Shuri, Black Panther

Why Black Panther's Shuri is so important to young black girls and maker culture

Contributed by
Feb 21, 2018

In her breakout role, actress Letitia Wright stars in Black Panther as Princess Shuri, the teenage sister of T'Challa/Black Panther who oversees the technological operations of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. In the film, Shuri’s inventions as head of the fictional Wakandan Design Group come to life for viewers. She exhibits the tinkering mindset of a maker, thus, countering lingering notions of who can make (for the uninitiated, a maker is a do-it-yourself (DIY) person who likes to build things and make them work). Executive producer Nate More and director Ryan Coogler state that Shuri's science skills are on par with those of world-renowned geniuses like Tony Stark.

Shuri has spent her life researching and experimenting with Vibranium and, in the film, we see her tinkering in the lab, excitedly moving about her inventions that include the Black Panther suits, remote control disks used to drive and pilot various vehicles from her lab, gauntlets that shoot blasts of energy, and "Kimoyo" beads that receive calls, or control different devices and machines. However, this image of Shuri is not one that most people have seen. In the real world, Shuri would likely be compared to DIY inventors, artists, designers and tinkerers. In magazines such as Make, people who look like Shuri are nearly nonexistent.

Baltimore-based maker and teacher Vincent Purcell notes how the maker movement that is meant, in theory, to be about openness and inclusion often reflects and reinforces exclusion in practice. He writes that women, people of color, and those experiencing poverty are drastically underrepresented in this movement.

Black Panther, T'Challa and Shuri

Credit: Marvel Studios

Leah Buechley, the person behind the LilyPad Arduino, compellingly points out the ways that the maker movement has failed to broaden participation and representation in its ranks beyond those who are wealthy, white and male. These issues are ones that need to be heeded, she argues, because the maker movement is at this point not just about tinkering and DIY culture, but about education and thus inextricably linked to issues of opportunity and access.

This is why the image of Shuri tinkering in her Wakandan lab is so important. From FiveThirtyEight:

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.

 

As the princess with an innovative mind who designs the new technology for Wakanda, Shuri shows us what young women and men of color could become in the not too distance future. Shuri’s adeptness at merging her cultural knowledge and skills into innovative science and technology projects makes this part of a new wave of Afrofuturism — the cultural practice that navigates past, present and future — or what I call Afrofuturism 3.0. Her technological, vernacular inventions merge energy with cultural data sets and algorithms, and present geometric motifs that depict nature and the universe.