We first meet Letitia Dandridge as she emerges from a taxi, stepping into her old neighborhood on Chicago's South Side in the midst of a block party. She is dressed impeccably, her flawlessly red lips outlining a hesitant but wistful smile. This party is a burst of Black joy and celebration — and will be a stark contrast to the rest of the episode. Leti's display of vulnerability begins and ends among her community — from here on out, her lipstick and her clothes are her shield, a sartorial act of protecting herself from the hateful white world.
For Jurnee Smollett, who brings Leti to life in HBO's new series Lovecraft Country, she's honoring a long line of Black women who wore dignity like chainmail, the daggers of white supremacy attempting to stab through at every turn. A dignity, as Smollett tells SYFY FANGRRLS, "that [Leti] has in a time in which your dignity was so under attack, in a time in which there was such a mission to erase us as a people."
Since her breakthrough performance in Eve's Bayou all the way to her role as Black Canary in this year's Birds of Prey, Smollett has played characters who won't be erased — within their own stories or to the viewers who love and appreciate these films. And she does so filled with recognition for the women who came before her.
"I recognize my grandmother in [Leti]. I recognize my mother. I recognize so many of these women that are in my DNA and the chance to be able to explore this woman who's really out of place in this time," Smollett says. "In the 1950s, there wasn't a space for someone like her to truly be able to embrace her full self. And yet she does it so defiantly and unapologetically. There were quite a few things that I could relate to about her. This like wanderer spirit who's forever in search of her home."
Smollett never met her grandmother but pulled inspiration from this woman her family nicknamed "Showtime."
"My grandmother was not treated well by the people who employed her. She worked cleaning white folks' homes. And I always heard stories about how they just mistreated her. And yet she would go to work every single day with her dress ironed, with her hair done, with her lipstick on because she knew she was a walking example of the dignity and the pride of her race," Smollett says. "There was a real mission to be educated. To be an example of the best of who you come from could be, right? And so I love that. I admire that. We come from kings and queens and regardless of how we were treated, we cannot be robbed of our dignity."
It is that sensibility, as Smollett shares, the kind of dignity "that we as black people have had continuously throughout history in spite of such undignified treatment," that inspired Leti — specifically her style. "It is part of her armor. It's her way of saying, 'F*** you.' Truly. She knows that it's a weapon that she can use."
In a year where she has appeared in Birds of Prey, The Twilight Zone, and now Lovecraft Country, Smollett has carved out a space in genres that previously wouldn't have her. "I have always been a fan of genre-type storytelling, and unfortunately haven't been able to participate in much of it because most of the scripts I would get offered prior to now within these various genres was the best friend or the Black chick who gets killed on page 33," she says. "For so long, I wasn't really able to participate in it as much until now. I'm in heaven, truly."
Smollett previously worked with Lovecraft Country showrunner Misha Green on the period drama Underground, a series about the Underground Railroad. In Lovecraft, Green, who also wrote for shows like Heroes and Helix, blends these worlds — the world of science fiction and the all-too-real world of racism and the mistreatment and sanctioned murder of Black people. "I'm definitely drawn to stories and characters that create conversations or force us to face really uncomfortable or ugly parts of humanity. And with Lovecraft, it's definitely a radical re-imagining of our history, a history that's unfortunately so overlooked, and I just loved Misha's take on it and how she wanted to execute it," Smollett says. "Her vision was so bold or is so bold and so unapologetic. And I think she's just got such a great gift for maintaining varying tones at the same time."
Smollett has a long history of working with creative women of color whose work is bold and unapologetic. Green, Birds of Prey's Cathy Yan, and all the way back to Kasi Lemmons for Eve's Bayou, which also had a female editor (Terilyn A. Shropshire) and cinematographer (Amy Vincent) — impressive and important now, let alone in 1997. "For me, it's a privilege to be a part of projects in which we are — just through storytelling, just through art — doing our part in dismantling the lies," Smollett says. "I think representation matters. I think that for too long, the gaze has been limited to a cis straight white male. And by doing that, you leave out an entire population of people who are hungry to see themselves reflected in story because every person who's been born loves some element of storytelling, right? Whether it's music or books, theater, film, art, whatever, storytelling is innate, right? It's primal."
In 2020, it should not be remarkable for an actor to have had so many high-profile roles working with female creatives in positions of power, but in 2020 a lot of things should not be, yet are. Over the last few months, the themes and moments of Lovecraft Country are top of mind and relevant in a way that feels purposeful, down to a lingering close-up on an Aunt Jemima billboard. But there is privilege in seeing something as newly relevant — for Black people, these stories are omnipresent, ceaseless, and ever timely.
"Here's the thing that you must realize is that, as a Black American, unfortunately, this show and the themes that the show tackle — the show could have been released on any day, on any network, or in any month since 1619 and the themes that are explored in the show would have been relevant," Smollett says. "Because as a nation, we have yet to dismantle the systemic racism that we, as Black Americans, are still fighting against. And so the sad thing is, yes, we're touching upon things that feel timely for right now, but because they've been in our history and this nation was formed or stolen, they will forever be timely until we dismantle that system."
For Smollett, she's ready to personally do her part to dismantle the dangerous system that has long been the norm for entertainment and society alike. "I learned that I, more than ever, want to disrupt the system. I mean, it's that simple," she says. "I want to be one of the disruptors. There are so many amazing disruptors, and, more than ever, I know I have a very clear path to f*** some sh*t up. I want to tell the story of the other. I want to tell the stories that are not told much, which is what drew me to Lovecraft, drew me to Birds of Prey."
The stories Smollett has been part of telling have been taxing — as an artist and human alike — but they drive her in ways less challenging art could never.
"I'm that crazy type of artist who wants a project to do that to me, like I want to go home thoroughly worn out, thoroughly feeling like there is no way in hell I could get up the next day and give any more, and yet so excited to get the f*** up the next day and go back at it," she says. "And that's what Birds of Prey and Lovecraft did for me. It stretched me beyond limits — physically, emotionally, and spiritually — and cracked open my artistic craft in ways that you hunger for as an artist."
This is the year Jurnee Smollett f***s sh*t up. And we're thrilled just to watch, but beyond that, to disrupt and dismantle right along with her the systems propped up all around us, systems many of us benefit from. This is the year we all fight monsters.