Everybody knows Wendell Pierce.
Even if you never saw him play the hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, laissez-faire “Bunk” Moreland on The Wire, the greatest television show that ever aired on television, you have met him before. While nothing or no one (not even Pierce himself) could ever tell me that he doesn’t really play the trombone like his character in the underrated HBO series Treme, that’s not where you might know him from.
If you are lucky enough to have a conversation with Pierce, you will instantly know who he is. He’s your uncle at the cookout who repeatedly informs you that “you don’t know nothing’ bout no Temptations.” He’s your cousin who licks the Big Joker and affixes it to his forehead when he runs a Boston on the Spades table. You probably know him by “Man-Man.” Or maybe you call him “Pee Wee.” Or any one of the hundreds of nicknames conjured up by the combination of comedy and culture.
And yes, Wendell Pierce is black.
“That’s who I am. I’m a black man living in 2018,” Pierce told The Root. “There’s a uniqueness of who I am that brings obstacles, challenges, advantages and a different perspective.”
One on one, Pierce is as boisterous and blackity-black as some of the characters he made famous. I may or may not have been flustered when I was forced by the celebrated actor to choose between needing water or letting “this motherfucker burn” after Pierce introduced himself by singing: “The Root, The Root, The Root is on fiyahh!”
Yes, that happened.
Pierce plays James Greer in the new series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, debuting August 31 on Amazon Video. John Krasinski takes up the title role in the reimagined origin story of the fictional history teacher turned CIA analyst. After debuting in the 1984 Tom Clancy novel The Hunt for Red October, the character eventually became the subject of twenty-one novels and 5 films including Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.
In the Amazon series, Pierce plays James Greer, Jack Ryan’s boss and career CIA professional. But it is the story of his character that Pierce is proudest of.
“I play a black man who has spent most of his life serving his country as part of the CIA,” Pierce noted. “And during all of this turmoil, this man is a converted Muslim.”
In recounting the time he spent researching the role for the one-hour, eight-episode dramatic series, Pierce admits that he was careful to portray the religion of Islam and the black men and women of the CIA in a way that was reflective of his experience.
“It’s a lot more diverse than what most people thought. More apolitical than I thought. Very focused. Very professional,” he said. “What I learned is that in the eye of the storm, we are very fortunate to have men and women who keep a level head, regardless of the politics swirling around them.”
When asked about whether his insight informed his opinion of recent events, Pierce responded:“People really don’t know, the entire CIA works for one man, the President of the United States. ” After a few seconds, Pierce interrupted the next question with a moment of candor:
“Let’s cut to the quick. Truth is truth, contrary to recent statements,” Pierce said laughingly. “I challenged the officer I was doing my research with. I said: ‘We’re African American men. We know the history of this country. How do you reconcile this?’”
“He told me: ‘There’s racism in America. There’s racism in the agency. Instinctively we’re going to fight it. I can fight it outside or I can fight it inside. I choose to fight it within.’”
Pierce’s affinity for speaking his truth (he famously called White House Chief of Staff John Kelly a “racist prick” after Kelly praised Civil War general Robert E. Lee) and unwillingness to “let the motherfucker burn” has earned him the label of being an “activist” in some show business circles. He was instrumental in efforts of rebuilding his home city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and recently developed a 103-unit affordable housing complex in West Baltimore.
“The moniker of being an activist is something that rose out of necessity because I had to rebuild my life, my family’s life, my city’s and my neighborhood life in the aftermath of Katrina. People recognized that I was doing that so I kind of got the moniker of being an activist. But that’s really being a son, and brother and neighbor and citizen just trying to be active in their community. In the meantime, I’m an actor. But our work should be in the community,” Pierce said.
The Tony award-winning actor cited the legacy of artists like Ossie Davis and Harry Belafonte for influencing his combination or art and activism. As one of the people recently selected for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences efforts to increase diversity, Pierce is a fierce champion for diversity and inclusion. He knows that his outspokenness and unapologetic advocacy is viewed differently by some people, but he says that this uniqueness and diversity should be embraced by everyone, not just Hollywood:
“I’m a black man man. If I was a white woman from Canada, that would bring a different set of obstacles, and advantages and perspectives. And I understand that there are those who trade in the darker side of our humanity who seek to make actors of color feel less than, in a business that who may not see us as whole, three-dimensional human beings.
But I distrust anyone who disavows who they are and says: ‘I don’t want to be seen as a black actor or as a black man.’
Yes, I want to be seen as a black actor and a black man. Because you’re going to see a different perspective you wouldn’t get to see. As an actor, I have a perspective that is necessary. The world should be mining that. That’s what diversity is about.
Pierce says that this uniqueness of perspective and fearlessness is why he respects the men and women of the CIA, noting that he met career agency officials who gave their service to the country that didn’t necessarily love them back while sometimes refusing to acknowledge their humanity:
“In our series, I play a black man, a career professional who was a part of the CIA when Americans had problems with who he was and the color of his skin. And in the midst of the terror war, he is a converted Muslim. I’m proud that I can bring that perspective to an audience, and the only way I can do that is by embracing who I am ... a black actor.”