David Harewood: I felt that they wanted me to go on TV, talk, and cry. I was a news item’ – The Guardian

Observer New Review Q&A

The British actor on his new documentary about Covid and people of colour, his breakdown aged 23, and having days left to finish his memoir

Sun 28 Feb 2021 09.30 GMT

David Harewood, 55, was born in Birmingham and is an actor and broadcaster perhaps best known for playing CIA director David Estes in the Channel 4 series Homeland. He recently presented Psychosis and Me, a moving documentary about his experience of being sectioned, aged 23. His latest thought-provoking BBC One documentary, Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour?, scrutinises scandalous inequalities in the NHS and shows how every aspect of health in BAME communities can be affected by deprivation and racism.


Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour? reveals health inequality on a terrifying scale. What shocked you most, personally, as you were making the film?
I had no idea that women of colour are five times more likely to die in childbirth. It’s only since Black Lives Matter took off that everyone now wants to talk to Jenny Douglas [an academic and activist featured in the documentary], who has been struggling to get people to acknowledge these statistics for 20 years. I’ve found the same myself. It was very emotive last year, after George Floyd’s death, because we were all suddenly very visible… I found it exhausting. It’s wonderful to be heard, but if people have been denying my reality for decades and now they’re telling me they want to hear it… It was very strange. What I felt was that they wanted me to go on TV, talk, and cry. I was a news item: “Thank you very much, David Harewood, now we’ll move on to the weather.”

Your documentary demonstrates powerfully that this subject is more than news. So how can racial inequality in the NHS be changed?
Since Windrush days, black women have been bringing expertise to hospitals, yet it’s remarkable how few have risen through the ranks. Until the makeup of management alters, nothing will change. Making the documentary, we encountered people within the NHS afraid to ask management for PPE – for fear of being reprimanded. I find that horrendous.

You suffer from asthma, hypertension and chronic kidney disease – were you frightened during lockdown?
Not really. I’m not sure why. [The first] lockdown was the longest I’d spent in England for nine years [he has since returned to Vancouver, where he’s based] and it was lovely to be home, though I hardly left the house.

Why are many BAME people anti-vaccine?
I’ll be vaccinated as soon as one becomes available… Historically, people of colour are afraid of institutional power, of being told what’s good for them. They’re also suspicious of mental health services.

And more susceptible to mental ill health?
It’s to do with issues of identity. Life in Britain for black people can be very difficult. There are strident conservative voices: “There’s no such thing as racism”, “Everyone is the same”. Your history – everything about you – is denied. It’s difficult to work within those parameters. You have to have a strong mind to get through it.


You have a memoir coming out this autumn… How much do you remember about your breakdown?
I’ve 10 days left to finish my memoir. I’d been given access to my medical records but was, for nearly two years, too afraid to look at them. It’s painful reading about your uninhibited, crazy self. Some things I said were very hurtful, yet revealing. One thing I apparently said before I was injected was: “I have to save the black boy.” What did that mean? It made me realise I was not aware of my colour. My breakdown was about needing to reset. Growing up, I only thought about race in relation to racism. It was only when someone called me a “black bastard” I thought of myself as black.

You’ve described yourself as playing the clown, growing up?
I grew up in 60s and 70s Birmingham. Dad was a lorry driver, Mum was a cleaner. I always loved to hear Dad laugh. We loved TV comedy: Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Love Thy Neighbour. The streets outside could be quite scary, but being inside the house was a joy. My youth was about assimilation. It might sound naive but I never asked myself the questions the world asked. When I came out of Rada, the world said, “You’re black” and “What’s it like playing a black Romeo?” I’d not realised my colour was going to dominate everything.

You were, in 1997, the National Theatre’s first black Othello. What progress has been made in diverse casting?
There’s been an explosion of black talent across the globe, which is very exciting. Artistic directors Kwame Kwei-Armah at the Young Vic and Rufus Norris at the National have a handle on diverse, progressive audiences, which is highly encouraging. But we’re in a far from utopian world. Questions of race may be uncomfortable, but we need to talk openly to progress.

Harewood with Dr Tariq Husain in Why Is Covid Killing People Of Colour? Photograph: Micah Walker/BBC/Twenty Twenty Productions Ltd

Do you and your wife talk to your daughters [aged 18 and 15] about racism?
You have to: if your three-year-old is watching Disney princesses, at some point she’ll ask: “Why are they all white and blond-haired?” You have to confront that and say, “Well, there are brown princesses…” You have to have that discussion because it’s about images of self.


How important has Homeland been?
When I got cast, I had £80 in the bank and hadn’t worked for nine months. Going from staring up at the ceiling at 3am wondering how to pay my rent to being flown first class to the Golden Globes was a tremendous turnaround.

You’ve been a bone marrow donator… Why?
I joined the register of the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust. As a result of slavery, there’s been so much mixing of blood that, if you’re black and have leukaemia, it’s 10 times harder to find a donor. I got a call to say I was a match for somebody – I don’t know whom. They got three more years. I was a bit disappointed by that.

Do you miss the UK?
I do, yet the UK feels very Brexity and rightwing, and quite comfortable in its post-Brexit self. And now a lot of actors can’t work in Europe – it’s scary.

If you had your time again, would you still choose to act?
Yes – I feel very blessed to do what I do.


Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour? is on BBC One on 2 March at 9pm

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