Kareem Abdul-Jabbar behind the scenes of Black Patriots: Heroes of the Civil War.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar behind the scenes of Black Patriots: Heroes of the Civil War.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar knows what it's like to make history.
During his twenty years in the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar set the record for most career points in regular season games, collected six championship rings and won six regular-season Most Valuable Player awards, among many other accomplishments.
Since retiring from basketball in 1989, he has continued to make history, but not on the hardwood.
Instead, he has authored several acclaimed books, published numerous op-eds, written an award-winning column for The Hollywood Reporter and, in recent years, produced and narrated a series of powerful documentaries devoted to the history of Black Americans for — where else? — the History Channel.
The latest, Black Patriots: Heroes of the Civil War, presents stories of the remarkable bravery and invaluable contributions of African Americans to the cause of freedom during the brutal conflict between the Union and the Confederacy.
Here, the hoops legend, activist, author, journalist, speaker, producer, actor — and Emmy nominee — talks about his new documentary, the pernicious legacy of slavery, the importance of speaking out against injustice and what he learned from his experience in the writers' room of Veronica Mars.
Heroes of the Civil War is your third documentary project with the History Channel, following Fight the Power: The Protests That Changed America and Black Patriots. How did you become involved with History, and what is it about your relationship with the company that has resulted in such a productive collaboration?
The History Channel knew about my books and articles over the past 20 years promoting overlooked Black people who contributed so much to American culture. They also knew about my activism on behalf of social justice over the last 50 years. So, they thought I'd be the right fit for a series that addressed both of those interests. They were right. They've been very open to my ideas and suggestions throughout the process.
What was the origin of Heroes of the Civil War as a follow-up to Black Patriots, and how were the people and the stories featured in it selected?
There is an underlying irony to following the Revolutionary War with the Civil War. Both are wars of independence, but Blacks had to fight for independence twice. The first was for the country's freedom, the second was for their own. A grateful nation wasn't grateful enough to overlook profit.
There were so many interesting people to choose from, but we had to narrow it down to the most representative group who reflected a spectrum of Black experiences.
Without spoiling the experience of watching the documentary, can you share an anecdote about the war, or the life of someone involved, that resonated with you and exemplifies the goal of the project?
Robert Smalls was a 22-year-old escaped slave who stole a Confederate ship and delivered the ship, plus nine slaves he'd freed, to the Union. He continued to fight for the Union, becoming the most senior Black person to serve in the war. His courage was so renowned that he met with President Lincoln. Lincoln was so impressed with Smalls that it helped persuade the president to start using Black soldiers. Smalls went on to be elected to the House of Representatives. Without the Civil War, Smalls might have been a slave his entire life. It demonstrates how motivated, resourceful and ambitious Blacks can be — given the same opportunities as whites.
The Union army's defeat of the Confederacy preserved the United States, but we are still living with wounds from the conflict. How does Heroes of the Civil War reflect the legacy of the war for a contemporary audience, particularly in the context of the racial reckoning in America following the murder of George Floyd in 2020?
Racism in America is like an abandoned uranium mine. Everyone thinks it's gone, and we should move on. But the deeper you dig in that mine, the more you discover. And you find out it's been poisoning everyone around the mine for years. Racist radiation is invisible to many white people, but the burns, the sickness permeate Black communities throughout the country. We destroyed Japan and Germany during World War II, but afterward we helped build them back up stronger than ever. But the destruction from the Civil War still remains in the hearts of too many Americans.
There are powerful stories of Black patriotism in other historical conflicts, from World War I and World War II all the way through Vietnam and the present day. Do you foresee other series in the future to examine any of those events?
I hope so. I'm so impressed by the History Channel's commitment to telling these stories.
In addition to many accolades for your athletic achievements, you have been a United States cultural ambassador and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016; you won an NAACP Image Award for your work as an author; and you earned six Columnist of the Year honors from the Southern California Journalism Awards for your essays in the The Hollywood Reporter. How gratifying is it to be recognized for your accomplishments unrelated to basketball compared to those for your exploits on the court?
Academics has always been as important to me as athletics. Why strive for excellence in either body or mind when you could do both? It's especially gratifying when I meet children who don't know my basketball career but loved a book I'd written.
How did it feel to be nominated for an Emmy Award for your narration of Black Patriots in 2020?
It was gratifying to be recognized for something I was relatively new at. But mostly, I hoped the nomination meant more people would see the documentary.
You have appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows over the years, and even though you are busy as a writer, producer, speaker and commentator, you continue to make on-camera appearances from time to time — most recently, an episode of the FX comedy Dave. What is the appeal of the occasional acting gig?
I have fun. I know I'm not a great actor, but I like hanging out with other creative people and making something entertaining to others.
A few years ago, you were on the writing staff of the CW series Veronica Mars. What did you learn from the experience, and how has it informed the television work you have done since then?
Working on that show changed me as a writer. As an athlete, I was used to being on a team, but as a writer, I've worked alone or with a single collaborator. Rob Thomas was the producer and head writer, and watching his level of energy, intelligence and humor was inspiring. Diane Ruggiero-Wright was one of the funniest, most talented writers I've ever met. David Walpert was amazingly clever and spontaneous. Heather Regnier was an endless fount of great ideas and deadpan humor. A writers' room is highly competitive because you want to impress the other writers with your ideas — or at least you don't want to look like a fool. Since then, I've been much more thorough in chasing down ideas and alternate ideas when I write, never settling.
You have been appearing on or working in television for more than 50 years. What is your perspective on the evolution of the medium during that time — not only as a source of entertainment, news and information but as a platform for advocacy and social change?
The definition of what television is has changed. It used to mean network channels and a few cable channels. But with social media video and streaming services, viewers have so many choices and different options for screens to watch. That has diluted the power of networks and cable. In terms of news, it has also created factions that appeal to one audience without any regard for facts or journalistic integrity. That makes it much harder to even reach the audience you might want to convince to change their minds. They never see the other side except filtered through the biases meant to keep them smugly ill-informed but paying customers.
In recent years, many current and former NBA players have become involved in film and television production and other media ventures. You were one of the first athletes to expand into these businesses, and many of the projects you have pursued — including Heroes of the Civil War — address topics of relevance to Black Americans. To what extent do you feel influential athletes or other public figures have a responsibility to speak out about social, cultural and political issues of importance to their communities?
Silence is the greatest ally to our social woes. I have no patience for someone who can't be bothered with helping their communities or country because they're too busy signing shoe contracts. Whether or not they like it, athletes are role models and have a responsibility to act like it. If you have the power to make the world better, why wouldn't you?
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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