Vanessa Obioha writes on Hollywood actor of Nigerian heritage, Sope Aluko, who shines brilliantly in her role in ‘Black Panther’, the latest Marvel Studios movie

There is always this patriotic fervour that accompanies the news of a Nigerian actor featured in a top Hollywood movie. It’s like a badge of honour. And Nigerians wear it with a haughty gait each time there is a movie with a global fame with one of them in it. Of course, such news deserves accolades. After all, it’s not every day that Nigerians enjoy such positive mention from the Western media. Often, news coming out of Nigeria in the international space is derogatory. So, at times like these, there is a loose feeling of triumph to bask in the glory that something good can come out of Nigeria.

The attendant result of such buzz is an overload of information on the said artiste mostly provided by online and mainstream media. The public response immediately confers a celebrity status on the act irrespective of the fact that his or her role in the movie may be minor. Nonetheless, some of these actors had already acquired a celebrity status before their achievements filtered back home. For instance, Chiwetel Ejiofor was a celebrated British actor before his award-winning performance in ‘12 Years a Slave’ – the film that drew the attention of the Nigerian public to him.

Over the years, Nigeria has churned out quite an impressive list of artistes who have an admirable reputation in the international film industry. They include Nonso Anozie, a Nigerian born British actor who featured in the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones”. Nigerian British actor, John Boyega is also making his country proud by featuring twice in the popular Star Wars series. Chiwetel Ejiofor, an English-Nigerian actor stole the spotlight when he took the lead role in Steve McQueen’s period drama ‘12 Years a Slave‘ in 2013. His fame in Nigeria was so widespread that the following year, he was, again, the star in Biyi Bandele’s film adaptation of critically acclaimed historical fiction book about the Nigerian Civil War, ’Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Adichie. In 2014, David Oyelowo a British-Nigerian actor was the man of the moment for playing the legendary role of Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s award-winning historical drama movie ‘Selma’. He received a standing ovation at Pastor Paul Adefarasin’s headquarters church, House on the Rock, The Rock Cathedral, Lekki-Lagos where the movie premiered to a Nigerian audience. Uzoamaka Nwanneka Aduba, an American-born Nigerian actress and singer is another favorite of the locales for her lovable character, Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, in the popular series ‘Orange is the New Black’.

At the moment, all eyes, as they say, are on Sope Aluko, a Hollywood actor of Nigerian heritage whose feature in the latest Marvel Studios movie ‘Black Panther’ is fetching her some fame back home. To be sure, the multi-linguist has featured in other Hollywood movies and TV drama such as ‘Identity Thief’ which starred Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman. However, the cultural significance of the film that earned it great accolades even before its theatrical release inadvertently placed Aluko in the spotlight as the only credited Nigerian in the movie.

Expectedly, her persona instigated curiosity but unfortunately Aluko is yet to have her own Wikipedia page. Even the Black Panther page on Wikipedia does not have her name on the list of characters in the film. Her new fans were compensated with the short bio about her on the International Movie Database (IMDb).

All that however changed within a twinkle of the eye as Aluko and her PR team latched on the opportunity to sell the actor to her Nigerian audience. As she is yet to visit Nigeria, this writer put across a couple of questions to which she responded by email.
Aluko modestly refused to accept that the movie has fetched her more fame until box-office grossing suggest so. However, she hopes her performance will land her larger roles in the future.

Starring in a Marvel Studio film has been a secret desire of Aluko. With two teenage sons who are die-hard fans of the Marvel series, it was only a matter of time before she imagined herself as one of the characters in the movie.
Apart from that, Aluko also secretly longed to act in a movie that rightly celebrates her cultural heritage.
“First and foremost, I wanted to be in a film that truly reflected my African heritage in a respectful way, coupled with the fact that I really wanted to work with Ryan Coogler, the director, as I am a huge fan of his work. Additionally, I wanted to work on a Marvel film. So when the opportunity of Black Panther came along, I just had to audition for it.”

After four auditions, Aluko finally landed a role which was specifically created for her. She played Shaman, a spiritual leader and Zuri’s (Forest Whitaker) second-in-command.
Of her character she writes: “I like the fact that she’s regal in her own right and operates with grace and fortitude. As an actor, it was a joy to play this strong female role.”

The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate for the Nigerian actor who has dual citizenship in US and UK as the latest production from The Marvel Cinematic Universe enjoyed massive positive reviews before its theatrical release over the weekend. Right from the inception, Black Panther had the markings of success but no one anticipated the ecstatic frenzy that accompanied it. The trailer teaser alone had about 89 million views in 24 hours. That was not all. Fandango’s managing editor, Erik Davis, reported on January 10, 2018 after pre-sale tickets were made available that the movie’s first 24 hours of advance ticket sales exceeded those of any other movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was also the most tweeted film of 2017.

Much of the ado about Black Panther does not stem from the lead character being a black man. No! There have been other Marvel productions that paraded a black hero such as ‘Blade’ that featured Wesley Snipes as the lead character.

Black Panther’s hat-trick was the ability of the director, Ryan Coogler to tell a story that is deeply-rooted in Africa, the real origin of most blacks in the world. Coogler who is renowned for his 2015 film ‘Creed’ is highly applauded for unfollowing the Africa stereotypes depicted in Hollywood and portrayed an Africa which is advanced in technology and very brave. He didn’t chart the familiar route of slavery and white supremacy. His portrayal features a black race that is successful without the intervention of the Western world. The movie is interpreted by African-Americans although there are some critics who argue that an African actor should have taken the lead role to really drive home the point.

Coogler’s African country is called Wakanda, a fictional nation originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two Jewish New Yorkers in 1966.

Wakanda a tiny country has, for centuries, been in nearly sole possession of vibranium, an alien element acquired from a fallen meteor. The element is said to be very powerful and nearly indestructible and can be found in the special alloy Captain America’s shield is made of.

Coogler painted a picture of an African nation that is not plagued by hunger, floods or epileptic power supply. Rather, a rich nation with abundance of natural resources as well as technological devices. The setting and costumes used in this production were very steeped in the African culture, a real boost to black race. In fact, Aluko admitted that this was one of the beauties of the movie.

“I absolutely believe the film, Black Panther portrayed the beauty and culture of Africa. I can go as far as saying that this is the first time a Hollywood film has truly done its research and honored the African continent in the most just way. I hope this film sets the standard for any TV or film production in Hollywood wanting to portray a country in the African continent or Africa itself,” she writes in an email.

Regarding the costumes, she added: “I know for a fact that the Costume Designer of Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter, did extensive research from various countries in Africa. She has talked of how the inspirations for each costume came from specific tribes in countries like South Africa, Nigeria etc. I believe African designers including Nigerian designers are clearly on the map and doing so well. I insisted on wearing a Nigerian designer to the Black Panther world premiere in Los Angeles last month to show off my cultural heritage. I was blessed to have Deola Sagoe design a custom-made dress for me. My hope is to show off my Nigerian designers any time I am on a world platform.”

Coogler’s Black Panther narrative follows after the events of ‘Captain America: Civil War’ where King T’Challa returns home to Wakanda following the death of his father. But when two enemies conspire to bring down the kingdom, T’Challa must team up, as the Black Panther, with CIA agent Everett K. Ross and members of the Dora Milaje —Wakanda’s all-female special forces—to prevent a world war.

The portrayal of a black superhero in the movie inspired a marketing consultant and activist from New York, Frederick Joseph to kick off ‘The Black Panther Challenge’, an initiative to sponsor young black children to watch the film. Though it started as a GoFundMe Campaign called ‘Help Children See Black Panther’, the campaign expanded into a global empowerment tool for race and identity that caught up with some celebrities such as TV Show host and actor Ellen DeGeneres who sponsored the children of the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem, and their chaperones, to see the movie.

Perhaps, the most astounding success of Black Panther was the all-black-cast-ensemble which addresses the diversity issues that Hollywood has been grappling with in recent times. Its message resonated more with the black race particular at a time when racial rhetorics are loudest in America, particularly with the Donald Trump presidency. Aluko calls it the ‘perfect retort’.

‘It is quite uncanny how the timing of this film’s release coincides with the political climate here in the US and the government’s clear disdain for the African continent. I am very proud that this film portrays Africa from a position of strength, wealth and technological advancement. What a perfect retort!”

Interestingly, the film is strategically released during the black history month, giving the black race more reasons to jubilate. Like Aluko pointed out, the movie is layered with so many messages that speak to the African ancestry.
Describing herself as a devout Christian, proud wife and mother, Aluko’s passion for acting suffered a setback when her ambassador parents insisted she studied Medicine instead of going for a career in the film industry which according to them was not financially supportive. However, Aluko opted to study Engineering instead.

“During my secondment year of my engineering degree in Nottingham Trent University where I had my undergraduate (BEng Hons) Degree in Manufacturing Engineering, I got the opportunity to work for a few months in the marketing department of Lipton, a Unilever company. I really enjoyed my post there and as a result decided to change course and pursue a Masters in Marketing and Product Management at Cranfield University after completing my Engineering degree. Even though I worked in corporate America for some years, I continued to take Acting classes privately, until nine years ago when I gave up my corporate career and decided to pursue acting in TV & Film full time as a career.”

She was a wreck of nerves for her first audition in Hollywood movie: ‘Identity Thief’.
“I was quite nervous for my first major film audition (Identity Thief) because I remember watching Jason Bateman on TV while growing up in the UK, and wanting so badly to work with him. I know God played a big role because the Casting Director, Mark Fincannon, is a Christian and was very welcoming, warm and kind. That really helped me deliver the best performance I could and I walked away with confidence. My experience on set was wonderful. I got the opportunity to observe firsthand a Master Class of improvisation acting between Jon Favreau and Jason Bateman. You can never stop training and learning as an actor!”

She honed her acting skills at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA) and extended her study into dance. Her TV and movie credits include Netflix’s ‘Bloodline’, NBC’s ‘Law & Order SVU’, ‘Pitch Perfect 2’, ‘96 Minutes’, and ‘Grass Stains’.

For Sope, the future is already here. She is looking forward to projects like ‘Counterpart’, opposite J.K. Simmons, ‘The Best of Enemies’, alongside Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson.
Aluko’s Hollywood goal is simple: To have a sustaining, fulfilling, thriving career as an actor. But for now, she is back home in Miami, performing her duties as a mother.