In the opening scene of the recently released Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the African princess Shuri is seen walking quickly and anxiously around her lab. As the smartest person in the kingdom, an expert in science and technology, she is trying to find a cure for her dying brother, T’Challa. He will not survive, and the torch of Black Panther will be passed down to her.
For Letitia Wright, the 29-year-old British-Guyanese actress who plays Shuri, the experience of making the film involved a similar inheritance. Having starred in the first Black Panther alongside Chadwick Boseman, she now found herself taking the lead role following the actor’s untimely death in 2020.
“I’ve seen it as a responsibility and an opportunity to honour my brother, and to honour the ways in which the first film had an impact on our world,” she says.
Born in Guyana, Wright moved with her family to the UK when she was seven, and grew up in Tottenham, north London. It was there that she began practising changing her accent so she could fit it in her new surroundings. One could say it was her first foray into acting. Now, two decades and many awards later, she is having a golden moment, with three movies released concurrently this season in which she has the leading role: Wakanda Forever, The Silent Twins and Aisha.
When we talk, I am her third interview in a row and though obviously tired, there is a perceptible gentleness about her and an impressive focus that comes through in her reflective responses. She recognises that playing Shuri has been a gift for her career but is also aware and appreciative of what that role has done for young girls around the world.
“I went to set playing Shuri in the first film just excited about being a part of such a cool story. I thought that being a princess in an African nation was the coolest thing ever — I didn’t realise that being a princess in an African nation plus a tech genius was the coolest thing ever.”
As well as boosting her career, playing Shuri opened her eyes to the sphere of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Seeing the reaction from the audiences and the young people around the world really allowed me to see the importance of STEM, especially for young women and how much this role has empowered them to know there is a place for them . . . It’s a beautiful industry where we need more women’s voices there. So Shuri being an example of how cool and innovative these women are is a beautiful blessing.”
But when I suggest that Wakanda Forever really feels like her movie, she immediately balks at the idea.
“I’ve not really seen it like that . . . It is clearly a collaborative and an ensemble space . . . It was never about me. And I never see myself like that in any of my films, even when I’m the quote-unquote ‘lead’, because it takes a village to make a movie.”
The humble answer and the deep respect and admiration for her cast mates feels characteristic of Wright. Her focus is less on the personal fame and acclaim she might attract and more on the quality of her craft and projects she feels make a necessary impact in the world. But what she can’t deny is that because of her talent, she is experiencing a remarkable and well-deserved moment in her career.
Having been nominated for an Emmy for Black Mirror in 2018 and a Bafta for Steve McQueen’s Small Axe last year, she has now been nominated by the British Independent Film Awards for her role in The Silent Twins, her second movie of the festive season. Watching the film, it is easy to discern the incredible range of Wright’s acting skills and to understand why she is currently at the centre of the public eye.
Agnieszka Smoczynska’s movie, which Wright co-produced, is based on the non-fiction book by Marjorie Wallace about June and Jennifer Gibbons, identical twins who were born in the 1963 and raised in Wales, and only spoke to one another. At 19 they were institutionalised at Broadmoor Hospital for 11 years. Wright stars as June Gibbons alongside Tamara Lawrance as Jennifer. For Wright, the movie is a fascinating glimpse into the creative minds of the sisters as well as a deeply sad account of the horrific treatment they endured as they were misunderstood and misdiagnosed.
“I love how creative they are. I love the fact that they just wanted to be writers, and the storyline focuses on the ways in which they tried to make that a reality,” Wright says. “And I love that we get to educate our audience on the ways in which sometimes as a society we really misjudge people. And when that’s done, there are consequences. And the consequences are that people miss out on life.”
In Aisha, also released last month, Wright plays a young Nigerian asylum seeker caught for years in Ireland’s immigration system. All three characters — Shuri, June and Aisha — are solid with a visceral inner strength, despite their different and complex circumstances and the respective emotional or mental stability of each of them.
Though Wright had dreams of being a basketball player, she was deeply affected at age 14 by the 2006 movie Akeelah and the Bee, about a gifted African American girl from south Los Angeles who competes in a national spelling bee. Wright says the film taught her about the power of representation and ignited something in her about being a part of what acting could do to viewers.
“[Watching] Keke Palmer in Akeelah and the Bee was a turning point for me . . . I saw myself in the great character she played . . . I felt understood and empowered. The fact that her character wasn’t stereotypical. Her whole aim was just to be the best at spelling, and they made a whole movie about that. And she was black . . . I wanted to play roles that were like that, that were empowering for young black women.”
Today, Wright selects the best roles for herself by considering how she can fully inhabit a character and the positive impact that portraying those characters might have in the world.
“There’s a level of integrity that I try to have with my parts,” she says. “I have an absolute love and respect for the craft because it’s a tool to teach people something or to exchange with people in a way that’s really intimate. I care about storytelling and l care for how I make people feel when they watch something of mine. I don’t want to waste your time.”
In 2020, during the pandemic, Wright went a step further, creating her own production company, Threesixteen, to make projects like the ones she has chosen to act in. She admits that not every project will become a blockbuster, but considers it more important to invest fully in her work and to leave her audience with something to think about.
“If at the end of the day, I can go home and feel like: that was really meaningful and, OK, not many people saw it but I really poured my heart into it, then that’s success to me,” she says. “Even if you don’t like it, even if you say ‘that wasn’t for me’, there’s something you have to take away . . . Something about my movie or my TV show has to make you walk away thinking about something. If it doesn’t, then I’ve failed.”
‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ and ‘Aisha’ are in cinemas now. ‘The Silent Twins’ is in UK cinemas from December 9
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