Lil Rel Howery on the endless possibilities of Black Hollywood
The ‘Get Out’ actor is playing his part in diversifying the image of Black people.
Lil Rel Howery has carved out a solid career for himself in Hollywood, but the comedian/actor is going after something greater. While you may see the 40-year-old in The Photograph as a successful family man and older brother, or in Get Out as the jocular TSA agent and savior of a best friend, or in Judas and the Black Messiah as an undercover FBI agent, or in any of his litany of roles, what he wants to show how there is no singular Black experience.
“We’re trying to make sure they humanize us. That’s it. Sometimes they’ll make us seem like we’re superhuman,” Howery told Mic. “You know what I love about the movie Moonlight? I love that the drug dealer was the one who was caring. All dope dealers ain’t monsters.”
On December 9, Howery inspired more variegated stories to be told as he hosted Hennessy V.S.O.P’s special Facebook Live event More Is Made By The Many, where two tables of three celebrities and influencers each tackled a range of topics. Dasha Polanco, Vic Mensa, Hailie Sahar, Alok Vaid-Menon, Wilson Tang, and Tone Kapone pulled conversation cards to share their myriad of perspectives on NFTs being considered art, the hypocrisy of museums charging admission fees to view stolen artifacts, the sentimentality of clothing, and how to strike a good vogue pose. The diversity of opinions, ethnic backgrounds, professions, and personal experiences at each table is a push in a direction Howery has been pushing towards his entire career.
Before the live stream, the versatile actor spoke with Mic about how people like Issa Rae and Lena Waithe are dismantling monolithic views of Blackness, bringing more Black dad stories to the screen, and why he no longer can enjoy The Godfather.
As you said, the same sort of discussions you’re having during this event are the ones you’ve had in your personal life, and that’s what it looked like at the brunch table in Nas’s “Brunch on Sundays” music video you were in. Have you had these chats with your Black peers in Hollywood?
One hundred percent. The video shoot for “Brunch on Sundays” was one of the best days of my life. I’m a big Nas fan. Nas is one of my heroes. I was able to sit there and have a grown man conversation with Nas about life and business. Then, LeBron James showed up. The conversations really happened that day. You have these bosses. I remember leaving like, ‘Yo, what the fuck?!’ I left there with so many gems. I’ve had conversations with Jay[-Z]. I’ve been one of the lucky ones. I’ve had really dope fly-on-the-wall conversations. I met my business partner at one of Issa [Rae]’s parties. That’s how that goes. That’s what is so great about this Hennessy V.S.O.P. live stream event. This is the first time those types of conversations have also been recorded.
Dismantling monolithic views of Blackness has been popular in the last decade. How has the last decade reflected the spirit of this event?
We’ve been blessed in the sense we don’t have to just be in front of the camera. Jordan Peele, Issa Rae, Jerrod Carmichael, Kenya Barris aren’t just in front of the camera, we’re writing our narratives and producing stuff. We’re becoming our own bosses. Now, I don’t want to have a list of those people because it’s too many. I think that’s the route we’re going in. I feel I can do whatever I want. I can pick whatever role I want. On TV, we have four different shows about Black woman friendships, and that’s super dope and it’s about time because all Black people ain’t the same (laughs). That’s what I’ve enjoyed about the creativity of everybody showing all these different perspectives and how all of us live all around this country. I can’t wait to see even more of those characters being introduced to Hollywood.
Shows like Insecure center on Black woman friendships you mentioned. What specifically about shows like those impress you?
I like all of the different careers. Look at what Lena [Waithe]’s doing with Twenties. The most successful people in our country are Black women, so why wouldn’t we show how dope they are? People don’t give the movie Boomerang enough credit. The company in the film had nothing but Black women working there. It was run and led by Black women. That’s why it’s interesting watching all of this now. I like that we are exposing young people to all of their different careers. That’s why I love Insecure. We’re working on an app. We’re a community organizer. We’re working for a law firm. It’s so wide open and I love that.
To that point, this wave of authentic Black representation in TV and film isn’t just telling stories of Black people overcoming their struggle. Many of them are stories of Black people living normal lives. What sort of freedom do you think there is in Black people being normal on screen?
It starts with the mindset. We feel free to think a certain way. A lot of us who jump to entertainment, our families are like, “What are you going to do? Comedy?” But, now it’s like, why not? We are the generation showing endless possibilities. When I talk to my children, they truly believe they can do whatever they want. The key is changing our mindset. There may be people who try to stop things. But, so what? Try to do Tulsa [Massacre] again. (laughs)
You’ve been in films like Get Out and Judas and the Black Messiah that are heavily centered on discussion of race. But, you’ve also been in films like The Photograph and Bad Trip with Black leads but not centered on Blackness. How does race affect the roles you choose?
It hasn’t. If there’s one thing about me people don’t pay attention to is how different all of my roles are where they don’t have to be a Black or white character— they’re just a character. You see me in a movie like Free Guy or Vacation Friends. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make sure they humanize us. That’s it. Sometimes they’ll make us seem like we’re superhuman. Do you know what I love about the movie Moonlight? I love that the drug dealer was the one who was caring. All dope dealers ain’t monsters (laughs). They usually try to make us feel like we’re monsters. I think about Kanye [West] and Drake doing that concert for Larry Hoover and how Black gangsters were never given the opportunity to clean up their mess, but white gangsters were. I can’t even watch The Godfather anymore because I get mad. I get mad the white guy [Vito Corleone] dies of natural death (laughs).
What other normal parts of everyday life do you want to see Black people portray on screen?
I’m a part of creating that. Right now, I’m big on the Black dad space. I want to see more Black dads being really good fathers and not in these crazy situations or just being a baby father. I want to see more Black dads from my generation. I’m a dad and I want to see more of us on television. There are a couple of really cool dad stories I’m attached to that I can’t wait for people to see. I want to see more natural Black romances. Our rom-coms be going too deep sometimes (laughs). Big momma died in the rom-com? I want it to be about love. I’m doing [a film] right now for the Hallmark channel that is just a beautiful love story that doesn’t have to include all of these difficult things. I’m already working on the stories and characters I want to see.