Small Axe and shining a light on Black British resistance

A black and white and colour collage of two identical portraits of a woman wearing a black top with white spots.

Actress Antonia Thomas explains why her latest role in Steve McQueen’s upcoming series of five films is her most important yet

By Glynn Pogue    Above image: Antonia Thomas (Britney Gill)   Monday 2 November, 2020

I came to know Antonia Thomas through the cult classic Misfits. I was in college at Howard University at the time, and was living with an exchange student from London. Of the many things she put me on to, Misfits was a standout. I remember being so mystified by young UK culture. Not to mention, I’ve always had a thing for Black folks with British accents, so much so that I pretended to have one myself.  

Misfits was, all at once, scandalous and subversive, and vulnerable and real. And, to me, there was no character that embodied this dynamic more than Alisha, who Thomas played in her first ever on-screen acting role. Alisha was brash and sexually liberated and, supernatural powers notwithstanding, she felt real.

Seven years after the show ended, following success with roles in other TV shows, including Lovesick and The Good Doctor, Thomas has taken on what she considers her most important role yet, in Steve McQueen’s new series, Small Axe
Small Axe features a collection of five films, each highlighting personal stories about London’s West Indian community from the late-1960s to mid-1980s. Many of the stories shed light on efforts made by local activists to dismantle racist systems in the UK. In Small Axe’s Red, White And Blue, Thomas plays Gretl Logan, the wife of Leroy Logan, who is played by John Boyega. Logan is the legendary former Superintendent of Greater London’s Metropolitan Police, who notably joined the force in the hope of changing the system within. 

Small Axe hopes to shed light on the experiences of Black people in the UK and beyond. For Thomas, giving honour to a story about Black history and culture has allowed her to begin to understand her own place in the narrative. The journey has given the actor the opportunity to ask essential questions of herself, interrogate her identity, and stand firm in what she believes.  
A young woman holding a baby next to an older woman.
Small Axe
Small Axe is generating a lot of buzz. What can you share about who you’re playing and what can we expect?
‘I’m playing Gretl Logan, the wife of Leroy Logan. Historically, Leroy is a very notable figure for his impact on the police force and his West Indian community. Leroy and Gretl were a unit, and my role offers a look into the personal side of his story. Playing Leroy’s partner, I show the support and strength Gretl gave him. I think she is an incredibly courageous woman, and she’s interesting in her own right. As a bi-racial woman from Nigeria who immigrated to the UK, met Leroy, moved into his Western Indian community and went on this journey with him, she had a lot to grapple with.’ 
How familiar with the stories of Small Axe were you before you started working on the project?
‘So much of Black British history has been whitewashed. For a lot of the stories, there’s not a great deal of information out there, and I think that’s why it’s so important that Steve made this project. Being a Black British person, I know my mother’s story and my community’s story. But I think there’s been such a problem with our Black British culture not being celebrated and not being talked about, especially within our education system. I’ve consistently had to do my own work to educate myself about Black history in Britain and our impact.’ 
I think an unawareness of what the Black British experience is like is widespread. As a Black American, I hear lots of debates about whether or not Black Brits can relate to our struggles, and our history of activism. There’s also some idea that Black Brits ‘don’t get it’, because the UK is seemingly quite multi-racial. What are your thoughts on this? 
‘The culture around Britishness exacerbates Britishness. Culturally, we make everything look like it’s fine. I don’t like this phrase, but I think we’re very much considered a “post-racial” society. Historically, it seems like we’ve had an “easier time”, I think, in part, because the British slave trade was very much based in the Caribbean islands, but we absolutely feel the aftermath. Racism definitely exists here. On the surface we don’t see the more obvious acts of racial violence the way we see it in America, but it is deeply felt within our institutions, lack of opportunities, and access. And, as we see in Red, White And Blue, police brutality exists here, too.’
A black and white and colour collage of two identical portraits of a woman wearing a black top with white spots.
As a bi-racial woman, how have you come to understand your Blackness within the context of your Britishness? 
‘I grew up in Greenwich, which is a predominantly White area. My environment was not infused with Blackness, and I’ve realised it’s something I wish I had growing up. At the same time, as I’ve got older, I’m recognising and understanding parts of my culture in a new way. I went back to Jamaica for the first time as an adult not too long ago and, as cliche as it sounds, it felt like I was home. I could see all the threads of culture and tradition I witnessed my mother practicing coming together. Spending more time in the US working on The Good Doctor has also been an interesting learning curve. Growing up, I very much identified as bi-racial, but in the States I’ve been told, “No, you’re Black”. That’s something I’ve embraced, but I am also half White and that is as much a part of my identity as my Blackness. I’m honestly still mining through all of these parts of my identity.’

I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Misfits. What has it been like to carry that legacy with you?
‘Misfits was my first job and I was terrified. To be faced with an opportunity like that was scary, especially playing Alisha, who was so direct and sexual, and in your face. But, of all the projects I’ve worked on, Misfits is the one that people still talk about today. It was just such an incredible show, and I’m so grateful to have been a part of it. I also feel very lucky that I was given the space to interrogate Alisha, and to have conversations with the writers and the director and give my input. Later in my career, I went back to work with the team at Clerkenwell Films – who were behind Misfits – on a show called Lovesick, and it was like coming home.’

Is there anything else you have in the pipeline?
‘Personally, I’m taking this time to write and produce. I’m excited to go beyond acting, and be a part of the creative conversation as a whole. And also have input on the stories that need to be told, especially those that relate to this moment, and stories centered around bi-racial identity. Hopefully, in the next year, we’ll start seeing those things come to fruition.’  

Small Axe is coming to BBC One and iPlayer on Sunday 15 November
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