This article contains some spoilers.
Like many movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever confronts increasingly relevant cultural issues through the action and adventure we’ve come to associate with its superheroes. The film can be described as a meditation on grief, the burden of leadership, and the historical consequences of colonialism by Western nations. But the genius of Ryan Coogler’s second installment of the Blank Panther franchise ultimately lies in how it centers this discussion in black female leadership.
The film begins in a nation forever changed, by both the decision to share its scientific knowledge with the world and the in-universe death of King T’Challa (mirroring the real life loss of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman). Western nations threaten military action as we meet Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), the demigod-like leader of Talokan, a futuristic Mayan underwater empire. Namor offers Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) an ultimatum: Either hand over the brilliant young American scientist, Riri (Dominique Thorne), or face incursion by a seemingly indestructible Talokan army.
I Am Because We Are: Leadership Rooted in Community
Throughout Wakanda Forever, black women lead in every major decision, and their leadership is never questioned based on their gender. The leadership of these women is one that shares power and responsibility, trusting those who are qualified, even in moments of doubt. Decisions are made in consultation with others and they are almost always focused on the good of the whole of Wakanda.
Like most cultures across the African diaspora, these women lead from the principle of Ubuntu: “I am because we are.” Their purpose as individual leaders is found in their belonging to the community.
Even the pivotal question of the movie – that of the correct moral response to threats and colonizing forces – is rooted in female leadership. The defining moment of the film is not when Shuri becomes the Black Panther, but rather when she decides to emulate the example of her mother to show mercy. She discovers her strength as queen when she recalls the joy of the people of Wakanda and Talokan. Her choice of mercy is rooted in a choice to prioritize the flourishing of all, rather than her personal vengeful triumph. It is the culturally grounded leadership of shared responsibility, focused on Ubuntu, that brings resolution and peace. The choice Shuri makes embodies what we read in Gaudium et Spes:
“[The] common good, that is, the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment, today takes on an increasingly universal complexion and consequently involves rights and duties with respect to the whole human race. Every social group must take account of the needs and legitimate aspirations of other groups, and even of the general welfare of the entire human family.”
In its focus on black female leadership, Wakanda Forever invites us to consider how the communal strength of indigenous cultures provides an antidote to the individualism that allows colonialist mentalities to thrive in Western nations. Rather than replicating colonialism with new empires, this black female leadership uses its strength to shelter and protect. By remaining rooted in culture and community, Shuri finds a path that allows everyone to flourish and be a valued ally.
Not Just in the Movies: Women’s Leadership Benefits Communities in the Real World
These cinematic themes are supported by the real world results of women’s leadership. United Nations research shows that women in parliamentary seats are more likely to work across political lines, even in the most polarized nations.
In addition, women in leadership tend to be more effective in communal decision-making. Take, for example, the direct causal relationship between childcare access to representation by women on municipal councils in Norway. Look also at the research in India that shows that female-led village councils were 62% more likely to implement drinking water projects compared to male-led councils.
Pope Francis recently made reference to this reality in his interview with America Magazine, continuing the emphasis on the importance of women’s contributions that began with John Paul II’s 1988 letter Mulieris Dignitatem. To women in the African diaspora, this affirms what they have always lived: That they will work to ensure that every life – whether children, parents, or peers – has a chance to flourish.
Our Faith Calls Us to Community-Focused Leadership
As Catholic women following Jesus and trying to live our faith in the modern world, these reflections on Wakanda Forever invite us to consider how our civil and social institutions could benefit from more female leadership and the wisdom of indigenous cultures.
This wisdom asks us to identify, affirm, and nurture individuals’ gifts in our workplaces, families, and communities. It teaches us to make decisions through our economic, social, and civic activity that consider the good of every individual. It reminds us to consider the impact of our decisions on the whole community, in addition to our own person.
We can do these things individually in our own spheres of influence, as well as within institutions and groups. It takes courage and inner strength, as we see in the journey that Shuri takes in Wakanda Forever. But that inner strength is something each of us can have through our relationship with Jesus Christ. We do not have to be superheroes to make lasting change in our world. We simply need to be women, grounded in our culture and in our community, bringing our feminine genius into the world.