The second time I saw Black Panther I took a group of students whom I mentor. I am from the Bay Area and it was not lost on me that it was Dr. Huey P. Newton’s birthday, and here was a film giving me a wide open window to talk to these students about the movement he birthed. However, upon leaving the film it was not Newton that my mind focused on. Instead it was playwright Lorraine Hansberry.
Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun was one of the three texts included in my master’s thesis on black women pursuing formal education. The play debuted in 1959, and depicts three generations of a black family living in a kitchenette apartment in Chicago. The play begins with a conversation about Mama Younger’s deceased husband and what she and her children will do with his life insurance money. Walter and Beneatha, her children, both have designs on the insurance money. Walter Lee wants his mother to allow him to invest the money from his father’s insurance policy in his plan to open a liquor store. Beneatha wants to attend medical school instead of marrying rich and raising babies. Walter Younger, the family’s patriarch wants a better life for himself and his family, and insists that his mother give him the money from his deceased father’s life insurance so that he can open a liquor store. Walter’s dreams are thwarted by his mother’s Christianity, and his wife’s practicality. Eventually, Walter is given, and loses, most of the insurance money, and with it goes the Youngers’ dreams for education and better housing. For me, however, the most interesting character is Beneatha Younger. In Beneatha, Hansberry dares to allow an impoverished black woman to dream of becoming a medical doctor.
59 years later and Coogler’s Black Panther takes Hansberry’s play and examines some of the very same themes. Here, again, the smartest person in the room is less valued than the men in the story. Shuri, T’Challa’s brilliant sister, is the technology expert of Wakanda. When her father dies it is assumed that her brother will become king. During the ritual ceremony to confirm T’Challa’s seat on the throne, Zuri, the spiritual advisor, asks if anyone of royal blood would like to challenge T’Challa. Shuri raises her hand, but the entire community assumes she’s joking. I’m not sure that she was, and we know from the comic book that her turn at the throne is indeed coming. However, in this moment no one recognizes her right to the throne. M’Baku even chastises T’Challa for having Wakanda’s technology division led by what he calls “a child.”
I had this conversation about A Raisin in the Sun and Black Panther with a friend, and she argues that Stephens represents Walter, and now I’m inclined to agree. Stephens here represents Walter Younger and his mad desire to prove his worth and manhood. Wakandans know good and well that handing over the throne to Stephens is a terrible idea, but tradition gets in the way of good sense. Stephens is a man of royal blood, and thus he is given an opportunity to compete for throne. Mama Younger knew good and well that giving her son Walter the insurance money was a problem since he had never shown any business acumen before. Nonetheless, she listens to his plea and allows his desires to “manhood” to cloud her judgment.
Later in the film, when Erik Stephens takes over Wakanda, Nakia has the wherewithal to steal one of the heart shaped herbs, which is fortunate because Stephens burns the garden where they are grown. Nakia proceeds with Queen Mother Ramonda and Shuri toward Jabariland to offer the herb to M’Baku in order to regain control of Wakanda. In many ways Nakia’s choice makes perfect sense, M’Baku has an army that can challenge Stephens, the Dora Milaje and W’Kabi’s warriors. Nonetheless, there was no conversation about Shuri being an heiress who fully understands all of Wakanda’s technology.
Coogler’s Black Panther, for me, is in conversation with Hansberry’s text. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Dania Guirira), and the Dora Milaje, are the heart of the film, but they all support patrilineal monarchy. The film has allowed room for women to use their talents, but only in service to the King. We have progressed since Mama gave her son Walter the insurance money and told him to take care of his sister, but we still haven’t put the money directly into Beneatha’s hand.
Even Nakia, a Wakandan spy in the film has been pressuring T’Challa to become less isolationist and to consider aid to at least neighboring nations. However, it is not until an angry male brings the idea to the fore than anyone listens. Had Beneatha been male in 1959 her needs most certainly would have been put before Walter’s manhood, and it seems that in 2018 Coogler is highlighting that we have not come as far as perhaps we would like to believe. Black Panther reminds the viewer that the women are still there with good advice, but it is only when the country comes on the brink of destruction that anyone bothers to listen.