Black Panther has finally hit the big screen, and man it did not disappoint! My husband and I went to see the movie (sans any Afrocentric garb–unfortunately I didn’t get the memo in time) and I was caught up in the rapture of the breathtaking imagery and revolutionary themes the film delivered.
As the latest installment of superhero movies in the Marvel Universe, Black Panther is powerful not just because we get to see an African king in a bulletproof suit change our conception of who gets to be a hero, but also because it paints a picture of what’s possible in the relationships between Black women and Black men.
I noticed three powerful lessons in the film that we could use to heal and strengthen our relationships on all levels. (Note: There are major spoilers in this piece. Don’t read if you haven’t seen the movie yet!)
1. Women & Men Are Equals
In the world of Wakanda, women are not depicted as sidekicks or sex objects who need to be rescued. Instead women are necessary for Wakanda–and the Black Panther–to exist, and not in that “women are the backbone of the community but we only want them to be seen and not heard” kind of necessary that we’ve been accustomed to witnessing in many institutions within the black community. On the contrary, we see women in positions of leadership, whether it be the Queen Mother (played by Angela Bassett) and the female elders who sit on the king’s council or the Black Panther’s bodyguards, an-all women unit called the Dora Milaje. These spear-wielding sisters not only defend him against threats, but their leader Okoye (played by Danai Gurira) is also the general of the army. This sista is fierce. She snatches off her wig and uses it as a weapon, navigates the space ship and the Black Panther choses her to go on a dangerous mission instead of her lover, W’Kabi (played by Daniel Kaluuya) who heads up the border security team.
The women warriors are not the only sisters who keep T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman), aka the Black Panther, alive. T’Challa’s younger sister, Princess Shuri (played by Letitia Wright) is the nation’s lead engineer and develops inventions to keep the Black Panther safe. At just 16 years old, Shuri is “the smartest person in the world, smarter than Tony Stark [from Iron Man]” according to producer Nate Moore, and sista-girl can hold her own on the battlefield.
The lesson? Traditional gender roles driven by sexism just don’t seem to exist in Wakanda. Everyone is allowed to work toward their full potential both as individuals and as a nation.
2. Real Love Requires Freedom & Acceptance
T’Challa’s heart belongs to Nakia (played by Luptia Nyong’o) who is also a member of the Dora Milaje. But Nakia and T’Challa are no longer an item because Nakia chose to be a spy instead of becoming queen. The reason for the breakup? T’Challa was committed to the tradition of keeping Wakanda hidden from the outside world, while Nakia believed Wakanda’s resources and technological advances should be used to help the less fortunate in the world.
It’s clear that despite their differences, the ex-lovers accept each other. Instead of forcing their perspectives on each other, they’ve given one another the freedom to pursue their own path, even if it means they can’t be together. As Lupita said in an interview about her character, “[w]hat I love about their relationship is that it’s not your average sweetheart story, damsel in distress, they have a history. The fact that she’s a reliable ear for him and gives him counsel in a way that he appreciates and values. I think that’s what makes Nakia and her relationship with T’Challa so refreshing.”
The takeaway for those of us in the real world is this: T’Challa is influential because he receives the influence of Nakia, a concept that Dr. John Gottman reveals is key to a successful marriage. According to Gottman, when men are open to being influenced by their partner, their relationships are more successful than when they engage in behaviors like attacking their partner, shutting down, distancing themselves or getting defensive. Men don’t have to feel inferior to women in order to do this. They simply must allow their partner’s needs to be a priority in their life.
3. Conflicts Are Best Managed When We “Yield to Win”
T’Challa and Nakia are beautiful examples of how to handle conflict in a relationship. But there’s another couple in the film who literally face-off on the battlefield. Okoye and her lover W’Kabi find themselves on the opposite side of a civil war. The fate of Wakanda will be decided by the outcome. In a breathtaking scene, W’Kabi stares down Okoye’s spear and asks with all the charm he could muster, “Would you kill me, my love?” Okoye barely hesitates when she replies, “For Wakanda? No question.” W’Kabi believes her and kneels to surrenders before Okoye. The war is over.
We can end the wars in our relationships in a similar way (without the weapons, of course) by taking heed to W’Kabi’s powerful move, what Dr. Gottman calls the “yield to win” principle. The idea is that if only one person wins a conflict, both partners lose. Couples (especially men, according to Gottman) should strive for something bigger than their own need for power or respect: they should be committed to making the relationship win by actively looking for common ground, even during marital conflict. Like W’Kabi, we need to be willing to surrender our own limited positions and submit to what is right to keep the relationship alive.
In The Black Panther, Wakanda is a fictious country in East Africa which has been untouched by the outside world. It represents the Africa that could have been, and in some ways, what’s possible for us now. We can bring a little bit of Wakanda into our world by realizing that when we respect and honor each other, our relationships will always win.
BMWK, did you see Black Panther? What did you think of the relationships in the film?