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[This story contains spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever]
In Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Dominique Thorne’s Riri Williams was certainly caught off guard when Letitia Wright’s Shuri showed up on her doorstep at MIT. The Wakandan princess needed answers about one of Riri’s inventions, and she ultimately came away impressed by another young woman who possesses the same genius-level intellect. In the process, Riri said the line “to be young, gifted and Black,” which is a phrase that has quite a legacy, especially during the Civil Rights Movement. The saying originated with 1959’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in her Own Words, an autobiographical play about the late playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and a decade later, Nina Simone named her anthemic song after the play in order to honor her friend.
In 2019, Black Panther won a Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture, and the late Chadwick Boseman revolved his acceptance speech around the lasting expression. Thus, Williams’ line in Wakanda Forever is certainly a tacit tribute to Boseman, but it’s also a way for Riri and Shuri to relate to one another’s experience, just as Hansberry and Simone once did.
“[The Chadwick Boseman tribute] was implicitly understood,” Thorne tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Number one, this film is a tribute to the late great Chadwick Boseman and his legacy, not only as a person, an intellect, an actor and a scholar, but also as T’Challa. So I think that line was also top of mind. The history and the legacy that the phrase evokes is also something that just sort of exists. It’s a bit of a cultural undercurrent as a Black individual.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Thorne also looks back on her original audition for Shuri years ago and how Marvel eventually circled back like they said they would.
So you auditioned for Shuri years back, and you also had a part in Judas and the Black Messiah, which Ryan Coogler produced. Thus, was the casting process for Riri Williams a bit quicker than most since you were on Marvel’s radar already?
Yeah, I met with the Marvel team for the first time during that audition that you mentioned. At the time, they said that they were interested in working with me and that they wanted to, but I didn’t quite have the experience that they knew I needed. At that time, I hadn’t done any films yet. I’d strictly done theater. So once I got some film credits under my belt, it was definitely a good feeling to see that they really meant what they said. They came back and really followed up on their word.
Did they cast you for the movie and Ironheart at the same time?
Yes, I was told that the series was going to be developed and that they would introduce the character in [Wakanda Forever]. So it was a package deal.
When you and Letitia Wright first met each other, did your Shuri audition come up at all?
(Laughs.) No, not at all. We spoke about how beautiful it was for these two black women geniuses to get this moment on screen and how incredible it is that these two young minds are both being realized at the same time in the canon of MCU films. So the two of them existing together was the most exciting thing, and that’s really what our conversations were focused on.
The phrase “to be young, gifted and Black” originated with a play about writer Lorraine Hansberry, and Nina Simone eventually named a song after her late friend’s play. In January 2019, Chadwick Boseman revolved Black Panther’s SAG award acceptance speech around the saying, and it’s now something that Riri Williams says in Wakanda Forever. So did you and Ryan Coogler talk about this line being a subtle tribute to Chadwick among other things?
I think it was implicitly understood. Number one, this film is a tribute to the late great Chadwick Boseman and his legacy, not only as a person, an intellect, an actor and a scholar, but also as T’Challa. So I think that line was also top of mind. The history and the legacy that the phrase evokes is also something that just sort of exists. It’s a bit of a cultural undercurrent as a Black individual. So when we get a peek at Riri for the first time in her room and you hear her say that phrase, there’s definitely an implicit recognition of what her existence in Wakanda Forever and the MCU really means.
Given the circumstances, I can’t imagine what it was like to make this movie. As the new person on set, could you feel a certain heaviness in the air?
Absolutely. For a lot of the folks who were new to this cast, we tried to extend some grace for it and conceptualize what it is to lose someone and then continue the work that you started with them. So a lot of us were keeping that top of mind. Of course, we wanted to tell a beautiful story and give good performances, too. These people truly deserved it given everything they created the first go-round.
Your character is the source of levity in the film, and it’s something that the grieving characters needed. Could you also sense that your character’s humor was helping the crew on set?
That’s a beautiful question, and I certainly hope so. Any day of shooting that was primarily focused on Riri or Riri in the suit or what have you, it was certainly my goal or intention to enter into that space with the best possible energy and the best possible outlook. I truly wanted to bring the most joy that I could, and that is probably the most accurate reflection of my time making Wakanda Forever. So I really do hope so.
Once you wrapped Wakanda Forever, you started Ironheart a few months later. Are you pretty excited about what you made?
I am! It’s a very good feeling to be able to say that I am excited for what it will do. My usual disposition is to put some distance between me and whatever the project is, once it’s completed principal photography. But this time around, there’s a connection and an investment in the work that is far deeper than anything I’ve had the privilege of doing before. So, having wrapped on Nov. 2, it’s a beautiful thing for joy and excitement to be among the things that I’m feeling, and when it comes out, I hope that others partake in those feelings as well.
Decades from now, when you reminisce about the making of Wakanda Forever, what day will you likely recall first?
The question about trying to create something amidst such heaviness and pain from losing someone, I, unfortunately, am also in that category now. I lost my makeup artist from Wakanda Forever shortly after we finished.
I’m so sorry.
Thank you. So the day that I’m going to think of first is the moment when Riri hits the ground on the bridge. That was probably one of my longest days making the film, and it was bitter cold outside while wearing her metal suit. The whole place was wet because the Talokanil came up from the river and sprayed water everywhere, making it icy. So it was a miserable setup, but it was one of the most joyful days just because of all the laughs and the conversation that naturally flowed. There was also a lot of gratitude to still be doing what we were doing amidst the circumstances. So it was a beautiful day, particularly between me, my hair stylist, my costumer, my makeup artist and the folks who built the suit on me. So that was a day full of laughs that I will likely remember first.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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