The accomplished film, television and stage actor talks about his latest role, in NBC’s breakout action-thriller hit, The Blacklist.
Actor Harry Lennix
Tavis: Harry Lennix is a go-to actor with a resume packed with roles in such hit TV series as “ER,” “24,” “House,” and “Ally McBeal.” He’s currently starring in one of the new bona-fide breakout hits of the current season, “The Blacklist” on NBC, where he plays an FBI agent trying to rein in a cagey mastermind criminal played by James Spader.
Coming up, he can also be seen in a film version of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” titled “H4,” featuring an all-African American cast. Before we talk about that, though, let’s take a look at a scene from “The Blacklist.”
Tavis: Not easy to find a hit these days on a new series, but you guys got one.
Harry Lennix: Yes, nobody really knew. We were up against some pretty stiff competition, some old standbys and a couple of new things. But we somehow managed to break through, and it only took me about 50 years. (Laughter)
Tavis: You’re funny. What do you think is making this work?
Lennix: Well I tell people all the time it’s James Spader. James Spader. He is a masterful actor. Megan Boone has done a great job playing the young rookie profiler.
I think we have a good chemistry. You got Diego and all of us, so we really are working well together. I think everybody really respects each other’s games.
Tavis: Yeah. I don’t want to put anybody on blast here, because Spader’s a great actor and I’m not talking about “The Blacklist.” But through the course of this 50-year career you joked about earlier, when you see stuff on paper and you have an idea of who’s playing what character when your agent or whoever has told you who’s playing the other characters, do you always – I don’t want to ask if you always know, but what’s that feeling in the gut you get as to whether or not you’re going to fit nicely in this ensemble cast or maybe not so much over here?
Lennix: You never know. I’ve been, certainly, in a lot of things where it started off well and then it didn’t wind up so well. Sometimes you start with something that goes shaky – for example, I’m doing a movie of my own right now that started off shaky.
But somehow, we found our footing and we’re getting close to the conclusion of it. I think sometimes it’s really just a question of finding a rhythm, and if a studio or a network is able to give you the time to find it, it usually works out okay.
Because we all really want to bring the best work that we can to it, and want to tell a good story, keep people entertained.
Tavis: I’ll come back to “The Blacklist” in a second, but since you went there you know I can’t let a good nugget just go by me. To the extent you can say anything about the film you’re working on, do you want to say anything about, or can you say anything about it?
Lennix: I would love to tell you a little bit about it.
Lennix: It’s always struck me, Tavis, that we have some of the greatest music in the world; we call it “sacred music” or “gospel music,” and we’ve never really used it in a dramatic circumstance to tell the actual story of Jesus Christ.
Tavis: You’re from Chicago, so you know this better than most people.
Lennix: I do.
Tavis: (Unintelligible) music in Chicago.
Lennix: I do.
Tavis: Great city for that.
Lennix: It’s fantastic. I studied actually to be a priest, so I was at a seminary. I came to gospel music late. My mother knew it and she would sing things and so forth. I would say, “What is that music, Ma?”
But I was listening to Gregorian chants and all of this sort of stuff, very, very formal stuff. So when I got exposed to gospel music at Northwestern University, I fell in love with it immediately.
It just struck me that very few people – I’m not aware of any Black-themed gospel narrative in any way. There’s no dialectical experience of the life of Jesus Christ, the ministry and so forth, with a Black person on film. I’ve not seen it yet, except for one thing called “Color of the Cross,” and I think Blair Underwood did a short.
But we play slaves a lot and butlers, but when can we play somebody who was actually bringing a gift to the world? What we know about the life of Jesus is that we don’t know exactly what color – we know he wasn’t white, but we never get a chance, really, to see ourselves as something other than in an subservient position, and I, for one, have had enough.
I don’t need to see that anymore. What I think we really do need, though, is the message and the method that Christ used to reach the world, and that’s what this movie is called, “Revival.”
I think that we are sorely in need of one throughout the United States, but certainly in our own community.
Tavis: Let me go back to something you said a moment ago. I knew it wasn’t going to take long before you said something to get me going. (Laughter) Because every time we talk, which isn’t often enough, I’ve missed seeing you.
Lennix: Yes, sir.
Tavis: We don’t see each other often enough. But what do you make of the reality that scholars know that Jesus wasn’t white, and yet for centuries now that is the image that we have been given.
Even when – my grandmother used to always say, speaking of Chicago, people who came from the South up North, as (unintelligible) migration, my grandmother used to always say that when you know better, you ought to do better.
Tavis: Even though we know better, we won’t do better by the lack of color in Jesus. What do you make of that? I’m not naïve in asking this, but what do you make of that reality?
Lennix: Well I think that it’s perhaps the single most important, just in terms of its effect, how it has manifested itself, transposition of a truth in history. So if you can actually identify somebody and take that person’s religion, as it were, adapt it to yourself – and they did – look, the Holy Roman Empire under Constantine did what anybody would do.
They take a narrative that speaks to them and they apply it to their own situation. The only people who don’t do that, who don’t make their god look like them, are Black people. I’m not aware of another group of people who go so far outside or in opposition to who they are and what they look like. But we swallowed this image wholesale.
Tavis: Is that brainwashing or conditioning?
Lennix: I think it may – I think it’s all of it. I think certainly we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that we cannot be capable of divinity, that we can’t be capable of redemption or of being a conduit thereof.
But I think that we have been conditioned to believe ourselves to be lesser, because we cannot identify that image. That image is very important. It’s this man with these flowing robes, looking very Roman, with this long, flowing, blonde hair and blue eyes.
Looked absolutely – nobody, if you go there today, nobody looks like that. That was at a time that was pre-Arab. So even more he probably would have looked North African or Ethiopian, in a sense.
But of course the people, Constantine in particular, took that story and then made the image into himself. Then the Holy Roman Empire went about conquering the rest of the world and they took with them this image of a savior. Then that savior got given to us, and we didn’t have any trouble swallowing it.
Tavis: So what do you make of the fact, back to my grandmother’s edict that when you know better you ought to do better, what do you make of the fact that even though we have the African American Bible that’s been published for years now.
So there are people in this space in Chicago and beyond who’ve been trying to get us to look at the gospel anew. What do you make of the fact that we just ain’t going there?
Lennix: I think it’s – I’ve always talked about this issue, which is that people learn who they are by the images of themselves, the representations that they seek. Throughout the course of dramatic history, in plays; I think Shakespeare wrote three Moorish characters.
Three of them – two of them are absolute villains, supposedly, although I have an issue with thinking that Aaron the Moor, a character I played, I think he’s actually a hero.
But the received version of these people is that they’re bad, and when you think of black you think of bad, and all of these things. I think that we have begun to emulate this, to take it in, to ingest it, and then to put it out there.
I call it the allegory of the cave. It’s like Plato’s allegory of the cave. These people who don’t even know they’re captives have been forced to look at two-dimensional shadows of themselves, so that when they finally get an opportunity to become unchained and look at the people behind them casting the shadows, they reject the truth of it and they accept the two-dimensional image.
It’s what they talk about in simulation of (unintelligible) or what we did in “The Matrix.” We have begun to accept the shadow as the reality and to reject the reality in favor of this hyper-real, somehow more accessible image of ourselves.
Frankly, they’ve done a very good job of it. The images in the media, all of them, are replete with depraved and despicable Black people, and there are very, very few images of admirable, redeemable, dignified Black people.
Tavis: How much of what you’ve just laid out about African American characters or the lack of complex, fully developed African American characters, how much of that weighs on you when you make decisions about what to play, like “The Blacklist” or what have you.
Because I sense every time we hang out or talk that this is a passion for you, and maybe even a burden. That may be too strong a word, but I feel like it’s a burden that you carry when it comes to decisions that you make. Am I too far afield here?
Lennix: I think you’re right on the money. I consider it my raison d’être. I think that in some ways there is no more important thing in my life outside of family and God. The most important thing in my life is that trying to ameliorate, redeem, the image in particular of African American men, or Black men – I don’t really even like that term, “African American,” because we’re Black people.
I think that speaks to an experience that we’ve had. African American is a different thing. But I think that there is no more important thing that we can do. We look at Black boys being shot in places like Florida – not just Florida – with complete impunity.
People can just say, “Well, I felt threatened.” If you look at enough images of Black boys and Black men, you can understand why somebody – because we’re always playing despicable and depraved people.
Not dimensionalized, not fully human, subhuman, in point of fact. That three-fifths human being thing is something that was propagated, that gained a foothold, and I think that perhaps we as a filmmaking people now, are adding more fuel to the fire, even more so than the dominant culture.
So I’m just here to provide a remedy to that, an alternative to that. I do not wish to circumscribe anybody’s decision to make an artistic statement. But I know a lot of Black people, a lot of Black men who spend time with their children, love their wives, do the right thing, all the time.
I never get to see them in film or television, never. So that’s what I’m trying to provide. So I’ve got my, this is my, “Revival” is my third film. “H4,” which is the first Black Shakespeare thing, which you mentioned in the intro, is something that we’re very excited.
It’s going to get out there this year; it’s going to get a theatrical distribution. Then my first film, “Mr. Sophistication,” is also going to get digital distribution sometime this spring or summer.
So look, these are not, I’m not trying to play holy man and I’m not trying to present images of a people who are as – that kind of thing is not dimensionalized either. But just tell the whole story. If you’re going to tell the story, tell the whole story and don’t have me only as some sort of a surrogate.
Tavis: How do you respond to people, even if they understand the point that you’re making and they’re sensitized to it and maybe even agree with it to a certain extent, think that you’re a bit heavy-handed.
I’m asking this because I know that you guys film “The Blacklist,” you tape at Chelsea Piers in New York City. As you were talking I thought about Wynton, our friend Skain, so I thought about Skain and all the trouble that Skain got into when he went really hard on hip-hop back in the day.
Obviously he’s a jazz purist and he’s the protector of the brand and I love him for everything that he does, I love Wynton. But Wynton caught hell for espousing and expressing his point of view about what was happening to our music and the lyrical content, et cetera.
How do you respond to folk who think that you’re a bit heavy-handed in your approach?
Lennix: I don’t respond to them. If hell comes as a result of my speaking the truth, then let it come. I don’t have – these people have clearly not a very good idea about the damage that is being done continuously to the images of Black people.
They have no clue about it, or don’t care about it. Are so – what’s the word – craven, that profit becomes more – there’s a saying that Christ says; I’m in this thing where he says, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
Tavis: “Gain the whole world and lose his soul.”
Lennix: I think that that is what has happened. As a people, we have lost our souls. I’m not alone in thinking this. I know the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was very clear about what he thought, and he was able to redeem a number of people who otherwise had been lost.
I’m trying to take that kind of self-actualization. I’m not trying to diminish any other people in these images. The Shakespeare movie is not all Black. The movies I’m making and trying to continue to make are representative of the world in which we live.
But again there are bad people and good people. It’s just that we never get the – so if people don’t like the truth, then maybe they should watch another movie or listen to another point of view.
Tavis: Let me ask whether or not you think that Black men – I take your point about African American. This is your conversation, (laughter) so I’ll flow the way you want to flow.
Tavis: So I won’t say African American. We’ll say Black. I wonder whether or not you think that at this point in history that Black men are redeemable. The crisis, the plight of Black men – is it redeemable?
I ask that for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because President Obama, out of your hometown of Chicago, has said of late that he wants to do something, finally.
Six years in, now he wants to do something about the plight of Black boys and Brown boys. Okay, we’ll see what comes of that program. So the president now is finally on record in the second term saying he wants to do something. You mentioned Florida and other places where these Black boys are being shot with impunity.
But the data, the data is so clear about the crisis that young Black boys are enduring. Tell me why you don’t believe that the damage done to us as perhaps the most maligned group in the history of this country, tell me why you think the damage isn’t irreparable.
If you believe we’re redeemable, how does that happen at this stage of the game in America?
Lennix: I think it’s going to take a divine solution, and I mean that in the deepest sense of it. I think if you look at any besieged people throughout history a message has been brought to those people.
The Arabs before the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, what Jesus was going through with the Palestinian Jews at the time. They were people who were occupied in a very bad place, and a message came to them.
Not just through Jesus alone, but of course through the efforts of John the Baptist. So I think we need a divine solution. I do believe, however, that we are redeemable, and that’s certainly my intention, to die trying to help redeem them.
With regard to the rhetoric of Mr. Obama, I’ve seen nothing in terms of deed. He talks a good game and he’s done that for a very long time. He claims some sort of allegiance to Chicago.
But I’ve seen absolutely nothing. People get shot down the street from his mansion all the time, and he says – every time you mention a Black person, he brings, well, everybody needs this, that, or the other thing.
So until there’s actual policy it’s just empty rhetoric, and that’s all I’ve seen in six years and I have no real hope or optimism that anything is going to change until proven otherwise.
Tavis: Does that divine intervention that you suggested a moment ago that has to happen, does that divine intervention have anything to do with the Black church, or you’re already past that?
Lennix: Well, I think that it should be a part of it, because the Black church is extremely important in Black America. I think most Americans themselves believe in a divine power, in a god, and I’m sure that that number increases with Black people.
Because they need to believe in something. They don’t have a whole lot of other – no indications from the government or industry that any help is coming therefrom.
But I think that we have a chance to do for ourselves, and I think that this is the most important thing in the world. I say that because it is now possible through images and media – mediatizing who we are – that we can make these products for ourselves.
There’s this thing called the Internet, which is its own platform. If you could drive enough people to these sites, there’s a great opportunity. I see it. I see it happening.
I remember that old phrase we used to have called “Each one, teach one;” the Talented Tenth. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington and all these guys showed in a time which was far more hostile, with a lot more obstacles, legally speaking and so forth, that a little willpower could go a long way.
Tavis: I wonder what your take is – I obviously follow everything you say and I saw your comments about “The Butler.” But I wonder what you make of this “season” of Black film.
We’re headed toward the Academy Awards, and of course “12 Years a Slave” was, I guess is the one that’s been regarded the most of all the Black film. But there were articles, you’ll recall, a year ago, eight months ago, saying, oh, this is the year of the Black film.
All these films are going to get nominated, this, that, and the other. So without going too deep into that, what’s your sense of the year that has been in Black film that’s been so regaled and regarded by all kinds of critics?
Lennix: I think it’s appalling. I didn’t see the movie so I have no assessment of it as an aesthetic offering. I’m sure it’s very well made. But a well-made what? Why are we – that was a long time ago, and we have –
Tavis: You’re talking about “12 Years” now.
Lennix: I’m talking about “12 Years,” I’m talking about “The Butler,” I’m talking about “The Help,” I’m talking about all this retrograde, retrogressive necrophilia which is of no use to us right now.
That was a long time ago. Those people were not helped by, in any great measure, by the people who represented dramatically their – I don’t know what I’m going to learn from any of those things.
I haven’t seen them because there’s nothing I can take away from it except for humiliation and anger. So I think that what we need to do is – I’m not talking about sanitizing history.
I think history is history, that’s great. If people learn from it, I’m all for it. If they learn from “12 Years,” as I say, I’m sure it’s very good, or “The Butler” or any of the other movies, then God bless them, God bless the movies.
But there’s nothing that I could take away from it. I think that to continue to throw awards at these things only encourages people to continue living their lives in the past while the present is slipping away.
I think that that’s where we really need – the future is not here. The past is gone. There’s this great quote by John Lewis Gaddis, where he says, “The present is a singularity from where you have to fuse the continuity as a contingency.”
We’re in that present and we need to concern ourselves with right now, because right now, things are bleak. I don’t think things are better now than they were in the 1960s as a whole.
We have less farmland, we have less industry, people are dropping out of school.
Tavis: Fewer jobs, yeah.
Lennix: All of it. You look at the indexes, which you’ve pointed to many times; I’m aware of your comments as well, and you’re right. I think that as long as you can get people distracted and thinking about the past and how much better it is now than it was then, which is a lie, then you can continue to keep their eyes off the prize.
Tavis: Tell me right quick why it is that Hollywood does, in fact, fancy itself, why it loves to keep us in the past, filmically, but can’t deal with, like, contemporary Negroes.
Lennix: Well because I don’t think that they want any challenges. I think that Hollywood is content with condescending to Black people, patronizing them, feeling sorry for us, and I think we’re happy to take the pat on the head as a people and take whatever awards.
It’s kind of like a consolation prize. (Laughter) See what I mean? If you keep playing this downtrodden, beaten-up, white man comes along and saves you person, then the white man, once he sees himself saving you, or the white woman, in the case of “The Help,” then they’re going to feel really good about themselves and then continue to be able to look down at us.
Because without their help, we would still be in the subhuman condition that we were before they came along and saved us. We can’t help ourselves. So that’s why they like it, and Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back and espouse their rhetorically liberal points of view while they continue to be the 1 percent and point the finger at the other guy.
It’s ridiculous, and I think that there’s nothing wrong, nor do I feel I have anything to fear from calling a spade a spade, so to speak. Until they shut me up, I’m just going to keep talking about it.
Tavis: You really don’t feel any fear or trepidation – obviously you got a gig on “The Blacklist,” and one thing I say about Harry Lennix – this Negro will work. (Laughter)
Tavis: Your commentary notwithstanding, they keep calling you, you keep getting pilots, you keep getting TV shows. You’re doing four or five movies at one time.
So apparently you must be right that it’s not stopping you, but you do this with such courage and with such conviction and such commitment and such character, and I just love that about you.
Lennix: Well thank you. I appreciate that. I’ll tell you, the truth is more important to me than anything – my personal wealth or health or any of these things. I think that it’s not so difficult for me to say what I’m saying.
I look at people like Steven Biko or Patrice Lumumba or the Honorable Elijah Muhammad or any number of – Malcolm X and Martin King and all of these people who were willing to risk all of it to speak the truth. To speak truth to power.
Unless we can continue to do that and say I’m sick of this politically correct, oh, I have to be very nice about these things. I don’t have to be nice about it. They’re not nice to me, they’re not nice to us, so what is wrong with telling a man to get your foot off of my neck and allow me to do for myself without having to rewrite history to make it look like you did something for me when you didn’t?
Please show me where that has happened, although I can say that there were other – there are good-minded, good-hearted, nice-thinking people who do really try to help, who really are liberal, who really do want to move things along.
Some of them conservative, who believe that we deserve as much humanity as the next guy. Those are the people that speak to me. At this point, Black or white is far less the issue than the truth.
Tavis: Yeah. I’m with you on the truth. King said, “I’d rather be dead than be afraid.”
Lennix: Right, there you. (Laughter)
Tavis: So I’m with you and Martin on that one. Harry Lennix can be seen in “The Blacklist.” It ain’t this deep, but it’s deep, and I think you’ll enjoy it. I certainly do. One of the breakout shows of the last year, and I’m glad you were there. “The Blacklist” is blessed to have you there.
Lennix: Thank you.
Tavis: Harry, good to see you, man.
Lennix: You too.
Tavis: Thanks for coming on.
Lennix: Yes, sir.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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