoiling everything.
GURIRA: He’s seen it though.
NYONG’O: But the world has not!
Don’t worry, I promise to take out the spoilers and leave it a little vague. I’ll protect the secrets for people.
NYONG’O: Okay, he’s on your side.
GURIRA: He’s on our side!
I’m on the country’s side. Wakanda forever!
NYONG’O: [Laughs] This is his visa application.
WRIGHT: We’ll see if he can get citizenship.
GURIRA: You might, you might. I know some people.
WRIGHT: It takes a little more than that.
Black Panther opens in theaters next Friday.