The Black Mirror actor Aldis Hodge has devoted his Hollywood career – which includes roles in Hidden Figures and Straight Outta Compton – to positive portrayals of African Americans. Now he is using the art world to promote social justice with a series of provocative paintings.
The first two, produced in collaboration with acclaimed artist Harmonia Rosales, were shown at the LA Art Show last week. Rosales’s reimagination of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam – depicting God and the first man as black women – went viral last year when she posted it on Instagram.
Hodge and Rosales want to start a debate around how racial stereotypes are created and why they persist. One image shows a child soldier clutching an AK-47 and a copy of Gray’s Anatomy to illustrate how these boys are seen as a lost cause. The other depicts a woman in a niqab cradling a baby wrapped in an American flag.
Hodge, who plays a man trying out an experimental mind-moving invention on his wife in the Black Museum episode of Black Mirror, said: “We’ve seen a lot of hysterics around Islamophobia, around judgment towards the LGBTQ community, women and black people, and it seems to be promoted and celebrated in a very terrifying way as of late.”
Rosales, whose fans include the actor Samuel L Jackson, said: “A lot of people are afraid to ask, ‘Why is it that way?’ We want people to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Hodge, 31, who studied art and design at college and is a skilled horologist as well as a painter, said: “Most of these people get their information not from personal experience; they judge somebody based on what they’ve seen on the news or what fearful story they’ve heard.
“Often you’ll find somebody who says, ‘I used to think this way and I met someone who changed my perception.’ I’ve been working in the [US] south for five or six years and I’ll get, ‘You know what, you’re not like the regular blacks, you’re a different kind of black.’ No, I’m not. I’m black!”
Hodge has experienced racism all his life, as a child in New Jersey and in the acting world. “In Hollywood you still have the moniker of this is a black film, this is a black this, a black that,” he said. “We have worked so long in this country not to be acknowledged by our colour but by who we are as human beings, yet people are still acknowledging us through colour.”
Despite Hollywood’s increasing awareness of diversity issues, a University of Southern California study published last summer of 900 popular films from 2007 to 2016 showed that almost nothing had changed in terms of representation on screen around gender, race, LGBTQ status and disability. The pool of directors proved even less diverse.
Hodge said people should think about inclusion rather than diversity, which “has been turned into a diminutive tool that is regressive”.
“They say, ‘We need some diversity – throw a black guy in there, or a Latin girl.’ They still don’t look at these people as normal. They don’t understand the normalcy of walking around America and seeing all folk integrating naturally.”
He thinks Hollywood is slowly starting to change as a broader range of people rise up the ranks. Last year actors Viola Davis and Julius Tennon – who run a multimedia company, JuVee Productions – spoke to the Guardian about “pipeline issues at the top with people of colour”.
Hodge and his brother Edwin began acting as toddlers, appearing in commercials, Sesame Street and the musical Show Boat on Broadway. Most of his childhood was spent in Clifton, New Jersey, where the family was subjected to racism. “There was the KKK running around and snatching people up. My mom had to run and escape from them one night,” Hodge said.
Rosales, 33, grew up in Chicago and has described herself as Afro-Cuban. “My family comes in all different kinds of shades. I had racism all around. I was not white, yet I wasn’t black enough. I wasn’t Latina enough because I didn’t speak fluent Spanish. I didn’t fit in anywhere.”
Both Hodge and Rosales, who began painting together last year and have recently started dating, feel that the election of Donald Trump exposed the reality of racism. Rosales said: “They have someone now as a poster child for their racism, regardless of Trump’s individual beliefs.”
Hodge, who plays Noah in the slavery drama Underground, which has just launched on Netflix UK, said: “When people ask if it’s gotten worse, they ask from the perspective of not having understood the reality. Harmonia is an African woman; I’m a black man. This is not different for us.
“I was raised with being taught how to speak to cops so I don’t lose my life at a young age. We’ve always dealt with police brutality. I don’t walk around without being aware of my surroundings. It is the people who have not been affected or targeted who are starting to say: ‘Wow, is this what really goes on in this country?’ ”