Profile : Parallel Hines : ‘White Lie’ on USA deals with subjects actor knows: racism and interracial love
Gregory Hines bustles into his publicist’s office in mid-town Manhattan looking less like the accomplished actor-dancer he is and more like a hip politician. He is ingratiating in his summer whites with his ready smile and earnest manner.
The 45-year-old performer--nightclubs, films, Broadway, television--has been in the public eye for four decades and he has the smooth moves down. The polished manner works well for his new role as Len Madison, a successful New York City mayoral press secretary in “White Lie,” premiering Wednesday on the USA Network.
Hines’ reassuring presence goes a long way in establishing Madison as unthreatening in the opening scenes of the drama. And a good thing, too. “White Lie” deals with a primal fear: the taboo of interracial love.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the film,” says Hines, plopping down on a couch. ‘It’s an explosive subject and I’m happy people are broaching these kinds of subjects in movies like ‘Jungle Fever.’ It can’t do anything but good.
“I really felt for this character. Here’s this guy whose career is going along great. Then this bombshell shakes everything up.”
The “bombshell” comes through the mail: a yellowing 1961 newspaper photo of a black man lynched from a tree in the Deep South. Discovering from his mother that the man in the photo is his real father, Madison returns to the town where he was born to avenge the wrong. There he learns that his father was accused of raping a white woman--the mother, as it turns out, of a progressive politician now running for governor. When Madison begins a dalliance with the candidate’s sister, he becomes embroiled in passions paralleling the tragic past.
Though born and raised in Harlem, Hines says that he was no stranger to the de facto Southern segregation. He toured the region in the ‘50s with his older brother, Maurice, as the Hines Kids and later as Hines, Hines & Dad when Maurice Sr. joined the act. “As soon as we pulled into a town,” recalls the entertainer, “my dad looked for the railroad tracks.”
Hines says that as a child, he was perplexed with the apartheid-like bureaucracy, such as the police cards they had to carry when they played in white areas of Miami Beach and the segregated water fountains.
“When I first saw the sign ‘Colored Water Fountain,’ I figured the water was blue,” he said, “and so I went for the one reserved for whites. Members of the company--I was traveling with Cab Calloway’s Cotton Club revue at the time--ran over to stop me.
“I distinctly had a picture of one big pipe underneath the ground feeding both fountains so I thought whites were getting worked up over nothing.”
Yet Hines says these policies never engendered bitterness in him. “I was somehow always aware that there were two sides,” he says. “When I was 15, this is what I heard: ‘You can do it, you’re just as good as them’ or negatively, ‘You’re never going to get the chance’. And I knew, somewhere, there was a 15-year-old white kid hearing, ‘These black people are not as good as you; you’re smarter than them.’ And I thought, ‘this is a tough meeting, him and me.’ ”
Making that meeting all the more difficult are the troubling sexual undercurrents, the so-called “jungle fever” when a black man begins dating a white woman. Hines himself has often dated white women. His current wife and his ex-wife are Caucasian. He and his wife of 10 years, producer Pamela Koslow, have a 7-year-old son, Zachary, as well as two children from their previous marriages.
Though Hines is reluctant to analyze his relationship with his wife (“I’m not the kind of person to really intellectualize anything”), he acknowledges the extra emotional baggage of an interracial relationship. “Pamela and I were like this mutual admiration society at a time when everybody else thought we were crazy and making a big mistake,” he says.
Hines admits, however, that to this day the sight of him and his wife walking down the street evokes stares. The most unsettling ones come from black women who, in an echo of a scene from Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” let him know that they most certainly do not approve. “They look at me with a certain bad energy,” he says. “And I look at them with as much warmth as I can muster. Because I think they’re thinking in a way that others have impressed upon them. Or maybe it’s a black woman who’s not been able to find a man, and so here’s a man and he’s with a white woman.’
Hines says that he agrees with the basic message of “White Lie”: You find love where you can.
“I’m just happy Pam and I got together,” he says, “for whatever reasons--sex, companionship, common interests. From an early age, I knew just from looking around me, that finding somebody to love wasn’t going to be easy, no matter what race or what religion. When I found Pam I wasn’t about to worry about what anybody might think. Hey, I’m not the easiest person to live with so I consider myself very, very lucky.”
“White Lie” premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on USA.