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It’s 8pm in Miami and the sun just went down on South Beach, but its warmth still lingers. My Uber arrives at the grand Setai Hotel where I’m scheduled to interview Omari Hardwick about his collaboration with Gentleman Jack’s “Real To Reel” campaign—a contest created to offer aspiring filmmakers the chance to win $10,000 and a VIP trip to Miami Beach to screen their short film for an exclusive audience. With some time to spare, I sit down for a drink with one of the publicists working Hardwick’s schedule. We get acquainted, sharing laughs and career talk over Jack.
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Omari is slated to appear at the official Real To Reel party after our interview, but for now I have 15 minutes with the thought-leader and I plan on picking his brain about the ABFF festival, season four of Power and whatever else comes out his mouth as he has a tendency to drop profound gems that lead to even more profound tangents.
Omari’s handler greets us at the door and he’s equally as welcoming. The nearby counter is decorated with an assortment of fresh fruits while Gentleman Jack adorns the coffee table. Omari is clean in a relaxed creme shirt and tailored jeans with perfect cuffs at the ankle.
He remembers me from our recent chat at the Power junket in NYC as we share a hug then park a seat on the lush couch in his lavish suite. The conversation begins.
“We don’t have enough platforms…enough trampolines of sorts for Black filmmakers behind and in front of the camera to have their stories told,” he explains.
Hardwick is no stranger to hard work and struggle. Long before he landed roles on hit TV shows like Being Mary Jane and Power, he was a struggling artist living in his car.
“Real to Reel, to me, in a nutshell, is not about the conclusion. It’s about the process, the journey, the learning of craft. The learning of how to take direction.”
Then he drops a really cool analogy, “What Indian can become a chief without having first been an Indian?”
His demeanor shifts when he begins to talk about those who seek to take the shortcut to fame.
“Real to Reel is an opportunity for Brown filmmakers to do the legwork. To not try to go from A to Z overnight. But really learn the craft and to have our stories once learning the craft. Because we want quality put out. It’s not about quantity. Gentleman Jack has done a smack down good job of championing not only the NBA, under the umbrella of Jack Daniels being a heavy sponsor, which definitely has Brown people in it. But also young filmmakers who look like me and you. It was a no brainer for me to be apart of it.”
Then Hardwick reflects on his mentee Rotimi, who he says landed almost every gig he’s ever tried out for.
“What I have learned is that the craft and the process and the legwork comes in a different look for different people. He’s a dear baby brother to me, there’s a lot of them: Corey Hardrick, Maurice McCray, John David Washington, Michael B. Jordan is the first kid I mentored, so it’s ironic, because Rotimi, who’s on my show and easily accessible for me, having educators as parents, one a doctor, one a professor, the leg work was kinda getting through them. I think he’s still part of a grind, it just smells different.”
It’s “important” to Hardwick to pass along the same knowledge and help he received to upcoming Black men and feels indebted to his own mentors.
“I think God specifically said ‘Omari, I really want you to help the next versions of you.’ It sustains you better. Your legacy is better, not just by your children but the young brothers, who look like you, if they can rock out the way you rock out, it looks like y’all rocked out better.”
He explains his mentee/mentor relationship with Denzel.
“Denzel was specifically fashioned in his mentoring of me in terms of letting me in the house. That was enough. The way that I’ve mentored his son is not necessarily the way he [Denzel] mentored me. But Pauletta, his better parts, mentored me in a very specific way and it’s more like the smell of what I’ve done with John David. Denzel let me in the house, at the end of the day it’s his house. He fed me, at the end of the day whether Pauletta’s cooking it or not, he brought the food. I was broke living in cards and $1,500, Denzel gave me a check. That’s the kind of thing I’m specific on.”
Unsure if he’s ever mentioned this in an interview, he adds, “He gave me a check, and I gave him that check back. I think he framed it. When I was about to have a car repossessed in Los Angeles. So I didn’t know how to do this, without…I don’t like the crabs in the barrel. I think the better the stronger faster more equipped crabs we create we can dominate more barrels.”
While discussing the importance of the ABFF festival, Omari praised another one of his mentors, ABFF founder Jeff Friday. “He’s as good of a mentor as I’ve ever had. We are at his illustrious festival.”
Friday, he gave an impassioned speech about the 20 year anniversary, which also doubled as the opening night screening of ‘Girls Trip,’ a comedy Omari says he passed on.
“I said ‘no’ to that project.” I incredulously responded. “What part did they want you for?” I asked.
“You would have wanted me to say ‘no’.” Would you have wanted me to do it anyway? Should I have done any part? real to real? Where I am in my career?”
I shamelessly admitted we (as in all the women in the universe could watch him pick up a pencil in a movie and women would think he deserves an Oscar. He then gave me a sweet kiss on the cheek. Dammit, where were the cameras when you needed it.
“Even Larenz said, ‘You can’t play that part.’ They wanted me to play…who ended up playing the part of the husband?”
“What’s interesting is, Denzel kinda went, and zero comparison to the legend of him (I definitely understand that there are similar styles of acting) and again God wanted me around Denzel, Pauletta, John David and Katia for a reason. My dear friend Nate Parker has a different story with him. I’ve never worked with him. But when I think about his turn as an actor, he came to the bad guy later. Omari was bad guy first. I had a talk with Malcolm Lee, who is a dear friend. I said Malcolm ‘I can’t…’ He said ‘Omari you said you wanted to do comedy.’ I said ‘This character is not comedy.’ He was like ‘What if I could change it?’ I love Malcolm, he would have no problem with me telling this story. Will Packer is my frat brother. Kevin Hart, we were broke together. They’re always like ‘you should do comedy.’ I’m like it has to be the right one. Even if it’s a drama piece. Let me be the funny guy.”