In 2006, a 12-year-old Letitia Wright was inspired to chase her dreams while watching Keke Palmer portray a spelling bee champ in the movie Akeelah And The Bee. And this month, children everywhere will be similarly moved — while watching Wright in Black Panther.
There is much-deserved praise being showered over the latest Marvel movie's historic, mostly Black cast. Chadwick Boseman is quietly impressive as the lead character, T'Challa, aka the Black Panther, and the nation of Wakanda's new king; Lupita Nyong'o is alluring as T'Challa's no-nonsense but loyal love interest; The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira may have outdone herself as the badass warrior Okoye, and Hollywood legend Angela Basset is regal as ever as T'Challa's mother, the queen.
But just 20 minutes into the film, it's clear that Black Panther has a breakout star: Wright, who plays T'Challa's sister and Wakanda's princess, Shuri. Throughout the film's more than two hours, the Guyana-born actress brings the action story some comedic relief, adding a touch of necessary lightness to the dark moments that reflect the current fissures in Black communities. Still, Wright is far from the typical action movie sidekick who simply exists to further along the storyline — or the damsel-in-distress Disney princess trope. Instead, as Wakanda's technological expert, she is quite literally the brains of the entire operation, never hesitating to put T'Challa — or anyone else, for that matter — in their place. In a few epic moments, in fact, she herself becomes the action hero. And she does it all while rocking some gloriously styled braids, another of many firsts for a Marvel sidekick or Disney princess.
Even with a Blockbuster already under her belt, at 24, the actress is just getting started. So far, she's worked in a few indie films and British television shows, including a starring role in the season four finale of Black Mirror last year, "Black Museum." Black Panther is by far her biggest undertaking yet, though Wright says she wasn't intimidated, a fact she attributes to her upbringing in Guyana.
"As a kid, I grew up speaking to everyone in the neighborhood; even if you didn't know them, you spoke and climbed trees and played cricket together...there was no sitting inside and watching TV," she remembers. "Talking to people, getting to know them, telling stories, connecting...that's how I grew up. So when I went to the U.K. and saw everyone stayed indoors and was very private, that was new to me. I think my love of connecting with people through acting, I trace that back to my childhood and culture in Guyana."
Wright's family moved to the U.K. when she was seven; as a teenager, she attended the Identity School of Acting in London, a small, groundbreaking all-Black drama school. She began pursuing a film career at 17, but after a few years, she found herself battling depression; it wasn't until 2015, after she says she'd done some serious soul-searching and found God, that she was able to focus on acting full-time. That's when she landed a role in the indie film Urban Hymn (casted by director Michael Caton-Jones, a choice that would later earn her the attention of Marvel execs) and later, a part in Eclipsed on West End, a play written by her future co-star Gurira.
Wright admits that she was neither a comic book nor a science fiction fan before taking on Black Panther — she never read comic books and was only an occasional Marvel moviegoer, opting more for "indie arthouse films." But when an opportunity to audition for Black Panther came in 2016, she was immediately drawn to the character of Shuri, T'Challa's younger sister and the leader in charge of dreaming up innovative uses for the fictional nation's modern technology.
"She was such a different character from what I'd read in scripts: A young Black woman who's super smart and into technology," Wright says. "I hadn't really seen any girls on screen who were into tech or science and engineering, and I know most of the world hadn't either. So I really wanted to play Shuri not just because she’d be funny and smart and a really cool character to play, but also because I knew she’d leave an impact on young girls and young boys."
Though she's truly just getting started in her career, the current conversations swirling around Hollywood about how the movie industry can better support women — and, more specifically, women of color — are not lost on Wright. She says she's had a largely positive experience so far, but is acutely aware of how much more there still is to be done.
"Even though I haven’t been doing this for a long time, it became clear early on that there aren’t a lot of leading roles for Black women, young or old," she says. "In my own way, I've tried to challenge the status quo by being offered a supporting character script and asking the casting directors if there might be a way I can read for the lead role instead. Because why not?”
Wright adds that, though Hollywood has a responsibility to do better, she has no plans to sit around and wait for scripts to come her way. She cites actors like Viola Davis, Michael B. Jordan, Kerry Washington, even 13-year-old Marsai Martin as inspirations for one day producing her own projects instead of waiting for them to get made by someone else. And though there is often a lack of opportunities, Wright says she'll never settle.
"I’ve made a decision to not play stereotypes. I will never play a role where there was no love or care put into the character. If you haven’t even got the time to write a multidimensional character, why should I waste my time playing the part?"
It's easy to tell from the cast's on-screen chemistry that the vibe on the set of Black Panther was familial. And it was; Wright credits the brother-sister bond of her and Boseman's characters to a real life connection, and says the cast often killed time between takes by hosting spontaneous rap battles — which, she declares proudly, she mostly won. She also spent a lot of time picking the brain of Angela Bassett, whom she calls “a legend“ and says reminded her to “stay close to the ground and do this acting thing for the right reason: impact and storytelling.”
Luckily for Wright's growing fan base, they can catch the actress in next month's Steven Spielberg directed Ready Player One and returning as Shuri in this spring's Avengers: Infinity War. But before Black Panther has even hit theaters, buzz around Wright's performance and the actual comic book's storyline have led to speculation on whether Wright might one day portray the Black Panther herself — or get her own spinoff.
For now, she says, she's just focusing on the current Black Panther. It is clear by the ending (and pre-sale tickets), however, that the latest Marvel movie is destined for a sequel. Until then, fans will walk away from the first installment with the Kendrick Lamar-produced soundtrack stuck in their heads, several memorable one-liners, and a penchant for recreating Suri's signature handshake with her brother, cooly executed by Wright and Boseman. But there's one thing Wright wishes she could've taken with her.
"I wish I could have Shuri's Kimoyo beads in real life — they can project anything onto glass without a remote control!" she says. "I wouldn't even need my cell phone. I'd just project my YouTube videos onto the wall! That would be so cool...You know, Shuri is just so cool. She's so cool! How could it not be an honor to play her?"