Editor's note: As 2014 begins, I've been reposting some of our 2013 highlights. Those who've already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you'd like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here's a piece originally published in early August, which didn't get as much attention as I thought it would, especially in light of related ongoing conversations we have on this blog.
Consider this an extension of the recent exchange between Harry Belafonte and Jay-Z on whether, and how much, entertainers should embrace social responsibility.
Recently actor Omari Hardwick, filmmaker Bill Duke, and a number of black men in Hollywood came together to form a group called Icon Mann. The organization was created by Tamara Houston and Adrienne Alexander, two women who wanted to recognize the contributions of black male entertainers and also create a space for mentorship and private dialogue about social justice issues.
In July they held their first luncheon hosted by Blair Underwood and David Oyelowo, which was considered a success, only to return home the same day to hear news of the "not guilty" verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial. They responded by creating a PSA written by Hardwick, produced by Icon Mann and directed by Mo McRae called Little Black Boy Wonder: A Tribute to Trayvon Martin featuring Hardwick, Duke, Oyelowo and several other black male entertainers. This week I spoke with Duke and Hardwick about a number of issues, most notably their work with Icon Mann and the role that black entertainers should play in creating social change.
JAI: Tell me how Icon Mann came about.
OMARI: Tamara and Adrienne saw the number of African American male entertainers that weren't really offering each other support and using the platforms that we had all gained for the betterment of the whole. They figured that there was more power in numbers, especially if the numbers were of quality and of a certain pedigree, so they created Icon Mann. The first dinner or introduction of it was Oscar weekend. I thought that was really appropriate because so many people talk about the blackout of the Oscars and our work not being celebrated.
JAI: How does the organization work and what are some of the things you're trying to accomplish?
BILL: It's collectively coming together and discussing mutual issues that we face inside and outside of Hollywood - deciding what are some of the actions that can be taken in terms of impacting change, not only for ourselves but for others. Especially the young people coming up in our industry who come in without any real awareness of the business and how to survive. We're trying to discuss things in a really honest away.
What's wonderful about [Tamara and Adrienne] is that when the discussions are being held they intentionally leave the room, not at our suggestion but at theirs. And after we have discussed the issues they come back and support what we've decided to do. This was their idea, which is an almost tribal way of thinking. There's no threat to them, they don't feel disrespected. It's empowering in a way that is almost unheard of.
OMARI: They set it up in a way that's almost like Derek Fisher and Shaquille O'Neal back in the day. All we've got to do is grab the ball. Women are so necessary for us in terms of support. It's huge and as Bill said, it's definitely tribal in essence.
JAI: Since the group is based in entertainment, do you plan to push for more representation, or more honest representation, of people of color in film and television?
OMARI: Absolutely. Dark Girls on OWN speaks directly to that. It's a more dynamic look at what Spike Lee dove into when he did School Daze. And we are doing that in terms of our almighty "no" to an agent or manager who says they want you for a certain part. Deciding to not attach ourselves to something that doesn't appropriately represent us is extremely powerful. And hopefully the younger generation will see that we're not doing it, and then do research to find out why.
JAI: How do you negotiate the competition that exists among actors and filmmakers while also trying to support each other?
OMARI: You remain unafraid. You can't look at the dollar and say, "I'm not what I dreamed of being unless I do this type of movie and it's a blockbuster that gives me this amount of dollars." That's not good. If you remain open to great directors who look like you, who know what they're doing and are making impactful films that are destroying these "blockbuster films," you can do okay and everybody can get more of a piece of the pie. But you've got to be open and brave.
BILL: I'd also say that if we stop looking at the old paradigm of trying to find a job rather than creating jobs of our own, we will evolve into an entity that is not only employee but employer. As our consciousness grows, we'll begin to take advantage of the opportunities in terms of content creation, marketing, and distribution in film and media. That's my hope and dream.
Jai: Your Little Black Boy Wonder PSA was one response to the Zimmerman verdict. What do you hope will be the outcome of the video?
Omari: The younger generation is being raised not only by humans, but by computers, and so they have a way of thinking that those of us born in the '50s, '60s, or '70s don't have. Our objective is to get them back to a place, first, of loving themselves. The PSA is going to have reactions of, "Well, where's the PSA for blacks killing blacks?" For us, we're speaking to that. Our objective is to speak not only about the Zimmerman verdict and the obvious realities of race, but to speak on the evidence that has been thrust in our faces that blacks are taking each other off this earth. The objective is really to get awareness out there and for folks that are younger than us to start to really look in the mirror, to piece back who you are as a man. We're killing each other because we don't love ourselves.
Bill: It's okay to see what we've done with this wonderful piece that he's written, but somehow we are looked to as the artists that have created this piece that raises our consciousness, to also solve the problem. It's up to all of us to solve the problem. You have to take action. With Rodney King people went into the streets, but we burned our own neighborhoods down. That does not solve the problem.