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Islandista on the rise: the versatile Naomie Harris

When the red carpet season gets started next Sunday, January 12 with the Golden Globe Awards, expect to start seeing a lot of islandista actress Naomie Harris.

With her strong Jamaican mother and (sadly absent) Trinidadian father, Naomie has been on our our radar at Islandista for years now. However, it is in the last two years that she has truly moved into the A-list, thanks to some confident, kick-ass performances as Ms. Moneypenny in the latest Bond movie and more importantly, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in the Nelson Mandela biopic.

The versatile Naomie Harris as (clockwise from top left): Ms. Moneypenny, Winnie Mandela, Tia Dalma/Calypso, Hortense Joseph and on the Mandela movie poster.
The versatile Naomie Harris as (clockwise from top left): Ms. Moneypenny, Winnie Mandela, Tia Dalma/Calypso, Hortense Joseph and on the Mandela movie poster.

It is the latter that will see her on every red carpet this season as the movie has been critically acclaimed and nominated. Naomie admitted she was apprehensive about taking on the role of Madikizela-Mandela who is as loved as she is loathed for her role and actions in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.

She told Britain’s Red Magazine:

“It was only when I did my research that I thought, “Oh my gosh, what the hell have I signed up to?She is the most complex woman I have ever played. To many, she is a saint, she’s Mother Africa, you know? To others, she is completely vilified. The pressure of all those expectations, especially filming in South Africa, was a lot. I definitely understand why she became the woman she did. In the same situation, I don’t know how I would react.”

However, if there was an actress of enough intelligence and empathy to play Winnie Mandela and to really delve into the complexities of such a compelling person, it was definitely Naomie.

Her measured and thought-out quote to Red is not a one-off – as seen in all of her interviews, Harris is super smart- something to be expected from an actress with an honours degree in sociology from Cambridge University.

And while that upper-crust education lends her a certain ‘style and substance’ sheen over other Hollywood types (or frankly, most of us since Cambridge is literally one of the hardest universities in the world to get accepted to), it was a hard won experience.

Naomie was born when her mother Liselle was just 18 years old. Her Trinidadian father Winston Harris, left before she was born and like far too many Caribbean people, she did not have much of a relationship with her father at all. Fortunately, her mother was the quintessential strong Caribbean single mother who told herself and her daughter that anything was possible. When Naomie was old enough to play on her own, her mother went to university, got her degree and eventually became a screenwriter for the massively popular English soap opera East Enders. Still, despite all of that courage, even Liselle had her fears when Naomie decided she wanted to go to Cambridge, worried that her working class daughter would have a hard time of it – sadly, she was right.

“The people there were so different to me. They talked about Eton and skiing and here was I, this black girl from Finsbury Park. I just felt so lonely. There was only one other black person in my year; I was very unhappy and cried every day.”

Having made it through, she returned to acting, making her name in roles from two best-sellers that poignantly examine the West Indian experience in Britain – first as Clara in White Teeth (coincidentally written by her Cambridge year-mate Zadie Smith) and then as Hortense in Andrea Levy’s Small Island.

Naomie’s grounding in her West Indian heritage no doubt played a role in her acclaimed performaces in both roles. Asked by the Guardian whether she feels British when she visits her mother’s native island, she responded firmly:

“No – I feel a deep connection with Jamaica. It is reassuring to see people who remind me of my aunts and uncles – even their mannerisms are the same.”

It is that same connection to the Caribbean that informs her love for her London hometown of Finsbury Park, where she was raised and where she now has a home.

“Finsbury Park was warm and multicultural. I never experienced racism. We had wonderful Stroud Green Road with its Jamaican food: yams and jerk this, jerk that. For Jamaicans it is a home from home. And it still holds a special place in my heart,” she told the Guardian.

This connection has informed how she has selected and played some of her roles. She told Red Magazine that she decided to take up the role in Small Island in 2009 as a tribute to her grandparents because the story of the dislocation and struggles of the Windrush generation “was their story.”

She will certainly be telling many more powerful stories in the years to come because it is clear to see ‘a Naomie time now’.

By Me

island ~ ista
From Latin -ista via Portuguese -ista
one who follows a principle; an adept.

As an islandista I live, embody, exude the spirit of the Caribbean islands.

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