VIPembroke: Naomie Harris

In keeping with the International Women’s Day theme of this issue, the VIPembroke feature is going to take a slightly different spin. Minus the room, but with a focus on one of our stellar alumni: Naomie Harris.

Illustration by Lizzy O'Brien

Naomie Harris is an Oscar nominated actress who has graced the silver screen since the age of nine. She graduated from Pembroke with a degree in Social and Political Science in 1998 - a lifetime away for a number of this year’s freshers. Choosing to dedicate this piece to Harris comes as a result of her inspiring catalogue of work in the drama industry, ranging from the Pirates of the Caribbean, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the James Bond franchise and most recently, the Academy Award winning film, Moonlight.

Coming from a working-class background in London Harris experienced a massive culture shock as she entered the privileged, white, middle-class world of Cambridge It’s sad that her experience of Cambridge was an alienating one. Her disconnect from the other students made her “very unhappy” - being surrounded by talk of Eton and skiing served as a constant reminder that she did not fit the stereotype. The persistence of it today dissuades far too many students from applying, despite the good efforts of access schemes.

Since graduating, Harris has truly flourished in her profession, exhibiting strength in her portrayal of different characters. Despite a challenging time at university and growing up in a council flat with a single mother, down to her hard work, Harris is far from being short of success. Her breakthrough role was in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2002, but the role that has given her an international fame is as Eve Moneypenny in Skyfall and Spectre.

While the character is traditionally defined as one of James Bond’s love interests, Harris has taken a character previously defined by a man and displayed a depth to her. She’s asked press to refer to her as a ‘Bond woman,’ instead of a ‘Bond girl,’ with the labels being distinctly different. The Moneypennys of a former era were desperately pining after Bond, whose visits to M’s secretary at MI6 were fleeting and intermittent between all the action involved in working for HM’s Secret Service. Harris has portrayed Moneypenny as a character with her own life – she herself works as an agent in Skyfall and has relationships of her own, and is not willing to jeopardise her career by crossing the line with Bond.

Harris is, of course, the first black Moneypenny. A black actress portraying Moneypenny, who has generally been a ‘home counties’ character (much like the typical Cambridge student?), is undoubtedly exciting. It’s no secret that Hollywood has been labelled racist – last year’s Oscar’s proved that – so representation of BME actors in such an iconic franchise is promising.

But one thing that Harris does not want is for her work to be seen only through the prisms of race and gender. While they are important, they do not define her. She has said that she grew up around “strong, powerful women”, and these are the women she wants to play - not simply by virtue of their being black or female. And she has accomplished this. Through Moneypenny she has created a person the audience respects and can identify with.

Just this Lent term, a all BME cast of Macbeth left an impression upon the Cambridge drama scene, starring one of our own Valencians, Malcolm Ebose, as the title character. Varsity gave the performance a rave review, stating that the lack of BME representation here is not down to a lack of talent, but rather caused by an atmosphere that ‘alienates BME creatives’. Perhaps this is same atmosphere that Harris found so difficult during her time here.

Photos sourced from The Shirley Players performance of Macbeth

Most recently, Naomie Harris gave a stunning performance in Moonlight, as the crack-addicted mother of Chiron. Initially reluctant to accept the role, and not wanting to portray a negative image of a black woman, she went on to undergo an almost unrecognizable transformation. While she personally hasn’t dealt with the level of struggle that her character Paula did, many have, including the director’s mother. What I find remarkable is how Harris managed to reach the character’s place of addiction and shoot her role over only three days. Perhaps having to whip up multiple essays per week in Cambridge was good preparation for such intense bursts of productivity.

Another Pembroke alumnus, Peter Bradshaw, reviewed Moonlight in The Guardian, praising her ‘great performance’ - and it truly was. The film strips back labels of ‘black’ and ‘gay’, exposing humanity and the fundamental search for love and connection. While the role of Paula isn’t a positive one, she is part of a film that embodies Harris’ desire to not be defined by stereotypes. In doing so, she has pushed herself out of her comfort zone – something that has paid off in both a rewarding professional experience and critical acclaim from the industry.

It is important that we recognise and celebrate each other’s work in a day and age where criticism is everywhere. This is true for everyone, especially at Cambridge where at some point many of us have felt inadequate, and especially for women whose participation in high position and leadership roles is deplorably poor. Despite Harris excelling as an actress, she has noted that she has often felt isolated on sets being one of the few women present among a predominantly male crew. Yet the work that Harris has accomplished has been incredible, with Moonlight winning her 7 awards as well as nominations for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award – the most prestigious award an actor can receive. Just last month she received an OBE from HM the Queen for her services to drama.

Recognising Harris is to celebration an actor who has pushed past origins that are unfavourable to an auspicious future. Cambridge was a challenge for Harris, but she is proud of the degree that she achieved. It serves as hope for the rest of us who are still here, that the trying nature of Cambridge is worth it. Harris didn’t fit the Cambridge nor the Bond girl mould, yet has managed to break them both.•

Dísa Greaves is a first year Land Economist and is the Pembroke Street blogger.