Whether he’s playing a Dominican drug dealer or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jeffrey Wright has a way of morphing into his characters. It’s clear that he’s been dedicated to the work. But like so many of us, the pandemic has caused him to adjust his priorities a bit.
“My work is seriously important to me but it’s not everything that inhabits my life,” Wright told ESSENCE. “My family, of course, and friends. I’ve been going at it for a while now, for several years just banging out the work but I think the pandemic has shown us that you’ve got to stop and watch the sunset and smell the roses to appreciate this life we have.”
One of the other lessons Wright learned at the very beginning of the pandemic was what could be accomplished when people work together. Wright was in the midst of filming The Batman when the pandemic first hit. Naturally, the virus and the havoc it was wreaking across the globe drastically changed the nature of the production. Thankfully, with some stringent protocols, the cast and crew were able to band together to finish the movie.
“I was really proud of the way we all came together,” Wright said. “Not just the actors but everyone who was involved in this film, every member of the crew. I thought it was an example for how we could approach this pandemic in the larger setting, recognizing that we were in this thing together. The only enemy was the virus. Ultimately, we got through it together and I think we made a good film.”
Wright stars as James Gordon, one of Batman’s earliest allies in the series. Typically, Gordon appears as the commissioner but in writer and director Matt Reeves’ version of Gotham, Gordon is still a lieutenant.
“Gordon, as a Lieutenant, as opposed to a commissioner sitting behind a desk somewhere, becomes activated,” Wright said. “He’s a cop in the street trying to do the best he can to separate himself from the corruption of the police department and Gotham at large. He’s in the middle of the mystery and the troubles of the city. He’s doing that in partnership with Batman. That was a difference from previous iterations of the character. That was exciting to me. I didn’t want to do something that we’d seen before. It was an opportunity to inject this with a new, fresh and evolved life that would justify doing it again and, I think, would also satisfy the enormous passion the fans have for this series.”
While the passion from most fans presents itself in excitement and box office support, whenever an actor of color takes on a role traditionally played by someone white, there will inevitably be those who have a problem with it. And they generally express those grievances on Twitter.
One such person asked if Wright was the right choice for the role of Gordon who has always been “a good white person.”
In a tweet of his own, Wright, having heard one too many of those sentiments, responded with a clip from The Pink Panther. In it, actor Peter Sellers smashes a white Steinway piano before saying, “not anymore.”
“I just think some of the criticism is comical and pretty thoughtless,” Wright said of those who question his casting as the first Black Gordon. “When Batman was created in 1939, the co-creators, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, were living in a New York City that was 95 percent white,” Wright said. “We live in the 21st century now and there’s not anyone on this planet that can point to a major American city that is not inhabited, today, by a diverse range of people.”
If the assumption is that all of these questions come from racist, white people, Wright said that is not the case.
“One of the most disappointing things is to hear these types of comments from people of color because it’s almost like they have so bought into this colonized perspective on culture. They don’t really quite get why it’s such a weird fantasy to imagine a Gotham City that still owes itself to 1939. If you’re going to update Batman’s gadgets, if you’re going to update the Batmobile, you’ve got to update the population of Gotham and that’s what Matt Reeves wanted to do. To do otherwise–you might as well have Batman driving around in a 1938 sedan. It makes no sense in any kind of way.”
It was Reeves’ reimagining of Gotham that got Wright to sign on to the project in the first place.
“The way that Matt envisioned our Gotham I thought was taking in the complexities of a contemporary America in a way that was really on point,” Wright said. “What I’m drawn to in my work is a script that I vibe with, that’s compelling, that’s smart. I’m also drawn to collaborators who are the same and that’s what I found with this project. When I got the invitation to be a part of it, I took a look around, I was happy to come and offer my services.”
The Batman is in theaters Friday, March 4.