It’s hard to stand out when you’re on a stage with dozens of some of the biggest celebrities on the planet. At the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War, the extensive ensemble of the most anticipated film of 2018 stood together in a show of might. This was Marvel Studios flexing their muscles and showing the sheer clout they have in an industry that thrives on such displays of domination. They didn’t just have stars: They had Oscar winners and nominees, box office record breakers, modern celeb icons, rising stars, and at least half of the Hollywood Chris Lexicon (Evans and his moustache were busy on Broadway). Yet, still, there were standouts. Clad in a technicolour suit of purples and silvers, with a giant bow on her neck and lacy skirt over her trousers, Letitia Wright was an undoubtable standout. This was a calculated fashion move that paid off, but even if she’d been wearing a sack with holes in the side, Wright would have made an impression. After stealing the screen in Black Panther, the 24 year old Guyanese-born British actress had become a breakout star seemingly overnight. Of course, it’s never that easy, especially for young black women in an industry that seems determined to ignore them.
Wright is a living example of the overwhelming power of diversity in pop culture. As a child, she watched the film Akeelah and the Bee, starring Keke Palmer as a young black girl who finds herself through participating in local spelling bees. Akeelah became a major influence on Wright, and she took it upon herself to find an agent so she could begin an acting career. This makes Wright something of a rarity in the British film culture. Not only is she a dark-skinned black woman who started acting in her late teens, she’s an actress who did not attend a full-time drama school like RADA. Instead, she attended the Identity School of Acting, a part-time drama school for black actors, whose students include John Boyega. Wright admitted to the BBC that she had considered applying to places like RADA and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art but found their costs and accessibility unfeasible to someone like her. She’s not alone in that.
The British film world has been criticised repeatedly, more so over the past decade or so, for its racism and classism. Essentially, the idealized image of a British actor is an upper-middle-class white man with a posh London accent, a private school education and the ability to pull off wearing a cravat. James McAvoy talked of the ‘class ceiling’ and how it impeded his career, and he’s a white dude. Imagine what it’s like for a north London black girl. Identity’s Work has massively shaken up the British acting scene, but it remains an exception to the rule of drama schools in the country, which are very exclusive, very expensive, and very white.
From the earliest points in her career, Wright was singled out as a rising star. After parts in film and TV (including the required bit in Holby City, which is probably the closest thing British actors have to their Law and Order cameo), Wright was cast in Urban Hymn, a coming-of-age drama directed by Michael Caton-Jones. In interviews, Caton-Jones, who had helped kick off the career of a young ingenue named Leonardo DiCaprio, said she had the potential to be a massive star. Wright, at the time aged 21, talked openly about feeling restricted by the roles offered to black actors, particularly British ones. Echoing the words of figures like Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo, both of whom admitted to going to America for better opportunities that simply weren’t there for them at home, she called for industry-wide change.
The British film and TV industry has two general modes for acting: Period dramas and kitchen sink realism. Actors of colour are more likely to feature in the latter, but even then, the opportunities are slim. The former is such a benchmark of what people expect from British culture, and not only are we happy to give it to the world, but Hollywood is eager to fund it. Said historical fiction seldom moves its focus from white people, unless it’s stories of slavery or servants. David Oyelowo recounted a story of trying to pitch a period drama to several British networks which would star himself and being rejected because of fears of ‘historical inaccuracy’. The racist reasoning that justify the British culture scene have left us all poorer as a result, and while Wright was completely correct in her points, it’s telling that she too still had to go to America for the better film roles.
Wright was named as one of Screen International’s 2012 Stars to Watch, alongside Tom Holland, Iain de Caestecker and George MacKay. She did some wonderful work in Banana and Cucumber, Russell T. Davies’ multiple parts TV saga exploring LGBTQ+ life in 21st century London. Of course, Wright also got in the Doctor Who gig and was one of the supporting stars of the second season of Humans. On stage, she played the lead role in the West End production of Eclipsed, written by future co-star Danai Gurira (the Broadway transfer would star another future co-worker in her role - Lupita Nyong’o). And then there was Black Panther.
What is there to say about Ryan Coogler’s Marvel epic that hasn’t already been said? I could go on about its record breaking box office numbers, its rapturous critical acclaim, the big changes it could signal for an infamously slow to evolve industry, and the huge steps forward it’s heralded for modern black cinema. For now, I will talk simply of Wright and her role as Shuri, King T’Challa’s sister and princess of Wakanda. Shuri was as big a signal for change as anything else in the movie: A princess and STEM prodigy whose talents were allowed to flourish in a system and society that treasured her abilities; the tech genius who got all the good one-liners and felt like the little sister everyone wanted; the Disney princess for a new age. In a film chock full of pop culture role models for a generation of black kids, there was something about Shuri that stood taller and prouder.
Wright seemed aware of the weight on her shoulders and what that character would mean for so many black girls watching the film. In an interview with Teen Vogue, she said, ‘I hope that Shuri opens up a new way of thinking for young girls in terms of careers and subjects in the academic world. I wish I watched movies like Hidden Figures when I was a kid, and maybe I would’ve taken science classes super seriously, because I saw myself.’ When you think back to Wright’s words in 2012, wherein she lamented how limiting the roles were for black actors, it seems like sweet justice and the opening of doors for everyone that Black Panther exists. How often do you see black African princesses who have their own labs and genuinely like their older brothers?
During the press tour for Black Panther, Wright talked candidly about her struggles with depression, telling Vanity Fair, ‘I was in the dark going through so many bad things, when the world didn’t know about Shuri and Letitia and whatever is happening now.’ As she told Teen Vogue, mental health issues in the black community are often left undiscussed, and that was what led her to be more vocal in her own story. She’s also been open about what helped her cope with her depression. During the early years of her acting career, where her star began to rise at a speedy rate, she found God. After attending a London actors’ Bible study group in London, she found the relationship she had been craving. In an interview with This Morning, she said, ‘I needed to take a break from acting, because I really idolized it. So, I came off from it and I went on a journey to discover my relationship with God, and I became a Christian.’
This break lasted a good couple of years and even saw her turn down a role in How to Talk to Girls at Parties, starring Nicole Kidman. Wright is open about her faith on social media too. The chances area publicist told her to clamp down on the religious stuff, but it’s refreshing to see a young rising talent who celebrates her Christianity in such an open way. It’s her relationship with God that’s spurred her forward with new ambitions, so why be quiet about it?
you can’t try to be sneaky with me.— Letitia Wright (@letitiawright) April 20, 2018
The Holy Spirit is strong with this one ☺️ pic.twitter.com/67cwcZT4EA
Now, as Avengers: Infinity War looks set to dominate every pop culture conversation for the next few weeks, Wright remains at the forefront of the dialogue as one to watch. Outside of the Marvel-verse, she doesn’t seem to have any future projects lined up, but being Shuri presents its own possibilities. For now, it’s exciting to celebrate a new kind of British acting star who’s embodying new potential for black women in pop culture, and one who does it with such flair.
(Images from Getty Images)