David Harewood Talks … Get On Up: The Triumph of Black America

Actor, producer and director David Harewood has not shied away from our challenging history.

His exploration of systemic racism and its affect on the Black experience has resulted in his BBC documentaries Psychosis and Me (2019), and Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour? (2021) and his memoir Maybe I Don’t Belong Here (2021).

In a continuation of Harewood’s exploration his latest project, the documentary Get On Up: The Triumph of Black America he takes the viewer on a journey across America to meet some of his heroes and discover some of the true stories behind the incredible artists who shaped his life and changed the world. Along the way, he discovers how African American performers, filmmakers and writers came to transform popular culture around the world.

We spoke to Harewood about the series and how the untimely death of George Floyd was the catalyst for a new understanding of what it means to be Black in the US and UK.

Please introduce yourself …

David Harewood. British. Bajan Heritage.

Describe your life right now in a word or one sentence …

Busy.

What’s Get On Up: The Triumph of Black America all about?

A very personal look back at the growth and impact that African American culture has had on popular culture, examining the artists and genres that moved the dial.

What’s your role on Get On Up …?

I present and interview.

How did the project come about?

I was originally asked by the production team at Milk and Honey last year, if I would be interested in the project.

David and Ola Ray. – BBC, Milk and Honey Productions, Ian Watts

On taking the journey to the US for Get On Up … what did you expect to learn and were your expectations met?

I had no preconceptions. But experienced a heap of joy when meeting and interviewing all of the individuals included as I slowly realised just how much each of them had influenced me during my lifetime. Particularly actors John Amos and Ola Ray and record producer Robert Margouleff.

Who or what would you say are the key influences behind the projects you choose and what motivates you to explore them?

Get On Up… is not intended to be the definitive history of African American culture since 1960 but focuses on a range of artists from different genres who both mean something to me and also highlight key moments that shifted the paradigm in terms of autonomy and cultural influence. I was really keen to talk to people who were either ‘in the room’ or connected to those key moments and hear first hand about their experience.

What do you think is the most powerful medium through which to explore Black stories and histories

John Amos recounted the power that Roots (1977) had on those who watched the show; bringing the reality of slavery into American homes. The finale was watched by over 100 Million people. I think television and film has the unique ability to change minds and educate as well as entertain.

In the UK we seem to have such a fascination with the US and its history in all aspects whether it be music, film, civil rights etc. But we have so much history here that has yet to be explored. Is it a lack of interest? How do you think we can push for more of our history here to be documented?

I believe such stories are long overdue but close. We cannot underestimate the impact the brazen murder of George Floyd has had on the whole industry, his loss has brought a change and a wider acceptance of black actors and stories, although there is still some way to go in this country. Those with power to get things done are still predominately white but I sense they are beginning to see real value in black stories, far more than they did 30 years when I was starting out, so there are welcome signs.

David Harewood & Eddie Holland – BBC, Milk and Honey Productions, Ian Watts

Working on Get On Up … what were some of the highs, lows, solutions?

Many highs. One or two lows. We were travelling quite a lot and there was the occasional stay at the Hotel du Nightmare. Had to change once or twice. But generally it was such a pleasure meeting everybody, they all opened up and had a lot to say, Jamie Hector in Harlem. Jeffrey Daniels I remember him doing the Moonwalk on Top of The Pops for the first time. Incredible to actually meet him.

What’s your current plan B?

I don’t really have a plan B … I’m all in. My life is my art and the other way round. If I don’t get something I’ll be involved in making something else. That’s why I’ve started my own production company. If that fails.. well there always work at The Post Office.

What’s made you Sad, Mad, Glad this week?

Sad, the death of Lance Reddick. Mad, American gun violence. Glad, visiting my mum and spending a little quality time with her. She’s up in the Midlands still and as I’ve been working I haven’t seen her as much as I would have wanted to so it was nice to see her.

What are you watching right now?

Swarm. Donald Glover’s latest project. Amazing.

What are you reading right now?

The Protest Psychosis by Jonathan Metzl

What are you listening to right now?

Lemonade by Beyonce.

The last thing you saw on stage?

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue gets Too Heavy. Currently playing in the West End. Go see it!

What’s on your bucket list? 

Jumping out of an aeroplane.

Celebrate someone else …

Ryan Calais Cameron – writer/director

Celebrate yourself …

I’m just trying to be my fullest self and live up to my promise.

Whose footsteps are you following in?

Too many to name. But they’re all younger than me so I’m just happy to be able to keep up with them.

What’s Next?

Going to be appearing in a video game. Can’t say which one but fans will be happy.

Where can we find you?

You can find me online @DavidHarewood and running around Soho.

Where can we watch Get On Up: The Triumph of Black America?

Episode 1 of Get On Up… is available on BBC iPlayer and episode two is on BBC Two on Thursday 6th April at 9.00pm.

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