Anthony Hemingway of WGN’s ‘Underground’ is creating some of the dopest — and wokest — culture on screens
The director loves pingpong and ‘Good Times’ — and says Colin Kaepernick is his favorite athlete
Anthony Hemingway is here to teach. He’s a director, yes. But the work he’s been creating, on film and on television, informs us about history and pushes us to have complicated, and at times uncomfortable, conversations about contemporary headlines. Hemingway, from New York, has been working on WGN’s powerful Underground, a thriller about life on the Underground Railroad. He directed that impactful recent episode that featured a brilliant Aisha Hinds as former slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and he also recently directed an episode of Fox’s intensely socially conscious limited series Shots Fired. And he’s got more important, teachable work on the way.
Does championing the truth inform the decisions that you make as a director? You’re part of #WokeWednesdays with your TV projects.
Yes. As I look back on my life, and at the elevations I’ve made, the blessings I’ve had and what really connects and speaks to me in terms of material, it all has some social relevance to it, some social connection, and I’m very thankful for that. It’s something that I don’t seek out. It’s something that really finds me. That’s how I operate. I’m thankful that what I do and what I’m able to really champion as a director or a filmmaker is not in vain. It really is serving a purpose and being meaningful.
What’s your favorite throwback TV show?
Most of what I loved growing up had a pretty comedic drive to it … a lot of the [Norman Lear] sitcoms, so it was done in ways that [told] a great story and made a connection, or was relevant. Like Good Times or What’s Happening. These shows affected my life and were a part of what shaped my childhood. I love the early sitcoms — those shows that I saw myself in.
What made you want to be a director?
I was 16 or 17 when I really made the decision to make this my career. I was a production assistant, and … I continued on the production train and became an assistant director. And along the way of AD’ing, I was included in a lot of the creative circles and I was allowed to have a voice. It just started to slowly click … just happened organically.
What’s your favorite college team?
I didn’t go to college, so my favorite team is unconventional — it’s the University of Hard Knocks! That’s my favorite team because I’m a product of it. And I’m proud that someone like myself, as a young black man that can be successful and can make it, can be an example to others to realize that there’s more than one way to go about things. I’m not trying to persuade someone not to go to college, because school is very necessary and, I think, important. But it’s not for everyone. I stand strong in knowing that my destiny and divine order was in the way that it happened. And so because it happens for me, it could happen for someone else. So that’s my team!
Favorite pro team?
Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s been a natural, organic favorite of mine because my cousin played for them and won two Super Bowl rings with them. Willie Williams. He was a cornerback for the Steelers. The Jets and the Knicks are also going to be all the way on the list because I’m from New York.
Do you have a favorite athlete?
Colin Kaepernick right now is someone I support because I love what he stands for and what he’s done … not being afraid to voice his point of view. And regardless of the controversy that it caused, I support him.
Is there a sports story out there that you’d love to tell?
I’m actually in development on a couple films right now. One is a story about James Harris, who was the first black quarterback in the NFL. He came out of Grambling State University and made it to the Buffalo Bills. The name of the film is called Man on the Field, and it’s the story of his life. The other one that has been a long passion project of mine … is Emile Griffith, who, God rest his soul, passed a couple years ago. But he was a boxer in the ’70s in New York, and the tagline for his story was basically, ‘I killed a man, and the world forgave me. And I loved a man, and the world wants to kill me.’ That touched my heart when I heard that. To see someone who’s just passionate at what they do and love what they do and is amazing at what they do, and because of who they love they get crucified. It’s just one of those things that I think really kind of has multiple connections to many walks of life.
What will you always be a champion of?
Table tennis, pingpong, whatever you want to call it. I’m the master at that. But in terms of life and my focus? I will always champion truth.