There has never been a more important time to talk about legacy. Climate change is at a crisis point; last year, the unjust death of George Floyd galvanised millions worldwide in support of the Black Lives Matter movement; and uncertainty looms in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic. Still now, America is reeling from the aftershocks of one of the darkest chapters in recent political history, and only since the beginning of this year, after one of the most nail-biting elections, does it feel like we’re finally witnessing a turning tide, a new dawn ushering in renewed hope. It’s clear that our choices and actions have direct ramifications on the world around us, and what happens today will reverberate for lifetimes to come. One person that understands this with much clarity is American actor Algee Smith. He is someone — time and time again — who has displayed an unwavering willingness to bear the responsibility of telling painful and necessary stories about the Black experience in America, luring audiences into deeply uncomfortable discussions about race.
From Detroit to The Hate U Give and now Judas and The Black Messiah, the actor has dedicated his craft to telling necessary stories on-screen.
In nightmarish historical drama Detroit, which sees the horrors of the police brutality during the 1967 Algiers Motel shooting brought to life, the 26-year-old puts in a spine-tingling performance as Dramatics frontman Larry Reed — his anguish gut-wrenching. In The Hate U Give, he is an unarmed teenager reaching into his car for a hairbrush when he is gunned down by the police in front of his best friend. Next up, Smith joins a glittering ensemble cast of Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback and Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders for Judas and the Black Messiah, diving into the story of unsung revolutionary and leader of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, who was betrayed by FBI informant William O’Neal. Smith plays young Black Panther recruit and best friend of Hampton, Jake Winters, whose blaring indignation and courage ripples throughout the film and long after the credits roll.
“In the world right now, especially in America, we need a Fred Hampton,” Smith tells me restlessly when we speak over the phone from Los Angeles. “We need someone who has the voice of a leader, who can help us see the bigger picture and who is fearless in doing so. My character, Jake Winters, starts off so bright-eyed, vulnerable and ready to learn, but when he starts seeing the injustice, the inequality and the brutality of the system against the colour of his skin and of his peers — that turns him into a dark person. I feel like that’s how the world is right now.”
Smith was directly recruited for the role by filmmaker and producer Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Fruitvale Station), a move which he humbly deems “a blessing and a shock.” It is a film that feels as timely now as the late-1960s events that it depicts, reflecting today’s landscape when it comes to America’s treatment of the Black community and Black activism. If anything, it is a film that is right on time. When we talk about the violent chain of events that set off last year’s BLM movement, Smith voices his frustration that it often feels like progress has stalemated. How is it a film like Judas and the Black Messiah can feel so disturbingly relevant now?
“Right? It kind of felt like nothing has changed,” he says. “We were filming something that was based 50 years ago and for us to still have to go through this 50 years later is sad and disheartening. I think that’s why it’s so important that the film is telling this exact story. I relate to [ Jake] in seeing my brothers and sisters deal with repercussions all over the world to be honest. I feel that pain when I watch a video; I feel that pain when I see another headline that’s talking about a Black teenager that was slain; I feel that pain all around the world.”
And some of the parallels are even more painfully acute. Fred Hampton’s assassination in 1969 — which saw him killed in a pre-dawn Chicago police raid in his own bed — mirrors the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black hospital worker who was shot multiple times by Louisville police officers in a botched raid on her apartment only last year. The questions it asks about the indispensability of Black life echo throughout the film, with Smith adding: “They did her the same exact way they did him, and it’s sad the sneaky and conniving way of that system.”
Off-screen, in the wake of the BLM movement, Smith remained incensed. He took to the streets of Los Angeles protesting with loved ones, later doing Instagram Lives with various activists, even Fred Hampton Jr. himself. Through his roles and actions, Smith is staying true to the adage: what is the point of having a voice if you’re going to be silent?
And there’s no denying the magnetic star-power of the cast. Kaluuya. Stanfield. Fishback. Sanders. Indeed, they are all actors who have done a gargantuan part for representation and conversations about race. And if on-screen they looked like a family, it’s because they felt like a family. “We had moments where we would go to the bowling alley as a group,” he remembers. “We would go out to eat, and there were no egos involved, we all knew what we were there for. Even times where we were all staying in the same hotel, we would all be downstairs for breakfast, things like that. We kept it real family.”
Born in Michigan to a musician father and fashion designer mother, Smith was a precocious natural-born performer, and started making music at 9 and acting at 15 — later moving to LA where it began to fall into place for him, with his breakthrough coming with his portrayal of Ralph Tresvant in BET’s The New Edition Story mini-series. Smith is celebratory of his family and the sacrifices they made for him to launch his career, his voice glowing as he talks about everyone coming together to preview his latest performance in Judas and the Black Messiah. “I watched it thankfully with all of my family at the house, and it was very shocking and emotional,” he says quietly.“My mum was crying, and my little brother is 13, so he had a couple of questions that were very good to educate him on. It evoked thought and conversation, and I think those are the two main things that we need.”
Looking at Smith’s portfolio thus far, and there is no skirting past his involvement as a show-regular on HBO’s explicit Zendaya-led hit series, Euphoria. Produced by A24 and Drake, it sees teens navigate a minefield of sex, drugs, identity, sexuality, love and friendship — it certainly is not for the faint of heart. Smith plays college footballer Christopher McKay who struggles with the transition from high school to college, the pitfalls of toxic male masculinity, and the ensuing boundaries with his girlfriend Cassie (Sydney Sweeney). The internet has been visibly frothing at the mouth in anticipation for season 2, which has been pushed back multiple times because of pandemic filming restrictions. When I probe Smith for even a slim morsel of information, he coyly laughs. “I don’t know if I can say, I’m going to get in trouble!” he chuckles. “All I can just say is we start filming in a couple months from now, and honestly, I’m still wondering what we’re going to see from Chris. I’m trying to get the writer to tell me! There’s so many ways that it could go: him and Nate still have a lot to talk about, Chris has a whole thing to figure out with Cassie too.”
Up next, Smith also has sci-fi thriller Mother/ Android, in which he plays a couple with Chloë Grace Moretz, who, days away from their baby’s due date, have to go on a treacherous journey to escape their country. “They just found out that they’re pregnant together and they have to go on this journey, walking from New Hampshire to New York, because the robots just start tweaking out in the world, which has gone apocalypse-style,” he starts excitedly. “It shows their emotional journey over that time, and it’s very interesting and sci-fi.”
Despite the impactful subject matter touched upon throughout our conversation, Smith maintains a chipper demeanour — one that he has become known and loved for in the industry — humble about his achievements so far, and excited about what the future holds for his career and America. “It definitely feels like a new day,” he adds, when I quiz him on the new Biden administration. “Just the other day I walked into the grocery store and the energy felt better around me and more hopeful.” We also talk about his new-found lockdown hobbies (he has picked up cooking, and nailed what sounds like a stellar “honey-glazed salmon, mashed potatoes and asparagus” combo), but when we circle back to the topic of legacy, Smith becomes quiet, somewhat contemplative about his own.
“I would want my legacy to be that I lead with love,” he says decisively. “That I was a selfless person, very confident in what I’m doing and very focused on leaving great platforms for my generations after me to step on, and leaving a great inheritance. And just making the world a better place while I’m here. It sounds very cliché but I think that’s the mission. We’re not here for a long time so whatever you can do to make this place better, that’s a goal for me.”