There’s a scene in just about every comic book movie (or action movie or spy movie), where the audience meets the gadgets. It’s the moment when Tony Stark shows off his Ironman suit, when Q shows James Bond what new tiny little thing he could shove some surveillance technology or bomb into, when Lucius Fox shows Batman all the new powers he’s appropriated from bats. Basically, you take a man (usually white), hand him a gadget, and watch other men nut over the technology he’s created.
Let’s continue to thank the ancestors for Black Panther, for it is the movie that’s improved upon a great many things — including this trope — by allowing black women to take the lead. This time, we don’t have to watch yet another male tech nerd give a tour of the lab; we get to watch a black teenage girl named Shuri (Letitia Wright*) do it.
Sure, there are other female superheroes and scientists within the Marvel and DC universes, but rarely have they been as significant as their male counterparts the way they are in this movie. Okoye (Danai Gurira) is a general who uses her damn wig as a weapon and quells a rebellion led by her husband. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is a one-woman NGO. Ramonda (Angela Basset) is a queen whose egoless diplomacy saves Wakanda. Sorry, remind me: What did the men in this movie really do besides create problems, confront their deep-seated father issues, look incredibly sexy? (Killmonger looking at you, you shirtless troublemaking thirst trap.) And among all of these women, the one who most delighted and surprised me was Shuri, a princess and a black female tech innovator.
As sister to King T’Challa, Shuri is anything but a typical princess: but she’s a teen genius with impeccable braids, impeccable comedic timing, and the best one-liners of the movie. Shuri is responsible for harnessing the Wakanda’s precious store of Vibranium into fuel for the whole country: the transportation, the communication devices, the electricity, the cool Black Panther suits and weapons. If Wakanda has a central nervous system, it’s Shuri’s lab — her lab, not the lab she works in.
What struck me most about Shuri wasn’t just the fact that she was the one inventing all this stuff, but also the pride and confidence and general hypeness with which she talked about it. The pure fist-pumping joy she expresses while she’s showing T’Challa all the new and improved technology she’s adapted. The way she owns her brother while demonstrating how she harnessed kinetic energy to make his suit even stronger. The audacity of her declaring she invented sneakers, when just beyond Wakanda, there are people out there in Nikes. It ruled. And watching the response to Shuri’s cinematic existence has been almost as good as watching her onscreen — representation really really matters when you’re as horribly underrepresented as black women in STEM are.
“I hope it can spark someone to say, ‘I’m not a superhero, but I can be a scientist or build the next spaceship, like Shuri,’” Wright said in an interview with Vogue. Personally, I also hope it can spark a spinoff movie featuring Shuri saving all those “broken white boys” with a smirk and a spitfire joke, running that STEM outreach program in Oakland, and finally attending Coachella.
This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Letitia Wright’s first name.