At his core, Omari Hardwick is a storyteller. While many folks met him in Ava DuVernay’s stellar 2011 film I Will Follow and then, of course, as the stoic drug kingpin Ghost in Starz’s Power, Hardwick's journey in the entertainment industry spans nearly two decades. Throughout his career, his work has covered almost every genre across multiple mediums and platforms.
Presently, he’s busier than ever. Power returns for a fifth season on July 1; his indie film, A Boy. A Girl. A Dream, is making the rounds at film festivals across the nation; and he will be seen next in Boots Riley’s trippy and mesmerizing Sorry to Bother You. And yet, Hardwick’s hectic schedule is something that he’s wholeheartedly embraced. In fact, his success and love for visionary storytelling sparked his partnership with Gentleman Jack’s Real to Reel program.
In its second year, the program has given a platform to rising black filmmakers and provided them with an opportunity to share their stories and talent while receiving mentorship from Hardwick. In Harlem on a late spring evening after a full day of press for Power, Hardwick introduced four short films from New York City filmmakers of color. As the audience sat engrossed in the unique projects, Hardwick and I chatted about Real to Reel, his legacy, Power and how he hopes to influence artists coming after him.
There is a particular energy that comes with being able to influence a new generation. That sense of mentorship and guidance is something that Hardwick carries with him every day. “It's interesting," Hardwick said thoughtfully. “I’ve talked often about Denzel Washington, and I think it's a better story when Denzel's name is put in it, but it was really Pauletta Washington. I was a broke, fledgling wannabe actor. You're born an artist, but I was a wannabe actor, and Pauletta helped lift me up. There were people that I've met in this business that would aide me. Now, there's a lot of brothers that are like, 'Big Bro Omari, Big Bro Omari.' I'm like, 'Oh wow.' I've mentored as many brothers as I have been in movies. I guess it's becoming part of my brand. I was also OK with sharing. When I talk to my dad or Sam Jackson, or even Don Cheadle, who is younger, they didn't necessarily share the wealth of wisdom. It was such crab-in-the-barrel mentality. They just didn't necessarily think, 'Oh shit, right? I should aid because my legacy is only as big as the people I embrace.' I just always thought that the team doesn't really win if 30 years after me, no one is there who looks like me. I'm just getting revved up. Ghost is the first thing that people of the younger generation knew me from. So if you think about it, I'm in the prime of my career. If 30 years from the prime, which would have me at 74 years of age, if I can then look and say, 'Man, look at all these brothers I helped. This one's 52 years old. This one's 45 years old. This one's 60, but rocking.' That would be phenomenal to me."
In its second year, after crowning Janlaté Mullins and Maxie McClintock’s Soul Fire as 2017’s Real to Reel winner, Hardwick has used his partnership with Gentleman Jack to learn even more about himself. "It's about influence," he said softly after a brief pause. "My journey as a person, but my process as an actor and an artist, I've always married them together. Obviously, my journey is way more priceless than acting classes could ever be. I can pull from authenticity. So if you marry that with the reality of now having a stage as a celebrity --how you use it says a lot. The journey of your life, you add that to yourself as an artist, and if people like the marriage of the two, then the conclusion is something like Gentleman Jack. It’s brown people in front of the camera like myself and ultimately behind the camera being able to benefit from me having a microphone. So it's a specific influence that I didn't necessarily think about when I started. It’s real cool. It's one thing to be able to talk about any issue and have ten minutes of talking about stuff you don't even know about, and people will listen just because you're famous or whatnot. But to be able to talk about something that you actually have some groundwork in —that's really specific. To be an African American you could talk about both sides of it, making money and making it as a black person."
By embracing artists like Janlaté Mullins and Maxie McClintock, with Real to Reel, Hardwick is also making sure black women are getting the recognition they have both worked for and deserve. It is a critical time in the industry since we are still reeling from the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements. "I’m the biggest advocate of women," he said. "My wife would say I'm a male feminist and that we need more male feminists. I remember going to Courtney [Kemp] and saying, ‘I think we need more people that look like you leading us lost men.’ A woman's touch is an adage that never fell upon deaf ears for me. Men have had an opportunity to do so many things in life that women haven’t. We're not as bright as you guys in many ways. We're just not. The labyrinth of brain that you think with... Obviously, women are a minority, but as a black woman or a Latin woman, you're a double minority. I could go on and on. I just think it would be a dope ass environment when we look up one day, and my industry could have equally my daughter dominating in ways that I know my son would be able to, more so. I think it would be incredible if Nova could go as far as Brave, if not further."
Soul Fire, 2017’s Real to Reel winner, was a visceral and moving film about the pain of love and loss. This year, Hardwick and the Gentleman Jack team are looking for a narrative that is just as affecting. "We’re looking for a similar reaction," the Middle of Nowhere actor said. "Whether it’s Stevie Wonder or Tupac screaming everything he did before he left Earth by 25, you always want to feel that. The next whomever that may be, I think we've got to feel it. If it's a 10 to 15-minute short, we should be able to feel it within that time, because within 10 to 15 minutes you can feel someone's presence if you're sitting in front of them. So you should be able to translate that into whatever product they create. Ten to fifteen minutes of meeting somebody, you should feel like you actually met somebody. You've gotta get fuzzies, you've got to feel a way. If it makes you cry -- really cry. If it evokes joy or makes you laugh, or makes you afraid, whatever it may be, we're always looking for that thing — that thing that makes a person feel. I think the industry has gotten far too complacent and accepting of, ‘It was good, right?' It should be a definitive, declarative statement of, ‘Oh my God, it was great.’ You don't have to agree with everybody, but it's gotta be a majority of folks that would agree with you. We're always looking for the thing that's delivered differently, it's unique, haven't seen it before, haven't smelled it that way before, that's a different twist on it. It's not necessarily a new wheel, but the way that they told the story, or the way they presented the wheel is sort of new, and it evoked emotion while they presented it. So we're always looking for just that-- some really, really good, thought-provoking and emotionally-pulling product."
Throughout his career, the Being Mary Jane alum has chosen characters that have made him think, challenged him and stretched him to his limits. "They definitely taught me, perhaps more than I've taught the character," Hardwick revealed. "Maybe the characters taught me about myself —that which I lack, that which I have in bounty. These characters I've been able to play have definitely been able to teach me things. I've been able to really pull off a lot of —I’ve been so humbled at the response of people going, ‘Whatever he plays in, I kinda buy it.’ I definitely look for something unique, something I haven't done before. Or if I have done it, its what's the different way I'm telling this one?"
With season 5 of Power set to debut this summer and filming for season 6 beginning in the fall along with a slew of other films on his slate, including the forthcoming Tyler Perry movie Nobody's Fool where Hardwick will star opposite Tiffany Haddish and Tika Sumpter, the University of Georgia alum has been thinking a lot about his legacy. "I want to be able to get in a lot of the rooms in the entertainment industry," he declared. "I want people who look like me to be able to say, ‘Yeah.’ It would be really cool if folks who came in as actors, could get to the room of directing, could get to the room of producing. I want folks to say, 'Man, Omari figured out how to kinda get all over the house. He vacuumed every floor. He was able to paint walls of different color.’ That would be pretty awesome to be able to say that I made the house mine. That's what people say when they come to visit, right? They say, 'Make yourself at home.' I would love people to say that I made myself at home in this industry."
Find out more about Real to Reel here.
Season 5 of Power debuts Sunday, July 1 on Starz.
Sorry to Bother You premieres in theaters July 13, 2018.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.