There are just a few Black actors in Hollywood who stay working no matter what the season, decade or even genre. Chalk it up to incredible talent and amazingly good looks, but Blair Underwood’s longevity in this business has been going strong for the last 30 years with no signs of slowing down.
The 54-year old can now be seen in Ava DuVernay’s blockbuster Netflix hit, When They See Us. The series has introduced the 1989 case to groups of outraged people either entirely unfamiliar with the details or too young to remember when they unfolded. Its popularity has made it one of the most watched Netflix programs in history.
In between promoting the miniseries, Underwood is lending his support and spreading the word about the National Urban Technology Center’s (Urban Tech) new “Dignity for All” (DFA) bullying prevention curriculum.
The non-profit education organization, which works to serve and prepare underserved kids through vocational and technology-based instructions, recently announced Dignity for All will be offered in 1,000 schools across the country.
With that news, Underwood spoke to theGrio about the importance of this project, how the theme of bullying relates to When They See Us, and why the former Central Park Five prosecutor, Linda Fairstein should probably watch her back.
TheGrio: How did you first get involved with Urban Tech’s mission to combat bullying and violence in schools?
Blair Underwood: Urban Tech was kind enough to give me an award in 2012, but I was really intrigued, fascinated and inspired by the work they do to bridge the digital divide between underserved communities and technology. Within the last year, I heard about the “Dignity for All,” program and with the advent of technology and social media, bullying has just increased so exponentially. It’s more intense, more prevalent and yet, still under the covers in many ways, especially when it comes to bullying through social media. Something could be happening to your child and they’re not talking about it, but all their friends know. Children are devastated dealing with depression and everything else that comes along with bullying.
TheGrio: Why is this issue so important to you?
Blair Underwood: As a human being and also as a parent of three young adults, I feel protective. I have a heart for children, but for me, growing up my life was constantly moving in and out of different schools, churches, communities and neighborhoods because my dad was a military officer. I’m grateful because I got to experience living in different communities, but because of my very nomadic lifestyle, I’m constantly hyper-sensitive to what the person on the outside feels like. I was always that kid on the outside trying to find a way in and hoping to be accepted and embraced. Most times I was, but I’m so acutely aware of that feeling of wanting to be a part of the team or the group.
Man, I feel like I’m in therapy here.
TheGrio:. There’s a lot of examples of bullying and violence towards young Black men in Where They See Us. What do you say about those like Linda Fairstein who still contend that the five men are guilty of the crimes they have since been exonerated of?
Blair Underwood: The reality is, I believe people, including Linda Fairstein, don’t want to admit when they are wrong. There is a time for everything and karma will come back around to slap you in the face.
On the larger canvas, obviously something terrible happened to Trisha Meili, the jogger that evening. I am one who believes in the law, as most of us do, so you want whoever did that to pay the price. The issue and the problem is you got to find, identify and prosecute the right person. To just find people because you’re profiling Black boys who look threatening and were there in the park that night, does not mean they did that act.
TheGrio: Are you surprised by the reaction the series has evoked?
Blair Underwood: I’m very grateful and pleased that people are tuning into this project and paying attention. There is this whole generation who were not born at the time and people who were around when it happened, but don’t know all the facts. I learned so much from being a part of it. I’m hoping that it also sparks some for of activism in each one of us to do our part to right this wrong.
TheGrio: I once interviewed actor LeVar Burton and asked him when he believed it was the right time for people to watch Roots with their children. I’ve seen people questioning the same thing about When They See Us. There are some valuable lessons here for young Black people, but when would you say is the right time?
Blair Underwood: One of the most difficult things in raising an African American child in our country is finding that balance of teaching that child, so they know their history, but doing it in a way where they don’t become embittered because they’re going to get angry.
When is the right time? Whenever that child knows enough to not allow society to dictate and define who they are. I often say those who you allow to define you will confine you. I tell my kids, if you get stopped for whatever reason and they try to arrest you, comply, comply, comply! I need you to come home at night. If you start mouthing off, you could end up dead. Once you get to that station, know that you have the right to an attorney, you have the right to remain silent and do not promise anything and definitely do not sign anything. These are practical active lessons that we can learn and take away from a project like this.
TheGrio: Last question, and you know we have to ask, what’s it like to be a card-carrying member of the sexy, Black man club for over three decades? How do you do it?
Blair Underwood: Now, you know good-and-well that’s a trick question! I will say this I have always appreciated my health and as I get older, I just to be healthy, and ambulatory. My objective is just to enjoy being around for as long as I can.
Wendy L. Wilson is the managing editor at theGrio.com. Her rants, raves and reviews can be found on Twitter @WendyLWilson_