Weeks ago, The Batman actor Jeffrey Wright—disheartened by the Trumpian toxicity of the COVID-19 pandemic, and near exhaustion from organizing around 50 New York restaurants to feed more than 170,000 meals to cops, firefighters, and frontline health-care workers—packed up his 90-year-old aunt and two teenage kids and escaped from Brooklyn to Hawaii.
It wasn’t much of an escape.
“Here we are,” said the 54-year-old Wright who, despite his best efforts to decompress, has been unable to resist going on Twitter, visiting news sites, watching videos, and driving himself into a state of mind he described as “unsettling, disorienting, upsetting and frankly depressing…”
“It’s the most divided country I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Wright said, adding that unlike the conflict-ridden 1960s, which were punctuated by riots, the Vietnam War and the assassinations of JFK, Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, “what we have now is social media and technology amplifying the division, amplifying the misinformation and the deliberate disinformation in a way that’s causing tension not only out on the streets but inside all of our psyches.”
Wright, for instance, noted that President Donald Trump—with his penchant for “deception and rancid politics”—appears to be stoking racial division as a reelection strategy.
“We’re stuck in this polluted status quo that the so-called president of the United States has no desire to affect, other than to bolster,” said Wright, a Black man who shares a son and a daughter with his ex-wife, actress Carmen Ejogo. “I think his perspective, and the one that he’s feeding into, in certain parts of the country, is that the American Dream is the birthright of certain white Americans, and it is theirs alone. And if they perceive the expansion of the American Dream as a threat to their birthright, the expansion of rights to those outside their circle, they’d just as soon burn the whole thing down.”
Wright spoke to The Daily Beast this week at the tail-end of his family’s Hawaiian respite as he prepared to fly to London soon to resume his role as Commissioner James Gordon in the pandemic-delayed The Batman (which has been on hiatus for nearly half a year, and started up again recently only to shut down after star Robert Pattinson, who plays Batman, tested positive for COVID-19).
In a wide-ranging interview, he had a lot to say about the alarming condition of the body politic, his guarded optimism for Joe Biden’s election chances and his despair should Trump prevail, and a new documentary detailing Trump’s mismanagement of the COVID crisis, American Pathogen—which he narrates.
The acclaimed actor, who previously narrated 2017’s Unseen Enemy, a prophetic CNN documentary about the global threat of bat viruses transmitted to other animals and humans from Chinese wet markets, was a natural to narrate American Pathogen, a crowdfunded 30-minute documentary produced by two teams of politically-oriented filmmakers, Portal A and One Vote at a Time, and viewable on YouTube.
He has been something of a lay expert on the spread of exotic and lethal diseases since March 2014, when he was spending a great deal of time in West Africa, trying to foster entrepreneurship and social development in Sierra Leone, and the Ebola epidemic struck.
“Our film lays out the failures of the Trump White House’s response to this pandemic and the resulting nearly 200,000 deaths that we’ve seen in our country,” he said. “It’s the outcome of his incompetence, of both his self-deception and his deception of the American people…I wanted to lend my voice to this effort to lay the facts out to the American people as clearly as possible.”
Wright added: “Unfortunately I did hear some of Trump’s comments today [Sept. 9] at this press conference he held. And what’s sad about it is that he’s still selling the same falsehoods that he’s been selling from the start”—for instance, that he acted swiftly to shut down travel from China and thus saved millions of lives (not true, it was only a partial shutdown), and that the Trump administration has provided citizens with ample and timely COVID-19 testing and never needed to conduct extensive contact tracing (also false). “He’s still insistent on bullshitting the American people.”
The Westworld star said he isn’t surprised by the revelations in Bob Woodward’s latest book, Rage, for which The Washington Post’s premiere investigative reporter caught Trump on tape acknowledging—contrary to his public statements minimizing the threat—that the coronavirus is far more deadly than the flu, and that Trump purposely has “played down” the danger in order to avoid a supposed national “panic.”
“The Woodward story really just confirms with hard evidence everything that many of us suspected,” Wright said. “We can’t imagine that he’s as pigheadedly stupid as he would appear to be at times. He’s certainly someone of reasonable mental facility. But, as we’ve seen, he’s also incredibly willing to cross moral boundaries that most of us are not. He’s willing to lie shamelessly. And he’s also someone who puts his own self-interest above all else. And when he speaks of ‘panic’ it’s about protecting the stock market that he regularly touts—strangely—as being synonymous with the health of our economy, with tens of millions unemployed and the wealth disparity in our country stretching to a breaking point.”
“What I find most phenomenal about the Woodward book is that it’s on tape! And Trump sat down 18 times with the guy! It just speaks to this incredible cloud of hubris that Trump walks around under. Maybe those who are somehow still on the fence about his fitness to hold this office will see the light…Maybe.
“Because it seems that there’s a segment of our population, and a huge percentage of that segment happens to be the white voter in certain parts of our country, that will go down to the bottom of Lake Travis no matter what evidence points to his being exactly who he is.” (During a recent Trump boat parade, the boats of several of the president’s acolytes sunk in the choppy waters of the lake near Austin, Texas.)
Wright has been especially alarmed by what seems to be a different sort of pandemic—the institutional blight of mostly white cops brutalizing and even killing Black people for no good reason.
“It speaks to a broader infection within our police departments,” Wright said. “Like all of us, I’m having a hard time watching what essentially are public lynching videos again and again. I really don’t think that’s the healthiest thing for one’s psyche. Certainly for Black men and Black boys in our country today, but for anyone, this is the state of things and everyone has a news van in their pockets now to capture these things, so we’re seeing the stark reality.”
Wright himself was the victim of police brutality in July 2008, when he was pepper-sprayed, arrested, handcuffed and tased by officers of the Shreveport, Louisiana, police department during the wrap party for the Oliver Stone movie W (in which he played Colin Powell), for no apparent reason other than the white woman tending bar didn’t like his sarcastic comment—“Ah you’re going to serve me tonight”—after she’d denied him service a few nights earlier.
“There’s a problem with policing and there is no leadership coming from the White House that is reaching out toward a conversation that could bring about some change—legislative change.”
Wright said he has been chilling in Hawaii after months of fundraising and, with just two other volunteers, overseeing the logistics of sending free meals to thousands of doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, police officers, and firefighters in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan.
“That was pretty intense, just trying to shepherd that through,” Wright said about his nonprofit, Brooklyn NY! For Life, which in recent weeks has become part of a charitable effort to feed around 1,500 families suffering from food insecurity in various Fort Greene public housing projects. “My head kinda fell off after that, and so I just kind of snuck away with my kids and my family and my 90-year-old aunt, who hadn’t left the house for about six months.”
Wright said he’s eager to see Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, take the oath of office. “I think Biden and Harris represent a return to stability, a return to a type of sanity. I think the hope for those on the left of the Democratic Party who might be disappointed is that they represent a bridge toward a more progressive, tolerant America, and away from this callous, right-wing attempt to reshape the country into some authoritarian, hyper-religious, zealous, strange ethnostate or whatever it is they imagine they’re doing.”
He continued: “On November 3rd, wherever I’ll be, I’ll be punching my ballot like a punch to the face of everything that I’ve seen out of this administration for the last three years. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but even in these desperate times what can we do but remain forward-leaning and try to find hope somewhere.”
A few hours later, Wright expanded on those comments in an impassioned email: “If Biden doesn’t win, America will perhaps be irreparably misshaped into the image of Donald Trump, a clearly damaged, delinquent, and incompetent human—a deranged used-car salesman fiend. But even if Biden wins—and he must—our country is hurting culturally, politically, economically, spiritually. We devour ignorance hungrily.
“We’re moral only to the extent that it serves us. We’re materialistic. We veer toward senseless violence. We’re in love with guns. Some dangerous illnesses have been flared up hard during these last four years. A Biden win will slam the garbage lid on some of it, but all that’s not disappearing next January or any time soon. We’ll either heal and evolve, or we won’t. And I’m not so sure we want to.”