Wendell Pierce: “The fight against racism is like fighting cancer”

‘The Wire’ star on Black Lives Matter, new film ‘Clemency’, his campaign to voice Cleveland on ‘Family Guy’, and COVID-19

From his iconic role as Detective William ‘Bunk’ Moreland in The Wire to his Olivier Award nominated turn as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Wendell Pierce has left his mark on theatre, film, and TV over the past three decades. His latest project – Chinonye Chukwu’s fantastic, hard-hitting drama Clemency – sees him play Jonathan Williams, long-suffering husband of prison warden Bernadine (a superb Alfre Woodard), whose job of presiding over death row executions has taken its toll.

As the film arrives in the UK, the veteran actor tells NME about working alongside Woodard, art in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement and a worldwide pandemic, people looking at The Wire with fresh eyes, and much more.

What conversations did you have with Alfre Woodard to help you nail that fraying husband-wife dynamic?

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“That’s an easy dynamic for anyone who’s ever been in a relationship. But even in the discussions, I enjoyed the fact that Alfre and I were challenging each other because we were coming from our own perspectives. And Chinonye [Chukwu] just let it happen. She saw the actors doing their work, saw the conflict building and also saw how we were working together and just allowed that to marinate and kind of produce the relationship and the chemistry that she wanted on film. She’s a very astute director in that way.”

At one point you quote Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to high school students, and Chukwu chooses to have the camera mostly on listening faces as opposed to you. It gives the scene even more weight…

“I was looking forward to that part because it’s one of my favourite novels. And to know that I would be reciting the poignant and profound opening of Invisible Man right now as we are going through this reckoning around the world about racism made it more exciting. The way Chukwu cut it together made it generational. You saw that this sort of perpetuation was going to go into generations past us if we don’t realise the error of our ways, and how this practice of execution is the ultimate virulent, violent, murderous act when it comes to dehumanising someone to the point of invisibility.”

Wendell Pierce
Wendell Pierce stars alongside Alfre Woodard in ‘Clemency’. Credit: Bohemia

Great strife often leads to great art. Do you think this Black Lives Matter movement should lead to more art about Black joy or more hard-hitting fare?

“Art, especially in a highly combustible time of protest, becomes even more important. Art is for the community as a whole. It’s where we reflect collectively on who we are, where we’ve been, who we hope to become. The joys, the triumphs, the failures, the violence, the murderous, the ugly, the hatred, the anger, the love… all of those things will be investigated and explored in this forum as we’re all coming to this reckoning, and trying to move humanity forward. That’s the role and responsibility I have as an artist. A lot of times we forget that and think art is just there for entertainment. Entertainment is just the by-product.”

Black Lives Matter is about more than just the police – it’s about the systemic racism in businesses, and that includes Hollywood. From everything you’ve seen, are you optimistic this can lead to real change?

“That’s not the question. You know what the question is? Are we going to sustain this fight? Because this fight is a continuum that has been here in the past. The veil has lifted and it’s predominant now, and it will be here afterwards. The fight that we’re in is like the fight with a chronic disease. It’s like fighting cancer. We may have thought we were in remission. And then the time like this happens where the veil is lifted and we see that it has metastasised and it’s malignant again, and we fight to make sure that it goes back into remission, and then we get healthier, so we won’t be susceptible to it metastasising again. It is an ongoing fight.”

“Hollywood has always ebbed and flowed when it came to understanding the viability of our stories in the human diaspora. To this day, Hollywood still says that Black stories don’t sell in Europe. I tell people all the time that I look forward to the day that African-American artists join Nollywood instead of Hollywood and go to the Nigerian film market. It’s turned into an industry that now has a structure that can compete with a Hollywood distribution firm.”

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Cleveland Brown Wendell Pierce
Wendell Pierce has suggested he would like to voice the character of Cleveland on ‘Family Guy. Credit: Fox/Getty/
Aaron J. Thornton

It does feel like more people are becoming aware of the issues. Some white actors have even stepped down from voicing people of colour, which has led to your Family Guy campaign to voice Cleveland…

“I was amazed at this one tweet I put out one Sunday night thinking somebody might look at it and say yes or no and that would be it. I woke up the next morning to realise it went viral! That was pleasant and good to see. The producers have not contacted us or anything yet, but we’ll see what happens.”

The Wire
Wendell Pierce as Detective Bunk Moreland in ‘The Wire’. Credit: Alamy

Given everything that’s happening with Black Lives Matter and the police, there’s been a lot of discussion about cop shows lately. Looking back at The Wire, what do you think it got right about police in America, and is there anything it got wrong?

“I think it got most of it right. Someone was talking about that and challenging The Wire on social media and I said, ‘If you thought The Wire was glorification of policing in America you missed the point, because it was quite the opposite.’ It was the loss of a true north, of a moral fibre that should be part of policing. We were the canary in the mine when it comes to the dysfunction of American government, and policing, and how it was so destructive of the community. We were screaming from the mountaintops that this whole idea of the war on drugs is really just a racist machine for mass incarceration, which is to reproduce a slavery system, where in America you have an incarcerated workforce for corporations to pay no money and reap benefit from. And that is something that I’m proud of when it comes to The Wire. And I think now in this racial reckoning, and this cry for police reform, it is so profound that people are going back now and watching The Wire with a new eye to understand.”

You’re someone who likes to do TV, film and theatre each year. How are you coping in lockdown?

“It is very hard. My time has been spent on how to present art, especially live theatre. I’ve been talking to some people at the Young Vic. I think, once we get back to theatres, every theatre has to add the element that every production will be filmed at least one time for a live stream virtual presentation on par with National Theatre Live. I am also considering a small production where there’s just two actors, who will be in quarantine with the director to rehearse it – and then they’ll do a quick test for COVID with an audience of maybe 50. So we know that everyone’s protected. You have a live audience for feedback in the theatre with the actors, and then have that live streamed as well.”

‘Clemency’ is available via Bohemia Media and on Curzon Home Cinema now

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