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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Terrence Howard chooses roles that speak to him. That's an ethic he's held close throughout his career in Hollywood. His role in "Mr. Holland's Opus" in 1995 made him a name. His Oscar nomination for "Hustle & Flow" made him a star. And now, he is the host of the PBS documentary series "Independent Lens". On tonight's broadcast, he'll introduce viewers to a film called "Knocking". The subject is the Jehovah's Witnesses. It was produced by Joel Engardio and Tom Shepard.

Terrence Howard joins us now to tell us more about the film and his personal connection to the subject. He joins us from his home in Los Angeles. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. TERRENCE HOWARD (Actor): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, the film takes its name from a tradition among Jehovah's Witnesses, literally going door to door with their message, which has been the subject of many jokes which the film actually acknowledges right up front. Here's a clip.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Late Show with David Letterman")

Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Comedian, Talk Show Host): We're very close now to smoking out Osama bin Laden. They got 1,600 Marines there in Afghanistan, and they're going cave to cave, and these Marines…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LETTERMAN: …they are very shrewd. They're disguising themselves as Jehovah's Witnesses.

(Soundbite of laughter, applause)

MARTIN: Now that may be the closest that many people ever get to Jehovah's Witnesses, Terrence Howard, so…

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah.

MARTIN: …what…

Mr. HOWARD: Well, it's interesting because they don't do it as a tradition. You know, it's actually a mandate from the Bible itself to go door to door. This good news of the kingdom must be preached. The apostles and Jesus himself, they went door to door. That's what Christians are supposed to do if you're a Christian.

MARTIN: So it's not optional. This is not just a question of…

Mr. HOWARD: It's not.

MARTIN: …something nice to do. This is something that…

Mr. HOWARD: No. This is something…

MARTIN: …one must do.

Mr. HOWARD: …you have to.

MARTIN: Now, it's my understanding that you were raised as a Jehovah's Witness, is that right?

Mr. HOWARD: No, no, no, no. I was raised as a Muslim. I came across, and like most people, I was told that, you know, when we heard the Witnesses on the walk - saw them walking up the street, you know, you like, immediately shut the curtains and act like nobody was home. And I always wondered about that. You know, my father got mad one time when there was a kid and started talking, you know, because he didn't want anybody to know that they were - we were home.

But when I was 17, I came across a young man in school named Sean Mitchell(ph), and he was interesting because he always stood apart from everybody else. He had - he was one of the most popular people there, but you know, he wore suit and tie to school every day, carried a briefcase - very mannerable, you know. And one day - and I carried a Bible at that time myself - but one day we were all sitting around at a lunch, and we're talking about when the first person had sex and all that. I'm, like, 17 and I'm waiting for someone to ask me. I'm waiting.

And Sean came and sat down at the table. He opened up his briefcase and set his books out and was about to start his lunch, and everyone turned - and Frank Kim(ph) turned to him and said, when was the first time you had sex? And Sean looked around the table at everybody, put his books back into his briefcase, closed the briefcase and left the table.

Now, I thought it was some type of stunt. I was, like, wow, that's cool. But he didn't come back. And I had a class with him the next period and I asked him, I said, why'd you do that? And he opened up his Bible and showed me a scripture in Ephesians 5:3. He said, let not unclean things be mentioned among you even as it befits holy people.

MARTIN: Wow.

Mr. HOWARD: That in itself left an incredible mark upon me because I was actually seeing somebody that was actually living in - by the discipline of being right, something I'll never forget. So I started a Bible study with him -he started a Bible study with me, and I thought I knew so much. But he explained it to me by references, not by beliefs, not by tradition, but by references, you know, what the Bible really required.

MARTIN: You've said that you were raised as a Muslim. It's interesting that a lot of the people who've written about you, a lot of the articles written about you, say that you were raised as a Jehovah's Witness. In fact, I looked you up…

Mr. HOWARD: Yes, but…

MARTIN: …here on a Web site as one - as a famous Jehovah's Witness. Where do you think that misconception comes from?

Mr. HOWARD: No, they've - because, you know, I stopped celebrating birthdays and all of that when I found out the origin of them, you know, that it was steeped in spiritism. I stopped celebrating Christmas when I found out where that came from, that it was actually a celebration to a false god named Saturnalia that Christians were forced to adopt in the fourth century.

If I had a chance to, I would be a Witness today, but, you know, have I - do I have the discipline yet? No. But one day, one day I will. So I don't mind them saying that, but I wish I could say I'm a Witness, but I'm not.

MARTIN: The film "Knocking" makes the point that Jehovah's Witnesses are fundamentalists, in many ways uncompromising in their faith. But they are not willing to use the political system to advance their moral agenda except to create space for themselves - for example to create the space to not say the pledge of allegiance, for example. I was just curious for you as an African-American man for whom the political system has been fundamental to creating rights and dignity for persons of color. You know, how does that sit with you?

Mr. HOWARD: Well, you've got to remember, though, what the Bible teaches is that any given government is in opposition to the true God and his government. If you have a king and you're part of an established kingdom, how can you assign yourself to another kingdom, so to speak - you know, a manmade kingdom, which the Bible clearly states will be wiped away and be crushed by God's kingdoms. You know, these are basic truths spoken about in the Bible.

MARTIN: Jehovah's Witnesses also believe that paradise will one day reign after Armageddon, and in this paradise that there will be - all the people will live together peacefully.

Mr. HOWARD: Yes.

MARTIN: The lamb laying down with the lion. And I'm thinking about "Crash," the movie for which you are so well known, which made the point that we really are not living peacefully together on this earth, despite the fact that we may have this kind of surface diversity. And I'm wondering, do you think we will ever get to that paradise on earth?

Mr. HOWARD: Well, the Bible says that what Jehovah set forth, it will be accomplished. The Witnesses have found that is quite possible, because in my 17 years associating with them, you see people's nature who may be wolf-like, initially, but they become lamb-like. You see people who may be beast-like, you know, give up some of those beastial ways and learn how to care about one another and learn how to make the compromises. And it's only by doing what's right that you get there. But that's what the Bible teaches, and that's what the Witnesses hold on to, and that's what I believe certainly will take place one day.

MARTIN: Now you - I'm still not clear on what your relationship is with the Witnesses. It sounds to me that you're very close to people. There are people in your life that you're very close to. It sounds to me that you've studied the religion closely…

Mr. HOWARD: My children are Witnesses.

MARTIN: Oh, your children are.

Mr. HOWARD: Well, my ex-wife is a Witness. All my brothers are Witnesses. I had a study when I was 17, and as result, I studied with my brothers and they took on - they started studying with other people and my entire family are Witnesses. I'm the only one that's not. And just because I, you know, I'm like most people in the world. I, you know, I'm a little selfish in what I want - I like doing my thing my way, and that's something that I'm going to have to learn, that sometimes you've got to do what you want to do is not necessarily what you need to do. What you need to do is what's right for everyone, you know.

MARTIN: Is that hard? It used to be that it'd always very hard for somebody of the Jewish faith to marry somebody of the Christian faith, but, you know, these days, you know, they kind of work it out. What about now? Is it hard for you? Was it hard for you to be…

Mr. HOWARD: No. No.

MARTIN: …married to somebody who is a Witness but not be of the faith?

Mr. HOWARD: No. That's - because in my heart, I wanted to be a Witness. And if it wasn't for the smoking of cigarettes and all that other - you know, that I would be a Witness. But I just got a little more - well, I just need to study a little bit more. But one of the things that struck me was the discipline of truth.

You know, people - well, I do this for this reason. I do this for that reason. But Witnesses, they do things for one reason and one reason only, that it's -if it's right in God's eyes, then it's okay. And that's something I always appreciated that - yes, being a fundamentalist, if the Scriptures say this, then stick by it, live by it, because you do receive the blessings. And after 17 years, I've seen the people that have stood firm and steadfast. I've seen them rewarded. It was, like, oh, wow, the course does work out. The Scriptures are true in that.

MARTIN: But it's not for you - yet.

Mr. HOWARD: Oh, no, I didn't say it's not for me yet. It's just, you know, sometimes you've got to - it takes a while to be able to qualify. You got to qualify to run in the race, you know? So, you know, I'm exercising.

MARTIN: How do you feel about the film?

Mr. HOWARD: I like the film. Someone makes a choice, they make a dedication that they will live their life a particular way, and then they walk away from that way. And as a result of walking away from it, it's not them being shunned by the people, they shunned the people themselves and their practices. And as soon as someone is willing to make amends in their life, they are welcomed back, you know, with both arms.

MARTIN: This isn't the only film in the series, right?

Mr. HOWARD: No, no. There's a number of films.

MARTIN: Okay, and why did you…

Mr. HOWARD: It's like 26 films.

MARTIN: Why did you want to host the series?

Mr. HOWARD: Well, because it's PBS that's giving independent filmmakers an opportunity - all these are award-winning documentaries that have stood the test of time, and for PBS to be supporting them - it's like PBS has it's arts showcase, and they have this classical videos. It will have little outtakes from certain plays or little snippets of - a five-minute snippet of a ballet or of an incredible performance. I've always - I've learned more from watching PBS than I've watched anything else. So I'm going to support it in anyway I possibly can.

MARTIN: Terrence Howard, thank you so much.

Mr. HOWARD: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Oscar-nominated actor, Terrence Howard. He is host of the PBS documentary series, "Independent Lens: Knocking," a film about Jehovah's Witnesses, premiere on PBS tonight.

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