With the new movie ‘Crown Heights,’ Nnamdi Asomugha relies on everything he learned from football The former superstar cornerback won Sundance with the story of a man who went to prison for a murder he didn’t commit

Nnamdi Asomugha is taking a quick break.

There’s a photographer, and the photographer’s assistant is setting up a new orangish background. Asomugha, in a gray Converse crewneck and slim-fit black pants, overhears a conversation that’s disdainful of grimy movie theaters and movie theater chains.

He jumps in, makes a funny face and shakes his head adamantly in disagreement. Asomugha loves movie theaters. Always has. When he wasn’t on a football field — the former Cal Bear and first-round draft pick spent his first eight National Football League seasons with the Oakland Raiders — he would sneak into theaters and sit there all day, soaking it up, consuming content and daring to dream of something beyond academics and athletics.

At the Manhattan photo shoot, the Pro Bowler gives a sly smile. This is a full-circle moment.

For 11 seasons, Asomugha was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. After his years with the Raiders and stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers, he walked away from the NFL in 2013 at age 32 via a one-day contract with the Oakland Raiders so that he could officially retire in the city in which he came of age. A true shutdown corner, Asomugha retired with 15 interceptions, 80 passes defensed and two sacks.

Oakland Raiders’ Nnamdi Asomugha (21) breaks up pass intended for Dallas Cowboys’ Keyshawn Johnson (19).

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

But if you don’t know his name for those reasons, don’t worry, soon you will — and it’ll have absolutely nothing to do with football.

Asomugha is an actor. And a producer. And not because he’s indulging an ego-driven post-athletic career fantasy realized through his ability to cut a big enough check and buy his way onto a set. No. As an actor, Asomugha expertly brings to the screen the story of a man we all should know about — and as a producer, he’s brilliant at finding and financing stories that need to be told.

His Crown Heights, which opens in select New York theaters this week and has a wide release next week, is the true story of Colin Warner, a Trinidadian resident of the Brooklyn neighborhood Crown Heights who was wrongly accused and convicted of murder. Warner served 21 years for the crime, while his best friend, played by Asomugha, tirelessly worked to prove his innocence.

He also happens to be married to Kerry Washington (Scandal, Cars 3, Confirmation), and like his wife of four years — they have two children, Isabelle and Caleb — Asomugha rarely speaks publicly about their marriage or partnership, preferring instead to focus on the work. And it’s understandable, especially in his case, considering that his ambition to become an actor dates back years — before he married his wife in 2013 even, and years before she became famous. The furthest thing from Asomugha’s mind is attaching himself, and this full deep dive into a new career, to his famous and famously talented wife, who happens to be one of very few black women in Hollywood who can consistently commandeer mainstream magazine covers.

Asomugha’s focus is on this second act — and on getting people to see beyond his storied football career. Especially now that he’s doing the thing that ignites him as much as covering wide receivers used to.

“Then we went onstage to perform. And I felt the rush. I loved every bit of it. It was the moment where I said, ‘Oh, this is what gets me close’ …”

“I went to the Los Angeles Kings game,” he said, “and the national anthem started playing. Anytime the anthem comes on … I was fresh off of leaving football, and was just really taken by the moment. There was this [feeling] of, ‘I’m not going to be able to hear that and be ready to go on the field anymore.’ We watched the Kings win the championship, and then I went and called one of my former teammates, Charles Woodson, and said something like, ‘I need that feeling again, of getting ready to go out on the field. With the crowd and all of that.’ I was missing that.”

His friend had advice. “He said, ‘You have to find something that gives you a feeling close to that, because you’re never going to get that again. You’re never going to be able to go out on the field and get 70,000 people screaming when they announce your name. But look for whatever gets you closest to that point.’ ”

Asomugha said that maybe three or four months later, he was in New York doing a reading of a play at the Circle in the Square Theatre. “When you’re backstage,” he said, “and you’re coming out with the actors, you go through a tunnel before you get out there. And then you stop right before you go onto the stage. It was just a reading. But I had that moment. I was back in the tunnel. Then we went onstage to perform. And I felt the rush. I loved every bit of it. It was the moment where I said, ‘Oh, this is what gets me close. …”


Asomugha was born in 1981 in Lafayette, Louisiana, to Igbo parents. He loathes the term “Hollywood” as an adjective. He mock-scowls — hard — when he hears it being said. Asomugha was reared in Los Angeles, the entertainment industry nestled practically in his backyard. But “going Hollywood” is akin to someone saying you’re fake. Or out for self. Or perhaps more mystified by the bling than the hard work. “That’s not,” he said, “me.”

André Chung for The Undefeated

Who he is: a guy who came up in a Nigerian family that celebrated academic excellence and embraced the high arts. The creative space has always had a strong hold on him. It came to him naturally, more so, even, than his athletic prowess. “I come from a performing family,” he said. “My parents are Nigerian, and their parents and their parents — and it’s all about performance in their culture, you know. The music. The dancing … you’re told to stand out at family gatherings and perform in some sort of way. You’re just kind of born into it,” he said. “Me and my siblings … were forced to get up in the church and do some sort of play for the rest of the church. We’re like 7, 8 years old. It’s just what you had to do. It was always sort of in my blood.”

But the performing arts had to be a quiet passion. Especially once he got older. Football was king. So was basketball. And he played both at Narbonne High School in Harbor City, California.

“We took piano lessons. And I remember going to football practice — me and my brother. We were late to practice one time, and … I remember the coach standing us up in front of the whole team and just saying, ‘Nnamdi’s late, guys, and I wanted to tell you, he had a piano lesson.’ Everyone’s laughing, and I’m just sitting there like …” He shakes his head at the memory. “That stuff wasn’t cool at all.”

“Football taught me so much just about life,” he said. “The confidence of me being onstage or performing in some sort way … that was nurtured … and blossomed because of football.”

He shifted. Went full throttle into football, leaving the creative arts, and his equally passionate desire to excel in them, behind. It wasn’t until years later in college — he attended and played for the University of California, Berkeley — that he was reminded it was possible to live in and do well in both worlds.

“It was my junior year at Cal. A [teammate] of mine came up to us after practice like, ‘Hey, guys, I’m doing a performance down at Wheeler [Hall].’ I don’t even know what the play was. Like Porgy and Bess or something. Immediately I started making fun of him. You make fun of someone when they start talking about this, especially in the football world. I got all the guys to make fun. Like, ‘This guy, he’s doing a play!’ We went there to clown him,” Asomugha said. “[But] I’ll never forget he was brilliant onstage. I will never forget it … because it was one of the moments where I was like, ‘Oh, no, this is cool. This is OK, even though we play football.’ He opened my mind up.”

Cal Berkeley rid Asomugha of his own boundaries. It was transformative. He loved football, and knew he’d make a career out of it, but he also knew that when football was over, he’d transition into something more creative. And it was football, ironically — even with that early atmosphere of being anti anything that didn’t scream hypermasculinity — that gave Asomugha the confidence to pursue the creative arts. He’s appeared in the Friday Night Lights television series, as well as on The Game and Leverage; he collected his first credit in 2008.

“Football taught me so much just about life,” he said. “The confidence of me being onstage or performing in some sort way … that was nurtured … and blossomed because of football. Just being able to do things that you didn’t think you can do, that you can’t turn around. You have to do it and doing it in front of thousands, and then millions, that are watching. You’re onstage. It’s not that I don’t have the fear, it’s just that I know how to handle the fear, you know? I can have the fear and still think.”


For the new Crown Heights, Asomugha didn’t make it easy on himself.

He helps tell the real story of Colin Warner. In 1980, Warner was wrongly convicted of murder. In the film, which is based on a This American Life episode, Asomugha portrays Warner’s best friend Carl King, the man who devoted his life to proving his friend’s innocence, and to getting him out of prison. Lakeith Stanfield portrays Warner, and the film is an important moment for both actors. Stanfield pulls off an emotionally complex role, and Asomugha displays impressive dramatic chops.

Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl King in the new film “Crown Heights.”

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“One of the interesting things about Nnamdi is how calm and assertive he is,” said executive producer Jonathan Baker, who founded I Am 21 with Asomugha. “He’s an extraordinarily even-keeled individual. His experience with sports created a sense of get-up-and-do-it-again. The discipline. People respond to him as a natural leader, and it’s evident in everything that we do.”

Asomugha even nails a very distinct Trinidadian accent. “He took it seriously,” Carl King himself said of Asomugha’s portrayal. “He’d call me and ask me questions. ‘Am I bothering you?’ It seemed like he just wanted to do the best job he could have done. And he told me he wanted to do the story justice. It’s a deep story. It’s not one of the stories that you can make up. This is a story about an injustice that was done to this kid in 1980. He had to endure 21 years of the very worst. And portraying me? I’m very pleased.”

The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year and was a critical darling and a fan favorite, nabbing the Audience Award. And Asomugha was ready for the moment, good and bad, both as a producer and a co-star of the film.

“This is cool. This is OK, even though we play football. It’s OK to live in both worlds.”

“I’ve played for the Raiders and the Eagles,” Asomugha said before laughing, “Those fans will prepare you for any event that you have to go through in life! I’m able to explore and just take risks, and just really go after something that I’m passionate about. I can take whatever’s going to be thrown at me.”

That preparedness was crucial.

“I didn’t bat an eye. Football taught me was how important the preparation is before the actual moment. And then when you get into the moment, being able to throw away the preparation and just hope that it’s in you somewhere, that it stayed in you. And that’s what I think with this,” he said. “The project came [along, and it] didn’t feel daunting. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe this!’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve trained for this. I’m excited. I can’t wait to go into a character [and] put something on film! And then it got such a great reception at Sundance, so I was happy.”


There’s more coming from Asomugha. He’s hell-bent on bringing more stories like Crown Heights, which will be co-distributed by Amazon Studios and IFC, to life. Asomugha’s company, I Am 21, is prepping to shoot the highly anticipated Harriet Tubman biopic. It’ll be an important film: Tony winner Cynthia Erivo is starring, and it tells the story of the former slave-turned-abolitionist who worked tirelessly as an Underground Railroad conductor, nurse and spy.

The plan is to start shooting sometime this fall, and Asomugha said the film falls right in line with the mission of I Am 21.

“There’s an element of true story, an element of stories that connect to social issues that effect some sort of change in the world,” he said. “There’s also fun stories that aren’t true, but just have amazing characters at the center. Whether it’s a woman or it’s a person of color, whether it’s a person [who is] just ‘other’ … telling the underdog stories, and how they’ve risen out of that.”

And as for the future of his own acting career? He’s been ready. “I’m the type of person that always has a goal of greatness,” he said. “My mindset is, I can take all the chances in the world. I don’t put stress on myself. What I do is enjoy preparation. It’s just who I am.

André Chung for The Undefeated

“There was a long stretch where practice was much harder than games for me. I felt a level of dominance and being in the zone, for years. Game after game, after game — practice was always harder. So, if there’s any level of stress in this, it’s not being onstage, it’s not the moment that the camera turns on. It’s the preparation that comes before that.”

Daily Dose: 8/14/17 Trump finally speaks up about white nationalists

I just want to thank all the people I got to build and connect with at the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists convention last week. It was a great time, and doing the live ESPN Radio broadcast from the floor was fun. Speaking of which, I’m hosting from 10 a.m-1 p.m. every day this week.

President Trump finally denounced the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. It only took the better part of three days, after violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, following a rally of white nationalists. On the surface, that’s scary because it genuinely empowered groups like these, who believe they have the support of the highest leader in the land. From a global standpoint, it doesn’t look good, either, when your commander in chief would rather tweet than help the nation heal at a time of crisis.

Speaking of that violent situation, there’s a lot to unpack. The private militias protecting marchers. The guy who killed Heather Heyer by running over a group of people with his car. The tiki torches on the University of Virginia lawn being carried by a bunch of guys who have no real understanding of what discrimination really is. People love to say, “This isn’t the America I know.” Well, that’s not quite true. And one website is specifically outing the people who were at said rally, because they look pretty much like everyday people to the rest of us.

When the level of discourse gets ratcheted up, things can become testy. Such was the case at CNN on Monday, when Ken Cuccinelli, former attorney general of Virginia, decided he was legitimately going to tell another guest to shut up live on air. Unfortunately, that person was Symone Sanders, and she does not play that nonsense. To host Chris Cuomo’s credit, he put Ken in his place, but the entire exchange was indicative of the kind of back-and-forth that black women deal with every day of the week.

You can add Jermichael Finley to the list of non-woke athletes. The Green Bay Packers tight end came out with the worst take ever, tweeting that “athletes are looked up to & serve as roll models, leave personal opinions about race and politics alone. Do what you get paid to do & play!” His typo aside, it’s incredible to think that even after this weekend, we’ve got guys out here who find it inappropriate to discuss what happens when hate groups take over towns.

Free Food

Coffee Break: There’s been a lot of talk about the national anthem recently. But, to that point, none of us had heard Quavo sing it. I don’t even know what to say afterward, as I’m in shock about how good this actually is. I’d definitely stand for this version.

Snack Time: In this time of crisis, we have to find a way to care for ourselves. This video of a bird feeding fish with seeds warms the heart.

Dessert: Don’t forget: On Monday night, we return to paradise. Hope you’re ready.

Daily Dose: 8/10/17 Diamond and Silk’s price tag is not particularly high

So, New Orleans is pretty wild, y’all. And on Wednesday, broadcasting The Right Time live from the National Association of Black Journalists convention floor was a really fun experience. I think I’m going to a baseball game on Thursday, so that makes me happy. Very happy.

So, this Guam situation is terrifying. Ever since President Donald Trump puffed his chest out and tough-talked North Korea regarding nuclear war, the situation has legitimately escalated. Guam, if you don’t know, is a United States territory with two military bases. It’s effectively an outpost designed to help control the Pacific, but of course, actual people live there. However, Kim Jong-un doesn’t care. He’s got a plan to launch rockets at the island, and no matter what, this will not end well.

Remember Diamond and Silk? The two black women who spent all sorts of time in their YouTube stardom caping for the president? Well, they basically sold their souls for an amount of money that, even if it pays your rent for three months, is not worth it. For $1,300 they touted the current president, even when the Trump campaign lied about it forever. Then they went to the U.S. Department of Commerce and had their picture taken and posted by the agency, only to have it removed. What a weird story.

I knew that MLB salaries were wild once they started reaching lottery jackpot numbers. But instead of having to handle 95 mph fastballs and even more exploding sliders, you can win hundreds of millions of dollars just by playing the numbers. What’s even more insane is that Mega Millions and Powerball are both above $350M, which means that if you win both, you’ll actually get that much money, instead of half, because of Uncle Sam. I have no clue what I’d do with that much money. That’s a lie. I’d buy an indoor soccer team.

Zach Randolph is the man in my book. But Z-Bo also had for some time been in Memphis, where his status as a cult hero, never mind an NBA star, is well-known. He takes no funny business, and if you got into a fight, Randolph is definitely someone you’d want on your side. But he recently got caught up on a weed charge in Los Angeles, which is an awful look for a dude who just got traded to Sacramento. Of course, he was all smiles coming out of the lockup, but his people apparently were super wilding and destroyed a couple of cop cars. Zach, get it together, fam.

Free Food

Coffee Break: I imagine that Kelly Rowland’s life is pretty dope. She probably makes all sorts of cash on old Destiny’s Child records and doesn’t have the pressure to produce all sorts of hits like, say, Beyoncé. Now she’s making new music, with Syd of The Internet of all people.

Snack Time: Boogie Cousins and Ndamukong Suh have pretty big reputations as players who pretty much don’t care about anything other than themselves. And this Foot Locker commercial pointing that out is hilarious.

Dessert: This will make your day. If it doesn’t, you should check to see if your cord’s unplugged.

 

‘Bachelorette’ finale recap: I’m reclaiming my time Bryan wins in the longest, wackest season finale

We have been hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, run amok and flat-out deceived. Last night’s three (three!)-hour finale sold Bachelor Nation a fugacious dream. Led to believe that what we thought we knew was going to happen wasn’t going to happen, Bachelor Nation sat through three hours of season 13’s asinine new finale format only to have Bryan, the smarmy, oleaginous Miami sweet-talker, win Rachel’s heart anyway. Yeah, how’s that for SAT words?

So sure were we, we foolhardy loyalists, that a plot twist was around the corner, that speculation quickly turned to fantasy.

Was Eric, the king of emotional glow-ups and breakup beards, our beloved dark horse, going to win it all? NOPE. In a shocking twist, Rachel sends Eric home even though Peter told her he wasn’t ready to get down on one knee and that wasn’t likely to change anytime soon. Let me be clear: I wanted Peter to win. I mean, I knew Bryan was going to win from day one and I wanted Peter to prove me wrong. But when Rachel called out Peter’s name over Eric’s, I let out a noise so primeval I shocked myself and had to apologize to the neighbors.

Eric’s departure was followed by Peter’s. Poor, sweet Peter. Peter, who takes marriage the most seriously of all three men. Peter, whose breakup kiss with Rachel lasted five minutes and who cried when she left and who walked by her eyelashes for two days afterward because he didn’t have the heart to throw them away. How could Rachel just walk away from all that? And then to see Rachel light up on the couch next to him during the live commentary and then try to hide it by being rude because her man is watching — it was too much.

There is one hour left in this finale, and Bryan has won by default. But wait, Bachelorette producer Chris Harrison says, you might want to stick around — do you really think you know who wins? So Bachelor Nation sits tight for naught, although we don’t know it yet.

Let me rant for a second. Rachel, a single, successful black woman in her early 30s, fell into a trap that I see a lot of single, successful black women in their 30s fall into. Here is a good man, Peter. Matter of fact, here are two good men, Eric and Peter. Men with whom you connect on a deep emotional level, who are also attractive and charming but maybe aren’t quite ready to get down on one knee yet (in Peter’s case) or are so new to the love game you write him off (Eric). I know you want to do things the “right” way: engagement, marriage, house, babies, in that order. But come on, Rachel, it’s 2017. There is no right order anymore. Was a ring so important to you that you gave up on love? Because I don’t believe for a second Rachel and Bryan have the kind of strong emotional connection that lasting marriages are built on. But what do I know? I’m not single, I’m not in my 30s, and my “success” is questionable.

The final hour was a blur. A mindless blur. What happened? Doesn’t matter, because the winner was revealed long before the end of the show. That means you have official permission to zone out. Did I mention the asinine new format? Anyway, congrats, Rachel. You might not have gotten the man you wanted, but you got the ring. The gaudy, pear-cut halo pavé ring.

Whatever, fam. Maybe Cardi B will be the next Bachelorette.

Clinton Yates contributed to this report.

Rachel is the Bachelorette black women have been waiting to see In the hands of Rachel, the rose has become a rare sign of black female value

Past hurts can make you do strange things — including watching a TV show you know is absurd.

For 15 years, I turned up my nose at The Bachelor and its spin-off, The Bachelorette. When The Bachelor premiered on ABC in 2002, I was too busy raising school-age kids to be distracted by a show in which a bunch of single women cloistered themselves in a secluded mansion to compete for the hand — or other proffered body parts — of a man they’d just met. The show’s setup seemed unlikely to foster true love. I could see why the titular bachelor would enjoy a bevy of attractive females battling for his affection — offering roses to those he wanted to know better and showing the door to those he didn’t. But what sane woman would court such humiliation unless she was A) an aspiring entertainer for whom the exposure could be lucrative, or B) the type who’d do anything to have millions of eyes on her? And in a world in which romantic attraction routinely crosses color lines, the show’s overwhelmingly white cast seemed out of touch. Why bother?

The following year, ABC flipped the script, getting a gaggle of guys to vie for a Bachelorette. Though slightly more amused by the thought of a bunch of men undercutting each other to woo a woman they barely knew, I never considered watching it.

Until Rachel.

ABC’s announcement in February that it had selected its first black Bachelorette intrigued me in spite of myself. The pool of potential mates for Rachel Lindsay, 31 — a Dallas lawyer who’d been a popular contestant on the last Bachelor — would doubtless be diverse. How would Rachel, the sophisticated daughter of a district judge, negotiate the complex racial dynamics that permeate all of American life when they inevitably surfaced on the show? Would her awareness of the program’s black fans — who’d waited 33 seasons for the franchise to anoint an African-American lead and might understandably have expectations — complicate her choice? A member of the African-American Culture Committee while attending the University of Texas, Rachel — who resembles the Boomerang-era Robin Givens — was open-minded enough to have told white Bachelor Nick Viall she was falling in love with him before he sent her packing. This season, Rachel made it clear she wanted a fiance (“not … a boyfriend”) at the conclusion of her Bachelorette “journey,” and now reports that she is happily engaged to the man she chose from among three finalists in next Monday’s finale.

Although I’m a diehard Dancing with the Stars fan who loves watching klutzy celebs sweat their way to ballroom proficiency, I find most reality TV shows too anti-reality. Anyone who has recorded a smartphone video knows that pointing a camera at people compels them to change everything from their posture to their professed points of view. A dear friend who loves reality shows swears that “people’s veneers inevitably come off.” But how “real” can an engagement that results from such a show be? We’re talking about a relationship forged in a few brief dates with a man fending off dozens of competitors while everyone concerned is stumbling over camera crews and cut off from loved ones and social media.

It’s crazy, right? So why has Rachel’s Bachelorette stint so thoroughly pulled me in? Is it the fun of watching presumably smart people make fools of themselves? Memories of my own distant, wanna-meet-somebody days as a single black woman? Sure. But mostly, it’s been the irresistible weekly prospect of watching black, white, Latino and Asian men employ lying, manipulation, innuendo, self-pity — every trick in the reality TV playbook — to woo a black woman.

Why not? Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lupita and Serena may be desired by millions, but in the real dating world, being a black woman has its challenges. Sisters, who historically are more desirous than other females to date men of their own ethnicity, outnumber black men in most cities. Those willing to look beyond the black-man cohort aren’t always made to feel welcome. Despite the widespread debunking of an infamous Psychology Today blog in which an evolutionary biologist falsely suggested he had scientific evidence that black women are less attractive than other women, it’s easy for a black woman to question her worth in a culture that still glorifies European beauty.

Old wounds can go deep. As a little girl, I swooned over the romantic entreaties offered by men who pursued Disney princesses and rom-com heroines in my favorite movies. So what if none of these damsels with whom they found happily ever after resembled me? Yet, the fact that I was invisible in the love stories I adored may explain why the rapturous declarations offered by Rachel’s suitors feel oddly validating. Where else can you see dozens of attractive men rhapsodizing over a brown-skinned sister’s brilliance and beauty? Whenever Rachel has invited a competitor to join her on a coveted one-on-one date, the guys left behind gather to sigh about her sexiness and smarts all while subtly savaging the guy she’s with. It’s totally bogus. Yet part of me loves it.

I should be embarrassed to admit that. Grown women are supposed to at least pretend they’ve completely outgrown their vulnerable inner child — like mine, who felt barred from the culture’s narrow interpretation of who and what was worthy of love. Everyone wants to be seen. And even women who know they have far more to offer than their ever-changing outer packaging may find it hard to shake the old whispers that once diminished them. Like every child, the girl-I-was deserved to be valued for her all her innate beauty, including her hair’s complex texture, her nose’s roundness, her skin’s warm darkness. Part of me agrees with the male friend who calls The Bachelorette “the fakest thing I’ve ever seen.” But if Rachel being swooned over by men of every shade offers even a tiny corrective to black girls’ general feelings of invisibility, I can’t dismiss it. Pop culture is a festival of falseness. But it teaches kids — and more than a few adults — what to love (and hate) about themselves. The Bachelorette is silly and manipulative. But this season, it suggests to black fans of all ages a little-acknowledged truth: Sisters, too, deserve to be desired and cherished by every type of guy.

So I’ve played along. I rolled my eyes when roguish white suitor Lee — who relentlessly bedeviled Kenny, a black rival far too willing to take the bait — was “discovered” to have posted sexist and racist tweets. I was moved when Rachel told Dean — a sweet white Californian who whispered he was falling in love with her after their excruciating visit with his estranged father — she was falling for him, too. Shortly afterward, she gave him the boot. Not knowing what’s real or fabricated on The Bachelorette doesn’t change my last reason for watching: the possibility of witnessing a miracle. What if one of the 31 men who emerged from limousines to greet Rachel on the show’s premiere is actually her match? One who isn’t a self-promoting fraud, but a decent guy who signed on to this nutty show for fun, adventure or the what-the-hell possibility of finding true love?

The trio of remaining bachelors — one black, one Latino and one white (like THAT’S a coincidence!) — actually seem like such guys. Whichever takes a knee on Monday’s finale, I wish him, Rachel, and every sister who’ll sigh when he pops the question the happiest of ever afters …

The Brown Paper Dolls talk about their YouTube dramedy series ‘Milk + Honey’ HBCUs helped prepare them for the tough life in Hollywood

Jeanette McDuffie, Dana M. Gills, and Asha Kamali May, the women behind Brown Paper Dolls, a multimedia production company based in Los Angeles, are rapidly becoming wizards behind the camera and in front of it.

Before Hollywood, they grew up on the South Side of Chicago and each of them attended a historically black college and university (HBCU): Florida A&M University, Howard University and Spelman College.

On June 14, the trio’s series Milk + Honey, a scripted digital dramedy featuring Debbie Allen, Lance Gross, Boris Kodjoe and Faune Chambers, returned on Issa Rae’s YouTube channel.

The Undefeated sat down with two-thirds of Brown Paper Dolls to talk about their past and how they work together.

What is Brown Paper Dolls? How did you come up with the name?

Jeanette: The name was born from the idea of creating with what you have. As we were writing, creating characters sometimes felt like playing – like playing with paper dolls. Your imagination can run free as you breathe life into them. The name reflects the idea of the universal little girl who can play and create characters and stories using just what she has – cutting paper dolls from a brown paper bag. Whether she is on the South Side of Chicago or Bangladesh or Kenya – rich or poor – she can create.

All of you are from Chicago? How did you meet?

Jeanette: Dana and I were childhood friends. Asha and Dana became friends in high school. Dana introduced Asha and me soon after I moved to L.A. We all came together to work on this project because we didn’t want to wait for other people to give us permission to do what we love.

Talk about your HBCU experience and how it aided where you are today.

Jeanette: My years at FAMU were some of the best of my life. You were there to witness. I got to Tallahassee and felt like I was home. It was an environment that really sowed into me and expected my best. I wanted an experience where I could be ‘Jeanette’ and not ‘the black girl in someone’s statistics class.’ We were in school with such a wide array of black people from all over the country. So many varied personalities and experiences. As a result of my time at FAMU, I have a network that inspires and supports. No matter what images are fed to me in the media, I have so many examples of black excellence that counteract that.

Asha: Wow. I am a third-generation HU [Howard University] graduate. My grandmother graduated from Freedman’s nursing school. Charles Drew was her professor. She was the first black nurse in Rockford, Illinois. My older sister went to HU, my aunt and a slew of cousins. My mother went to an HBCU [Central State University] and my middle sister went to HBCU, Xavier.

What did you major in?

Jeanette: I was in the School of Business and Industry, a business administration major. Upon graduation, I decided to try corporate America for two years and then follow my real passion – directing film. I did just that. Navy and black suits with pantyhose and pumps weren’t my thing. Years later, after I’d been working in film, I went back to school and got my MFA in film production at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Did you ever imagine doing what you’re doing now?

Asha: Always. But that also becomes problematic when the nos come. It can be a very confusing time in your early adulthood.

In Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” he raps: “Tell me what you know about dreamin’/ You ain’t really know bout nothin’/ Tell me what you know about the night terrors every night 5 a.m. cold sweats, waking up to the sky/ Tell me what you know about dreams/ Tell me what you know about night terrors nothin’/ You don’t really care about the trials of tomorrow, Rather lay awake in the bed full of sorrow.”

As entrepreneurs, creators, producers and risks-takers, can you relate?

Jeanette: There is no set path, which is both exciting and daunting. You get what you put into it. And sometimes you don’t. It really is a marathon. There’s so much that we don’t have control over and sometimes the way things turn out isn’t what you imagine. Sometimes it’s better than you imagine.

In 2011, Jeanette was telling me about Brown Paper Dolls. Tell me about the journey.

Jeanette: This was just a God-led project. We would take a step forward and he would take two. There have been so many great collaborators along the way, including writer Kevin A. Garnett, who we collaborated with on these new episodes. Everyone shared their talents with us for the love. I remember shooting some days and really thinking about how blessed we are.

Asha: Well, it certainly is God’s plan. My voice professor would always say, ‘Your plan is s—.’ You can plan for it. You can work at it … but God will create opportunities that have nothing to do with your plan.

What’s Milk + Honey about?

Jeanette: It’s about the promised land — the journey to your dreams, the good, bad and ugly, along with the blessings of friendship and love that carry you through it. It’s about young women navigating the smoke and mirrors of Hollywood. The show is about anyone who ever had a dream and then had the courage to pursue it.

Is Idris Elba still on board? Who else is involved?

Jeanette: He was the show’s executive producer for a while and poured so much love into the show and is still a supporter of the project. We recently had the great fortune of partnering with Issa Rae Productions to release the current three episodes. She’s proving that the stories of people of color are profitable and make good business sense.

The great Debbie Allen is involved. What’s it been like to work with a living legend?

Asha: Full circle for me. I met Ms. Allen while I was at Howard — when I was Miss Howard. She became my mentor over the years. She is a personal hero for me. I am a dancer and choreographer in addition to an actress, so you can imagine the role she has played in my life. I have prayed that one day I’d work with her — I mean she was on my vision board for years … so, yeah, for me … I’m still pinching myself.

You three have similar skill sets but also different strengths. How do you work as a collective?

Asha: We all do very different things and I believe we do them very differently and very well.

Jeanette has a meticulous eye in all things camera, lighting, tone and style of the show.

Dana is a connoisseur of everything dope and spectacular. She understands our audience’s sensibilities and the appetite of the industry and in a finite way as our lead producer. Dana is extremely detail-oriented and catches everything.

I am a ‘get it done’ personality. I am fearless. I’m the one that will go up to the president of a network and ask for a meeting.

We all get THIS story, because it is so close to us.

You are committed to content that highlights diverse stories of people of color. How challenging is this?

Jeanette: It’s def challenging. The business itself is a beast. It is an art form that is very capital-intensive and competitive. For a while, even when we originally debuted Milk + Honey a few years ago, stories about black people weren’t in the mainstream. We’re happy that we’re in a moment in time where the business is open more to the stories of black people and people of color in general. And there is a voracious appetite for content right now.

Asha: It is indeed challenging. The answer is in the doing. And we know that our stories are funny, layered, twisted and interesting. We know that our audience is beyond ready to see their experience on-screen. We know that black women are magic. And we know that we are ready for the world to see all of that. That is what keeps us going.

Black women’s pay gap needs more than a day to focus on the inequity Celebrities among women and others standing up for equality

In case you missed it, July 31 was Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. It represents the seven additional months that African-American women have to work to reach the same wages that white men made last year.

Celebrities such as Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross and others took to Twitter, wearing the same “phenomenal woman” T-shirt — advocating for black women to be paid the same as their male peers. Currently, black women make 63 cents for every dollar that white men make. Women, who recognize equal pay day in April, make 80 cents for every dollar that men do.

In a recent episode of HBO’s Insecure, the character Molly, played by Yvonne Orji, saw how broad the wage gap is when she mistakenly received a co-worker’s check and was confronted with the challenges of working in a law firm dominated by white men. Many black women are all too familiar with what Molly felt when she saw that check. On #BlackWomenEqualPayDay and every day, African-American women should walk into work singing Rihanna (maybe the clean version, though).

A black woman has to earn a master’s degree to earn less than $2,000 more than a white man who has earned his associate degree. Black female lawyers, surgeons, engineers and other high-wage professionals earn 64 cents for every dollar paid to white men in the same field. For example, Stephen Curry, the 2016 NBA MVP, made $11.4 million last season, while the WNBA’s 2016 MVP, Nneka Ogwumike, made $95,000.

Overall, female athletes make significantly less money than their male counterparts. In basketball, NBA players make 50 percent of the league’s revenue, while WNBA players make 33 percent. Men’s national team soccer players who make the next U.S. World Cup roster will earn a $76,000 bonus in 2018, while U.S. women’s national team players received a $15,000 bonus for making the 2015 World Cup roster.

In a 2013 ESPN Films documentary, Venus Williams spoke out about equal pay in tennis.

Her sister Serena wrote a heartfelt letter published by Forbes about equal pay among black women and in tennis. In the close of her letter, Serena Williams had a message for black women: “Be fearless. Speak out for equal pay. Every time you do, you’re making it a little easier for a woman behind you. Most of all, know that you’re worth it.”

Congresswoman Maxine Waters, affectionately known as “Auntie Maxine” on Black Twitter, said it best: It’s time to reclaim our time!

Here are a few other women who spoke out in favor of equal pay on Twitter:

Taraji P. Henson to host ‘Black Girls Rock!’ awards show, a salute to black female excellence in Hollywood ‘Insecure’s’ Issa Rae will be honored during the event in August

It’s that special time of year again when black women come together to support one another, laugh together and, most importantly, uplift and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.

BET’s Black Girls Rock! awards show, which will be held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and hosted this year by award-winning actress Taraji P. Henson, will salute some of the hottest black women in Hollywood. But this year, all eyes will be on HBOs Insecure writer and actress Issa Rae, who will receive the show’s Star Power Award.

Before Rae’s critically acclaimed Insecure aired Oct. 9, 2016, the young actress had already started branding herself as a producer, writer and star of her popular YouTube series, Awkward Black Girl. After teaming up with comedian and actor Larry Wilmore on Insecure, Rae’s star power skyrocketed.

On the premiere of the HBO sitcom’s second season, which began July 23, Rae amassed 1.1 million viewers.

Besides Rae, the awards show will honor singer Roberta Flack with its Living Legend Award, actress Yara Shahidi with its Young Gifted and Black Award, financier Suzanne Shank with its Shot Caller Award, and community organizers Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson of The Black & Missing Foundation with its Community Change Agent Award.

The show will air Aug. 20 at 8 p.m. ET on BET.

The ‘Incredible Jessica James’ and the necessary arrogance of black women In both Jessica Williams’ new movie and ‘Girls Trip,’ black women reaffirm their own value

In The Incredible Jessica James, available on Netflix starting Friday, Jessica Williams plays a 25-year-old playwright who’s just gotten out of a relationship. When we meet her, she’s already grown impatient with the meaningless small talk of the dating scene.

In a line she improvised during a take, Williams-as-James tells a potential suitor, “I’d rather have my period nonstop for a year than continue this portion of the conversation.”

“I think we really just wanted to portray a female character that is unapologetic,” Williams, the former Daily Show correspondent, said in a phone interview. “Like, she’ll apologize for things she does wrong, but we didn’t want her to be like, ‘Sorry I’m alive!’ I feel like oftentimes, women can be written in a way where they’re really apologetic. I wanted to play this character … where she really gets to drive her narrative. There’s a line where she’s like, ‘I know I’m dope. Everybody likes me. I know I’m dope.’

Chris O’Dowd and Jessica Williams in a scene from ‘The Incredible Jessica James.’

Courtesy of Netflix

“We wanted to be like, well, what if a woman had self-confidence and the crux of the movie wasn’t about her figuring out self-confidence? That narrative has been done, and we wanted to try something a little different.”

That quality of self-confidence links Williams in an interesting way with Regina Hall, who stars in the raunchy comedy Girls Trip, which opened last weekend (aside from the fact that they both worked with Jessica James writer-director Jim Strouse in the 2015 romantic comedy People Places Things).

We see both characters, Williams in The Incredible Jessica James and Hall in Girls Trip, talking themselves up. They give themselves little verbal boosts, even though they’re at different points in their lives.

Hall plays a woman for whom confidence should be a sure thing. Her character, Ryan Pierce, is 40-something and firmly established in her career as a writer and lifestyle expert, a sort of Arianna Huffington-Oprah hybrid. But she’s also a woman used to lifting herself up, and her go-to mantra, especially in moments of vulnerability is “I am smart, I am beautiful, I am powerful.”

Girls Trip and The Incredible Jessica James aren’t the only projects that make a point to show this affirmation of self. There are the sticky notes of encouragement that Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union) leaves sprinkled around her house for herself in the BET series Being Mary Jane. There are the confidence-boosting raps that Issa Dee (Issa Rae) spits to herself in bathroom mirrors on HBO’s Insecure. Even my own sister, who is one of the most confident, capable, self-possessed women I know, has a note scribbled to herself on her bathroom mirror. It says simply: “You got this!”

This confidence can seem a bit incongruous for the Jessica James character at times. Although her day job is teaching theater and playwriting to school-age children, she can’t find a theater company or a fellowship that wants to produce her plays. She writes at a desk in front of a wall filled with rejection letters but never lets professional success determine her self-worth. That’s not an easy lesson to learn. And when you consider that Jessica James is 25 (Williams is about to turn 28), it’s pretty inspiring.

There’s a scene in which James is negotiating a hookup with Boone (Chris O’Dowd). Jessica is trying to charm her way into his apartment after their second date. They’ve already slept together on the first one, but Boone, who is several months removed from divorcing his first wife, wants to take things slow.

Jessica has a different idea about what should happen.

“Good night,” says Boone.

“Really?” she responds. “Boone. Boone. Boone. Boone. I’m a unicorn. That’s gotta mean somethin’.”

Sarah Jones (as herself) and Jessica James (Jessica Williams) meet for the first time at a playwriting retreat in ‘The Incredible Jessica James.’

Courtesy of Netflix

Boone relents, because really, who’s going to turn down Jessica? “We can always say good night in the morning!” she says cheerfully.

I asked Williams if there is any additional meaning in the fact that the woman we’re watching live her life without unnecessary apology is black.

“I think sometimes, when you’re trying or not, being black can be political,” Williams said. “And I think in this particular movie, it’s very valid to have movies where race is discussed — and that needs to happen more — but I think it’s progressive as well to have movies where race isn’t discussed and the character just gets to sort of exist. There’s interracial dating happening, and while it’s not discussed, it’s still interesting because she is a black woman. I think it’s important and also not necessarily majorly important to this story in particular.”

James’ blackness doesn’t announce itself in Jessica James, which takes place in New York. She lives in “deep, deep, deeeeeeep Bushwick,” as she says in the film — not, say, Bedford-Stuyvesant or Crown Heights. Her ex-boyfriend Damon (Lakeith Stanfield) designs cellphone cases for a living. There’s an unspoken irony in having the film’s lead be black while her best friend is white, a nifty subversion of the “black best friend” trope. On top of that, the white best friend’s name is Tasha (Noël Wells). Whether it was intentional or not, I found it clever and I totally snickered at it.

A rhythm and a trust develop between actresses and the writer-directors who know how to exploit their comedic sweet spots. There’s Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow (it helps that they’re married to one another), Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig, Madeline Kahn and Mel Brooks, and Hall and director Malcolm D. Lee. We may be witnessing the fruits of a similar creative partnership in Williams and Strouse. Strouse is comfortable with Williams improvising lines, and the result is a character who speaks in a voice that feels completely natural.

“We work well together because Jim is very thoughtful and he thinks about things before he says them. He’s a fan of mine, and he has been for a while, and I’m a fan of his,” Williams said. “But he really likes my podcast Two Dope Queens [with Phoebe Robinson] and my work on the Daily Show, and so he’s always been really respectful. He’s just a great writer. I’m sensitive, and it’s really nice to work with him.”

But I think Strouse sees something in Williams as a black woman, even if he doesn’t scream it in his scripts, the same way he saw something in the talented Hall. There’s a power in seeing a self-aware black woman on screen who simply proceeds through life like she hasn’t been defeated by it, like she still feels she can make a difference, like she still believes that the world is hers.

Maybe that’s why so many black women spend so much time telling ourselves how wonderful we are: It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we say, “I’m smart and beautiful and powerful,” the more we insist that we’re “unicorns,” the more we make it so.

Why the hot black bodies on ‘Insecure’ are more revolutionary than you think The sex looks like what humans actually do

We have to talk about the sex on Insecure.

The hit HBO comedy from creator and star Issa Rae has a lot to say about it — specifically, the sex between black people.

The bug-eyed reaction to Lawrence’s (Jay Ellis) sex scene at the end of season one wasn’t just because viewers identified with Lawrence’s emotional pain after Issa admitted to cheating on him. It’s because it looked familiar in a way that black sex on TV or in film rarely does. Lawrence’s revenge sex closely resembled the way people actually have sex.

For one, Lawrence is completely nude, and so is Tasha (Dominique Perry), the woman whose back he’s blowing out. Tasha’s the flirty teller from Lawrence’s credit union who’s had her eye on him since before he was single. They’re in an apartment that’s appropriate for her salary. It’s outfitted with dingy mini blinds and a metal bed frame that could easily be a thrift store find or a hand-me-down. Tasha’s at the edge of the bed, bent over, and Lawrence is pulling her hair. The sex is … vigorous.

“Watching those sex scenes makes me feel aroused and uncomfortable at the same time,” said Numa Perrier, who, as co-founder of the subscription-based network Black and Sexy TV, collaborated with Rae on some early web-based content ventures. Perrier is also the writer-director of Jezebel, a film based on her experiences experimenting with internet porn. She expects it to hit the 2018 festival circuit. “It’s uncomfortable because I feel like I’m peeking into a very private moment that I shouldn’t be watching, and I think that is what great art does.”

After seeing Chi-raq two years ago, I had a giggle-filled conversation about how the early sex scenes in the film felt real in a way they rarely do on screen. Chi-raq was devoid of actors covered in sheet forts, dragging their top sheets with them to the bathroom, or women sleeping in their bras and full makeup.

There’s not a lot of art that reflects how people actually have sex, period, and that’s even less true for black people. So Insecure joins a short list that’s otherwise occupied by film: Baby Boy, Chi-raq, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, A Good Day to be Black and Sexy, How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, Love and Basketball, Jason’s Lyric, Set It Off and Belly. (This is by no means a comprehensive list, so feel free to email me with others.)

“We’re telling the story of these women’s real lives and sex is a real aspect of being a 30-something-year-old woman … Instead of leaving that part out, we’d like to explore it and capture it in a unique way,” said Melina Matsoukas, an executive producer who frequently directs on the show. “What you find so unique about it is that it feels real.”

In Hollywood, who gets naked on screen often indicates something about the power dynamics of gender. So does who we see having sex, and the type of sex they’re having. It also says something about the power dynamics of race. And in Insecure, we get implicit commentary on all of it.

For starters, we see a lot of Ellis and that’s not by accident.

Courtesy of HBO

His, er, visual presence reminded me of an interview actor Tony Goldwyn, who plays President Fitzgerald Grant in Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, did with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show.

In Hollywood, who gets naked on screen often indicates something about the power dynamics of gender.

“The rule, exactly as quoted to me, is, in Shondaland, the women can do whatever they want and the boys have to take off their clothes when Shonda [Rhimes] tells them to,” Goldwyn explained after Colbert held a still of a shirtless Goldwyn embracing a fully clothed Kerry Washington. It was noteworthy precisely because Rhimes’ rule is such an anomaly.

So it’s significant that the first bare butt to appear on Insecure was Ellis’. In 2012, Rae was tapped to develop a show for ABC with Rhimes called I Hate L.A. Dudes. The network ultimately passed on the show, but Rae’s time in the Shondaland incubator clearly had some influence on her. So did her tenure as an actor, collaborator and fan of Black & Sexy TV. Mix all that with the aesthetic of Matsoukas, and the show’s approach to sex starts to make sense.

“We just wanted to flip the script a little bit and there’s always an expectation that we just have to be like, t—–s and a– out,” Rae said at a Television Critics Association panel discussion about season one. “I think with this we had an opportunity with two female leads to be like, ‘There’s going to be a lot of sex in this show. Our guys are game, so let’s just have them bare all.’ And they did. They were great about it.”


There’s nothing inherently wrong or shameful about nudity. The actors and actresses who make the decision to disrobe are doing what their stories and characters require of them, and that’s also true on Insecure, where the women show just as much skin as the men do. But in television and film, the expectation to disrobe falls disproportionately to women.

Premium cable is notorious for encouraging nudity. That’s part of what you’re paying for: freedom from Federal Communications Commission censure to deploy F-bombs, bare chests and lots of sex. There’s an unspoken ethos of “If we can do it, then we should.” But there’s a difference in the way nudity is used for male and female actors. Seth MacFarlane’s number at the 2013 Oscars titled “We Saw Your Boobs” provoked intense reaction, but it was basically a song and dance celebrating how little power women have in Hollywood. Everyone loves to talk about Game of Thrones, but think about The Sopranos and its use of the barely clad women of the Bada Bing as wallpaper for whatever happened to be taking place in Tony’s life. Ballers uses women’s bodies in a similarly dismissive way, and New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum tore HBO a new one for perpetuating this practice in the first season of True Detective. In season three of the Starz comedy Survivor’s Remorse, a trip to a strip club featuring older women is played for laughs and disgust: How dare these women show us bodies that aren’t taut, hairless and wrinkle-free? For men, full frontal is generally reserved for comedy, and that’s true across television and film, from Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall to the hobo who exposes his junk in Girls Trip.

For men, full frontal is generally reserved for comedy.

“The way we usually capture sexual experiences on our show — we depend more on the male figure for nudity,” Matsoukas said. “It’s not something you normally see. It’s usually about the female body and capturing the male gaze, and we somewhat reverse that, I think, and like to focus on our very handsome male leads. We show the stuff that we find sexy, which is Jay’s [Ellis] butt half the time.”

Having female directors, Matsoukas said, engenders a special level of trust on the set when sex scenes are shot. Rae told her she feels “protected,” in part because the women on set are working to make sure Rae, or Perry, or Yvonne Orji, who plays Molly, feel comfortable. That’s also contributed to another anomaly in television: “We have a very diverse crew,” Matsoukas said. “We have a primarily female camera crew this season … I’ve literally never seen it.”

Layer on top of that the history of how black nudity, black sex and black romance have been depicted on screen. Images of black intimacy and sexuality faced censorship from the early days of the film industry, while films starring white actors were heavily marketed using romance.

Courtesy of HBO

The prevailing attitude in Hollywood was that black romance would be disgusting to white audiences, UCLA professor Ellen C. Scott told me. Scott, who specializes in media history, African-American cultural history, and the history of censorship and cultural studies, is the author of Cinema Civil Rights, which examines Hollywood’s foot-dragging on civil rights issues and the way it was manifest both within the industry and in the films it produced.

Scott said white Southerners worked with Hollywood self-regulation offices to ensure such images didn’t appear.

“Censorship of Black romance onscreen begins most clearly [in 1929] with Hallelujah — King Vidor’s film — where the Hollywood self-regulator Jason Joy feared that white audiences would be disgusted by two Black characters kissing,” Scott said in an email. “In early cinema — Black romance is treated as the subject of humor and stereotype rather than as a center.”

But this censorship wasn’t just about the absence of black intimacy on screen. It was also about the narratives that sprung up to fill those gaps.

“Often Black romantic relationships onscreen existed primarily by implication rather than any case in point — and were not, unlike white romances, tied to a marriage trajectory,” Scott said. “Often this marriage trajectory was abandoned or impossible because of the stereotypical assumption that Black men were always ‘good-for-nothings’ when it came to many things — hard work, keeping a job, and staying with a woman.”

While representation of black intimacy is arguably better now than it’s ever been, that’s not necessarily saying much.

“It looks better but not good enough,” Scott wrote. “In my opinion many of the so-called ‘black films’ that treat Black romance are still mired in the world of defined by Blaxploitation style sexuality.”


Recognizing that the physiques of its male stars are part of Insecure’s appeal, the show’s second season features liberal doses of Ellis’ toned back, shoulders, pectorals, triceps, biceps … I’m losing focus here.

On some level, that’s to be expected. Insecure is a show about sex and relationships, chiefly filmed by Matsoukas, who made her name directing music videos for Rihanna (“We Found Love,” “You Da One,” “Hard,” “S&M”), Lady Gaga (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Just Dance”) and Beyoncé (“Diva,” “Formation,” “Pretty Hurts”).

Matsoukas is a pro at helping women sharpen and articulate their attitudes about on-screen sex. “Melina, as a director, comes from a very sensual place,” Perrier said. “With all of the work that she’s done in the music videos landscape, she was always kind of etching out what intimacy and sexiness looked like for black women.”

Courtesy of HBO

Her penchant for the sensual is especially evident in her work with Beyoncé. She’s the director behind “Suga Mama,” “Kitty Kat” and “Green Light,” all songs from B’Day. In the album, released in 2006 just before Beyoncé’s 25th birthday, the singer writhed in fetish heels and latex minidresses in “Green Light,” offered herself up as a gender-flipped benefactress in “Suga Mama” and spurned the attentions of a sometimey lover in the not-so-obliquely-named “Kitty Kat.” Similarly, Matsoukas helped Rihanna develop an answer to the media coverage of her assault at the hands of her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown in the 2010 video for “S&M.” The video depicted members of the press as identically dressed, ball-gagged automatons.

“I enjoy capturing sexual freedom visually … without being limited by what society feels and what that should mean,” Matsoukas said. “I don’t think it’s a demeaning act. I think it’s a very loving act and it’s very freeing and having control of your sexuality is something that I think is important for me as an artist and as a woman.”


Insecure occupies the Sunday night time slot formerly held by Sex and the City, another show praised for its depictions of the many ways women discuss sex and have it. It’s one of the few to entertain the possibility of a M-M-F (male-male-female) three-way, when the word almost automatically implies F-F-M.

We’re experiencing something similarly revelatory with Insecure. It’s just that these women are black, and there’s nowhere else on television that shows their lives in this way. Girlfriends and Living Single might have come the closest, but they were both network comedies, with their bundle of standards-and-practices-imposed restrictions.

Furthermore, Rae is just the third black woman to create and star in her own television comedy, after Wanda Sykes (Wanda at Large) and Whoopi Goldberg (Whoopi). When it comes to exploring this ground through the eyes of women of color, television is still in its infancy.

As for the sex in Insecure? “Things are going to jiggle and things should jiggle,” Perrier said. “I think we’re at a point now where we want to see a real representation of everything across the board.

“When it gets hot, it’s like an electric jolt. And we need that.”