K. Austin Collins (Vanity Fair, September 2020) writes that “Guyanese-British actor LETITIA WRIGHT, an Emmy nominee for Black Mirror and a standout in Marvel movies, is diving into her country’s complicated, and often buried, racial history with the series Small Axe from director Steve McQueen.” Small Axe is about the lives and trials of the UK’s West Indian immigrants from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. [Read full article at Vanity Fair.]
To hear Letitia Wright tell it, her role in Small Axe, the ambitious new miniseries helmed by 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, owes a little something to providence. She was on a beach in Trinidad and Tobago when she got an email. McQueen wanted to talk to her about playing real-life Black Panther and activist Altheia Jones-LeCointe—a native of the very Trinidad whose shores Wright was currently enjoying. A coincidence, maybe, but Wright ran, didn’t walk, at the chance.
“So I finished my holiday,” she tells me over a comfortably chatty Zoom call this summer, “and as soon as I got off the plane, I went home, got dressed, got prepared, and literally went to meet with McQueen that afternoon.”
Small Axe, which was made by the BBC but will be seen in the U.S. on Amazon, recounts the lives and trials of London’s West Indian immigrants from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. It kicks off with a landmark incident in Black British history: the case of the Mangrove Nine, who were charged with inciting a riot while protesting police violence and the specific targeting of restaurants and bars. The trial took 55 days, but the Nine won out. The Guardian called it “the first judicial acknowledgment that there was ‘evidence of racial hatred’ in the Metropolitan police.” Wright’s character, Jones-LeCointe, was a biochemist, a teacher, and one of the Nine. Much of this was unknown to Wright before signing on: “Britain is very quiet about the dirt that they do.”
Born in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1993 and a Londoner since she was seven, Wright grew up hearing stories about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, but not their British counterparts. “I didn’t grow up knowing about the Mangrove Nine,” she says. “I didn’t grow up knowing there was a Black Panther movement in the U.K. There are so many things I didn’t know.”
Yet since childhood, when she played Rosa Parks in a play and fed herself on books about Egypt and Black inventors her father gave her, Wright has been attracted to socially relevant roles: “You can’t just play Rosa Parks at 12 and then just do something silly. I think life in itself set a standard for the work that I wanted to do.” That standard, she says, has been “following” her. [. . .]
Wright had a phenomenal 2018. She was nominated for an Emmy for the “Black Museum” episode of Black Mirror and appeared in Black Panther—as Shuri, the tech genius wunderkind and sister of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa—as well as Avengers: Infinity War. In 2019, she starred in Avengers: Endgame and won the rising star award at the BAFTAs.
When she met with McQueen for Small Axe, Wright was prepared to jump through hoops to land the role: “I was like, ‘What’s next? Do you want me to tape? Do you want me to come in for an audition?’” The director said he trusted her and cast her then and there. The role appealed to Wright in part because of what it could teach people. “Steve knew that there’s so many young people walking around that don’t know their history,” she says. “They don’t know who was fighting for them.”
Awareness has of course increased after the killing of George Floyd. “We see the pain of our brothers and sisters in America,” says Wright. “What happened with George? It hit us too.” She wants the Black experience in Britain to be highlighted as well. “What we’ve had to endure as Black people in this country….” She pauses. “You’re an indentured worker. You’re coming from the Caribbean, you’re coming from Africa, you’re trying to make a life here, and you’re helping them to build back up their cities, build back up their roads. And at the same time that you’re helping them, they’re telling you to go back home.”
While making Small Axe, Wright met with the woman she was playing, Jones-LeCointe. “I wanted her approval,” she says. “I just became overwhelmed with honor and gratitude for her because she believed in something. Her and her friends believed in a better future for me. She was like, ‘We gave you a blueprint and you didn’t do anything with it.’” That sentiment brought Wright to tears but encouraged her to keep pushing. [. . .]
[Read the full article at Vanity Fair. Photography by Ruth Ossai.]