Between Marvel and MLK – Glass interviews actor Anthony Mackie


Between Marvel and MLK  – Glass talks to actor Anthony Mackie about the future of the Marvel Universe, America’s political landscape and his new beard

THERE was just one suggestion ahead of my interview with Anthony Mackie: Do you mind asking about his beard? I’m warned that Mackie doesn’t look the way people are used to seeing him.

The thing is, Anthony Mackie has always had a beard, meaning this beard must be significant: a statement beard. But, as we’re talking over the phone, I can only speculate as to what this beard statement may be. Getting Captain Americas shield carved into your sideburns would be an interesting way to confirm what’s already strongly suspected: that Mackie is taking over from Chris Evans as “Cap” in the next batch of Avengers movies.

Anthony Mackie, actorAnthony Mackie. Photograph: Nick Thompson

It would make him one of the most prominent faces in one of the biggest film franchises in history, which is obviously a very big deal – if there was ever a moment worthy of stencilling stars and stripes into your beard, this would be it. Another, more likely possibility is that, in light of this apparent promotion from Falcon, the supporting hero Mackie’s played since 2014, the new facial hair could be a testament to his contentment in life.

Grown out, free from the pressure to trim and shave and grind and work, I imagine the beard of a man who’s made it to the top of the pile and intends to sit back a while and admire his efforts.

Just as 16th century prosperity was measured by paleness and obesity (gluttony was aspirational while a dreaded tan suggested you were a labourer), in 2020 nothing says mega-successful actor like a luxuriously unkempt beard. When we finally broach the topic, Mackie comes clean: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen my beard this long. I just sit around and play with it all day,” and he laughs, content. For Mackie and his beard, it seems life has never been better.

Anthony Mackie. Photograph: Nick Thompson

With 70 acting credits in 18 years, he’s earned a rest. If beard maintenance really is the metric for work ethic, his previous signature style (an almost pencil thin goatee) was the embodiment of a relentless workaholic. After debuting in 8 Mile in 2002, Mackie scored the lead in a 2004 Spike Lee’s She Hate Me, before roles in Oscar-bait dramas: Million Dollar Baby (2004), Half Nelson (2006) and The Hurt Locker (2008). Over the course of the following decade Mackie has become one of those Hollywood ever-presents; an actor that gets so much work you half expect him to pop up every time you go to the cinema, turn on the TV, or reach down the back of your sofa looking for the remote having reached Anthony Mackie overload.

Don’t bother trying to escape him – he is inevitable. Even in his modern-day beard-fiddling period, Mackie’s using time off from shooting his Marvel TV debut, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, to star in and produce the pre-OJ-era Johnny Cochran drama, Signal Hill. Set in 1981, it follows a jarringly contemporaneous police brutality case echoing, among a despairingly long list of others, the 2015 death of Sandra Bland.

Anthony Mackie. Photograph: Nick Thompson

“So,” he says, voice dropping half an octave to the baritone of a seasoned producer, “Signal Hill is the story of Johnny Cochran’s first case, representing the family of a young man who’s taken into custody by the police and found dead a day later. It’s an important story, and there are far too many important stories that just so happen to have black protagonists, which have never been told.”

It’s true. Having already portrayed MLK and Tupac Shakur, Mackie’s recently exhibited a commitment to playing African-American luminaries whose stories have been previously absent from movie theatres and school curriculums alike, appearing as activist Hakim Jamal in Seberg (2019) and real-estate trailblazer Bernard Garrett in The Banker (2020), another project he produced.

Mulling over the split in his recent work – part-superhero, part-historian – I ask Mackie if he feels a growing obligation to tell these stories given the increased visibility that comes with being part of “the Marvel Universe”.

I find his coy response odd: “No, not really. I’ve always been into historical texts. My dad always used to say, ‘if you don’t know your history, you’re going to make the same mistakes’.”

Anthony Mackie. Photograph: Nick Thompson

I resist the admittedly charming but no less blatant dodge and try again: “But you must be aware that your involvement brings a whole new audience to films depicting the black experience in America, right?”

“Yeah … I hope so,” he replies without elaboration.

Summoning my final reserves of journalistic zeal, I ask: “Don’t you think it matters that in the minds of hundreds of millions of people (over 100 million saw Avengers: Endgame on its opening weekend alone), the new Captain America, the American-est of all of Marvel’s All-American heroes, is moonlighting as a procession of African-American civil rights heroes in between films?”

Anthony Mackie. Photograph: Nick Thompson

And then that thing happens, when something you had previously taken as incontrovertible truth is met with such blank scepticism that you begin to doubt everything short of your own name. So I retrace steps hoping to find clarity: “That bit at the end of Endgame, where Captain America appears as an old man, summons you, hands you his shield … he’s electing you to take his place as the new Captain America, case closed, all sorted, right?”

“No. It’s definitely not sorted,” he laughs, no longer the content laugh, but a laugh at my expense for adding 1+1 and coming up with 2. “Look, all we know is at the end of Endgame, Cap gave me the shield. We haven’t gone into whether I’m Captain America or not, so we’ll see in the future.”

Case closed, but also left slightly ajar? All that’s for certain is we can cross the shield emblem sideburns off the beard list. The contentment beard feels wrong now, too, so I mull over another option, that perhaps he’s wearing the beard of a man humbled by the weight of a new, higher purpose than Hollywood, with no time for vanity.

Anthony Mackie. Photograph: Nick Thompson

The “Tireless Activist Beard” Mackie is very politically active. When The Banker premiered at The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Mackie introduced the movie from the same balcony where Martin Luther King Jnr was assassinated in 1968. It was a revelatory experience.

“When I stood in that spot … I don’t know what happened. It was like a gut-punch. It was literally like someone had just kicked me in the gut. I always wonder: where would we be, as a culture and a civilisation, if Malcolm X, MLK, shit – if Tupac hadn’t been assassinated; if these men, who didn’t ask but demanded to be treated correctly, who gave their lives for us to thrive – where would we be now if they were alive?” He lets the thought marinate for a second or two, then answers himself: “We definitely wouldn’t be dealing with situations like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.”

He sounds awed by the prospect of this parallel present, but mainly angered by the absence of 21st century substitutes. “Nobody today is willing to get in trouble, no one in politics has the guts to be a martyr, to go against the norm,” he says. “Everybody now is just so neutral. Hell, if you’re not making people mad, then you’re not doing it right.” Finally, the beard fits. “People are supposed to be mad! But right now, nobody’s mad.”

Mackie’s response has been to set up, an online campaign encouraging African-American men to enact change by voting in November’s presidential election. “Black Americans not only make up a large part of the population of this country, but we are a huge asset financially,” he explains.

“There are so many different aspects of our culture that America thrives off. We are, literally, the bread and butter of America. But there’s been so much disenfranchising, so many lies, and so many moves to take away the power of the people that a lot of people don’t even believe in the idea of voting. They don’t believe that their vote counts, so why waste their time?”

Anthony Mackie. Photograph: Nick Thompson

In 2016, the African-American voter turnout fell from 66.6 per cent to 59.6 per cent, with 11 per cent of Obama 2012 voters staying at home on election day. “If we can re-legitimise the idea of voting power for young black men – stand up and stand together – that’s a huge platform to stand on. People will have no choice but to listen.”

It’s a weird time for activism. It’s tough to stand together when 2020’s dominant ideology is social distancing – bane of the picket line and … the barbershop. “It’s funny, everyone in my neighbourhood now calls me Black Wolverine, but I am not letting anybody get within three feet of me or my face. This corona shit is real, deadly, and the last thing I’m going to risk my life for is a haircut.”

So there we have it, Antony Mackie as told through his beards: sometimes content but always a workaholic, and every bit the tireless activist; still the Falcon, possibly the next Captain America, but, for the time being, Black Wolverine.

by Charlie Navin-Holder

Taken from the summer 2020 issue of Glass Man

Make sure you never miss a copy of Glass or Glass Man, buy it here or here

Photographer NICK THOMPSON




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