Paul’s Promise: Josef Cannon on Racism, Accountability, and Prayer

Set in the peak of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, Paul’s Promise is the inspiring true story of Paul Holderfield, former racist firefighter-turned-pastor who started one of the first integrated churches in the American South. It’s one man’s journey to hope and healing during a troubled time in our Nation’s history that resulted in one man’s decision to serve God and stand up to injustice – a story that continues to make a huge impact on the community to this day.

Risen sat down with Josef Cannon, who plays Paul’s childhood best friend Jimmy Lipkin but their paths go different directions and it’s not until Paul is later convicted by his actions that the two become friends once again as adults. Cannon talks with us about the time period, racism, the importance of mentors and accountability and the power of prayer not only in the movie, but in his own life too.

Interviewed for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: I thoroughly enjoyed getting to see this film. I thought that it was powerful and the performances including yourself were fantastic. So talk to me a little bit about Paul’s Promise because it’s based on a true story.

Josef Cannon: Yes. It’s based on Paul Holderfield Sr who was this firefighter from North Little Rock, Arkansas. And admittingly, he would say that he was a racist at the time. It was set in 1957 when this all took place. And so he grew up in that period where segregation was expected and not integration. So he was just basically following along with the times. And so he had a friend named Jimmy Lipkin and they grew up together. They were childhood friends and they shared everything. They shared boxing, they shared his momma’s biscuits. They just enjoyed life, but as they became young adults and older, the world takes over and then we start to be put in a position to where we have to pick sides. And unfortunately, at that time, Paul picked a side that made him become something that he really wasn’t, far as his hatred towards someone who didn’t look like him. And that was something that eventually caused him a lot of pain and struggle until his mother’s prayers turned his life around and he ended up finding Christ at the end.

RM: One of the things that I found particularly interesting about your character with Paul’s character was that both of you grew up as friends as you were mentioning, but then through the different paths, it gave you completely different outlooks on the way you approached life and the way you interacted with others as well, the turn the cheek philosophy versus the anger and frustration and feeling stuck like you don’t know how to handle a situation. Maybe talk a little bit about understanding feelings with that are going on.

JC: I think considering the period and the fact that Jimmy and Paul were born around 1910, so you have to even go back even further to when they were born and understanding the climate in the country at that time. So as they grew up, being separate was expected. What Jimmy and his mom did was actually an outlier. They took Jimmy in, and they befriended him, and she loved him and treated him very similar as she did her own children, and that wasn’t the norm during that period. And so to be in that timeframe where I knew playing the character, I had to always keep that in the back of my mind, when he was born and the climate around.

There was a scene in the hospital where when Paul walks in and he sees me talking to his mother. And I’m smiling with her and I look to Paul in the doorway and I put my head down, and then I get up and I excuse myself. Because during that period in 1950s, early ’60s, to catch a man of color in a room with this woman, even though it was a hospital bed, he was still sitting on her bed. That could have became very ugly, but his faith in God and Mama’s faith just overrode that. And I just think that there was the struggles during that period. He couldn’t say the things he wanted to say. Even when Paul denied him, he couldn’t really be aggressive about it. So he just chose to always pray, believing that he would turn his life around.

RM: Even though it was set in the late ’50s, it still felt so current to today, whether that being not knowing the appropriate way to have a conversation with people, whether that being sticking your heels in the ground and not doing what your mom wants you to do, or whether it’s still being the topic of race. Talk to me a little bit about how this story can transcend time.

JC: I agree with you wholeheartedly. It felt like we were talking about 2022, and that’s the sad part. When this incident actually occurred between Paul and Jimmy, that was actually 65 years ago in 1957. And to think that not much has changed today is disappointing. You would think that we’ve come further along, but we haven’t because I think we’ve gotten off the path of just having that faith and love in one another. So in playing that character, there were so many things that I didn’t have to dig too far back because as you pointed out, it’s as if it’s still occurring today. So when you have these conversations, the conversations of race, it’s very uncomfortable. And people do get steadfast in their positions, not necessarily because they feel that way, but from what the world around them happens to feel.

And I think that’s where in Paul’s case and I think in cases up today, we make decisions, not necessarily because we feel that way. We know what’s right. We want to do what’s right, but we worry about what everyone else may think or say if we happen to take this particular path or this particular stance on something. So that makes us question. I mean, if you put yourself in Paul’s position when he’s there with his firemen buddies, if he shakes my hand, his whole life changes. His whole life changes for him, his wife, his kids, his family. And these are all things that is very similar to today that I think some people feel that way, that so we still stay on opposite sides of a fence, unfortunately.

RM: Not only the aspects of being capable for change, but also how shame can cause you not to maybe make changes, or how addiction can play a part in your life. You’re repeating a cycle that you didn’t even know was happening, or you do, but you don’t know how to break it or how to get out. Maybe talk a little bit about some of those, I don’t want to call them extenuating circumstances that also heighten a situation, but some of those other areas of our life that then become impacted because of decisions we’re making or lack there of decisions being made.

JC: I think we can get stubborn. And when we are under the influence of whatever it may be, it tends to just accelerate that belief. We always say that sometimes art imitates life. And ironically, I was at the Venice Beach the other day and I see an old friend and we hadn’t spoken in years. And I approached them and I say, “Hello, my friend.” Person turned to me and said, “I’m not your friend.” It was as if I was still in character in the movie.

And I was like, “Wow, that’s crazy.” And I replied the same way Jimmy would have, “I hope all is well. I’m going to pray for you.” And I just turned and walked away. And as I walked away, it only hit me that that could have been taken directly from the film, but it was something that actually happened to me. And it was weird, but I think we get so steadfast in not one to take the first step. And I think the great thing about Paul was his mother, her prayers, her constant prayers, as well as he knew that she was aware of how Jimmy was and that Jimmy was a really close friend to the family, and I think when she held him accountable because sometimes it takes that specific important person in our lives.

Not everyone has the ability to stop us from acting stupid. And sometimes you need that one influence above everyone else. Sometimes we have to have that mentor, whether it’s someone from a men’s group, or someone that you can rely on to just basically say, “You know that’s wrong, right? I don’t have to tell you again. You know that’s wrong.” And we don’t have that enough today. Jimmy was blessed enough to have that. I was blessed enough to have that. So it was able to bring that from my own life into the character of Jimmy Lipkin.

RM: Yeah, that is such an important distinction that I’m glad that you made of the importance of accountability, but the right person to hold you accountable and to do it in still a loving way so that it doesn’t come across as condemnation, although sometimes it may mean to come across that strictly. I loved that his mom was steadfast in her prayers, that she never relented and that she always continued to verbalize them and to talk to them, talk to him about it, but then also was vulnerable enough to share her own struggles in the sense that not everything that she was praying for was getting answered. And that became something that others had more of a problem with than she did because she felt like God is blessing her in so many ways. And others aren’t seeing her prayers get answered, but to her, she remains steadfast in praying and just trusting God. Maybe talk a little bit about the power of prayer and the importance of trusting through any circumstance.

JC: My grandmother was very big on the power of prayer. And before I would leave the house every day, she would always pray that I didn’t meet any harm and that I didn’t do any harm to anyone. And it used to perplex me when she would stop me in the doorway and put her hand on my forehead and say these. I’m like, “What are you doing?” I mean, because I didn’t see that she knew outside of our doors, the world is not a beautiful place sometimes. And so she always wanted to send us out with warm thoughts, prayerful thoughts, positive thoughts into a world where maybe not everyone that we’ve come across is having the same situation, or having the same thing imparted upon them. So I think that’s so vital to have that, to grow up in that sort of life, that family who constantly did that.

When reading the script and becoming a part of the film, there was a lot of things that resonated with me. My grandmother was a lot like Linda Purl who played the character of Mama. She prayed steadfastly, always wanted to see the best in me, even when others may not. So a lot of times, even now when I watch the film, and I’ve seen it so many times, the parallels between Paul’s character and mine is very close when you have this praying mom, this praying grandmother, and it’s powerful how it can resonate. And it may not happen at the time in which she would love for it to happen, but it doesn’t mean that it won’t take place, and eventually that it won’t resonate with the individual that’s being prayed about. So I think it’s so vital that we do that. I think it’s vital that we share that with our children and our loved ones, and let them know that if you are in any sort of need or you feel like you’re just lost, sometimes just taking a moment out and having that quiet time and having that prayer can bring some clarity.

RM: Yeah, I love that she even designated who was going to continue carrying on her prayers because she wasn’t sure if there was anyone outside of herself that would keep those going. I mean, so purposeful in all of her acts, which is just a great reminder to do that when you pray, not necessarily always keep it broad or lofty, but very specific about what she is hoping will happen and prayerfully whether she saw it in her time or not. So such a great discussion. Josef, thank you for taking the time. Thank you for having deep, meaningful conversation and putting out great art that can allow us to continue to talk about it in more ways moving forward too.

JC: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you for watching our film. And we really appreciate, not just you taking the time, but what you do on a daily basis.

Paul’s Promise opens October 21… click here to find a theatre near you


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