Working diligently for the last four decades on stage and screen has transformed Laurence Fishburne into a citizen of the world.
The Academy Award-nominated performer has been a UNICEF Global Ambassador since 1996, participating in several mission trips throughout Africa to raise awareness on issues affecting children. This spring he was awarded the Global Philanthropist Award from UNICEF USA.
“When I came into my adulthood I recognized how fortunate I was to be doing what I loved to do," Fishburne told NBCBLK. "I created a larger-than-life profile that that put me in a position to speak out about things that mattered to me.”
The versatile dramatist — synonymous with his performances in “Boyz N the Hood,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Deep Cover,” “Akeelah and the Bee,” “The Matrix, and most recently "Blackish" — vividly remembered watching young actors in the Soul Buddyz Club in South Africa perform educational plays. The morality plays illustrated how to prevent the widespread of HIV/AIDS.
Watching these young actors, an eloquent Fishburne remembers, motivated him to remain committed to a cause. “Acting and philanthropy are braided together,” he said. “I’ve tried to seek out things that speak not just specifically to the community that created me, but that speak in a way that’s universal and all of humanity celebrates.”
On Fishburne’s second trip to the Motherland, he visited the Ivory Coast and Liberia. The UNICEF spokesperson frequented organization-supported centers to converse and interact at length with child soldiers and refugees. Those experiences took the “Madiba” star back to one of his earliest film roles as a young soldier in the Philippines in 1979’s “Apocalypse Now.”
Seeing the youth’s dignity shine through despite their circumstances to flee their homes in order to survive made an impact.
“It just shook me to my core. It made me incredibly proud to be a part of an organization that brings programs to improve the lives of these children,” he said, invoking the tone and pitch of his character from “Higher Learning.” “It takes someone who puts a great deal of thought into thinking about the world in a way in which they can make the world a little better place.”
The Georgia native was also inspired by the late actor Roscoe Lee Browne. Browne's selfless example, along with local activities like the Halloween drive UNICEF would conduct in his Brooklyn neighborhood, moved the versatile, gap-toothed talent to action.
“In order to be the best version of yourself, you have to dedicate time, effort and support to other people who need it. These experiences were life changing for me and made me committed to mission of children first,” Fishburne said. “Philanthropic work reminds you of everyone’s common humanity, and that’s really the common denominator for everyone.”
Caryl Stern, UNICEF’s current president and CEO of its U.S. Fund (Fishburne affectionately calls her “Boss”) noted the thespian’s selfless attitude, calling him “a man who is truly committed and passionate about equity issues for children.”
“That’s the guy who travels with us, using the power of his podium to give voice to kids who wouldn’t be heard otherwise,” said Stern.
“Black-ish” creator, executive producer and showrunner Kenya Barris drew a parallel between Fishburne’s impeccable work ethic and ability to be a team player.
“He is our all-around older brother,” a chuckling Barris declared, adding that Fishburne, who also juggles his role as the head of Cinema Gypsy Productions, is consistently punctual and prepared. “He is beyond a professional. He sets the tone from the top. He doesn’t need this show. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have gotten 'Black-ish' done.”
After accepting his Global Philanthropist Award from UNICEF, Fishburne wasted no time offering to embark on the next mission trip with his peers and reiterated his empathy and concern for children spanning the globe.
Having a successful career in film and television has encouraged him to act as a surrogate parent and a beacon of hope for disenfranchised and underprivileged communities.
“Children are everybody’s concern in the world,” he said putting on his eyeglasses. “When you see somebody else’s kids, they’re our kids. They all belong to us. We need to stand up for them because they can’t stand up for themselves."