From Black Panther to Ocean’s 8, Women of Color Are Finally Part of the Action

Sulagna Misra, Medium, May

As a WOC
who loves action movies, this year feels like a game changer
I look
for relatability in the media I consume. And I consume a lot; my mind is
overflowing with books, movies, TV shows. I have related to male characters
(both white and of color) and white female characters. But when you’re Indian
American and grow up in mostly white towns, you know
whatever you are —that you are not
white. The world is always worried you’ll forget, but you remember. And while I
could watch all the Bollywood movies I wanted, those Indian women didn’t know
what it was like to be surrounded by people who didn’t look like you, by people
who sometimes didn’t even like you, by people who joked about you
jokes everyone seemed to laugh at.
that’s why, when a woman who reads as not-white appears on screen, my eyes
follow her. She’s a rarity; she changes the game. When she appears, it’s
usually in contrast with everyone else who doesn’t look like her. This contrast
is key, because women of color usually get a specific place on screen
after all, if they could’ve just
had a man of color, or a white woman, they would’ve cast them. If she’s the
only woman, she’s rarely a damsel in distress. If she’s the only person of
color, she’s unlikely to fade into the background
at least, not in my eyes.
the woman of color shows up, I sit up a little straighter. She stands out
because she is someone who is not male and not white. She reminds me that, yes,
even though this world would rather pretend otherwise: I exist.
In the
past 10 years, I’ve seen myself much more in TV and movies
especially in my favorite genre,
action and adventure. Uhura in Star Trek; Aisha in The Losers; Zoe Washburne in
Firefly and Serenity; Martha in Doctor Who; Lana Lang in Smallville; Knives
Chau in Scott Pilgrim vs the World; Miss Moneypenny in Skyfall; Mako Mori in Pacific
Rim; Toast the Knowing in Mad Max: Fury Road; MJ in Spiderman: Homecoming; Valkyrie
in Thor: Ragnorak. Though you’ll notice that none of those action movie or TV
women are Indian American women. (The only one I can think of now is an Indian
British woman who shows up very briefly in Wanted. I think she dies soon after.)
You’ll also notice that the women I’ve listed aren’t all the same race. They
are, however, all placed under the umbrella term: “women of color.”
I hear
that term all the time nowadays, but I first heard it on a now-defunct website
called Racialicious around 2007, when I was in high school. I found a video from Everyday
that clearly defines it as:

Ross explains that, in 1977, a group of black women from Washington, DC, went
to the National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas, with documents
highlighting the “Black Women’s Agenda.” They wanted to address that there were
only three pages (out of a 200-page document in connection to the conference)
dedicated to
in the conference’s parlance“minority women.” But when Ross
and the group got their agenda approved to be part of the conference’s official
documents, they found that nonblack minority women also wanted to be included.
In the negotiations to include the Black Women’s Agenda in the conference
documents, the term “women of color” was created to include all minority women.
When I
first discovered the term “women of color” in high school, I clung to it. It
explained why I felt especially connected to characters who weren’t exactly
like me but reminded me of myself in a way I couldn’t really explain. Finally,
some solidarity! This was back when I would try to talk to my white female
friends about feminism and have a lot of them wave me off. We don’t need
feminism, they’d say, shrugging. (This was years before everyone would cling to
feminism as a buzzword, branding tactic, and a means to sell T-shirts.) I would
argue and argue and argue about it with them (which, admittedly, is not the
best way to persuade someone to listen to you), but they would point out that
things seemed fine from where they stood.
problem with all the movies and TV shows I mentioned is that while they include
women of color, they usually have just one, and she doesn’t often have
interiority. She almost never has female friends, either
never the real solidarity that
originally created the term “women of color.”
So I was
very curious about how I would feel when I walked into Black Panther. From what
I knew about the movie, one thing that had already struck me was that all the
women of color in the movie were black
in fact, most of the cast was. How would this change how I
connected with the story?
I saw it
in Oakland, California
the place where Black Panther’s story begins. The director, Ryan Coogler, is
from Oakland and had actually come to the same theater where I was seeing his
film just a few days prior. When the opening titles read “OAKLAND, CA,” the
audience clapped and yelled and applauded with glee. I didn’t, because I was
already crying. Remember when I said I grew up in mostly white towns? Oakland
has been named one of the
most diverse cities in America
, and it is somewhere that has felt
like home to me. After moving all over the country in the past few years, just
seeing the name of a place I call home up on the big screen made me feel
uniquely connected to the movie from the beginning.
I loved
each character for a different reason: I’d like to say I live my ideals the way
Nakia does, that I am so aggressively myself as Okoye, that I’m as irreverent
as Shuri
I, too, have interrupted many a
traditional ceremony with my own mischievous comments (though I don’t have the
engineering skills that she does). I felt Nakia’s disinterest in staying with a
man who does not share her values, Okoye’s discomfort with trying to be someone
she is not, Shuri’s intelligence that blooms because it’s supported by the
people around her. These women are so incredibly different from one another,
but I loved them for them, not necessarily for how much I could relate.
It turns
out I didn’t need to relate to anyone, because the film’s whole viewpoint was
one I already understood and shared. Not only did it present people of color
with agency, power, and autonomy
and with the right to itbut it also gave its female
characters their own specific narratives and personalities. They didn’t die to
give anyone motivation, nor did they experience horrible violence without the
ability to defend themselves
a problem Marvel movies and TV shows have had distinctly with women of
color, such as Claire Temple in Daredevil, Reva Conners in Jessica Jones, Helen
Cho in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Gamora in Avengers: Infinity War. I didn’t
need an ambassador to stand up for my existence and to reflect me
because the entire movie did so.
is a country untouched by colonialism. Immersed in that world, I felt very much
Indian American, because any story that curb-stomps the modern-day colonialism
that masquerades as faux-reign policy is familiar to me. Shuri even directly
calls white American Agent Ross a “colonizer.” Ross points out that a coup and
the resulting destruction of resources is very much an American military
tactic. Even the villain, Erik Killmonger, talks disparagingly of the stolen
artifacts proudly displayed in the British Museum. He later says the “sun will
never set on the Wakandan empire,” coldly paraphrasing a saying used to denote the
British empire
. I hissed with anger every time a character said the
word “savage,” which felt both relatable in the pain and disrespect it’s meant
to inflict.
But I
don’t live the same experiences as black women, and in Black Panther I saw bits
of the story I would not and will never be able to relate to. To me, Shuri’s
joy and intelligence feels commonplace
there are many female Indian and Indian American
characters in STEM fields on screen, but this is a rarity among black female
representation in media. And in the essays of other writers on the film, I can
see some of the stories that my own experience is missing: Doreen St.
, for example, examines the very real, very honest pain of
Killmonger; and Rahawa Haile
looks at the idea of a fictional African nation in comparison to real-life
African nations.
When it
came to the movie, though, it was clear the audience shared my pure,
unadulterated joy upon watching it
the movie ended with resounding applause. While I had
minor quibbles about the film (did Agent Ross really have to live?), I enjoyed
it in such a sincere way. I wasn’t looking around for its problems, poor jokes,
or shoehorned references to see what I loved. I just loved it.
The movie
made me more excited about the potential for more women of color showing up in
action movies in the future. I’ve still got that mental IMDB in my head: Gina
Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson were perfect (if brief) in Annihilation, Lena
Waithe was in the not-good-enough-for-her Ready Player One, and Zazie Beetz
will show up in Deadpool 2 (she’s probably the main reason I’m seeing it).
especially excited about Ocean’s 8, out next month, not just because it stars
Indian American woman(!) Mindy Kaling, but also because it stars Rihanna and
Awkwafina, which is not a combination of actors I ever expected to see in one
movie. As with Black Panther, the movie is about women working together
but unlike Black Panther, the
movie is all about the women: their situations, their skills, their stories.
Basically, their interiority. Of course, it’s still an action movie; I like
having representation and relatable characters and all, but even more so, I
also want to watch a fun movie. And Ocean’s 8 looks hella fun.