Opinion ‘Wakanda Forever’ and the importance of #BlackGirlGenius
It’s Black Friday, a day for shoppers to find the best and latest gadgets and tech on the market. This weekend is also usually one of the biggest weekends for families to go to the movies. The blockbuster hit “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is praised for how it deftly addresses the topics of compounded grief, generational trauma and the richness of Mesoamerican and African cultures. But I found myself fascinated by the technology in the film and the African women behind it.
Years ago, when the first “Black Panther” came out, I wrote that the film’s true revolutionaries were not the noble T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) or the radical Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) — but rather the women of Wakanda. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) was the multilingual progressive internationalist, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) was the kingdom’s technologist, and Gen. Okoye (Danai Gurira) led the all-female warrior unit the Dora Milaje
(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
“Black Panther 2” leans even more into the heroism of Wakanda’s women — and, well, it has to: As it opens, the superhero T’Challa has already died of an unspecified illness. But what I was most struck by was how it portrays Black girls and women and technology. It leads us to imagine a world in which Black girls are technological geniuses and the weapons that White men use are, in Gen. Okoye’s words, “so primitive.” “Black Panther 2” invites us to imagine Black women as not just inventors but the proprietary owners of their inventions and resources, with no obligations to share with the Western world.
One of the early scenes makes the point. Wakanda’s Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is summoned to the United Nations because France and the United States want Wakanda to share its stock of the potent metallic ore vibranium with other countries. Ramonda expresses her distrust of the Western nations’ abilities to handle vibranium. As we know, much of modern history has been marked by European warfare and the rest of the world being dragged into the continent’s fights. It’s refreshing to see, even fictionally, an African nation strong enough to deny the West its resources and its technology — a complete reversal of today’s world order.
I was reminded of the selfishness of Western nations during the height of the global covid-19 pandemic when these nations gobbled up lifesaving vaccines and left Africa largely out of the equation. Vaccine producers Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech refused to share their recipes with countries in Africa, saying it would discourage innovation. A World Trade Organization-supported lab in South Africa managed to create its own replica version of the Moderna recipe without any help from the company — but there are newfound fears that Moderna will apply for patents in South Africa, which could legally hamper the production of an African-made mRNA vaccine.
Given all this, “Black Panther” is a bit of a technological-revenge fantasy. In the movie, the genius inventor is an American Black college student named Riri Williams, a.k.a. “Ironheart” (Dominique Thorne), who is studying at MIT. She develops a crucial piece of technology that everyone wants to get their hands on. Shuri and Okoye get to her first and plan to take her to Wakanda for her safety. The FBI shows up, so Riri makes sure that her work is safe from the Americans: She encrypts her completed work hundreds of times over, and she destroys other plans before the Americans can get their hands on them. And of course, we get to see Riri’s most important invention, her robotic suit. (Yes, Riri Williams ends up taking over for Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe).
Shuri, Riri and their respective technological geniuses are the true heroines of “Black Panther.” Both have to make the classic journey of transformation. Shuri is kidnapped and taken to the underwater world of the Talokan, ruled by Namor. There she gets a special bracelet, which she uses to create a technological miracle that allows her to transform into the Black Panther. Riri, also kidnapped by Namor, makes a double journey, escaping the underwater world and then fighting on Wakanda’s side against the Talokan. Inventions created by both of them help defeat Namor and keep Wakanda and Talokan safe, protecting both vibranium-powered kingdoms from destroying each other and from the predations of the rest of the world. Shuri and Riri realize their fullest individual potential through the technology they create and share with one another.
So, what if we lived in a world where Black girls were encouraged to be inventors in science and technology? Or where Black women could protect and benefit from their own creativity and genius? The U.S. Patent Office does not keep racial demographic data, but a 2010 study found that while U.S. inventors in general received 235 patents per million people, Black inventors received six patents per million people. And of course, we know that White male innovators get the lion’s share of financial backing — recent studies showed that women received only 2.7 percent of venture capital funding. And Black founders receive less than 3 percent.
So this holiday weekend, I’m grateful that “Black Panther 2” exists to show us what #BlackGirlGenius looks like. As we think about the gadgets that make our lives better, let’s all think about how many real-life Shuri and Riris are out there who don’t get the chance they should to make an impact on the world."