Alfre Woodard on Activism and Actors

Gearing up to host a leadership summit this fall, she talks about Hollywood's passion for politics.

Steve Mack/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Steve Mack/FilmMagic/Getty Images

(The Root) — When actress Alfre Woodard recently traveled to Charlotte, N.C., to announce a cybersummit at Johnson C. Smith University that will coincide with the Democratic National Convention in September, it was just another step in a lifetime of political activism. “I started walking the precincts with my parents when I was 10 years old,” she said. Woodard is a native of Tulsa, Okla., a city rich in its history of African-American achievement and infamous for a 1921 racially motivated riot when whites burned the city’s wealthy “Negro Wall Street” to the ground.

Woodard chose acting as a lifetime passion and profession when she was 16 years old. But her “real job, the reason we’re here together,” she said, is “to learn how to love each other — in our households, in our communities” and to make sure all of the Earth’s resources stay in balance to benefit all of us. “We do that by working for justice.” As a female of color, coming of age in Tulsa, Woodard, now 59, said, “It was impossible not to be involved in politics.”

Actor Hill Harper will join the Emmy winner and Academy Award nominee to lead “UFuture: A Summit for Innovative Thinkers” on Sept. 4, the first official day of the convention in Charlotte, with White House officials, educators, business leaders and representatives from more than 20 regional colleges and universities taking part. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Congressional Black Caucus Institute and Johnson C. Smith, an HBCU, are sponsoring the interactive event. “Our audience will be texting, tweeting and live-streaming in a dialogue about the 21st-century challenges facing them, individually and collectively,” she said.

In a conversation at the Johnson C. Smith student union, Woodard told The Root what her parents taught her about being an engaged citizen. She also countered criticism of President Obama and the politically active performers who often support him.

The Root: Do you think continuing involvement in the political process is a lesson that young people — all voters — can learn?

Alfre Woodard: Being an engaged citizen isn’t like choosing a team for the Super Bowl. It’s ongoing … Freedom ain’t free. It has to be fought for and protected every day.

TR: Actors who voice political views and opinions are often criticized for speaking out. What do you think of comments that actors should stick to acting?

AW: Would they say that welders should not be involved, that teachers should not be involved, that mechanics should not be involved? That’s absurd.

Acting is a job. We have an entire industry; we have a city like Detroit that suffered when the car industry left to go overseas. The industry in California, believe it or not, has suffered; a lot of that filming has gone out. People in these unions, they have families, they lose their houses. So we have everything at stake that every other American has at stake …