Danai Gurira (L) and Florence Kasumba (R) with Lupita Nyong’o in Black Panther.
Black Panther hits theaters this Friday and it’s already broken box office records just with pre-sale tickets. The movie is on track for a massive $165 million US debut and is being hailed as a triumph of Black representation and visibility—as well as just a great superhero movie. But some in the LGBTQ community aren’t satisfied with its representation of sexuality on screen: While fans initially thought that the film included a queer romance inspired by the World of Wakanda comic book series based on the same universe, they’ve been disappointed to find that it does not.
And to make matters worse, a recent interview with one of the film’s writers revealed that the movie may have initially included such a love story—but it was edited out.
In the World of Wakanda, two female bodyguards named Okoye and Aneka fall in love, and early reports of previews of the film made it seem likely that the movie would include a romance inspired by that plot line, saying the film included “some significant LGBT content.”
Journalists were referring to a preview scene from the film played for media that depicted Okoye and another character named Ayo—played by Danai Gurira and Florence Kasumba—seemingly flirting with each other. As Vanity Fair described it: “Okoye eyes Ayo flirtatiously for a long time as the camera pans in on them. Eventually, she says, appreciatively and appraisingly, ‘You look good.’ Ayo responds in kind. Okoye grins and replies, ‘I know.’”
But fans’ excitement at the prospect of queer representation was promptly cut short when a Marvel spokesperson told Pink News, “The nature of the relationship between Danai Gurira’s Okoye and Florence Kasumba’s Ayo in Black Panther is not a romantic one.” Soon after Marvel’s shutdown in April of last year, the hashtag #LetAyoHaveAGirlfriend started to pop up on Twitter.
On Monday, Screen Crush published an interview with Black Panther screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, in which he revealed that the film’s creators did at one point consider including a romance between Okoye and Ayo, but it was ultimately cut.
When asked if the screenplay was written to originally incorporate two gay characters, Cole said, “I think the short answer is yes.” He then added: “I know that there were quite a few conversations around different things, different directions with different characters, and characters that we may have. We thought, ‘Well, maybe we’ll work it this way with an arc or work it that way with an arc.’”
When asked about the flirtatious dancing scene seen by reporters before being cut out, Cole said, “I can’t remember the exact exchange you’re talking about but I think it was really brief.”
This isn’t the first time a Marvel movie has left out a potential LGBT plotline. In last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, Black actress Tessa Thompson played Valkyrie, a character who is bisexual in the comics but whose sexuality is never explicitly addressed in the film.
When told that Black Panther reportedly cut out a queer subplot, Lauren Sadler, a Black student based in New York City who plans to see the film this weekend, said, “I’m not surprised. Our community has historically had an issue with hyper masculinity and inherent fears of homosexuality.”
Faith Cheltenham, the vice president of BiNet US, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting bisexual visibility and the development of a bisexual community, agreed with Sadler’s take. “I’m disappointed about Marvel’s decision but not surprised,” they said.
Cheltenham, a longtime sci-fi fan, says LGBT phobias in the comic community are not new. They first realized this after being invited to speak on a Black panel at Comic Con in 2008: “Before I got on that panel, I was told by the moderator to keep my ‘queer gay shit to myself,’” Cheltenham said. “After that, I thought, I don’t know if I’m welcome here.”
Cheltenham went on to explain that as a member of the Black and LGBT community, they are always trying to navigate two worlds, and its particularly disappointing that a film with the potential to merge those worlds chose not to. “I think some us are getting to the place where we’re not going to support a movie. We’re not going to show up over and over again—and that’s something that’s going to affect Marvel because we’re the leaders in culture.
“But [ Black Panther] is going to be super successful,” said Cheltenham. “I’m not against that. I want and need that for Black people. Blackness needs to sell worldwide. But we can’t settle for a world that doesn’t have Black LGBT people in it.”