'Black Panther' Was Great Because of Women, But Its Soundtrack Sidelined Them
Women played a large role in ‘Black Panther,’ but they were sorely missing from the music incorporated in the film.
Image via Marvel Studios
Director Ryan Coogler was tasked with creating a sense of home in Wakanda. The fictional East African nation is a third-world country to foreigners, but buried beneath its borders is an innovative homeland to warriors whose livelihood depends on vibranium, an abundant resource that powers their economy. In this mythical land, women are spies like Nakia, visionaries in technology like his little sister Shuri, or the general of an all-female militia like Okoye. With the women as his backbone, T’Challa hunts Klaue after a failed deal to sell an ancient Wakandan artifact made of vibranium. In their pursuit of Klaue, Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, rides atop of a speeding car driven by Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o. Letitia Wright, who plays Shuri, drives T’Challa’s getaway car, and the women use their wit and sharpness to hold off the men. The music synced with this scene, on the other hand, told a different story. “Opps,” a bass-heavy track mixed with futuristic 808s seems as if it were coming out of their vibranium powered vehicles. The album cut features high powered verses from Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, and South African artist Yugen Blakrok, but only Lamar’s verse makes it to the film. In this moment and throughout the film, Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri, are not only quick-thinkers but action stars as well. Seeing their energy paired with Kendrick Lamar’s voice feels misplaced – considering Yugen Blakrok is the only woman present on “Opps.”
Black Panther was deemed “revolutionary” for its all-black leading cast, but most importantly one that didn’t view blackness through the lens of white storytellers. What the conversation often excludes is that Coogler does a damn good job of displaying the strength of women without the lens of a distorted male gaze. From the moment their cover is blown in the casino, Okoye and Nakia are fighting as aggressively as men traditionally do on screen, but still completely poised in their delivery. In heels and evening dresses, the women use wigs, stilettos, and spears as weapons, shattering notions that women can’t be tough, while debunking the stereotype of savagery, a comment Klaue even makes in the film. Since Hattie McDaniels’ role in Gone With the Wind, black women have pervasively been subjected to supporting characters, using eyerolls and sass as a racial identifier. It’s understood going to see Black Panther that Chadwick Boseman, who plays T’Challa, will defy the limitations placed on black actors, but it’s the women of Wakanda who truly save the day. It’s unfortunate that the soundtrack’s inclusivity didn’t mean women.
Throughout his career Lamar has stretched himself on albums like To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN, putting black life under a lens in the same way Coogler has done with Black Panther. With Lamar’s ability to capture the duality of the black experience, it made sense for him to spearhead the music for Black Panther, a movie that was tagged as a trailblazing moment on screen. The misstep here was Lamar and TDE only chose to curate a sound for the king and his enemy, but failed to look beyond the men. The collaborative heavy album definitely seemed like it wanted to portray a wide spectrum of what TDE interpreted as international, but their definition of that skewed largely male. Last week, Noisey took notice of the limited range of artists represented from the African diaspora, but after seeing the movie, the lack of representation of women the film’s music is even more glaring. With over 20 guests spread across 14 tracks, it fell short of mirroring the blatant power dynamic of the women throughout the film. Only four women are tucked away in its tracking, with UK artist Jorja Smith as the only one to snag a solo song. As beautiful as Smith’s “I Am” sounds, it feels melancholy, with themes of quieting fear. On its own, it’s a solid song along the tracklist, but the women of Wakanda were the definition of heroic in a way that makes this feel completely wrong. The film offered black women a chance to see themselves as something other than ornamental, an equal to men, even if only in a fictional nation. The album did the opposite of that, with women sprinkled throughout its sequence as decor.
The women of Black Panther are truly living in a dream world, one devoid of not only gender and racial biases, but the way those intersections affect women on a large scale every day. Wakanda still leans heavily on patriarchy, but the fictitious land gender roles are more equal with Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia free to dominate their respective fields, a skill that enables them to rescue T’Challa at multiple points during the film. It’s in the dedication to their respective fields that they’re able to rescue T’Challa at multiple points during the film. “They’re allowed to be all these things and that is something that society embraces and is excited by... It’s just an amazing model for us to all look at, like can we all just be like Wakanda,” says Gurira in an interview with Huffington Post. Instead of a soundtrack that toggles between the point of view of the two male leads, it would have been impressive to hear the music in Okoye’s head before war. Nakia embeds herself in covert operations across the world, but what would she play if you passed her the aux cord? Shuri is youthful, but still finds time to develop technology that is keeping an entire country afloat. Nyong’o and Wright have already proved they have freestyling chops, so just imagine their playlists. Black Panther did live up to its hype, and the women surpassed that expectation and the music didn’t give them their due diligence.
One of the better reflections where the women on screen matched the tone of the music was in the chants used of a group of women from Senegal, similar to Wakanda’s Dora Milaje army, during fighting scenes led by Okoye. While women and international acts were omitted from much of the music, the score wasn’t incongruent, unlike the soundtrack. The score itself was produced by a Swedish composer, Ludwig Göransson, who worked alongside Coogler for his last film, Creed. Göransson spent a month in Senegal, traveling with local artists like Baaba Maal to get a better understanding of how he could make Wakanda sound like it belonged in Africa. “It was important to me to make music that fit in culturally with each scene,” said Göransson in an interview with Pitchfork. Throughout the film, the music that followed T’Challa and his rival Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, complemented the ancestry of each man. The opening scene and music for T’Challa throughout the film was inspired by the ceremonial style drumming Maal used throughout his tour. In an interview with Genius, Göransson revealed the sound of the talking drum for T’Challa’s scenes was achieved by layering six talking drums over 808s, with horns added to signify royalty. A part of Göransson’s job was to layer authentic African sounds over the work of TDE’s curation, which transformed what felt like a Californian’s take on Wakanda. Fula flutes floated behind Killmonger, which provided more of a West Coast flare, appropriate for the antagonist’s roots in Oakland.
Male dominated soundtrack aside, I was intrigued for all 134 minutes of Black Panther. The notion of an African-American directing a film about an African nation was enough to encite diasporic debates across black communities, but I didn’t share that sentiment. Coogler’s work with Black Panther gives African-Americans a gateway to a culture they may otherwise feel detached from. In the same way safe spaces were created at historically black colleges, and Black Twitter revealed we’d all lived the same childhood but in separate households; Wakanda was ours. It was welcoming, never otherising, and defied the trope that black history began with slavery. It took a royal black family seriously, unlike Eddie Murphy in Coming to America’s fictional nation of Zamunda. With Black Panther having Marvel’s best-selling opening weekend in over $218 million [~£155 million] in sales, it’s safe to say the world is tired of seeing the same old stories.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.