Russell Hornsby can be seen playing controversial figure, and boxing promoter Don King in the American miniseries, “Mike” currently streaming on Hulu.
Hornsby is often referred to in the media as a “versatile actor.”
It is a term often overused; however, it is applicable when speaking of the performer known for the roles of Buddy Marcelle in Creed II, Maverick Carter in The Hate U Give, Lyons in Fences, Grant Kelly in Lost In Space, Charles Flennory in BMF, and Lincoln Rhyme in the Bone Collector.
Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Hornsby describes growing up as “being able to sit at the knee” of his elders. He says he learned many lessons from these people in his life, sometimes examples for better living, and other times things he should avoid.
“You hear the mistakes of others, and you hear about the good fortune of others. I got a lesson in that,” said Hornsby. “So, now that I’ve become of age, I’m constantly replaying the words of my elders in my head.”
Now Hornsby is “trying to move forward” in his career “with a sense of purpose in honoring them, doing right by others,” and himself every day.
Hornsby and his wife Denise have two sons, Walker and Ronen. He feels part of the way he honors his elders is by “being a husband, it is being a father,” and “a part of the community” as much as he can.
One of his elders, and an important one in his life, is his mother. “When we talk about mothers. And more specifically when we talk about Black mothers, were talking about women who have given up parts of their hopes and their dreams,” said Hornsby.
Hornsby says his mother “wanted to be in the entertainment industry” but was dissuaded by her own mother in favor of “getting a real job.”
“I believe my mother poured all of her hopes, and dreams into me and my brother to make sure we believed in ourselves, and that we had all that we needed to move forward,” said Hornsby.
And moving forward is just what Hornsby has done by crafting himself into a transformative talent. He has continued to learn lessons from all types of people in his orbit and to apply those lessons in creating the characters he portrays.
“I carry their energy so therefore I can use their energy to transform into whatever character is needed,” said Hornsby. “I walk with them, I talk with them, and I exchange with them, and take on their persona.”
Most recently, one of those is the provocative persona of Don King.
Playing attention-grabbing roles is nothing new for Hornsby. In The Hate U Give, Hornsby plays Maverick Carter, the fictional former gang member and concerned father who must have a difficult conversation with his daughter about police brutality and its consequences. The role was groundbreaking.
Hornsby won a 2018 African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) Award for Best Supporting actor for the role and received universal acclaim.
He also brought to life the role of Charles Flennory in the true depiction of a Detroit crime family in the Starz TV series BMF (Black Mafia Family).
When asked about the glamorization of crime in the Black community, Hornsby had this to say:
“I think BMF gives a true depiction of what America has become, but also America’s failed promise to its people. America said if you’re a part of this forty-hour work week at this factory or this mill, we will give you an opportunity to make money, provide for your family, and give them an opportunity. Well, at some point America went bad on that promise.”
Hornsby sees BMF as “showing you a reflection of what was going on at the time” not as glamorizing crime. “I look at it as truth-telling… through entertainment,” he said.
Much like his feeling with regards to the Black Mafia Family, Hornsby sees Don King, who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 1967, as another biproduct of America’s failed promise.
“Don King was made by America,” said Hornsby. “He wasn’t made in America; he was made by America. Because you are made by America, there are going to be some things you say, and do, and there is a person you may become because of what America puts in you or causes you to become.”
However, Hornsby says while researching the role he discovered Don King “spent his time in prison reading [and] he was a voracious reader.” Knowing this, he said, helped him to “understand that the character he became, and some would say that caricature, it was calculated.”
Hornsby expands on this notion by diving into America’s expectations when it comes to Black people in the entertainment industry. “America has an expectation for how the Black image should show up,” he said. “When you talk about entertainment, music, and pugilism [boxing] they expect you to show up a certain way, and I think Don King understood that. Meaning at every turn you have to be here to entertain.”
Hornsby considers himself to be a “blue-collar actor.” One could find the strong contrast with that in comparison to the flamboyant figure of Don King.
“I have to show up every day to work at every job and prove to people that I can do it better than anybody,” said Hornsby.
“I’m not a celebrity,” Hornsby added. “I find that in this country, we’ve become enamored with celebrity and not artistry. I went to school to be an actor, I studied, and I’m about the craft. I take this very seriously, this ain’t no game to me. I’m not just saying words. I’m embodying people.”