As Chicago native Karimah Westbrook prepared for her role as the wife and mother of the first black family to move into the fictional Suburbicon — in director and co-writer George Clooney’s new film of the same title (opening Friday) — the actress looked to history for inspiration.
The project was sparked by the true story of Daisy Meyers and her family moving into the all-white planned community of Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957, so Westbrook first turned to Meyers’ memoir of that period, “Sticks and Stones.”
“I learned so much from reading her book,” said the actress, seen earlier in “Badasssss” and “The Rum Diary.” “You can understand how Daisy came to be known as the ‘Rosa Parks of the North,’ ” for sticking it out in Levittown for five years, despite constant harassment, intimidation, hostility and all kinds of racial bias.
Expressing understandable admiration for Meyers, Westbrook admitted, “I can’t imagine how awful that had to be — living through all that, while trying to support your family and doing all the things a normal family needs to do to survive. It definitely had to be unbelievably challenging. Her quiet strength is so inspirational. Frankly, if I was faced with that kind of hatred, I think I would have moved.”
Along with Meyers’ book, Westbrook went back and studied “a good deal about how African-Americans have been treated — and mistreated — in this country, going back to the days of the Founding Fathers. … Preparing for this role was another great lesson in history for me,” said the actress, who began acting in the western suburbs during her years at Proviso East High School, appearing in community theater productions and at the Circle Theater in Forest Park.
“Suburbicon,” starring Matt Damon and Julianne Moore, originated in a script by Ethan and Joel Coen, later rewritten by Clooney and producing partner Grant Heslov. The duo had been looking for a project that would spark a conversation about excluding outsiders, set in suburbia.
“Just by chance, we heard about the first black family that had moved into Levittown, and we thought that would make for an interesting backdrop,” Heslov said. “… This goes back to before Trump was elected, but it was our intention to make a statement about immigration and building fences and building walls to keep people out.”