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Actor Danielle Deadwyler: ‘The caring Black women do for community is motherhood beyond biology’

Danielle Deadwyler says she wants her art to hold a mirror up to uncomfortable truths in America’s fractured culture.

“I’m from Atlanta, born and raised. I’m a child of the SCLC. People love to quote King when we talk about civil rights in America, about enduring the racial reckonings of 2020.” 

The quote Danielle Deadwyler centres on today is “dangerous unselfishness”. Taking a stand may be difficult, uncomfortable, risky – but it is right. The 39-year-old actor is one of the fastest rising stars in the industry. She stole every scene as Cuffee in revisionist western The Harder They Fall and her latest, thriller The Devil to Pay, confirms her incredible screen presence. Her roles explore “all kinds of interpretations of beingness”. 

Danielle Deadwyler as Lemon Cassidy in The Devil To Pay (Signature Entertainment)

In The Devil to Pay she plays Lemon Cassidy, a small-time farmer left in an impossible position when she has to pay a debt left by her husband to protect her son from the vicious Runion clan. Events quickly spiral out of control. The lengths she has to go to exact revenge and retribution are extreme but unavoidable in the circumstances.

“People don’t necessarily want to be that way, the violence comes when they feel that there is no other choice,” Deadwyler says. “Oppression and poverty, those states of being aren’t just born unto themselves, they come from something. Lemon is coming from a place of being pushed to the wall. When you push people too far, they have to revolt, they have to rebel. It’s a cycle that persists in American culture and American society.” 

We’re speaking days after the anniversary of the Capitol riots, carried out by people who might also say they had been pushed too far and had to revolt. 

“I’m not a historian but I am aware of certain things,” she says. “Communities continue to fight against structures that try to restrict what it means to live in this democracy. The January 6 rioters are the opposition. Theirs is a falsehood that is created in some wack-ass imagination on what it means to live in this democracy. That was terrorism on democracy.”

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The Devil to Pay is set in the lawless wilderness of the Appalachian Mountains, a real but mythologised place that stands as a metaphor for a self-governing, ‘free’ society that much of America would seem to prefer over big government. The Harder They Fall also used its western setting to address contemporary big issues. The all-Black cast of characters were based on real people who tend to be left out of whitewashed versions of US history. Deadwyler’s Cuffee was inspired by Cathay Williams, a former slave who disguised herself as a man to enlist in the army, the first woman to do so. 

After the Black Lives Matter movement and everything else that’s happened in the last couple of years, has an opportunity been created for films to examine and challenge the idea of America? “I am interested in folks who have to continuously learn and put themselves forward in ways they don’t necessarily know about themselves.” 

The caring that Black women do for community is correlative to motherhood beyond biology

Danielle Deadwyler

The heart of The Devil to Pay beats around Lemon and her son, Coy, played by Deadwyler’s real-life son Ezra Haslam. Our Zoom call happens just after she’s made lunch for the now movie star. “He’s actually really shy about it,” she says. 

Making a movie about going to extreme lengths to protect your child, starring opposite your own child must have brought the story home? 

“Oh, indubitably. It’s such a dangerous time, a pivotal time, when you come into motherhood. You’re navigating what it means to care for a life. It changes everything about who you are, how you are. I know it did for me.” 

This relationship has a much wider societal meaning for Deadwyler too. 

“The caring that Black women do for community is correlative to motherhood beyond biology,” she continues, thinking about the film she wrapped at the end of last year. 

In Till, Deadwyler plays Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was lynched in Drew, Mississippi in 1955. The film, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, also stars Whoopi Goldberg in a rare big screen outing. “Till is the ultimate traumatic look at motherhood and the dangers of it for Black women in America,” Deadwyler explains. 

Till was kidnapped, beaten, mutilated, shot and his body dumped in a river. His mother insisted on an open casket at the funeral, to expose the brutality of living in America. The killers were acquitted. Emmett became a name, in a long, long line of names. 

“I asked people before shooting what they knew and some people have no clue about that happening at all. There is a practice of erasure in America that is deeply problematic. There are organisations who fight to make that not so, fight to amplify the true history of what has happened here. 

“It is a critical revolutionary fight against oppressive forces. And it’s important to keep fighting, to keep talking about it through art, marching, organising.”

The Devil to Pay is available now on digital platforms

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today!If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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