Brian Tyree Henry is everywhere nowadays.
From starring in Widows, If Beale Street Could Talk and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — not to mention his breakout role in FX’s Atlanta — Henry is hoping his ubiquitous presence will continue to enhance the variety of ways a Black man is viewed in pop culture and media.
“These stories are necessary,” says Henry. “If I can get these stories of Black men into the living rooms of people in a landlocked state, I’ve done good. I’m grateful for it. I want to infiltrate your living room, your mind and your safe space as much as I can so you can’t run away from the fact that I exist.”
Henry specializes in portraying Black men with depth. His character on Atlanta, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, is a rapper who is tired of the culturally offensive ways in which executives try to pimp his talents. But his character in Widows, politician and crime boss Jamal Manning, is decidedly devious and seasoned in a different way. Henry hasn’t shied away from talking about his responsibilities in showing the tension and realities of being a Black cop in a society where some police officers are demonized. And viewers will see that same sensitivity in Henry’s upcoming projects, which include the soon-to-be-released Godzilla vs. Kong and action-comedy Superintelligence.
“This world doesn't want us to thrive, so I’m just constantly in this time in my career trying to find a way to showcase character,” says the Emmy and Tony nominee. “I think about the projects that I'm doing and how my 13-year-old self never in a day in his life thought he could envision a show called Atlanta with three Black men on a poster. I’m doing Spider-Man and never in a million years did my 13-year-old self envision an Afro-Latino Spiderman with a father who is a cop who loves him. However, they exist now because I exist.”
On a personal front, Henry thinks the mental health of the Black community is a huge issue that has an impact on civil rights. It’s why he pushes for his characters to be fully developed men who, yes, sometimes cry.
“I know I’m a 6-foot-2, 250-pound man, but why can’t I cry?” asks Henry. “If anything, we need to bring to the forefront how necessary it is for these men to be human. … That’s what my duty is, to carry that flag for those men. ... I dealt with a huge loss not that long ago. The woman who groomed me and raised me? She is gone. You want me to play these characters who are tough, but actually the real strength comes from showing your vulnerability. You better let me cry."
— Adrienne Samuels Gibbs
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