Sometimes I feel like the human connector for all things Michigan. No matter what I do or who I talk to, things always seem to swing back to my home state. My recent guest on “Renaissance Man” is from Saginaw, Mich., and starred in a movie called “Detroit” about the Algiers Motel incident during the 1967 riots.
When it came out in 2017, my brother, mother and grandmother were still alive, and we watched it as a family. That film moved us all. It was also the first time I saw actor Algee Smith on the screen. And maybe because it made such an impact on us as Detroit natives, it made me feel like I knew him personally.
I later learned he was a fellow Michigander and moved to Atlanta when he was 8. But I could see he’s got that Michigan muscle and that Saginaw hustle. In fact, the theme of the episode is “hope is not a strategy.” In other words, he didn’t cross his fingers and hope to make it to the big-time. He put in the work.
“My strategy to make my dreams a reality would just be studying,” Smith told me. “I studied what I want to do, whether it’s acting, whether it’s music. I write vision boards. You have to make sure you can see it in front of you. You know you’ve got to make sure you can see it … the body can internalize it. You can start to believe it.”
He must have had some vision boards for a homestead in sunny Los Angeles because he recently bought his first house in the city. That’s a milestone for any young person, but this is a bit sweeter because he was homeless there at one point.
“You know you have to stop and really look at the blessings. I was homeless out here and I as able to buy a house … I remember my family sacrificing certain money to get me to where I need to go for an audition when I wasn’t booking anything. It’s hitting me hard. It’s a blessing.”
When he was younger, his family packed up and drove to LA in an Expedition, which would sometimes double as a home.
“We stayed with family for a couple of nights. After a couple of weeks, we quickly realized that LA is a big city, man, and it’s tough, especially with the whole family. You don’t have a job. And so me and my family was homeless for a while out here sleeping in the truck.”
In 2016, Smith was sleeping on his friend’s couch while going to auditions. He was booked to play Ralph Tresvant in “The New Edition Story” on BET. From there, his IMDb page filled up at consistent pace.
Smith said that he first fell in love with acting during an audition in Atlanta for a woman who owns an acting school called AGI. He re-enacted the scene that is now part of television lore and considered therapy for kids who had absentee fathers.
Of course I am talking about the scene from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in which an emotional Will Smith is talking to Uncle Phil about his dad not showing up.
“I remember the emotions that I tapped into, and I remember the way I felt because certain things about my father. You know what I am saying — I didn’t have the best relationship with my biological father either so I just kind of related to it … After I stopped and the room was just still, and everybody was like, ‘Yeah you got something.’ That’s when I felt, yeah, this form of expression feels good.”
I didn’t grow up with my biological dad around, and sadly it was the norm for my peers when I was younger. As you get older and meet more people from different backgrounds, you realize that wasn’t a universal experience and you gain a different perspective. So I wondered how he coped with his own father’s shortcomings.
“Your parents are still people, they are still human, so you can’t expect them to be perfect all the time. And so I had to forgive and also I had to love myself and realize it was nothing wrong with me. After that, I was able to forgive him … then that just opens up the door for just love, man.”
Smith has a depth and a maturity that dwarfs his 26 years on this Earth. I think he might be more mature than me. He brings that to every role, including his most recent as Black Panther member Jake Winters in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” The movie is a biopic on Fred Hampton, who was the president of the Illinois Black Panther party in the late ’60s. He said playing real-life people comes with a heavier responsibility, so I wanted to know the lessons he learned from making this movie.
“You’re never too young to make a change. Fred Hampton was 21 years old, and Jake was 19. And No. 2, there’s power in numbers.”
Smith said he always knew that he was meant to be a leader. He said he uses his social media to try to inspire people instead of showing off his sneaker collection and calling it a day. I also appreciate that he’s working out and showing people the importance of diet and exercise.
“The health side of it is something that I just became conscious about. I’ve always known about it because my mom would always be like, ‘You need to eat better.’ But when I really started seeing the changes in my body, like I went on a raw food diet for two months. I was just eating vegetables, fruit, smoothies and nothing else. I felt the difference in my body.”
Personally, I would love to try a raw food diet because I want to be reintroduced to my six pack. However the last time I checked, grapes in the form of red wine is not on the approved list. And the Jesus juice makes life better.
Smith is also making Hollywood better. He has shown such range already. He went from playing Tresvant from New Edition, where he had to dance and sing, to a very serious role in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” He said Will Smith was his favorite actor, but I see him more in the Jamie Foxx mold because he can sing, dance and act. So when he starts filling his mantel with Oscars, Tonys and Emmys, just remember I called it here first.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.