Pancouver-Logo

Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Hollywood’s first major Black female superhero: how Wakanda Forever broke the mould

Wakanda
Letitia Wright played Shuri who became the new Black Panther. Photo by Disney/IMDb.

By Diana Adesola Mafe, Denison University

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever rewrote Hollywood’s script for superhero movies. English professor Diana Adesola Mafe was recently involved in an academic roundtable that offers a critical conversation about it and another film set in an African kingdom, The Woman King. She argues that Wakanda Forever is a breakthrough film. We asked her why.

Why are these two films such talking points?

As big budget productions with Black female heroes, The Woman King and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever invite discussion and debate about Hollywood representations of Africa and the kinds of roles that women and girls can and should play. They lend themselves to discussing topics ranging from the importance of historical accuracy to the power of imagining alternative histories and fantastical futures.

Why is Wakanda Forever important to you?

One of my primary research areas is the representation of Black women in literature and popular culture. My 2018 book, Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before: Subversive Portrayals in Speculative Film and TV, is precisely about Black women in science fiction and fantasy roles. I am always on the look-out for films that push boundaries, challenge stereotypes, and put Black women at the centre of the story.

Wakanda Forever does that by presenting a superhero action flick headlined by Black women. The film is set in the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, where the people are mourning the death of their king and fighting to defend their land and resources, especially the powerful metal vibranium, from world powers.

It’s the first Hollywood film to showcase Black female superheroes on such an epic scale, backed by a US$250-million budget and the global reach of a juggernaut like Marvel Studios. The posters alone tell viewers that this film is doing something different.

Of course the film is not perfect, and director Ryan Coogler has been open about the fact that he originally set out to make a completely different and male-centered film. The untimely death of the original Black Panther star, Chadwick Boseman, called for an overhaul of the script and the reveal of Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, as the new Black Panther. But the film’s production history does not change its status as a pioneer for Black female representation, especially in the genre of superhero cinema.

You discuss “the act of looking” in your paper. Tell us about that.

One of the lasting presumptions of early Hollywood movies was that the audience was white. To put this another way, few filmmakers were catering to Black viewers and fewer still imagined Black women as a primary audience. This has changed over time, but the notion of a default white male gaze both on and off screen often remains implicit in western cinema.

A film like Wakanda Forever is intentional about inviting Black spectatorship and showcasing Black women as active players who drive the plot and whose gazes are bold, instead of averted or downplayed. The Black female characters in the film constantly look back at the viewer by way of the camera, as well as at one another, defying a western cinematic tradition of marginalizing and objectifying Black women.

Is Hollywood’s diversity problem getting better or not really?

The short answer is yes and no. If you consider that the U.S. film industry goes back over a century, then yes, we’re seeing more diversity in front of and behind the camera, not just in terms of race and gender but also ethnicity, sexuality, age, and so on. Wakanda Forever would have been an unlikely blockbuster or Oscar contender 20 or even 10 years ago. Thanks to the first Black Panther film, Hollywood is now aware that an all-Black superhero movie can gross over a billion dollars and win Academy Awards.

But the success of a single film or even a handful of films does not mean a wider shift in the industry. For example, Marvel just released The Marvels, its first film by a Black female director, Nia DaCosta, but that does not change the fact that Black women are underrepresented in the industry.

Organizations such the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have offered new (and controversial) strategies and standards in terms of equity and access. Starting in 2024, films must meet diversity targets in areas like “on-screen representation, themes and narratives” and “audience development” to be eligible for an Oscar. And hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite, as well as academic studies like the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, continue to track progress but also ongoing challenges where Hollywood’s diversity problem is concerned.The Conversation

Diana Adesola Mafe is a professor of English at Denison University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

Take Action Now

Pancouver fuels creativity and promotes a more inclusive society. You can contribute to support our mission of shining a spotlight on diverse artists. Donations from within Canada qualify for a tax receipt.

Share this article

Staff

Staff

Subscribe

Tags

Related Articles

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam Indian Band), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish Nation), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation). With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

© 2023 The Society of We Are Canadians Too Privacy Policy | Terms and Conditions

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.