Last night for the first time ever, I dressed up—no, I cosplayed—for the movies. I felt this pressing, urgent need to be a part of Black Panther, to both encompass and immerse myself into this experience. To make a statement. You see, Wakanda is an imagined country, but it’s still a place I want to be a part of. For many African Americans, we’re in a type of No Man’s Land, as there isn’t a lot of certainty to which African countries we hail from. Wakanda, though, is somewhere we can all lay claim to.
Which is why, a little over a month ago, I started buying pieces to form a custom character. I knew I wouldn’t be able to be totally screen accurate, so I created someone just for me: a former general of the Dora Milaje, the badass female-led warriors who protect the Black Panther and the royal family. To create this look, I purchased leather armor and decorated it with weathered beading from a dismantled thrift store necklace. Then I took a black long-sleeved shirt and added metal brooches for a stately look worthy of a general. A friend who accompanied me to the movie bought two African cloths—I used one as a head wrap and the other as a sash for my hips. To finish it all off, I added jewelry and a pair of glasses. Between the headwrap and the glasses and the bold gold necklace, I felt…I felt like royalty.
And when I looked at myself in the mirror as this new character, I felt ready. More importantly, I felt empowered.
I must admit, however, I felt a little uneasy walking from the parking lot to the theater. I wondered if I had overdone it, somehow. Would people care? There were a few black people with smatterings of African attire—a shirt here, a scarf there—but no one was dressed up as much I was. Even my friend, who also wore a headwrap, threatened to take hers off.
“You can’t!” I argued. “I can’t just take off a headwrap—this is my entire outfit.”
But as I said that, I realized something. Even if I was the only one, even if it was over the top, I don’t care. I worked hard for this; I wanted it. I had dressed up for me, after all. As a black woman who has been a geek for half her life, this was more than just putting on a costume for fun. It felt personal—I was proud to be wearing this.
“I love your outfit,” a girl in the theater said to me with a smile. My resolve had already set in, but it was nice to hear all the same.
With this new outlook, I stopped at the concession stand just before the movie started. I anticipated spending about ten dollars for some over-priced chicken tenders, but I halted when I saw these plastic Black Panther heads—being used as popcorn buckets—behind the counter. I had to have one.
“It’s $19.90 for the combo, ma’am,” the employee told me. “It comes with the popcorn, buttered or caramel, and a large drink. Love your outfit, by the way.”
I had already invested near $100 dollars for this night, so I paused and thought, Do I really want to give another twenty? Was this getting out of control? As someone not prone to knee-jerk reactions or impulse buying, I debated for another 45 seconds before forking over the money. Sure, it was just a plastic thing in the shape of the Black Panther’s head, but the detailing was amazing. I figured this was one official piece I can add to my Black Panther collection, and I was anxious to have it.
As people found their seats in the packed movie theater, there was this air of anticipation—and then, a rush of silence as the film began. No one was talking, no one was on their phones. Everyone was fully engaged. In short, it was a movie miracle.
And Black Panther did not disappoint. Without spoiling too much, there’s a recurring theme and imagery of black women rising up—not only as warriors, but as protectors. More than that, they’re neither diminished or forgotten for doing so. I cannot stress the importance of this idea, and this visual, as a black woman. Seeing this in the film felt like an acknowledgement but also a thank you.
In the world of Wakanda, women not only save the world, they improve it. T’Challa’s [Chadwick Boseman] sister, Shuri [Letitia Wright] acts as a female Q from the Bond series, providing all tech for her brother while also improving the technology of the country as a whole. Then there’s his general, head body guard, and right hand Okoye [Danai Gurira], and his mother, Ramonda [Angela Bassett], who is truly regal. His love interest Nakia [Lupita Nyong’o] is appreciated and loved not only for her strength but for her unbridled independence.
There were many powerful things about this film, in fact. It’s proof positive that a (predominantly) black cast can be an international sensation and carry blockbuster numbers. It’s entertaining, but it has message. Its portrayal of black people and what an African country could be, if undisturbed from colonialism and war, is groundbreaking.
As we emerged from the theater, a woman stopped my friend and I for photos. I gave my best Dora Milaje stance as her husband snapped the pics of us. So if there’s a shot of me out there smiling, know this: It’s not for the camera—it’s for the marvel of the moment.