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"Queenie" Is A Love Letter To Sisterhood And Ending The Strong Black Woman Archetype

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Despite evoking both myth and reality, Black women have been actively working toward retiring the "strong Black woman" archetype. While often glorified as a symbol of resilience, the label was forced upon Black women as a way to overlook their pain and needs. Well, Queenie is here to shake things up and show the beauty of vulnerability in a world where we're expected to suppress our emotions. 

Queenie, based on Candice Carty-Williams’s 2019 novel of the same name, recently premiered on Hulu in collaboration with the Onyx Collective, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Queenie follows the life of a 25-year-old Jamaican woman named Queenie Jenkins as she navigates life living in London. After a messy breakup with her boyfriend, who happens to be white, Queenie tries to find balance within her life as she jumps back into the dating scene, attempts to move up in her career, and comes to terms with her childhood trauma, all while still being present for her friends. 

I sat down with Candice and lead actors Dionne Brown (Queenie) and singer Bellah (who plays Queenie’s best friend Kyazike) to discuss the series, sisterhood, and the importance of allowing Black women to feel.

What has this adaptation journey been like for you?

Candice Carty-Williams: It's been a very long journey. It's been eight years! I started it when I was 27, and I'm 35 this year, so it's been happening for most of my adult life. I've kind of grown-up sort of adapting Queenie and then amazingly getting to meet the people who play her, her friends, her family, and bringing them into my life. It's changed my life in a really nice way.

Was there any part of the book that had you worried about how it would translate on-screen?

CCW: In terms of Queenie's world — her family and her people — no. The politics involved? Not really. The one thing that I was very clear to leave out was the Black Lives Matter protest featured in the novel. The protest was similar to the Selma March, but we didn't have a Selma budget. So, it's like, how do we make sure that those politics are there and that Queenie is interested in her Blackness and how blackness forms her? How Blackness is discussed and treated is apparent, so we just had to sort of adjust it in a way.

Often times, when you reread a book or rewatch a movie/series, you walk away with a different view of certain characters and/or situations. Did that happen for you at all as you brought your book to screen?

CCW: So, I didn't actually read it after I wrote it, ever again. I just didn't want to [laughs]. She was mainly in my head; the stuff that happened and the politics were all in my head. We had a new character named Frank — he does appear in the novel as Kyazike's cousin, but he's not named, he's just kind of there. He was the person who asked Queenie to dance when they were young and she was like, "Whoa, that's really nice. I don't really understand it." 

So, she was like, let me push that [feeling] away, but I was like, let's explore this now, because I have the space and the time to do so. Also, I wanted to show what her relationships are like with Black men, as well as what they're like with white men. When she feels she's seen, it's very uncomfortable for her. I wanted to be able to explore that properly.

I love how much therapy, both in a professional setting and through sisterhood, is highlighted in Queenie. Therapy, particularly in the Black community, is sometimes looked down upon. Knowing that, why was therapy an important factor for you to shine a light on?

CCW: If I hadn't had therapy, I wouldn't be here...we wouldn't have Candice. It was really important to show that it can be helpful and it can be good. It's good to find the right therapist, as well. I think therapy is the source that we all kind of need, because we're all carrying so much and we're all carrying a lot of pain. I don't think it's enough to just talk to your friends, or drink it away, or have sex to push it all down. We need to get it out of our systems.

The book already had a big following before talks of a series came about, and with that comes a lot of opinions. What has been the most challenging and the most rewarding part about playing Queenie?

Dionne Brown: There were parts of Queenie that I had to be reflective upon within myself; things that I was over and that I was past, and that I have healed, as well as things that I thought were healed inside of me, but weren't. Going through a door you've closed at some point is always a bit like, "Oh, I remember that time. I remember when my heart was broken, and it honestly just felt like I was never going to be right again...never going to be myself again." Things picked up [a lot for Queenie] in block two because it was very gradual. A lot was happening around her and to her, but it had also been happening over an extensive period of time. So, when we see her in the show, it's not just the "straw on top," it's all the straws underneath, and there are a lot of straws underneath that one straw that broke the camel's back.

I think that was the most challenging part: trying to make sure I was portraying or that it was reading well. We all know what it feels like when you wake up, and things are heavier than they were the day before. Then it all sinks in, and it's like, "Oh, I'm still in hell!" So, yeah, I'd say that was definitely the most challenging part — there were definitely days where I was overstimulated to the ninth degree. 

And the most rewarding would probably be when we finished that bout of shooting all the really mentally-heavy work. It was like, "Ah, now we're getting to the end, and it does start to get better." It was better for me because it was just lighter: lighter dialogue, lighter portrayal, lighter shoot days. 

Queenie is such a flawed yet beautiful character. Despite some criticism about her self-sabotaging ways, why are characters like this more relatable than people might realize?

DB: She is a bit of all of us. There's a possibility that the people who are criticizing don't want to see the bit of her that is in them, or there just might be a possibility that they don't like her, which is fine. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but no one goes through their twenties and is like, "I had a great time." Your twenties are normally about growth, choices, and cultivating your personhood. It's such a raw and transformational time. It's the first time where you kind of have to figure out how to put yourself together — it's different. 

When you're going through puberty and those years, it's like,"Yeah, this is what's supposed to happen." You're supposed to get your period, your breasts come in, and you have a bit more body hair. in your twenties, it's like the same thing happens, but nobody tells you. That's how it's gonna happen. And you don't know how to put yourself back together or how to make it better, and you kind of have to self-soothe. I think you do self-sabotage a little while trying to figure that out. 

Your twenties are truly an important time for self-reflection and growth, and it doesn't stop there. That transformation isn't just a period in your life, it's an ongoing journey. After learning that for yourself, what advice would you give Queenie or even younger you?

DB: Give yourself some grace. Try not to take yourself so seriously, there's no need. Forgive yourself. And go out a bit more....experience life more.

Speaking of experiencing life more, that's one thing Queenie's best friend Kyazike is good at! Bellah, you're a singer/songwriter stepping into your first acting gig. How did you learn to turn yourself off and embody your character?

Bellah: Heels [laughs]! No, I'm joking. I'm very much like Kyazike, so as much as I was playing a role, I was drawing a lot from myself, as far as what I would say and how I would approach a situation. I'm here for the comic relief of it all. Nothing is ever that serious. It's serious but it's never that serious, you know what I mean? So, it was an honor to just be really comfortable in that. It was fun. She's funny. I'm funny. We're all funny [laughs].

This series does an excellent job of dissecting the importance of friendship. How has community shaped you into the woman you are today?

Bellah: Sisterhood, community...it saved my life. It's made me who I am. I can pinpoint pivotal moments in my life that altered my brain chemistry and it was because of sisterhood; It was because of my mom, because of my cousin, because of my best friend. One of the things that my best friend told me when we were like 13 or 14 was, "Stop walking with your head down, walk up!" It literally changed my whole life. 

I look back now and I'm like, "How does a 13 or 14-year-old have that much confidence, and where can I learn how to do that?" We've been stuck to each other ever since. It means the world to me. I love having women that are like me, around me. I think we're all geniuses. To just sit down and listen to each other's ideas is mind-blowing. It inspires me daily. The reason I do what I do is for people like me.

Black women are clearly at the center of this story. It was so refreshing to see a coming-of-age story about Black women just trying to figure life out like the rest of us. Why is it pivotal to share stories like this—to not only show us when we're winning but also see us when we're down?

Bellah: Because it's humanizing Black women. We don't do that often in art. We're expected to be strong and put-together. It's nice to see somebody fall apart on screen and be like, "Oh yeah, I've done that once," and not feel so much shame around it. I'm glad that Queenie can be the poster child for messiness.

Queenie is a friendly reminder that we're all just trying to do our best and that it's never too late to learn from our mistakes.

You can stream all eight episodes of Queenie on Hulu!

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