Clark Johnson has held down roles in choice cop dramas. Meldrick Lewis anyone? The pork-pie hat-wearing detective on the acclaimed network show Homicide: Life on the Street, which ended its run in 1999, was first. That Baltimore-set series presaged another located in the American port city---the acclaimed HBO program The Wire---which ended this year after a successful run of five seasons. (And for the harder-core cop show fans, he directed The Shield, too.)
Both shows had complex stories with conflicted characters worthy of compassion. “Imagine if these kids with all this energy and brilliance for knowing their corners had access to good education,” Johnson, who directed several episodes of The Wire, recalled saying to series creator and writer David Simon (who scripted Homicide.)
Now Johnson’s taken a new turn---into medical territory. He talks from the set of a pilot being shot for CBS, Can Openers, a show about neurosurgery he’s directing. Why take the gig? “It wasn’t cops and it was well-written,” he says, then chuckles. “After a while, you want a change.”
But TV is just part of his gig. At this year’s ViewFinders International Film Festival for Youth, he’ll speak to high school students and work with youth in the North Preston Video Academy and the Remembering Africville project, a video, audio and visual-art installation created mainly by grade six students at Joseph Howe Elementary School. These visits flow from Johnson’s social and political activism, using film and TV as a medium for storytelling and change. He’s also involved in Scenarios USA, a non-profit group that teaches writing and filmmaking as a way “to foster youth leadership, advocacy and self-expression in under-served teens,” according to the organization’s website.
“I got inspired early myself,” he says, mentioning “wacky neighbourhood ladies...then my Mom taking us to auditions,” for demonstrating the power of character---both imagining and assuming one. Along with his sisters, jazz/pop singer Molly and actress Taborah, Johnson was raised---and schooled, philosophically---by civil-rights activist parents with strong political stances and a commitment to community, he says. In fact, the family moved from Philadelphia in the late ’60s to Toronto in an apparent self-exile.
Though he lives in New York with his own family, the father of two has maintained a connection to Canadian film and TV over the years, appearing in seminal Canadian films, including a trio by Clement Virgo (Love Come Down, The Planet of Junior Brown and Rude) and Stephen Williams’s Soul Survivor. Recently he co-starred in the Paul Gross political what-if TV movie, Trojan Horse. Hell, he even credits Canadian writer/producer Wayne Grigsby (October 1970 and others) with bringing ViewFinders to his attention and encouraging him to attend.
“I knew a little bit about Halifax, about Africville,” Johnson says. He got in touch with pianist/composer Joe Sealy, who lives in Toronto and whose father grew up in the community, to come and talk about recording the touchstone album, Africville Suite.
Still, he agrees, Canada’s internal struggle has mainly been about language, not race. “It hasn’t exploded there yet,” like it has in big American cities or the suburbs of Paris, Johnson says. “Canada has always been a place where you can say, ‘No, no, no that doesn’t happen there.’ There’s still a great innocence and positive mindset up there.”
But, Johnson adds, that mindset has to be carried over---propagated, protected---to new generations. Otherwise, you could end up with “fuckin’ Bush and his hateful policies.”
It’s that kind of intensity and outspokenness that made Clark Johnson a guest to have at this year’s ViewFinders, the third for the current festival director, Julie Glaser, who admits, “Well, I knew of him, but I don’t even have cable.” Glaser says she sees hundreds of films every year and “that almost exhausts me.”
She acknowledges many in the young audience might not know who Johnson is---may never have rented a season of The Wire in DVD box set. “But people realize this is a really big deal.” And she knows it’ll take time to translate the experience of hearing from Johnson and seeing films into making films but, she adds, “What’s important is the dialogue.” Since “film is their medium,” the conversation, she hopes, will continue.