Editor’s Note: As we saw last weekend from Deadline’s coverage of Jay Baker losing his position as longtime CAA agent after sending manager Jewerl Keats Ross a Menace II Society movie clip depicting a crack addict willing to perform a sexual favor because he was so desperate to feed his habit, we are in a moment of heightened sensitivity that leaves everyone in Hollywood standing upon a trap door that can be triggered by a single insult or misdeed. We aired all sides of the story, from the email that an offended Ross sent to Baker in response to the clip (which prompted CAA to fire him) to a strong apology by Baker for being tone deaf in sending that clip in the first place. We at Deadline thought we were done with the story, until we got a note from Dwayne Barnes, the actor who played that role. Somehow it seemed right for him to have the last word on this regrettable incident, as he didn’t belabor blame, but rather presented a worthy reminder of the courage it took for a young actor to take on a role like that, one that nobody else wanted. And the personal experience he brought to it and the trauma that followed, which reared up again last weekend. — MF
I was 20 years old when I moved to L.A. from Detroit. My first audition ever was for Boyz n the Hood. I didn’t land a role.
Shortly thereafter I got the call to audition for Menace II Society. I was asked to audition for the lead role of Caine, the guy in the McDonald’s drive-thru, and the crackhead.
Before I auditioned I called and asked my grandmother what did she think about me auditioning for that particular role. She said, “You’re an actor. People will be smart enough to know that’s not really who you are.” I agreed.
I knew it would be controversial but I guess because it was so close to what I grew up in and around it wasn’t as shocking to me as I discovered it was to others after I decided to do it.
On set, one of the actors (MC Eiht) asked me how long had I been in L.A. I shared with him a year or so. He said, “You moved all the way out here to play a crackhead and to say that shit?” I was crushed. I was humiliated.
I vividly remember other actors like Too Short, Larenz Tate and Clifton Powell being so kind towards me. I guess they, like my grandmother said, were wise enough to know that actors act; we play roles that sometimes mirror back life’s harsh realities.
You see, acting changed my life. I had no emotional outlet whatsoever until I found acting in my 10th grade year in high school. It was the first thing that allowed me to be able to step out of my chaotic life and embody another reality. I could finally scream, laugh loud, cry and play, and not be negatively called out of my name for doing so.
My mother had me at 15, and my older twin brothers at 14 years old. She was a smart woman, was triple promoted in school. But, her dysfunctional home life which included an alcoholic father, and a mother who ended up being the sole breadwinner ate up all her hope of survival. My grandmother had to work and be away from the home, leaving her kids to take care of themselves during most of the day and early evenings. My father, a few years older than my mother, came from an equally dysfunctional home. Kids playing house led my mother and father to doing things that protected kids wouldn’t be able to do.
Eventually the rigors of the environment led them both to drugs, alcohol and destruction, which, unfortunately, I had to experience seeing them go through it all.
When I was 11, my father was gunned down and killed in the streets of Detroit. Shot in the head.
My mother went deeper into her darkness and began to heavily abuse the new drug, “crack,” that was floating around the streets, and it was over for her.
Two weeks after I relocated to L.A. to pursue my acting dreams she went into a comatic state that lasted for 15 years mainly due to her crack use. My grandmother took care of her in the home until my mother died.
With all this going on I was a lost soul searching for a way out. Searching for my identity as a Black man. I followed in my parents’ footsteps and had a child at the age of 17. I had no clue how to be a parent. I didn’t even love myself, and I was also struggling with my sexual identity. I was attracted to women, I was attracted to men. What a massive dilemma.
At that time, queerness wasn’t celebrated like it is today. I heard nothing about LGBT. It was hard enough for me to be a Black man living in America, but on top if it all I had the challenge of trying to make sense out of my burdening attractions.
I turned to my Christian faith. It helped me get through the tough streets of my youthful Detroit, but with my sexual identity issues it was the worst place I could be. I would constantly hear that being anything other than straight would send me straight to hell.
Now, mix in the challenge of being an actor in Hollywood with all of that. The rejection, the heartbreaks of not getting roles I wanted, the people-pleasing, the predators, the users, the abusers. I ran into them all while my mother laid in a hospital bed in a room in my grandmother’s home.
Needless to say, my mental, spiritual and physical heath suffered many blows, and I struggled to stay alive, riddled with fears, phobias and crippling anxieties.
After Menace II Society came out I was so challenged. I actually had a moment similar to the scene I played with my own mother. She didn’t say those words, but one day while going to school with a friend I came upon her and she was just as broken and riddled by that crack disease. She cried out to me for help. “Help me Wayne. Someone just did something to me. Help me.”
The moment was to much for my young self to handle. All I could do was to tell her to go home to her mother, my grandmother, and maybe she could help her.
Many people in the Black community didn’t take too kindly of the role I played in Menace. I later discovered from the directors, Allen and Albert Hughes, who also were from Detroit and who did a phenomenal job with the movie, that I was the only actor they could find who was willing to even play the role.
A close “friend” of mine’s sister said “my mother said she was disgusted by the role you played in that movie.” I stood in silent terror thinking, “I guess that means she is disgusted with me. Disgusted with my life.” The word shame doesn’t even sum up the way I felt.
Another “friend” said, “My friend asked me if you are gay. He said only someone gay would play a role like that. Are you gay?”
“Yuck. How could you play that?” — on and on and on and on it went.
It seemed like I became the butt of every joke with regards to my portrayal of that character. But don’t get me wrong, there were many people who after meeting me were amazed that I played the role so good. “Wow, you are nothing like that. You are so smart, intelligent and talented. How did you pull that off?” Sometimes I would smile and take the compliment and sometimes I would shock them and say, “Well, my mother was on crack, so I guess I had in-home research.”
The look on their faces would be a look of utter confusion, not knowing whether to laugh, or to cry.
I didn’t realize that it was possible that this role was a spiritual and emotional attempt deep in my subconscious to step into my mother’s shoes and somewhat bond with her to understand her traumatic path, as well as heal some conceptions about Black masculinity and myself. I had no clue why a role so close to my own personal life would be offered to me. I had no clue why I was brave enough to play it.
It’s taken awhile, lots of therapy, lots of prayer, shifting and sifting through spiritual practices, I did it all. All I could to heal these wounds of being a Black man in America, of being a queer man in America. And as soon as I felt as if I had gotten free, after all the Black Lives Matter, and all of the progress that has been made, I see this article on Deadline where a non-Black person has decided to drum up my scene and use it as a weapon to oppress another Black man, to humiliate him. It disgusted me.
It was also interesting to me that the man who was attacked with my scene managed Barry Jenkins, who directed Moonlight, a film that is scarily similar to my own life. As I’ve shared my mother was also a crack addict. I, too, struggled with my sexuality and had to deeply wrestle to come to terms with my own truth.
I feel like this is a full-circle moment in a sense. And just like Jewerl has done, I take my power back. I’m not the scared little kid from Detroit with a past life of low self-esteem, trauma, abuse, and who worked hard to prove himself worthy. I am worthy. I am a man, a human being. A great queer Black man, Black actor. And I will not sit by and remain silent to abuse of any kind anymore for fear of someone discovering my true self. My true story.
Never once did I know the impact this movie would have on this world. I thought It would be a low-budget film that no one would ever see. Little did I know that Menace II Society, a sober look into the products of systemic racism, which I am a part of, and its impact on the Black community, over 25 years after its creation, would be used as a weapon of oppression. What a shame.
What Jewerl experienced was super inappropriate and not OK. I applaud him for not just taking it, but speaking on it. We’ve heard the expression “silence is violence” all during this pandemic. Jewerl has inspired me to no longer remain silent, and I thank him for that. And thank you Michael for shining a light on this issue.
Here is the Menace II Society clip again:
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