Teen Vogue:
Lupita Nyong'o & Letitia Wright

Photography by Amy Troost

When he debuted in 1966 as the first black super­hero in main­stream American comics, Black Panther broke bound­aries. Naturally, next year’s silver-screen ren­di­tion of his story, fea­tur­ing a nearly all-black cast, isn’t going to be just a box-office block­buster — it’s going to be his­tory in the making. The film is set in the fic­tional African coun­try of Wakanda, where Black Panther (also known as T’Challa) serves as a leader at a time when the nation’s safety is under threat. And at the core of the story: Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and ingenue Letitia Wright as Nakia and Shuri, who play two of the strongest women in Wakanda. Their char­ac­ters do away with the usual damsel-in-dis­tress nar­ra­tive asso­ci­ated with many clas­sic super­hero movies and create a new normal. Here, they dis­cuss what making Black Panther meant to them and what the movie will hope­fully mean for others.

Letitia Wright: What attracted you to the role, Lupita? Did you know much about the char­ac­ters in Black Panther?

Lupita Nyong’o: Age before beauty, Tish. You go first [laughs].

LW: Well, I never knew any­thing about Black Panther [before being cast]. All I knew was that it’s about black super­heroes from Africa. When I heard about the audi­tion, I read the mock script of the char­ac­ter. I liked how intel­li­gent she was. She’s a teenager, but her age doesn’t define who she is. People think, You’re young; you don’t know what you’re talk­ing about, but she didn’t let that be a lim­i­ta­tion. I instinc­tively picked up [that Shuri] had some­thing mean­ing­ful to say. How did you hear about the movie?

LN: Well, when Black Panther was announced about two years ago, Chadwick [Boseman] was signed on to play T’Challa, and I remem­ber think­ing, Oh, snap, that’s going to be a moment!’ So when direc­tor Ryan Coogler started to talk to me about being a part of it, I was so excited. He walked me through his idea for the story, and after he was done, I was like, Wait a second, is this a Marvel movie?” It had social and polit­i­cal rel­e­vance. My char­ac­ter, Nakia, was a depar­ture from the char­ac­ter you see in the comic books. She’s this inde­pen­dent woman, super patri­otic but also very ques­tion­ing of her soci­ety, and I liked that. With her com­pli­cated rela­tion­ship with T’Challa, I knew it was going to be kind of sexy, and I was like, “OK, I def­i­nitely want in.”

LW: Playing [Shuri] was so refresh­ing. She’s strong, and she can kick butt. She’s intel­li­gent, she loves Wakanda, and she loves cre­at­ing tech­nol­ogy to pro­tect her people. But you see when she’s scared, when she’s fright­ened, when she’s afraid for her family. Even with some of the male char­ac­ters [in the movie], you see moments when they are weak. Shuri was the sort of char­ac­ter I went home and stud­ied to find out the reason she does things.

LN: Ryan made a point of avoid­ing the expected female-rival nar­ra­tive. In this genre, where span­dex is involved, often­times the women are pitted against each other. In our story, there are so many dif­fer­ent women hold­ing their own space. Women may be in com­pe­ti­tion with each other, sure, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean there’s an absence of love or respect. Shuri is the sister to the Black Panther and the leader of tech­no­log­i­cal pur­suits, and Nakia is some­one who has a com­pli­cated his­tory with the Black Panther and is a war­rior in her own right. You see them work together, and you see a dynamic that is really encour­ag­ing. Making this film awak­ened me. I walked away from this expe­ri­ence feel­ing extremely sup­ported, and I felt chal­lenged.

LW: I’m excited for what Black Panther is about to do, not just for young black boys and girls, but for every­one. There’s a black super­hero, but then we’re going to have more Asian super­heroes and more from India. The solu­tion to the prob­lem being: We don’t have enough of this, so we’re going to make more. I’m excited!

LN: In Kenya, I grew up watch­ing Mexican soaps, Australian soaps, and American stuff. I didn’t feel like TV was so diverse — but I just took it in stride. What’s really excit­ing about this is if I can project my human­ity onto people who don’t look like me, from cul­tures that aren’t like mine, why on earth shouldn’t it be the same in reverse? What we’re talk­ing about is the promi­nence of this par­tic­u­lar film and how it is enter­ing into a more main­stream cul­tural con­scious­ness. Superhero movies are our modern folk­lore — and folk­lore is impor­tant. It informs our sense of one­ness. The beauty of cinema is you all go into a room together and agree to sus­pend your dis­be­lief and share this expe­ri­ence of another world. For that moment, you are all one in that space, expe­ri­enc­ing the same thing. It rein­forces our sense of com­mu­nity. These big block­buster super­hero films appear­ing in moments when we’re so polar­ized are some of the few chances we all get to be on the same page.