“Black Panther” — which hit theaters on Thursday1 — is notable for a number of reasons. It is the first comic-book movie in decades to have a black protagonist. It was shot by one of the best directors of his generation and with an Oscar-nominated woman behind the camera. It is going to make a ton of money and potentially bust a number of pernicious myths about the international market and movies featuring people of color.
But I want to talk a little bit about Shuri.
Shuri (played by Letitia Wright2) is the sister of T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and the film’s titular character. She oversees the technological operations of the superscientific nation. If you’re comparing T’Challa to James Bond, she’s Q.
She’s also the funniest character in the movie, steals every scene she’s in and — for my money — the most important character.
Here’s why: The volume of evidence shows that when audiences see on-screen representations of themselves, particularly aspirational ones, that experience can fundamentally change how they perceive their own place in the world. Black people have been historically underrepresented on screen, and black women in strong roles even more so. Shuri provides a science-y role model for black women, a group distinctly underrepresented in STEM fields.
This potential is essential to the character and factors into Wright’s performance; the actress told Vogue: “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.’”
For example, a study titled “In Pursuit of the MD: The Impact of Role Models, Identity Compatibility, and Belonging Among Undergraduate Women” in the journal Sex Roles found that when women in pre-med programs were exposed to short biographies of five successful female doctors, their interest in a career in medicine shot up (compared with a control group). More interestingly, their sense of belonging in their pre-med programs went up, as did their perception that their gender was compatible with their career aspirations.
Movies can have an even longer lasting impact. A good movie changes the audience, and we have tons of evidence to back that up:
- After the release of “The Hunger Games” and “Brave” in 2012 — both of which feature women protagonists who use a bow and arrow — girls’ participation in archery competitions doubled, according to a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, citing data from USA Archery. The study also found that 7 in 10 girls reported that the protagonists in those films had influenced their decision to take up the sport.
- The first film in the Indiana Jones series caused the number of students studying archaeology to spike.
- “Jurassic Park” minted a bunch of paleontologists.
- And if you want your kid to become an engineer or astrophysicist, show them some “Star Trek.”
Movies can also have direct, immediate effects on more mundane day-to-day decisions. Attendance at the American Museum of Natural History rose 20 percent after “Night at the Museum” came out, U.S. tourism to New Zealand increased 23 percent after “The Hobbit” hit theaters, and Croatia’s tourism business has been booming since “Game of Thrones” shot some scenes there. Or, how about this? Drivers seem more prone to speeding after The Fast and the Furious movies are released.
I could go on, but the point is this: On the one hand, sure, movies are a product engineered to optimize financial windfalls for a small group of corporations and intellectual property holders. But on the other hand, I personally got interested in math because of Ian Malcolm, rock-star chaos theory mathematician in “Jurassic Park,” and you would not be reading this if not for that.
So “Black Panther” is a big deal for a lot of reasons, but Shuri is chief among them.