Actor Chiké Okonkwo, most known for his role in “The Birth of a Nation,” was once a young boy living in London who dreamed of becoming a professional actor. His Nigerian heritage longed for the spotlight and at 17-years-old, his dream began to turn into a reality when he was accepted to both the National Youth Theatre and the National Youth Music Theatre.
He started his professional career working at the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he performed in the award-winning production of Julius Caesar. Okonkwo didn’t waste any time and soon took a role in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” at the Royal Exchange Theatre.
Okonkwo more recently starred opposite Gabrielle Union on the hit BET series Being Mary Jane and in the British indie film Genesis. He stars in and executive produces Distemper, which recently netted him the Best Actor award at SeriesFest in Denver, Colorado.
His activism focuses on community banking in his role as Ambassador for One United Bank, the largest Black-owned bank in the US. Okonkwo is also an advocate for the eradication of child poverty with the Children’s Defense Fund and as an inside cofacilitator of a Restorative Justice course for system impacted men at California State Prison, Lancaster.
Interview by Christine Andreu
Christine Andreu: You are an actor and activist. Do these blend together?
Chiké Okonkwo: Storytelling has been my job really since I was a kid. Since I was probably 16 or 17-years-old. Storytelling was the thing that really compelled me. On the stage and theater or on TV or film, it kind of didn’t matter to me. It was just about being able to tell a story. When I moved to the United States in 2011, I became very preoccupied with telling African-American stories that could connect African-Americans to the African continent and to the African diaspora throughout the world. And so, I really come at telling stories here in the United States from a very global perspective and historical perspective. So, on the acting side, that meant me doing films like the “Birth of a Nation,” which speaks to the actual birth of the nation of the United States of America.
On the activism side, when I was living in New York in 2011, it became really clear to me that there were certain stories that we couldn’t tell unless we got to the core of racism in the United States. Honestly, I always thought that the US had an advantage over the UK, where I grew up. [This is] because if you were racist, you knew it and you sort of didn’t hide it here. But the systemic racism was something that was a bit more difficult to get around.
I set about trying to tell those stories, both in the work that I do, but also in the activism that I do.
It really drilled down to 3 things for me.
The first is children’s education, children poverty, and eradicating poverty and elevating education, so that our next generation has a better chance of not having to go through the things that you and I had to go through in this current situation. Bearing in mind, all of this has slightly changed in this last month, which I’m really grateful for. But in 2011, it was a tricky prospect to talk about race. So, on the first run, I had done a lot of work with the Children’s Defense Fund, an organization in California that had just entered the country. [The Children’s Defense Fund] was just incredible and has done a lot of legislative work to help children, especially Black and Brown children in the U.S.
“I became very preoccupied with telling African-American stories that could connect African-Americans to the African continent and to the African diaspora throughout the world.”
The second thing was the prison system——the prison industrial complex. It just made no sense to me. It made no sense that it was so based on the disparity of race. And so, I’ve done a lot of work over the years culminating in me working closely with a friend of mine, Chris Young, who was on death row in Texas and was very sadly executed in 2018. But, I was able to use my platform and the connections I have to really put a global spotlight on his case and push it to the very, very end. That’s led me to doing a lot of work now with an organization called Re:Store Justice California. I’m a co-facilitator of their restorative justice course at the California State Prison in Lancaster. Every week before COVID, I would go in and talk with a group of 20 men about the trauma that led them to commit the crimes they committed and the healing that can come about when we talk about restorative justice, as opposed to this penal system that we have currently. So that’s the second part.
The third part is about economic power. I think a lot of people have been speaking about that more recently, but re-ally and truly, racism is an amorphous term. And it doesn’t quite encompass everything that this movement, this moment dictates. Really, it’s about power, and it’s about privilege. It’s about the ability to move the Black and Brown community, who also have structural economic deprivation. And one of the ways I do that is as an ambas-sador for the OneUnited Bank, the largest Black-owned bank in America. I just felt very strongly that if we can teach financial literacy to children, if we can give people a second chance who maybe have bad credit and who haven’t had the oppor-tunity to get lendings from the traditional banking system, then I feel like in the mass of our generation, will be able to build generational wealth. And I think [we can] eradicate some of these problems forever.
Christine Andreu: As a Black man, I believe that you have a global perspective on the movement. Tell me about that.
Chiké Okonkwo: I was actually raised in the United Kingdom, but very much in a Nigerian household. And we’ve spent a lot of time in Nigeria, back and forth. So, [although] I was actually born in England and grew up there, I have always considered myself Igbo. Igbo people are known for their love of story and their love of words. It’s just who I am.
The great thing about America that I’ve always loved since I was a kid is this idea that people come from all over the world and can be unified by their ideals, not just by their race or religion and so on. But this idea hasn’t quite lived up to everything that it could be. And so you’re right. I’ve been really lucky to have a global perspective and a global idea that is really rooted in unity. [One that is] really rooted in the fact that although we have our differences, which unify us in lots of ways, they also mark us as individuals.
I think unity is key for me. That’s what I really hope my work leads us towards. But there are loads of things that need to happen before that. And something unreal [I am] encouraged about in this moment is that Caucasian people [of] European descent are starting to reckon with their place in history. And [they are] starting to understand that this time that we’re in can lead us to unity, but there’s work that needs to be done on their part. So, I’m the most encouraged by conversations that are happening in White-only space. It’s [the] conversations that I don’t hear that are now moving towards this unity. So now is not the time of cynicism, it’s the time for optimism.
America now finally has an opportunity to be everything that it hoped it could be and everything it can be moving forward.
Christine Andreu: Could you speak a little bit more to that optimism or to that hope that you have?
Chiké Okonkwo: In my journeys these last few years, I’ve been in really desperate places. [I’ve] been on death row, [and] working with a man on death row is not an ennobling experience in any way. It’s just being there, physically just being there.
But in the midst of that hardness, Chris Young and Mitesh Patel, who is the son of the man that Chris murdered, they both taught me that so much healing can come from that darkness. They both taught me that if we can look at things in a nuanced way, especially to the American justice system, there are actually better outcomes.
I’m really optimistic because just two years ago, when I was working on that case, it didn’t seem as a system of restorative justice. [It] did not seem possible in a mass way in America. But, in these last six weeks, it seems not only possible but actually, like it’s probable. So, I feel really optimistic that we can move towards a system that is restorative as opposed to punitive and filled with revenge. That we can move towards a system where children do not live in poverty in the United States, one of the richest countries in the world. And we can move towards a system of real unity because African American people, people of African descent in this country, will no longer be marginalized and killed in the streets and kept out of the economic promises of this country because there is now an opportunity for us to move forward.
[With] OneUnited Bank, I’ve seen a great increase in the work that they do, and they’ve been doing that work diligently for years. So, I’m encouraged by the fact that the three things I mentioned at the beginning of this conversation are now not just abstract ideas in my mind, but they’re being played out in technicolor before my very eyes.
Christine Andreu: Can you tell us about your experience working on and in “Birth of a Nation.” What a profound film it is – probably in many top 10 films to watch right now. What was that experience like?
Chiké Okonkwo: “Birth of a Nation” was more than an acting experience for me. It was more than just doing a job, more than just playing a role. It really was a spiritual experience. The script was so profound when I first received it, I just knew I wanted to be a part of telling that story. We shot it in Savannah, Georgia, which was one of the biggest ports for importing enslaved people at the time in the 1830s or before. And to do that film on the ground where our ancestors were literally buried was just [pro-found]. It gave me an opportunity to really feel what it was like to live in that time and in that moment. And contrary to, I think what people would think if they see a film called “Birth of a Nation” or a film about people who are enslaved, it wasn’t a film about enslavement. It was a film about revolution and revolution that’s done in that, but also with the revolution within one soul. I think there is so much more to the experience of being enslaved than we have ever seen yet on film.
And that film nudged us in the right direction. I, for one, would like to see many, many more films and shows coming out of that time because Black people were more than just enslaved. The word slave itself just diminishes the life that those people lived. I hate it when I see, hate is a strong word, but I very much dislike it when I see news reports or articles that say, “the slaves that were captured from the African shores.” When those slaves captured on African shores, they were fathers and mothers and doctors and archeologists, and they had dreams and hopes and lives and aspirations. And so, “Birth of a Nation” to me honored some of those lives in telling that kind of story.
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