Oscar-nominated actor Terrence Howard talks about the PBS documentary he's hosting about hip-hop and the cramped images of manliness it projects

By Vanessa Juarez
Updated February 20, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Terrence Howard always looks sharp, which is why he can command a room without saying a word. The 37-year-old actor recently donned a lovely navy suit and scholarly black-framed glasses for a panel in Pasadena to discuss Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes (premieres Feb. 20), one in a series of Independent Lens documentaries Howard is hosting on PBS. After the discussion, EW sat down with Howard for a candid interview about the series, race, and a difference of opinion on the set of 2005’s Hustle & Flow.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did this documentary in the series feel more relevant to you, since it deals with how the violence and misogyny in hip-hop has particularly affected the African-American community?
TERRENCE HOWARD: Each and every one is [relevant]. There’s one about Jehovah’s Witnesses, which I hope to be one day. There’s one about a great teacher who took the premise that every child could learn, [and] I want to be [a teacher] one day. These are all award-winning documentaries. It wasn’t like I was stuck with a possible lemon.

Can you talk a bit about the content of this particular documentary? More specifically, the East Coast-West Coast beef — was that real, or, as some say, conjured up by the media?
I firmly believe that this is something that is deeply entrenched inside of black America: We’ve been pitted against each other for so many hundreds of years that we do not know how to unify. There’s no coalition among black people as of yet, even people in the same field. We’ve seen it in hip-hop, and we’ve seen it with the older generation of actors that didn’t help the next group of black young people that came around. This is something we need to work out of our system.

Why do you think there’s no unity there? Do people feel threatened by each other?
You’ve got to remember on the plantations what took place is they would take one group and keep them at rivals with the other groups. The ones that were to be on top or [who] placated the people in charge, those were the individuals who received all of the awards. Anytime someone did not play along with that game, they were put on the outside. Black people [were] watching each other to where we no longer trusted each other. And that will continue until we get some sense.

How much is this affecting young kids who are watching, say, hip-hop videos on BET? They pick up this idea that they have to be hard.
Do you remember when you were in class and if one kid was allowed to sit there and eat his sandwich… [then] everybody wants to eat that sandwich in the middle of the classroom? So there you have it…. Say you live on this street and there’s the only black guy you know at the end of the block, and you always see him waving his gun and cursing and yelling and all of these things. And an hour later you drive down another block and you see another black guy. The only association you have is with that negative image. So if the images that we are seeing most of the time [are] on television and on film — and nobody’s making these guys do this, projecting this dark light — you can be upset when someone reproaches them.

Do you ever hear the criticism that you’re not black enough, or that you’re acting like a white man? It happens to me as a Latina.
Yeah, I came back from Los Angeles in 1979 — I lived in Cleveland before that. I remember [people] saying, ”You sound white, you sound white.” The black community is not so open to change. It’s starting to open its eyes, but we will continually push and push at whatever it is that has been the standard: ”If Grandma was on welfare, then welfare is good enough for me”; ”If the projects was good enough for my daddy, the projects is good enough for me”; ”My daddy went to jail, that’s a rite of passage.” We have to break that thinking.

Why do some hip-hop artists continue to give voice to that type of thinking?
Because people are listening to them. They climbed to the mountaintops. And we gave them passage to the mountaintop because they had something to say, and then they get up there and they speak demonic things. Everything you say if you’ve been given an opportunity to have an audience should be toward encouragement. There should be no sounding brass on top of that mountain. That’s not what we need right now.

Can you talk about some of the roles you’ve taken, and how some might say that Hustle & Flow, in which you played a pimp, perpetuates stereotypes? People who only saw the trailer might think that…
In the film, [producer] John Singleton wanted me to slap and throw [a prostitute character] down the stairs. [But] I went into my trailer and I sat there for six hours until they removed that horrible idea that was not part of the script and decided to go back to the script. And if Paramount put a trailer together that told lies about the subject matter of that movie, is that something new? Aren’t most of those films done that way? If they have a formula that they subscribed to in order for the shareholders of that company to stay in a good place — ”Well, let’s put the misogyny right back in where it’s supposed to be, and let’s turn these people back into the animals that they are.”