Monday, June 24, 2024

‘We have to … support each other and strengthen our community’


The legendary actor shares insight on fatherhood, marriage and family — and what it’s like to be Beyoncé’s stepfather.

Richard Lawson

For more than a half-century, Richard Lawson has starred on stage (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), screen (“Poltergeist,” “For Colored Girls”) and television (a wealth of credits that include “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” and “Dynasty”). Today, he stars as retired Judge Earl Sullivan on the new BET series “In Contempt,” which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m.

Lawson, who recently celebrated three years of marriage to Tina Knowles Lawson, spoke exclusively to Las Vegas Black Image about his career, the new show, and the joy of his blended family.

What is “In Contempt” about?

It is a show that deals with the justice system. Erica Ash plays my daughter on the show — a public defender who is fighting for people who can’t afford to fight for themselves. It really is art imitating life, because each episode is based on real-life cases and the uphill battle to get justice when the system requires money. Money really helps shape the perception of the charged. When you don’t have enough money to defend yourself, then you are guilty until proven innocent. To prove one’s innocence is expensive, because it takes money to pay for investigators, scientific experts, and DNA specialists. In real life sometimes people who can’t make bail are waiting for months and years for a trial. The series has me constantly trying to convince my daughter to reexamine her career and join a corporate law firm. That is basically the crux of the story.

Are there any correlations in the story between what black people and black communities have to deal with in today’s criminal justice system?

Richard Lawson and his wife Tina Knowles Lawson with his extended family: Beyonce, Jay Z and grandchildren.

The beautiful thing about this show is that you will see people like your relatives, your neighbors, and the things that have happened right next to you. All the cases are based on real cases. It is very, very present show. It’s about those things we hold close to us. Not something that happens in other’s neighborhoods, but the things that happens in your neighborhood.

Did you have to do a lot of research to play your character?

When I look back over the 40 to 50 years I have been acting in his business, I was able to pull from several roles related to the legal system. I drew on my past experiences and research.

What are your personal feelings about the justice system of today?

Well, I have had my own personal brushes with the court system. Back in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s I was an acting teacher — and I had to drive from the San Fernando Valley to Beverly Hills to get to the theater each day. Over a course of 20 years, I was stopped by the police six times for various reasons — none I was guilty of. One time it was a mistaken identity, and others were based on this or that. But I was always taken to jail to be questioned and then later let go. So I understand the underbelly of the system and how it can work against us just based upon the color of our skin. We have all had experiences in that regard. It has been quite a revelation in terms of what has been, when I look at where we are and where we are headed with the current administration. It’s not a good look for us. We really have to understand where we can get our support. Who we can turn to, and who we can call when something goes down — because otherwise you will be alone. That’s not a place you want to be alone within the justice system. If you are alone you don’t stand a chance. You have to be lucky enough to have someone who cares enough to go the extra mile for you.

Will the series educate viewers about the justice system?

Each episode of the show will always give you something to learn that you didn’t know about the justice system. For example, there is an episode where someone is falsely accused and they go through the system. People in real life don’t realize that they need to get their record expunged, so that whatever you were accused of doesn’t follow you for the rest of your life. If you don’t, it will affect your ability to get a job, housing and to make money — just based upon false accusations.

Father’s Day is in June. What lessons did you learn from your dad?

Unfortunately, my father is not alive and I am one of those persons who hasn’t been able to identify with a father. It’s not a slam dunk for me. Ironically, I am in search of that answer as we speak. A lot of black men in this society have to deal with the same thing. It’s really, really important to have two parents who care. We as a group of people must get into an awareness about the responsibility of being a man. And even if you don’t  know who your father is — find a young black child to mentor. Not all parents are good parents. It doesn’t stop you from finding images and people who are good. Oftentimes, we have to create our own family, even if they are extended.

What has been your secret for longevity as an actor?

The thing that I am blessed with is having a purpose driven journey. I am really clear that I was put on this earth to do what I am doing. Therefore, the journey for me is my dream come true. People always ask, “Do you ever go on a vacation?” I reply with, “I am on vacation and have been on it for 50 plus years.” I can’t wait to get up each morning and do what I do. I wake up each day at 4 a.m. My wife says, “Richard, you need some rest. Why don’t you just lay here for a minute?” If I lay in the bed I will just keep thinking about all the things I wish to get accomplished for the day.”

How long have you and Tina Knowles Lawson been married?

We just celebrated our third wedding anniversary. But we have been friends for 38 years. because she and my sister were best friends. I knew Tina when she was pregnant with Beyoncé. We have been friends and also extended family for a long time. So when we came together, it wasn’t the first step — it was the next step.

Was it hard to merge your two families?

It really couldn’t have been easier — because the reality is that every single person in my family is somebody I want to hang out with. They are all great people. I have a son, Ricky, and daughter Bianca who is on the series, “Queen Sugar” — and killing it. She has become my favorite actor. I’m not saying that because she is my daughter — she is just incredibly good. If I had to choose children, I would have chosen those two because they are just great people. Beyoncé, Solange, Kelly and Jay are all incredible people as well. When we get together for family gatherings it’s just a natural symbiotic experience and so beautiful.

I hear that you are in Paris?

Yes, went there to celebrate our third wedding anniversary.

Are there any words that you would like to share with young black fathers?

We need to take care of each other. The interesting thing that I have noticed about other cultures is that they have three generations usually in the household. This helps to create a legacy and it helps to live in the present day and time and have multiple sources of support. That provides a family legacy. We as a people are so separated. We don’t trust each other. We don’t support our neighbors and we don’t buy black. Are you aware that money spent in the black community only stays for six hours? Whereas, in the Asian community money stays in their community for thirty days. Black people don’t support other black vendors. We don’t go to black doctors or lawyers. If money only stays in the black community for six hours, it’s hard to have those kind of businesses become successful. So, we need to learn how to go back to the old school days of the sharecropping mentality. That was one of the great things that taught us how to combine our wealth. For example, one farmer taking a thousand pounds of cotton to the gin is going to receive a certain payment. But, if a hundred farmers going as a group taking a thousand pounds of cotton each will add up to 100,000 pounds of cotton bringing more revenue to the masses. We have to find a way to make that concept work today. Support each other and strengthen our community.

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