‘Wakanda Forever’ Lifts Up Black Women—But Only So Far

Wakanda Forever is both the only triumph for Black women at the Oscars this year and an ironic case study on how Black women are marginalized in the film industry.

Danai Gurira as Okoye and Angela Bassett as Ramonda in Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. (Eli Adé / Marvel)

Despite an Oscar season of snubs for Black women, Ruth E. Carter made history at the 2023 Oscars when she won her second award for best costume design, this time for the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. In her acceptance speech, Carter thanked the Academy for “recognizing the superhero that is the Black woman.”

Angela Bassett also became the first person in a Marvel film to be nominated in an acting category, but she didn’t win. And the writing team for “Lift Me Up,” nominated for Best Original Song, included two Black women, Rihanna and Tems, who didn’t win either.

Clearly, Wakanda Forever did something right, since it was the only source of nominations and the solitary triumph for Black women at the Oscars this year. Yet the film is also an ironic case study demonstrating how Black women are marginalized in the film industry.

Marvel Studios is a juggernaut, which helps with things like budget and distribution. Wakanda Forever, directed by Ryan Coogler, had a budget of $250 million, making it the third most expensive Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film. By comparison, two of the films that were shut out of the Oscars completely, The Woman King and Till, both directed by Black women, had respective budgets of $50 million and $20 million.

A massive budget is not a prerequisite for critical or commercial success. The 2017 best picture winner Moonlight was made for less than $2 million and its distributor, the independent company A24, also distributed Everything Everywhere All at Once, which just cleaned up at the Oscars.

But having the backing of a company like Marvel Studios—a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios—can’t hurt. Yet none of the 31 MCU films released so far have been directed by a Black woman. Admittedly, that will change with Nia DaCosta’s The Marvels, which drops in November 2023. But DaCosta will still be the only Black female director in a lineup of films that extend to 2026.

Despite its feminist potential, Wakanda Forever is also the film that Coogler famously did not set out to make. A sequel to the hugely successful Black Panther (2018), Wakanda Forever was supposed to continue the saga of its title character as played by Chadwick Boseman. Coogler shared with The New York Times that his first script, co-written with Joe Robert Cole, was “a father-son story from the perspective of a father, because the first movie had been a father-son story from the perspective of the sons.” But the shocking death of Boseman in 2020 called for either recasting the role of T’Challa or overhauling the script. Marvel Studios greenlit the overhaul and made Letitia Wright the new star—a decision that reflects Shuri’s temporary role as Black Panther in the comic books. As a result, the film is more radical in its representations of Black women, who take center stage in a way that they could not in Black Panther.

It took a tragedy for Marvel Studios to finally cast a Black woman as a title character in its running tally of superhero films.

But even as Wakanda Forever “lifts up” Black women on an unprecedented scale, it also goes to great lengths to remind the audience that T’Challa was the intended hero. It took a tragedy for Marvel Studios to finally cast a Black woman as a title character in its running tally of superhero films. In other words, this milestone came about through necessity rather than design. And that fact is another sticking point, which marks Shuri and her supporting cast with a strange secondary quality.

Boseman presented undeniable talent and a riveting T’Challa. It seems right to pitch the film as something of a cinematic eulogy. At the same time, one must recognize that the ascension of his female co-stars to more pivotal roles hinges on his absence and the need to reimagine Wakanda without him. I’m not convinced that, in the words of one headline, Black women are the “heart and soul” of the film. From the opening Marvel logo to the final scene, from behind-the-scenes footage to Danai Gurira’s introduction of “Lift Me Up” at the Oscars ceremony, the creators of Wakanda Forever insist that T’Challa is the heart and soul of the film. The female characters, no matter how impressive, cannot quite compete.

A female actor taking on a role originally written for a man has yielded some iconic cinematic heroines, including Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the Alien franchise and, more pertinently for this conversation, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) in Tár and Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) in Everything Everywhere All at Once. All three of these roles earned Oscar nominations for best actress, and Yeoh, of course, just took home that prize.

But Wakanda Forever is not that kind of film and was never intended to be. The goal, understandably, was not to replace T’Challa. And so the interminable wait continues—for more roles written for and by Black women; for more Black women to direct, produce and star in feature films; and for the film industry to simply recognize the Black women already doing those things as the superheroes they are.

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Diana Adesola Mafe is a professor of English at Denison University, where she teaches courses in postcolonial, gender and Black studies. She is the author of two books, Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before: Subversive Portrayals in Speculative Film and TV and Mixed Race Stereotypes in South African and American Literature: Coloring Outside the (Black and White) Lines. She has also published numerous articles and given a TedX talk, “Where are the Black Women in Speculative Film and Television?”