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Letitia Wright – autumn/winter 2020
Letitia wears all clothes and accessories Saint Laurent by Anthony VaccarelloPhotography Arnaud Lajeunie, Styling Raphael Hirsch

Letitia Wright on binding the threads of Black British protest on screen

Letitia Wright – autumn/winter 2020

As she steps into the shoes of real-life Black Panther Altheia Jones-LeCointe in Steve McQueen’s Mangrove, the actress is giving voice to stories that need to be heard

Taken from the autumn/winter 2020 issue of Dazed. You can pre-order a copy of our latest issue here

“I feel like I’ve been here, but I haven’t,” says Letitia Wright, standing in the middle of All Saints Road. “Even though I haven’t been physically on this street until today, I’ve seen it many times.” We’re in London’s Notting Hill, outside what used to be The Mangrove. “This place got raided so many times, man,” the actress says, peering closely through a window so the yellow of her beanie and pink of her coat flicker back. Two white women with blow-dries exit the building, which is now a cocktail bar and restaurant. Wright hands me her iPhone, and I take a photo of her under the building’s blue plaque, dedicated to its former owner, before we go round the corner to talk some more.

In March 1968, Frank Crichlow established his Caribbean restaurant here. The Mangrove served as a vital community hub for the area’s West Indian community, and a key meeting place for the British Black Panther movement. It was also raided – and ravaged – by the Metropolitan police 12 times in its first 18 months of opening. No drugs were found.

In June 2020, anti-racist protesters in Bristol pulled down a monument to slave owner Edward Colston, dumping the statue into the city’s harbour in solidarity with Black people harassed and brutalised by police all over the world. Fifty years earlier, in August 1970, 150 demonstrators marched down All Saints Road challenging a version of the same story, one that is more embedded in the fabric of British cities than most would like to admit. In 1971, ‘The Mangrove Nine’ – a group of protesters including Crichlow and British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe – were accused of inciting riots and put on trial at the Old Bailey. The verdict was historic: after 55 days, all nine defendants were acquitted. Even more significantly, the judge admitted that the police force had been “motivated by racial hatred”. Or, more accurately, racism.

Wright stars as Jones-LeCointe in Mangrove, the first instalment of artist and director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology: five films centring London’s West Indian community, stretching from the late 1960s through to the mid-1980s. The Windrush scandal became national news when, in 2018, The Guardian reported that hundreds of British subjects who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971 had been wrongfully detained and deported by Theresa May’s government. McQueen, who is of Grenadian and Trinidadian heritage, is interested in filling in the lives of the Windrush generation. These are untold stories like Lovers Rock, which spends a single, sensual night at a sweaty house party in Ladbroke Grove, and Red, White and Blue, the tale of Jamaican-British scientist-turned-police officer Leroy Logan, who joined the force after his father was beaten by the Metropolitan police. Together, they give a sense of a time and place – of what the era looked, sounded, tasted and felt like to the migrant families who came here. That the films will air in a primetime slot on BBC One feels like a form of justice.

“We mustn’t be victims, but protagonists in our own stories,” says Wright’s Jones-LeCointe, soft-spoken but utterly commanding in one of several powerful speeches in Mangrove. Wright embodies the Trinidadian physician and community organiser’s grace and unwavering sense of purpose. She plays her with a quiet intensity, taking fierce care with the opportunity she’s been given to “represent our elders and ourselves”, as she explains it. “If you depend on other people to tell your story – if you wait for other people to tell your story – then it will never be told.”

“Crichlow wanted to have an establishment where people could get together and just have food,” she continues. “It was disrespected for many years. Today, seeing that it’s a peaceful restaurant, and the people coming out don’t even look like us! It’s kind of trippy seeing that.”

“If you depend on other people to tell your story – if you wait for other people to tell your story – then it will never be told” – Letitia Wright

The actress, who turned 27 in October, was raised in Guyana until the age of seven. She’s spent the last two decades in London, growing up in Tottenham, where she joined an after-school acting class for kids run by Black Arts Production Theatre (it still exists today). She went on to train in the opposite end of the city, at the Identity School of Acting in Brixton. Wright’s early roles included gritty British dramas Top Boy and Sally El Hosaini’s underrated My Brother the Devil, and she was Emmy-nominated for a role in Black Mirror. “I don’t want to leave Earth like, ‘She did a cool a little film,’” says Wright of her ambitions. “Like, no – (I’d like people to say that) what she did and who she played, who she represented and what she said – it changed my life.” Impact doesn’t come much bigger than the Marvel universe, where Wright is best known as Shuri – impish teenage sister to the late Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, and the brains behind his Black Panther suit.

In real life, Wright is the eldest of six siblings, though among the crew of fellow actors she’s come to think of as family, she’s the baby. “I see Danny (Daniel) Kaluuya as an older brother, and Malachi Kirby. I see Naomie Harris as an older sister. Danai Gurira, I see as an amazing older sister. Definitely, Chadwick represented being my brother,” she says quietly.

Her own Mangrove – her first real “gathering of like-minded people”, as she puts it – was Identity School, where she was able to find friends who became the “brothers and sisters” she still has today. “It was about having a dream – collectively having a purpose. That stemmed from (school founder) Femi Oguns’ influence, (him saying) ‘You can do anything, be anything,’” she says. When I ask what that collective purpose was, Wright puts it this way. “You have this dream, but people say you have to prepare for these huge hurdles that you are not even thinking about. It’s a refusal to give in to what everybody says you should prepare for – failure. Even if you are the first person in your family to (try).”

Wright explains that Identity alumnus John Boyega, who plays Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue, set the precedent for dreaming beyond bit parts in TV soaps like Casualty and Holby City (the latter was Wright’s screen debut). “He was like, I’m going to book a feature film and be the lead, and we were just like, What? Then he booked Attack the Block. In that film, he played a character called Moses – in the Bible, Moses is the person that’s meant to lead the Israelites to the promised land. Moses was the torchbearer. I can see the parallel,” she says. “John influenced all of us to think bigger.”

Another of Wright’s former classmates – and now her Mangrove co-star – Malachi Kirby recalls the day he first met “Tish”. He had been at Identity for a few years already when a new girl arrived. She was “small”, “cute” and “unassuming” – until she did her first scene. “It was like, What just happened? It was electric in the room. She seemed timid, but she definitely wasn’t. When she spoke, there was a wisdom. I kind of adopted her as my little sister from that day. There was something about her that I just wanted to protect,” he chuckles.

“It felt like she had a maturity beyond her years,” says director Steve McQueen. He says Wright’s “integrity and straightforwardness” were the qualities that stood out to him when casting her as Jones- LeCointe, a woman he describes as “resolute and uncompromising”.

To help prepare her for the role, McQueen put the actress in touch with the real Jones-LeCointe. “I was like, ‘Can I meet her? Is she comfortable to meet?’” Wright admits to being “a bit scared” on meeting the now 75-year-old, arriving early at a café in Finsbury Park. “She had this rucksack on, and she was shorter than I had imagined. We hugged and found a seat at the back. I got to ask her questions. I didn’t want to be too intrusive. I basically made it clear that I wasn’t trying to be her in the sense of how she crossed her legs or how she scratched her hair... I wanted to capture her spirit – the spirit of someone who believed in something bigger for her people, someone who had something to say, and something to contribute.”

During the Mangrove Nine trial, Jones-LeCointe and Darcus Howe (played in the film by Kirby) represented themselves in court, a strategy coordinated by the defendants that was key to their winning of the case. I tell her I’m amazed we weren’t taught about this in school. “Why would they want to teach you about nine people who got off from the Metropolitan police? About the first time race was discussed in the Old Bailey?” asks Wright, raising an eyebrow.

“(My friends) have the benefit of exploring (dating apps) without somebody going, ‘Oh my God! Wakanda Forever!’” – Letitia Wright

Jones-LeCointe isn’t the first activist Wright has played. At the age of 12, her first-ever theatre role was NAACP official and civil rights icon Rosa Parks. “You’re like, ‘OK, this changes everything,’” she says earnestly. “I can’t play Rosa Parks and then do something silly.” Her own political education started with her father, a chef who gave her children’s books about Black inventors and played Bob Marley and Dennis Brown records at home. He had an idea of what they weren’t teaching her about at school. “He was like, ‘I know that no one is going to take the time to tell you about how amazing you are as a Black woman, so I’m going to have to purposefully put this book in your hands and hope that you will read it,’ and I did,” she says. As for the music? “Hearing the lyrics of people fighting for liberation, and freedom, and fairness, and equality plants a crazy seed in your head very early on.”

Wright’s hope is that Mangrove plants the same seed in its viewers. “I hope it moves us forward to that place where you don’t have to wake up and see a police officer put his foot on someone’s throat. To never have to go back there again. That would be the hope,” she says, keeping her voice level. The global fight for Black liberation is an ongoing one, though the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the spring brought a renewed energy to the conversation around police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. I ask how she feels about Mangrove, a film about racism and police brutality, being released in the context of this year’s events. “I remember Steve called to give me the news about the film being selected for Cannes. (Due to Covid-19, the festival was cancelled.) Then he said (of the BLM protests), ‘It feels like life imitating art and art imitating life.’ I felt sad that he even had to say those words,” she replies.

“I’m just tired really, tired of constantly having to say the same things,” Wright continues. “We said it beforehand for years, and then you say it again, and then you say it again, and then you say it again, and then you’re in Mangrove, and then you’re in the street demonstrating. You say it again, you say it again, and then you have Stephen Lawrence, and then you’re saying it again. I don’t know what else to say. Around the world, we really have to get it together. It’s too much to bear.”

Despite Mangrove’s weightiness, Malachi Kirby hopes that people will connect with the seam of joy running through the film. McQueen punctuates the courtroom scenes with the electricity of everyday life, paying lavish attention to steel pans, dancing, laughter, steaming pots of curried fish, goat and mutton. Kirby emphasises the importance of not losing a sense of self, celebration, and joy in the midst of injustice. “To still dance, to still sing, is a form of strength and defiance. I think it speaks to generations before us and how we’ve gotten through things,” he says, describing the mood on set as celebratory. They would sing every day – “Blood and Fire” by Niney the Observer, according to Wright, inspired by its use in Franco Rosso and John La Rose’s 1973 short documentary “Mangrove Nine”. When filming the street party scenes, even the famously sombre McQueen got involved. “He was brukking out on the floor!” giggles Kirby.

“We forget how the little things can bring so much joy. Always in the little things,” Wright wrote on Twitter in June. She tells me British poet and activist Akala said something similar in a recent Instagram live – that “we need to promote more Black joy”. Joy, for Wright, is her little sisters – and her parents, who she admits spoil her. “If they come to my apartment, they cook for me. I’m a Guyanese kid who came to Britain, so I can do a really dope spaghetti bolognese, but the Guyanese stuff... the curries, the roti!” she swoons.

Last night, Wright was at dinner with a friend, and they were discussing relationships. They were talking about how to be a successful woman while looking for love at the same time. I ask if that’s something she thinks about often. “Of course, I’m going to be 27!” she says. “I just need to meet the one person that’s for me and that’s it. Done. I don’t need to do all that website stuff.” Unlike her, the friend, another actress, is on the apps. “She has the benefit of exploring without somebody going, ‘Oh my God! Wakanda Forever!’ She doesn’t have that problem,” she groans.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Hey, you have successful friends – they’re cute’, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but they’re dating every girl they fancy,” Wright continues. “You don’t want that. Like oh, dang – you’ve got five chicks? I’m not trying to be number six. I’m just trusting that I will find the person that’s for me when the time is right. My friends have told me I’m too passive. They’re like, ‘You need to do something about it.’”

It’s probably useful for people to know that you’re available, I offer. “That’s true,” she concedes. “But then I have a whole thing about not wanting my heart to be broken. You can’t enjoy your blessings when you go through that,” she counters, hinting that this has happened before. In the meantime, she’s amusingly sanguine about dating. “This is what God wants me to do, so if you’re mature enough to see that, great, amazing, cool, let’s go. But if you’re not – don’t hit my DMs. Just don’t.”

Opposite what used to be The Mangrove is a record store. The shopfront of People’s Sound Records is painted red, yellow and green. Wright has seen it in the documentaries that she’s watched, and wants to go in. “Hey, good afternoon, sorry to bother you,” she says, striding up to the counter. “I wanted to know, how long has this establishment been here?”

The owner saunters over from a room in the back. “This one has been here in this home from 1988,” he says.

“We did a TV show about the Mangrove Nine, and I remember in the documentaries always seeing a reggae shop on this road,” she tells him. “It’s called Small Axe, on BBC One. And then the first film is called Mangrove, which is about a man from down the road,” Wright continues, shyly gesturing across the street.

“I look forward to it coming out,” he nods.

Mangrove is out on BBC One now

Hair Stefan Bertin at The Wall Group using Shea Moisture, make-up Rebekah Lidstone at Frank Agency using Hourglass, nails Ama Quashie at Streeters, set design Afra Zamara at East Photographic, photographic assistants Clement Dauvent, Max Glatzhofer, Louise Oates, styling assistants Andra-Amelia Buhai, Katie Dulieu, make- up assistant Grace Hatcher, seamstress Hayley Cherkas, digital operator Felix TW, production Emily Miles at Mini Title, executive talent consultant Greg Krelenstein