Girl Wonder: Tochi Onyebuchi on Shuri’s Role in Black Panther
Revolution hums like a drumbeat through every frame of Black Panther. Revolution roars in the plot. It sings every time a freight train whisks down a length of high-speed rail. It glows in the beautiful black skin of every single principal character in this film. And it shines as bright as a million suns in Shuri’s smile.
A superhero movie where black Americans can recognize themselves in hero and villain alike, in love interest and spy, in shaman and shepherd, that movie is a revolutionary artifact, its crafting a revolutionary act. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the movie is not only the joy attending its release—contagious and cosmic—but the joy in the movie itself. Characters in a continent that looms in the American imagination as a desolate wasteland of disease and malnutrition and war laugh and smile and smirk and joke. They play pranks. They mock. They tease.
And that is perhaps why, of all the revolutionary aspects of this movie, I found Shuri the most emblematic.
Shuri, played with cheeky jest by Guyanese actress Letitia Wright, is not only sister to T’Challa, the movie’s titular hero. She is a technological wunderkind. In the Marvel canon, she is a genius on par with (and perhaps greater than) Tony Stark. When put alongside Invincible Iron Man’s Riri Williams and Lunella Lafayette (Moon Girl), she completes the trio of the Marvel Universe’s smartest characters. Imagine that: put those three black girls in a room together, and they’ll have us on the moon by 2020. Heck, they might have us terraforming Mars by then.
For now, Shuri’s brilliance rests solely within Wakandan borders, but to see her at work in her laboratory is to watch so many girls I know and grew up with, sisters in blood and in spirit, invent. It is to watch their brains furiously at work making devices we could not dream of, solving problems, molding malleable aspirations into metal.
A video recently appeared on Twitter of a theater filled with young girls of color, who had gathered for a private screening of Black Panther. Conversation titters among them until someone walks into the room, which then erupts into shouts and cries of rapture and astonishment. They’ve been joined by none other than Serena Williams. The girls were part of “Black Girls Code,” a non-profit organization that provides technology education to African-American girls. Their programs, with bases in the United States and in South Africa, include coding, computer programming, robotics, and mobile app-building. Kimberly Bryant, the organization’s founder, is training our next generation of geniuses.
Wakanda is a technological wonderland, a fever dream-like answer to the question of what might have happened had an African territory dodged the scourge of colonialism and extractive industries. What might have happened if no one had come to steal the precious metals beneath our feet. What makes Wakanda even more revolutionary is that Shuri and people like her built it.
Black Panther celebrates Africa. Wakanda, in its costumes and customs and accents and artwork, is a veritable mélange of African reality. You watch a movie and see bits of South Africa, of Nigeria. Its cast counts among it a London-born son of Ugandan immigrants (Kaluuya), a Tobago-born actor (Duke), a Mexico-born daughter of Kenyans (Nyong’o), a daughter of Zimbabwean immigrants to Iowa (Gurira). In many ways, the cast, made up of Africans and British Africans and American-Africans and African Americans is a beautiful depiction of the Afrofuturistic ideal: that elusive yet aspirational reunion of the Continent and the Diaspora.
Wakanda and the story that happens within its borders speaks to all of these things. In that way and so many others, it is revolutionary. And the hope is that, in the movie business, it heralds actual revolution.
There is so much to love about this movie. I left the theater feeling seen like never before. Feeling recognized. The characters looked like me, they sounded like my parents, they told jokes I tell with my friends. And they fell in love, they fought beautifully and painfully, they consoled each other. They saved the day.
Perhaps most importantly, they laughed.
In one scene, Shuri uses a new invention to play a practical joke on her big brother, the King of Wakanda. I laughed so hard that tears sprung to my eyes. And when the tears didn’t stop, I realized it was because I pictured one of my sisters doing the same. Indeed, there might have been a girl in that theater for that screening attended by Serena Williams who is planning a similar prank as we speak.
The thought fills my heart to bursting.
Tochi Onyebuchi is the author of Beasts Made of Night, and as you may have noticed, a big fan of Black Panther. His debut novel is the start of a Nigerian-inspired series that powerfully explores the true meaning of justice and guilt. Get your copy of Beasts Made of Night here!