Wonderland.

ALGEE SMITH

The musician-cum-actor on a mission to represent.

Actor Algee Smith orange jumper

Jumper GUCCI, costume hat PALACE, bracelet BLUE MOON AND CO.

Actor Algee Smith orange jumper
Jumper GUCCI, costume hat PALACE, bracelet BLUE MOON AND CO.

It’s hardly news to point out that Hollywood is only just beginning to reckon with some of its most problematic dimensions: how the industry represents and interacts with women and people of colour — both on and off-screen — has triggered unprecedented scrutiny in recent years. It’s been a painful, necessary process, but one of the positive things to come from producers and studios finally waking up to the profitability of diversity (if not quite yet, perhaps, its politics) is a new wave of exceptional work by African-American filmmakers in cinemas and on TV screens.

Musician and actor Algee Smith is riding the crest of that wave, helping to tell stories about black America that resonate loudly both in and outside of its community. The 23-year-old first made a splash in BET’s 2017 biopic of throwback boyband New Edition, proving in the process that he had the all-singing, all-dancing chops to go with his modern movie star looks and indomitably charismatic confidence. Soon after came a major role in Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed race drama, Detroit, in which Smith played a victim of police brutality during the infamous 1967 Algiers Motel incident.

Tragically as much a reality today as it was in 1967, racially motivated police violence is an issue Smith’s revisiting in The Hate U Give, the November film by Notorious director George Tillmans Jr. In the movie Smith plays an unarmed teenager gunned down by cops in front of his best friend, a girl (Amandla Stenberg) who lives a double life: attending a white, wealthy prep school but living and socialising in a poorer black neighbourhood. After the shooting, she must decide whether or not to testify as a witness in the case and eventually finds herself at the forefront of a Black Lives Matter-style protest movement. “It’s a very powerful story,” he explains over a transatlantic line from LA, which — thanks to a near endless flurry of work — he’s called home for the last few years.

Actor Algee Smith cow print hat
Actor Algee Smith clash prints

(LEFT) Jacket, trousers and boots SAINT LAURENT, hat and necklace PALACE COSTUME, scarf HAIR STYLIST’S OWN, shirt LOT STOCK & BARREL VINTAGE, bracelet BLUE MOON AND CO.
(RIGHT) Shirt, trousers, shoes and blanket STELLA MCCARTNEY, necklace MSK DESIGN

Actor Algee Smith cow print hat
Jacket, trousers and boots SAINT LAURENT, hat and necklace PALACE COSTUME, scarf HAIR STYLIST’S OWN, shirt LOT STOCK & BARREL VINTAGE, bracelet BLUE MOON AND CO.
Actor Algee Smith clash prints
Shirt, trousers, shoes and blanket STELLA MCCARTNEY, necklace MSK DESIGN

“It’s a very timely story as well,” he continues, “I feel like it’s especially moving right now, not just because of the racial or the social issues that it talks about, but just because it talks about identity. And I feel like right now a lot of people just need to find their true identity.” The Hate U Give certainly sets out to be a zeitgeist defining movie for the identity politics generation. One which comes at an urgent time in America and which, despite being adapted from a work of fiction, bears the weight of innumerable real life incidents on its shoulders; a responsibility of representation Smith was profoundly aware of during the filming process. “There was pressure on me to get it right for families that have actually been through this type of thing, people who’ve actually had to live through that. So I wasn’t necessarily focusing on how good I may look in a scene or thinking, ‘Can I do this right?’ I was just like, ‘This is a big deal for me to speak for these people through the screen.’”

Interestingly, what first attracted Smith to the role was the centrality of Tupac to the film. One of the rapper’s central philosophies was that the hate inflicted upon black communities by society would itself be visited back upon that society by the younger generation. Or, as Tupac himself articulated it in one interview: “What you feed us as seeds grows and blows up in your face.” It’s a message that constitutes the thematic core of the film. “I was instantly attracted to it because it involved Tupac. I’m a big Tupac fan myself,” Smith explains. “So my preparation was listening to a lot of Tupac because the film is based around one of his beliefs.”

That the movie was filmed in Atlanta, where Smith grew up, only emphasises the parallels — or, perhaps, the parallels of possibility — between his life and that of his character, Khalil: “I had to prepare to just be and live in that moment because to be honest, Khalil’s life isn’t far off from where my life could end up, you know? I could be pulled over at any moment, that could happen to me at any given time. So my main thing was just being who I am, because this is my reality as well.”

Actor Algee Smith blue coat
Actor Algee Smith blue jacket

Coat, shirt and trousers DRIES VAN NOTEN, shoes NIKE

Actor Algee Smith blue coat
Coat, shirt and trousers DRIES VAN NOTEN, shoes NIKE
Actor Algee Smith blue jacket

Born in Michigan to a musician father and fashion designer mother, Smith — who began making music at nine and started acting at 15 — speaks highly of his family and the sacrifices they made to allow him to launch his career. “Without my parents I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today,” he says. “My dad was a big supporter for me on music… My mum helps me with my business side. So yeah, they’re heavily involved in it.”

That humble, happy-to-be-here gratitude co-exists quite happily in Smith with his self-assured swagger. Case in point: after becoming one of this season’s Prada faces, Smith chose to bring his mum along to the SS19 show in Milan. “I got to meet Mrs. Prada, she gave me a kiss on the cheek,” he laughs incredulously, “I was tripping out!”

It’s an inarguably loveable persona that shines through over social media, where he often posts run-ins with fans and seems invariably to return the love his followers enthusiastically throw his way. He knows that as a black man succeeding in an industry that’s all too often excluded those like him, he has no shortage of people looking up to him. “Imagine just going outside of your house and having a megaphone and there’s 300,000 people outside of your house, and you’re talking to them every day,” he says of his ever-growing following. “It’s like, what are you saying to these people? What are you telling them when they’re looking at you? So I definitely feel a pressure of just having something to say, or sharing my testimony, or sharing what I learnt in my life with them because that can help them out. I usually never know who’s watching, so I definitely feel responsible and obligated to do that.”

Algee Smith clash print bucket hat
Actor Algee Smith floral top

Shirt PRADA hat, jeans and shoes VALENTINO

Algee Smith clash print bucket hat
Shirt PRADA hat, jeans and shoes VALENTINO
Actor Algee Smith floral top

He’s certainly pleased with the kind of responses The Hate U Give has had so far, explaining, “I don’t think any of us are looking for people to just be bawling out crying when they walk out of the film. I think we’re just looking for… The conversation to be opened up again.” Being able to make work he’s proud of, “to actually say something” with his acting is clearly something Smith values above all else. Which is why, though he compares picking his favourite project to picking between his children, he’ll always hold a candle for his breakout project, The New Edition Story.

“That was like my first big thing,” he reasons, “We just garnered so much attention off of that and I feel like it was the perfect time for that movie to come out for the culture. And our culture, black culture, we needed that film. We needed to see how great we can do. The brothers are in love inside of that story… It isn’t always quarrel, or it always isn’t beef inside the black community, there’s also love.”

With his debut record, ATLA, also penned for a release later this year, Smith’s as enthusiastic as ever about finding new ways to show the culture love. “I want to be able to give my life as it’s happening, you know… I think I’ve just come to the realisation that it isn’t about me,” he concludes. “I think I came to that realisation a long time ago. Ever since I was younger I’ve just known kind of a glimpse of my purpose. I don’t know it all, so I can’t say I know everything I’m going to do. But I know I’m here to inspire and I’m here to help through art and through my life, just by living.” In most, that kind of spiritual self-belief could sound like messianic self-delusion. Coming from Algee Smith, somehow, you can’t help but believe it.

Taken from the Winter 2018/19 issue; out now and available to buy here.

Algee Smith bucket hat
Actor Algee Smith cowboy hat

(LEFT) Sweater BALENCIAGA, shirt SANDRO, hat PALACE COSTUME, necklace MSK DESIGN
(RIGHT) Jacket, trousers and boots SAINT LAURENT, hat and necklace PALACE COSTUME, scarf HAIR STYLIST’S OWN, shirt LOT STOCK & BARREL VINTAGE, bracelet BLUE MOON AND CO.

Algee Smith bucket hat
Sweater BALENCIAGA, shirt SANDRO, hat PALACE COSTUME, necklace MSK DESIGN
Actor Algee Smith cowboy hat
Jacket, trousers and boots SAINT LAURENT, hat and necklace PALACE COSTUME, scarf HAIR STYLIST’S OWN, shirt LOT STOCK & BARREL VINTAGE, bracelet BLUE MOON AND CO.
Photography
Jerry Buttles
Fashion
Sean Knight
Words
Benji Walters
Hair
Rachel Lee @ Atelier Management using Malin + Goetz
Makeup
Holly Silius at Lowe and Co. using Noto Botanics
ALGEE SMITH

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