‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’: The Dora Milaje
The Dora Milaje have had quite the comic book history. From their first introduction in Christopher Priest’s Black Panther run as ceremonial wives-in-waiting for a king twice their elder, to warriors who question their king’s motivations, to women who live and love outside of their duty to his majesty in Roxane Gay’s World of Wakanda. The evolution of their one-dimensional characterization has been undeniable and has further extended to their on-screen presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Dora Milaje made their presence known in the MCU first in Captain America: Civil War. Actress Florence Kasumba’s Ayo set the tone for the warrior women of Wakanda with one line. “Move, or you will be moved,” she told Black Widow. It was a small line in a lengthy movie, but one people talked about endlessly after watching the film. Now, it’s being talked about again after Ayo’s reintroduction in Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. It’s a line that foreshadowed how the Dora Milaje would take up space without apology whenever they show up in the franchise and do so as Black women with complete autonomy.
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther shines the way it does because the women of Wakanda are so actively part of the story. This includes the Dora Miljae’s general, Okoye, played by Danai Gurira. Her depiction is essential to both those familiar with the comics and those who aren’t, as an explanation for what it means to be a member of the Dora Milaje within the MCU. Her depiction, while unique, serves to expand on what Ayo illustrated in Civil War.
From the beginning of the movie, it’s established that T’Challa is Okoye’s priority as part of her service to the throne. However, it’s not a one-sided relationship, and that’s key. She gives him feedback and questions his actions. He also seeks her counsel, which establishes how much he values and respects her input. Given that he is the King of Wakanda, this sets a precedent for how others should consider the Dora Milaje and their role. In fact, Okoye has one of the most powerful scenes in the movie telling her husband Wakabi (Daniel Kaluuya) that she would cut him down if he stood in the way of her making sure Wakanda was safe. It’s this kind of characterization that makes it clear that the Dora Milaje are much more than warriors of Wakanda, but the backbone with a voice.
The way Black Panther establishes who the Dora Milaje are beyond their imposing presence and fighting skills caries over to The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. In Ayo’s reintroduction, we get another look at the woman who basically told Black Widow to “F*&k around and find out.” The opening scene of the most recent episode of the series shows us a side of Ayo that we’ve never seen before. She was put in charge of making sure Bucky’s reconditioning was successful. Though the scene is short and there isn’t a ton of dialogue, it shows a compassionate and confident Ayo. She reassures a fearful Bucky that she would make sure that he wouldn’t harm anyone if his Winter Soldier protocol were activated after she finished saying the trigger words. When nothing happens, there is a glimpse of a proud Ayo. This scene, at first glance, may come off as a “here we go again” regarding Black characters being in service to the white ones in the MCU. But the scene that unfolds between John Walker and Ayo and her warriors shows that’s not the case. The Dora Milaje move differently and interact with other characters how they see fit. This all works because the time has been put in to make the women more than mindless soldiers.
Once the flashback is over, Ayo gives Bucky eight hours to finish up business with Zemo, the wanted murderer of King T’Chaka. While this was far more generous than what was deserved, it helped to illustrate both the connection between White Wolf and Ayo, as well as the grace that the warrior will grant when trust is earned. When Ayo and two other Dora Milaje show up to collect Zemo, the new Captain America receives an introduction to Black women who don’t hesitate to respond appropriately to microaggressions and being touched without consent. Bucky is also reminded that although the Wakadans helped him and sent him on his way with a new vibranium arm, they aren’t fools. When he oversteps during the fight that breaks out, Ayo hits him with a set of movements that dislodge his arm. The removal wasn’t done with the intent to harm, but to instead remind him to respect the reasons the Dora Milaje are there to begin with.
The Dora Miljae don’t do anything maliciously. This has been established a few times in their appearances in the MCU. They’ve always given fair warning before taking action, Natasha wouldn’t have made it to Endgame if that weren’t the case. John Walker is even given some grace after he condescendingly tells them to put away their “pointy sticks”. Now, that was disrespectful and came from a man who had the audacity to question their right to be there. Oh, and he happens to have a Black wife, but as you can see that means nothing at all. And again, at the beginning of the episode, Ayo gives Bucky extra time with Zemo, with who he and Sam Wilson had been playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” over the last two episodes. A courtesy she didn’t at all have to give but does because there is a level of respect and trust for a man who killed their king, and he crosses that line.
It appears disrespectful to some viewers because they didn’t learn anything while watching Black Panther, and who aren’t used to Black characters, especially Black women, in the MCU. The latter is written to put themselves and their own first in this episode. When Ayo realizes Zemo has escaped, they leave the vibranium arm and shield with the people those items had been lent out to by the Wakandans. If that scene were about being truly disrespectful, they would have taken those items with them, and arguably they still wouldn’t have been in the wrong. Ayo said to John Walker, “The Dora Milaje have jurisdiction wherever the Dora Milaje find themselves to be.” It’s truly an expansion of her line from Civil War and speaks to where the Dora Milaje are now as characters in the MCU. They are fascinating, multi-dimensional characters who are here to take up space and to beat the brakes off anyone who questions their ability and right to do so. Hopefully, a Dora Milaje centered series is in the works because there is so much more to explore with Ayo, Okoye, and other key Dora we’ve yet to see in the MCU like Aneka.
Please give us all the Dora Milaje we can handle because it’s past due.