During his 21-year stint on Reading Rainbow, LeVar Burton provided an entire generation of young readers with a friend to know and ways to grow. Indeed, one of the actor and literacy advocate’s gifts as the host of the iconic PBS kid’s program was making every child watching at home feel like he was talking directly to them. But when Burton looked into the camera, he saw one specific face starting back at him: his young son, Ward.
“He was in pre-school when the show premiered,” Burton reveals to Yahoo Entertainment. “It was awesome to be able to speak directly to him when I was addressing the camera. That helped a lot, because it brought a lot of focus for me to the work and to the effort.”
Burton’s other gift was making all the effort that went into Reading Rainbow look effortless. The new documentary, Butterfly in the Sky — which just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival — takes viewers behind the scenes of the show’s humble beginnings in 1983 and how it stayed on the air for over two decades in the face of the budget woes and threats of government interference that continue to plague public television. (Watch an exclusive clip from the film above.)
Butterfly in the Sky touches on some of the personal challenges that Burton faced as well — challenges that young audiences wouldn’t have been aware of at the time. The actor rocketed to fame at 19 years old after playing the young Kunta Kinte in the blockbuster 1977 TV miniseries Roots. Prominent roles in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Billy: Portrait of a Street Kid and, of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation soon followed, and Burton’s star power made PBS seem like the last place he’d appear. But as the son of a teacher, he found that he couldn’t pass on the opportunity to introduce other children to the wonderful world of reading.
As discussed in the documentary, Burton was one of the only Black faces on public television when Reading Rainbow premiered. And his deep-seated desire to represent his authentic self sometimes ran counter to PBS conventions. For example, Burton would frequently change his look from season to season — returning to set having shaved his mustache or gotten an earring — which made producers worry that children wouldn’t be able to forge a connection with him.
“Some of those conversations were heated,” Burton says now. “But both sides were ultimately trying to achieve the same thing, which was to serve the audience. From the producers’ point of view, a more consistent look lent itself to the sort of stability that’s important for kids in their lives. But I was also very, very clear that they had hired me, and in doing so they needed to respect who I am and that I’m in control of what I look like and how I present myself in the world.”
“I wasn’t willing to change that,” Burton continues. “So when my hairstyles changed, or when my facial hair came or when I fell in love with a woman who talked me into getting my ear pierced, all of those things were a part of who I was at that time and who I was becoming. I was loathe to give up any aspect of that. I started in this business at 19, so my whole life has been about figuring out who I am in the public eye. These victories are hard-won, and they’re hard-fought because they matter. Representation matters.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Burton addresses why we shouldn’t be afraid of using technology in service of literacy; how Reading Rainbow might have addressed the school shooting epidemic currently engulfing the country; and why he’s ready to say goodbye to Star Trek after appearing in the upcoming final season of Picard.
I was 5 years old when Reading Rainbow premiered, and watching the clips of those early episodes in Butterfly in the Sky a lot of those memories came flooding back.
That’s good! I imagine that that will happen for a lot of your generation that sees this film, which is terrific. I love celebrating something that was able to do exactly what it was intended to do, in spite of all of the naysayers. A lot of people at the time said, “Why would you want to try and promote literature on TV? They’re two different things.” But for me it’s all storytelling, right? If you give kids good content that’s also enriching, and if you meet them where they are, then you’ll take them where you want them to go. In the ’80s it was TV, and today it’s computers.
Technology can be a huge ally in the cause of educating our children. We just need to use it properly and intelligently, and have the best outcome for the audience in mind. You also have to be willing to sacrifice commercial success as your number one priority in the endeavor. You have to be in it to help kids, and to improve their lives. If that’s not your number one priority, then it’s going to be very difficult to produce the kinds of programming like Reading Rainbow that’s so desperately needed in today’s world.
I appreciate that you’re so receptive to technology — that’s not a hurdle everyone can leap over so easily.
Well, look at who I am and where I come from! I am of a generation that saw the beginning of the technology age. We weren’t just dropped into it whole hog, right? We were there at the beginning of Texas Instruments and IBM, so we know the miracle of a handheld computer when a computer used to occupy the size of a huge-ass room! [Laughs]
I’m all for it if it works. If it works, use it. I know that’s a counterintuitive attitude for people who are proponents of education, but it makes sense. It was the power of Roots that really opened the door for me. Across eight nights of television, I saw how this nation got transformed around the idea of what we mean when we talk about chattel slavery in America. It changed the nature of the emotional intelligence quotient of this country. So if we can harness that power to improve kids’ lives, then damn it, let’s do it each and every time we can.
There’s an unfortunate trend now where some groups want to restrict that kind of education from classrooms. Does that make a show like Reading Rainbow even more valuable, because kids aren’t necessarily getting that information in schools?
Absolutely! And the whole idea behind public television — the vision that in this vast country there would be access to the benefits of the media for every part and parcel of the nation — is a very noble mission. It was successful in that way for many, many years, and with waning governmental support it’s been impossible for PBS to maintain the purity of that mission. But you know, things change.
Were there specific subjects or books that you remember fighting to include on the show, but the producers weren’t sure?
No, not at all. It was a very open-minded brain trust that was responsible for selecting the books. If anything, for me it was like “Really? You think we can do that? You think we can tell this story?” It was a joy because everybody was on the same page about the kinds of stories that we wanted to tell, and how we wanted to tell them in terms of making documentary style storytelling for kids. People weren’t doing that in the ’80s, you know?
In the same way that books open a window to the world and in doing so create empathy, we were addressing the whole child with our show, because we were really doing nothing more than encouraging them to be their own naturally curious selves, and have that curiosity spark a lifelong adventure and a love affair with reading. If you can take a child who knows how to read and turn him into a reader for life, then you’re doing something that’s worthwhile.
Later seasons of the show dealt directly with topical subjects like 9/11. School shootings and gun control are two issues that’s top of mind right now. Is that a topic that you think Reading Rainbow would have addressed?
I think what we would have done is cover school shootings as opposed to gun control, because it’s the shootings that are happening to kids. It’s kids that have to go through active shooter drills in school; it’s kids who live in a world where the simple act of going to school is not considered safe. Every kid in this country is concerned about an active shooter on their campus, trust me.
I know that we would have found an age-appropriate way to have the conversation about school shootings if we were still making the show. I have every faith and confidence we would have been able to approach it in a way that was valuable to our audience and did justice to the very serious topic just as we did with 9/11, the Vietnam War and slavery. I believe we would have tackled it — absolutely.
What can people do to counter the movement in some parts of the country to ban books, and what role can the media play in that debate?
Well, I think the media does have a role in terms of helping to point out just how ludicrous it is that we are trying to ban books and censor the education of our kids based on our discomfort around what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is American history: If you’ve got an issue with the history of how Black people and marginalized people and poor people have been treated in this country, then you need to look at yourself, not the books that are being written. You need to look in your heart and ask why that makes you so uncomfortable. Read the banned books because that’s where the good stuff is. If they don’t want you to read it, there’s a reason why.
It’s not really a war on literature as I see it: It’s a war on informed thought and opinion, and it’s a war on an intellectual understanding of who we are as a nation. I was always taught that education was the antidote to ignorance, not the impediment to it. If you’re trying to censor what I need to learn in order to have a full and complete understanding of who I am and how I fit into this society, then that’s going to remain a problem for you because it’s not my problem. Anybody with a brain sees the same thing, and if you don’t, you’re just in denial and good luck with that.
When you appear in front of children now at book signings and literacy events, what’s it like to interact with them directly instead of through a camera?
I’m a storyteller, so when I’m interacting with kids, I’m trying to connect with them. When we connect with kids, they keep us honest and they keep us in the moment. Children have a remarkable capacity to detect bulls*** and they’re not ashamed to speak it when they spot it! So every time I get in front of an audience — especially an audience of kids — it’s exciting for me because it’s about being part of a village that raises them to understand how important the written word is and literature and storytelling is in their lives. As soon as we can communicate that message the better.
Butterfly in the Sky celebrates Reading Rainbow‘s history, but what do you think the future holds for the brand? There was a live show recently that you weren’t a part of — would you hope to be involved in any way if it returns to TV?
No, I’ve done that, and I’m on to the next thing now. I did it for television and then I brought it back for the digital generation, so I’m good. It’s not a brand that I own, and I wish them absolute best, you know? It’s a great brand. It’s been responsible for a lot of good in this world, and may they be able to keep it going.
You’re currently involved with the education company, Osmo, as its Chief Reading Officer. What’s the mission behind that partnership?
It’s the same mission — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? [Laughs] We’ve proven that if we can take a child who knows how to read, we can turn them into a reader. Now, I want to see how effective we can be at turning children who are just beginning to learn how to read and turn them into voracious readers. Osmo is an amazing educational technology company, and I’m proud to partner with them in this effort to really focus on the learning to read aspect of early childhood education and how we might use technology in the service of teaching kids how to read. Believe me, having a passion for reading is absolutely critical to becoming your best self. So the earlier we can get in there, the better.
Star Trek is as much a part of your life as Reading Rainbow, and you’re reprising the role of Geordi La Forge on the final season of Picard alongside the rest of the Next Generation crew. Has it been fun getting the gang back together?
We’re all done now and it was an absolute blast. It was so good to be together. I mean, we’re all very, very close anyway. We try to get together once a year for Christmas, but during COVID we weren’t able to do that, so being able to get together at the end of last year and the beginning of this year was really cool for us.
And then to put on our space suits and play these characters again! We all thought the ship had sailed on a conscious goodbye. When me made our last movie, Nemesis in 2002, we expected there to be another one, and then things changed. So this was a great gift to us. This season of Picard is a love poem to Next Generation and we get to see these people that we grew to know and even love at this new point in their lives.
It was a lot of fun on so many levels. We spent three days shooting in a replica of the bridge of our Enterprise — the one we had on the original run of the show — and it was like being in a time capsule. It was like we all had been transported back to 1987! [Laughs] I also get to work with my kid: my daughter, Mica, plays one of Geordi’s two daughters. So the whole storyline really is about the next generation of The Next Generation in many respects.
If this is your final performance as Geordi, are you okay leaving him behind now?
Absolutely. If I never put a spacesuit on again, I’m good. I feel like I got to put a period at the end of this sentence and close the book. Now if the book opens again, far it be from me to say no! [Laughs] But with all things being equal, I can honestly say — hand on my heart — if I never play Geordi for another moment in my life, I’m good.
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