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 the actress, 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 now
Letitia’s Resources List
1. The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975: Göran Olsson’s 2011 documentary examines the international reach of America’s Black Power movement, as witnessed by Swedish journalists and filmmakers
2. “The Mangrove Nine”: 1973 documentary directed by Franco Rosso and John La Rose, including interviews with the defendants before the final verdicts
3. Niney the Observer, “Blood and Fire”: Apocalyptic track by the Jamaican singer and record producer, a key figure in the creation of many of the classic reggae recordings the cast of Mangrove sang on set during filming. “I actually have a whole playlist,” says Letitia. “It’s called ‘Mangrove Altheia Personal Groove’”
4. The Frontline: All Saints Road: 1989 doc available to watch on YouTube, following a day in the life of Sister Netifa, who ran a Rastafarian cultural shop called Uprising Culture House on All Saints Road, also home to the Mangrove. It shows firsthand the heavy policing that put pressure on Black-owned businesses in the area
DAZED AUTUMN/WINTER 2020