Source: TriCoast Worldwide
In 2013, Harry Lennix (Communication ’86) decided to end his acting career.
During his time in the performing industry, Lennix had fostered a vibrant theater career and landed roles in major films like “The Matrix Reloaded” and “Titus” among others. But after 30 years, Lennix was done with auditioning for people half his age who had just graduated from film school, sick of driving through Los Angeles during rush hour to yet another casting call and fed up with constant rejection.
Lennix called his manager to let her know he was planning to retire.
The next day, Lennix got a call. A new show called “Blacklist” was casting right away and the audition was just down the street. At the urging of his manager, Lennix auditioned and, like that, was cast in the now-hit show as Harold Cooper, assistant director of the FBI Counterterrorism Division.
“I don’t believe that that was a coincidence, and I don’t believe that that’s random,” Lennix said. “I think that’s God. I made a decision, and God made a different decision.”
A deeply religious individual, Lennix is releasing a work this December that he calls “a love letter to God.” “Revival! The Experience” is a musical retelling of the Gospel according to John, featuring a predominantly-black cast including Grammy-nominated artist Mali Music as Jesus, Destiny Child’s Michelle Williams as Mary Magdalene, Rufus’ Chaka Khan as Herodias and Lennix as Pontius Pilate. Lennix described the film as “‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ meets ‘The Wiz,’” and said the work has been his passion project throughout his time on “The Blacklist.”
“Every dime I’ve made has gone for the completion of this movie and it’s distribution,” Lennix said. “It (would) be no overstatement to say that without ‘The Blacklist,’ ‘Revival’ definitely wouldn’t have happened.”
Lennix said he traces his strong religious roots back to his early childhood. Naturally drawn to exploring his faith, Lennix became an altar boy and seriously contemplated eventually entering the priesthood — he even went to seminary school when he was 13. Lennix said he looks back on those years learning about church doctrine as the “most meaningful years of school” in his life, as they instilled in him formative church teachings he carries with him today.
When he came to Northwestern, Lennix studied theater but still pursued his love of theology, even devoting time to learning about other religions like Buddhism, Islam and Judaism.
Lennix said he never saw a schism between his love of theater and theology, citing “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “The Ten Commandments” as two films that delve deeply into theology and are pieces of exemplary filmmaking.
“These are religious themed movies — what we call faith based — but done at the highest level of artistic aesthetic achievement,” Lennix explained.
After graduating from NU, Lennix started his career in Chicago theater before starting to pursue more film and television opportunities in Los Angeles. Lennix made his Broadway debut starring in August Wilson’s final play, “Radio Golf” in 2007, where Kaplan Institute Professor in Residence Peter Erickson saw Lennix perform for the first time.
Roughly a month later, Erickson and Lennix found themselves at the same Shakespeare symposium in Memphis, Tennessee, where they began the first of many intellectual conversations that would forge a lasting friendship.
Erickson remarked on Lennix’s scholarly approach to acting which adds depth to his performances.
“That’s what gives him the interesting perspective he has, because he thinks these things through very deeply,” Erickson said. “It’s never superficial, and I saw that from the beginning. For example, if he has a role in a play, he investigates very carefully and very deeply as he thinks about ‘How am I going to perform this?’ or ‘What is my role here?’ and it has an impact overall on the play.”
Lennix heavily drew upon his stage work when developing “Revival! The Experience,” as the movie began as a play. In 2012, Lennix wrote a narrative play to fit the cultural point of view of people in his church for the community to perform for Easter.
“The Gospel of John” was a huge hit, and Lennix saw the potential to bring the play to film, telling stories from John’s Gospel using black spiritual music.
“I don’t believe there’s any music on the planet that is more inspiring, moving, eloquent, gripping and stirring than black spiritual music, and I think it’s been waiting to be put to dramatic form,” Lennix said.
African American studies and history Prof. Sherwin Bryant, who got to know Lennix through the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, said he’s excited to watch the film. Bryant said he grew up in a black church, but never saw biblical figures or Jesus depicted as black.
Bryant praised Lennix’s dedication to truthful black cinematic representation. Rather than just “putting black faces on old stories,” Lennix treated this work with care and expected the highest quality, he said.
“(Revival!) fits perfectly into the kinds of commitments that (Lennix) has, both in terms of the kinds of images that he sees as being important of black people but also the need to redress certain historical omissions,” Bryant said. “I think a movie like this is important to all communities and to all people.
As for his future, Lennix said he has “thousands of ideas” but not “millions of dollars.” He hopes “Revival!” serves as “a key that unlocks a door of possibility” so he can put his other ideas into action, and more stories showcasing black culture can be told.
“I want it to show that there’s another way,” Lennix said. “I want people to take away that they can dare to dream and they can dare to consider themselves worthy of divine consideration — that they are as important to God as any other groups of people, and they deserve some reflection of that in culture.”
Read more from November’s edition of The Monthly here.
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