When a man enters a room, he comes cloaked in attitude, his gait in sync with a private, inner vibe. How he moves defines him as surely as his politics and his religion. In looking at a man--the steadiness of his gaze, the tilt of his head, the curl of his mouth--one sees "the beauty of inflections" as well as the "beauty of innuendoes."
In those first moments, spare strokes form the outline on which shadings and details are layered.
When Eugene Young, one of the attorneys on the television series "The Practice," enters his on-screen law firm, he brings basso profundo greetings and a handshake of colliding palms, authority and zeal. Young arrives without bluster or hunger for confrontation. He makes his entrance baring only self-confidence and dignity.
To be sure, this is not a blandly happy-go-lucky character or a one-dimensional depiction of moral fortitude. He is neither the jester nor the preacher. Rather, Young is a surprisingly nuanced creation.
On ABC's Emmy-winning show, Young is a successful attorney, the No. 2 man in his firm. He is renowned for his skills as an orator during closing arguments; he is deadly during a cross-examination. Young can be professionally aggressive in the face of the most morally ambivalent cases. Yet his own moral certainty struggles against a legal system that often is neither fair nor just.
He is divorced, yet there still are bridges of communication and compassion connecting him to his ex-wife. He struggles to rear his 11-year-old son, to be a moral guide, disciplinarian and friend. He manages not to barricade himself behind a wall of emotional dysfunction. He is not filled with indiscriminate rage; he can be combustible, but not dangerously so.
But of all the elements that make Young so complex, it is what he lacks that makes him unique: Eugene Young is an African American male television character with no sign of a burdensome chip on his shoulder and no time for buffoonery. He is rare, indeed.
He is arguably the most evolved black man on television, one who has been painted vividly and thoughtfully. His competition is virtually nonexistent. The ranks of black male actors on television are so thin, in fact, that the networks have drawn the rancor of the NAACP. There is Eriq La Salle's Dr. Peter Benton on "ER" and Rocky Carroll's Dr. Keith Wilkes on "Chicago Hope." And while the men of "Oz" are sculpted in bold relief, they are done so within the constraints of a cellblock cliche.
Young stands out because his job as an attorney affords him regular opportunities to speak eloquently about the most unnerving social issues: racism, morality, gender stereotypes, addiction.
He has been thoughtfully crafted by the actor Steve Harris, who received an Emmy nomination this year for his work. Young has been informed by Harris's personal vision of a fully realized African American male and how that definition is ever-changing. The character is not perfect. And Harris is not Young. "He defends a racist cop," Harris notes. "I thought Eugene Young would. Steve Harris may not, but Eugene Young would."
Harris's shaping of the character offers a thumbnail guide to the many facets of a modern black man.
When the character of Eugene Young was first presented to Harris, the role was small. In the show's pilot, he appeared in only two scenes.
"He was the only black male lawyer on the show," Harris says. "But from reading the first script, I knew they'd have to give me something to do." The character had potential, Harris thought. It seemed a host of stories could be told through Eugene Young.
He started transforming Young into a "real" black man, with flaws and virtues, turning him into a key character.
In the pilot, Young is sitting with a colleague while a former professor tries to bamboozle her. Young "picks up a paper clip and starts cleaning his teeth while this guy is talking," Harris says. "It was something to do to show the power was over here."
Power, skill and a belief in justice. These are the defining features Harris imbued in Young. His pride in his work, in its integrity, is paramount. "You had to believe I was a lawyer," says Harris of his first steps in building the character. "If you didn't believe anything else, you had to believe I could handle my work."
Harris didn't construct a believable attorney so much by talking to lawyers and scouring case notes, although he has used the Internet to research issues. Instead, he focused on Young's personality, sense of logic and the mien of a criminal defense attorney.
"I work hard to try to create the character," Harris says. "I take my own things and [incorporate] them into the views of what Eugene would think.
"I take the ethnicity into account," he says. The series's creator, David E. Kelley, "isn't black. I'm not white. He doesn't understand the certain idiosyncrasies of the community. I can't expect him to understand that. Why? He shouldn't. But when he misses, that's when I step up."
There was the episode involving "black male rage" titled "The Means."
A black defendant is being tried for accidentally killing a store security guard who attacked him while he was helping a victim during a city riot. To win the defendant's freedom, Young's firm decides that its only recourse is to argue that the man's crime was committed out of an unstoppable and uncontrollable "black rage," a rage for which the man should not be held accountable. It is a defense that exploits the worst stereotypes, that plays into the haunting presumption of the black male as a barely domesticated animal.
"In the initial script, Eugene is arguing against using [black rage] as a defense and then he goes along with it," Harris says. Why? "Society in America tends to believe that we can't control our rage; the role of the attorney is to get the man off.
"My dilemma is to find another way of getting him off," Harris says of his character. "That episode, I stayed up nights over."
In the original version, the closing argument, rife with racial grenades, was to be presented by a white actor, the series's lead, Dylan McDermott. But Harris made the argument to the show's writers that if Young was willing to accept the defense strategy for the sake of the client, he would insist on delivering the closing argument so he could expound on racial identity as defined by the self and by the culture.
The change was made and Young was left to finesse the closing, to pick his way through the land mine of cultural slights and open wounds.
"The cameraman at first--he's also black--got the script, the original, and he sort of looked at me and shook his head," Harris says. "He got the next script, the one we were actually doing. It was a better script, but he shook his head and said, 'It's gonna be a rough one.' "
Young has to bob and weave, searching for a way to win the defendant his freedom, yet leave him with his dignity. Precious little dignity. The pain is palpable on his face as Young addresses the jury:
"This man got frustrated and he fought back. He was justified. But as legal strategy, we didn't think we could get you to believe he was justified. We had a better chance of convincing a white jury that he was an animal, so it became good legal strategy to argue that our client is like some pack animal. A social deviant. And it's crap. . . .
"Until you get searched just because of how you look, until you see the look of fear in somebody's eyes staring back at you, scared because you're black . . . you can't understand. Until that kind of thing happens to you over and over and over and over and over . . . you can't know."
The defendant "went to the aid of a victim of racism. Then he became the enemy and was assaulted by security guards. And he reacted with moral and personal outrage. . . . I won't ask any of you to understand. . . . All I'll say, this man is no deviant."
The man was set free.
"After it was done, [the cameraman] came up to me and said, 'You saved the day, brother.' "
The first thing one notices about Harris is that his physique is far less imposing than it appears on television. He is a man of average height and medium build, and while his shoulders are broad, they do not fill a door frame the way Young does with both his size and his intensity. Harris enters a room with a smile and with his head slightly cocked in an expression of . . . maybe curiosity, maybe anticipation.
Harris, at 34 and single, has not crossed into the Hollywood realm of the bored and the jaded, the exhaustingly cautious. Right now, he still just talks. He is neither pedantic nor uncommunicative. He is not prone to airing dirty laundry, but is at least willing to pretend that an interview can also be a conversation.
He tells a story about why he is the man he is, and in a quiet way, the story is a reminder that there are black men with core values, with fond memories of childhood, with a belief in earned success.
He grew up on Chicago's West Side, and in the sixth grade tried out for the football team. He failed. In seventh grade, he tried again, with renewed determination. He remembers Coach Watkins. The coach would call the team contenders out in pairs, have them run for the ball. The fastest and most tenacious won. Harris remembers facing Reginald Hampton. He remembers skidding on the gym floor, diving frantically, madly for that bit of leather. "He cut Reginald Hampton. I got on the team." Seared into his memory are Coach Watkins's fundamentals: pride, hustle and determination.
Harris's mom, Mattie Harris, still lives in Chicago. And although Harris now lives in Los Angeles, he visits her often. When he was a kid, Mattie stayed home with him and his younger brother, Sherwin, also an actor. Dad, who recently passed away, worked two jobs--one at the local racetrack, the other for the transit authority. "My folks would say, 'We don't care what you do, just be the best at it,' " Harris said. "I'm working to be the best Eugene I can create.
"When I got this role, it was the happiest I've seen my parents get. . . . They were thrilled I was a lawyer. Before I'd played primarily bad guys," Harris says. "This character has a set of values and integrity that I have to be responsible for."
Is he safeguarding a character his mother can be particularly proud of? Perhaps. He certainly is building a character people of color can point to as a reasonable, public representation of the good black men they know.
Harris graduated from Northern Illinois University in 1989. He then got a master's degree in acting from the University of Delaware in Newark. While there, studying Shakespeare and other classics, he drove down to Washington for productions at the Folger Elizabethan Theatre and at Arena Stage; he was struck by how abruptly the District landscape could transform from a block of "haves" to a block of "have-nothings." "It's like a door swinging open," he says.
Harris followed the trajectory of a host of actors--theater roles led to television and film. He appeared in "Homicide: Life on the Street," "Law & Order" and "New York Undercover." He had film roles in "The Rock," "Sugar Hill" and "The Mod Squad." But it is his role on "The Practice" that is the most enduring. Where he can best explore his observations about economic imbalances, racial inequity and fairness. Where he can show the endless ways of looking at a black man, though so few are ever seen.
Harris's exploration of Young's complexities as a black man are extending now from the professional to the personal.
The show's writers wanted to add a son to Young's story line, to add texture. Harris resisted because he wanted to portray a rarely seen version of the black man. "You can't just be a good black, single male in America. If you are a really good black male, you must be married," Harris says.
The show's writers insisted, to good end: "One of the things I get primarily from people who watch the show regularly, from predominantly black people, is they were happy they brought my son into it," Harris says. "What they really wanted to see was the opening up of my character."
Harris prevailed on another point. Originally, the child was to have been about 15. "That would have [Young] having a child in college. I said make him younger and have me be married. I didn't want him to be a kid bouncing around out of wedlock," Harris says.
So the kid is 11. And there is an ex-wife. "But there's a genuine love thing, but for some reason or other some things aren't worked out."
Periodically, "I have to make these requests," he says. "I've requested things that haven't gone through. . . . But if I never say anything, I have no recourse. And that's not good for me because it's against my nature."
During his summer break from "The Practice," Harris is in the woods outside of Toronto filming a movie. He arrives on set in costume--a dark suit and burgundy tie--and he pulls out a pair of walnut-framed glasses that are so aggressively nerdy they are cool. He comes in like a man who is entering the local barbershop and is happily slapping hands with the regulars.
"The Skulls" is an adventure movie about secret university societies of the skull-and-bones sort. It is a tale of elitism, the illusion of democracy and the desire to belong. Harris's role is small. He plays Sparrow, a police investigator charged with persuading students to follow their own moral compass rather than being seduced by prestige and power.
"He puts the pressure on our characters, not through violence or throwing them against a wall, but through his morality," says the film's writer and producer, John Pogue. "It's an enigmatic role."
In his portrayal of Sparrow, a character whose name is suggestive of the protective, watchful eye of God, Harris is stern facilitator and guardian. And while the role is distinct from the character of Eugene Young, one can see a piece of Young in it--the sense of dutiful justice.
Young exists, Harris says, because of the work of actors such as John Amos, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, "all those cats."
"This show could have been written 10 years ago, but nobody did it," he says.
Even now, Harris is acutely aware of the rarity of Young and the constraints he, the actor, faces.
"I was never considered, thought of as possible, for the lead of 'The Practice.' Wesley Snipes could have walked in there with all . . . he has going for him and would have been told, 'We need someone else,' " Harris says. "There won't be many Eugene characters. There'll be Dylan [McDermott] characters."
In the 1997 collection of essays "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man," Henry Louis Gates Jr. views the modern black man through tales of ascent, through personalities ranging from Louis Farrakhan and Bill T. Jones to Harry Belafonte.
These tales of anomalous men are not representative of an "imaginary median or mean." But rather, in them, "the contradictions and anxieties of the moment and milieu are writ large."
The character of Eugene Young also is an anomaly: a black man with a commanding presence, a law practice, a brother in prison, a son, an ex-wife, a professional integrity and an emotional inner life. Young is a rarity, not because so few men like him exist, but because so few of them exist on television or in film. Young is a Representative.
"I'm dealing with trying to make it and raise a son," Harris says of his character. "I'm dealing with the moral issues of doing a job as best I can and sometimes something steps into the way and I still have to do my job."