Shuri and Sadé: On Disney’s Search for Black Girl Magic
by Wale Owoade
Last month, Bustle reported that Shuri is getting her own comic series and the duo, Leonardo Romero and Nnedi Okorafor, author of Who Fears Death will be working on it. The news is ecstatic as many comic fans believe Shuri is Marvel’s secret weapon to save the world after the chaotic end of Avengers: Infinity War where Thanos wiped out half of the entire universe. But to Africans and the Black world, it means much more than surviving the ‘Age of Thanos’. Few weeks after Marvel’s announcement of its second Black comic character, Walt Disney Studios revealed that it has acquired the rights to develop an African fairytale film titled, Sadé, to be co-written by Ola Shokunbi and Reed Palmer, and produced by the Nigerian-American director, producer and screenwriter Rick Famuyiwa.
In the past, much has been said about the place of Black identity and representation in mainstream media, especially, Hollywood, which projects a tiny aspect of Black African experience while limiting its narrative to slavery and race. However, we have witnessed a significant shift in recent years. With #OscarsSoWhite sparking a debate, filmmakers like Ava Duvernay (A Wrinkle in Time), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) are leading the movement and challenging the boundaries of Black identity in Hollywood. Earlier this year, Marvel Studio’s Black Panther pushed the boundaries of Black representation in films unlike any other Western pop culture phenomenon in the past. Apart from its Afrocentric narrative, it examines the politics and aesthetics of Black Africans.
In fact, it is all thanks to Black Panther that we are expecting the Black girl magic of Shuri, our second Black superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and almost simultaneously, Disney’s pre-Black Panther fairy tale properties, dominated by white characters like Ariel, Cinderella, Belle, Jasmine and Snow White will present its first African Princess, Sadé. These recent developments from Marvel and Disney have left many people wondering if the search for Black girl representation is a trend or a mere coincidence. Looking back, the relationship between Marvel Entertainment and The Walt Disney Studios began in 2009 when the latter announced their intention to acquire Marvel Entertainment for $4.24 billion, the deal was closed in December of the same year and Disney gained full ownership of Marvel Entertainment. Technically, Marvel is a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company and that makes more sense of their recent interest in the Black identity, a phase that started seriously with Marvel’s Black Panther.
However, in a world of gender equality and social correctness, the promise of Shuri and Sadé transcends the dominative gesture of mainstream films. With the two Black girl characters, the Walt Disney Company didn’t just break the rule, they broke it twice as Shuri and Sadé are not just Black, they are Black girls in a Hollywood pervasive for its negative representation of Black women.
In 2016, when Taraji P. Henson won a Golden Globe for playing Cookie in Empire, she made a mild political statement about her acting the role of an ex-convict who sold crack before winning the award. Cookie’s character in Empire is one of the derivative ways Black women are portrayed in film, media and popular culture. In films particularly, there is a convenient stereotype of Black girls as loud, resentful, vulgar and petty. Looking further, Viola Davis’s role as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder confirms this stereotype, despite Keating’s intellectual superiority and social prestige, she is a vindictive alcoholic who is ready to kill.
It is against these negative racial proliferations of Black women in films that Shuri will be Marvel’s first Black girl superhero. The comic character is the Princess of Wakanda, sister of T’Challa and daughter of King T’Chaka and Queen Ramonda. She is the leader of the Wakanda Design Group, a tech geek, and an unapologetically brilliant innovator that shames Tony Stark’s inventions. In T’Challa’s absence, Shuri will take the mantle of leadership and lead Wakanda to the future.
Shuri will bring a domestic conflict to the princess table—while she is the most at home in her lab, working to keep her country at the forefront of science and technology, Wakanda is missing its leader. Without T’Challa around, Shuri will have to decide if she will forego her own passions in order to stand up for her nation. – Marvel
When she first appeared in Vol. 4, Issue No. 2 (2005), written by Reginald Hudlin and illustrated by John Romita Jr. she was a teenage girl who wanted a different kind of leadership for her people. In this issue, Shuri wanted to compete for the Black Panther mantle but was locked up in her room while her brother, T’Challa competed for the throne in a tribal tournament. T’Challa defeated his challenger before Shuri broke out to enter the ring. From the beginning, Shuri wanted to be more than a tech geek, she desires to be the Black Panther and lead her people—Disney’s Marvel is making this a possibility.
Also, Sadé seems to be Disney’s timely attempt to buttress their recent realisation that Black people exist. However obscure, it is a progressive attempt that we wish all major franchises can take note of. The pitch was bought from the co-writers of the screenplay, Ola Shokunbi and Lindsey Reed Palmer. Much has not been revealed about the film and Sadé’s character, but from what we have seen, she is a young African girl whose kingdom is threatened by evil. This forces her to employ her newly discovered magical powers in the protection of her people, with the help of the kingdom’s prince. Almost stereotypical right? We hope the duo of Ola Shokunbi and the producer, Rick Famuyiwa will make sure it is a properly told African story.
As we expect the comic series, Shuri and the film, Sadé, there is also a reason to believe that Disney’s search for Black girl magic is plainly Disney being mercantilist and nothing more. This year, Disney recorded huge success with Marvel’s tentpole, Black Panther with worldwide box office grosses hitting $1.35 billion. It’s the third-highest domestic performer of all time at $700 million, and such a milestone deserves another one, hence Shuri and Sadé. If this is the case, it is a fair deal and we can let Disney keep the franchise going while we satiate on positive African stories told by Africans.
August 23, 2019