, Juneteenth 2021: ‘Queen Sugar’ Star Omar Dorsey Talks Race In Cinema And TV, The Nzuchi News Forbes

Juneteenth 2021: ‘Queen Sugar’ Star Omar Dorsey Talks Race In Cinema And TV

Omar Dorsey is one of the most talented and bravest performers in Hollywood, and he has tackled some of the most iconic and important roles in modern film and television. With Emmy buzz for Queen Sugar’s acclaimed fifth season and Dorsey’s powerful performance as “Hollywood” Desonier, and with Juneteenth just a week away, I had the opportunity to speak with Dorsey about his career and our society’s battle against bigotry and persecution.

Dorsey receives well-deserved praise for taking on such painful but important roles. In 2018, The Foundation for the Augmentation of African-Americans in Film (FAAF) honored Dorsey with the Black Reel Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor for his role in the spectacular hit Oprah Winfrey Network series Queen Sugar.

Dorsey is also an NAACP Image Award winner. In addition to his role in Queen Sugar, Dorsey has also appeared in major films and series including Selma, When They See Us, Django Unchained, The Blindside, and Genius: Aretha, confronting racism, oppression, and the history and struggle against injustice in America.

Which brings us to Juneteenth. Forbes is putting special focus on Juneteenth with lots of coverage honoring and celebrating the holiday, as part of a broader effort to integrate such coverage year-round. So I’m honored to have had this chance to interview Omar Dorsey about his remarkable career, and hope it contributes to discussions about Juneteenth and the ways film and television have and must continue to change if we are to achieve true equality and justice.

In case some readers are unaware of the background, here’s a brief summary: On June 19th, 1865, a beaten and Union-occupied Texas became the last seditious Confederate state to stop enslaving Black people. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution had not been ratified yet — that would come about six months later, but the date became a focal point for celebrations that slowly spread across the country.

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More than a century and a half later, three states currently formally recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, and many cities also hold celebrations and other observances as well. But besides official designation as a holiday, Juneteenth is also generally recognized with observances and celebrations in practically every state (even though most don’t yet officially designate it a holiday), and calls have grown louder for federal recognition of the date as a national holiday.

So now, without further ado, read on for my interview with Omar Dorsey…

MARK HUGHES: You’ve given powerful performances in recent films and TV such as Django Unchained, Selma, When They See Us, Queen Sugar, and Harriet for a few examples, which all touch heavily on issues of systemic racism, persecution, and violence against Black people in America. Do you ever feel stress or anxiety about these roles when you’re considering taking them or when you’re preparing for them, just in terms of the emotional toll of portraying them while also living it in real life?

OMAR DORSEY: I remember when I did Django [Unchained] I looked in the mirror, and I didn’t notice myself because I had on these prosthetic teeth and this crazy hair, and I actually cried when I looked at myself because I said, “This is what my ancestors looked like.” And at that moment I said, “Well this is an opportunity that I have to play the roles I want to play and tell the stories I want to tell.” Not all the time, but I do feel that I’m equipped enough that I can put it on my back and do it justice.

So I think heavy about it, but I don’t take it as any kind of a responsibility, it’s just what I’m supposed to do. I know a lot of people who wouldn’t want to take those roles, some of the tougher ones. They want to do fun things — which I want to do too, look at the Halloween movies, you know? So I have to balance it out.

But I look at it like, if the story is to be told — especially about our people and about our past — then I want to be one of the people on the front line to tell it.

MH: It’s generally hard to talk about men’s mental health issues in this country in terms of suffering and seeking help, but it’s *especially* hard for Black men in America — can you talk about how TV and film are starting to approach and speak about this, particularly the difference between broader men’s mental health and specifically Black men’s mental health and the added layers of trauma and struggle, as well as the added social pressures that make it a taboo subject?

OD: You know, it always did amaze me that for some reason Black men have to be the toughest people in the world. We go out into the world and get our ass kicked, and then we have to come home and hold all of that stuff inside.

I think self-care and being able to talk stuff out, being able to talk with a peer group, being able to talk with a professional, about the things that are going on is an important step that we’re beginning to take.

I’ve talked about my father, who’s a Vietnam vet — he’s an 83 year old man and a great man, Reverend Dr. Oliver Dorsey. We lost my brother [Deacon Oliver Dorsey II] last year [January 14, 2020], and my father got into a peer group with a lot of Vietnam vets, and they talk to each other. These men are in their 70s and 80s, but they’re talking to each other and getting these things out that they weren’t able to get out for decades.

And there’s a lot of relief, I see it on him a lot now. I see this freeness about him, and I see this burden that’s lifted off of him. Well, men in particular are supposed to be the “strong” ones, the ones who don’t talk about emotion, the ones who don’t let things get to them. But that type of stuff can cause hypertension, it can cause high blood pressure and all types of internal damage if it’s not handled. Those things can be very detrimental to you.

One of the things I appreciate about what Hollywood thinks of me and that “Hollywood” Desonier in Queen Sugar is doing is, he has a place called The Real Spot where men are able to sit down and talk about whatever is on their minds and get it all out in the open. In season 5, we were talking about the genesis in creating that. In season 6, what we’re doing is implementing all of that stuff into the storyline, and it goes all different types of ways.

And we do need to sit around and talk, but we don’t need to just talk about sports and women and cars all of the time. We need to talk about what is going on internally — what’s going on in our minds, in our bodies, and in our worlds, so that fear can be there and be heard, and you don’t feel like you’re so alone in the world.

MH: Things like systemic police violence and state violence against Black people were mostly off the table as mainstream story topics in TV and movies in the past. How different is it now working in Hollywood, compared to in the 1990s and the early 2000s, when it comes to more bluntly portraying those types of previously taboo story topics?

OD: Right. You know, the thing that changed the most, I would say, is that we have Black people writing now. We’re telling our own stories.

, Juneteenth 2021: ‘Queen Sugar’ Star Omar Dorsey Talks Race In Cinema And TV, The Nzuchi News Forbes

So it’s not a person from the outside looking in trying to tell a Black story. It’s a person who is in that community and in that world, who can tell it from an emotional standpoint where it hits close to home. It’s not having sympathy for somebody, it’s a person who’s empathetic who can actually feel — and walks through on a daily basis — that world, and they are able to describe and write exactly what it feels like.

And it doesn’t have to be a broad overarching thing like, “This is what cops are doing, this and that and the other.” It’s about, “How that makes us feel?” It’s about, when I go outside, why am I, Omar Dorsey, driving around and my heart is beating faster when I see blue lights? I haven’t done anything to anybody, but when I see blue lights there’s something inside of me that makes me almost have an anxiety attack. Why is that? So the writers now are able to actually dive deep into that.

And another thing is, we have camera phones now. We’re able to see that a lot of these murders are murders, and they’re not just justifiable homicide. You know? People can see it, and unless they are supremely blind or don’t think Black people are people, then they’re like, “Man, this is ridiculous, we can actually see it.” I think the Rodney King thing [in 1991] was the first one that was really like that.

I cry for George Floyd. But that in itself changed, or it should change, the trajectory of what this topic is about. It should. I don’t want to say he was “sacrificed,” but he was basically sacrificed so that we could have some change in this world. So that we can have some change in Black men and Black women getting killed by police officers. It’s actually looked at now.

MH: Spike Lee has said many times — including when I interviewed him for the release of his film Chi-Raq — that every decade or so there’s a period where people look around Hollywood and suddenly notice Black people don’t get nominated for awards and don’t get represented in front of or behind the cameras and aren’t getting promoted at studios. So there’s a brief period of time where a few more movies come out and awards and nominations happen for Black people, and people say, “Oh everything is changing.” Then everything goes right back to the way it was before, and Lee said, “It’s because we aren’t in the room where the decisions are made to greenlight and fund projects.”

Is that what’s different now? That finally there are more and more Black people in the room where those decisions get made now, instead of relying on white executives and producers being “forced” or “guilted” into it just long enough to try to get everyone to leave them alone again?

OD: I agree with that 100%, that’s exactly what it is. Look, people think about their own self-interest, right? Or they don’t even think about other people. So if you have a room full of 40 and 50 and 60 year old white dudes who are making all of the decisions, all they’re going to think about is what is going on in their life or what these certain stories mean to them.

So you have a story like When They See Us, or you have something like Chi-Raq, or anything that is not specifically related to their lives, then they’re like, “Why do we need that? No, let’s go with this, that, and the other.”

When you get women in these rooms, when you get people of color in these rooms, and they’re the ones making decisions now, then we can have a wider array of what art looks like and what entertainment looks like, which is what it’s supposed to be. You know?

That’s exactly what it is. It did have to fundamentally change in the Hollywood rooms for that kind of change to happen.

MH: It feels like a real back and forth has started between society at large — confronting these issues more aggressively and dragging it out into the light — and Hollywood entertainment reflecting those issues and need for change. It feels like it’s feeding off each other in a way that I haven’t seen before. I’m afraid of being another overly optimistic foolish white person who thinks, “Oh look it’s getting better now,” which has happened in the past. So I hope I’m not just foolish again.

OD: It seems like that half is against the entertainment industry, because the entertainment industry is “liberal” and “woke,” and “aren’t real Americans” because we want to tell other stories and call out certain b.s.

And a lot of times back in the day, you didn’t want to make white people mad by showing what racism looks like. Now people don’t give a damn. You know? Because it’s like, “We don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings?” No, forget that, this is what it looks like.

I often say William Shakespeare has a quote that the responsibility of an artist is to hold a mirror up to life. That’s what we’re supposed to do, we’re supposed to see what we look like, the beauty and the ugliness, the whole gamut of what this world looks like. We’re supposed to see that. Whether it’s funny, whether it’s dramatic, this is what we’re supposed to see.

MH: June 19th is Juneteenth. Currently only 3 states (Hawaii, and North & South Dakota) treat Juneteenth as a holiday, but there’s growing attention and increased calls for the movement to formally recognize Juneteenth as a federal national holiday. Do you think we’re close to seeing that goal achieved soon?

OD: That would be great to be recognized as a holiday. I’d like to actually see reparations. There are things I’d like to see, and if we can tackle that first, then we can go to other things. I’d like to see some type of reform in the prisons, I’d like to see some type of reform in police departments, and I would also like to see Juneteenth. There are many things we need to be fighting for.

So I celebrate Juneteenth, it’s a holiday in my household. And it’s right before Father’s Day, so it’s going to be a good one this year.

MH: Last question — We’ve talked about serious dramatic projects rooted in realism, so is it like a mini-vacation to do films like Halloween and Halloween Kills? And I realize it’s odd to ask, “Is the bloody slasher-horror movie a nice relaxing time?”

OD: Yes it is! It’s fun, I just like working with that crew — Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, and Jody Hill. I used to do Eastbound and Down with those cats, and it just feels like a reunion every time we get together.

But yeah, it’s different than doing some of the heavy dramatic pieces I do. I have a really good time doing those.

Thanks to Omar Dorsey for talking time to speak with me. Be sure not to miss Omar Dorsey in the upcoming Genius: Aretha, which stars Cynthia Erivo as the iconic “Queen of Soul” and Dorsey as the “King of Gospel” James Cleveland, whose work with Franklin on the brilliant Amazing Grace album resulted in what is widely considered the best gospel album ever recorded (and is the highest-grossing live gospel album of all time).

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