Named one of Variety’s “10 Actors to Watch,” leading man Russell Hornsby is a part of the next generation ready to take his place among Hollywood greats in film and television. Hornsby has worked consistently in Hollywood for over two decades and has recently turned in award-winning and buzzed-about performances in films including “Fences” where he stars as Lyons opposite Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, “The Hate U Give” where he starred as the male lead opposite Amandla Stenberg and Regina Hall, played a pivotal and mysterious character in “Creed II” opposite Michael B. Jordan and took a turn playing the storied Lincoln Rhyme character, for the NBC series “Lincoln Rhyme.”
Russell Hornsby currently stars in the hit drama series “BMF,” aka Black Mafia Family, which airs on Sunday nights and just got picked up for a second season after being the #1 new show on Starz and the StarzPlay app. BMF follows the story of two brothers who created the Black Mafia Family, the most prominent drug distribution network in American History. “BMF” is inspired by the true story of two brothers, Demetrius “Big Meech” Flenory ( Demetrius Flenory, Jr.) and Terry “Southwest T” Flenory (Da’Vinchi), from the inner-city streets of southwest Detroit in the late 1980s, who fostered the most prominent drug trafficking organization in the U.S., known as “Black Mafia Family.” This series explores the brothers’ lives, their family dynamics, and their relationship with the community in an authentic manner that highlights their upbringing in a traditional family unit. Their parents Charles Flenory (Russell Hornsby) and Lucille Flenory (Michole Briana White), as well as their spiritual advisor, Pastor Swift (Snoop Dogg), push the brothers to pursue formal educations. The tension between Meech and Terry’s blood family and the criminal family they formed to eradicate themselves from poverty creates inner conflict as the brothers pursue the ever-elusive American Dream.
The Chicago Defender had a chance to speak with the multi-talented actor on his role in BMF and his upcoming role as boxing promoter Don King.
You play the father to characters who are notorious. What attracted you to this role in “BMF”?
Russell Hornsby: Honestly, I didn’t want to play another father. Instead, I was attracted to the role of Pat (played by Wood Harris). Tasha Smith said, “Brother, I need you to anchor this. We need a strong man to anchor this because if we don’t have a strong presence, nothing else will matter. So, she said, we’ll give you some good stuff to chew on and work with, but we need the strength you possess. So I told her, count me in.”
You and your wife on the show play hard-working, honest people. Typically, families of drug dealers are often portrayed as broken or dysfunctional. How did you approach playing the role of a father who has attempted to set the example yet sees their child going down a different path?
Russell Hornsby: If you look at the times around the mid to late 70s and early 80s, we’re looking at a country that’s broken, fundamentally, right? The idea of the American dream had failed black America. You’re talking about inflation, high oil prices, the breakdown of industry, etc. So now you’re looking at families who were hard working from the 40s, 50s, and 60s who had some chance at upward mobility. There was still inequality and systemic oppression, but we had our own black enclaves, where people had money. In our communities, we would have doctors, lawyers, and other hard-working folks.
They could provide for their families or own a home. Then we lose those things, and parents now have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. So the kids, who are now growing up and seeing that. They’re saying, I don’t want to work as hard as my parents are working with nothing to show for it. You got to work hard, and things will work out for you. And the kid is saying, Well, Dad, why are we living like this? So all the kids see is that the dream failed. All they see now is an opportunity to live well. Rightly or wrongly, it provided an opportunity for them to get out of under their circumstances and find a better way during that time.
How did you go about playing this character and approaching BMF in a way that doesn’t glorify the lifestyle but gets into the consequences of that lifestyle?
Russell Hornsby: I’m a throwback. I was a young man raised by men, and Charles represents those men who were critical in my life. We are talking about real men who went out every day and worked for a living. They even had side jobs. These were blue-collar men who worked in steel mills, did roofing, plumbing, etc.
That’s who Charles is and what he represents. That’s what he came from. So all he knows is hard work. All he knows is getting hands dirty. So that’s it; you find a little joy on a Friday or Saturday night when you want to go out and be somebody once a week. And that was it.
Charles represents the men who raised me. In many ways, my performance honors these men who raised me because I saw how they lived. I saw what they did every day. I saw the pain and the frustration on their faces when the ends couldn’t meet. So I wanted to honor them. These are the men that surrounded me, men I was raised by. These men are in me now. They made me, and they poured into me. These are men who made a deposit in my life and my spirit. So however much money I may make, or however big I may become that man, that hard-working man is still a part of my essence, at its core.
BMF has been renewed for another season. So what can we expect with Season Two?
Russell Hornsby: Well, I’ll say this. I can’t say much. All I will say is, nobody’s hands will be clean.
Hornsby was also cast as the infamous Don King in the Hulu series “Iron Mike,” which is now shooting.
What was it like to play someone so eccentric like Don King in the upcoming series, Iron Mike?
Russell Hornsby: I’m excited for people to see something different come out of Russell Hornsby as an actor and artist. It’s about the humanity of Don King. I’m not saying that he is above reproach, but being black in America is hard, so being black and surviving isn’t just about getting up in the morning, right? Waking up is easy. God helps you do that. Now you got to go out there and fight these rules. Fighting the legacy and trauma of Jim Crow, slavery, post-traumatic slave syndrome…all of those things that have affected every black man, woman, and child in this country for the last 300 plus years. How are we affected by that trauma and what causes a man to make certain decisions or do certain things, and how does it affect people positively and negatively? In the series, you end up seeing the commentary of what blackness means and what it does to certain people or how being black in America affects you.
Your portrayal of Charles Flennory on BMF reminds me of the men in my own life. I thought you brought a sense of relatability to him as he continues to want the best for his family.
Russell Hornsby: The truth of the matter is that people who helped raise me, like, Ronald J. Parsons, Stephen Henderson, and Paul Butler, who’s also from Chicago, are men I toured the country with, men who were 20 years my senior. These were actors who taught me so much. When I speak about people who have poured into me, these are some of the men I’m talking about. They didn’t get the opportunities that I have. They gave me their love, their joy, but they also gave me their pain. It would be a disservice not to honor their legacy in my work. I choose to honor these men in my work because they didn’t get the opportunity to make the money or have the chance to showcase their talent on a larger scale. I am doing it for them. Their spirit resides in me. That’s how I approach my work.
Catch up on episodes of BMF on the Starz Network.