For two decades, Russell Hornsby has been doing what he describes as “exchanging energies” with the quiet yet impactful characters he’s played onscreen — men like Lyons, the money-strapped musician in “Fences,” and Isaiah Butler, the forlorn dad mourning his son in “Seven Seconds.” It’s something that has enabled him to embody the many complexities of Maverick, the Black Panther-reciting patriarch in last year’s electrifying drama “The Hate U Give,” a role that has galvanized audiences.
That’s because Hornsby’s heartfelt portrayal of a man who is strict yet loving, flawed yet sincere, forces viewers to confront cinema’s deep-seated stereotypes of black masculinity. In this era of #BlackLivesMatter, Maverick has even greater significance when he encourages his teenage daughter, Starr (Amandla Stenberg), to speak out after she witnesses the police murder her friend.
Being an ally for black girls and women is one of many things Hornsby shares with Maverick.
Speaking by phone, Hornsby, 44, opened up about the black men who’ve inspired him and why Maverick resonates with audiences. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
Maverick is so unlike many of the other characters you’ve played. What attracted you to the role?
He was unapologetically black. Angie Thomas [author of the best-selling book upon which the film is based] wrote such a man in the real sense of the word — in terms of how I was raised, the black men I was raised by and how I’ve [been] stimulated in my life. This was an opportunity for me to honor those that raised me and allowed me to be the man that I am today, a husband and a father of two boys. [Maverick] loves his wife. He loves his children. He loves his community. We don’t see enough of those men and they do exist.
Maverick is, among other things, a champion for young black women and girls speaking up for themselves and others. As a father yourself, what is your relationship with that same principle?
You have to understand, I was raised by a single black mother. I love my mother, my aunts and the women who helped raise me. I’ve had black women teachers. My wife is a black woman. I champion women; their causes, their independence, their femininity. Maverick is the kind of man that says both sons and daughters deserve to be loved and be raised with that sense of love. Wisdom needs to be imparted equally to your boys and your girls.
We know that Maverick has been to jail in the past. He’s been in a gang. He’s cheated on his wife. But we’re compelled to look beyond his flaws through your complex portrayal of black masculinity that we rarely get to see onscreen. Was that important for you as an actor and a black man?
My belief is that your performances as an actor don’t stray very far from who you are. There are very few true chameleons in this business who can transform [and pull] a total 180 from who they are. So when I look at Maverick, he is a reflection of me as I am a reflection of him. It’s important for me, for other brothers to see, for sisters to see it. It’s important for our society to see that this man exists. I want the audience to see my brothers, the men who are my friends that I hang around with, who are married and have children and who are responsible and [have] beautiful [relationships with] their wives.
We also see glimpses of black male vulnerability, like when Starr brings home Chris, who’s white, which makes him question whether he’s set a good enough example for her to want to bring home a black man.
We’re three-dimensional. Maverick has the capacity to be vulnerable. He has the capacity to listen. That’s the daughter he raised with all that love and she’s saying, Dad, I’ve got some of this love for you, too. That choked me up when I saw it again. Because a daughter can say to her father, No, you did right. You did what you were supposed to do. It’s all good.
I love the conversations between Maverick and his wife, Lisa, about whether to leave their neighborhood, which he thinks would be turning his back on the culture.
And to what end? He’s saying to himself, my people need me. But we have to know who we’re fighting for and why, and how we’re going to fight. As black people, we lose sight of that sometimes. We talk about revolution and quick change. We have to understand that that’s not realistic. It’s really evolution, change over time. It’s really about putting a plan in place, understanding what your goals are and applying them every day. So, as much as Maverick preaches about the Black Panther Party and the revolution, what Lisa helps him understand is that, Baby, it’s going to have to be an evolutionary process.
There’s been Oscar talk surrounding your performance. How do you feel about all the buzz?
It’s an honor for people to deem the work worthy of such talk. But because I am at the age I am with a wife and two children, it doesn’t consume me. At the end of the day, I am in the business of telling stories, and that’s what I want to continue to do. I don’t want this to be it. I want Maverick to be the jumping-off point. I feel like after 20 years working as a professional, let’s hit the reset button and build it up from here. What are the next 20 years going to look like as far as roles and opportunities? I’m excited about that.