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David Harewood on 2021: ‘The Sewell Report was a kick in the teeth to a lot of Black people’

David Harewood’s work in 2021 ranged from soul-baring memoir to festive animation. The common thread? Fighting prejudice…

Memoirist, documentarian, theatre and voice actor – David Harewood has had quite a year. The Birmingham born actor has been a fixture on stage and screen for more than 25 years – starring in Homeland, The Night Manager, Doctor Who, Robin Hood and becoming the first Black actor to play Othello at the National Theatre. And in 2021, he had four major projects that, on the surface, could not be more different. Yet common threads connect them. Each one is about standing up to injustice, celebrating difference, fighting prejudice.

In March, his BBC documentary Why Is Covid Killing People Of Colour? looked at the racialised disparity of death rates from Covid. Maybe I Don’t Belong Here, Harewood’s acclaimed memoir, was published in September and examined racial trauma and its impact on the psychotic breakdown he had as a young man. Harewood is currently performing at the Young Vic, playing right-wing, white supremacist William F Buckley in new play Best Of Enemies, which charts the 1968 TV debates between Buckley and liberal Gore Vidal. And on Christmas Day, he narrates Channel 4’s beautiful adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s festive children’s book, The Abominable Snow Baby.

But he still found time to reflect on his busy 2021 for The Big Issue.

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I wasn’t looking for those connections but I am attracted to things that resonate with me.

For the documentary, the motivation was revealing the insidious way racism permeates into every level of society. How disparities and inequality is rife and how that impacts people’s mental and physical health. Racism itself is bad for your health. I knew I was going to be attacked for it, and I was right. For weeks afterwards, people were questioning science and facts.

But the programme revealed that poverty, deprivation and lack of opportunities meant that people of colour bore the brunt of that first wave of Covid. I’m not saying white people didn’t die. Of course I’m not. But when 95 per cent of the doctors who died in that first wave were Black – it’s not because this is a racist virus.

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I did a Zoom conference with the Royal Conference of Nurses and heard that the documentary has shaken up the medical profession. It has shown there is a problem. Who were the people asked to work those extra shifts, who felt they couldn’t complain about the lack of adequate PPE?

It’s a similar thing with my book. Many institutions have found that people doing the frontline work are Black and the management are white. And, when Black people seek help, they’re turned away. It’s about changing the structures.

The memoir was a real opportunity for me to open all the all the cupboards in my life and give myself a good spring clean, have a good old look at my faults and insecurities, put myself under a bit of a microscope. The jumping off point was a documentary I’d made for the BBC, My Psychosis and Me – but it quickly became a commentary on this country.

Because from examining my own breakdown, I understood the pressures of growing up at a time when we had NF sprayed on our door. Programmes like Love Thy Neighbour were on TV, the Black and White Minstrel Show depicted Black people as singing buffoons, Alf Garnett on TV using the terms ‘wogs’ and ‘coons’ was followed by canned laughter. All of this tainted white people’s idea of what Black people were and made it difficult for us to get a perspective on who we were.

There was a moment after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 when there was such an outpouring of empathy, there was a global revulsion at the death of that man. People said, oh, hang on, Black lives do matter. We have to reassess our attitudes towards Black people.

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Yet there were still voices on the right in this country saying it’s an American problem, we don’t have racism in this country.

Even the Sewell Report said it doesn’t exist here. I was fucking outraged at that – just outright saying that my lived experience was a myth, that it was a figment of my imagination. That angered me.

So that was the background to writing the book. And that’s why it is called Maybe I Don’t Belong Here. It was about explaining how a Black person can lose it in an environment like this, where you are denied, where it is difficult to advance.

I have lacked that sense of belonging throughout my life. In the last 10 years, I spent time in North America. Even though the racism can be more overt there, at least I feel seen. Whereas in England you are not even seen. The idea that racism exists is something we don’t talk about. The Sewell Report was like a kick in the teeth to a lot of Black people.

Writing a book that is so honest and so fiercely self-critical, then playing a white Conservative borderline racist in Best Of Enemies – I was speaking to my therapist the other day and he said, ‘Fuck, you love challenges.’

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I didn’t realise how tough it would be, having stripped myself bare, to then layer on all this artifice and character. But now that I’m back in the groove, those challenges inform your work. I’m feeling quite alive on stage out there. After such an extraordinary year of self-revelation, to feel comfortable on stage has been a real joy.

But I initially turned it down. I couldn’t really see why I would play that part of Buckley – a white, well-known conservative, borderline racist. He was right-wing, voted against Civil Rights, famously backed the police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Montgomery. He was a law and order figure before Nixon used the phrase. And ‘law and order’ has always couched racism – ‘keep the blacks out, keep the blacks down’.

But his views evolved. I think losing control as he did, in the debates, taught him a lesson. He went to the ghetto and met lots of civil rights leaders. He interviewed Muhammad Ali on his programme Firing Line and you could see him really listening and learning. His views evolved as he realised the violent effect his rhetoric was having.

We live in an age when we’ve had fear rammed down our throats. Fear of Other, fear of viruses, fear of refugees or people who look different

David Harewood

In this play you are presented with a figure on the left and a figure on the right, who hate each other. But by the end they almost come together – and what they both fear for is democracy. It is fascinating. And so timely.

When we retreat into our respective silos, we don’t listen. And television presents people in such a such a bizarre light so somebody who’s a gifted telegenic figure can, simply because they are a television entertainer, trump somebody who’s virtuous. That’s exactly what we had four years ago when Trump was elected. Gore foresaw this in 1968. The current state of American politics is frightening, particularly on the on the right. Some people in America only watch Fox News. Some people only watch MSNBC. And it’s like two completely different realities – that can’t bring a sense of unity to a country.

We live in an age when we’ve had fear rammed down our throats. Fear of Other, fear of viruses, fear of refugees or people who look different. It’s just the warmth of it. The Abominable Snow Baby just takes those same fears and turns it on its head. It’s a story of accepting and not fearing strangers – even big abominable strangers that look different.

David Harewood narrates Terry Pratchett’s The Abominable Snow Baby this Christmas

Julie Walters is fantastic, and she voices a wonderfully eccentric granny who throws open her doors to this frightening stranger and gets rewarded for it in the end.

It’s such a lovely parable. A wonderful story, beautifully animated. This is a Christmas classic. I’ve watched The Snowman and all those classics, so when the chance came I leapt at it.

I was very close to buying my first England shirt at the age of 55 – Gareth Southgate has done a wonderful job of galvanising these players into a group of young activists

David Harewood

So it’s been a tough, tough year but I feel stronger for it and I end the year in a much better place. 

On my book tour, somebody asked me if I feel like I belong now. It is still an open question. I have never bought an England football shirt. I have a Brazil shirt. I bought an Italian shirt. But I have never bought an England shirt – and after furore about taking the knee at the Euros, people will understand why.

But I nearly bought one during the Euros this year, though. The team is very diverse, they have a sense of purpose and Gareth Southgate has done a wonderful job of galvanising these players into a group of young activists. That was inspirational. So I was very close to buying my first England shirt at the age of 55 when they reached the final. Maybe if they had won I would have done…

Terry Pratchett’s The Abominable Snow Baby airs on Channel 4 and All4 on Christmas Day / Best Of Enemies runs at the Young Vic until January 22

David Harewood was talking to Adrian Lobb

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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