Why Lupita Nyong'o As Nakia Is The Heartbeat Of 'Black Panther'

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February 22nd 2018

Ryan Coogler’s stunning Black Panther is masterful for a variety of reasons. A film of contrasts that juxtaposes technology and traditionalism, Coogler presents a Wakanda that is at war with history and in turn at war with itself.

Unlike the rest of Africa, Wakanda has not suffered under the constant rape and pillage of colonization and the brutality of slavery. As a result, the country and its people – Wakandan women in particular — have been able to thrive and advance, their history and traditions intact.

It is these Black women, the Dora Milaje and its general Okoye (Danai Gurira), the Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) and finally Nakia, (Lupita Nyong'o), T’Challa’s ex-lover, who stand at the center of the film. Nakia and these other powerful women are heartbeats of Wakanda and King T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) backbone – literally. In fact, Black Panther side eyes the hell out of the absurd and tiresome trope of the “Strong Black Woman.”  Instead, these women stand fully in their humanity untouched by sexism and misogyny.

With various aims and objectives throughout the film, the women of Wakanda have missions and goals which at times grate and grind against one another. Nakia's trajectory is perhaps one of the most intriguing. Standing at a crossroads between traditionalism and modernity, Nakia has chosen her passions and her desire to help the world over her love for the king. A War Dog (member of the Wakandan CIA) – T’Challa’s love though welcome, has failed to keep her tethered to him or to her homeland. In fact, when he interrupts Nakia’s mission against the Boko Haram in Nigeria, she is infuriated, only calming down when she discovers that T’Chaka has been murdered and that T’Challa will ascend to the throne.

It’s rare to see so many natural, dark skin Black women on screen, and Wakandan men's reverence to them is apparent. Coogler wields his lens towards the women of Black Panther but refuses to harp on their sensuality. Instead, he makes their drive and intentions crystal clear. Nakia’s actions, for example, are born out of instinct, honor and love. Both fierce and feminine, she isn’t forced to choose one aspect of herself over another. Her beauty is arresting, but it doesn't define her.

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In fact, it is Nakia who saves everyone. Stealing away in the night after T’Challa’s near-fatal challenge with Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), she alone leads Shuri and Ramonda to safety, preserving the last heart-shaped herb, and even bravely approaching M’Baku (Winston Duke) for his aid against the enraged assassin. What's striking about Nakia's journey is that she and Killmonger want the same things, they simply have different avenues to achieve them.

As the film closes, T’Challa offers Nakia a place by his side as queen, as well as the opportunity to continue her life's work from within Wakanda's borders. The new king is stepping into the spotlight and using Wakandan resources to help Black folks in need by forming Wakandan outreach centers around the world. His idea is to place Nakia at the center of this organization.

T’Challa’s grand gestures are lovely, but he fails to see that by asking Nakia to give up her calling — one that has her embedded in broken places around the earth, means that she will be giving up a part of herself. Too often, Black women are expected to fall in line, and though T’Challa loves and cherishes Nakia, his plan for her life is born out of his selfishness. After all, Nakia has spent years pleading with the young King to aid his brothers and sisters across the globe, and it is only the infiltration of his cousin Killmonger and the allure of Nakia’s hand in marriage that urges him to take action.

In the end, if Nakia were to choose her passion over her King – we could not begrudge her for this. After all, it’s a choice that many Black women aren’t allowed to explore. It’s certainly a choice that our society frowns down upon – as if women cannot be whole without a man at their sides. Nakia has already proven that she can flourish alone. After all, as we saw in one of the first scenes of the film, it is T’Challa who is frozen without her.

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Examining Nakia's missions thus far, it's understandable how easily she could align herself with Kilmonger and transform into the villainous Malice — a plot point that we could very well see in the forthcoming Black Panther sequels.

From what we know about Coogler and how he presents women in his films, Nakia's journey to Malice won’t be a result of some petty sexist jealously toward X-Men’s Storm. After all, she comes from a society where her rights, powers, desires, and ideas are equal and complementary to the men around her. Stripping Nakia of her agency or stifling her passions are bound to ignite a revolt within her—one that not even the King of Wakanda could suppress. For her sake and for the safety Wakanda, let's hope Nakia chooses herself.

Black Panther stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright and Winston Duke, with Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Andy Serkis.

The film is directed by Ryan Coogler and produced by Kevin Feige with Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Nate Moore, Jeffrey Chernov and Stan Lee serving as executive producers. Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole wrote the screenplay.

Black Panther is in theaters now. 

Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami

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