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David Harewood: UK off-shored our racism and brutality

Actor David Harewood's portrait will hang in the stately home of the family who enslaved his ancestors. He hopes it sparks a vital conversation.

David Harewood in his new BBC2 documentary, Get On Up

Image: Milk and Honey Productions, Ian Watts

When actor David Harewood visited Harewood House for a TV documentary, he was struck by the art on the walls. “Every figure in every painting was either a horse or a posh white person,” he says. He spoke out. The present Earl of Harewood listened. And now a portrait of the Homeland star is to be displayed in the Yorkshire stately home.

“The only reason my name is Harewood is because of slavery,” he says. “My great, great, great, great grandfather was enslaved by the Harewood family. So that’s powerful and very deep.

“It is difficult history and a very difficult thing to wrestle with. I’ve been on this journey about my identity and who I am. But now my portrait will hang in Harewood House – and something’s telling me that’s important.”

Speaking to The Big Issue for the Letter To My Younger Self feature, Harewood explains why this matters – why difficult histories and conversations must be tackled head on.

Harewood’s portrait has been commissioned to go on display in Harewood House, an 18th century stately home near Harrogate. The actor, whose big TV roles include playing CIA boss David Estes in Homeland, hopes it will bring about an important, and long overdue national discussion.

“The initiative that Diane and David Lascelles [the eighth Earl of Harewood] have started at Harewood House stemmed from a comment in my documentary [1000 Years A Slave] – that there were no pictures of black people or reference to any black person in the house,” explains Harewood.

“Trying to redress the artistic balance and create conversation is important and brave on their behalf, because it is uncomfortable. A lot of people don’t want to engage with it because it brings up feelings of shame and grief. People can get very defensive when discussing that history.

“But this forces you to. It’s a difficult initiative but an interesting moment because it’s going to create conversation.”

The announcement that Harewood’s portrait will hang in Harewood House from September should be just the beginning. The actor’s bestselling memoir Maybe I Don’t Belong Here and documentaries including Why is Covid Killing People of Colour? and My Psychosis And Me have established him as a vital voice in the national conversation.

And Harewood’s new two-part BBC Two documentary Get On Up: The Triumph of Black America shows where a wider conversation about race might lead. Harewood talks to Smokey Robinson about Motown and details the career of film star Sidney Poitier. He also learns more about the cultural impact of 1970s hit TV series Roots.

“In Get On Up, John Amos [who played Kunta Kinte] talks about the impact Roots had. The impact of the story of a black family from slavery to the Civil War,” says Harewood.

David Harewood with John Amos.
David Harewood with Roots star John Amos. Image: BBC / Milk and Honey Productions / Ian Watts

“It was the first time white America had seen the brutality of that and the truth of it. It was hugely impactful. There were 130 million viewers for the last episode. Even the casinos in Las Vegas were empty because everyone was watching Roots.

“So the story had serious impact and changed a lot of hearts and minds in white America. And we’ve never had that. We off-shored our racism and brutality to the Caribbean. So let’s have a national discussion.”

Harewood’s comments come as legal and moral objections to Suella Braverman’s plan to relocate refugees and people seeking asylum to Rwanda become ever louder.

In a wide-ranging interview, Harewood also looks back to happy schooldays in Birmingham before he left to follow his dreams at the Central School of Drama. This was a mind-expanding time, says Harewood. But he’d also like to prepare his younger self for what lies in store.

“I would like to tell me younger self to get prepared. Because life is tough, isn’t it?” he says.

“Drama school was a beautiful awakening. I could do anything, play anybody. One week I was a Russian sailor in a Dostoyevsky play, the next I’m a French romantic in a Molière or King Lear. I was able to access all these different realities. Those days were a flowering. I was paying attention to literature and ideas. 

“But I was totally unprepared for the political significance of my decision as a black boy to join a profession which is all about image and was all about whiteness. So I would tell my younger self to get prepared.

“Then I came out of drama school and was met with that sense of rejection, the reality of ‘you’re black so you can’t do this. You are not an actor, you’re a black actor.’”

While his career on stage flourished, the realisation that so many doors in the UK TV and film industry were closed to him forced Harewood to seek opportunities elsewhere. He left for the US, where he won acclaim for his role opposite Claire Danes and Damian Lewis in Homeland.

“There was another sense of rejection, because I had to go away to find success,” he says.

“Thankfully now there is a generation of young black talent that doesn’t have to go away. I look at Daniel Kaluuya, John Boyega and David Johnson, who is even younger. There are so many wonderful black actors and they’re getting great opportunities to be in movies and on TV shows that are global. We never had that opportunity. It was either The Bill or Casualty and maybe a few muggers in between.”

Harewood’s success has been hard-won. And in a candid interview, he admits that he is proud of how his career has diversified into documentary making, but he still has unrealised ambitions on screen.

“I’m really proud of Get On Up. It’s a significant piece of television. After it, I have another project called Blackface investigating the history of it in Britain and around the world. It’s an eye-opening show.

“So I’ve got two good docs – I have my own production company now. I’m going to be producing an adaptation of my book Maybe I Don’t Belong Here. If I’d believed in myself years ago, I might have done some of it sooner. But I’ve just finished a play in the West End and it is exciting to see what’s next.

“I like to think my best years are ahead of me. I’ve had a great career, but I’m yet to play the big role on film or TV that would really impress my teenage self.

“Maybe I’m fortunate I haven’t had starring roles in movies for the last 10 years because I wouldn’t have had time to write my memoir or make documentaries. But I still want to be in big movies and telly. I’m an actor and there are roles I’m dying to do on screen.”

David Harewood’s documentary Get on Up: The Triumph of Black America starts on BBC Two and iPlayer on March 30

The full interview with David Harewood is in the current edition of The Big Issue on the streets until March 26. If you cannot buy from a local vendor, copies can be bought via The Big Issue Shop

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