Letitia Wright plays Black Panther in Small Axe
The actress plays the part of British activist Altheia Jones-LeCointe in Steve McQueen's Amazon series. Experience has proven educational.
Letitia Wright burst onto the world scene as Shuri, Wakanda's spirited, no-nonsense princess in "Black Panther."
Four years later, Wright channels similar traits to play Altheia Jones-LeCointe, a pioneer of the British Black Panther movement, in Steve McQueen's "Mangrove," the first feature-length episode of Amazon Prime Video's anthology series "Small Axe."
In 1965, Jones-LeCointe left Trinidad for a doctorate in biochemistry at University College London, and became involved in anti-racist politics and schooling before helping form the British Black Panthers. In "Mangrove," Jones-LeCointe is a fierce agent of self-determination and political dedication.
The five films in "Small Axe," all directed by McQueen, examine diverse facets of London's West Indian culture from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. "Mangrove" reflects on the 1971 conviction of a group of nine Black activists suspected of rioting after a rally against targeted police intimidation of customers at The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in West London's Notting Hill neighborhood. Several defendants—including Jones-LeCointe—represented themselves in sentencing, beating rioting allegations.
In a phone interview, Wright discussed her introduction to the "Small Axe" initiative, the layered essence of oppression in British culture, and the value of sharing big-scale stories about Black life in Britain. There are edited dialogue fragments.
How did you get interested with "Small Axe?" ”
In 2015, I saw an IMDb listing for a forthcoming project that would look at England's Caribbean cultural life. I said, "Wow it's me! "I'm Guyana's. [Wright was born in Georgetown and moved to London at the age of 7.] Geographically it is in South America, but our society is very much influenced by the Caribbean and we are called Caribbean. I asked my agent to keep track of it and thank Goodness.
I was on holiday in Trinidad and Tobago in 2018 and got an email saying Steve McQueen and Gary [Davy, casting director] wanted to see me about what's now called "Tiny Axe." I was like, "Wow, okay, so they're still doing it! ”
I know Steve's a great musician, so I decided to pick up his brain. Why this story now? He said The window to tell our elders' tales shuts. We can't let them slip away and become our ancestors without having themselves, their culture, and what they've done to the nation on the television." I was sold, so I said at the end of the meeting, "What do I hear? "He looked at me then at Gary, and said, "You've just auditioned. It was all the work you've been doing and creating in the country." From the get-go, he believed me, and I'll keep that memory very close to me.
How much did you know about the project's Mangrove story?
I grew up with my dad bringing me Egypt novels, telling me about African kings and queens and Mansa Musa, and teaching me that as a nation we were not slaves but enslaved. Still, oddly enough, I didn't hear of Britain's diverse facets of our history.
But I did some digging. Any of it was beautiful to find in our culture. But others was heart-wrenching, at night I couldn't sleep. I read about 1981's Latest Cross Fire and the kids who died there. And before Stephen Lawrence [a Black teenager who was assassinated in a racially targeted attack in London in 1993], there were several names that showed up in my study of Black men who just walked home and ended up in jail dead or dead. I'm so used to researching America, and my heart's always so pained. But the British stuff was like: damn, I'm here on the ground, so hidden. It's not spoken about, it's an undercurrent of our life, and it surprised me. But it fuelled me to realize what I stood for and why I did the project.
The skillful way "Mangrove" depicts institutional racism struck me.
There are several layers of Britain. A lot of institutional and psychological stuff, someone does not call you a certain negative name, but the way they handle you is different. I think the "Mangrove" script reveals the various layers of bigotry at play in British culture. For Police Constable Frank Pulley [the main character of the Mangrove, played by Sam Spruell], it's clear that the Black people he attacks did nothing wrong, it's an inherent hate. And then they'll find a way to maneuver, weave and sneakily get what they want, break you down bit by bit. The judge is at the top, he's attorneys mates, and the lawyers are friends with everybody else.
Have you met Jones-LeCointe for the role?
I met her and made it very clear that I didn't want to be her, I wanted to reflect her spirit: the spirit of a young Black woman who came to Britain at the age of 19 to study biochemistry and had to deal with her teachers convincing her that she came from monkeys. We'd talk about UK history, why her fellow activists did what they did, and why they stuck up for people.
We stood there, held hands and cried. She said, "We were all about organising people, and you know what happened when we didn't organize? Look where we are now." Hearing her say it's a little heartbreaking as an elder that she wanted more of us as young people to unite and have a proper group. Today we really love and care for each other but there's a separation there.
At least one time Black women's position in the British Black Power struggle has been diminished in onscreen portrayals. How relevant was Jones-front LeCointe's and center in this Mangrove storytelling?
It was really interesting. As Black women, in every industry we have always been part of history, but these contributions have been ignored. But with Steve heading news like the Mangrove Nine and concentrating on Black women like Altheia and Barbara Beese [another member of the Mangrove Nine], it's noble and lovely. It's much needed because it tells young Black women where we've been, where we're and where we need to go and how we need to keep rising and improving.
There's an electrifying moment at the film's end, where you make an impassioned speech in court. Can you teach me about filming?
Man, God's glory over that scene, because we didn't have many takes. Steve trusted his filmmaker, trusted us. We had no labels. It was: get the spirit of what she meant, let's go. For me this scene is so important because it reflects a message for us as a people don't give up, let's keep working together and striving for unity, liberty, compassion, goodness! If we lose the ball, how can we help our kids to pick it up?
If I don't fight for what I believe in, my beliefs, my principles, how do I expect my little son to do that? It was a magnificent chance to be a vessel for the words in that language. I hope that these words will affect people's hearts so that as a community—not only as Black people, but as humanity—we will struggle for godly ideals and continue to be a beautiful light for our children and the generation after us.