Gugu Mbatha-Raw: We need to talk

A collage of a woman wearing different outfits in and around a swimming pool.

Actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw MBE discusses Black representation on screen with BAFTA-winning film-maker Amma Asante MBE. Moderated by best-selling author Yomi Adegoke and captured over video call on the rooftop of Soho Warehouse in Downtown LA by Gioncarlo Valentine

As told to Yomi Adegoke  Photography by Gioncarlo Valentine   Friday 3 July, 2020   Long read

Friends Gugu Mbatha-Raw MBE and Amma Asante MBE first worked together on the acclaimed and multi-award-winning, 2013 period drama film Belle, which Asante directed and Mbatha-Raw starred in as Dido Elizabeth Belle. Dubbed Britain’s ‘first Black aristocrat’, Belle was the mixed race, illegitimate daughter of a naval officer, Sir John Lindsay, and an enslaved African woman named Maria Bell. In 1772, Belle’s great-uncle, Lord Mansfield, in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice, ruled that slavery had no precedent in common law in England. The film’s themes feel particularly pertinent in this politically charged climate, which saw a statue of 17th-century slave trader, Edward Colston, toppled in Bristol at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the UK. 

Since then, Mbatha-Raw has forged a critically lauded career built on championing strong, Black female narratives. She starred in the first-ever $100m film to be helmed by an African-American woman, Ava DuVernay’s Wrinkle In Time in 2018. She also portrayed the first Black Miss World – Jennifer Hosten, ‘Miss Grenada’ – in Misbehaviour, and received much awards attention for the Apple TV+ hit, The Morning Show. Now, Mbatha-Raw is set to release World War II movie Summerland by Olivier Award-winning playwright, Jessica Swale, as well as the Marvel series Loki, alongside Tom Hiddleston.

Although other upcoming projects may have taken a hiatus due to COVID-19, Mbatha-Raw has been spending her enforced period of inactivity avidly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Via the Instagram-based venture, Still We Rise, she has been auctioning her own artworks of two African Americans who tragically lost their lives to police violence, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Proceeds go to charities that support social justice, including Black Lives Matter, Equal Justice Initiative, Movement for Black Lives and the Bail Project.

Ahead of the release of Summerland, the Black British powerhouses – Mbatha-Raw in LA and Asante in Denmark – caught up during the last few days of lockdown. Their frank and personal conversation encompasses protests, Britain’s past and, at this very necessary junction, their prescient hopes for the future.
A woman wearing a gold outfit.
A woman wearing a gold outfit with her legs dipping into a swimming pool.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: ‘When I saw the statue of Edward Colston being pulled down, I was thinking, “My gosh, if Belle was to come out now, would it be received in a different way?”’

Amma Asante: ‘I sincerely think it would be received in a way that it should have in the first place. The film was about love in so many ways, but it was actually also asking some very powerful questions about today. When I saw that statue being pulled down, I unfortunately couldn’t hide my excitement on social media. My delight was evident.’

GMR: ‘I don't agree with the statues being glorified, obviously. But I also think that we can’t erase the past. I think you have to be able to know the scars of history to learn from it. If there hadn’t been a painting of Belle, then we wouldn’t have known about her.’

AA: ‘That was the evidence of who she was.’

GMR: ‘And we still need the evidence – we can’t erase all the negative, and then it just disappears and we forget what happened.’

AA: ‘I think we should put them where they belong, which is in museums. Once these relics are put in museums, then more nuanced conversations can occur. If you are Black, walking through your town centre and your four-year-old daughter says, “Who’s he? Why is he up there?”, how do you explain it?’

GMR: ‘There’s no context. I think that’s the thing about at least putting it in a museum.’

AA: ‘It’s so important to how we understand who we are. To own who we have been is the only way to truly be able to celebrate the things that are worth celebrating and change the things that weren’t. I hope that is where the conversations will land us.’
A collage of three identical portraits of a woman wearing a floral outfit.

'We can’t erase the past. I think you have to be able to know the scars of history to learn from it' - Gugu Mbatha-Raw

GMR: ‘I’ve never lived through anything like this before. And the pandemic, in a strange way, makes everybody that much more receptive.’

AA: ‘And focused. And emotionally available.’

GMR: ‘And it’s given us space to really feel. I think that we’ve had this pause, which has given me pause.’ 

AA: ‘I know four people so far who’ve lost parents to COVID-19. And I have not watched the George Floyd video, because it’s too painful. But when we have all been in a situation where something that we cannot control has impacted us or our loved ones, and then to know something that was completely avoidable could just take out a perfectly fit man...’ 

GMR: ‘That really puts it into context. I went on a protest here in LA and it was such a mixed crowd, it was incredible. There were people who’d come in their cars, if they couldn’t march – just pulled up and parked in the middle of the protest, honking their horns. And there was this one family with their kids and this little baby, under a year old, a Black girl leaning out the window. I was just thinking, “What is she seeing? What is she absorbing from this moment?” I thought, “Well, that’s why we’re all here. For this little girl.”’

AA: ‘I think if I’d have seen what that little girl saw, I would have grown up very differently. Already these things are going to make a difference. We can’t continually see Black mothers and Black wives on screen, lamenting the pointless killings of their husbands and sons. We just can’t. It does start with changing the sort of imagery that children see. What has been really important to me is being able to tell stories where I can put Black women, women of colour, on screen and allow them to have the plethora of thoughts, feelings and actions in the way that growing up I saw non-Black women have.’

GMR: ‘There’s a cultural need to connect.’
A woman on a video call having her picture taken by the video caller.
A woman wearing a blue outfit.
AA: ‘I always wanted to be able to make films and tell stories where women of colour could fail and get it wrong. And be arrogant, happy and angry, and that be of no consequence whatsoever. And not just to put her at the centre of film, but also the poster imagery. That imagery, as you’re walking through the train stations or waiting at the bus stop, is just as important in allowing us to be part of society. That’s what gets me up in the morning. I’m not an activist, I just do what I believe.’   

GMR: ‘Do you not think that? Subliminally, with what you’re putting out there, with what you’re saying, do you not think that’s activism? You’re out there, not with a megaphone, but out there nonetheless. There are many forms of activism. I always remember you bringing up that quote – I think it was Martin Scorsese who said that sometimes you have to smuggle your message.’

AA: ‘Yes, 100%. And I still believe that.’

GMR: ‘It’s subtle and it’s subliminal. I think there are many forms; there’s room for all the layers of activism. And people take them in at different levels of the culture. There are the ones that come in and shift you emotionally. And I think that’s a different type of activism.’

AA: ‘It’s subversive, I agree. What you and I are doing – there is a pride in looking back at it, at all these female stories of Black women, women of colour. I never came into [creating Black narratives] waving a flag and saying, “This is what I’m going to do”. I fell into it as a normal process, because Black people and Black women are just a normal part of my world.’ 

GMR: ‘And it’s not [as simple] as just having a Black person there [in a film].’ 

AA: ‘Right. As Black people, we are not a monolith.’

GMR: ‘No two Black actors are the same. No two Black directors are the same – you are very different to Ava [DuVernay].’
A woman in a swimming pool.

‘There is a fatigue that comes with having the conversation. But you just have to. We’re literally having this conversation now, and we’re also being the conversation' - Gugu Mbatha-Raw

AA: ‘Yes, it’s not about casting the one Black actress. I posted a picture of us together at dinner on social media recently, and I didn’t realise until after posting it just how rare it is to see a lead actress who is Black, as well as the director. You are the rare case where you’ve done it more than once. You have to keep doing what you’re doing because there is certain imagery that little Black girls don’t get to see very often. We don’t realise the dearth of imagery that there is in terms of seeing Black women directing and starring.’

GMR: ‘And for me, the important thing is for the quality of the role for [Black actresses]. It doesn’t always have to deal with race so explicitly or on the surface.’

AA: ‘I can’t wait for the day I cast a Black woman and it’s not about her being Black. What the industry struggles with allowing us to do is just being. Your success, I believe, is helping people have a wider world view [with casting women of colour] in roles not necessarily written for them.’

GMR: ‘I believe my character Hannah [Shoenfeld] in The Morning Show wasn’t actually written to look like me. I do look for those opportunities. I want to have choice, and to have [being Black] not necessarily be a factor in the casting. Someone who looks like me just happens to be this woman.’

AA: ‘Being a role that wasn’t written as Black reminds the world that we bleed the same, we cry the same. We fall in love the same. We are a part of humanity. And that’s what we are all marching for. Until we get there, we’re going to still keep having these conversations. And I think the presence of these conversations tells us that we’re not yet where we need to be.’

GMR: ‘There is a fatigue that comes with having the conversation. But you just have to. We’re literally having this conversation now, and we’re also being the conversation. The conversation must happen, because we are the conversation.’

Gugu Mbatha-Raw MBE is an award-winning actor of stage and screen. Her new film, Summerland, is in cinemas from 31st July.

Amma Asante MBE is a BAFTA award-winning screenwriter and film director. Her directed episodes of
Mrs. America will air on the BBC in July 2020. 

Yomi Adegoke is a journalist and the best-selling co-author of the book
Slay In Your Lane.

Soho House is virtually screening
Summerland across North America on 24 July

Shot on location at Soho Warehouse Downtown Los Angeles
A woman lying on the ground next to a swimming pool.
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