Thursday, January 22, 2015

Actor Wendell Pierce Talks to New Orleans Privateers About Making Selma

Over the Martin Luther King holiday, the New Orleans Privateers Men's Basketball Team enjoyed FaceTime with actor Wendell Pierce, who discussed the significance of the holiday and shared his experiences growing up in New Orleans Pontchartrain Park neighborhood and making the movie Selma.Over the Martin Luther King holiday, the New Orleans Privateers Men's Basketball Team enjoyed Face Time with actor Wendell Pierce,
who discussed the significance of the holiday, his experiences growing up in New Orleans Pontchartrain Park neighborhood
and making the movie Selma.

The New Orleans Privateers men’s basketball team received a special treat over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, when actor Wendell Pierce took time out of his Sunday morning to speak to them about the filming of the movie Selma.

“He was very adamant that it was a movie about what had happened in the past — but that there was so much relevancy to today and struggles that were going on,” University of New Orleans Men’s Basketball Coach Mark Slessinger said. “And he talked about our guys being active and taking advantage of their opportunity — educationally and socially — while here at UNO.”

Pierce, a New Orleans native, has appeared in dozens of stage productions, nearly 50 television shows and more than 30 films, from The Money Pit and Casualties of War to Waiting to Exhale to Ray. He has gained particular notice for his work in HBO dramas, including The Wire and Treme. This year, he expanded his repertoire with a key role in Selma. The historical drama, directed by Ava DuVernay, is based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. Since its November debut at the American Film Institute Festival, the motion picture has gained international critical acclaim, garnered four Golden Globe Award nominations and an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

Pierce, who now lives in Los Angeles, stars as civil rights leader Hosea Williams, a minister and trusted member of Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr.'s inner circle. His character, who later became a businessman and philanthropist, helped King to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization that helped to galvanize and direct thousands of supporters in nonviolent protests against racial, political, economic and social injustice.

On Sunday, Pierce spoke to the New Orleans Privateers about his experiences making the film.

“The guys really enjoyed it and got a lot from it,” Slessinger said. “It was very powerful for them.”

Pierce grew up in New Orleans Pontchartrain Park neighborhood, not far from the UNO campus, where Pierce’s father worked for more than 30 years. Slessinger has gotten to know both men over the last two years through neighborhood fun and revitalization work with the Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association.

Pierce is an alumnus of the New Orleans Contemporary Center for the Arts (NOCCA) and Benjamin Franklin High School, which is now located on the UNO campus. In recent years, he has been spotted attending summertime UNO baseball games and like his father, is an all-around fan of the New Orleans Privateers.

“He’s supporting us and is a part of what we’re doing,” said Slessinger, referring to the UNO Athletic Department’s mission of developing student-athletes as leaders on the fields, in the courts, in the classroom and in the community.

On Sundays, when his team travels, players and staff often join the head coach in an optional “Sunday morning devotional” and chat session.

“We usually meet Sunday morning for a life lesson or life skills,” Slessinger said, describing the get-togethers as focused personal one-on-one and team time in which student-athletes get to know themselves and one another better.

“This Sunday it was the significance of the movie and Martin Luther King Day approaching and how it affects us today,” the coach said. “And how some of these same battles and struggles are still being played out, just under a different context in today’s society.”

The UNO men’s basketball team spent the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend in a Houston hotel, had just played Sam Houston and was preparing for a game against Stephen F. Austin University. Pierce used Facetime, a video chat application created by Apple, to connect with the Privateers.

Slessinger had prepared “a little documentary on the Selma movie,” to prepare his team. Pierce dialed in and spoke for approximately 20 minutes. That night, Slessinger took his team to the movies.

“It was a pretty great opportunity to get such insight before seeing such a powerful picture,” said Slessinger, who said that Pierce addressed “the significance of it, what the guys were going to experience with the movie, what he felt when he was making the movie.”

A key focus was “how fortunate all of us are with the freedoms that we have and the opportunities that we did,” said Slessinger. “He and I both pointed out that this was something that happened 50 years ago. This was not something that happened 200 years ago.”

The poignant and dramatic film depicts the nonviolent Selma protesters being scorned — and violently and brutally beaten, sometimes killed — for their beliefs and actions in pursuit of equal rights and justice.

“It’s amazing what people went through and (Pierce) made a really incredible point to the guys…that the marchers knew when they did this, there wasn’t just the chance that somebody might die, they knew that probably somebody would die,” Slessinger said. “There was a very great chance and that was something that the actors…That weighed heavily on their minds.”

Pierce is a contender for an NAACP Image Award for Best Supporting Actor.

In addition to sharing his experiences about making the film Selma, Pierce connected with the Privateers about his childhood in the Gentilly neighborhood, where the University of New Orleans is located.

He also spoke to student-athletes about Martin Luther King’s message, taking advantage of opportunities and considering how they carry themselves in the world,” Slessinger said, adding that Pierce helped student-athletes recognize that they represent not just themselves and the university, but the city.

“He talks a lot about campus, going to UNO and the things that are important,” Slessinger said. “They were really excited and kind of blown away that they got to spend time with him and then after seeing him in the movie they were even more amazed,” said Slessinger, who joked that the video session has boosted his credibility with the team.

“They thought I was pretty cool,” the popular coach said. “It was good. It was very inspiring.” 

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