Women of Wakanda: The Female Forces Behind ‘Black Panther’s Historic Oscar Push
By Meredith B. Kile
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This March, CBSi is marking Women’s History Month by celebrating the amazing female power in Marvel film and television. In honor of Black Panther’s push towards the 2019 Academy Awards, we’re kicking things off a little early by celebrating the Women of Wakanda, the talented ladies in front of the camera and behind the scenes that helped bring the comic-inspired vision to life.
Black Panther capped off a record-setting year with an historic Oscar nomination last month, becoming the first-ever Marvel film -- and first comic book movie, in general -- to earn a Best Picture nod. Director Ryan Coogler and stars Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan are at the center of Black Panther's story, which tackles issues of family, nationalism and the elusive feeling of belonging, but the spectacular supporting cast is bolstered by the female presence, from the stately Queen Ramonda to the fierce fighters of the Dora Milaje.
It was a significant creative choice not lost on Coogler, who has spoken openly about his drive to make female characters central to the film's story, which could have easily brushed the secondary characters aside to focus solely on the conflict between the Black Panther and Killmonger. But that wasn't the story he wanted to tell.
“What you see in African communities— women tend to hold it down,” the director told fans at an early screening of the film at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn. “They tend to be the ones that help further the cause of the community. So, we wanted to highlight that.”
Here’s a look at a few of the key female players in Black Panther, the Women of Wakanda who helped imbue the epic, celebrated film with life, love and a lasting legacy for generations to come.
Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia)
A strong-willed spy with the ear (and eye) of the Wakandan king, Nyong'o's character is much more than the love interest to Black Panther’s titular hero. Friends since childhood, T’Challa and Nakia spar as often as they flirt, but share an unparalleled trust and loyalty -- as well as the desire to help those in need. Nakia also lends her king some much-needed counsel; after they team up to save their people, it is her insistence that persuades T’Challa to open Wakanda’s doors to the world and offer their aid and technology to allies around the globe.
“There’s been nothing like it,” Nyong’o told ET’s Nischelle Turner of being part of Black Panther at the film’s premiere last January. “So of course, with that comes a deep sense of responsibility. You’re the first to do something like this on this level. So yeah, it’s definitely something you feel challenged by. There’s no rule book for it -- there have been many Marvel movies, but none like this. We’re writing the rule book of Wakanda and Black Panther.”
Danai Gurira (Okoye)
The most fearsome warrior in Wakanda, Okoye is the head of the Dora Milaje, the all-female Wakandan special forces that serve as an elite bodyguard force for the royal family and the kingdom. And while her skill as a fighter is second to none, it is Okoye’s loyalty to king and country that earns her the rank of general -- one of Black Panther’smost memorable moments comes when she confronts longtime love W’Kabi on the battlefield, who questions her willingness to strike him down.
“For Wakanda?” she answers. “Without question.”
Gurira is used to battling the undead as Michonne on The Walking Dead, but she told ET that going into combat as Okoye was a totally different experience.
“It was interesting for me, I guess the difference between this character and Michonne is that, for this character, there’s a history to how the Dora Milaje move,” the actress said of embodying the stately warrior. “There’s a tradition, and Okoye is totally a traditionalist. She really is about form and specificity, and she’s gonna keep that form, even when she’s dealing with a bunch of baddies in Korea, you know, she’s gonna retain the ancient form of how you combat... Wakandans have that mentality, where it’s like, if this is the way Wakandans do it, then this is the best way it’s done.”
Letitia Wright (Shuri)
The brains of the operation behind Wakanda’s world-leading technological advancements, T’Challa’s brilliant younger sister was an immediate fan favorite upon Black Panther’s release -- and her scene-stealing talents carried over to Avengers: Infinity War, where she made quick work of some of the heroic team’s resident smarties. With a planned appearance in the final Phase 3 film, Avengers: Endgame, coming up in April, Shuri is poised to become one of the MCU’s brightest young heroes -- so could some possible team-ups be in her future?
“Let's just do it!” Wright told ET of partnering with more of Marvel’s fierce female characters. “I think if we're going into the next phase of Marvel, we've gotta completely take that off the list. An all-female Marvel cinematic experience. I'm down for that.”
As for a planned Black Panther sequel, Wright said she’d like to get Shuri out on more adventures -- perhaps even outside of Wakanda -- while also assuming a larger role in the royal family.
“I'd like to see her have a bit more responsibility in the land as well,” the actress observed. “She is a princess and I think in the first film she's kind of like, 'Yeah, I'm a princess... but I'm in the lab.’ But for her to have a bit more responsibility of having a say in what happens in the land as well, and what goes on, that would be cool because it can show a little bit more of maturity for her.”
Angela Bassett (Queen Ramonda)
As the Queen Mother of Wakanda, Bassett’s character begins Black Panther in mourning for her late husband, King T’Chaka, but is a constant source of strength and empowerment for her children and her people, a role that the legendary actress also seemed to embrace when the cameras stopped rolling.
"It feels like a weight is lifted," Bassett said of the film’s impact following its release last year. "We've been waiting for so long. Clamoring, crying, just hungry for it for so long, even if we weren't big comic book aficionados. Once we got wind of it and the cast that's involved and the technicians, like Ryan [Coogler] at the helm and Rachel Morrison, shout-out for an Oscar-[nominated] DP. We're just thrilled by it. It's like breathing a sigh of relief, and I think we've done it absolute justice."
The Dora Milaje
Gurira couldn’t help but sing the praises of her female fighting force, which included Wonder Woman star Florence Kasumba and GLOW’s Sydelle Noel, along with talented performers from across the globe.
“We had some amazing women in there, I loved the women we got to get together with for the Dora Milaje,” she explained in an interview with ET last February. “These women are, some of them are stuntwomen, some of them are from dance… even circus performers. It was a very interesting group of women who came together, from all over the world, and who all brought in grace and ability and all of that.”
Of the Dora’s signature look, costume designer Ruth E. Carter explained to ET that her and Coogler’s vision was “all about the discussion of the afro future and how we would take our place as women.”
“The Dora Milaje being the highest-ranking female fighting force in Wakanda, [we talked about] how we wanted to display them and honor them, and not do what we typically see when we see female warriors -- they’re fighting in high heels -- so we really gave them a beautiful story with their costumes and hearkening back to all the tribes of Wakanda,” she shared. “We honored the female form without actually exposing it.”
Rachel Morrison, Cinematographer
Last year, Morrison became the first woman ever nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar for her work on Dee Rees’ Mudbound, and she reteamed with Coogler for Black Panther after working together on his 2013 breakout, Fruitvale Station.
“I've had two films back-to-back with exceptionally diverse and gender-equal producers and department heads,” Morrison told ET of her experiences with the celebrated directors. “That’s a testament to Ryan and Dee.”
While speaking with ET on the red carpet before the 2018 Academy Awards, Morrison correctly predicted that cinematography legend Roger Deakins would beat her out in the category to net his first career win, but the significance of her nomination was worth celebrating in itself.
“The amount of people looking to me feels like a little extra pressure, but win or lose, I do think it is already making a huge change in the industry that women can get here and can shoot films like Black Panther,” she explained. “Hopefully that’s gonna open the doors for so many more women.”
Debbie Berman, Editor
Berman edited Black Panther along with Michael P. Shawver, and helped bring Coogler’s vision to life through seamless storytelling and powerfully poignant moments.
“He’s the real deal,” she told Forbes of the director. “He surrounds himself with collaborators, and he makes you feel like it’s just you and him making the movie. And he does that with everyone. He enables and empowers his crew, he trusts them. He was never threatened by other people’s ideas, he embraced them. He insisted that we tell him what was in our heart.”
The editor, who also worked on the upcoming Captain Marvel, explained that her South African heritage helped her feel “closer” to the film and inspired her to tell the story with the reverence it deserved. Though Black Panther was only Berman's second Marvel movie -- following 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming -- she recalled feeling like an essential part of the creative process from the beginning, thanks to Coogler. She even helped inspire the film's final scene in Oakland, after telling the director that the original ending -- following T’Challa’s speech to the U.N. -- didn’t quite feel right to her.
“He asked everyone, even the production assistants what they thought, and we have some ideas from them in the film,” Berman said of the collaborative process. “Best idea in the room wins, and he absorbs everything -- he doesn't necessarily agree with what he’s hearing, but he wants to listen. And he has a great instinct on what to lean into.”
Sarah Finn, Casting Director
One of Marvel’s behind-the-scenes secret weapons, Finn has cast every MCU movie -- with the exception of The Incredible Hulk -- all the way back to putting Robert Downey Jr. in the first Iron Man. (It’s hard to believe now, but that was a questionable choice to some at the time.) Fans have her to thank for Chris Evans as Captain America, Chris Pratt as Star-Lord Peter Quill, Tom Hiddleston as Loki and dozens more pitch-perfect embodiments of Marvel’s greatest heroes and most beloved supporting characters.
“I get a little attached to every role I’ve ever cast. It has to come to life for me,” Finn told Backstage of her casting process. “It’s a journey to get to know a particular character, and when the actor is very much a part of that process, it’s really memorable.”
Victoria Alonso, Executive Vice President, Marvel Studios
One of the highest-ranking female executives at Marvel, Alonso spoke with Bustle last year about her experiences being the only woman in the room -- and the importance of inclusivity at every level of production. "The consistent conversation we have is, have we interviewed the same number of men as we have women?” she noted. “And sometimes you find the right fit just by interviewing. To not be considered is half the problem there."
The success of Black Panther, she noted, hinged partly on finding heroes in Wakanda that didn’t don the titular mantle, but could still save the day -- many of them women.
"Just about every woman in that movie was a superhero, whether we call them that or not," Alonso said. "Shuri was her own superhero, the Queen Mother, Nakia is the most amazing spy in the world. Okoye is the best general on the planet. They don’t have a Black Panther outfit, but they are the superheroes of Wakanda."
"It’s really important for the world to see that superheroes come in all sizes and colors," the producer explained. "There are young children who have never seen themselves represented, I think this is what this movie has been able to do for the audience. So I think it’s a triumph."
Hannah Beachler, Production Designer
Beachler made history this year as the first African-American production designer to be nominated for an Oscar, and her work on Black Panther is truly stunning -- from the breathtaking locations to the vivid colors and bold patterns that make up the world of Wakanda. She broke down barriers in more ways than one on the film, as the first-ever female production designer on a Marvel film, paving a new path in a subsection of the industry that relies heavily on the old guard.
“[I hope] this opens the door for people to actually open their eyes to the talent and the women of color that are designers,” Beacher told The Root of her celebrated work on Black Panther. “There’s talent there and that you have to give the opportunity. You can’t just keep going to the same people over and over again.”
The making of Black Panther, she said, was a powerful experience for all involved, thanks in no small part to the design team embracing the cultural storytelling and powerful history that inspired the film’s aesthetic.
“Every morning, my cast was overwhelmed with tears, looking at people going to the movie and dressing up, dancing, smiling, reaching out to each other and celebrating their heritage, even if [their heritage] wasn’t African,” she recalled. “They were there to celebrate it.”
Ruth E. Carter, Costume Designer
ET’s Desiree Murphy recently sat down with Carter -- a costuming legend nominated for her third Oscar this year for her work on Black Panther -- who named Morrison, Beachler and Alonso as some of her fellow female crew members who were “empowered” by Coogler and the film’s producers to bring the story of the Black Panther and Wakanda to life on the big screen.
“We really supported each other. It really is rewarding, in the end, to see what we were able to do," Carter said. "Usually, it’s a man’s world in the comics, especially with superheroes. It’s a really fascinating place and we were able to sort of discover it [through this film].”
Carter was the first African-American costume designer to be nominated for an Oscar back in 1992, for her work on Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, and could make history once again this year as the first black designer to win the honor.
“The designers are extremely talented designers, but I’m glad that I’m giving them a run for their money,” she recently told the AP of her fellow nominees. “That’s how I feel. ... I feel empowered. I feel invigorated. I feel masterful.”