“I’m proud to be among the growing number of people on the forefront.”
He could be talking about his work motivating young Black men, his efforts in the struggle with HIV/AIDS, or his own career, but Hill Harper is a man who would rather talk about others than himself. Maybe that’s one of the things that makes him a hero.
An accomplished film, television and stage actor, Harper captivates audiences with his charismatic and authentic style, which he dedicates to each eclectic character he portrays. A magna cum laude graduate of Brown University and recipient of graduate degrees in both law and public administration from Harvard, he continues to excel, receiving nominations and countless awards in independent films, international film and television projects.
Once selected as one of People’s “Sexiest Men Alive,” Harper emits the classic “guy next door” image, but also exudes a seriousness that commands roles embodying depth and intelligence rarely offered to young Black actors. He relishes the opportunity to defeat the stereotypes of Black males by starring in the hit CBS drama CSI: NY, where he portrays Dr. Sheldon Hawkes. He also seems to treasure his success for what it means most.
“I personally feel blessed in so many ways, I could never live my life without serving others,” says Harper, who credits his parents and grandparents for instilling an “intuitive sense of legacy.”
That legacy is helping him defeat more than just stereotypes. When not solving crimes on television, Harper is using his talents to make a difference in people’s lives. The Iowa native wrote Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny as inspiration to young men in search of advice and encouragement in a pop culture that offers little positive direction. In the book, he and others such as Venus Williams and Barack Obama share their perspectives on critical topics like school, work, sex, life aspirations, single parenthood, sexually transmitted diseases, the allure of materialism, and the power of words and faith.
“My priorities lie with young people,” says Harper, “young African Americans particularly. Since HIV/AIDS is affecting that group dramatically, it’s important for me to do this work.”
Part of that work involves speaking out frankly about the pandemic in the Black community. Among his many contributions, he was judge for the Black AIDS Institute’s 2nd Annual Rap-It-Up/Black AIDS Short Subject Film Competition. He also wrote an essay for the book Not in My Family: AIDS in the African American Community, titled “AIDS: Who Will Step Up?”
Harper, a Harvard classmate of Obama, calls on the biggest of Black celebrities and leaders (by name) to do more about the problem. He even rails against the old notion that HIV is a gay disease. In addition, Harper is part of “1 in a Million,” the Screen Actors Guild and Black Hollywood’s campaign that calls for the screening of a million African Americans by the end of 2008. Celebrities participating include Jimmy Jean-Louis (Heroes), Hosea Chanchez (The Game), Anne-Marie Johnson (CSI, JAG), Rockmond Dunbar (Prison Break, Heartland), Vanessa Williams (Soul Food), Howard Hesseman (Boston Legal, WKRP in Cincinnati), Henry Simmons (Shark) and Regina King (Ray, 24).
“Once you know and choose not to act, that becomes problematic,” says Harper, citing the examples of the Holocaust and recent events in Darfur. This actor knows. In the film The Visit, he played a man dying of AIDS and sentenced to death for a crime he seemingly didn’t commit. “I met so many people who had full-blown AIDS and were incarcerated,” he says, then recalls another experience, when he was a grad student at Harvard. “I was working on a project that helped people getting evicted from their apartments because it was discovered that they had AIDS. I learned about the discrimination side of the disease before I actually learned about the disease itself.”
While in grad school, he co-wrote a short film with a cousin addressing the spread of HIV among Black women. “My learning curve has definitely increased because of my career. What you realize is we’re all in the same boat. We all have to embrace each other. If we don’t, we perish.”
Not if this hero has anything to say about it. For young people, he offers what he calls a very distinct message. “I talk about choices. Everyone talks about freedom, but it’s difficult being free if you’re [incarcerated or sick]. It’s impossible to be free if the cost of being you is too high.”
An actor’s career is all about choices. One only hopes other actors will make the same choice as Hill Harper when it comes to addressing HIV/AIDS.
“Everybody has some kind of resource to give, whether it’s money, celebrity, organizational skills or something else. We need people in every corridor fighting this fight.”