“Black Panther” actress Sope Aluko visited Wellesley last Thursday for a lecture and Q and A session. The talk spanned everything from her upbringing in Nigeria to the trajectory of her acting career, life on the set of “Black Panther,” the future of Black cinema and, importantly, just what Michael B. Jordan’s pecs feel like—for the record, “they were firm.”
Aluko says that her love of acting began when she was a child growing up in a traditional Nigerian family. Her parents listened patiently as she outlined her detailed plan to go to drama school and become an actress, then declared, “You are smoking crack.” As such, Aluko instead pursued an undergraduate degree in engineering, followed by a master’s in marketing and a successful career in corporate marketing. Her career took her to the U.S., where she says she faced discrimination for being African as opposed to white or African-American.
Career frustrations reignited her childhood passion, and she walked away from middle management to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. Hollywood proved little more accepting than the corporate world; Aluko says she “wasn’t young, I was a woman, I was a black woman, I was a dark-skinned black woman—that means something in Hollywood—I was African, I was British . . . I was a mother, I was a wife.” She persevered, landing guest roles on shows and films including “Law & Order: SVU,” “Pitch Perfect” and “How to Get Away with Murder.”
Still, auditioning for “Black Panther” felt like a long shot—and a dream come true. Working with director Ryan Coogler and being part of a film that portrayed Africa in a new, positive light were both items on her vision board, so “Black Panther” felt like a literal answer to her prayers.
She auditioned for four parts, and the one she eventually got was only intended to have one line. That part expanded dramatically after she was hired, though in true Hollywood roller coaster fashion, much of the new material ended up in the three and a half hours of footage that didn’t make it into the film.
“We had so many songs,” she says, which were all African in origin and mostly cut from the film. “Even after the take was over, me and Forest [Whitaker] would still be dancing and singing to the drumbeats.”
Following her lecture, Aluko gamely answered questions ranging from queries on her co-star’s physique to the future of race in cinema. She’s inspired by recent black-led films like “Get Out” and “Creed,” but acknowledges that there are concerns that Hollywood could backtrack if any one in the new wave of diverse, innovative films flops. She noted, however, that far-reaching initiatives like the growing popularity of inclusion riders would make it somewhat difficult for Hollywood to backtrack on all the progress being made, and that alternative routes to production like Netflix are opening up opportunities for young, diverse creators.
Aluko also spoke on the importance of representing women in film, both on and off-screen. Ryan Coogler hired women to fill many traditionally male-dominated production roles in “Black Panther,” including the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison. “Seeing a women in every single position of authority . . . it was special,” Aluko reflects. She refers to fan-favorite characters Shuri, Nakia and Okoye as the “queens of Wakanda,” and urges people to nurture and encourage the “young queens” in their own lives.
Post “Black Panther,” Aluko says life hasn’t changed too much. She’s still hustling for work, flying to and from her Florida home and her LA auditions “like a yo-yo.” While she waits for her latest film, “Venom,” to premiere, she is already getting excited for “Black Panther 2.” While she refuses to give any spoilers for the latter project, she reassures the audience that she isn’t too worried about Wakanda’s apparent destruction in “Avengers: Infinity War.”
These days, Aluko’s vision board features James Bond. “I could play the villain, I don’t care,” she says. “I want to work on James Bond!” With Black Panther behind her and Cary Fukunaga recently announced as the first American James Bond director, lots of things seem more possible now—including getting her kids to do their homework: “I’m the coolest mom out there. I just have to do this,” she says, crossing her arms in a Wakandan salute.