Halfway through what feels like the usual interview with a Hollywood entertainer in town to promote a new work, I’m stopped short.
Lance Reddick had discussed the television work that made his name—roles on the gritty HBO series Oz and The Wire, then the mind-bending cable shows Lost and Fringe—and his longstanding desire to move into film. He noted, like many actors before him, that he became a producer to create the parts no one was asking him to play. Then, explaining why he thought his latest movie so meaningful that he accepted a modest role in it, Reddick mentions Aristotle.
I can assure you that Hollywood actors don’t typically cite Greek philosophers. Lance Reddick is not your typical actor. But then, Won’t Back Down, which stars the Oscar-nominated actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a parent and teacher trying to wrest control of their failing elementary school from an unconcerned bureaucracy, isn’t your typical feature film, either.
For example, movie critics don’t ordinarily find themselves targets of a propaganda campaign. But this reviewer received multiple emails from interest groups attacking Won’t Back Down in the weeks before its release. The president of the American Federation of Teachers wrote that “the film contains several egregiously misleading scenes with the sole purpose of undermining people’s confidence in public education, public school teachers and teachers unions.” And the Center for Media and Democracy warned: “The emotionally engaging Hollywood film Won’t Back Down [promotes education reform supported by] two controversial right-wing organ-izations: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heartland Institute.”
It is, indeed, emotionally engaging: This gripping drama presents an unflinching portrait of the sad reality of American public education. More gratifying is that it suggests, with the help of its skilled cast, how unlucky children might be offered a happier fate.
Won’t Back Down has provoked the sort of protests normally reserved for religious dramas directed by Mel Gibson. Twentieth Century Fox screened it at both political conventions, sparking a demonstration at the Democratic gathering in Charlotte. The New York premiere last month featured protesters carrying signs reading, “Won’t Back Down, get out of town.”
Lance Reddick, talking to me before the film hit theaters, wryly predicts that it will “get people talking.” But, he adds, “At the end of the day, as the saying goes, talk is cheap. I don’t know that one film is going to change things.” Spending resources in an election year to influence movie critics signals that the nation’s largest teachers’ union thinks it could, and Reddick admits he holds out hope it will. That’s why he signed on: “The way the system is set up now is not working.”
Reddick, who struggled as a young actor to get his own daughter out of public schools, is proud to play a part in Won’t Back Down. “I thought it was an important film,” he says. “Because of how controversial the subject was and the head-on attacks, I was surprised that it was getting made.” Reddick plays the husband of Viola Davis’s teacher, who is worn down by the system but is finally inspired to fight it. “I’ll be honest with you: I did question whether I wanted to do the role, because it felt so peripheral.”
But it was Aristotle who persuaded him. Reddick believes that film and television can change hearts and minds. “You can kind of trick people,” he says. “Like Aristotle said, you can entertain and instruct.”
Reddick has an impressive pedigree: The 49-year-old son of Baltimore teachers, he studied music composition at Peabody and Eastman and drama at Yale. “I wanted to major in philosophy, but I was afraid I wasn’t smart enough,” he says. He was exposed to Aristotle outside the classroom: “I stumbled upon Ayn Rand when I was 18 and she changed my life.”
Like Paul Ryan, Reddick is quick to note that he doesn’t agree with everything the author of Atlas Shrugged wrote, but her obsession with Aristotle stuck with him. “I don’t want to go off on a tangent about her stuff,” he says, but her “Romantic Manifesto completely changed my idea about aesthetics. . . . One thing Ayn Rand was trying to say over and over again was learn to think for yourself. And trust what you think. It’s part of what gave me the courage to finally leave music school and say I don’t want to be a classical composer.”
Reddick doesn’t seem to have mentioned his affinity for Ayn Rand in earlier interviews. Have I found a rare conservative—or at any rate, a libertarian—in Hollywood?
Reddick realizes such apostasy might not be permitted: “Well,” he says slowly when asked to elaborate on his political beliefs, “you could call me pretty left. I feel like I’m a Democrat by default.” He doesn’t sound very leftist, though. There’s another long “Well,” then, “I’m conservative about some things, radical about others. One thing I think white middle-America would be shocked to find out is that, socially, most middle-class black people are very conservative.”
The political atmosphere has become much more “rabid” and “polarizing” since 9/11, he argues. And he blames the very industry of which he’s becoming a prominent part: “I hate to say it, but the way the media—even Hollywood film and television—plays out, it’s in collusion. Ever see A Face in the Crowd?”—the 1957 Elia Kazan film starring Andy Griffith as a hobo who becomes a media phenomenon—“It’s a film that was obscured in Kazan’s filmography because he named names.” But Reddick recommends it as an “incredible film” about the power the media wield: “It’s very difficult when you’ve got people believing The Other is the way they’re portrayed on TV.”
The Wire, he believes, is a positive example of that power. But chatting about The Wire, which explored Baltimore’s troubles through various levels of society, leads back to politics: “I think the war on drugs is a joke,” Reddick says. “It’s a war on poor people of color.” When I point out that the country’s first black president has intensified that war, even targeting states that have legalized medical marijuana, Reddick—who at 6'4" usually plays authority figures—is silent for a few moments. “I feel like I’m an Obama man, so I’ve got nothing to say,” he finally admits.
So maybe the rising star whose first media gig was delivering copies of the Wall Street Journal will have more to say after Election Day. Or perhaps Hollywood, the world’s loudest media machine, will keep him quiet.