Yesterday, internet gossip revealed that 12 Years A Slave actress (and all around adorable human being) Lupita Nyong’o was in talks to star opposite Chadwick Boseman in 2018’s Black Panther solo movie. One of the earliest (now seemingly refuted) tidbits of information about this potential role was that Lupita would be playing the female lead and specifically would fill the love interest role.
Almost immediately, the concern trolls came out of the woodwork.
“Why do you have to reduce Lupita to a love interest,” they cried. “She’s a strong Black woman who doesn’t need a man. She should play one of the Dora Milaje or T’challa’s sister Shuri or someone else who has no romantic life and exists to be strong and undesirable (because Blackwomen can’t be strong and desirable at the same time).”
Because that makes all the sense…
Needless to say, many of these people decrying Lupita’s potential love interest status in the hours after her casting weren’t Black women.
You might be wondering why that’s important, so let me lay down some facts for you:
- Between 2008 and May 2016, there have been thirteen released films and three television series set in the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe.
- Of those shows and films, only Agents of SHIELD and Guardians of the Galaxy are led by (or has a co-lead that is) an actress of color. Daredevil has Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple and Elodie Yung’s racebent Elektra but they’re definitely supporting or secondary roles that essentially are sidelined and minimized in favor of a white female character.
- There are no Black women playing leads who are also Black women in the MCU. (Zoe Saldana is playing an alien and her Blackness is decidedly minimized in Guardians of the Galaxy because in space, no one is brown…)
- In phase one of the MCU alone, there were no women of color in lead or supporting roles. (See this amazing post from Nerds of Color). Sadly, it’s not much better now.
- Shows like Agent Carter and Jessica Jones were called “feminist” while erasing or ignoring women of color who could and should have existed in the shows’ settings.
In 2012, when Racebending.com wrote about the way that the Mandarin (a racist caricature of a character created to play on American fears of Communist China during the Sixties) would be whitewashed in Iron Man 3, they included a chart that looked at the studio’s lack of representation.
The results of the chart weren’t shocking. Annoying perhaps, but not shocking Men of color when they appeared were supporting “BFF” characters like Terrance Howard and Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes or villains such Tony Stark’s torturer (played by Sayed Badreya) or mysterious Black men like Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury and Idris Elba’s Heimdall.
That year, if you ignored Agents of SHIELD the way many people did at the time, there were no women of color in the Marvel Cinematic universe as supporting characters or love interests.
Sadly, four years later, things haven’t gotten much better because women of color now, in the few occasions they show up in the MCU outside of Agents of SHIELD, are actually placed in supporting positions more often than not. They are rarely love interests or even fleshed out beyond what they mean to/can provide a male character.
Here are some of the few instances of WOC playing WOC in recurring and/or significant roles:
Helen Cho shows up in Avengers: Age of Ultron as a brilliant scientist who has maybe a dozen lines in her scattered appearances (which include her saving Hawkeye after he’s shot, being brainwashed by Ultron, and that thing with creating a body for Ultron).
On Agents of SHIELD, you do have Ming Na Wen’s Melinda May and Chloe Bennet’s Daisy, two amazing Asian actresses playing Asian characters with main roles on their show.
As I mention before, Claire Temple and Elektra both show up on Daredevil but are framed in increasingly problematic ways that render them as “unacceptable” for Matt Murdock for many ways.
Elodie Yung’s biracial Elektra is framed as the “wrong choice” for Matt and her identity is tied into her being dehumanized and hypersexualized. She’s framed as the femme fatale and a Dragon Lady before literally dying in order to spur Matt onward into Karen’s arms at the end of the second season.
Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple is the “boring” choice, the one that understands what Matt is doing but isn’t sure where she stands on it. After her first handful of appearances, we rarely see her out of scrubs and the intimacy between her and Matt decreases immensely. Portrayed as not as caring or tender or typically feminine as Matt’s current (white) love interest Karen, Claire Temple leaves Matt “for his own good” (or some crap like that).
We’re supposed to believe that there’s no racial to component to how both of the WOC introduced as potential love interests for Matt wind up being wrong or bad choices when compared to the white lady?
(Spoiler alert: there is!)
Consider also that aside from Afro-Latina Rosario Dawson playing the clearly Afro-Latina Claire Temple, there are no other Latina OR Black women represented in the MCU and given significant screentime so far.
That’s not good.
What does all of this backstory have to do with Lupita and concern trolls?
Well, it proves that there’s an actual need for diverse representation that isn’t being met by Marvel despite Kevin Feige’s claims that Marvel “has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films“.
More so, the franchise hasn’t even been trying until this point when it comes to casting women of color in strong roles where they actually play women of color.
And when it comes to dark skinned women?
Forget about it.
That’s why the rumors about Lupita potentially playing as T’challa’s love interest blew up so big and so quickly. We’re starving for representation and Lupita is a true treasure on top of that.
If this recent casting news turns out to be true and she stays with the film, Lupita Nyong’o will be the only dark skinned Black woman to star in an MCU project thus far.
If she’s cast as T’challa’s love interest, she might be the only Black woman to serve as a (potentially permanent) love interest in the MCU since the news of Tessa Thompson coming into Thor: Ragnarok as Thor’s love interest appear to be simple rumors and not fact.
In a world where dark skinned Black women are told that they are ugly and unlovable by everyone from their family members to the media that they consume, the potential for Lupita being cast in a starring, central role as T’challa’s love interest is a huge deal and an important form of representation that Black women and girls need.
So why are people glossing over the importance of this potential role?
No seriously, this is something I’m curious about. Because almost every single person I’ve seen in the past twenty four hours who’ve expressed doubts about Lupita being cast as Black Panther’s female lead and love interest hasn’t given a reason beyond: “She can’t be Storm so I don’t care” and “Don’t reduce her to a love interest”.
The Storm thing is well… easily ignored because Fox has had the film rights to her character for over ten years now. Marvel isn’t going to get their hands on her any time soon. If you bring Storm up in this conversation, you literally have no idea what’s going on in terms of licensing and rights (or even the actual characters’ relationships in the comics).
The other reasoning though? That’s a bit more worrying.
Playing a love interest is only reductive from a White Feminist ™ point of view that doesn’t take into consideration how media handles (or rather, mishandles) Black women in and out of relationships. White women have only recently graduated to being seen as capable of helming their own franchises and being in comedy so they assume that everyone else has that access to the roles and positions that they do.
And that’s just not true.
Black women and actresses just don’t get to be the love interest, the princess, or hell – the queen. We don’t have a wider range of roles that we’re cast in wherein being asked to play a love interest is offensive because there are so many other rooms for us to play.
Look at Lupita Nyong’o and her career trajectory versus that of Jennifer Lawrence. Despite their respective Oscar wins, Lupita hasn’t had half the amount of opportunities that Jennifer Lawrence has and the roles she’s been offered most likely haven’t been as varied.
That’s the reality for Black women in and out of the film industry.
We get offered less even when we do better. Lupita has yet to star in a romcom or an action film or helm her own franchise and that is directly because of antiblackness and colorism in Hollywood.
That’s why the idea of her being the love interest to T’challa is so important and as far from reductive as you can get and why people (especially non-black people) pleading that Ryan Coogler not “relegate Lupita to being just a love interest” is both harmful and hurtful.
It frames Black women as only capable of being “strong and single” and keeps calling back to that insipid “[x character] is a strong black woman who don’t need no man” meme that centers on desexualizing Black women and implying that only “weak” Black women want relationships.
Showing dark skinned Black women and girls that they deserve to be loved and that they’re worthy of respect and love from someone as amazing as T’challa is important and to dismiss it as reducing Lupita’s self worth is beyond insensitive to her as an actress and to Black women as a whole.
Whether Lupita Nyong’o plays one of the Dora Milaje or T’challa’s sister Shuri or an entirely original character who exists because Black Panther has never had a significant romantic relationship with anyone that wasn’t a Black woman, she’s going to be amazing.
But if she plays a character who is a love interest for T’challa, she’s going to be playing a character who will give dark skinned Black women the chance to see themselves represented onscreen as beautiful and beloved and desirable to a king.
In this context, love interest roles don’t reduce the character of women of color, they add to them.
Additional reading: The tweets that I made that inspired this post.
 I specify this because while Claire Temple will show up on Marvel’s Luke Cage series on Netflix this year, the fact that Luke/Jessica is endgame means she’s most likely going to have a brief relationship with Luke before her role is wasted the way it was in Daredevil.