*”Daredevil” star Stephen Rider will portray William Johnson, the first African-American Harley-Davidson dealer, in Discovery’s 3-part mini-series “Harley and the Davidsons.” The series is led by an all-star cast including Michiel Huisman (“Game of Thrones”) as Walter Davidson, Robert Aramayo (“Game of Thrones”) as William (Bill) Harley and Bug Hall (“The Little Rascals”) playing the role of Arthur Davidson.
The limited series is based on a true story that revolves around the founders of Harley-Davidson Motorcycles. Johnson (Rider) broke down barriers becoming not just the first black Harley dealer, but also the first African-American to be licensed to compete in national motorcycle racing events. Because African-Americans were not allowed into the American Motorcyclist Association, Johnson was only allowed to join and enter competitions after he declared that he was an American Indian.
EUR/Electronic Urban Report caught up with Rider ahead of the “Harley” premiere to talk about the challenges and his process behind bringing Johnson’s 20th century legacy to the small screen.
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“Well, the challenge was that there’s not a lot about him because he didn’t like being in the public’s eye. And so, from the pictures and from the little bit of information that I gathered from the archives, I was able to start to really understand the person in relation to the time,” Rider explained.
“It was so important for me to understand the times surrounding this man. Where he came from. The challenges that he faced, so I could understand the type of obstacles he had to overcome in order to get this type of opportunity. I think he was way more courageous than I am as a person. He had to be,” he continued. “I definitely had more questions and I still have more questions about him now than I did going in, which I always think is a good thing. So hopefully I was able to bring some type of truth to the table — to reveal something about him. Do I think I learned everything about him? No. I think it’s impossible to. But I do feel like I got some morsels of him.”
Rider explained how playing Mr. Johnson was quite transformative in the sense that it made him feel “more mature” and “how to become more of a man.”
“He was a person that I don’t believe ever gave up, and he didn’t do it for the money. It was during the great depression when he got a lot of opportunity, so there wasn’t a lot of money I think accessible. He did it because he really loved it. I believe that he was way further ahead in his process that I am as a person. And I feel like he helped me mature,” he said.
“I think people back then were more mature. The times demanded that they had to be. So to work on a character that forced me to have to live up to a different type of demand, different expectations — I felt like I learned how to become more of a man by entering into his shoes.”
Even though African Americans entered the depression long before the stock market crash in 1929, Rider notes how seeing his people flourish during Harlem Renascence, and then suffer during the depression, must’ve had an impact on his psyche.
“To see your people flourish in the way that he did, and then all of the sudden stop because of the Great Depression, and see these incredible, beautiful men and women have to struggle. People were dying — a lot of things were going on in terms of people committing suicide. People not having the ability to provide for themselves. To be able to have to see all of those things. He had to deal with a lot. He saw a lot of beauty and I really do believe he saw a lot of destruction and a lot of despair and a lot of broken hearts.”
Rider, who also featured in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “Safe House,” is telling one of several untold stories from Black American history with “Harley and the Davidsons.” And he hopes viewers will “be able to connect to the fact” that Mr. Johnson “was the man that helped start a tradition that they’re actually living.”
The actor also acknowledges how Mr. Johnson’s struggle during the 1920’s is reminiscent of the growing racial divide that Blacks in America are witnessing today.
“Unfortunately, as we progress as a country, I think that there’s a lack of sharing and the passing down of history, and so a lot of times, a lot of people don’t really know their history and know where they come from. So I don’t necessarily know how many people know [this] story but I do believe in terms of the black lives matter and everything going on, it’s the same struggle.”
He continued, “We have progressed as a country but the reality of it is that the power structure is still the same. So until the power structure changes we’re always going to have those problems. And until there’s a higher level of consciousness from everybody, things can’t really change because there has to be reconciliation before you can actually moved forward. I think our country skips over that step. It’s an individual step, and I think that the individual has to make that choice.
“Harley and the Davidsons” will premiere Monday, September 5 at 9 PM ET/PT. Consisting of three two-hour installments, parts two and three will air on Tuesday, September 6, and Wednesday, September 7 at 9 PM ET/PT on Discovery.