Jesse Williams knows politics doesn’t need to be a popularity contest so long as you’re able to get the message out and get the good work done. His brand of can-do activism has helped him raise his visibility for various philanthropic and social causes, primarily those that benefit Black Americans, in the last handful of years. He’s worked alongside other activists for causes like #JusticeForFlint, sits on the board of the Advancement Project and wholeheartedly affirmed at the 2016 BET Awards that, yes, Black lives do matter.
It’s also what led him to his current role as one of the coproducers, alongside longtime friend John Legend, of a documentary about Olympian Tommie Smith. Even if you don’t remember Smith’s name, you’ll likely remember the evergreen image of him on the awards podium at the 1968 Olympics, one hand raised in a fist with his head bowed. As a documentary subject, Smith seems to be a perfect fit for Williams, and this doc was among the many things he spoke about in a recent lengthy interview done with Legend for The Atlantic.
One of the most interesting nuggets from Williams’ portion of the joint Atlantic interview relates to how his political views and acting career might affect one another. Williams doesn’t seem too concerned about how his political beliefs potentially affect his star power or the amount of fame and fortune he gains.
“Life is hard enough [without] complicating it by trying to contort yourself into other shapes for other people,” Williams replied when asked if he was ever worried people would reject his art because of his politics. “If I was to be fearful, what would I be fearful of? Losing followers on a social-media platform?” In short, Williams doesn’t care if you like his politics or the way he fights for social change. All he cares about is that he is actually fighting for it.
In fact, it would seem his fighting spirit has been instilled in him from the get-go. Williams also told The Atlantic that fellow powerful Black artists and activists — Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, James Brown, Nina Simone — are role models who have made moves worth replicating. “They really helped me appreciate the value of [and] the dependence that we have on artists and storytellers as our broadcasters,” Williams explained, “as those who dictate what is reality [and] what has value and our place in the world.”
Of his own art, whether his acting or his current documentary project, Williams explained, “When I think about trying to act and move and create responsibly, not in a reckless manner, I don’t ever view it as a burden. I’m here because I saw value in being able to possibly move narratives in and around black life. It’s how [John and I] choose the projects that we choose. It’s how we’ve actually come to know each other because we’re both looking to make work that is meaningful.”
He continued, “Artists in many ways are a barometer for where people’s consciousness is. You can’t divorce the role of artists from the role of actual activists and organizers. We are inspired by the people that are doing the real work in the streets. We’re just reflections of them on our best day.”
Williams’ tenacity is palpable, don’t you think? That gusto and clarity of vision feels infectious — in a good way. It’s almost as if he was born to be both an actor and an activist. Then again, it’s hardly surprising he would be so good at getting you to stop and listen, as he did in a video posted to his Instagram from early February wherein he spoke to his followers about the sexual harassment and assault female prisoners face while incarcerated. Williams implored those same followers to find some sympathy within them and contribute to the Dignity Campaign.
Williams exhibits a quality in this video many actors who turn to political activism frequently exhibit: the ability to positively weaponize pathos and to encourage their followers and anyone who will listen to see the humanity at the core of the issue. Of course, Williams, as an actor, is used to using pathos to bring to life the powerful scripts. He’s used to reaching out to humanity through his art, which means he knows he can do it successfully in his activism and that, at the end of the day, makes him the kind of voice we need right now, fighting for those who cannot speak for themselves.
So yeah, who cares if he loses some followers or endures the cruel troll-like tweets of various naysayers? To Williams, a man with pure intentions who is fighting for what he believes in, they are the flimsiest of sticks and stones.