“What I took from it more than anything was not just the president’s views on slavery,” the actor said in an interview, “but how delicate it is to actually maintain a union.”
[Race/Related is also as a newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox.]
Sterling K. Brown, an actor who has starred on the hit NBC drama “This is Us” since 2016, has won multiple Emmys, Screen Actors Guild awards, a Golden Globe and an NAACP Image Award for his acting. But over the course of his successful career, Mr. Brown has asked himself, “What is my responsibility?”
“Do I just get to do good work?” said Mr. Brown, whose other notable roles include characters in “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” “Black Panther,” “Frozen 2” and “Waves.” “Like, do I just want my art to speak for itself? And then you recognize that people pay attention to you. You owe it to the people who allowed you to reach the current level of success that you do to say something of meaning, to make it easier for people who are like you, who are coming up behind you, to be able to do similar things and more.”,
A desire to do more was precisely what drew Mr. Brown to two upcoming projects. He will join the cast of Will Smith’s Netflix documentary exploring the 14th Amendment, and he has narrated a six-part documentary series premiering this weekend on CNN.
In a phone conversation, I talked with Mr. Brown about the documentary, “Lincoln: Divided We Stand,” which analyzes Lincoln’s legacy. Our interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
How did you get involved with the documentary?
We were watching the election transpire, and we were seeing just how divided the country is.
As we were going through the election process, this project came across my table. First and foremost, it was a good dose of perspective that we have been divided before. So when people say, Has the country ever been more divided than it is right now? It’s like, well, we were divided to the point where we actually divided. There was a secession, and we were two different countries from other people’s perspectives.
How was that navigated? President Lincoln found a way. There was bloodshed, there was loss, but he found a way to keep this country together. I was curious to see how this man navigated that period of time. They don’t depict him as just a great savior, they don’t depict him as just a morally supreme human being, but a tactile politician as well.
The combination of those things served him in terms of maintaining the Union. I learned a lot about someone who I had an overarching view of. But in his humanity, to see how he evolved politically from someone who was against the expansion of slavery, to someone who was an abolitionist of slavery, who still believed in the colonization of freed Black people, he didn’t necessarily think that they should coexist in these United States but should be somewhere safe for them to flourish. One of the big takeaways was that, at no point in time, do I ever think were we ever meant to be here as freed citizens.
What did this project bring up for you? Did you have any hesitations?
There was no reticence. It was more of an exploration of my own curiosity. I actually gained a lot of respect for Lincoln and recognizing the struggles that he went through to become who he was — being a self-taught lawyer, growing up in a primarily agrarian society and having resistance from his own father, who thought that he was wasting time in books. He lost his mom early, lost his first love, lost two of his children, lost his sister. He was plagued with depression for the majority of life and still found a way to navigate the political landscape.
What I took from it more than anything was not just his views on slavery, but how delicate it is to actually maintain a union.
Did you have any input in how the documentary was framed?
The most input that I had was when I read Lincoln’s quotes and I’m trying to give them a voice and meaning, because reading Lincoln is like reading Shakespeare, and I can see how people could interpret it in very different ways. So really trying to get into the heart of the language, and in terms of what he was trying to say, I probably had the most latitude and input in terms of how I read those lines.
All of this stuff that happens in a booth by yourself, it’s acting, kind of. For me, when you get a chance to look into another human being’s eyes and bounce off of them and you see life transforming between two people, that’s something. But there’s a technical skill in terms of, what is your operative word? What is the phrase that has the most impact and import in this particular sentence? What is the cadence of it? Are you trying to pull people in? Are you trying to admonish? I love Shakespeare, I love classical texts, and I love breaking down words in that way.
So it was a fun intellectual exercise, especially for someone from 2020 trying to interpret the words of someone from the mid-1800s and the political crucible that he was in the midst of trying to find language that spoke to both the North and the South simultaneously. Because his ultimate end game was to keep the Union together. It was to make this experiment work and not see it fall apart on his watch.
Could you listen to Lincoln’s speeches to get a sense of how he spoke?
There’s not a lot to listen to, or at least I did not find very many. So, I read a few and it was very interesting, too, because they’re not straightforward at all. It’s almost like going back to a Bible verse and you could hear every preacher interpret a Bible verse in a multitude of ways. This dude got doublespeak in the lines themselves, and based upon whatever it is that you want to pay attention to, you can take from it what you want.
And that’s a gift, but it’s annoying to read. You can see how people from both the right and the left can quote this president as a means of supporting whatever argument that they’re making in the present.
Was that the most surprising thing you learned? And what was the most heartening or disappointing?
There’s a speech, and I wish I could remember the quote exactly, where he’s saying unequivocally that he does not feel as if Black people should be considered to be on par with white people. That was never his intention in abolishing the institution of slavery — that they should not be competing for the same sorts of jobs. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, OK.’ That’s a quote that had been swept under the rug, that they should not be property, but they should not be considered equal either. This is his humanity showing in a way that’s not so beguiling to yours truly.
Also, to the point about colonization — and I don’t think that it was intended in such a way that it was nefarious — I felt like he felt that Black people could not truly peacefully coexist with white folks, so they should go somewhere where they can actually thrive and not have to worry about the competition.
There was a moment when we were recording, and I took a moment and stopped. This American experiment never had me in mind. It never had me in mind. You could say that the drafting of the 14th Amendment was the beginning of considering whether or not I was going to be a part of this experiment, but up until then, I wasn’t supposed to be here. That was a sobering moment.