Mekhi Phifer dreams of a science-fiction future with as much diversity as the population of contemporary Earth. That’s one reason, he says, he was initially drawn to the “Divergent” film series, the latest of which, “Insurgent” comes out Friday.
“You know, it’s a possible future, but it involves multicultural races and ethnicities that you don’t see in a lot of films where they go into the future,” Mr. Phifer told The Washington Times. “When I see [sci-fi] films that don’t have that diversity, it really pains me a little bit. The creators can’t be serious and think there aren’t other ethnicities besides Caucasians in any possible future. So when I see films like that it’s disappointing, the lack of creativity that folks have.”
Mr. Phifer, who returns to the “Divergent” universe as Max, has had a rather lengthy career, working on films and in television, notably on “E.R.” and on Showtime’s “House of Lies.” Yet he particularly enjoys sci-fi and the opportunity that the “Divergent” series has afforded him.
“This dystopian possible future was something that was intriguing,” he said. “Those kind of films typically tend to keep my interest.”
He enjoys sci-fi, so long as it’s “good sci-fi. There is a vast difference. And that’s what I love about ‘Divergent.’ You see every race.”
(It must be pointed out, however, that the principal poster for “Insurgent” features actors Shailene Woodley and Theo James, both of whom are white.)
Mr. Phifer cites Gene Hackman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Denzel Washington and Alfre Woodard as just a few of his inspirations as an actor. As a young thespian, he was especially proud to appear in Spike Lee’s 1995 crime drama “Clockers” alongside Harvey Keitel and Delroy Lindo.
Like Mr. Lee, Mr. Phifer is a native New Yorker.
“He was, at that time, for lack of a better term, ‘the godfather of black film,’” he says of Mr. Lee. “His films were very impactful, not only to the African-American community, but the film industry as a whole. So for me to be able to work with him, and to work with him that closely, was crazy.”
Mr. Phifer is particularly fond of his work as Dr. Gregory Pratt on “E.R.,” the long-running medical drama that left the air in 2009. On the show, Danny Glover played Dr. Pratt’s father, Charlie.
“Man, that was the best,” Mr. Phifer said of his time on the prime-time show. “Because we got to really grow into a little family. We were all just having a blast doing it. And Danny Glover playing my father was a great arc for us.”
Yet for Mr. Phifer’s visions for a science-fiction future of diversity, earthbound hatred remains. To wit, the first image seen in the teaser trailer for the next entry in the “Star Wars” saga, “The Force Awakens,” shows British actor John Boyega, who is black, in a Stormtrooper outfit.
In addition to the cheers of fans who have waited a decade for a new “Star Wars” film — to say nothing of the joy of many at not having George Lucas involved in any way — was a countering of jeers from the dark side at the notion of a black Stormtrooper. The naysayers vented on Twitter and other social media to decry Mr. Boyega, much of which is unprintable here.
To his credit, Mr. Boyega took to Instagram for a simple yet eloquent response to his detractors: “Get used to it.”
“That’s ignorance right there,” Mr. Phifer says of the racist backlash against Mr. Boyega. “Why wouldn’t there be a black Stormtrooper or a Latino Stormtrooper or an Asian Stormtrooper or a Mexican? To me, that’s ignorance.”
(Fans have pointed to Mr. Lucas’ own prequels as precedent: It was established in “Episode II” — with the subsequent Episodes IV-VI subsequently revised to reflect — that all Stormtroopers are in fact clones of Jango Fett, portrayed by New Zealand Maori actor Temuera Morrison. However, the exact genetic status of Stormtroopers in Mr. Abrams’ upcoming sequel has yet to be discerned. It could well be that Mr. Boyega’s character is simply wearing a Stormtrooper outfit, as did Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in “Episode IV.)
Mr. Phifer, who lives in Los Angeles and enjoys outdoor activities and traveling with his family, hopes to one day work with “Star Wars — Episode 7: The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams as well as longtime Lucas pal Steven Spielberg.
When asked if he would appear in a theoretical sequel to the 1997 film “Soul Food,” he laughs amiably.
“That would be fun [and] interesting in a ‘now’ kind of thing,” he said. “Where those characters have grown, because it was such a dynamic family. It would be great to see another take on that in part 2.”
In the meantime, Mr. Phifer will rest on his considerable laurels while at the same time making the future just a little bit more diverse.
“I think ‘Insurgent’ is a great installment,” he said. “I think it’s ever better than the first, and people are gonna have a good time. Check it out!”