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.


JAI: Some are taking action by marching and protesting the verdict, boycotting the state of Florida, or pushing for Civil Rights charges. What do you make of those solutions?

BILL: My personal feeling is that the Trayvon Martin case is an indication of something that has to be addressed, but if we focus on Trayvon Martin only and we do not focus on the hundreds of children that are being killed daily in our communities, then we are not addressing the urgency of the matter at hand. We have to deal with the fact that we are imploding culturally. Lack of fathers in the home, violence, guns, drugs. Those kinds of things in our community can only be ignored for so long before they devour us. 

A solution is not just a thought. It’s a process that has to deal with the multiple layers of the problem. Not only Icon Mann, but everybody has to get involved to solve these issues. It’s like we’re on a beach and a tidal wave is coming. There are some people who will say, “Well, a tidal wave is coming. How much are those Jordans?” But see, the tidal wave does not care. The tidal wave is coming. The boogie man does not care whether or not you believe in him. He will eat you.

JAI: How should others get involved or support the work that you’re doing?

OMARI: What would be awesome is if folks went and created out of their heart, out of their pain, out of their spirit, their own tidal wave of sorts. It’s like a tidal wave when Jay-Z says, “I don’t wear jerseys/I’m 30 plus/Give me a crisp pair of jeans and a button up.” He said this and jerseys were almost obsolete within a week. No grown ass men were wearing jerseys with their pants down below their a-. Sales plummeted because of a rapper, who cannot avoid being a leader. When he says, “I’m wearing a button up shirt, I’m looking like a man,” a million teenagers said, “I don’t know, but I guess I should. Jay-Z said it.” So we hope that we can have a Jay-Z moment as a group. 

“I’d rather die on this earth knowing that I did something to move it forward than to just be a yes man and someone who simply goes, ‘Hey, the fire’s over there. Watch out.'”

At one point we were all knuckleheads so we’re not being self-righteous and saying, “I’ve never been lost.” I was a little black kid from Decatur, Bill’s from New York. We were knuckleheads, but we figured it out and used the right tutelage and leadership, and we’re still figuring it out. So I think the greatest support ever would be if folks caught this tidal wave and decided to create their own push in their own communities. There’s so much selfishness among human beings, particularly when desperation increases. But this “crab in a barrel” mentality is old. We’ve got to get past it. So create your own groups. Be a 19-year-old kid who gets out of juvy and decides to go speak to kids who are 14 and 15 to help them avoid what he just fell victim to. That’s the greatest support, is really learning from what we’re doing to the point that you actually create some positive things on your own. 

JAI: Since you mentioned Jay-Z, what are your thoughts on the exchange between him and Harry Belafonte? Essentially, Belafonte was calling for him and Beyonce to be more socially responsible, while Jay-Z responded with the idea that his “presence is charity.”

OMARI: I don’t disagree with Jay-Z because obviously just his presence and saying a couple of words can shift the paradigm of an entire generation. He’s very self-aware and he can make that comment, and it’s arguable that he’s correct. But we have to be aware that people like Harry Belafonte have seen it all, and they don’t call you out unless you’re doing something important. The coach doesn’t call out every player. The player that gets called out is one where the coach recognizes you have an ability that goes far beyond your own knowledge. So if Jay-Z sits down with him, my respect for Jay-Z will jump through the roof. Even that’s being an activist – your decision to have the conversation. If there’s two brothers that want to talk, just the attempt to do that is action because something good will come of it.

JAI: There’s also a question of whether entertainers and artists are only responsible for raising issues with their art, or whether it’s also their job to pose solutions. You’ve gotten directly involved in activism, but do you feel that all entertainers have that responsibility?

OMARI: I think there’s a reason that there are Chiefs and there are Indians. Everybody has a different position and coming from the world of athletics and being raised around a bunch of men, I’m very comfortable with taking on whatever position there is. I think some of us do have the position of just making the audience aware, and then for others, maybe we were just born in this. I don’t know how to make the world aware without then being in the fight. I don’t condemn those that are simply trying to raise issues. But I’d rather die on this earth knowing that I did something to move it forward than to just be a yes man and someone who simply goes, “Hey, the fire’s over there. Watch out.”

Thanks to Bill Duke and Omari Hardwick for having the conversation. 

Below, find their PSA, Little Black Boy Wonder:

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.