(L to R): Tamara Lawrance stars as Jennifer Gibbons and Letitia Wright stars as June Gibbons in The Silent Twins. Photo: Courtesy of Lukasz Bak/Focus Features
“I just poured out a bunch of energy into five different projects,” says Letitia Wright, star of Black Panther and new film The Silent Twins. “So I definitely have to go and recoup my energy.”
If Wright sounds weary as she speaks to The Big Issue from Los Angeles, then little wonder. It’s been a busy time for one of the brightest acting talents on the planet. She has three films out in the cinema this month. Three significant films that showcase her range, but perhaps none more so than the “gross injustice” behind her latest outing.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is currently topping box office charts around the world, with Wright’s Shuri its focal point following the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman, former inhabitant of the Panther suit and Wright’s close personal friend. Aisha sees Wright teaming up with The Crown’s Josh O’Connor for a tale looking at the harsh realities of immigration systems.
But Wright is calling today to discuss The Silent Twins, in which she stars with the brilliant Tamara Lawrance, playing real-life twin sisters in 1970s Wales.
The film is a cry from the heart. Wright and Lawrance are outstanding as June and Jennifer Gibbons, whose response to the hostile environment they encounter as part of the only Black family in their town is to withdraw into their own private world.
“Using silence was a way of empowerment for them,” says Wright. “Eventually it makes sense to not share any more of yourself with a world that is so adamant to block you out and tell you that you’re not good enough. So they were like, if you can’t even see me beyond my skin colour, why should I give more of myself? That was the start of their silence.”
The twins escape to a vivid interior life of creative play, storytelling and art. The richness of their imagination is captured beautifully by director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, using stop-motion animation, dream sequences and musical interludes.
“I really hope people’s eyes are opened and their minds are changed,” says Lawrance, a rising star set to front novelist Marlon James’s new BBC crime drama Get Millie Black, following appearances in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Jamaica-set period drama The Long Song, and as Cordelia opposite Ian McKellen’s King Lear on stage.
“I hope the twins are ultimately humanised and the current narrative that exists about them is completely uprooted, dismantled and interrogated. Why was their story told the way it was at the time?”
One of the film’s key messages is the unjust treatment of young Black women by the media, the police, courts and other institutions of state.
Wright would rather her work did the talking on this subject. But a few hours after our interview, Wright will have to defend herself from an article painting her as a potential Oscar nominees with “personal baggage” alongside men accused of abuse and sexual misconduct.
Her response – highlighting the difference between the alleged offences of those men and the vaccine conspiracy video she shared on Twitter two years ago, that she has since apologised for – was indignant and full of righteous fury.
The twins were a real-life example of what happens when society lives with this unconscious bias
Lawrance is calling from London, half a world away from her co-star. But all the work with dialect and movement coaches to synchronise their walking and talking as the twins is clearly paying off, as they are in full accord about June and Jennifer’s alienation.
“Apart from their family, these twins are the only Black people in the whole film,” says Lawrance. “I think that was stipulated by the screenwriter. So you are constantly aware of them being the only people that look like them in their environment, and what happens to these two people that are in an environment that is not welcoming.
“And that reflects broader experiences in society as well. Studies show Black children are more likely to be seen as aggressive, more likely to be seen as hyper-sexualised or as sexually active from a younger age, more likely to be criminalised, will be penalised more severely and are less likely to be given appropriate medical care. The twins were a real-life example of what happens when society lives with this unconscious bias.”
Wright and Lawrance both talk of the “adultification of young Black women” and the impact this can have. After being failed by the education system, misdiagnosed by doctors and racially abused and beaten up by their peers at school, the Gibbons twins were treated with maximum cruelty by the justice system.
As teenagers, following a short spate of minor offences, they ended up in Broadmoor High Security psychiatric hospital for 11 years. The contrast between the colourful world they create for themselves and the bleak, brutal reality of Broadmoor is heartbreakingly stark.
“It’s the adultification of young of young women – especially young Black women. Sentencing them for juvenile behaviour in a maximum security mental institution is quite… disappointing,” Wright says, with devastating understatement. “There was just a lack of understanding from the people around them. And that cost them their lives, you know? That took away so many of their years and robbed them of their future.”
“Before coming into this project, I had heard of the twins in folklore,” says Lawrance. “But I also knew that they ended up in Broadmoor, so I thought they must have done something pretty heinous.
“For them to be criminalised so extremely for relatively minor crimes was scandalous, and indicative of the gross injustice that happens a lot in the criminal justice system. It also shows how they are fundamentally misunderstood.
“If the people sentencing them had read their diaries or seen their intelligence, the teenage anxiety, their creativity, I only hope there would have been more compassion.”
I never purposefully go out to find an agenda or an angle, but I am drawn to stories that make me feel something, that make me feel connected
Lawrance and Wright are both producers on The Silent Twins. They are shaping the culture, rewriting history, and using their increasingly loud voices to change the conversation.
“If we can be people that challenge the zeitgeist or zone in on something different, it’s really exciting,” says Lawrance. “Hopefully it will mean that more nuanced experiences get through – because if the gatekeepers stay the same, then what is shared with the world stays the same as well.
“Allowing different people to be at the helm of telling stories also makes for better art. We’ll all be inspired by each other, so hopefully, as the industry evolves, there will be a broader range of projects.”
So much of Wright’s work to date has had a real political edge. As Altheia Jones-LeCointe in Steve McQueen’s critically acclaimed Small Axe film, Mangrove, she played an inspirational leading figure of the British Black Panther movement. And I Am Danielle, screened on Channel 4 last year, examined important issues around consent and trust in modern dating.
“I just try to be part of projects that I feel will have an impact,” she says. “I want to bring stories to the forefront that are beneficial to the audience. It could be a blockbuster like Black Panther where I play a princess in one of the most advanced nations in the world. It could be The Silent Twins speaking about the way injustice was done to two teenage girls.
“I never purposefully go out to find an agenda or an angle, but I am drawn to stories that make me feel something, that make me feel connected. And I want that for my audiences as well. Luckily for me, I’ve been picking the right things that connect to society and cause people to have conversations and to think. And when you do have impact, it makes you want to continue to do work that speaks to people.”
The Silent Twins is in cinemas from December 9
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