John Boyega and Letitia Wright explain how 'Small Axe' reflects America's current reckoning with racial injustice

Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·5 min read

Steve McQueen’s new anthology series, Small Axe, is comprised of five feature-length films inspired by real-life stories of racial injustice from England’s recent past. But many of these stories happen to be playing out in America’s present, from the inequities that have been exposed in our justice system to the biases that permeate police departments across the country. Each entry in Small Axe, which premieres Nov. 20 on Amazon Prime Video, is a stark reminder that history is always repeating itself somewhere around the world.

The first Small Axe installment, “Mangrove,” is particularly timely after a year in which protesters of all racial and cultural backgrounds have taken to the streets to demand justice for the deaths of Black Americans like Breonna Taylor after courts largely failed to do so. Set in 1970, the film depicts the prosecution of the “Mangrove Nine” — a group of Black activists who regularly met at London’s Mangrove restaurant to discuss issues facing England’s Caribbean community. Police officers routinely raided the establishment, inspiring a protest that resulted in violence and multiple arrests. A closely-watched trial followed, during which the Mangrove Nine successfully demonstrated in court that racial discrimination existed within the police force.

As “Mangrove” star and beloved Marvel heroine Letitia Wright tells Yahoo Entertainment, American stories like Taylor’s are very much on her mind as the film prepares to make its stateside debut. “What’s happening all around the world, and especially in America, is sad to witness,” says the actress, who plays British Black Panther member — and one of the Mangrove Nine — Altheia Jones-LeCointe. “Mangrove was an event that happened fifty years ago, and we’re now in 2020 and see these similar tragedies taking place. It’s a reflection on how much work we need to do as a humanity and how much we need to love each other, and have fairness, justice and understanding of each other on both sides of the coin.” (Watch our video interview above.)

Letitia Wright stars in the 'Mangrove' installment of Steven McQueen's anthology series, 'Small Axe' (Photo: Des Willie/Amazon Prime Video)
Letitia Wright stars in the "Mangrove" installment of Steven McQueen's anthology series, Small Axe. (Photo: Des Willie/Amazon Prime Video)

But Wright also thinks that achieving that kind of fairness and justice won’t happen by simply including more people of color in courtrooms as judges and lawyers. “Yes, it’s more beneficial to have more people of different ethnicities and cultures in those environments,” she allows. “But if their heart posture is not of love, then what’s the point? Seeing your neighbors as human beings is the first thing no matter your color. If your heart posture is of love, you can be trusted to execute your job in the right way. I vote for love.”

Love of community is part of the reason why Leroy Logan — the protagonist of the third Small Axe entry, “Red, White and Blue,” which premieres Dec. 4 on Amazon Prime Video — makes the choice to join London’s largely-white police force. Almost immediately, he runs up against the kind of institutionalized racism that he previously observed in everyday interactions between Black citizens and officers. As with “Mangrove,” it’s impossible to watch “Red, White and Blue” without thinking of recent events in America, most notably the summertime Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of George Floyd after he was arrested by Minneapolis police officers.

John Boyega stars in the 'Red, White and Blue' entry of 'Small Axe' (Photo: Will Robson-Scott/Amazon Prime Video)
John Boyega stars in the "Red, White and Blue" entry of Small Axe. (Photo: Will Robson-Scott/Amazon Prime Video)

Star Wars star John Boyega, who plays Leroy in McQueen’s film, was a part of those protests, appearing at a London rally where he eloquently spoke about the discrimination Black men and women face around the world. “The key thing for me was the unique conflict of being a Black police officer trying to change the institution from the inside,” he says of his “Red, White and Blue” alter ego. “To be in this position where you’re potentially seen as a Judas or a traitor, but at the same time seeing the need for Black representation on the police force is something I find to be quite special. The public are the police and the police are the public: We are part of these communities and must be seen as part of these communities to connect with people. There should be much more emphasis on the protect and serve element.”

Boyega found himself protected by his friends and colleagues in Hollywood after he took a risk by speaking out. “Look, I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this, but f*** that,” he remarked at the time. But filmmakers like Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams — who directed Boyega in The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker quickly rallied to his side on social media, which the actor now says was gratifying. “Jordan Peele has sat down with me even prior to show his support and discuss our views on things. And J.J. Abrams is someone who has fought for me for a very, very long time, and has always left the door open for honest conversations, negative or positive. It’s good to see them come out and do it publicly as well.”

Watch the trailer:

Small Axe premieres Friday, Nov. 20 on Amazon Prime Video.

Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Jimmie Rhee

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