With Back to Back Movies at the Boxoffice, Gardena's Own Omar Benson Miller More Than Ready for His Close Up
From Gardena to the big screen, native son Omar Benson Miller is about to show the world that he is a man of many faces, and an actor certainly worthy of the meaty roles coming his way.
Featured prominently in two of this seasons most anticipated films, we will get our first taste of the 6’6” “Chocolate Giant” in Spike Lee's war epic Miracle at St. Anna.
Based on the novel of the same name by James McBride (who also wrote the screenplay), Miracle blends wartime drama with magical realism (a la Toni Morrison) to tell a story of four survivors from the massacred 92nd infantry division, the “Buffalo Soldiers” fighting to secure the Italian theatre during World War II.
In the film, Miller plays Sam Train, a kindhearted yet slow-witted infantryman: the moral center of the surviving quartet. Having taken refuge in a small Tuscan village, Miracle follows the soldiers (the other three played by Laz Alonso, Michael Ealy, and Derek Luke) as they survive not only the advancing Nazi forces, but each other, all the while fighting for a country whose strivings in the war clash with an ugly hypocrisy back home.
A Los Angeles native (he was born in Gardena, but grew up in Bellflower), Miller, 29, graduated from San Jose State University, but not without first claiming the school's best actor award. What the people at San Jose State witnessed a few years ago when it comes to Miller, the world will learn in the coming weeks.
Within his short career in Hollywood, Miller's filmography already demonstrates his impressive ability to be not only a leading man (as seen in the recent Man of God), but also to shine next to some of Hollywood's top stars: from Halle Berry in Things We Lost in the Fire, to Terrance Howard and 50 cent in Get Rich or Die Tryin', to Mekhi Phifer and Eminem in 8 Mile.
The next time audiences see Miller, he'll be portraying Syracuse University lineman Jack “JB” Buckley, in October's The Express. Through the film, audiences worldwide will be introduced to the short, but influential life of Syracuse running back Ernie Davis. Davis was the first Black athlete to win the Heisman trophy, paving the way for modern-day hero athletes like Ricky Williams, Reggie Bush, Troy Smith and Marcus Allen.
Sadly, Davis' life was cut short at age 23 by leukemia, but not before being drafted to the Cleveland Browns. Without ever playing a down in a pro game, Ernie Davis' jersey was retired, in memoriam of the fallen hero.
While Davis himself is portrayed by veteran young actor Rob Brown, Miller lends an underdog-style shine to teammate Buckley; the character itself based off of real-life Syracuse player John Brown. In portraying someone so close to a living figure, Omar says he felt a great responsibility to make his personal relationship to his character very real. He had to do the man justice, as he would soon meet John Brown's son, Ernie Davis Brown, in New York, at the Syracuse premiere. When comparing the roles of Train and JB, Miller says that performing in both films allowed him to “show a good diversity and range [as] a performer” – a feat he attributes solely to “divine intervention.”
Art, Blackness, and the Future of Hollywood
It is a rare occasion when two films are released, within weeks of one another, sharing a common actor. It is an even rarer event when these films share a common outlook on the powerful contributions African Americans have made to the world we today enjoy. In a sea of movies like Soul Plane, both Express and Miracle present a different view of Black American men, one that caters less to the base archetypes we grew up with, and more toward a portrayal of Black men that are as complex and underrated as they are interesting and well-performed. On the subject, Miller finds these new types of characters “essential for the youth of America to see.” In his opinion, “art can change the world; it has in the past…to play characters that don't have to be emasculated in any way is an honor and it should happen more frequently.”
These roles would be gateways through which stories of Express and Miracle caliber could proliferate within the media, and positively influence young moviegoers. It's the type of filmmaking Miller himself is involved in. His directorial debut, Gordon Glass – an ensemble, “urban, family film” about the trials of one would-be actor who must come home to face family issues – recently made its way through the festival circuit; Miller hopes the success of his current films will renew interest in the indie project.
In terms of the future of Black cinema, Miller is extremely optimistic. In his words, “I hope to see more. I would love more diverse films. I'd love to see more people going to the theatre to see and support plays. And I would love to see, in the Black community especially, quality being supported, instead of 'cool.' It takes you a while to understand that quality is cool, instead of whatever's popular.” When asked what he admires most about reliving a period most known only though story, Miller's answer is simple: the struggle.
Miracle at St. Anna is in theatres now; The Express opens October 10th.