It’s always golden hour in Wakanda. The light is always honeyed and slow-flowing with dust dancing in its glow, and the people are always smiling as they sample assorted items from street vendors, walk from building to building and down the street into the light, always brightly adorned and beautiful. Always, at least in the glimpses we get of everyday life there, including in Aneka’s stylish and airy house on stilts, as majority of the film focuses on the state’s royalty, and even then, those scenes typically play out in Shuri’s lab or in the throne room where the elders sit in council with Queen Ramonda. Almost always golden hour, unless they are preparing for or are in battle. Or, unless it is the deep night ideal for ritual or war strategy, or the seemingly never-ending midnight that is loss and grief.
I went to the movies ready to attend a funeral by way of Wakanda Forever, the sequel to 2018’s Black Panther, aware of the fact that a lot of the fanfare and excitement that surrounded the first installment would be muted this time, clad in white this time, head bowed this time, red-eyed this time, processing towards the burial site this time, sobbing softly this time. I was also bracing to be angry at the muddled Pan-African and Black radical politics bound to come out of the far-reaching and seemingly unshakeable propaganda machine that is Hollywood. I left thinking how dangerously seductive Wakanda’s onscreen world is, not only because Hollywood has lent it its glamour and shine, nor solely because of the high-cheekboned glory of the cast, but because my own internal, inextinguishable embers of rage were stoked by seeing powerful African women wielding violence against the literal foot soldiers of EuroAmerican empire.
I was thrilled to see those French soldiers on their knees, at least, until I remembered why Wakanda was at the UN in the first place and how participation in such “international” institutions entrenches the legitimacy of the white power structures and puts Wakanda in unnecessary contact and collaboration with its enemies; until Wakanda’s leaders call those same EuroAmerican powers on the phone to swop intel, or until they choose uneasy, unsustainable “peace” over solidarity and coalition with other indigenous people, in this case, Namor and his underwater kingdom, Talokan, against those same powers looking to destroy and rob these states for resources, as they have been known to do and are still doing today. I wished but knew I would never get the satisfaction of this film naming and fighting the real enemy with full-throated and unwavering boldness, not the defanged “colonizer” mentioned in jest, not vague references to “surface people” (though Namor and his people burning that Spanish colony down nearly had me in a one-person standing ovation), but the white hegemony who cannot rest until Black and indigenous people are dead, who require our death to consolidate their power and expand their empire.
If, according to Toni Cade Bambara, the responsibility of the cultural worker from an oppressed people is to make revolution irresistible, I am ashamed to admit that not only do I have no idea what that revolution would look like and what it would demand of us, but that I don’t know what I could possible write and say to convince people that “representation” and “seeing ourselves” through the glitter of Hollywood’s lens may feel like edification and humanity in the meantime, but that the meantime is a trap, a slow march to our own graves on a road paved with the “good intentions” of diversity and inclusion mandates, that entertainment that feels relatable and affirming does not freedom make. What could I possibly say that thinkers and artists much more well-versed in these matters and generally wiser than me haven’t already said and warned and sang and written, to convince people to hold on a little longer beyond the meantime, that something much sweeter and freer awaits us somewhere in a nebulous future?
still from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler.
But that is not this essay. Right now, I’m thinking about the white cloth Shuri wore to two different funeral ceremonies, stamped with a pattern that resemble the Adinkra symbol “Nyame Due” or “tree of God,” symbolizing God’s protective presence, the meaning of which I had to look up to confirm, though I have worn the symbol as a pair of gold earrings almost every day since my mum got them for me when I was eight or nine. (That small moment of recognition, also a seduction.) Since seeing the movie on Thursday night with a friend, I have not been able to get the image of those mourning whites out of my mind, and more broadly, the ways the whole film is shrouded under the veil that is the death of the first Black Panther, played by actor Chadwick Boseman, and the collective grief of the past two years, and how this weight, this inhale between cries, shows itself in Shuri’s aesthetic and sartorial choices, and maybe even in those same choices of Letitia Wright, the actress who plays her.
The last time I knew anything or closely followed anything Marvel-related was when I still lived at home and watched with my mum who was more of a fan than I was, so I know that there are lots of connections I’m missing about other attempts at centering grief in other narratives that have come out in the aftermath of Thanos’ snap. To think through and write this, I tried to read profiles and interviews of director Ryan Coogler as well as other members of the cast and crew, often holding back tears any time one of them teared up as they recounted how they learned about Boseman’s death, how they had no clue the pain he was in the whole time they were getting to know him as a colleague, friend, and brother.
A podcast review from the Spectrum Lounge podcast gave me so much language to understand my viewing experience, and also confirmed my observation that regular Wakanda life is rarely depicted, though it appears that might be the focus of forthcoming TV shows. Host ReBecca Theodore-Vachon also describes the loss of innocence that is evident in the film. This is the film that we should probably expect after two years of a pandemic with no actual end in sight and the violence that is the neglect of people most vulnerable to COVID, police killings, nonsensical and frightening anti-queer legislation, attacks on bodily autonomy, environmental catastrophe, mass shootings, famine and deprivation, and the push to keep laboring and consuming like none of this is happening, among so many other horrors. In the universe of the movie itself, there is also the afterlife of Namor’s mother’s grief over losing her home and land to colonization that he has inherited and seems to believe is the secret to his formidable kingdom when he says, “Only the most broken people can be great leaders.” (At this point, my friend loud-whispered “Is it every day? Is it every day glorify our trauma? Sometimes, some light romance,” which is still making me laugh.)
Wakanda Forever still has a fair number of moments of levity and sarcasm, but in Black Panther, Shuri is genius little sister snark personified, all scoffs and smiles and laughs and teasing, at least until Killmonger appears on the scene, all braided buns and chokers—a sort of 90s take on an Afro-futuristic look—and much more colorfully dressed than she is at any point in Wakanda Forever. This time around, the hard edge of a physical and fashion presentation is not lost on me or any of the number of Tik Tok, Twitter, and Tumblr users who are convinced that Shuri (and/or Letitia Wright?) is queer because of the way her style has leaned into more “masculine” silhouettes and performance. I’m not exaggerating when I say that every other video on my timeline for the past week has been a looping edit of Wright in a black suit jacket with square shoulders and white thread embroidery on the front, the camera positioned lower than her face so she is looking down as she shows of her golds. This is not the focus of this piece of writing, but I will just say that on one end I think people are enamored of her attractiveness and want to claim it or her for themselves (I’ve read several comments to that effect, “I don’t know if I want to be her or be with her”), and I also think there are ways even those of us who strive to refuse the “either or” trap of gendered and sexual binaries end up reinforcing them, because maybe not every daddy is a daddy just because they look like one, not like that, anyway.
Left: still from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler. Both images on the right: stills from Black Panther (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler
Much of her clothing in the movie looks more athleticwear-inspired than it did in the first installment, even if it’s not necessarily dark in color, like the red turtleneck and white jacket she has on when Queen Ramonda comes looking for her in the lab to ask her to go with her to the bush for a mourning ritual that Shuri is reluctant to participate in, ostensibly because of her “rational,” science-driven mind, but also because she doesn’t seem ready to actually confront the reality of the loss of her brother. Another much edited for Tik Tok moment is the purple tracksuit, square shades, and hand tattoos Shuri sports when she and Okoye go to MIT’s campus (why was I so excited to recognize parts of Cambridge on screen?) to look for another Black girl prodigy, Riri Williams, whose genius has inadvertently put her life in danger.
Even off screen, the cut of Wright’s outfits is much cleaner and sharper. At the US premiere of Wakanda Forever, Wright has on a black Alexander McQueen suit with a jeweled harness over the jacket, a tribute to a similar embroidered outfit Boseman wore to the Oscars in 2018. She has worn many a suit before, but during the 2018 press run, they were more likely to be floral or multicolored, like the purple Prada suit that included a black bow tied behind her head and trailing halfway to the ground like a train. Back then, Wright appeared in looser-fitting and maybe even girlish outfits that you might expect Shuri to wear to a gala, with the same microbraids studded with beads or pearls or even straightened hair. These days, even her dresses have edge, metallic and almost like chain mail, a more fluid piece of a larger repertoire of armor.
It’s possible I’m over-identifying with celebrity (itself another seduction), and with what I perceive to be the shift in Shuri/Wright’s style post- (or rather in the meantime of grief), but after days of obsessing over the film, I recognize the way I have been forever changed by particular traumatic experiences and the ongoing grieving process of who I was or could have been. Before 2016, before maybe I didn’t say no, maybe that didn’t happen, I didn’t wear anywhere near as much black as I do now, nor did I own as much my twisted into the shapes of snakes, dragons, knives, and a pair of earrings that looks like my ears are in the beginning stages of being gauged with gold screws when I have them on. Before 2016, friends and classmates alike would always comment on how colorfully turned out I was, and I never ever cursed, self-censoring swear words out of lyrics as I sang along. After passing through the threshold that was 2016, I hardened in all sorts of ways: I shaved both sides of my head so that about a third of my hair was gone, my lipstick darkened (partly because I still took a lot of my style cues from my mum in the 80s and 90s), and more recently, I acquired several tattoos. “Edgier” clothing wasn’t my only armor. I performed a particular bravado, convinced my self I was reclaiming the word “arrogant,” wrote so many sharp edges (razors, knife edges, swords) into my work, started cursing freely and often, trying to fashion a self that might be untouchable, or at least impossible or less likely to scar.
In the sharp lines and sharper shoulders of suit jackets, in the rapper-esque bravado she seems to put on in front of all the flashing lights, in the grills, and chunky signet rings, I read in Shuri/Wright the same kind of reinvented aesthetic that has characterized how I’ve been dealing with my own lonely, my own darkness, my own private and painful breaking. A lot of her style evolution seems to have taken place as a result of her collaboration with stylist Shiona Turini, who was also responsible for so much of the memorable style in the TV show Insecure. Maybe the premise of this wondering or wandering is shaky, and Wright’s sartorial choices are due to her being a few years older than she was the first time she played Shuri and with access to better tailoring and a new stylist. This essay might not be much better than all the social media fantasies in that I have to gloss over the fact that I am projecting and theorizing around the self-presentation of a total stranger, and it’s probably safer to focus more pointed analysis on the fictional characters and not the people who portray them. Still, I’m inclined, or maybe I need to, interpret the suit jackets and jewelry as an outward manifestation of the loss of someone you loved and admired (sometimes that person is you) and almost losing your self, a glamouring in the form of the realization that you were never and will never be a certain version of your self again. I’m even wondering if the short haircuts both Shuri and Queen Ramonda wear are part of their mourning rituals, which, were that the case, would again speak to the ways grief externalized can sometimes look like a glamouring.
In “The Case of Rihanna: Erotic Violence and Black Female Desire,” Nicole Fleetwood analyzes Rihanna’s own hardening and sharpening in the form of her aesthetic choices and expressions of sexuality and pleasure seeking after the way Chris Brown’s assault of her played out in public, and how her self-presentation was not coherent with widely accepted expectations of what the “perfect” victim and survivor of domestic violence should look and act like. I was such a fan of Rihanna pre-2009 that I cut several inches off my hair for that Umbrella-era bob, and my mum and I would belt out “Shut Up and Drive” in traffic jams on the way to school and work each morning. My relationship to the newly minted “bad gal” Riri eventually changed and leaned closer into confusion and judgment, especially when I was in college, because I think I was grappling with the tension between my desire to carry my self in similarly brazen ways and the conservative Christian values I had internalized, not from home, but from church youth leaders, public commentators, teachers, and all kinds of men who managed to be both lecherous and sanctimonious at the same time. In 2016, Anti and the “Needed Me” music video specifically brought me to a renewed, more mature appreciation for Rihanna at that time, and I reached back to that post-2009 version of her persona and her body of work as well, because I needed the release of imagining my self in vengeance, wielding power and pain against the object of my desired retribution.
Sometimes I wonder if I am clinging to victimhood and fixating on the past self lost to me forever, that maybe it’s time to burn the mourning clothes (in a symbolic sense) like Shuri does, to bring back some more bright blues and greens in more than just the few tops I have for work in the summer and a few of my winter coats. I don’t know if I still need the armor. I don’t know if it’s closing me off from more possibility than it is protecting me. I don’t know if it’s now clunky and uncomfortable. I’ve been trying to be brighter, with my teal fleece and head wrap to match, and I also want to continue to be mindful about whether or not I actually need new clothes and where I purchase them from. The byproducts of my growing and loving of self do not need to end up unusable and wasted in my own hometown or in other locations elsewhere enough that Western consumers do not have to consider their pollution and destruction. At the same time, I’m so much more in love with or at least more appreciative of the me I am today, still soft and open to possibility and growth where I need to be or where it feels safe, still trying to remember that in Ewe, sadness is not something you “are” but that either happens to you or that you “hold,” meaning that it will surely pass, and that you can put it down. At the end of Wakanda Forever, Shuri is wearing a cropped black hooded top, even though she finds her self on the beach in Haiti, where it is, as you can probably guess, golden hour, where, even as she recognizes that the self she was before is lost to her forever, she is hopefully open to a future of possibility and healing, a softening, a smoothening of some of those sharp edges.
Some of what I’ve been reading and listening to:
I’ve been in two minds about the cultural landscape of this onscreen world since the first film. I attended a talk that Black Panther production designer Hannah Beachler gave at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the fall of 2018 and gained a deep appreciation and admiration for the depth of research and painstaking detail it took to build that world. And, I’m also wondering what harm could come from depicting an assemblage of accents, customs, and aesthetics for audiences who, regardless of what they watch or consume, may still be thinking about Africa as a country and viewing people of African descent without nuance and complication. And then I remember the world I have tried to build for my novel, which largely takes place in an imagined elsewhere that feels vaguely like Keta, Haiti, Louisiana, and a little like Barbados, and also like none of those places at the same time, so maybe I’m sitting in a glass house with rocks by the bowlful.