The Black Panther cast is still leaving some aftershock. It’s not very often, even in films with black leads, that the major characters are all portrayed by dark-skinned actors. The film, before ever having been released, set off conversations about representation not only for black people in general but for those of a darker complexion.
For Black Panther, the three leading women (Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, and Danai Gurira) were not in competition with one another at any point. The angry, dark-skinned trope was not welcome. And their roles all fit them like gloves; they were nothing short of tailor-made.
Wright’s portrayal of 18-year-old Princess Shuri resonated particularly well. The British actor intently made Shuri fun. “I watched YouTube videos of real African princesses: they’re normal girls who happen to be royalty, and I wanted to hijack that idea and make her really fun,” the actress told Essence recently. The 24-year-old tossed hyper-regality for a blase approach to royalty. But there wasn’t a single moment when viewers could imagine another actress in her shoes.
Despite that, there was another actress in the running for the Shuri role: 19-year-old Amandla Stenberg, who told CBC Arts at the TIFF Next Wave Festival that she took a step away from the biggest movie of the year. Rejecting that opportunity doesn’t seem right but there’s more.
Stenberg is not unqualified. She’s best known for her role in the 2012 film adaptation of The Hunger Games, for which she received a Teen Choice Award and has been recognized for her roles in other movies. But she didn’t think Black Panther was right for her.
Stenberg, every bit as much an activist as she is an actress, turned away from the role out of social duty. She didn’t think that a biracial woman would fit into the milieu, it being a fictional space where colonization never made it. And she wouldn’t pass, without question, for a woman who’s solely African in East Africa.
“One of the most challenging things for me to do was to walk away from Black Panther. I got really, really close and they were like, ‘Do you want to continue fighting for this?’ And I was like, ‘This isn’t right.’ These are all dark-skin actors playing Africans and I feel like it would have just been off to see me as a biracial American with a Nigerian accent just pretending that I’m the same color as everyone else in the movie,” she told CBC.
It wasn’t easy for Stenberg but her consciousness was well-received. Her character may have inspired unanswerable questions or even required an additional storyline.
“That was really challenging, to make that decision, but I have no regrets. I recognize 100 percent that there are spaces that I should not take up, and when I do take up a space, it’s because I’ve thought really, really critically about it and I’ve consulted people I really trust and it feels right,” she continued.
The opportunities allotted to biracial women are also quite limited. And there’s even less space in the realm of activism. Biracial women are often asked not to attempt absorption of black pain and to step away from critiquing black issues, though Stenberg does it all. While the decision was tough, she made it without regret, considering its effect on a larger scale.
Stenberg already has another big project. She’s set to appear in the August release of The Darkest Minds and in The Hate U Give, a film adaptation of the book by the same name.