5 ways that 'Black Panther' celebrates and elevates black women

Anika Reed

Marvel's Black Panther is already cementing its place in cinematic history as the most high-profile black superhero movie to date. It's the women behind the catsuit-clad African king, however, who are the movie's true marvels. 

Okoye (Danai Gurira) is the general of the powerful Dora Milaje in 'Black Panther.'

Walking out of the theater, I felt fulfilled as a black viewer and as a woman, which rarely happens simultaneously with mainstream movies. Black Panther is Marvel's attempt at being "woke," and it confronts colonialism, racism and nationalism in profound ways, while also crafting a vision of black womanhood that's both inspiring and empowering.

One movie isn't going to eradicate racism, or fix gender or racial issues in America, but it's a step in the right direction. Representation in pop culture matters, and the women of Black Panther are celebrated and validated throughout the film in powerful ways. 

More:Daring, diverse 'Black Panther' promises to be 'cultural touchstone'

Review:Rousing, representative 'Black Panther' is one spectacular superhero

Related:Admire the Amazons? You'll love the Dora Milaje in 'Black Panther'

T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is supported by the formidable Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o, left) and Okoye (Danai Gurira).

Black women are the real main characters.

Even though the movie is named for a male superhero, the women of Black Panther are at the forefront of the story. Much like the animal kingdom, in which female wild cats hunt and maintain control, the women are the ones in control of the throne and the society of fictional Wakanda. Lupita Nyong'o's Nakia saves the day when T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) chokes; little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) saves the white man, rather than the typical white savior plot line; and Danai Gurira's army general Okoye is thrilling in battle but knows when to end the fight. At least one of the women is in almost every scene.

Teenage princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the smartest person in the world in 'Black Panther.'

They don't need superpowers to be superheroes.

Only the Wakandan king has superpowers in this Marvel movie, which makes the core women that much more admirable. The technological advancements they make and the battles they fight are because of their intelligence and inner strength rather than a potion or a power. The movie gives a multifaceted view of what a superhero can be, and the women of Wakanda show that T'Challa couldn't be king without their support.

There are layers to the characters.

What a concept: Black women don't come in one stereotypical shape and size. The women are nuanced characters who portray positive and strong versions of black femininity without falling into the "sassy black friend" or the "ghetto black girl" or the "independent black woman who don't need no man" tropes. I could see women like myself and my friends in the movie, and that positive visibility is priceless. 

Okoye (Danai Gurira) uses her deadly spear in the middle of a car chase in "Black Panther."

Dark-skinned women are important in a big-budget studio film. 

Colorism is real in black communities worldwide, and it's especially prevalent in Hollywood when it comes to the types of black women who play leading roles in films and get nominated for awards. Black women with lighter skin tones have undeniably achieved the most mainstream success in the entertainment industry, and it's a refreshing change to see women with dark skin and Afros taking control of the narrative in a film that's guaranteed to be a huge box-office hit.

Black women and girls can see themselves on screen.

Black women and girls can see in a major studio movie that their contributions matter, both in the work that the characters do and in the fact that these actors made it to this level of the Hollywood stratosphere.

Young black girls who may have been ashamed to wear clothing specific to their African parents' home country might be prouder of their heritage upon leaving the theater. Black women who have been shown almost exclusively straight hair onscreen for the better part of the last few decades might be inspired to wear their hair naturally. And if the movie becomes as big a success as predicted, there's a strong possibility that generations of black women and girls will live in a society where it's normal to see a majority black cast in a major Hollywood film.