Thandiwe Newton Feeds Her Soul With Critical Race Theory and Cleo Sol

For Thandiwe Newton, recording an audiobook isn’t merely sinking into a comfy chair in front of a mic and trying not to trip over the words. Especially when it’s a literary behemoth like Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

The epic undertaking “was a thrill because I’m a Black African-English woman, and I have a perspective which I invite the audiences to join me on,” said Newton, who has reclaimed the spelling of her name given at birth. “I give my emotion to it. I encounter Napoleon — Thandiwe does. I encounter Natasha. I comment with the way I breathe and the energy I put in my body and voice as I digest the different ideas that Tolstoy puts forward, different values.”

Still, there were moments far less wondrous.

“I practically gag in passages where he’s talking about Negroes,” she said. But when the Audible representatives asked whether she wanted them removed, “I said, my God, no. It’s essential that we see his ignorance, that we feel his lack when he’s so brilliant writing about the psychology of men and war and philosophy and history.”

Newton has turned that eye of evaluation on her own life and career. She is an executive producer of “President,” a documentary about the first presidential election in Zimbabwe after Robert Mugabe resigned. The film had just been nominated for a Gotham Award and shortlisted by IDA Documentary Awards. She has wrapped “God’s Country,” about a Black professor who relocates from New Orleans to Montana and finds herself the victim of mysterious bullying. And she is currently in Los Angeles shooting the fourth season of HBO’s “Westworld.”

“But after that, I don’t want to be hired as an actress anymore,” said Newton — her passions now more aligned with empowering others, writing and producing, and stepping in front of the camera only on her own terms. “I don’t want to give myself anymore. I’ve come to the end of it — and I feel amazing. I feel full.”

Still, she went on, “the way I’ve been treated as a woman of color being an actor, the stories that I haven’t been able to tell, the limited characters that I’ve had to frustratingly wrestle with to provide truth, the pain I’ve suffered over being treated badly in work situations, and also the sad, sad waste — because I know that there’s so much more I could have done — I’m now really tired. I just don’t feel that it’s worth what I put in.”

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

1. Critical Race Theory The academic endeavor of critical race theory is to reveal what is already happening, which is that we are progressing, we are evolving, and it’s important that we document our progress. And people who want things to stay the way they have been, because it has benefited them to enslave Africa, to exploit India, to abuse South America — you name it, humans have done it. We’re a grubby lot. But we are making progress because every living entity wants to heal. Every living thing is trying to move towards the sun.

2. Documentaries, Especially Werner Herzog’s I think you could put a spotlight on literally anybody and create a documentary. And I love documentary because it asks us to really look, really see, really witness. If I could only talk about one, I want to talk about Werner Herzog for sure. “Grizzly Man” is an absolute epic. That’s a Shakespearean character right there, Timothy Treadwell [who lived with bears in Alaska, and was killed by one].

3. Shona-to-English Translator My mother speaks five different African languages, but Shona is her first. It’s the language of her childhood, her people, her history, her original culture. And I don’t speak it. And the more I’ve been encountering modern Zimbabwe, looking at my own history, wanting to create an archive for my children, the more I’ve been trying to update my vocabulary. So my Shona-to-English translator has become a real pal in recent years.

4. Music as Protest I’m discovering myself through music at the moment in a really interesting way, and it’s kind of mirroring my experience as a woman, as a mother. I’m loving Cleo Sol right now. I love music as protest. I think songwriters, singers, are shamans. They are touching a divine — certainly not all — but they open up the landscape of their spirit, their soul. I think of people like Tommy Yorke, Billie Eilish — performers, creatives, artists who touch a nerve, almost like an acupuncture when you hit that meridian and it just taps into something.

I’m fascinated by Kanye West — Ye, as he now is. I’m interested in the art, commerce, media, religion, protest, personal trauma, how that’s all playing out in his work. I don’t think it’s healthy for one person to be so obsessed to have the spotlight on them. One of the sad things about our time is that we’re all gazing at the moon, or gazing at these people who are gazing at the moon, when we shouldn’t be so distracted. It’s like James Baldwin said: Entertainment is a narcotic. I feel like the entertainment business is like getting your vaccination. Some of it is really good for you; too much of it going to kill you.

Understand the Debate Over Critical Race Theory

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An ​​expansive academic framework. Critical race theory, or C.R.T, argues that historical patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other modern institutions. The theory says that racism is a systemic problem, not only a matter of individual bigotry.

C.R.T. is not new. Derrick Bell, a pioneering legal scholar who died in 2011, spent decades exploring what it would mean to understand racism as a permanent feature of American life. He is often called the godfather of critical race theory, but the term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s.

The theory has gained new prominence. After the protests born from the police killing of George Floyd, critical race theory resurfaced as part of a backlash among conservatives — including former President Trump — who began to use the term as a political weapon.

The current debate. Critics of C.R.T. argue that it accuses all white Americans of being racist and is being used to divide the country. But critical race theorists say they are mainly concerned with understanding the racial disparities that have persisted in institutions and systems.

A hot-button issue in schools. The debate has turned school boards into battlegrounds as some Republicans say the theory is invading classrooms. Education leaders, including the National School Boards Association, say that C.R.T. is not being taught in K-12 schools.

5. WTF With Marc Maron I wanted to be on for years and years, and he never invited me. My poor little ego got slapped about because I thought he was so wonderful. [But eventually] I had the enormous honor of having him encounter me. We spoke about really painful, tough things, and he was a lovely, grumpy teddy bear.

6. Contemporary Dance I was a dancer, and I did a TEDGlobal talk called “Embracing Otherness.” [I said that] I grew up on the coast of England in the ’70s. My dad is white from Cornwall, and my mom is Black from Zimbabwe. From about the age of 5, I was aware that I didn’t fit. My skin color wasn’t right. My hair wasn’t right. My history wasn’t right. My self became defined by otherness. [But when I was dancing] I’d literally lose myself. And I was a really good dancer. I would put all my emotional expression into my dancing. I could be in the movement in a way that I wasn’t able to be in my life, in myself.

7. V-DayI love the podcast “Intersectionality Matters!” with Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is one of the creators of critical race theory. She’s also a dear friend and was a fellow board member of the organization V-Day — brainchild of Eve Ensler, its goal is to end violence against women and girls worldwide — where we met a decade ago. She’s devoted literally her life and her relationships to law and to human rights, and to empowering women of color and attempting to ensure their protection and justice for the crimes against them. I’m collaborating with Kimberlé and the African American Policy Forum on a project dealing with police brutality against women of color. Kimberlé coined the hashtag #SayHerName, which was inspiration for the song by Janelle Monáe, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and others.

8. James Baldwin James Baldwin is to be read by everyone, everything, all of it. Just the genius of him — his sexuality, how he thought about religion, race. My husband spent years trying to find, because it’s out of print, “A Rap on Race” by Margaret Mead and James Baldwin. I should put every page on Instagram, just to share with people.

9. Margaret Mead Margaret Mead to me is like a rock star. Like super cool. I’m an anthropologist [who studied at Cambridge] and an archaeologist by trade. And I do see the bigger picture, unfortunately and fortunately. I see what humanity is doing, and the fact that this is all in the last tiny blip of time, and we’re [expletive] it up so severely.

10. The Freedom From Torture CharityThe only professional play that I’ve had the honor to be part of was “Death and the Maiden,” which is by Ariel Dorfman. I did it at the Comedy Theater in London’s West End. The character I played, Paulina, was a torture survivor, and the director set up time at the charity Freedom From Torture so that we could talk to survivors. I spoke to a Congolese woman and a man from Chad, and it changed my life. I’ve been part of Freedom From Torture — ambassador, fund-raiser — ever since. I think it’s of incredible importance to have a sense of what people go through in the war between nations, the war within a nation, the jockeying for power and the cheapness of human life that is illustrated in the way that we control minds and bodies through torture as a way of manipulating people. It’s unspeakable.

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