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Usually, after an actress auditions for the role of a lifetime, she would expect the director to let her know whether or not she had been successful. But the voice that told the British star Letitia Wright that she’d got the part of Princess Shuri in Black Panther – the most culturally significant blockbuster of the past decade – was God’s.
It was 2016, two years before the release of the film, and Guyana-born Wright – then a 23 year-old with breakout roles in TV dramas Top Boy, Urban Hymn and Humans to her name – had just emerged from a year-long depression that had lifted after her conversion to Christianity. In a speech Wright gave last year at an event for the evangelical Transformation Church, she revealed how every day after her audition for Black Panther – the first Marvel feature with a primarily black cast, set in the fictional, rich and technologically advanced African country, Wakanda – she would hear the voice of God telling her to pray for a part, until eventually, He told her to stop.
“You have been given the role of Princess Shuri,” He said, before telling her to inform her agent. A couple of bizarre phone calls and one flight to Los Angeles later, news of Wright’s casting as the tech-savvy little sister to Chadwick Boseman’s eponymous hero was trending on Twitter.
“A lot has changed since then,” says Wright, grinning impishly at this understatement. She’s talking over Zoom (while furtively polishing off a bowl of Fruit ’n Fibre) from the east London home she bought with her earnings from Black Panther, a film that made £1 billion at the international box office to become the highest grossing solo superhero movie ever. Black Panther was also nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, while Wright – who would go on to appear as Shuri in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame – took home the Bafta Rising Star Award.
Next year, she is widely expected to become the first British actress to front a superhero film, taking on the mantle of Black Panther in the sequel which starts filming next July, following the sudden death of Boseman from colon cancer last month, the one topic Wright politely declines to discuss.
If there is a common theme to the roles Wright has chosen so far, it might be a determination to bring a greater degree of nuance and shade to the portrayal of black lives on screen. After completing Black Panther – with its radical depiction of a bountiful Africa that has never been colonised – Wright starred in a chilling episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror about the fatal framing of a black man in the US criminal justice system, and will soon appear among the glitzy ensemble cast of Kenneth Branagh’s latest Poirot adaptation Death on the Nile as one of the first black entrepreneurs to come out of the Harlem renaissance.
But first, she was back on television last weekend as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, leader of the British Black Panther Movement, in Mangrove, the first in director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology of five dramas about the West Indian experience in London during the 1970s and 1980s. The film tells the true story of Jones-LeCointe, Frank Crichlow and the other members of the so-called Mangrove Nine, whose highly publicised trial, following their arrest after a peaceful protest in 1970s Notting Hill, exposed institutionalised racism in the Metropolitan Police. Mangrove was filmed last summer, shortly before the murder of George Floyd gave its scenes of protest and police violence against the black community a terrible resonance.
“I remember when Steve called me and said, ‘Wow, what strange times we’re in, art imitating life, and life imitating art’,” says Wright. “And I got really sad. We’ve been fighting for this all the way back to our enslavement, and we’re still asking for the same thing. We’re asking to be seen.”
While preparing for the role, Wright looked into the life of her own great-grandmother, who came to Britain in the 1970s and found work in a factory. “I was told that she had been spat at while waiting at the bus stop one day,” says Wright, speaking with the energy and earnestness that make her such a compelling screen presence. “Racism is so close to home, and that fuelled me to recognise the importance of us as young black people to know our history, to know what our elders [did] to get to this point of freedom for us to walk the streets without being spat at.”
Wright’s engagement with black history was encouraged from a young age by her mother, an accountant, and her father, a farmer, who moved to Tottenham in north London from Guyana when Wright was eight. At home, she was given books about black inventors, black astronauts, about Madam C J Walker, America’s first black female millionaire, about the West African ruler Mansa Musa. But when I ask what Wright was taught about black history at school, she shakes her head in frustration.
“They really wanted to teach about slavery, but never anything prior to slavery, or post slavery, unless it was Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. The way they do it is very warped; it’s like, they show you the chains! And that really trips your mind as a kid, so much so that when you see a black doll and a white doll, you think, which one do you want to play with more?” As a black child, she says, “the system conditions you not to love yourself.”
It was a school play – in which 12-year-old Wright was given the role of Rosa Parks – that made her realise she had a talent for acting. At 15, she decided she needed an agent, so took a picture of herself in her bathroom mirror, wrote a list of all the top agents in London, and delivered her headshot to each of them in person. In the evenings, she took classes at the Identity School of Acting, where she met John Boyega (who would go on to become the first black stormtrooper in Star Wars), and both were signed to the school’s associated talent agency.
Almost immediately, she was offered TV work in Holby City and in the first season of Top Boy as Chantelle, a young member of a London gang. But it was after filming the latter that she first tumbled into depression. Despite having become something of a local celebrity, “I didn’t have three pounds to rub together,” she says. She found occasional work waitressing at events in Kensington Olympia and Arsenal, where she’d get recognised by bemused Top Boy fans asking what on earth she was doing there.
“That was a very humbling experience for me,” she says, “thinking, you know, this is something I’m really going to have to fight for. There is no shame in getting a job. I’d rather get a job than steal.” She shrugs. “This is reality, it’s many nights crying, and many prayers, and many days of wanting to give up and not giving up. My success was not overnight.”
Wright’s perseverance has more than paid off. Did she have any inkling that Black Panther was going to become such a phenomenon?
“I realised once the trailers dropped and my social media went insane,” she says. “Then afterwards I would see people staring at me, doing the…” she crosses her forearms together to make a W, the traditional greeting of Wakanda, and laughs. “With this, people don’t even need to touch me. We’ve been Covid-safe this whole time!”
I ask her if the intensity of Black Panther’s success ever felt overwhelming. “I took my time with the transition,” she says. “I received a lot of advice.” The actress Naomie Harris told her “to invest in a house rather than a car I didn’t need. I grew up in poverty, sometimes not having money for college, or seeing my mum trying to get jobs and being turned away. So I always knew I had to be responsible, to use money to help people, and not be taken advantage of, because people have tried. “There is more to life than what’s in my pocket,” she adds with a mischievous laugh: “But my pay grade needs to improve anyway!”
Wright recently launched her own production company, 316, named after a favourite biblical verse, John 3:16. God had given her the idea when she was in a dark place. “I want to create content of quality that can bring Christians and non-Christians together in the cinema,” she says. “And I don’t want my actors to come on set, or my directors to be given material, and think that this material is compromising their moral values.”
Wright has stuck to her guns from the beginning: ever since her Holby City days, she has refused to do on-screen nudity. “I respect that it is liberating for some people, but I am not comfortable with it,” she tells me. “I see how much you give for a role. You have to do interviews, you have to do photoshoots, you have to travel the world and promote the project. And with everything you do, people get a little bit of you until they can establish what they think of you. You get my tweets, you get my Instagram, and you want my body too? No! That’s for my husband. That is private and sacred to me.”
How does she broach her no-nudity stance with directors? “I say to them, do you mind taking it out,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Because I can show the character being in love, we can have a great kiss, go into a room and close the door; people are intelligent, they know what’s happening! And if [the director] says no, then I say, ‘OK, I won’t be in your film’. I always feel liberated by that choice. I know I can go home and sleep peacefully because I didn’t give the world every single part of me. And my parents can watch my work. My grandma can watch it. I don’t have to say, ‘Mum, Dad, my butt is on the screen!’ ”
Wright’s 316 is also part of something bigger: her fellow rising stars Boyega, Daniel Kaluuya and Cynthia Erivo have also started their own production companies. It feels as though there is a groundswell of black British performers taking control of their own stories, refusing to pander to the studios. Boyega, for one, criticised Disney for sidelining his character in Star Wars. “I don’t want to speak for everyone,” Wright says, looking excited, but choosing her words with care. “But in my small circle I am seeing a gear shift.” She breaks into another grin, before adding with more conviction. “The gear shift is happening.”
Watch Mangrove on BBC iPlayer