“We Are the Pillar of Something New”: Steve McQueen, John Boyega and Letitia Wright on the Emotional Journey to Spotlight Black British Life in ‘Small Axe’

The director and actors discuss their film anthology about London’s West Indian community and embracing their power amid Hollywood’s racial reckoning: “I don’t care about trying to mesh in with the system in order to secretly work it.”

John Boyega was in his first year at the University of Greenwich when he received what he considered a sign from God. During his film studies class, in the middle of a dull lecture, a loud pyrotechnic explosion rocked the hall. “I ran to the window along with the other students, thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Boyega says. “We looked down and I saw Johnny Depp on top of two carriages, balancing himself, as Jack Sparrow.”

The University of Greenwich is a popular filming location and was being used that day for a Pirates of the Caribbean shoot. An astonished Boyega, who was in the midst of grappling with how to tell his skeptical Nigerian parents that he wanted to pursue acting full time, bounded down the stairs to the set — and never returned to college. “I saw what I wanted to do,” Boyega says. “I thought God sent the whole film set right here. He sent a film that I would love to star in, that I’d love to be a part of. I never went back.”

A decade later, Boyega is a genuine movie star, having recently finished his six-year arc on the Star Wars franchise, and a man in the midst of another major awakening. This time, however, it’s also a kind of homecoming, which sees him teamed with British acting school classmate Letitia Wright in director Steve McQueen’s potent collection of films about Black British life, the Small Axe anthology. “The creative [side of acting] was like a family member that I had ignored for too long,” Boyega says, drawing a contrast with his blockbuster work. “For the first time in my acting career in a long time, I looked at my art that I really do love and I said, ‘I missed you and it’s good to be here and I’m happy doing this.’ ”

For McQueen, who became the first Black director to win a best picture Oscar for the decidedly American indictment 12 Years a Slave, Small Axe is an opportunity to shine a light on a much lesser known history, that of his own West Indian community in London. “In our mainstream education system, we don’t learn about these specific stories,” Boyega says. “Any historical information I know about Black British history, about me as an African, and then also the Caribbeans as well, is mostly from community stuff. Various different extracurricular activities that I would take outside of school was the only place that expanded our knowledge on other parts of our history that wasn’t just Henry VIII.”

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