tv Talk to Al Jazeera Al Jazeera January 30, 2016 2:30pm-3:01pm EST
church of the native at this will be seen as it hasn't for sen tircenturies stefanie dekke, bethlehem. and it's all about peace and love. aljazeera.com for all of the global headlines, aljazeera.com. my obituary will be, wendell pierce, who's known for playing bunk moreland, the detective on the wire, dies today at 110. >> he's best known perhaps for his role in the hbo crime drama the wire, but pierce , who grew up in the historic african american neighborhood of pontchartrain park in new orleans, is dedicated to rebuilding the area destroyed by
hurricane katrina, 10 years ago. >> i knew that for my generation, we owed it to my parents generation. to make sure it came back. >> the actor also recently starred in the film selma, half a century after the civil right march, pierce said he stood on the symbolic edmund pettus bridge, and reflected on the movement. >> all the souls at the bottom of that alabama river saying, "just tell us the way", "make sure they don't forget us"... >> when a critic said, the decision to wear an "i can't breathe" t - shirt, protesting police violence at the movie's premiere, might cost an oscar, pierce said he has no regrets. >> something that we vigilantly fight against and know, and that people will rationalize violence, in ways that are just ugly. >> and divine intervention, is how he describes his work in treme, a drama, set in post katrina new orleans.
>> i literally held my mother in my arms, the last moments of her life, and it was because i was here doing treme. >> i caught up with wendell pierce as the 10th anniversary of katrina was approaching. >> so let s start at the very beginning. did you grow up in pontchartrain park? >> yes-- >> you did. >> loved pontchartrain park. it was-- you know, i always called it, like-- a little mayberry neighborhood. you know, it s-- everybody knew each other. >> your mom was a teacher. >> my mother was a teacher-- >> what did your dad do? >> my mother-- my father was a maintenance man at the university of new orleans. >> he had been a veteran. >> yes. he-- fought in saipan in world war ii. and-- he worked at a furniture store for a while, he was on-- he was on-- he worked-- in the railroad yards for a while. he studied as a photographer. he studied as a photographer in new york-- went from southern university, and went to new york to study photography. >> i didn't realize the history here. it s pretty remarkable. >> it is-- it s one of the
triumphs of the-- civil rights movement-- in new orleans. it was in response to-- the ugly part of jim crow, which was black people could only go to parks one day a week on wednesdays. >> black day, >> black day, negro day was wednesdays. and a.p. tureaud-- started the advocacy and the civil rights movement-- to end that. and-- they were becoming successful. they were really-- putting the pressure on city government and all. and this was a part of that appeasement. "well, we ll do a set aside, separate but equal." next to-- you know, the white suburbia at this time, this is in-- very much inner city now, but post-world war ii, this was suburbia. "and-- we ll do-- a black neighborhood with the same contractors and developers of the adjacent white neighborhoods-- 200 acres." and that became pontchartrain park, separate but equal.
>> was that the only place that black people could buy into? >> it was the only place where you could purchase a home. >> so blacks were kept out ever-- other neighborhoods-- >> they-- they were kept out of other neighborhoods-- >> what did a house cost? >> $13,000 >> your parents house cost-- >> my parents house cost $13,000, and-- everybody, what happened was-- pontchartrain park devel-- in the black community, became, you know, this idyllic place, where you can get a house, you live around a golf course designed by joseph bartholomew, southern university was in the neighborhood, you know, the playgrounds, the parks, the schools. >> my father fought in world war ii, utilized the gi bill to come home and purchase a home. >> so take me back to where you were when hurricane katrina hit and what you were thinking. >> i was in st. james, louisiana. we had-- evacuated that sunday after they asked it to be mandatory. and-- >> with your family? >> with my family, my mother and father, my two nieces, who had come in for-- and my sister-in-law from new york-- my
aunt and uncle, who lived out there. and we lost power. i took-- my nieces out-- outside, so they can experience-- hurricane force winds. "this is a storm." and then, when we lost power, i thought-- i wondered what was happening in the city. and-- listening to the radio. and they said the levees have broken. every person in new orleans gr-- new orleans grows up understanding what that means. this-- what the big one is, when it comes to earthquake in california-- we always knew, if the levees ever broke, the city was going to be-- in peril. >> and when you saw your street for the first time, was it worse even than you had imagined? >> it was definitely worse than i imagined. it was like nuclear winter. it was-- it was like chernobyl. and-- people asked what it was like.
it was surreal. >> why come back? i mean, a lotta people didn't. you could've just-- >> home is home. >> you have a home in l.a., you have a home in new york. >> it s true. i really wanted to do it for my parents. one simple thing, i wanted my mother and father to come back home before they died. >> you went to your parents house? >> it was as if someone had poured black detergent in the house and lifted it and shook it around. and it was like the death of a family member. i remember turning the-- turning the corner to come into the neighborhood, turning the corner to come down the block, and seeing the house, and both of my parents just falling out in tears. it was-- i remember my father saying, "oh, we raised our sons in this house." they were speaking as if my brother and i weren't even there, that we were-- they were like this young couple-- saying, you know, "we lost everything." >> why did they and why did you decide that rebuilding was the right
thing to do? lotta people didn't, they packed up. >> i knew that, for my generation, we owed it to my parents generation, to make sure it came back, whether we lived here or not, you know-- to make sure that it came back. because-- people died so we could be here, truly. >> it s like a movie almost. >> like a movie. it s nostalgic, it s-- it s this bucolic, "oh, you know, they stood up to somebody who was--" but-- we, just some we honor those who gave their lives on foreign shores for our freedoms, there are people who gave their lives on these shores, on domestic roads, in-- in-- in that mississippi river. >> there s blood on that ballot box >> how much money-- did your parents get from the insurance company? >> four hundred dollars. >> four hundred dollars-- >> four hundred dollars. >> period? >> for fifty years of premiums.
yes, it was considered a ten-day event, $20 for each of them for a ten-day event, $40 a day for ten days, $400, thank you very much. >> so what did it cost to rebuild their house? >> it cost-- it cost about what the houses are-- appraising for now, which is-- a modest two-bedroom, 1200 square foot house is about $150,000 >> how many people percentage-wise are back in pontchartrain park? >>oh, we re-- almost whole. i would say we re about-- we re about at 75%. and to me that's whole. >> and who lives here now? because it used to be elderly folks. >> yeah, it s a hodgepodge. it is young folks, it is still elderly. we have a lotta renters now.
i think what happened in the city is, you know public housing was taken down. and so you have a lot of-- public housing folks who are now renting in the neighborhoods, which i don t mind-- welcome them, and actually, welcome them in purchasing the houses that we, you know, really developing-- as a part of our community development corp, a resident-initiated, you know. it's a real hodgepodge. we have white families in the neighborhood for the first time. you know and i l'll never forget when that happened, my father, 90 years old, said, "see? see, son? that s what it s all about. that s america." aw, he d laugh. >> has the city itself come back? >> it's a tale of two cities. >> poor and rich? white and black? which two? >> it is the haves and the have nots, definitely. it s always been a black and white city.
and whatever-- whatever tensions we have around race, it s always closely related to class, you know >> why has this become your issue? i mean, you are on the stage in new york, on broadway, you re in films. i mean, you have other gigs that probably take up a lotta your time. >> trust me. i ask me that-- i ask (laugh) myself that a lot. what happens is, when it s happening to you, it s hard to ignore. i live here. i live in this neighborhood. i l-- my parents live here. my friends live here, you know? we have the same issues. the city s too small to make it a tale of two cities, you know? the true economic engine is when there s access and opportunity for a multitude of people. the more people involved, restricting opportunity only restricts growth. you know, and people feel as though expanding opportunity is competition that denies them
something, which actually just, you know, a rising tide floats our boats. there s a common-- there s a common understanding. that s what american capitalism is all about. i m a true capitalist. and we re not practicing capitalism. we re restrictive in our thinking-- when it comes to growth. my kids can only get this education. only my kids- only this opportunity for our community. or, you know, if we do development over there, then we won t be be able to do development here. and what they don t understand-- >> and aren t this-- isn t there some truth to that? it s a zero-sum game-- >> no. i don t think it s a zero-sum game. that s what people want to believe. a lotta people make a lot of money if you believe that, you know? and-- i m-- i m just-- i m one that doesn't believe that. >> what happened with the salvation army? didn't they give-- >> yeah. >> --a million dollars? >> the salvation army pulled their grant from us-- because-- we weren't -- building houses fast
enough and getting people in them. there was a conflict of-- best practices, which is we are n-- we are restricted to who we can sell our houses to. only-- 80% a.m.i., average median income, and below. the city and other people involved, and the salvation army also, were saying. no, build the houses. build the houses first, then go find people to get qualified up, and then get into the houses. and we sayin the difficulty is-- getting people qualified. to lose a grant was-- you know, is unfortunate. it s not the end of the program. >> what s the biggest problem right now, post-katrina new orleans, would you say?
>> crime. crime. >> and what s the root of that crime? >> job-stop bullets, economic development. and-- crime is about education and opportunity. now-- now people will challenge me and say, "well, you know, hey, man, people have-- you had the opportunity t-- l-- it s-- it s on those people to take advantage of their education-- " >> you re not a criminal. >> --and opportunity." you know, that s-- but we have-- we all m-- make contributions to this, you know, to a dysfunctional dynamic. and people have to look at their contributions, you know, to the dysfunctional dynamic. so-- when we look at our neighborhoods that are in crisis, and crime,
violence, murder, understand there's a responsibility, personal responsibility, yes. but we have memorialized policies, too, that are contributing to that. and let s make sure we get rid of-- let s have a comprehensive approach and get rid of it all. you know, it s not monolithic. "oh, they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps." or, "it s the education system." or ...you unders-- you have to understand people make money by keepin an underclass. and so we have to wa-- people make money by keepin a criminal class. we ve privatized our prisons. the only way you make money, if you go into the prison industry, is if you have prisoners. how do you keep prisoners? you make sure you lobby against any education reform. because education is opportunity that s not gonna take you down a criminal path. so if you don t-- if you have an uneducated class, you know that that s, eventually, gonna become a criminal class, cause they re not gonna have any skill sets. and then you keep
your prisons filled. so, you know, it s the prison industrial complex that people talk about. so it s multifaceted. >> this is talk to al jazeera, up next, wendell pierce on what he refers to as his "godfather role", playing bunk moreland in the wire. >> "inside story" takes you beyond the headlines, beyond the quick cuts, beyond the soundbites. we're giving you a deeper dive into the stories that are making our world what it is.
place where so many people-- really-- did extraordinary things. and one of the most profound moments i had doin' selmawas standing on the edmund pettus bridge after we-- we had finished filming. and i could just feel and hear the people say, "make sure you tell our story." all the souls at the bottom of that alabama river are sayin', "just tell our story. make sure they don't forget us." >> interesting times, 'cause it seems like the story is relevant again. >> yeah. well, you know, it's a continuum. and what happens every once in a while, the veil is lifted and we're reminded of the barbarians at the gate, that there's a ugly part of hatred in human nature. that is always something that we have to vigilantly fight against and know, and that people will rationalize violence in ways that-- you know-- is just ugly.
it's so clearly ugly for people to see, but they can't. and that's what just selmajust was reminding you that this wasn't a movement in the past. it is a continuum of vigilance. that's what the american aesthetic is all about. the american ideal is not static. our values are a living, breathing thing. a lotta people are always shocked when i say, speakin' about american values, when i'm talkin' about the civil rights movement, and i say that shock tells you we still have work to do, because you see it as something separate, you know. >> people were surprised that you-- wore an "i can't breathe" shirt at the premiere. yeah. >> and there was-- you got-- some flak about it. >> oh, we got more than flak about it. we had-- we had a oscar-- >> voter. >> voter, who said, h-- her-- her literal words were, "do you wanna be an oscar-nominated film or do you wanna stir up (bleep)?
and how dare you wear protests at your premiere?" she, obviously, doesn't understand what art is about, what protest is about. one of the greatest things about america is to be able to protest and ask your government to address issues. that is the first rights that they gave you as a people. you have the right to peacefully assemble and ask the government to address issues that you have. >> do you think it cost you the oscar in any way? >> yeah. she said it. "i'm not gonna vote for that film because of that." and it did. >> do you regret it? >> no. absolutely not. what was so great was that day, of the premiere, millions of people, not just young, black people, millions of people said, "you know,
that's not our values." no, it's unacceptable if-- for what we say in that video, that is unacceptable. >> last time i saw you, you were performing brothers from the bottom in new york. and you're bringing it here to new orleans. >> yeah, now i'm bringin' it to new orleans, yeah. >> why is it gonna be-- i would think it would be particularly relevant-- performing that play right here. >> well, it's-- what we're dealin' with in new orleans, gentrification-- over the past ten years-- s-- since katrina-- it's-- not only-- a hot-button topic for the country, but specifically, the events of the play are around the events of what's happening in new orleans. and forum of art is where society comes together to discuss those things that are on people's minds. no one's a villain in the play. no one's a villain in a discussion.
and i think it's a healthy thing to stop and commemorate where we are because of this awful event that happened ten years ago, to really kind of, once again, stop and declare what's important to us, what are our values. >> how big of a deal was the wirefor your career? >> it will be the defining moment of my career. >> really? why? >> the first line of my obituary will be, "wendell pierce, who was known for playing bunk moreland, the detective, on the wire, died today at 110." (laughter) it-- it was a defining moment in television, it was a defining (slurs) moment in-- the literary nature of television and-- >> were you afraid when it ended? i mean, sometimes, when you have such a defining role, it has to be scary when it moves on. >> no. no. i missed it, you know. i always kind of get choked up when i leave a character or leave a role.
but it was a relief. i had a friend tell me, she said, you know, "wendell, you had your godfather." every actor hopes to have something like that in their career, you know? and i thought about it and said, "yeah, i could be in a chicken suit, you know, passin' out flyers a year from now. and hey, i was bunk on the wire, you know >> how about treme, which was about the neighborhood, treme, here in new orleans? >> treme was, first of all, treme was-- divine intervention for me. >> what do you mean? >> it was the last years i got to spend with my mother. >> here in town. >> in town. i got to spend four ye-- the f-- last four years of my mother's life with her. i literally held my mother in my arms-- the last moments of her life. and-- it was because i was here doin' treme. i think it was-- divine intervention,
because-- and therapeutic. and that was the role of the show for the city, too, where people could look at it, get mad at it, hate it, love it, remember what they went through, remember what's important to 'em. as we go through these discussions of appropriation of culture-- losing culture-- are we losin' our neighborhoods, or the-- what are we throwin' away, what's new, we have a cultural document that was a show called treme, that we'll be able to put in and say, "listen, maybe you're not understanding me. this is what i'm tryin' to say." >> can you play the trombone? >> very poorly >> do you-- did you give up after treme? >> well, i had other work to do. so i didn't have the time to put it in. >> (laugh) that sounds like an excuse. >> yes, it is an excuse. but-- i still can play. i remember all m-- you know, significant solos. i-- i can, at least, fake it really well. i still
and the transformative nature of art and the impact that it has. >> you think art can really transform? >> oh, i know art can transform. we're talkin' about new orleans, everybody remembers, after katrina, the first time they heard, (sings) "do you know what it means to miss new orleans and miss her each night and day?" louis armstrong. you know what that feels like, what that meant to you, whatever. a poet changed poland, the solidarity movement, lech walesa, you know. an american actor became an american president, ronald reagan, you know? it's morning in america. so poetry, art, the power that that can have on a person's life can be transformative. >> was your book hard to write?
it takes-- >> yeah. >> place in a sad time. >> it takes place over it's not just in that one time. it's about the power of art and the awakening that it had for me, how it was an awakening to understand what the legacy of my family was. everything that they had gone through to get us to where we were, and that resilience reflected again in tryin' to survive this disastrous and tragic thing-- this flood of katrina. and then understanding the power of that art in healing >> wendell pierce, nice to talk to you. thank you. >> thank you. >> grammy award-winning jazz singer cassandra wilson. >> everyone comes into the world with their unique voice. the question is, do you know how to develop it? >> her life, legacy and song-writing secrets. >> tapping into a spirituality
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