As I interviewed Gbenga Akinnagbe on the red carpet at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Luce, I began to think of how his career and activist work reminded me of Harry Belafonte – without the singing voice of course. They were both born in the United States and have parents native to outside of the United States. Harry Belafonte’s parents were Jamaican and Gbenga Akinnagbe’s parents were Ghanaian. Besides both being talented actors in both TV and theater, they both have served as advocates for not only the rights of African Americans but for others who have had their rights constantly threatened.
To catch his attention I inquired about his article published in the New York Times, My Left Foot: The High Costs of Fallen Arches. “Well, I was getting my feet cut up and I was thinking that this was an interesting journey,” Gbenga said about his informative article for the Washington Post. “I wanted to write something for The Times and they were open to it so far as I wrote about the whole journey of a double calcaneal osteotomy, which is the process where they cut your heels and move them over. The whole surgery was wild!” he added.
When I asked him about the importance of diversity in the entertainment industry he caught me off guard by saying “I’m not for it all, I think there are too many Black people and shit!” After gathering myself and wiping off the ‘you for real?’ look off my face he chuckled and responded with “I think it’s great and I think it’s necessary to what people have been calling for a long time in the industry. I think the industry is beginning to finally crack open and embrace diversity. It’s not a new day yet but it’s the beginning of a new day.”
Gbenga Akinnagbe’s Debut
The DC native had his directorial debut in George Pelecanos’ DC Noir; a series of four short films that come from stories written by Pelecanos centered around the Washington, D.C. area in Noir fashion. Gbenga explained that the noir style was explored a little in the Wire but, with this project, it fully unboxes the genre. The series also featured creatives and actors from the Washington, D.C area.
The stories are all emotional, poetic, dark, realistic, and definitely magnify the social issues that saturate the media. More notably, they focus on the relationships between civilians and police. There is an interesting perspective of police in the episode directed by Gbenga where you have a hard working a detective with integrity and an officer the polar opposite with intentions that are self-driven.
Gbenga Akinnagbe described DC Noir as such: “With the noir genre, you can tell a lot of different stories, especially darker stories that usually involve things that I am very interested in highlighting. So being able to use this genre to highlight social injustice in the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area is important to me. We are all from the area.”
In the short, “String Music,” directed by Gbenga Akinnagbe, star rapper, Wale, cousin of Gbenga, put on a good and convincing performance. Wale definitely added flair to the role. Gbenga went on to mention, “I did cast Wale as my antagonist in the film, I got to cast the actors for my piece and I was lucky to be able to get him in my film with his busy schedule and all. I gave him as much acting tips as I could, as an actor, as his director. He has a natural talent, he is a creative as you can tell from his music and it translates on screen.”
Other episodes of series DC Noir have been directed by Stephen Kinigopoulos, George Pelecanos and Nicholas Pelecanos. All of the films were written very well and well directed with very compelling subject matters.
Easy Like Sunday Morning
During an early Sunday morning phone interview with Gbenga Akinnagbe, I realized that although he had similarities with Belafonte, he is carving his own place in entertainment and activism using his platform. An inspiration to people of all ages, especially the young Black men in the DMV, Gbenga is making waves from TEDtalks to protests outside of his creative career. The young Nigerian boy from Silver Spring, MD has grown to be a gifted artist and humanitarian who isn’t afraid to put energy into the things and people he loves.
His passion for politics came at a young age. “I’ve always been interested in government systems that people live in and how some of social groups operate in the system as well. Maybe it’s the Nigerian in me that loves to talk about international themes and politics. I didn’t know what that was when I was younger, I just knew I had an interest in it.”
This is the reason he enjoys taking on projects like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a stage play written by Aaron Sorkin based of the book of the same name in which Gbenga plays Tom Robinson and co-stars with Jeff Daniels who plays Atticus Finch.
Gbenga’s inspiration for his role on Broadway comes from his own life. “I think my whole existence as a Black man in the United States is what I brought to portray the character in To Kill a Mockingbird. We also had good writing to be our guide from both the playwright and the book. My experience influenced how I saw Tom’s life, how people interacted with him, it was a relevant piece when it was written and a relevant piece now.” Gbenga explained.
“When I accepted the part, it was exhilarating. I was prepared for the long hours, the conversations dissecting race and class, and what the role would demand of me. I loved the work. I still do. What I did not anticipate was how deeply it would affect me — how wearing it would be to play a part that makes me the daily object of racist invective and racial violence for a majority-white audience.” – Gbenga Akinnagbe from the Washington Post article Every night, racists kill me. Then I leave the theater for a world of danger.
Gbenga explained that he often thought about the lives of people like Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Saundra Bland, that were victims that were unjustly killed. He mentioned that he has known Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon Martin’s mother) for years now and it was a tragedy when Trayvon was taken. “Once you meet them (parents/family of the unjustly killed men and women) and you see their work, their work is more personal. I can’t see how people can play this role and not think of the Black and brown people that have lost their life that way.” Gbenga said.
We also talked about his clothing line, Liberated People, which is dedicated to making political statements and support through fashion. Some of the proceeds go to selected foundations. He explained “I have been a part of protest around the world and in the streets with people from different backgrounds and languages, but everyone was out there for the same thing, which was human and democratic rights. We felt that we were in this struggle alone in our own subgroups and relating to others going through the same struggle. After seeing this I wanted to make something that highlights the struggle, the liberation is something that we have in common and if we recognize the struggle for liberation as sisters and brothers in different locations around the world, we can unify as a stronger impact.”
I asked Gbenga what were other writing projects he had in mind and he said “I am working on something right now, some books and scripts. I enjoy writing a great deal and I want to continue to develop as a writer.”
Thus far as I have been fortunate to work with George Pelecanos, David Simon and Ed Burns in my early 20’s. Reading their scripts from The Wire, and the Duece and just having them around as mentors has been super helpful. I also enjoy books from Don Ridley, Stephen King, and just recently I have been reading Ta-Nahsi Coates. I don’t read as much as I used to.
Gbenga at the Luce premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo by William Baldon.)
Gbenga has a promising future ahead of him in both the political and entertainment worlds, but has no interest in running for politics because he never has been attracted to it due to its practice in this country. He further explained that “The money game is really not for the people but of the people. I don’t want to contribute to that. I’m already taking part in activities that help make changes for the better.”
Gbenga Akinnagbe will continue his put out quality projects and actively fight the good fight. Here’s to hoping he will be valued as much as impactful Black creatives like Nina Simone, Dick Gregory, and yes, Harry Belafonte.