How a Police Encounter as a Young Child Shaped filmmaker Hawthorne James’ Life

The Hawthorne James filmography is an impressive one.

For more than 40 years, the Chicago native has earned a place on the big screen. However, it wasn’t until 1991 when James secured the role that would cement his Hollywood legacy.

Playing corrupt record label owner ‘Big Red’ in the film The Five Heartbeats, James showed off his vast range of emotions while adding his own flavor to the movie’s famous funeral scene.

Earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and his master’s degree from the University of Michigan, James bypassed law school to pursue an acting career.

The move allowed James to study Shakespeare in London and molded him into a decorated actor with more than four decades of work under his belt. James has producer credits as well.

During my recent conversation with James, he explains the importance of Black people learning their history while controlling their own destiny. He also details an incident that nearly forced him to walk off a set and goes in-depth about his past experiences in the film industry.

Zenger’s Percy Crawford interviews the legendary Hawthorne James.

Zenger: Mr. James, it is an extreme honor to speak to you. I go back to the “One Eyed Sam” days from I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.

James: Uh, oh, look out. You went back far, but not far enough (laughing).

Zenger: Absolutely! But to be fair, your career started before I was born (laughing). You are a hell of a talent.

James: (Laughing). I appreciate that, bruh.

Zenger: How have you been doing?

James: I’m doing good during these crazy times. I ain’t going to complain at all.

Zenger: You have worked with two of the most innovative brothers ever to grace Hollywood in Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans.

Could you discuss their impact on Hollywood, especially in terms of offering employment to so many African American actors and, in some cases giving these talents their first break?

James: Robert and Keenen started making movies together with … what was that first movie?

Zenger: ‘Hollywood Shuffle.’

James: Thank you. ‘Hollywood Shuffle.’ So, they started making movies together and, in their minds, I think that they thought they were going to be partners for life.

Life intervenes, and it takes you where it wants to take you. And it didn’t work that way. So, Robert and Keenen, of course, wrote ‘The Five Heartbeats” together, and because it took so long … you have to see the documentary that Robert made called, “Making the Five Heartbeats”.

Zenger: I watched it. Great work.

James: It is absolutely fascinating.

It tells you what we as Black folks have to do in order to make our projects work. The trials and tribulations that we have to go through. That is a great example of what we had to go through to get it done.

So, Robert and Keenen had to split ways because life intervenes. Keenen got the chance to do ‘In Living Color,’ so he couldn’t wait for ‘The Five Heartbeats’ to come through, and Robert … that was his baby.

So, Robert took it over. And he did such a marvelous job with it. And he worked with actors so well because he allowed us to do our jobs. You have to remember that one of the things that happened is, I wrote that funeral scene. That was my writing, because ‘Big Red’ was never in the original funeral scene.

During rehearsals, I went to Robert, and I said, ‘I think I need to be in the funeral scene,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I agree.’ But he never wrote anything for me to say in the funeral scene.

So, I waited, and I waited, and I waited, so … cut back to several years before, Ted Lange, who is the bartender on ‘The Love Boat,’ got me a scholarship to go to school in London, England to study at the London Shakespeare Academy.

So, one of the plays that I fell in love with was ‘Richard III.’ And in, ‘Richard III,’ Richard, who is this crippled hunchback person, became king because he kills the king, who I think is his cousin. And at the funeral, he woos Lady Anne over the casket, and she becomes his queen. Well, that was one of my favorite Shakespearean plays in the world.

What I do as an actor, I put stuff in the acting bank.

What I mean is, if I watch somebody walk down the street and I say, ‘That’s an interesting way to walk,’ or I listen to people and I say, ‘That’s an interesting accent,’ or, ‘That’s an interesting way to speak.’ I put that in my acting bank. And one of these days, I pull it out to use.

Well, several years later, in the funeral scene, when I’m building the backstory … and this is what good actors do, they build the story of their characters.

Now, you may not see it on screen, and it may not be in the script, but it helps you build that character so that you know that it’s the way you speak; it’s the way you look at people. You’re building a character.

And that’s one of the things that I built.

All of a sudden, it came to me, and I said, ‘Wow, I think Eleanor was originally my girl. Jimmy stole her from me. That’s why I’m so angry at Jimmy all the time.’

So, it made sense to me.

Now, that’s not in the script, but it builds when I look at Jimmy when I look at Eleanor. It’s the look, and it’s the talk, it’s the walk … the way you interact with people that builds that character.

So, in my mind, I said, she was mine. That’s why I’m angry with him all the time. I don’t give a damn whether I kill him or not. And I say to him, ‘I’m trying to put some money in your pocket, so walk away before I kill you.’ You screwed me over, and now I’m getting back at you again.

That’s the way you look at those things. So, when I get to the funeral scene, I say, ‘This is a perfect example of Shakespeare in ‘The Five Heartbeats’. I go to the funeral to get her back. It doesn’t work the same that it does in Shakespeare because I don’t get the girl. It’s a different thing, but it was my intent. So, you have Shakespeare in The Five Heartbeats!

So, what I’m saying to you is to show people this is not a game. If you want to be a great actor, this is a lot of work! This is a lot of thought process. This isn’t saying some lines. No!

I build a character, and this doesn’t start the day I get on the set; it starts months in advance as soon as I get the script. I’m getting ready to do this film now, and I’m building the character before I get on a set so that I have this person in mind. And that’s what’s fun to me.

What’s fun is building a new person. If I wanted to be the same person, I got accepted into law school. If I wanted to be a lawyer the rest of my life, I could have been a lawyer making real money.

Zenger: What made you not choose that path?

“I wanted to be an actor because today I can be an airline pilot, tomorrow I can be a bum, the day after I can be president, the day after that I can be an ambassador, the day after that I can be a plumber. That’s what excites me. It’s exploring life.” (Photo courtesy Johnny Pena)

James: That would have bored the hell out of me.

I said, no. I wanted to be an actor because today I can be an airline pilot, tomorrow I can be a bum, the day after I can be president, the day after that I can be an ambassador, the day after that I can be a plumber. That’s what excites me. It’s exploring life.

This life on this planet is fascinating, and it’s infuriating all at the same time. We’ve all seen it. I’m a Black man living in America. … I’ve seen it all.

From the time I was 11 years old, and I got stopped by the police in Chicago because I was born and raised in Chicago and the police told me, ‘If you don’t run all the way out of my district, I’m going to put a bullet up your a**.’ That’s his exact words. I’ve never forgotten them, at 11 years old.

And then to have the education that I have had, to have a bachelor’s from the University of Notre Dame, to have a master’s from the University of Michigan … to have scholarship offers from Yale and Cornell, and then to go study in London, But my whole life has been shaped by that kid that was 11 years old.

So, I’ve never forgotten. … and I get stopped by the police so many times.

I got stopped by the police twice in one year, two years ago. The sheriff’s department and LAPD because I’m still a Black man in America. It doesn’t matter how much money you make; it doesn’t matter your education, you still got that skin color, and I will never forget that. I’m still a Black man.

And to all those n**ros that forget who they are, they can kiss my behind. Those who forget and want to leave all their relatives behind, they are worthless to me. The Charles Barkleys and all the rest of em.’ They can kiss my behind.

Zenger: I wanted to ask you, what was your fascination with Shakespeare because there aren’t many people that come from where we come from who gravitated toward an English poet?

James: I started in high school because I was doing plays. … Let me give you a little backstory first. I was born and raised in Chicago, and my older brothers and sister, … I went to Catholic school all my life.

So, my older brothers and sisters were extremely popular in school. By the time I got there, the nuns, we had all nuns and priests at that time. By the time I got there, they were through with my family, and they say, ‘Ah, it’s another one from that family.’ So, I had to find my way.

I had to find what worked for me, so as a kindergartener, all of a sudden, there was a nun named Sister Aquanette who put on a kindergarten play every year. And I was in the kindergarten play.

The thing that I was in, all we did was go around in circles chanting like Indians. But I looked at all the rest of the guys, and I said, ‘I can do this better than any of them.’ And I remember this. This was when I was 5 or 6 years old. I can do this. I can do this better than any of these guys.’

And I went around that circle doing that, and then I realized; finally, people are paying attention to me. So, that’s what first struck me. Somebody is paying attention to me. I matter, and it was on stage.

I did a couple of plays, a play in eighth grade and maybe one other play. But then when I went to high school. There was a priest named Father Barry Snyder, and he did a play every year. It was either ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ or ‘Hamlet’. And the first year I was there, he did ‘A Raisin in the Sun’.

And I didn’t get to be in it because freshmen weren’t allowed to be in it, but that’s a whole other story within itself. That would take up awhile. My sophomore year, he did ‘Hamlet’, and I didn’t get to play Hamlet, although in my mind at rehearsal, I kept thinking to myself, ‘I should be doing this. I know what I’m doing. This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s a senior and he’s playing Hamlet. I should be doing the lead.’

But I played one of the guards. I did, Bernardo. He was in the first scene of the play, and the first line in the play is mine. To tell you the truth, my mother told this story until the day she passed.

Her and my grandmother came to see the play when I opened my mouth and spoke that first line in the play. My mother leaned over to my grandmother and said, ‘Is that James Hubert?’ Because apparently, as a child, I was so insecure, I mumbled. And nobody could understand me.

But when I hit that stage, it was a whole new world for me. So, when I opened my mouth, it was clear as a bell. So, that was my introduction to Shakespeare.

So, not only that, Father Barry took that play on the road. We went to cities in Minnesota, we went to Wisconsin and through the state of Illinois. We put the play on in all these places.

As a kid growing up in Chicago, the only White people I saw was this Jewish guy, who owned the store next door to where I lived. The insurance man that came once a month and the nuns and the priest at school. And the only other White people we ever saw was when we went downtown with my grandmother to shop every other month or so. That’s the only White people we saw other than people on TV and people on TV, that’s fantasy.

I was 16 years old, and he took us on this tour of this place with this play, and we stayed at White people’s houses. Well, these White people had huge houses. They ate meat at every meal; their kids had their own rooms.

Hell, I was sharing rooms with a couple of my brothers. And there was land around the houses. Well, hell, if we ate meat once a week, we were lucky. We were eating beans and greens and stuff, and I thought that was normal.

So, you get to stay in these other people’s houses, and you look around and say, ‘This is how they live, I want me some of this.’ And that changed my life at 16 years of age. I went from the police telling me that he was going to put a bullet up my a** to seeing how White people live. I’m from the hood, and yet at the same time, I know kings and queens. So, as an actor, I can pull from all of that.

My last 9-to-5 job, I was one of the highest Black executives in Hollywood. I was head of the ancillary post production market at TriStar Pictures. My experience is not just as an actor; it is as a Black man in America trying to make his way through this world and never ever forgetting where I’ve come from.

And I must tell you this; I always thank Black people in almost every interview I do. I always thank Black people. Because I was accepted into law school and I saw all my friends struggling through law school and all of that, and I thought to myself, ‘That’s not what the hell I want to do with my life.’ Even though I was accepted, I turned it down.

I would be in L.A. at a gas pump, going through my pockets trying to figure out how much change I can dig out of my pocket, $1.25, 50 cents, and I thought, ‘Man, I’ve done a movie, I’ve done this and that, and I’m broke as hell. Why am I going through this? Why did I not decide not to just go to law school?’ And some homeless guys walk up to me and say, ‘Yo man, I really like your work. You represented, keep it up.’ And they walked away.

They had no clue how I needed to hear that at that moment. ‘Cause I looked at it, and I said, ‘OK, you can go on another day because you are making a difference in this world.’ And that happened several times when I needed it, not just once.

The difference that you can make, the influence that you can have in this life as a performer, is amazing. I will never forget, and I will never turn my back on Black people because they are the ones that have kept me going in this life. They are the ones who have paid my salary.

Right before this interview, ‘The Five Heartbeats’ came on. It’s on now. It’s still on, on BET. Whether it be $5 … there’s no residuals left anymore. I get maybe a couple of hundred dollars every three months from the movie, but it doesn’t matter to me.

It matters to me that 5- and 6-year-old kids come up to me, and they know that movie because I have affected their life. Their grandmothers, their aunts and uncles sit and watch the movie, and therefore they sit and watch the movie. And I did something right. That’s what matters to me.

So, I want to say to Black folks, thank you, and I will never leave you behind, because my thing is always, and I always say this, I won’t be free until you be free. I’m not one of these people that becomes ‘successful’ whatever the hell that means and turn my back on my people.

No, my people are always going to be my people. I have brothers and sisters who aren’t celebrities. They work in the post office, and as concierges. If I turn my back on any Black people, I would be turning my back on my brothers and sisters, and that’s not happening with me.

Zenger: I spoke with Bern Nadette Stanis a while back. She told me it didn’t bother her, not one bit. In fact, she embraces the fact that people call her Thelma from ‘Good Times’. It sounds like you embrace the Big Red character the same way. That doesn’t bother you that people relate to you as ‘Big Red,’ does it?

James: First of all, I’m going to say this, I love me some Bern Nadette Stanis. I directed Bern Nadette in a play. National tour, Michael Matthews, who is the founder of the gospel musical. It’s not that guy in Atlanta, whatever his name is, Tyler Perry.

No! Michael Matthews is the founder of all the gospel musicals. He’s the one that started it. Mike hired me to be in a play and also directed it, and one of the actresses that I directed in the play, she was playing the lead, was Bern Nadette Stanis. I love me some Bern Nadette. She is one of the most beautiful people in this world.

Zenger: I couldn’t agree more.

“So, I want to say to Black folks, thank you, and I will never leave you behind, because my thing is always, and I always say this, I won’t be free until you be free. I’m not one of these people that becomes ‘successful’ whatever the hell that means and turn my back on my people.” (Photo courtesy Johnny Pena)

James: So, I had to say that. And I feel like Bern Nadette feels it. No, I love it when people come up to me and say, ‘You’re, Big Red,’ because it means you affected their lives. They remembered you. As an actor, that’s what you want. You want people to remember what you’ve done on that screen.

You brought up, ‘I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.’ I didn’t bring it up. You brought it up. I’m going to tell you a story about ‘I’m Gonna Git You Sucka’; this is one of those things. Bernie Casey [Slade] was one of the nicest guys in the world. I really enjoyed being around Bernie.

But Robin Harris … see, this is how little I pay attention to people. I was working for half a day on the first scene in the restaurant. They were doing a scene with Robin Harris, and I was around that whole day; I didn’t know who Robin Harris was. And somebody said to me, two to three hours of being on the set, ‘You know that’s Robin Harris?’ I said, ‘Oh my God!’

When I first moved to L.A., I played basketball at the Hollywood YMCA because my girlfriend at the time was a fitness instructor. She was at the Hollywood Y. I played basketball three times a week, around noon time. I played basketball with Berry Gordy Jr. and Marvin Gaye for three months and didn’t know who the hell they were.

Somebody said something about two months in, and I looked, and I said, ‘That’s Marvin Gaye!’ So, I had been playing basketball with Marvin Gaye and Berry Gordy Jr. for two or three months and didn’t know who they were. But that’s what fascinates me about people is I can work with people and walk down the street and not know who the hell you are.

And I worked with you for three months sometimes. But that’s me. But as a person, people watch this film and television so much that they can point you out. I’m telling you, I have been in places with a mask on, it’s up over my nose, and this woman says, ‘You’re ‘Big Red’. How in the hell do you know it’s me?’ But they pay attention.

Let me get back to the story of ‘I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.’

In the scene where I talk about the medals on my jacket … what I do as an actor, before we start shooting anything, I walk into the room. Because this is my place, this is my home; this is my office.

So, I walk around, and I familiarize myself with everything in space. Whether it’s going to be shot behind me or whether you see it or not, I point out little things in my head, and I look at everything.

So, when I was looking at my jacket with all the medals on it, some piece of crap had put a Confederate flag on my jacket. And I looked at it, and I instantly became angry.

How dare … I don’t know if it was the costume makers or the prop people, but how dare you put a Confederate flag on this Black man’s uniform. On the United States Army uniform. How dare you think that that’s gonna fly?

And I know people look at movies frame by frame by frame. Somebody would have looked at that and seen that Confederate flag and been irate about it. I know this for a fact — people look at movies frame by frame to see what they can see.

So, I went to Keenen, and I said, ‘Keenen, there is a Confederate flag on my uniform. That has to be removed; otherwise, I’m walking out of here right now. I don’t give a damn about your money, and I don’t give a damn about me being in this movie, nothing. If that flag is not removed, I’m walking right now.’ And Keenen said to me, ‘Let’s take it off.’

I said, ‘No, my fingertips will never ever be sullied by that ugly piece of crap.’ And so, he said, ‘I’ll get a wardrobe person.’ I wouldn’t even touch it. Some wardrobe person had to come to take it off because I was serious. I’m serious about this stuff, man. I don’t play these games. This is not a game to me.

That’s how people from Korea, that’s how people from Japan, and Cambodia, Russia, the Middle East, Arabs, come over here, buy a store in your neighborhood and treat you like dirt because they’ve seen it on TV.

That’s what they think you’re supposed to be treated like. They think because you’re on TV, movies, and read about you, that’s what they think you should be treated like. That’s how they should be able to treat you.

Not me, you got the wrong person, partner.

Movies and TV are way too important in this world, and we have to start controlling our own destiny. We can’t allow those people to tell us who we are. Because if you look at it, that’s exactly what’s happening right now. Because half of us believe that’s who we are; we built this country instead of understanding our history. We built this world.

From Lucy, who was the first woman to walk upright on this planet, to the Nigerians, Hutus, to the Egyptians, to the people from the South of Egypt.

They are all Black people. We did this. This United States would not be the United States without our labor. People want to come here from around the world because we built this place. We did this off our backs, and now other people can come in from around the world and benefit before we benefit from what our ancestors did. Understand this, people.

So, when you ask me to come on your show, you think you’re going to get somebody that says, ‘Oh, I love doing movies.’ No-no-no-no! I can’t do that. Because I care about my people, and I care about this planet too much to just be a ‘celebrity.’

That doesn’t mean anything to me.

It is what I can do to make this world a better place because we only get at best … if you’re lucky, you get 80 years on this planet. We all go. So, what are you going to do with those years? Some of us only get 20 years. Martin [Luther King, Jr.] and Malcolm [X] got 30-something years and look at the impact they made.

Zenger: That’s one of the many reasons I wanted to interview you, one. I’m a fan. Two, I knew you would keep it real, and lastly, I don’t think I had ever witnessed so many people, fans, and media alike say how pleasant you were when they met you.

I respect the fact that you stayed grounded, relatable and connected to everything that’s going on.

James: Well, the first stuff that I did, the first movie I did was with Rudy Ray Moore, ‘Disco Godfather’. That in itself was an amazing experience.

I made $50 a day, and I worked two days a week. But $50 a day … man, do you know how much money $50 a day was back in that day? That was serious money. Man, I thought I had made it.

But at the same time, my first union movie, because ‘I’m Gonna Git You Sucka’ was not union. My first union movie was ‘The Color Purple’. People saw me in ‘The Color Purple,’ whether it be 30 seconds on the screen or not; still, I was in that movie.

But when I would go home to my family, I still had to take the garbage out, man. I still had to say, ‘Yes ma’am,’ to my mother.

The celebrity thing didn’t mean anything; this is my mother. My mother passed when I was in college, and I love my daddy. And my brothers and sisters were working whatever jobs they had.

How could I think I was more than they are? What kind of jacka** would I be? I thought I was better than them just because I’m an actor.

Of course, you are going to get people to say negative things about me. That’s to be expected because you may have caught me on a day where … I would think the general public would never catch me on a day where I was a**hole because I never want to be that person. But it’s your perception of who that is.

So, every once in a while, you’re going to get somebody that says, ‘I met him, and he was a jerk.’ OK, but that was never my intent, because everybody that talks to me, everybody that wants to take a picture with me is important to me.

Everybody who wants my autograph is important to me because you have made me who I am. And I never want to be a jerk to you. I want to always be appreciative, but there may be a day where I had to catch the plane or something, and I just say, ‘I’m sorry, but I gotta do something.’ And that may be your interpretation of a jerk, but that was never my intent because I want people to know you are important to me.

In my mind, I’m still that kid from the Southside of Chicago. I’m that kid that sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. I’m that kid that had people try to crush the dreams. I’m still that kid.

So, when people come up to me and say, ‘Can I take a picture with you?’ Do you know to this day, my mind says, ‘Wow, someone wants to take a picture with me?’ Because in my mind somewhere, I’m still that kid from the Southside of Chicago who wasn’t very popular, who had to find his way. That’s what keeps me grounded, man.

Zenger: It’s been an honor speaking to you. I appreciate your time. I hope this is the first of many times I get to interview you.

James: Anytime man. Thank you!

(Edited by Daniel Kucin Jr. and Stan Chrapowicki)

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