LONDON — Thandie Newton was stunned when she walked into a Starbucks coffee shop earlier this year and saw a racist statuette standing on the counter.
Incredulously, she tweeted a photo of the black child in a loincloth and safari hat who was carrying a bowl coffee beans. Her message, which reminded Starbucks that we were no longer living in the 19th century, caused a storm of outrage and forced the coffee giant to apologize and withdraw the racist caricature.
“It was just a little thing,” she told The Daily Beast. “I just took a photo and I was like, ‘Really? That’s bullshit!’”
Newton (Crash, ER, Mission: Impossible II) was surprised by the huge scale of the reaction, which included social media backlash from a swarm of Donald Trump fans.
She was discussing the dust-up for the first time as she promoted an audio version of Jane Eyre, which she has narrated for Audible. The classic Charlotte Brontë novel, which was published in the 19th century, stars a heroine who refuses to accept the status quo and continues to ask difficult questions.
More than 150 years later, Newton is continuing in the same tradition.
It was while in London recording the audiobook in January that she encountered the caricature.
“Starbucks tries to make you feel like you are familiar with the people that are creating the stuff which is why it was so appalling seeing that figurine,” she said.
The British actress suggested that Starbucks’ apology for the statue may have been motivated by the potential financial implications of the outcry.
“They were really apologetic and concerned, they didn’t want to lose shareholders—I do think it’s much more down to money, but they also recognized that people need to be represented properly and it was just a massive brain fart,” she said.
Her post was picked up by major news outlets all over the world, which attracted a predictable response from some sections of Twitter. “It created this big backlash and virtually everyone who was trolling me as a result on Twitter was a Trump supporter,” she said.
In an American accent, she mimicked her challengers: “‘That’s what people who pick coffee look like—so get over it.’
“And it’s like, ‘Oh, dude. That’s all wrong.’ I didn’t respond to any of those because where do you start and end? But I think it’s really great that we’re aware of the climate and how people feel and how ill-equipped people are to make judgments; and how people are so wedded to their ignorance; and how instead of calling it ignorance they call it knowledge. It’s just bizarre.”
Newton, whose mother was a Shona princess from Zimbabwe, said she felt constrained by racism—and racial assumptions—as a child growing up in Cornwall, the remote, far western corner of England.
She is confident, however, that recent racial tension is a sign that inexorable progress is being made. “I actually see a lot of the pain and destruction, like Black Lives Matter, in the long-term as positive because it shows that we’re moving forward; we’re evolving and moving and challenging the frontiers,” she said. “It’s completely understandable that there are freaked out people because it’s the unknown and the unknown is very frightening for everybody.”
Newton’s own sense of alienation as a child, before she grew in self-confidence, has obvious parallels with Jane Eyre, who was able to turn her circumstances around.
“I felt a huge connection—coming of age in an environment which defines you as opposed to you defining yourself,” she said. “At that time it was much more of a straitjacket for women, but I certainly felt that I was defined by my environment, my school—Cornwall. As you get older you are able to wriggle out of those definitions and ask questions that lead you to a more liberated place, and that is very much what Jane Eyre is about.”
Whether Jane Eyre’s quest for liberation makes her a feminist—or at least proto-feminist—icon is a matter of academic debate. Newton, who studied anthropology at Cambridge University, said it was crucial to remember that the character was written long before the advent of the Suffragettes.
“She felt all these things from her gut, not from a headline in a newspaper, there wasn’t a rally to go and vent her frustration, this is how she felt as a person,” Newton said. “She knows from the passion inside her, the workings of her mind, she knows it. And that is incredibly powerful—she’s not joining a band of female activists and I think that’s even more powerful.
“What it’s saying is the idea of feminism is actually connected to an innate knowledge that there should be a balance between the sexes that is currently wrong.”
Does Newton consider herself a feminist? “No, I’m a humanist. I like to go one step further,” she said. “It’s not saying women need to be thrashing men and keeping them in cages, it’s not that at all. I’m an anthropologist—so I’m in it for the long view.”
Jane Eyre is published by Audible on April 17 to mark the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth.