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In 'Small Axe,' Letitia Wright plays a real-life Black Panther
Letitia Wright before the 91st Academy Awards in Los Angeles, Feb. 24, 2019. Josh Haner/The New York Times.

by Ashley Clark

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Letitia Wright broke onto the international stage with her performance as Shuri, the spirited, no-nonsense princess of Wakanda in “Black Panther.”

Four years later, Wright channels similar characteristics to play Altheia Jones-LeCointe, a leader of the British Black Panther movement, in Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove,” the first feature-length installment in his anthology series “Small Axe” on Amazon Prime Video.

Jones-LeCointe left Trinidad in 1965 to study for a doctorate in biochemistry at University College London, then became involved in anti-racist activism and education before helping to shape the British Black Panthers. In “Mangrove,” Wright’s Jones-LeCointe is a fierce agent of self-determination and political engagement.

The five films in “Small Axe,” all directed by McQueen, explore various aspects of London’s West Indian community, set between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s. “Mangrove” focuses on the 1971 trial of a group of nine Black activists accused of inciting a riot during a protest against the targeted police harassment of patrons at The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in the Notting Hill district of West London. Several defendants — including Jones-LeCointe — represented themselves in court, and they beat the rioting charge.

In a phone interview, Wright discussed her introduction to the “Small Axe” project, the layered nature of racism in British society and the importance of telling stories about Black life in Britain on a grand scale. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: How did you first come to be involved in “Small Axe?”

A: In 2015, I saw a listing on IMDb for an upcoming project that would look at the lives of the Caribbean community in England. I thought, “Wow, this is me!” I’m from Guyana. [Wright was born in Georgetown, and moved to London at the age of 7.] Geographically it’s in South America, but our culture is very influenced by the Caribbean, and we are considered Caribbean. I asked my agent to keep track of it, and thank God she did.

In 2018 I was on holiday in Trinidad and Tobago, and I got an email saying that Steve McQueen and Gary [Davy, casting director] wanted to meet me about what was now titled “Small Axe.” I was like, “Wow, cool, so they are still making it!”

I know Steve is a great artist, but I wanted to pick his brain a bit. Why this story, why now? He said: “The window for our elders’ stories to be told is closing. We can’t allow them to pass away and become our ancestors without them seeing themselves, their culture and everything they’ve contributed to the country represented onscreen.” I was sold, so, at the end of the meeting, I said “When do I audition?” He looked at me, then at Gary, and said: “You just did your audition. It was all the work you’ve been doing and creating in the world.” He trusted me from the get go, and I will always keep that experience very dear to me.

Q: How much did you know about the Mangrove story coming into the project?

A: I grew up with my dad giving me books about Egypt, teaching me about African kings and queens and Mansa Musa, and educating me that, as a people, we weren’t slaves but we were enslaved. But, strangely enough, I didn’t know about the different aspects of our history in Britain.

So I did a bunch of digging. Some of it, about our culture, was beautiful to find. But some of it was heart-wrenching, I couldn’t sleep at night. I read about the New Cross Fire of 1981 and the kids that died there. Even before Stephen Lawrence [a Black teenager who was murdered in a racially motivated attack in London in 1993], there were lots of names that came up in my research of Black men who were just walking home, and they ended up dead or dead in custody. I’m so used to researching about America, and my heart is always pained in that way. But the British stuff was like: damn, I’m here, on the ground, and it’s so hidden. It’s not talked about, it’s an undercurrent of our existence, and it was shocking to me. But it fueled me to be able to know what I was standing for, and why I was doing the project.

Q: I was struck by the skillful way “Mangrove” portrays institutional racism.

A: In Britain there are a lot of layers. A lot of institutional and psychological stuff, where someone might not call you a certain derogatory name outright, but the way they treat you is different. I think the “Mangrove” script does a great job of showing the different layers of racism at play in British society. For Police Constable Frank Pulley [the Mangrove’s main antagonist, played by Sam Spruell], it’s obvious that the Black people he targets have done nothing wrong, it’s an underlying hatred. And then in the courts, they’re going to 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 is friends with the lawyers, and the lawyers are friends with everybody else.

Q: Did you meet Jones-LeCointe in preparation for the role?

A: I met her, and I made it very clear that I didn’t want to be her, I wanted to represent 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 telling her that she came from monkeys. We would talk about the history of the U.K., why her fellow activists did what they did, and why they were standing up for people.

We just sat there and held hands and cried. She said: “We were all about organizing the people, and do you see what’s happened when we haven’t organized? Look at where we are now.” Hearing her say that, as an elder, is a little bit heartbreaking, because she expected more from us as young people, to organize and have a proper community. We still love and care about each other today, but there’s a little bit of a separation there.

Q: There’s been at least one occasion where the role of Black women in the British Black Power movement has been minimized in onscreen portrayals. How important was it for you to have Jones-LeCointe front and center in this telling of the Mangrove story?

A: It was extremely important. As Black women we’ve always been a part of history in every sector, but these achievements have been overlooked. So with Steve bringing stories like the Mangrove Nine to the forefront, and focusing on Black women like Altheia and Barbara Beese [another member of the Mangrove Nine], it’s honorable and beautiful. It’s much needed because it shows young Black women where we’ve been, where we are and where we need to go, and how we need to continue to grow and develop.

Q: There’s an electrifying scene near the end of the film where you deliver an impassioned speech in court. Can you tell me about filming that?

A: Man, Glory of God over that scene, because we didn’t have many takes. Steve trusted his cinematographer, he trusted us. We didn’t have marks. It was: get the spirit of what she’s saying, and let’s go. For me that scene is so important because it represents a message for us as a people: Don’t give up, let’s keep collectively working together and fighting the good fight for peace, for justice, for love, for goodness! Because if we drop the ball, then how can we tell our kids to pick it up?

If I don’t fight for what I believe in, my morals, my values, then how can I expect my little son or my little daughter to do that? It was beautiful to be given the opportunity to be a vessel for the words that were in that script. I’m praying that those words will touch the hearts of people, so that as a community — not only as Black people, but as humanity — we fight for godly values and can continue to be a beautiful light to our kids and the generation coming after us.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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