Why it’s important to choose happiness

We have the power to make ourselves happy. That is a universal truth we should all live by. And British mixed race actor Adele James leads the way in showing us how to choose happiness in our own lives. 

It’s a motto the TV star lives by, even after she was caught in a Twitter storm where Netflix were accused of “Black washing” history with her portrayal of Queen Cleopatra in the documentary series by Jada Pinkett Smith. Here in her own words, Adele reveals the black women who inspire her and reveals the secrets on living life with a positive outlook…

Who are the black women in TV and film who really inspire you and why?

Gosh, there’s so many. Viola Davis, definitely. Jada Pinkett Smith always felt to me like a kind of Cleopatra so it’s a dream come true to be doing this project with her attached to it. In the UK, there’s loads of really amazing women, Karen Bryson, Shanna Lynch. There’s so many incredible actresses. Both who are my peers and who are veterans of the industry.

What does Black Joy mean to you and how do you bring happiness into your life?

What does black joy mean to me? When I think about black joy, I think about the food and the music and culture and it feels like to me, blackness feels very tied to the soul. I can’t explain it in any way, but it feels like a very spiritual, soul grounded earthy thing, blackness, to be black, to be part black even. 

It’s really important to choose happiness

Adele James ~

And I feel that comes out so much through our food, our culture, our music, our history. So I think black joy is about leaning into that, leaning into the colours and the taste and the smells and the rhythm.

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I think it’s really important to choose happiness. I spent some time probably like most people, wondering what it is that makes us happy and I think actually to a large degree we have that power ourselves. It’s just kind of taking stock of the little things, the nice breakfast that I have, the conversation I have with my mum on the phone and I go around to see my family, spending time with my friends when they win when they have small and big wins. It’s just leaning into the little moments that make up life. The more time you spend being present and doing that, when you look back, you realise you’ve lived a full life and it’s been a happy one.

What was it like working with Jada Pinkett Smith?

Jada Pinkett Smith wears white sweater to red carpet event© Getty
Jada Pinkett Smith had lots of praise for Adele

It’s really cool. We didn’t get to work directly with her, she wasn’t set but she was really involved in the casting process. I know that she saw the tapes that I did, she gave really positive feedback and she was giving feedback on the rushes as we were shooting in Morocco. She’s narrated the show as well, which is just so epic. She’s a real trailblazer, her own career has really opened doors for people like me to be able to do all kinds of things in the industry.

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What positive feedback did Jada give you and what was your reaction?

Of course, I was just a bit overwhelmed. When you learn that they are involved and you’re like, oh my gosh, that’s so humbling and really hard to process. It’s a whole thing. I think for me, any, I think for any actor to be honest, when you get a positive feedback about your performance and that people are responding to the way in which you interpret her and bring her to life. 

Adele James wows in Cleopatra costume© Adele James Instagram
Adele in costume for Queen Cleopatra

That’s just so gratifying because that’s really all you want is just to transform to the best of your ability. And so for someone as wonderful at acting as Jada to say things like that about me. Everybody on our team, the first day on set everybody started crying because they had never seen Cleopatra portrayed this way by someone of my heritage, with the way that I was dressed, the way the Glam team put everything together. It was really overwhelming for all of us.

What was your initial reaction when you were offered the role, famously undertaken by Elizabeth Taylor?

Yeah, it was awesome. It wasn’t lost on me at all, even from the first kind of self tape stage that this was like a huge opportunity. A huge pair of shoes or sandals to step into. Cleopatra is like the most iconic real human being that ever lived. When I was offered it, I did that thing where I thought, ‘Oh my God, if they made a mistake.’ But then you very quickly just have to get past and over that. in order to be able to actually get on with the job and I did really only have a few days to get ready. It was a real whirlwind but I think I was just so excited and so humbled.

What’s your reaction to the response?

It’s so amazing and it’s such a diverse group of people who are responding so positively as well and,  I would say that they are in the majority from what I can see anyway, people from all over the world. I get messages from people in Norway and Australia and Brazil and Morocco and Egypt, a lot of people in Egypt, and other parts of Africa. I’ve never felt so visible. It is so humbling, so nice to see people just engaging with it, really happy with the way that she’s being portrayed, the fact that they now think of her as a human being.

How did you deal with the claims that Netflix were “Black washing” history, especially on social media?

I think the best thing you can do in those instances is just pull yourself into the real world as much as possible. Because a lot of that stuff exists online and what can happen is your world can get small. I think if you spend all your time focusing on what’s happening on a screen, a lot of those accounts are probably made by the same person. There’s ways of manoeuvring that so that you can, it seems like it’s a lot, it actually is.

What little act of kindness can I do daily?

So for me, it was really just a case of leaning into the real world as much as possible, spending time with people that I know, love and trust looking after myself and, and just remembering what an incredible opportunity this is and how beneficial it is that people are going to be able to receive this version of Cleopatra.

Has your relationship with social media changed?

I think it would be difficult for anybody to adapt to a sudden sudden change of exposure. I’m trying to feel my way through it day by day. I was always quite cautious about what I posted anyway, but I’m maybe a little bit more cautious about what I say and how I say it, but not in the sense that I’m afraid to say what I think because I’m quite a confident person in that respect and it’s more that I’m conscious that I represent a large group of people. Be that the team I just worked with, people that look like me, there’s lots of demographics that I fit into. I always put my best foot forward.

Is there one thing in your daily routine to make you happy?

I don’t do it every single day, but I do feel it so much when I do it. I do feel that little spark of joy. I’ve got this little book, I’ll show you actually, it’s got really cute penguins on it. It’s always close by. I got it from the BBC Earth experience. But firstly, the penguins make me happy. I write two things in the morning and two things in the evening that I like about myself and sometimes they’re different but often they’re actually the same. I don’t put pressure on myself to do it every day but I do try and do it most days. Sometimes, I really like my hair. Sometimes I like my smile. Sometimes I like the way I responded to a situation. It could be anything but it’s nice to look back on as well. I’ve had that list for some time now but it’s always growing and evolving.

Has there ever been a time in your life when you were low and what positive change did you make to bring happiness back into your life?

I’ve gone through some very difficult things in my life and I think whenever I’m feeling down, it means something’s got to change. Whether that’s my immediate circumstance, so I need to get out of the room that I’m in and go and be in nature and go for a walk or if I’m feeling not great or maybe I’ll put on a happy song and sort of a perfect fix but just something instantly needs to change in order for me to regulate my emotions.

But the big thing I would recommend certainly if anybody else is reading this and struggling is therapy. I think therapy is really helpful, having an outlet is really healthy. Somebody objective, somebody who’s trained to help you move through difficult feelings. Everybody should do therapy but you got to find the right therapist.

Why do you think it’s so important to have a good female network around you?

It’s important to have a good female network around you because we don’t live in a just world, as much as I would love for us too. We don’t live in a just world and maybe we’re moving in that direction. I hope we are. But while we’re not there, I think it’s important that you have a network of people who can relate to your struggle, whatever that might be struggles, plural, whatever those might be.

So, I think it’s as important to have a female network as it is for me to have a network of people who are from South London as much as it is to have a network of people who are mixed race or black, mixed or black or non white. We are tribal by nature and it’s really important for social creatures. It’s really important for us to be able to relate to others. That’s one of the groups that I definitely identify with and it’s so wonderful to be held by those people and to be able to hold people as well.

What has been your experience of being a black mixed actress working in television?

I would say kind of first and foremost, my experience is very unique to me as a black mixed actress because historically speaking, the industry is not the has not always been the most diverse and inclusive. And the way that’s manifested for me because I am a black mixed but because I am light skinned is that I would say I definitely get more or have had more opportunity and probably an easier ride than some of my dark skinned peers, colleagues and friends. However, I’m still not a white woman. And it’s already harder for women than it is for men. We could play privilege wars all day. Everybody’s entitled to having their feelings validated about their struggle. But if I could say what mine was, it would probably be that I’ve often noticed I’m either not white enough or not black enough for certain things. Like I remember back in the day, I would be put up for roles for black people and it always felt a bit odd to me because I was like, well, I’m not fully black. 

So it’s a complicated thing to navigate. But I’m really grateful because other than this role and even actually this Cleopatra role, I wouldn’t say I got it because of being a mixed race actress. I got it because of all the other things that she is right with. The show is not really about her race actually at all. Every role I feel I’ve done thus far has not had anything to do with my race. It’s part of my identity. But I’ve just been able to play really complex and interesting women and I’m really grateful for that and I hope to continue doing it…

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