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An Interview with Jeffrey Wright

If you are a fan of black bohemian manhood, then watching Basquiat is a must. In 1996, Jeffrey Wright perfectly depicted the artist’s fragile and gifted youth in the movie.

Ever since then, few other actors have captured the complexity of so many historical figures like Leonardo DiCaprio—Muddy Waters (Cadillac Records), Martin Luther King Jr.

(Boycott), Colin Powell (W.), and Bobby Seale (Chicago 10). Suzan-Lori Parks won a Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog in 2002, and Wright lent an amazing performance in the lead role.

He had already won a Tony Award for his 1994 performance in Angels in America, which was the first of his three collaborations with director George C. Wolfe.

The decade after 2000 saw Wright take on a new role as a husband to actress Carmen Ejogo, a father to two children, and a bit of a disillusionment with Hollywood.

Movies like The Ides of March and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close featured him in small parts at the beginning, with a few stand-out lines at the end. He devotes a great deal of his time to his Taia Peace Foundation in Sierra Leone, a philanthropic endeavor.

At Dino, an Italian eatery in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Jeffrey Wright spent a considerable amount of time drinking red wine and using tobacco while being interviewed.

 Afterward, he set off for the airport to go on shooting director Allen Hughes’s crime drama Broken City in New Orleans.

Miles Marshall Lewis has been quoted as saying “___”.

  1. BASQUIAT

The renowned artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is renowned for his unique style. His work is distinguished by its vibrant colors and its boldness in expression.

He was a pioneer in using graffiti-style art as a medium for his art and his works have since become iconic in the art world. His works are highly sought after by art collectors and museums alike. Basquiat’s legacy will live on for many years to come.

Discussing your breakthrough performance in Basquiat, what kind of exposure did you have to the artist before accepting the part?

When Jeffrey Wright was in college, he had some knowledge of the New York art scene due to reading New York Times articles. However, it was not something he was focusing on. After moving to New York, he became much more aware of the scene, and it became more relevant to him.

The day I chose to leave Angels in America on Broadway, I was surprised to find a message from Randy Sabusawa, a friend of mine, on my answering machine.

He was casting for the movie Basquiat and I knew that was my next project. It dawned on me that I wanted to tell this man’s story.

When I was asked to read for Benny, Benicio’s part in the script, I read it as if I were playing Basquiat. This resulted in a callback, and Julian Schnabel offered me the chance to play the lead role.

He then gave me approximately six months leading up to the shoot to spend in his studio and really focus on the role.

Most importantly, I was able to immerse myself in Schnabel’s work and gain insight from it. His artwork is incredibly articulate, both in its visual and literary elements, and it speaks to the voice of the New World African. This really helped me to understand the role better.

BLVR: What other methods did you use to get ready?

JW commented that it was amusing to have his children view Roots, particularly the Middle Passage sequence which was extremely explicit, even for mainstream American TV.

He remarked that the scene was incredibly bold and daring, almost revolutionary in its nature. He went on to add that the language in the show was very much in the same vein as the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s.

In one scene, Kunta Kinte and a wrestler are both in the ship’s hold. The wrestler addresses Kunta as a Mandinka and speaks of a language they share.

He then calls out to any other Mandinkas in the hold and says, “If there are any of you who do not understand Wolof or Mandinka, teach them your language, and learn theirs. We must form a new village now.

” This was a very powerful message for mainstream television in 1975, as it signified the establishment of a distinct African-American identity that had not existed prior to the Middle Passage.

This identity was expressed in Congo Square through the combination of multiple African rhythms, resulting in the birth of the African-American.

In my opinion, Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the greats that carried on the legacy.

In July of 2008, I migrated to New York and around the same time, Jean-Michel passed away. Five years later, while I was in the city, I bumped into my first roommate who I shared a flat with on the fourth floor of a building on 10th and D in the Lower East Side. We had both moved into the same circles.

At a party in Harlem, she remarked to me, “Jeffrey, I’ve been looking for you ever since I saw that movie”. Her friend had a problem with substance abuse, and she went on to explain “You had no idea, but when you were staying on the fourth floor of our apartment, Jean-Michel Basquiat was on the first floor. He had a connection with the dealer on that floor, and was often there while you were on the fourth”.

During the shoot, I was motivated by something other than mere energy. One night, I had a dream where I was conversing with Fab 5 Freddy, who was a close associate of Jean-Michel’s.

The next day, we were shooting a scene near Crosby Street, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Fab 5 Freddy walking down the street.

It was a fortunate coincidence.

JW: The narrative of his story had a mysterious quality to it, which made me feel that it was the right thing for me, as a budding artist in New York, to take part in. I didn’t view it as just a mere coincidence.

The Basquiat display that was hosted by Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in the previous year was superb. Did you have the chance to visit the one presented at the Brooklyn Museum?

JW: I did, and eventually, he ended up being one of the people he had admired and looked up to in his work. He was inspired by Dizzy, Miles, Bird, Joe Lewis, and Ali, going so far as to make himself an idol. He’s certainly an artistic hero of mine.

Section II: Speaking to Africa

This section is aimed at those who wish to communicate with the African continent. It will provide insight into the ways in which people living in Africa can best be heard.

BLVR: Is there a particular book that you feel should be adapted to the big screen that has been on your mind for some time?

JW: I have a vision of adapting some of Pushkin’s work to the screen, particularly his unfinished novel The Negro of Peter the Great, which I think could make for an innovative quasi-biographical movie.

I don’t usually spend too much time thinking about acting or filmmaking. [ Laugh ]

In 1997, I understand you established the Taia Peace Foundation to assist villages in Sierra Leone. Could you tell me about your initial visit to Africa?

JW: My first experience with the glitz and glamour of the movie industry was when Basquiat was to be showcased at the Venice Film Festival in 1996.

I was 26 years old at the time, and had never been to Europe or Africa.

I had a dream to go to Africa first, so I asked the producers of the movie to fly me to Dakar, Senegal a week before I was due in Venice, so I could meet up with them when I was scheduled to. That was my first trip to Africa.

I wanted to honor my ancestors and to avoid a Eurocentric perspective, something I am always careful about since I want to have an unbiased point of view that is not based on what’s common in dominant culture.

Additionally, I had a lack of trust in the stuff that could come with being an actor, so I looked for something that was more meaningful and healthier than the things I thought I had to face. It turns out I was right.

BLVR inquired as to how long the individual stayed and asked for their thoughts on the experience.

JW remarked that they had stayed for a period of five days and that they had felt an immense sense of freedom that they had never previously experienced.

It was an astonishing feeling for them, like an escape from the Eurocentric dominant culture. They added that it was liberating, enlightening, and that it made them feel lighter.

I ventured to Île de Goree, and I was all alone there. I couldn’t go into too much detail about the visit due to the mysterious, mystical side of Africa.

In a way, it was a perfect trip for me to explore both acting and the continent of Africa. Now, my interest in the latter has surpassed the former, even though they both began at the same time.

BLVR: African-Americans experience a unique sensation when in Africa, a feeling of “We are in control!”

JW: We have a certain degree of control, although it is not entirely accurate, in terms of political or economic terms. I was slightly unaware of the situation. It was bizarre to witness that in 1996 there were kids in the street suffering from polio.

Nonetheless, America’s perspective on Africa is overly concentrated on the issues and drawbacks without recognizing the immense potential, grandeur and strengths of the continent.

The other day I was having a discussion with my son about the beliefs of some of his classmates that all Africans are poor and that starvation is a major issue. He was perplexed as to how a ten-year-old would come to this conclusion.

I explained that a lot of charitable campaigns, such as the Unicef box, tend to have this undertone of Africa being an inferior continent, that needs saving through donations. This type of messaging is not helping the situation since Africa is the future.

If people are not understanding this, they are not seeing Africa in its entirety.

The majority of my time is spent in Sierra Leone, and it is projected that the country will experience a fifty percent economic growth within the next year.

BLVR: That is quite large.

JW suggested that the country’s growth rate was a remarkable fifty percent, which is a result of a prominent mining company beginning production.

Yet, when one considers the current global economic state, the growth rate is even more impressive, indicating that something else has been taking place beyond what is visible.

BLVR: When did you most recently visit?

JW: It has been three weeks since (the event).

Can you expound on how Taia came to be?

JW: As a junior mineral exploration company, our firm has identified several gold-bearing regions that could potentially contain other valuable minerals. We are currently undertaking a drilling program to assess the economic value of the minerals in these areas.

Concurrently, we are joining forces with nearby societies in order to progress social welfare projects. This is intended to give them advantages that have been absent in the past. We desire to establish a fresh system for the present century.

What is your take on projects like the Gap’s Product Red push, or the one where Bono was the guest editor for Vanity Fair in order to increase understanding about the situation in various parts of Africa?

JW remarks that while the increased attention paid to Africa is beneficial, it often fails to take into account its historical context. People tend to perceive Africa as impoverished when it is in fact the wealthiest continent in the world.

Though economic aid could help, it cannot undo the legacy of wealth extraction which has benefited the West while having the opposite effect in Africa.

This lack of a holistic understanding of the continent’s history is often overlooked in celebrity-driven conversations. This is troubling, as it neglects the full story of African experiences.

The U.S. population often has a negative outlook on Africa, without considering the potential it offers. There is an absence of information that Sierra Leone could have a 50% economic growth in 2012, and that Africa has more disposable income than India. In the last ten years, there have been 500 million new cellphone users, who are utilizing their phones for banking services, which were not available to them a decade ago.

It’s disheartening to see how much of the conversation continues to promote the notion that Western culture is superior to African in every way, from politics to economics.

Even though this idea is presented as a way to help Africa, it really just reinforces the perception of African inferiority. This is a highly counterproductive approach and it drives me crazy.

Nick Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, just returned from a brief trip to Sierra Leone.

His Times piece focused on the widespread sexual violence in the country, and he encountered a young girl who had been attacked by an adult.

The experience had a deep impact on actress Eva Mendes, who later took to social media to express her shock. She wrote: “I’m here in Sierra Leone, this beautiful country. You can’t believe how many rapes there are.”

I have been visiting Sierra Leone since 2001, when vultures were seen in Freetown eating the dead.

Over the years, the country has become a success story for post-conflict countries. Its recovery from the ten-year civil war is remarkable, and ordinary citizens, community leaders, and government officials have done an incredible job in resurrecting their lives.

However, I find it offensive when celebrities write about their brief visits and attempt to gain insight into the conditions of the country. It is wrong to exploit the hard work of so many people and it should stop, as it does not benefit the people it is meant to.

Who benefits from the perpetuation of these tales? BLVR inquires.

JW: This approach serves the interests of those making the claims as it provides a platform for them to display their morality. It’s a false display of care and effort, as it is motivated by guilt rather than true solidarity.

It is a neo-liberal type of action that does not lead to any positive change for people in Africa; instead, it further distances them and weakens them from obtaining feasible solutions.

III. CREATIVITY, PARENTING, RAP MUSIC

BLVR: How did you transition from the thought of becoming a lawyer to actually pursuing a career in acting?

I was raised in a home with a great many lawyers, as my mom went to Howard Law. However, despite this, I developed a strong interest in acting that I eventually pursued during my junior year of college. Looking back, I now recognize it was not the smartest decision.

BLVR posed the question, “What’s your reason for saying that?”

JW: Initially, I had the thought that acting was an honorable career and that those involved could be considered great artists, such as Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, and Dustin Hoffman. However, I no longer view it in the same way.

It seems that the existing structure of the industry works contrary to the goal of creating something that is aesthetically pleasing.

BLVR: Do you believe filmmakers are more likely to take risks today than actors? Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was a work of art in 2011, in that it went beyond narrative and reality.

JW stated that he occasionally overlooks the details and instead relies on his own experiences. He believes that he can be more creative and expressive with his craft while working with Sierra Leone than he could be as an actor.

I am not interested in being the hero of every movie that saves mankind from the big baddies and nuclear amphibians. That’s not what I find entertaining. I’d rather come up with a plan that lets me satisfy the same desires and, possibly, gain control of resources.

My perception of the Sierra Leone story is that it’s a form of storytelling. It revolves around real people with real families, responsibilities and lives.

We are attempting to craft a more progressive outcome for all involved. Prior to this experience, I had a strong aversion to anything related to money and assumed it would diminish my creativity. However, I have grown to understand its importance.

BLVR: What has it been like to manage both your creative pursuits and the duties you have as part of a family?

JW: Ever since my son was born a decade ago, I have attempted to remain close to home.

I will leave for a maximum of two weeks at a time, and perhaps once a year. When I took on Casino Royale, it required a four week commitment, during which my entire family accompanied me for half that period.

The producers were incredibly kind and accommodating in that regard. Those are the terms I now work by, since my priorities have changed.

I don’t mind taking a minor part that will take care of my financial obligations and not draw me away from my family or my work in Sierra Leone. I was becoming disenchanted with the industry, so I started to concentrate more on these other pursuits.

BLVR: When you reflect on your childhood, do you recall any indications that you were destined to become an actor? Did you have any early training in performing or memorizing lines?

JW: Dialect and dialogue have always played an integral role in my acting. I was particularly influenced by my grandfather, a masterful storyteller, who lived in rural Virginia and was surrounded by hard-working and hard-drinking people who were full of stories and laughter.

Additionally, the politics of the ’60s were very influential to me, inspiring me to follow in the footsteps of Angela Davis, Huey Newton and Martin Luther King.

BLVR: Did performers such as Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte, who were noted for their socially conscious views, have an influence on you?

JW: Absolutely. Sidney Poitier is something of an underrated figure. Over Christmas, I showed my children To Sir, With Love for the first time, and it made me realize the lack of stories about racism that had been told before him.

My son even commented that he preferred Poitier as an actor to me! [Laugh] I was able to explain to him that Poitier was essentially the pioneer of a new kind of consciousness in American and world cinema.

The recent agenda has somewhat confused me since it has only been around for forty years. There is a level of glamour and wealth associated with it but not in the same way as before. Before, the priority was to provide meaningful messaging, however, now, I’m not so sure.

What is your opinion on hiphop culture in regards to how it has gone from a prioritization of artistic expression to one that is more commercially driven? Do you feel that this has had a negative effect?

For the December birthday gift, JW was given a turntable by their children – which they were delighted to receive.

BLVR: Wishing you a belated celebration.

JW: Thank you. So, I was looking through my old records and I had Public Enemy, 8th Wonder by the Sugarhill Gang, Poor Righteous Teachers and Brand Nubian.

This music was connected to a legacy of struggle, which was still trying to preserve the dignity of the disenfranchised.

However, some of the music that is called militant now is simply commercial. Rather than being militant in a meaningful way, it is just full of shock and awe and capitalist to the extreme. It is a new paradigm that says, “Live through me.

Don’t worry if you don’t have any money. I have money, so feel good about it because I’m doing great.”

BLVR: When did you become disinterested and cease paying attention?

JW: Once the messages concerning wealth started emerging and the notion of ‘bling’ was established, I decided to tune out.

Looking back, this idea of diamonds being so highly valued through hip-hop and bling culture was happening right when war was escalating in Sierra Leone.

It wasn’t just about diamonds, there was a bigger story. Meanwhile, African-descended youth in the West were admiring the diamonds without any awareness of what was happening in their home continent.

It was in the late ’90s that my focus shifted to Africa. The language used at the time was quite superficial in my opinion. A lot of people thought if something rhymes then it must be profound, which I don’t agree with.

What hiphop album was the last one you thoroughly enjoyed?

JW: Does anyone still sit down and listen to entire albums? I heard a song about a man wanting to have a connection with his son. Recognize it? Cee-Lo does the chorus on it about…

BLVR: Don Trip’s song, “Letter to My Son”.

JW opened up about a cat whose connection with the mother of his child has declined and his yearning to be with his son. It was unusual to hear a rapper in modern times discussing something more intimate than their financial wealth.

The other day I came across J. Cole and Trey Songz’s “Can’t Get Enough”. I’m not sure who it is, but they’re sampling some African sounds, like a guitar.

When I heard it, I thought “Oh, this is something special.” What bothers me about hip hop is how limited it is, in terms of its philosophy, music, melody, and rhythm.

I don’t sense any empathy or compassion in the style. Empathy is crucial to me as an actor, and compassion is fundamental as a human being. I don’t get any of that from hip hop. It feels like an enclosure instead of something free or amazing, which I believe art is meant to be.

  1. CLIMATE OF CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING OBAMA

BLVR: To what degree have you been content or disgruntled with the actions taken by President Obama since his inauguration?

JW: Obama’s election caused an immense stir in Brooklyn; it was like winning the Superbowl and going to Disneyland had all happened at once. [ Laugh ] An unforgettable political moment.

In my opinion, Obama’s rise to power was more of a cultural success than a political one. The things I was hoping for were more related to culture rather than politics.

Politics, to me, was less important than the culture. The negative responses from traditional Black “leaders” such as Jesse Jackson and Bob Johnson showed a kind of illness in relation to our history in the USA.

Until that moment, our connection with political authority had been tenuous. We had always been on the periphery, attempting to break through the power structure.

Until I saw the news that an African-American had won the election, I couldn’t imagine it happening.

We were taught to fight against the power, not be part of it. All of our heroes had to struggle to be heard. It was incomprehensible to me. But when I met him in 2004 before his speech at the Democratic Convention, he was so approachable.

BLVR: My decision to come back to the U.S. from Paris was largely due to Obama being in office. I wanted my sons to have the opportunity to witness a person of color serving as the President of the United States, knowing that a second term isn’t a guarantee.

JW commented that, from a political perspective,

In contrast to their motto of “liberte, egalite, fraternite,” BLVR commented that such a situation would never come about in France.

JW: It is unlikely that a similar thing would happen in Europe, despite the way they may appear to be post-racial. The same can be said for the United States.

This event altered my understanding of the many predecessors of Obama’s journey, and the faith they had in America.

I now understand the importance of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, as they worked to ensure the American Constitution allowed greater participation for those who had been deprived of it. The incredible Americans who waited in long lines in the heat and rain to vote for Obama in Florida exemplify this dedication. This event has been a great gift to me, as now I can speak of what has been labelled as “black” as being American.

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