Be the change you want to see. It’s that simple for Harry Lennix, who is unflinching when he says, “Enough is enough.” Not desiring to censor anyone’s creative juices as a filmmaker, Lennix would like to put a firm stop to Hollywood’s fascination with casting African-Americans in subservient and slave roles. So the outspoken Chicago native, who currently appears on NBC’s top-rated new series The Blacklist, wants to offer an alternative to the images being shown.
We came from royalty, he says, and he’d like to show what’s possible, which is why he stars in and produces H4, a re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s King Henry IV: Parts I and II, as a 21st century Black experience. The film made its world premiere on October 19 during the Chicago International Film Festival where Lennix was on hand. The Northwestern University alum, who is a former English and music teacher, caught up with EBONY.com to discuss H4, his desire to transform African-American images on-screen, Heavy D’s performance in the film and his decision to become an Omega man.
EBONY: The Blacklist is doing well, but television can be a strange beast. In spite of great ratings, we’ve seen shows not get renewed without warning. With the measure of uncertainty, how do you keep the pace?
Harry Lennix: They have a saying in show business: “You’re only as good as your last review.” Ratings are very important. It is important to keep in mind that television programming does not exist to be great or to be interesting. It exists to sell commercials. So people are interested in your show because they think that if they can get enough eyeballs to the target market, then they will keep your show on. People have been tuning in to our show. We have a good chance of at least getting through the rest of the year, and hopefully, we’ll get a pickup for next season.
EBONY: Tell me about H4, in which you star and executive co-produced.
HL: It’s basically a father-son drama. The father does not approve of his son, even though the father himself got to be king because of some less-than-ideal strategies. We set the film half in the theater and half on location. The half of the film that’s set in the theater is all Shakespearean poetry, iambic pentameter. That’s the meter in which the high-minded Shakespearean characters speak. When you’re dealing with more common people, “street people” if you will, they speak in [what] we refer to as prose. All that is set in what we call the “real world.”
This is the first time, to my knowledge, that we’ve made that distinction, or anybody has, in a Shakespeare film or play, [in which] there are two different worlds for the two idioms that Shakespeare wrote. It’s English history set in the African-American 21st century.
EBONY: I understand Heavy D appears in the film. Was the movie his last project before his death in 2011?
HL: Yes. He died in an untimely way before we were able to complete the film. I loved Heavy D. He was a great guy. When we lost him, I was very sad. He plays Archbishop Scroop. I think he would be proud of what he did in this movie. He was a good buddy of mine for many years. He told me, “Man, every time I talk to you, you talk to me about Shakespeare.” I told him, “Well, I’ve got something for you.” He was brave and did the role. This was the first time he did Shakespeare, and it turns out, it will be the only. I think it’s a fitting tribute to his contribution in the film.
EBONY: Is a nationwide release pending? How can we see the movie?
HL: We’ve applied for several festivals. Eventually it will be out to the general public. Maybe we’ll sell it to public television, if they’re interested. My original idea was that this would be an educational tool to get people in the inner city and so forth interested in Shakespeare by seeing people who look like them doing it. I think that’s a much better idea than always holding somebody else up as the example of dramatic excellence.
EBONY: The Butler and 12 Years a Slave both document the African-American experience, yet you said, “Enough is enough.” Why so?
HL: I believe we should have other images out there. It looks as if the past is more important than what’s happening now and that we are victims. There is no time more important than the present. The past is not more important than the present. The future is not more important than the present. We need to see other images of ourselves.
When we go to church, we go to try to be more spiritual, to elevate and aspire to something that is good. We don’t go to wallow in our sins of the past week. We go on Sunday for the promise to do better next week and the week coming. The same should hold true for our artistic and cultural expressions. They should show what we can be rather than what we were and what we are doomed to be.
There is a great thought experiment Plato did called the allegory of the cave. People were prisoners and forced to look at only reflections and shadows on the wall. Over the course of time, they began to accept this as reality. When they were finally released from chains and actually saw the real people casting shadows, they didn’t accept that as reality. The three-dimensional reality was not real, but the two-dimensional reality was. That’s what we have. If you continue to project yourself as a subservient, dejected, enslaved people, then that becomes reality for a lot of people.
EBONY: I understand you recently became a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. What made you decide to join?
HL: I always wanted to be an Omega when my sister became a Que Pearl. My sister, who is a member of Sigma Gamma Rho, introduced me to it when she was in college, and I was still in high school. I was fascinated by the fraternity and intended to become a member in college at Northwestern, but I couldn’t afford it. By the time I could afford it, the chapter had been de-activated.
There was an opportunity recently where I had some friends who were in the Theta Kappa Kappa chapter in Evanston, Illinois. I seized the opportunity. I didn’t get read in. I’m not an honorary member. I actually went through the process, and it was very beneficial, very instructive.
Margena A. Christian is Senior Writer for EBONY. Follow her on Twitter @DrMargenaXan.