Candice Carty Williams’s ‘Queenie’ Captures Black British Womanhood

Candice Carty Williams’s ‘Queenie’ Captures Black British Womanhood

In 2022, British television producers released an open casting call, looking for a Black full-figured woman, aged 22 to 30, with a London accent.

Thousands of people sent in audition tapes, hoping to land the role of Queenie Jenkins, whom many in Britain already knew as the titular character in Candice Carty-Williams’s best-selling debut novel.

Carty-Williams, who was also the TV adaptation’s showrunner, knew that she was looking for an actress who could convey Queenie’s introspection. Dionne Brown — whom she had met during auditions for another show — had the right temperament. “Dionne is constantly thinking in a way that Queenie is,” Carty-Williams said. “You see her standing there and her head is whirring — that was important to me.”

“Queenie,” streaming on Hulu, is a coming-of-age story about the titular 25-year-old Londoner navigating the gulf, in love and life, between her reality and what she wants. She is a social media assistant at a newspaper, but has ambitions to write meaningful journalism; her relationship with her boyfriend is falling apart despite her efforts; and she wants carefree sex, but her encounters often leave her feeling disempowered.

All the while, Queenie grapples with her childhood trauma and how those experiences complicated her relationship with her mother. The show also explores how culture influences mental health issues: Queenie’s background as the descendant of Jamaican immigrants, her religious upbringing and British society’s emotional repression converge, Carty-Williams said, to create “the Holy Trinity of how to have a nervous breakdown.”

When Brown read the script for the eight-episode adaptation, she found Queenie instantly relatable, thinking, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know other women felt like this,” the actress said recently in an interview. “There was a lot of truth in a lot of the dialogue.”

Capturing the multifaceted nature of Black British womanhood was important to Carty-Williams, 34, when it came to both the novel — which won Book of the Year at the 2020 British Book Awards — and the TV show.

“I don’t do this stuff for me. I don’t need this stuff,” she said, describing her career to date. “I do it for other people so they cannot be as lonely as I know they are, so that they could be seen in the way that I would have always liked to have been seen.”

Scenes with Queenie and her grandmother (Llewella Gideon) and her grandfather (Joseph Marcell) are often touching or joyful. While scenes between Queenie and her best friend Kyazike (Bellah) depict the balm of friendship. (In one, Kyazike lovingly greases between Queenie’s braids as they discuss the latter’s problems.) We also see Queenie face racism: She experiences microaggressions (including from her white boyfriend’s family), fetishization on dating apps and obstacles in her career.

“Queenie” is set in Brixton, a diverse south London neighborhood where many members of the Windrush generation — people who migrated to Britain from the Caribbean in the postwar period — settled. Today, the area is a cultural heart of Black Britain.

Carty-Williams, who is of Jamaican heritage, was raised nearby in south London. “I come from a very tricky family. I come from a lot of chaos, a lot of unkindness,” she said, adding “in terms of success, I know that I’ve worked hard and I’ve got here by myself.”

Since “Queenie” was released, Carty-Williams has written a young adult novella, a second novel and “Champion,” a 2023 BBC show about a musical rivalry between siblings. “I’ve been writing every day since I was 26 years old,” Carty-Williams said. “All I know is how to keep going. I don’t know what will happen if I stop.”

Development on the show started before “Queenie” was published, and Carty-Williams said the process had, at times, been a difficult one. During the nine months of postproduction, she said the challenges of “making things work” meant she said she averaged two hours of sleep, with nights spent rewriting Queenie’s voice over.

“I really suffered,” Carty-Williams said. “But I came out the other side.”

Even though elements of the adaptation process were fraught, Carty-Williams has enjoyed watching the show, particularly with other people. “We had a BAFTA screening the other day,” she said. “Watching it with an audience and seeing their response to it, you’re like, ‘OK, it’s done, it’s done.’”

For eight years, Queenie has been an increasingly large part of Carty-Williams’s life: The character launched her writing career, and people sometimes mistakenly assume she is based on Carty-Williams’s own experiences.

These days, Carty-Williams said she separates the Queenie of the book and the show. Now that she has seen the character through to the small screen, Carty-Williams was clear on her focus: Some time alone. “I need to go back to novels for a bit,” she said. “I need to be by myself.”

But, after that, she added, “I would like to write and direct a film.” After serving as showrunner on two television projects, she feels prepared. “There’s no production challenge you can chuck at me that I won’t be able to solve,” she said.

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