Anik and Florian welcome in former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra. Plus, a full recap of the UFC’s recent jaunt to Fresno, California, a look ahead to FOX UFC Fight Night: Lawler v. Dos Anjos in Winnipeg, and a new ‘Ray Longo Minute’.
SACRAMENTO, California – What do you think about the Colin Kaepernick national anthem protest? How do you handle losing? How do you deal with adversity off the court?
Those were a few of the questions Sacramento Kings forward Garrett Temple fielded during his first day as a student-athlete mentor at Sacramento Charter High School.
“At first, they started asking about basketball,” Temple said before the Kings lost to the Toronto Raptors 102-87 on Sunday. “But then they started asking great questions, life questions. It was a good start. I want everyone to know this is not a one-time thing. This is something I want to continue to grow and I plan on building a relationship with that school and those athletes.”
Temple, who is African-American, said he began thinking about adopting a school during the offseason because of the race issues in America. He ultimately decided that he wanted to become a mentor to student-athletes as well as offer financial assistance to a local high school that primarily included underprivileged kids of color. Sacramento Charter High fit Temple’s criteria.
Sacramento Charter High is a predominantly black school that also includes Latino and mixed-race students. It is in Sacramento’s challenged Oak Park neighborhood, and the school’s alumni includes former NBA star and former Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. Temple credited Galen Duncan, vice president of the Kings Academy and Professional Development, for doing research that identified Sacramento Charter High as a solid choice. Temple also plans to donate money to the school for computers, which he expects the Kings to match.
“Sacramento High felt like a place that could really use some help. That is why I chose it,” Temple said.
Temple’s town hall meeting at Sacramento Charter High on Dec. 6 was the first of several he plans to have with students playing basketball and other winter sports. He plans to attend a boys basketball tournament at the school to show his support and perhaps even talk to some teams individually.
During the first meeting with the Sacramento Charter High kids, Temple mostly answered questions about life off the court. He was impressed that he received strong attendance of about 100 enthusiastic student-athletes.
“With Colin kneeling and other things going on bringing awareness to police brutality of that nature, I thought about things I can do to actually help,” Temple said. “The education gap in this country is something that is not talked about anymore because there are so many other problems. I read a statistic that said we may be more segregated in schools now than we were in 1954 because of the private schools. All the white kids are going to private schools while the black kids are going to public schools that are very underserved.
“Education is important to me and my family. I wanted to try to help [make a] change.”
Temple said Kings veteran point guard George Hill also decided to choose a local school to mentor after he heard what Temple planned to do for Sacramento Charter High. Temple wasn’t surprised that Hill yearned to get involved, because of his previous charity work.
“George is basically a humanitarian,” Temple said. “Every game there is a veteran [military] crew that he talks to and takes a picture with. He went to Haiti right after the earthquake. He is just a great guy.”
Hill’s reasons for participation were similar to Temple’s.
“I have always been big on the community stuff, especially as crazy as the world is today,” Hill said. “More guys of our stature and more guys that are successful need to really try to give back and take some of these young men and women right underneath our wings and just guide them a little bit.”
Hill chose Sacramento’s Encina Preparatory High and is scheduled to meet with their student-athletes Monday in the first of what he hopes to be a monthly meeting this season.
Hill said it was important for him to be in a school environment that had black and Latino students because “most of those schools are looked over.” Hill’s fiancée, Samantha Garcia, is Latina, and he is African-American. Racially diverse Encina meets Hill’s criteria as it is 37 percent Latino, 29 percent black, 21 percent white and 6 percent Asian, according School-Ratings. Moreover, 93 percent of Encina’s students are eligible for free lunch.
Hill plans to talk to the students about his challenges growing up in a tough neighborhood in Indianapolis, leadership and working hard to meet their dreams and goals.
“I’m more about being a better person than a better athlete,” Hill said. “I’m going to touch base on helping others. Not judging anyone over the cover of their book. Get to know people, respect others, respect your classmates, your teachers and your peers. Teach the fundamentals and get the love back in the world, because that is something that we are missing.”
Hill and Temple also could offer kids motivation with their far-from-easy roads to the NBA.
Hill starred in college at little-known Division I mid-major Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) , which has made the NCAA tournament just once in school history. Despite scholarship offers from Temple and Indiana, he chose IUPUI to stay close to home with his ailing great-grandfather, Gilbert Edison, who died before getting a chance to see him play. The 10th-year NBA veteran was drafted 26th overall in the first round of the 2008 NBA draft by the San Antonio Spurs.
“Anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” Hill said. “Believe. Hard work pays off. I wasn’t one of the nation’s top players coming out of high school. Everything we had to do had to be earned. It wasn’t given to us. With some of this new generation, people give them so much that when they have to go on their own, they are misguided. They don’t know how to work for it.
“I’m trying to touch a different audience saying, ‘You have to work for what you get. Don’t expect nothing. Have fun doing it.’ But at the same time, you being a better person on and off your sports life is the biggest thing that we want them to contribute to.”
Temple grew up in a stable home in the suburbs of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, led by his father, Collis, the first African-American to play basketball at Louisiana State University. Garett Temple, however, faced adversity when he went undrafted out of LSU in 2009 while his former teammates Brandon Bass, Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas were all selected in the first round. Eight years later, Temple is the only one of the four former Tigers still in the NBA.
Temple’s well-traveled basketball career has included four stops in the NBA’s G League, a season playing for Associazione Sportiva Junior Pallacanestro Casale Monferrato in Italy and time with the Kings, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards. The National Basketball Players Association vice president is in the second year of a three-year deal with the Kings.
“I credit a lot of [my success] to my faith in Christ and my ability to withstand things,” Garrett said. “There have been times where I’ve been cut. Things have happened when there has been really no explanation for them. I just trust in the Lord and everything happens for a reason.”
The Kings’ roster includes nine players with two or fewer years of experience in the NBA, including standout rookie point guard De’Aaron Fox. Sacramento also has veterans in Temple, Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph, who have made it a point to mentor their younger teammates.
Kings rookie guard Frank Mason and injured rookie forward Harry Giles shadowed Temple at his first town hall meeting at Sacramento Charter High. Mason and Giles served the student-athletes a dinner that included chicken, jambalaya and greens. They also sat with the student-athletes as Temple addressed them, engaged with them on social media and took pictures. Temple hopes that Mason and Giles can do something similar for a school in the future. Kings rookies Bogdan Bogdanovic and Justin Jackson are expected to be on hand when Hill makes his first appearance on Monday.
“I was kind of looking at the bigger picture,” Mason said. “Garrett did a great job speaking about the future and the past, being a role model to those kids and telling them what he’s been through. With what we’ve been through at a young age, we just want to help them to not make those mistakes, take advantage of opportunities and work hard every day.”
Said Temple: “Mentoring [teammates] isn’t just on the court. It’s showing them off the court how to impact people.”
Temple’s and Hill’s meetings with the Sacramento high school student-athletes could offer life-changing inspiration. Temple isn’t underestimating the impact it can have on him, too.
“I probably will get more from it than the kids,” Temple said. “It continues to keep you grounded. It humbles you. It reminds you that at one point you were in the same shoes as these kids and had a dream of playing professional basketball. To get here, you need to understand that it’s a blessing and you’re very fortunate.
“But other people don’t have this chance. You have to pour in to the kids that won’t be [in professional sports] that athletics isn’t the only way to make it out.”
Lt. Yulanda Williams The truth teller 27 years in uniform
“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”
On her day of reckoning, Sgt. Yulanda Williams did not wear the blue. Stomach churning, too nervous to eat much breakfast, she drove across the Bay Bridge into the city. Her mother had pleaded with her to reconsider, but she had given her word: She was going to tell the world about the racism in the San Francisco Police Department.
Williams entered the massive white stone library on Larkin Street, within sight of City Hall. A blue-ribbon panel organized by the district attorney was investigating a shocking string of racist text messages exchanged by 14 officers. Williams would be the only black police officer to testify in public. Others were too afraid.
Waiting to speak, Williams, 61, thought about the years of struggle between black and blue in San Francisco. About promotions denied, slurs hurled, disparate discipline. About complaints filed by the black Officers for Justice organization, and warnings to keep quiet from the police officers union, which wielded considerable influence inside the department. About the text messages from fellow officers that called her a n—– b—-.
Then Williams told her truth: The police force suffered from systemic and institutionalized racism. Not all cops are racist, she said, but the culture of the department allowed racism to fester, to corrupt, and sometimes to explode.
“I’m black, and I will never be blue enough,” she testified. “I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”
The date was Jan. 14, 2016. Within weeks, the president of the police union all but branded her a traitor in a public letter, making Williams fear for her safety on the job. Internal affairs investigators accused her of several questionable violations, including wearing her uniform while shopping off-duty in a Walmart. Someone broke into her house and stole her laptop, but ignored her jewelry and six guns.
As the problems mounted, Williams took the lieutenant’s exam in late 2016 and scored ninth out of 145 candidates. That should have made her a lock for advancement — but officers cannot be promoted with unresolved disciplinary actions.
“Blue is a profession and a career. Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement,” Williams said over the summer as she waited for a decision on her promotion. “However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.
“Blue is a color,” she said. “Black is my self, my skin. And that cannot change.”
No more than a toehold
San Francisco’s black neighborhoods are in the southeast corner of the city, against the shipyards and docks that in the 1940s and ‘50s attracted refugees from the Jim Crow South. But unlike other urban endpoints of the Great Migration, African-Americans never secured more than a toehold inside San Francisco’s city limits. In the 1960s, even as the city’s reputation for liberalism and tolerance grew, African-Americans were segregated into the Bayview, Hunters Point and Potrero Hill neighborhoods.
Conditions there were so oppressive that famed essayist and novelist James Baldwin said during a 1963 trip to the city that “there is no moral distance, which is to say no distance, between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.” In 1966, Hunters Point residents rioted for three days after a white cop shot an unarmed teen running from a stolen car. The city’s black population peaked at 13 percent in 1970, then steadily declined to its current 6 percent.
Williams grew up with three siblings in a two-story home in Potrero Hill that her father, a city plumber and assistant church pastor, built himself. Her mother, now 95, still lives there. Williams attended the University of California, Berkeley and worked her way up to a position as regional credit manager for Holiday Inn. In the late ’80s, divorced with two young daughters, she bought her first home, near the corner of Third Street and Newcomb Avenue in the Bayview.
This was the height of the crack epidemic. The drug traffic on her corner was crazy, and the police seemed ineffective. Williams sent her daughters to stay with her mother and helped organize a “take back our streets” march along Third Street that drew hundreds of citizens, clergy and politicians.
After the march, she began working with the local police and met several members of Officers for Justice, which had successfully sued the city in 1973 to increase diversity on the force. They urged Williams to sign up.
“I didn’t want to lose my feminine qualities by doing something I considered was primarily a man’s job,” she recalled during an interview at the OFJ headquarters while wearing large hoop earrings, a tiny diamond nose stud, eight rings, nine bracelets, and long, glittery nails with pointed white tips.
The pay was about the same as her hotel position, but the benefits were better. “I told [OFJ] I was not willing to cut my hair, I was not willing to not wear makeup, I wasn’t willing to give up my manicures and my pedicures.” She hit the Bayview streets on foot patrol in June 1990, with her hair pinned up in a bun beneath her cap.
Williams loved being able to help her people. The drug trade persisted, of course, and some nights she had to leave her house wearing a robe and carrying her gun to talk to the boys on Third Street. But everyone knew she cared, and she earned the street nickname “Auntie.”
The OFJ headquarters was four blocks down Third from Williams’ home. When she first joined the force, she thought OFJ had already won the battle for equality. In 1965, only 55 of 1,726 officers were black, three were Asian-American, and almost every police chief since the start of the century had been a white, Catholic man. The OFJ’s lawsuit changed that. The 2,200-member department is now 50 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black, 6 percent Filipino and 17 percent other Asian.
Williams figured everything was kumbaya. Soon, though, she started to notice things.
On patrol, she saw cops targeting African-Americans. White officers seemed to get lighter discipline — especially if they had gone to high school at Archbishop Riordan, Sacred Heart or St. Ignatius, the source of generations of the city’s cops. She heard of a lieutenant who told a black officer wearing gold chains, “What are you doing wearing that n—– jewelry?” When tests were administered for promotions, black officers rarely advanced. After taking the lieutenant’s exam, she wondered whether she would be another casualty of the system.
Williams put in 11 years on the street, then moved on to work as an academy instructor, field training officer, precinct captain’s assistant and school resource officer. She sold her house in the Bayview and moved to a four-bedroom home in a suburban East Bay neighborhood. She made sergeant in 2012 after placing 46th out of 382 officers who took the exam. She was elected vice president and then president of Officers for Justice and also served on the board of the police union.
Police in uber-expensive San Francisco are among the highest-paid in the country, and Williams’ annual base pay reached $144,000. She indulged her passion for Mercedes automobiles, eventually collecting five used but pristine Benzes. She remarried, enjoyed her six grandchildren, continued to advocate for officers of color and prepared to retire on a pension that will provide 95 percent of her salary for the rest of her life.
Then Sgt. Ian Furminger got arrested for robbing drug dealers.
A horrifying exchange
“My [wife’s] friend is over with their kids and her husband is black!” Furminger texted another cop. “[He is] an Attorney but should I be worried?”
“Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots … not against the law to put an animal down,” was the response.
“Well said!” Furminger texted back.
“You may have to kill the half-breeds too. Don’t worry. Their (sic) an abomination of nature anyway,” his fellow officer responded.
Those were some of the milder bigoted messages exchanged by 14 San Francisco Police Department officers on their personal phones over nine months in 2011 and 2012. Equally horrifying was that so many references to N-words, savages and cross-burnings remained under wraps for years, only coming to light in 2015 because of an appeals court filing in Furminger’s conviction.
The case scandalized famously diverse and progressive San Francisco. How could the police department’s culture allow such virulent racism to persist?
To find out, District Attorney George Gascon, who had briefly been chief of the Police Department, formed the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement. Denied city funding for an exhaustive investigation, Gascon secured the pro bono services of judges, law firms and law schools and started gathering evidence.
His every step was resisted by the San Francisco Police Officers Association.
When Williams testified about institutional racism, she fired a direct shot at a historic foe.
The officers’ union fought the 1973 lawsuit to end discriminatory hiring practices. As far as the union was concerned, any lack of minority representation was the result of a lack of ability among the minorities themselves. “Our attornies (sic) are confident they can refute all charges,” soon-to-be union president Bob Barry wrote in the June 1978 issue of the union newspaper.
Police unions across the country serve as a combination guard dog, priest and defense attorney for cops. Circling the wagons is the default. In San Francisco, the union fought case after case in which African-Americans were slain by police under questionable circumstances, from George Baskett in 1968 to Aaron Williams in 1997 to Mario Woods in 2016. Recently, the union beat back reforms such as more access to police disciplinary records, stricter use-of-force guidelines, and rules to prevent officers from watching body camera footage before writing arrest reports.
In 2016, union consultant and former president Gary Delagnes complained on Facebook about officers reporting another cop’s offensive racial remarks: “Officers are now being encouraged to be trained snitches. … This officer did nothing wrong other than making an ill-advised statement and now they want to hang him and then brag about it to the media. Disgusting!”
The San Francisco Police Department is run by the police chief, who is chosen by the mayor. But the union represents officers up to the rank of captain, giving it a huge amount of influence over promotions, work assignments and the culture of the department.
“The lines were blurred between the department itself and the union,” said Gascon, the district attorney and former chief. “They became so blurred, they were basically working in concert.”
The San Francisco police union does many good deeds, including giving money to officers in need, donating to organizations in minority communities, paying the expenses of tourists struck by tragedy in the city and sponsoring a trip to Africa for black youths.
But its primary function is to defend cops.
From the start of the Blue Ribbon Panel’s work, the association told its members not to talk without a union lawyer present — even though they were not under criminal investigation, according to the panel’s executive director, Anand Subramanian. Except for Williams, he said, no officers of color would testify on the record: “They felt like their career advancement and day-to-day interaction was threatened and jeopardized by public participation in this process.”
“I have never seen so much resistance to reform in a police department as I’ve seen in San Francisco,” said LaDoris H. Cordell, a retired California Superior Court judge who has worked on police oversight cases nationwide and served on the Blue Ribbon Panel.
Union president Martin Halloran did not respond to phone calls and emails for this story. Last year, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that the union isn’t opposed to reform: “Any time there is a little bit of pushback from the POA … the perception according to certain politicians is that we’re the elephant in the room, that we’re the obstructionists. We’re not. We just want to make sure this is done right.”
But his combative views are clear in acidic union newspaper editorials and frequent public letters — such as his response to Colin Kaepernick’s protest.
In August 2016, the then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback cited police killings and cops “getting paid leave and getting away with murder” as a reason he would not stand for the national anthem. Halloran’s response sent to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell accused Kaepernick of pushing “a false narrative and misinformation that lacks any factual basis.”
“Perhaps he could lend his commentary to the over 8,000 murders that African Americans inflicted on one another in 2015,” Halloran wrote.
Williams doesn’t follow sports, but she noticed Kaepernick’s protest and the movement that now engulfs the NFL. She didn’t take Kaepernick’s protest personally: “I know he’s not talking about me.” She saw his stance as speaking up for the voiceless in the black community, and she was delighted when NFL players responded to President Donald Trump’s profane insult by increasing their protests.
The parallels to her own faceoff with the union were inescapable.
“I felt a kinship with Kaepernick because of the fact that, here’s a man who had the conviction to stand for something he believed in. Whether it was right or wrong, it was his belief, and it was his feelings and he expressed them, and he explained why. I did the same thing, and then look what happens to us,” Williams said.
“I felt like he was a whistleblower for what he was talking about, and I was a whistleblower. And the whistleblowers unfortunately seem to never win. They seem to be ostracized, and people try and fight against them and shut them down.”
Worried about her safety
The worst part of her ordeal, Williams said, came from the letter Halloran published in the union newspaper about her testimony, characterizing her statements as “uninformed, inflammatory and disparaging” and insisting there was no evidence of widespread racism in the department.
“Yolanda,” Halloran wrote, not only addressing the 61-year-old officer by her first name but misspelling it, “the references to you in the text messages were disgusting. However, I find your testimony to the Panel to be largely self-centered and grossly unfair.”
She resigned from the union, and her decision was plastered on precinct fliers. She had to explain to her subordinates that she hadn’t called them racists. She feared that if she needed backup, other officers would not respond.
“When you work with someone in this type of environment, your life’s on the line every day,” she said. “You expect people to come for backup. … You trust them with your life. You depend on them for your life.”
As the Blue Ribbon Panel investigation proceeded, cellphone footage of the shooting of Mario Woods fueled national outrage. Three months later, another batch of racist texts was discovered, from a separate set of officers.
In February 2016, the Department of Justice announced a review of the department. On May 19, police killed an unarmed black woman in a stolen car in the Bayview. Hours after that shooting, Police Chief Greg Suhr lost his job — despite strong support from the union.
In July 2016, the Blue Ribbon Panel released its final report. It concluded that the Police Department lacked transparency and oversight, needed to rebuild community trust and should pay greater attention to the potential for racial bias. The report noted that black and Hispanic people were more likely to be searched without consent but were less likely to be found with contraband than other ethnic and racial groups.
In October 2016, the Justice Department released its report, recommending 272 changes designed to correct “deficiencies in every operational area assessed: use of force; bias; community policing practices; accountability measures; and recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices.” The report also identified “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups” — exactly what Williams had testified about seven months earlier.
But vindication in the Justice Department’s 414-page document was cold comfort. A decision on Williams’ promotion was still pending.
After Suhr’s departure, the union urged Mayor Ed Lee to replace him with interim chief Toney Chaplin, a black career San Francisco officer. Instead, Lee chose an outsider: William Scott, the highest-ranking African-American in the Los Angeles Police Department. Scott pledged to fulfill the recommendations of the Justice Department report. In an email to union members, Halloran said the mayor had “turned his back on the rank and file police officers.”
On Sept. 25, Williams learned that Scott would promote her to lieutenant.
Williams’ work in the community ranges from meeting residents to mentoring youths to trying to open a dialogue between the police force and residents.
A new lieutenant at last
On a brilliant Saturday in October, the soon-to-be Lt. Williams left her house for a community event in the Bayview, her old neighborhood. She chose her black 2006 Mercedes S430 sedan with YOOLOGY plates and the glass tinted dark. She calls the car Black Beauty.
Sipping a smoothie behind the wheel, nails cut short because of a new departmental directive requiring them to be no more than an eighth of an inch long — she refers to it as the “Yulanda Rule” — Williams reflected on her journey.
“It feels a little victorious. I don’t want to claim that there’s nothing else to be done,” she said. “I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”
She parked outside the Bayview Opera House, where several dozen community organizations and a lively crowd had gathered for Neighborfest. Williams’ old house was across the street, within sight of the corner where drug drama pushed her into policing almost 30 years ago. She kept her gun in her purse.
People inquired about her mother and congratulated her on the promotion. She spoke briefly to the crowd, urging everyone to consider a career with the police department. The band played Sly and the Family Stone.
“Auntie!” cried Vincent Tally, known as Tally-Ho. He used to roam the corner drunk, loud and disorderly. Williams would send him home, but she never arrested him. Now he’s been sober for two years.
“She loves everybody. She treats everybody the same. She doesn’t discriminate,” Tally-Ho said. He kissed Williams’ hand. “One thing she will do, though. She see you out of pocket? You in trouble!”
Two weeks later, Williams and two other black sergeants were sworn in and received the gold collar bars of a lieutenant. Three black lieutenants were elevated to captain.
There are now 19 black officers in leadership positions — the most in the 168-year history of the San Francisco Police Department.
Sgt. Curtis Davenport The shooting instructor 27 years in uniform
“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”
At the end of an unmarked driveway in a wooded area of southeast Atlanta, past the SWAT team barracks and armored vehicles, next to the firing range where bullets pierce paper heads and hearts, Sgt. Curtis Davenport teaches police how not to kill people.
As commander of the firearms training unit, Davenport’s basic responsibility is to make sure Atlanta’s 2,000 officers can hit those paper targets. But over the past five years, as police killings of unarmed African-Americans caused a national uproar, Davenport’s job evolved to include “de-escalation” training — encouraging police to avoid pulling the trigger at all.
One Wednesday this summer, 22 police officers filed into Davenport’s classroom inside a small, one-story building. He stood at a lectern wearing khaki pants and an olive drab polo shirt. The pop-pop-pop-pop-pop of gunfire was audible from the range 40 yards away. On the walls hung promotional photographs of Glock firearms, including one that showed a close-up of a pistol clenched in a white fist, ATLANTA POLICE printed along the barrel, the muzzle an ominous black tunnel. “Confidence,” the caption read. “It’s What You Carry.”
Surrounded by all this deadly force, Davenport began his mission of peace.
He had invited me to attend his two-hour class, shoot on the range and participate in a video simulation of dangerous police encounters, all to help counter today’s anti-police narrative. The backdrop was the city of Atlanta, cradle of the civil rights movement and the modern black mecca, where 54 percent of the population and 58 percent of the police are black. Atlanta is one of the few major American cities where the police force comes close to reflecting the diversity of the population — which has not deterred Black Lives Matter protests and activism within its city limits.
Davenport is 50 but looks 35. He still has the muscular physique of the college fullback who reached the last round of cuts at Atlanta Falcons training camp. He can talk with the spin of a politician — Davenport was the Atlanta Police Department spokesman for three years — or break fool like your country cousin. He can quote Scripture or Ice Cube. Relying on the laws of God and man, he walks the tightrope between black and blue with serenity and confidence.
“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else,” Davenport said. “The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took. I swore to uphold laws. I swore to protect your rights. I swore to protect you when you can’t protect yourself. So while that is a part of my responsibility, being a police officer does not make Curtis Davenport who he is.”
Yet, after 27 years in uniform, he sees the world through a blue lens and can’t help but feel the pressure.
“Police officers to a certain extent have been dehumanized,” he said. “We’re not people with feelings. It’s like they want us to be robots.”
Change, get fired or quit
Inside Davenport’s classroom, 16 of the 22 officers were black, including two women. Everyone carried a gun except Davenport. He clicked his PowerPoint to life and began:
“The public demanded that police be reformed down to their training, and this is one of the results,” he said, citing former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. “So they came up with this course, and if I were to sum it all up in a phrase, it wants the police officers in America to get out of the warrior mentality. And they want you instead to adopt what’s called a guardian mentality.
“That may be kind of hard for some people, especially those who’ve been doing this a long time or those who don’t think that’s what they want to do.”
For the resistant cops, Davenport offered three options: You can change. You can keep acting the same and get fired, possibly indicted. Or you can quit.
“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”
Next came the details. Davenport drilled down into exactly when and how the Constitution and the state of Georgia permit police to use force. He told the officers to look for alternatives — just because they can legally use force doesn’t mean they should. The ultimate goal is “voluntary compliance.”
“De-escalation is all about utilizing other options,” Davenport said. “It’s not about taking away use of deadly force. What it’s about is, do I have to use deadly force? Do I have another option present?”
He covered tactical details such as how distance determines appropriate force. He reviewed what every officer already knew: The law allows you to shoot unarmed suspects. Always shoot at center mass — not at a leg or shoulder. Shoot as many times as necessary to end the threat. But if you shoot one unnecessary bullet, it can cost you your job or your freedom.
Over and over, he advised officers to control their egos. Everybody who wears a badge has a big ego, he said. “That is our biggest hindrance.
“If you work an extra job and somebody gotta leave, you tell them to leave like, ‘You, out, get on out of here.’ They walking to the door, ‘Ah, you sorry m—–f—–, I’ll whoop your a– on the street.’ Guess what? He walking out. I don’t have to have ego. People looking at it, ‘Aw, you see that police, man, he a chump. He took all that stuff.’ End of the day, I got voluntary compliance. Make sense? That’s de-escalation in a nutshell.”
There was a caveat, though, that explains why many police who kill unarmed civilians are not prosecuted.
“De-escalation is only to be used when you’re dealing with nonviolent suspects,” Davenport told his class. “If you’re dealing with a violent suspect, do what you do.”
Sgt. Davenport works with officers in the classroom of the Atlanta Police Department Pistol Range on how to de-escalate situations and what indicators might lead to drawing one’s weapon. Officers work on their accuracy on the shooting range to ensure they do no more damage than is necessary to subdue an attacker.
Life after football
Davenport was born and raised in the city, with summers spent on his grandparents’ rural Georgia farms. After graduating from Lithonia High School east of Atlanta, he earned a computer science degree at Clark Atlanta University while playing football as a 5-foot-10, 260-pound battering ram of a fullback. In four college seasons, he had four carries for 4 yards and four touchdowns. The running back he blocked for got drafted. Despite stone hands and slow feet, Davenport almost made the Falcons from their 1989 training camp. He still feels like he has one more bone-crunching block in him.
After football, Davenport needed a job and the police department was hiring. His physicality served him well when he began patrolling Atlanta’s roughest neighborhoods in 1991 and became an undercover narcotics investigator in 2005. Arrests led to lots of fights — “You’re taking somebody someplace they don’t want to go.” He has a scar on his thigh from being bitten by a 300-pound woman who wanted no part of his handcuffs. He trained in taekwondo, kung fu and ground fighting. He learned how to head off physical battles just with the bulge of his arms and chest beneath his tailored uniform. He’s 230 pounds now, still works out ferociously, would like to be 215 but his wife bakes a mean batch of cookies.
Davenport was raised in the church and was saved in 2002. Giving his life to the Lord made him more patient and tolerant, and also unwilling to take shortcuts that some officers considered permissible.
He keeps a Bible in his office at the firing range. It’s as much a part of his job as the dozens of bullets all over his desk — inside ammunition boxes, encased in curved rifle magazines, loose in a plastic cup. After the class, explaining his belief that policing is based on biblical principles, he read from Romans 13:1:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Then verses 3 and 4:
For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
The bullets on his desk looked more lethal now. Davenport closed his Bible.
“I ain’t asking you to agree with it,” he said. “I’m just telling you what it says.
“When I put my actions up for judgment, I didn’t put it up for your judgment,” Davenport said. “Sometimes, by pleasing him, I don’t please them.
“Sometimes,” he added, “ ‘them’ is other police officers.”
I thought about the off-the-books lawmaking “contempt of cop” punishable by a night in jail, and remembered Freddie Gray running from police, getting cuffed and then being carried out of the police van with a broken neck.
Last June, the police chief asked Davenport for his expert opinion of a video that showed an officer punching a man in the face while trying to arrest him. Davenport referred back to his secular Bible — the Standard Operating Procedures of the Atlanta Police Department.
“Force must be reasonable, and it must be necessary,” he said. “Was what he did reasonable and necessary? The answer is no.”
The officer was suspended for 20 days without pay. That upset the rank and file, as the arrested man had a reputation for fighting back against police. Davenport said that a few years ago the officer would have received little to no punishment.
I asked whether that’s a positive development.
“Whether good or bad,” Davenport replied, “it lets you know that policing has changed. He did the old actions, and he got the new punishment.”
Is there a downside?
“We have a lot of police reform, but no community reform,” he said. Criminals “are still doing the same stuff, but I can’t do the same stuff to combat it.”
Davenport recognizes that mass incarceration has devastated the black community. He believes African-Americans are treated unfairly in the justice system. But he sees another part of the equation too.
“Let’s be honest. Was anybody protesting when Ray Ray shot Peanut?” he said. “Just two people who live in the ’hood. I think that’s a far bigger issue, black-on-black crime, than blue-on-black violence.”
It was time to shoot on the range, a manicured green quadrant with a steep hill of red dirt at one end. Davenport outfitted me with a holster and police-issue 9 mm pistol. He instructed me how to hold the weapon, sight down the barrel and ignore the “unnatural event” of setting off a tiny bomb in my hand. Pulling the trigger took as little effort as turning on my phone. A hole appeared in the paper person’s head, and I was filled with sadness at the thought of black boys carrying death in their pockets.
Ferguson and Sunday dinner
The biggest complaint Davenport has with police work is the pay. In Atlanta, a sergeant’s salary tops out at $72,000 before overtime. Davenport brings in another 10 or 20 grand a year with extra jobs, primarily as security at the Tabernacle concert hall, so he can “enjoy some of the comforts of life.”
It was very comfortable riding in the black leather passenger seat of his new Ford F-150 King Ranch pickup. We pulled up to his five-bedroom brick home at the end of a cul-de-sac in the suburb of Decatur. Inside the garage was his beloved 2007 Harley-Davidson Street Glide, parked near a black leather jacket emblazoned with the name of his old motorcycle club, the Buffalo Soldiers. Davenport and his wife, Valerie, who works in the UPS finance department, bought the house out of foreclosure in 1996.
Curtis and Valerie, an amateur bodybuilder, cooked Sunday dinner together in their cozy kitchen. Their pit bull puppy, Bella, rescued from a shelter, scampered underfoot. Curtis dropped steaks and salmon on the grill. Valerie sautéed cabbage and prepared mac and cheese and cornbread. A box of takeout fried chicken sat open on the island counter. Crab legs boiled, sending enough “Slap Ya Mama” seasoning through the air to draw a cough. Nothing special, this spread. Just a regular Sunday.
Their sons arrived: 23-year-old Clayton, who attended Alabama A&M on a football scholarship and now works as a plumber, and 21-year-old Cameron, who went to work for CSX Railroad out of high school. Next came Davenport’s father, Jimmy, and his stepmother, Karen. Jimmy and Karen got married when Davenport was 16; he calls her Mom. Last to arrive was their daughter Sydney, 20, a sophomore at Albany State University.
A lawnmower buzzed outside, pushed by a former Atlanta police officer who went to prison in the aftermath of a scandal over falsified search warrants. Davenport could mow his own lawn, but the former officer needs the work.
Sitting in a paid-off house, bellies full, paychecks steady, driveway full of cars, the Davenport family’s biggest immediate concern was whether the Falcons could make it back to the Super Bowl. Curtis and Jimmy have season tickets. Nobody felt conflicted about police work or passionate about Black Lives Matter.
Valerie described her husband as a loyal, responsible, dedicated man who follows the rules. Clayton recalled his dad often bringing his poor teammates from youth football over for weekends. “We always were bringing in strays,” Valerie said. “He wants to do his part. He wants to help. Helping is part of his job. He really enjoys what he does now, because it’s a responsibility for him to make sure those police do what they’re supposed to when they have that gun in their hand.”
When the brownies and ice cream came out, I asked whether the family had argued over any of the recent high-profile police killings.
“Michael Brown,” Davenport said, referring to the unarmed 18-year-old killed by officer Darren Wilson in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. “They was all for that poor Michael Brown. The dirty police, they did him wrong. Y’all was ready to picket and tear up Atlanta for Michael Brown.”
Davenport told his family all along that Wilson would not be charged with a crime. There was no apparent distinction between “would not” and “should not” in Davenport’s mind. According to the Justice Department report released by former Attorney General Eric Holder, Brown punched Wilson in the face when confronted, grabbed his gun, was shot in the hand, ran away, then charged back at the officer. The law allowed Wilson to shoot Brown.
When the killing first hit the news, Davenport’s father, Jimmy, was angry. A retired post office supervisor, he was born in 1947 in Wedowee, Alabama, where segregation was the law, white people called him “boy” and there were no black cops. But once the facts of the case came out, Jimmy Davenport agreed with his son.
Jimmy’s wife, Karen, wouldn’t go that far.
“Curtis was talking about the law and what the policeman did. I was talking about the broader perspective of policing,” said Karen, a retired school principal and college administrator.
“If Michael Brown had been white, let’s just play it out,” she continued. “If he had been white and stole something from the store, the police would probably be like, boys will be boys, he didn’t mean to do it. It wouldn’t have escalated.”
Her sergeant son interrupted. “Wait a minute now,” Davenport said. “Did it escalate because of the police officer’s actions? Or did it escalate because of Michael Brown’s actions?”
“It escalated because of both actions,” his mother said. “I think it escalated also because he was a black guy, they said he stole something from the store, and then he became confrontational, and then it escalated.”
“Who became confrontational?” Davenport asked.
“So he was the aggressor.”
“My point is, Curtis, if it was a different situation with a different complexion young man, I really wonder if it would have escalated to that extent.”
“If ands and buts were candy and nuts, oh, what a party we’d have,” Davenport said.
Everybody laughed. Love filled the room, not the vitriol that tore through America after Brown’s death sparked riots and turned Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into a movement. But the philosophical chasm remained. Karen Davenport saw Brown’s death in the context of policing as a tool of mass incarceration, in a society rife with racial bias. Sgt. Davenport focused on what he teaches in his course — when the law says an officer can pull the trigger.
De-escalation is only for nonviolent suspects. Otherwise, do what you do.
A scandal in the department
Atlanta buys its heroin in the Bluff, where addicts and dealers lurk in abandoned houses as children play nearby. Davenport worked these west Atlanta streets as an undercover narcotics investigator, making drug buys and serving warrants. Jumping out of an unmarked van, ready to deliver some justice, that was fun. If a suspect wanted to put up a fight, the crew stepped aside and Davenport took him down.
“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life,” Davenport said. “Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”
He would masquerade as a junkie, walking shirtless into a drug house or wearing a suit and tie like a downtown businessman. Once he was buying crack in a second-floor apartment when two men burst in, fired their guns in the air, and robbed the drug dealers. Davenport thought about pulling his hidden weapon but decided against blowing his cover. That was the closest he ever came to firing his weapon at someone.
In 2006, he was promoted to sergeant and left the squad. Six months later, Davenport’s former narcotics team, led by Officer Gregg Junnier, crept onto a porch in the Bluff, wearing plainclothes. They smashed through the door and burst inside. The homeowner, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, thought she was being burglarized and fired her revolver at the intruders. The officers fired back and killed her.
At first, authorities said police had bought drugs from Johnston’s house that same day. But Johnston’s neighbors knew she was innocent. Soon it was exposed that Junnier lied on the search warrant, lied on other warrants and was breaking other laws too. Junnier and two other officers went to prison.
It hurts Davenport to admit that Junnier, a man he would have taken a bullet for, was a crooked cop. He believes he should have seen it. He wonders how many warrants he served that Junnier falsified. Davenport was never accused of any wrongdoing connected to Junnier’s crimes. But Junnier’s crimes get Davenport accused of wrongdoing just for wearing his uniform.
Yet even after the Johnston scandal, which resulted in an overhaul of the Atlanta Police Department narcotics unit, Davenport doesn’t see systemic problems with policing.
“I would say 98 percent of police officers throughout the country do a fantastic job day in and day out,” he said. “But that never gets publicized, right? You don’t have the family members from somebody you helped on Good Morning America telling about that. But the 2 percent are the guys who make bad decisions and do bad things that gets 98 percent of the publicity.”
There’s a difference, though, between outliers on the police force and in other professions. Those 2 percent of bad cops can ruin lives, even take them.
Davenport accepts that higher level of responsibility and says police departments need to do a better job of identifying problem officers.
“You don’t go from being a good, honest cop to being someone who plants drugs or evidence, or might be a little bit quick to kill. There are other signs. They might take shortcuts prior to that. When we see that we have to report it, and we got to either get them retrained or get rid of them.”
Engaging the threat
After shooting at the range, Davenport took me to the police academy, where pictures of 39 slain officers hung on a wall. Inside a darkened room was the Milo Range Theater 300, a $120,000 system featuring a circle of five huge video screens that create an immersive training experience.
Since 2015, Atlanta police have killed nine people, including seven African-Americans, two of whom were unarmed, according to The Washington Post’s national database of police killings. That’s about the same number of killings as the comparably sized cities of Kansas City, Missouri, and Long Beach, California.
A half-dozen officers watched as I strapped up with a video-game-type pistol. Davenport said to look for the threat and engage it. I asked what “engage” means.
“You can talk,” he said, “or handle it with your sidearm.”
A scene unfolded: A traffic stop of a pickup truck. I approached on the driver’s side and saw an old man behind the wheel. I asked him to put his hands on the wheel — he did not comply. I demanded that he put his hands out of the car window — nothing. The camera backed away. I was about five paces behind the truck. The man got out. I drew my weapon and yelled at him to lay down on the ground. He kept walking toward the tailgate. I yelled I would shoot if he did not lay down. My heart pounded. I felt frustrated and discombobulated by his refusal to obey. Was he sick? Stupid? The old man grabbed something from the truck bed and spun toward me. I blasted him. He fell down and dropped the gun in his hand. The screen went dark.
Davenport said I could have shot him sooner. But what if he didn’t intend to pull out a weapon?
“What do I care more about?” he said. “Going to jail, or going home alive?”
Another scene: A call about a “disturbance” at a park. Such sketchy information is often all police have to start with. Two young men were talking near a parked car. I questioned them, but they didn’t respond. I put my hand on my gun. They put their hands up and I saw one had a gun in his waistband. A woman suddenly got out of the vehicle and approached me with something in her hand. I almost shot her. She was filming with her phone. I yelled at everybody. She lay down in the road. I felt much more scared with three people than with one. I threatened to shoot the gunman if he didn’t lie down. He bolted toward the woods. I let him go. The screen went dark.
Davenport observed that it’s not against the law in Georgia to carry a gun in your waistband. Nobody had broken any laws in that scenario.
Then Davenport tried one.
Another traffic stop. A young woman got out of her car and put a gun to her head. Davenport went into de-escalation mode. He asked her to calm down. “Let’s talk, let’s just talk, you can put the gun down,” Davenport said. She didn’t listen. Davenport kept talking, his gun in hand but pointed at a 45-degree angle toward the ground.
Was this a nonviolent subject? Could he shoot? Should he?
The woman swung the gun toward Davenport and fired. Davenport let off eight shots. The screen went dark.
The technician played back a recording of the encounter. The woman shot first. Davenport’s first shot missed.
“This might have been my bad day,” he said.
The lesson of Jonah
Davenport, an ordained minister for 12 years, is an assistant pastor at Greater Travelers Rest House of Hope Atlanta, performing weddings and baptisms and leading Bible studies. I sat with him one Sunday in a front pew of the majestic 7,000-seat sanctuary, close enough to the concert-grade sound system to feel the stomp-stomp of the bass drum.
Black faces filled the ground-level pews and the two balconies. Stained-glass black faces gazed from the windows behind the choir. Cameras broadcast live on the internet. Aged mothers in white hats and dresses were honored. The band played “I’m Nothing Without You,” “Jesus Is My Help,” “The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now.” Davenport worshipped calmly, tapping his gator-clad toe to the music, with no waving hands or extra amens.
Then Dr. E. Dewey Smith Jr. got to preaching about Jonah.
God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah rebelled and boarded a ship for Tarshish. Smith described how God sent a storm to afflict Jonah’s ship. His honey-coated voice was calm, but we knew what was coming. Smith described how the terrified sailors started praying to their pagan gods and throwing things overboard.
The ship captain went below and saw Jonah sleeping. “What is this? Sleeping? Get up!” Smith barked, paraphrasing the Scripture. “Pray to your God! Maybe your God will see we are in trouble and rescue us.”
“Jonah!” Smith shouted. “STAY WOKE!”
The congregation bubbled. Davenport remained silent. Pastor Smith is his friend, but Davenport knew what was coming.
“Stay woke and see it’s OK for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to get shot in Minnesota,” the pastor said. “It’s OK for police to shoot somebody live on camera with a baby in the back seat, who has gun ownership and a license to carry and see him get five bullets into him and the officer is acquitted and gets paid to leave with no repercussions! It’s OK for a 2-year-old baby to get shot in Minnesota, an 80-year-old woman to get shot in Minnesota, a 12-year-old — all unarmed — to get shot in Minnesota and nothing happens. But as soon as a woman is shot, whose skin is much, much lighter than yours and mine, then all of a sudden the police chief has to resign! All these other folk got shot and nothing ever happened! I gotta tell you, you better STAY WOKE!”
The congregation exploded in agreement, a bullet aimed at the heart of a servant who believes in the nobility of policing. Davenport’s face betrayed no emotion as he balanced between the black and the blue.
Jay-Z is back, and Kendrick Lamar is still here. The two titans of hip-hop — a 47-year-old wordsmith from Brooklyn, New York, and a 30-year-old grittily socially conscious MC from Compton, California — are the two artists to beat among the list of nominations, announced Tuesday, for February 2018’s 60th Annual Grammy Awards.
Hov earned eight nominations for the acclaimed introspective album 4:44, his first project in four years, while K. Dot notched seven for DAMN., which tells a lyrically different narrative whether you play it from the first track to the last or the last track to the first. DAMN. and 4:44 are both up for Album of the Year, an award for which both rappers have been previously been nominated but never won. The two projects will also square off for Best Rap Album, while Kendrick’s “HUMBLE.” and Jay’s “The Story of O.J.” are both nominated for Best Rap Song and Record of the Year. Jay-Z rounds out his list of nominations in the Best Music Video (“The Story of O.J.”), Song of the Year (“4:44”), Best Rap Performance (“4:44”) and Best Rap/Sung Performance (“Family Feud” feat. Beyoncé) categories for a total of 67 career Grammy nods (21 wins and counting). Kendrick will also contend for Best Rap/Sung Performance (“LOYALTY.” feat. Rihanna) and Best Music Video (“HUMBLE.”), while he’s competing against himself in the Best Rap Album category, having contributed to Rapsody’s Laila’s Wisdom, which earned him a nomination.
Cardi B’s smash hit “Bodak Yellow” is nominated for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance. In both categories, her record will go against the epic “Bad & Boujee” from the Migos, whose album Culture is also nominated for Best Rap Album. Lil Uzi Vert, who is featured on “Bad & Boujee,” gets the nod in the Best New Artist category, while the versatile Donald Glover, known in the studio as Childish Gambino, received five nominations, including Record of the Year (“Redbone”) and Album of the Year (Awaken, My Love!). Khaled, SZA and Jay-Z’s producer No I.D. also received five nominations apiece.
With all this representation from the worlds of hip-hop and R&B within this year’s nominations, that brings us to this question: Will next February bring us the blackest, and most lit, Grammys of all time? It’d only be right, as 2018 marks the 60th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald and Basie becoming the first African-Americans in history to take home Grammys.
Here are a few fast facts about black artists and the Grammys:
- This year’s Album of the Year category features three African-Americans, and four out of five nominees of color: Childish Gambino (African-American), Jay Z (African-American), Kendrick Lamar (African-American) and Bruno Mars (from Hawaii, of Puerto Rican/Filipino descent)
- This year’s Record of the Year category features all nominees of color: Childish Gambino (African-American), Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee (both Puerto Rican) Jay Z (African-American), Kendrick Lamar (African-American) and Bruno Mars (from Hawaii, of Puerto Rican/Filipino descent)
- A black artist has not won Record of the Year since Ray Charles in 2005 (“Here We Go Again”)
- Jay Z will seek to become the first black artist since his wife Beyoncé in 2010 (“Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It))” to win Song of the Year
- OutKast won three Grammys, including Album of the Year
- Beyoncé won five Grammys (Best R&B Song, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, Best Contemporary R&B Album, Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals) as well as opened the show with a performance with Prince
- Lauryn Hill won five Grammys, including Album of the Year and Best New Artist
- Her album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, became the first hip-hop project in history to win Album of the Year
- Michael Jackson won a record eight Grammys (tied by Santana in 2000) for Thriller
- Black artists have won Album of the Year in back-to-back Grammys four times
- 1974-75: Stevie Wonder (Innervisions) and Stevie Wonder (Fulfillingness’ First Finale)
- 1984-85: Michael Jackson (Thriller) and Lionel Richie (Can’t Slow Down)
- 1991-92: Quincy Jones (Back on the Block) and Natalie Cole (Unforgettable … with Love)
- 2004-05: OutKast (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below) and Ray Charles (Genius Loves Company)
- A black artist hasn’t won album of the year since Herbie Hancock in 2008 (River: The Joni Letters)
In Week 12 of Gear Up, SportsCenter: AM’s weekly segment previewing the best uniforms in college football, The Undefeated’s Aaron Dodson breaks down the style combinations of the University of Southern California, Harvard, Yale, Bethune-Cookman, Akron, Florida Atlantic, Utah State and Notre Dame.
USC upholds tradition as the only FBS school that has never had player names on the back of jerseys. In an Ivy League rivalry more than a century old, known simply as “The Game,” Harvard and Yale both keep it classic. Bethune-Cookman, ranked No. 1 in The Undefeated’s latest historically black college band rankings, breaks out the “Daytona Nights” combination, with a super fresh helmet. Akron is also all about the helmet, which features a full kangaroo logo. Florida Atlantic players voted to wear an all-gray uniform for Senior Day, while Utah State unveils an American flag-themed helmet decal for its “Salute to Service” game. And in honor of legendary head coach Knute Rockne, who manned the South Bend, Indiana, sidelines from 1918 to 1930, Notre Dame sports the “Rockne Heritage” uniform, highlighted by a custom-printed helmet to resemble the leather lids worn by the team in the 1920s and ’30s.
Tune in to SportsCenter: AM every Saturday morning during the college football season to watch Aaron show off the best uniforms of the week.
Keep your eye on Dee Rees. Chances are you’re going to be seeing a lot of her this awards season.
Rees is the Tennessee-raised, historically black college-cultivated writer-director whose latest film, Mudbound, is already stirring up Oscar buzz, and rightfully so. Not since The Color Purple has there been a film so lush, so exhaustive and so thoughtful about rural life on the eve of America’s entry into World War II.
Mudbound, which Netflix will release Friday, is about two American families struggling to survive on a farm in the Mississippi Delta. The Jacksons are a black family who sharecrop on land owned by the McAllans, who are white. Their coexistence is marked by physical closeness and psychological distance, by interdependence and prejudice. Mudbound illustrates what happens when all of that gets stirred together in one of the hottest, dirtiest, most miserable places to be without air conditioning.
What makes Mudbound notable is that Rees is not interested in examining prejudice simply to say, “Look how awful this is” and then wallow in that awfulness. She’s interested in the consequences, both immediate and generational, of that prejudice and the complicated, unexpected ways those consequences surface in daily life. In one part of the film, Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) is suffering from pregnancy complications. The only person close enough to help her in time is Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige). While Laura wants to get herself and her baby out of harm’s way, her father-in-law, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), is stuck on the fact that the helping hand in question comes from a black person. Meanwhile, Florence is paralyzed by the fear of being blamed if something goes wrong, and how that would affect not just her but her entire family. Everyone is struggling to free themselves from a peat bog of hate and injustice except Pappy McAllan, who seems perfectly fine with letting himself drown before ever acknowledging black people as equals.
Rees favors restraint over melodrama. The result is that the emotional power of her films tends to sneak up on you because her hand in guiding the film feels practically imperceptible. She’s the Adam Smith of directing. Rees is not interested in showing off how she’s manipulating you. Instead, she presents the story and lets you sit in it.
When it comes to vision, to the ability to look at a location and a script and know what story you want to result, “I would say only really 20 to 25 percent of directors really have it to the degree that [Dee] does,” said Paris Barclay, a former president of the Directors Guild of America and one of Rees’ champions and mentors. “When she’s looking at a scene — and also, you know, she’s a writer as well — she’s constructing a scene, she’s always thinking about, ‘What is the most dynamic way I can bring this to life? With the fewest possible shots.’ She’s not about the adornment of work, she’s about creating this sort of dynamic moment.
“A lot of people are just making shots and hoping that in the editing room they’ll be able to figure out how to put them together in some attractive way. But Dee’s making a movie. She’s really thinking about the moment, where the camera needs to be to tell the story and how she can do it with a minimum of fuss. Some of that minimum of fuss creates dynamic and original shots because it’s all about the story. So you end up forgetting about Dee Rees the director and just get sucked into Bessie Smith [the subject of her 2015 biopic for HBO]. You just get sucked into the characters.”
In a way, that makes Rees rather brave because she dares to depart from the standard model of male directorial genius in Hollywood. Unlike David O. Russell, or Woody Allen, or Wes Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino, or, yes, Spike Lee, Rees isn’t using her movies to scream at you about what a good, interesting, different sort of director she is.
Her restraint is what ends up making Mudbound a more effective film than, say, Detroit. Both are about the ways racism infects people’s lives, but only the former looks at it from 360 degrees, as an ever-present part of the American condition rather than something that periodically boils over into inexplicable violence and evil.
The patience required to pull off that sort of storytelling doesn’t happen by accident.
“I’m just very into blocking [determining where to place actors and where they’ll move] and where you place people in relationship to each other,” Rees said during an interview in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. “For example, if two people love each other, placing them far apart is more effective than placing them close together, because then they’re reaching for each other, the looks are longer. Or placing people who dislike each other in extreme discomfort, so putting [them] in this truck together. Things like that where the blocking helps inspire the actors, I’m thinking about that stuff and editing.”
Rees’ work arrives at a time when the fallout from public accusations of sexual predation against producer Harvey Weinstein continues daily, and we’re starting to peel back the various layers of how women are flattened by an industry that preys on insecurity. The women who work in it are finally airing, en masse, long-held frustrations with the limited space allowed for them there. Mudbound is an example of the fantastic art that’s lost by prioritizing an environment in which women like Rees are the exceptions. She’s basically the opposite of everything women are told to be in Hollywood.
She’s not white.
She’s not straight.
She’s not an actress.
She’s not the sort of woman who asks for permission.
She’s not interested in emulating a filmmaking model that turns directors into celebrities.
During a recent interview in New York, Rees, 40, was rocking a pair of suede powder-blue cowboy boots, jeans, a white button-down with a black zigzag pattern across the front and a blazer. Her hair was braided along the sides of her head, with the remainder puffed out into a frohawk. This is a woman who knows who she is and likes herself. And it shows not just in her personal style but also in her filmmaking.
“She is, first of all, one of the most sure black women I’ve ever met in my life, so she knew exactly what she wanted,” said Jason Mitchell, who plays Ronsel Jackson in Mudbound and is best known for playing Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton. “She also created this family amongst us. Like, we did acting workshops together, we did all kind of different things together, and she made it safe enough for us to be able to kick it into a high gear and still be able to hug it out immediately after.”
Rob Morgan, who plays Ronsel’s father, Hap, worked with Rees on her 2011 debut feature, Pariah. “From the first time working with Dee, I saw that she was very secure in what she wanted,” Morgan said. “That was a crazy environment because we were shooting in this one brownstone. We used the same brownstone, three different floors to make different sets. Even in that kind of environment, Dee was so secure and strong and able to communicate exactly what she wanted. To see her do this, Mudbound, with obviously a bigger budget … she’s still just the same Dee, if not sharper.”
Rees’ directorial style is remarkable for a few reasons. We know, thanks to loads of research, that women in leadership positions are often faced with an unfair choice of having to be seen as either likable or competent. The pressure to conform to gender-based stereotypes of women as caretakers and consensus-builders tends to breed passivity and insecurity at first, and then rage and resentment later. Or it demands an irritating false modesty because women aren’t supposed to be aware of their own talents. That would make them bitches. Or witches — take your pick. If navigating workplace gender politics in the rest of America is a minefield, in Hollywood, it’s like trying to ride a unicycle through volcanoes. Because Hollywood, and directing in particular, is so dominated by men, there’s immense pressure for women to emulate the behavior, style and approach to the work that men do. After all, that’s what is recognized as successful and as valid.
If you’re a female director, you’re already handicapped, and the best way to make up for that handicap is to adopt as many male affectations as possible. You see it when actresses try their hand at directing and their red carpet style switches from girly or sexy to something more androgynous. (Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win a directing Oscar, for The Hurt Locker, a film that parrots an obsession with violence of a bunch of men before her.) Rees rejects the idea that you have to be like all the men to be seen as a good director. Her blackness and her queerness made her too far afield anyway.
By the time she began directing, which is her second career, Rees had a personal foundation secured in years of attending Tennessee State homecomings with her parents while growing up in the Antioch neighborhood of Nashville. Before she asserted her identity as Dee, she was Diandrea, the name her parents gave her. She went to Florida A&M University and earned an MBA.
“I think FAM was good because … it wasn’t this abstraction. Like, ‘Oh, we really are different,’ ” Rees said. “We didn’t have to agree with somebody just ’cause they were the other black kid. You have wildly different groups and ideas. I first started really understanding how interesting we are and how diverse we are. Like kids from California are different from the kids from Detroit, and it’s like the kids from D.C. are different from everybody else. … I’m not Diandrea The Black Girl, I’m just Diandrea.”
Rees decided to study film after four years of working as a marketing executive for brands such as Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive and came out to her family at the same time. She explored that experience in Pariah, which stars Adepero Oduye.
Rees initially came out to her parents and grandmother, who still live in Tennessee, over the phone after she’d moved to begin film school at New York University in 2004. Her mother was horrified; her grandmother wasn’t happy either. Both of them trekked to New York to figure out what was up. Her father came the following week. Her father, she said, was afraid that Rees had been sexually abused as a child. She wasn’t.
“I’m in love with a woman,” she told them.
There was some initial tension and pushback, but gradually it eased.
At first, “my grandmother was like, ‘We don’t do that,’ ” Rees said. “But in a weird way, that was all my grandmother ever said on it. And then in the Thanksgivings since, it was my mom who was saying a prayer about being thankful for who we are, and my grandmother said, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing about you.’ And my mom was like, ‘Well, there’s one thing,’ and my grandmother was like, ‘No, I wouldn’t change a thing about you.’ ”
Rees studied with Lee, who became one of her biggest advocates. She came to filmmaking knowing that since she already exists outside of the narrow constraints for women in Hollywood, there’s no need to shape herself into something she’s not. Rees is hyperaware of the fact that Hollywood isn’t a meritocracy. She sees herself as a force for change.
“I didn’t want to be that woman who’s not hiring women,” said Rees, whose cinematographer, composer, lead makeup artist, sound engineer and editor on Mudbound are women. “That was important for me to kinda turn that around.”
Rees’ knack for pinpointing and communicating what she wants is especially valuable in independent filmmaking, where directors are working on shorter timelines and with smaller budgets. The luxury of waffling simply isn’t available. The entire shoot for Mudbound, which clocks in at 134 minutes, took just 28 days. Most of it was shot in Louisiana, while the World War II battle scenes were shot in Budapest, Hungary. Black directors especially are forced to be intentional because they’re already working on a tightrope. They can’t afford to shoot fewer than the planned number of scenes in a given workday or not have a contingency plan for on-set crises because those are the cudgels used against them to say, “This person is unreliable. This person shouldn’t be hired for [insert subsequent project here].”
Rees has a selflessness that’s similar to that of a coach. Actors, Barclay said, respect that.
“She’s got enough [life] experience that her intuition is very strong,” Barclay said. “People say, ‘I’ll go with you.’ People will take that ride with Dee.”
Pariah impressed Barclay the way he was impressed by Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep in 1978. Her film played in only 24 theaters at the height of its release but netted praise from industry figures and critics. Rees won the John Cassavetes Award at the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Award for Best Breakthrough Director at the 2011 Gotham Awards. Her cinematographer Bradford Young took home the top cinematography prize at Sundance.
“From the first scene to the end, I didn’t leave my chair,” Barclay said of Pariah. “I think if it had actually come out this year, it would probably be nominated for best picture, because the environment has changed in such a short time. The film, even on a small scale, as moving as that, would get some sort of recognition. That wasn’t available to her just five years ago.”
Now, Rees stands on the precipice of a bigger, brighter future. With Mudbound, she uses that position to show just how capable she is with a group of experienced, award-winning actors and talented female crew members.
She’s so invested in creating a path for others that she’s already thinking about using her home as a creative retreat. Rees named her property in the Hudson River Valley of New York F.A.C., which stands for “Free Artists of Color.”
“When my partner and I die, we wanna … make it like a residency where artists come and work and get a little space,” she said. When she talks about F.A.C., she sounds like a woman with her eye on recreating the magic of Lorraine Hansberry’s upstate New York creative compound, which the playwright winkingly named “Chitterling Heights.”
“It’s good to have land and freedom and to be able to create and also have the space to be,” Rees said. She likes “being in a rural area because it also forces a closeness, because you need your neighbor when your driveway is iced out or to help each other with mail.”
There’s no Moonlight without Charles Burnett.
Burnett, 73, is the director best known for his feature debut, Killer of Sheep. But beyond that, he’s the auteur behind To Sleep With Anger, arguably the best performance of Danny Glover’s career. His 1994 film The Glass Shield, which starred Ice Cube, was an exploration of corruption and racism within the Los Angeles Police Department. With 23 directorial credits to his name, Burnett has had a massive impact on independent filmmaking.
On Saturday, he will be honored at the Governors Awards ceremony, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizes contributions to the film industry. Its honorees usually include individuals who might not have been acknowledged with Oscars awarded during the academy’s ritzy annual televised fete, and they often include artists who have used their platforms to advocate for social change. Harry Belafonte, for example, received the board’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014.
Nearly 40 years ago, Burnett was an upstart director at the forefront of a movement of students of color enrolled in UCLA’s film school. His thesis film, Killer of Sheep, made on a tiny budget, was beautifully poetic. It was about black people who didn’t have much money, and it starred first-time, untrained actors.
The film follows its main character, Stan (Henry G. Sanders), who works in a slaughterhouse killing — you guessed it — sheep. He hates it, but he needs the income to support his family.
Killer of Sheep is a meditation on blackness, broke-ness and social mobility. It’s a look at how doing something you hate for eight hours a day deadens your soul. And when that job involves taking life from another being, it becomes difficult to separate yourself from that killing and it can make you feel personally targeted by Murphy’s law. There’s a point in Killer of Sheep where Stan is planning to sell an engine to make a little extra cash. Alas, when he and his friend hoist it onto the back of a truck, it falls off almost as soon as they start driving. The engine block gets cracked, rendering it useless, and so they just leave it in the middle of the street, because really, what’s the point?
While he was able to work more than many of his UCLA classmates, Burnett didn’t engage in filmmaking as a way to get rich. Throughout his career, Burnett sought to highlight the humanity of black people and to stay true to his politics. When he wasn’t making his own films, he often served as a cinematographer on others.
The fact that the academy’s board of governors is bestowing an award upon Burnett the same year Moonlight won best picture makes for a lovely tribute and a fitting piece of symmetry. You see, the film that won best picture this year had the tiniest budget of any best picture. It was about black people who didn’t have much money. It starred first-time, untrained actors. It was the first film with an all-black cast to win best picture. It was lauded as a work of cinematic poetry. And Moonlight was helmed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, who, with both Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight, seems to have carried forth Burnett’s legacy in black independent film.
“There were many movies that should have been recognized before — at least up for an Academy Award or nominated,” Burnett said. “But I hope that what Moonlight does, the effect it would have or should have is that maybe Hollywood would look around and start releasing films that previously they thought would never make it, you know that … no white audience would be interested in. This sort of proves them all wrong, again and again. You know, so I hope it has a big change that they can start recognizing the potential of people who are really interested in seeing human stories, not just the typical car chases and violence continually being represented over and over and over again.”
The L.A. Rebellion
Burnett was part of a movement of filmmakers now known as the L.A. Rebellion. It comprised about 50 filmmakers, including Burnett, Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) and Haile Gerima (Sankofa, Ashes and Embers), who attended UCLA film school between 1970 and 1992. Besides black students, it included Chicano and Asian students as well, all working to create a movement that rejected the confines that Hollywood had created for anyone who wasn’t white. The movement began when filmmaker and professor Elyseo J. Taylor began a program in the film department called Film and Social Change. Moonlight’s best picture win, in some ways, was a culmination of mainstream recognition of the principles for which the L.A. Rebellion had long been advocating.
The perspective of the L.A. Rebellion was originally informed by living through the Watts uprising of 1965, chafing at police violence and racism, housing segregation and discrimination. It’s filled with curiosity about black people’s African origins and their connections to their ancestors, and a love and commitment to seeing the beauty in themselves. Often, the works were more experimental than traditional Hollywood fare, rejecting three- or five-act structures with easily identifiable protagonists and antagonists. The work of the L.A. Rebellion was like a black American New Wave, influenced by Third World Film and Italian Neo-Realism because Hollywood was so centered on whiteness and white conceptions of blackness. L.A Rebellion filmmakers didn’t see a place for black authenticity, so they created one.
It was distinct from ’70s blaxploitation and more in the vein of the 1961 adaptation of playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, although — and this is hugely significant — unlike A Raisin in the Sun director Daniel Petrie, these directors were actually black. They had far more control over the images they were presenting than Hansberry did when she agreed to work on the film version of Raisin, one of the notable depictions of a regular black family in Chicago.
Blaxploitation, which became so popular and so profitable in the 1970s, “didn’t show us who we really are,” Burnett said. “It was basically things that were entertaining at the expense of who we are as people and how it would affect generations to come. It didn’t show us who we are; it didn’t have any empathy.”
Burnett recounted a time, after one of his films had been shown at a festival, when an audience member told him he didn’t realize black people had washing machines.
“I remember … seeing Japanese represent themselves on-screen and I was so surprised and taken, and I started looking at people differently and you see the effect of this constant barrage of distorted images, what it can do to you,” he continued. “So you can sort of understand how people looking at your films, the films of color, you know how it sort of opens their eyes and it makes you aware of people as human beings. I think that’s what art does, it makes you aware of these subtle things that we all share.”
Of all of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, Burnett had the most prolific career. Killer of Sheep, now nearly 40 years old, is a breathtaking work, even more so when considering Burnett made it while still a student.
“I was in New York, just starting my music video career, when Charles Burnett’s film — ‘The Sheep Movie,’ as we call it — sort of rattled everybody. … Like, wow, this is a real director,” said Paris Barclay, who in 2013 became the first black and first openly gay person to be elected president of the Directors Guild of America. “He’s one of the reasons why I thought, ‘Hey, a black man can do a feature film like this and rip my heart out? Why can’t I do this?’ It’s one of the things that led me out of music videos into doing feature film and then later television.”
Even though Saturday’s award is going to Burnett, it feels like a win for other directors from the L.A. Rebellion, such as Dash and Gerima. After they spent years outside the Hollywood system, the academy finally invited Dash and Gerima to join its ranks in 2016.
University of California, San Diego professor Zeinabu irene Davis, one of the last filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, is largely responsible for curating and preserving its history, which she compiled in the documentary Spirits of Rebellion: Black Independent Cinema From Los Angeles. (She expects Spirits of Rebellion to be released on home video in the next year or so.)
“The legacy of Charles in American cinema is something that should be celebrated in a big way,” Davis said. “You know, too many times in the cinema history books, when you read about black cinema, most of the times it’s just a caption on the side. A still image from Killer of Sheep, and then just a caption underneath it. If you get really lucky, then it might be a paragraph. But I think that there should be more recognition of the contributions that the L.A. Rebellion film movement gave to American cinema, and especially American independent cinema in general. It should be honored, and it should be celebrated with more than just a brief mention.
“I wish there was more places where people could actually get to see his work, or more venues that would honor his work.”
This is what influence looks like
Burnett’s thematic, aesthetic and emotional markers are all over Moonlight, if you know what you’re looking for.
To the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, it wasn’t just important to create works that captured black people as they were, it was also important to include their communities in the storytelling, training them to be crew members or casting them in their films. That was also partly out of financial necessity — it took a village to make a film.
That’s a tradition Jenkins continued with Moonlight, and in interviews he’s talked about the fact that residents of Miami’s Liberty City housing projects appreciated having the Moonlight film crew’s lights around at night. Their presence helped make the neighborhood safer because drug dealers would shoot out the streetlights.
Killer of Sheep does not follow a conventional plot structure because it’s about existing with its main character, going about a day the way Stan does, and understanding why Stan feels the way he does. It’s meant to be contemplative. Moonlight functions similarly with its main character, Chiron. The difference is that it’s divided into three acts, and Chiron is played by three different actors at distinct points in his life.
There’s something striking about Killer of Sheep’s depiction of the dangers of ordinary life, from a scene of children playing on train tracks that has you holding your breath until they’re all safe to Stan’s work in a slaughterhouse. It’s shot in black and white, and the emphasis of the film is on understanding how Stan’s work and financial struggles color his interactions with his family and the way he lives his life. The film boasts an extraordinary soundtrack, which features music such as Paul Robeson singing “The House I Live In.” A tender scene between Stan and his wife (played by Kaycee Moore) is punctuated with Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” It’s completely wordless yet utterly effective, not unlike the beach scene between Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).
The bathtub scene in Moonlight, which shows Little (Alex Hibbert) heating water on the stove of his apartment, then carrying it to the tub, feels directly tied to Burnett and his insistence on capturing the unglamorous, everyday life of poor black people and finding the beauty and profundity in it. So do the scenes in which Jenkins captures black children playing, similarly elevated by Nicholas Britell’s score.
“[Burnett’s] someone that’s been long overlooked but is a seminal figure for many of us, along with Spike [Lee] in the late ’80s,” Barclay said. “We were just thinking, who are our voices out there? Who are we emulating? He was one of those people.”
So why is Burnett still a cult figure while Lee is probably the best-known black independent filmmaker of our time?
1) Lee is enormously prolific. He’s like a shark that never stops moving. He’s constantly creating, producing and influencing, and as a result he’s made about three times as many films as Burnett — some of which, admittedly, have been clunkers.
3) He helped establish his identity by putting himself in his movies. He has, essentially, branded himself. We don’t just know Lee as a director, but as Mars Blackmon, as a man who goes hard for Brooklyn, shows up at AfroPunk and never stops supporting the Knicks. He’s a New York institution.
Burnett, on the other hand, like so many black American jazz artists and social critics, found that he was far more celebrated overseas than he was at home.
“I think that was a saving grace in many ways, going over there and being written about in all the major magazines and newspapers,” Burnett said. “If you know your history, you sort of understand that — not that you accept it — but it makes you aware that things repeat themselves. And also gives you a sense of connectedness in the sense that you can look back at people like [James] Baldwin, Chester Himes and all those folks … like W.E.B. Du Bois. How we’re doing the same thing, and you feel a much closer connection with those folks you know because you experience what they experience. Like Josephine Baker. It’s both a plus and a minus.”
Because we’re still starved for equitable representations of blackness in pop culture despite the explosion of it in the past few years, it can be easy to overlook the parents of such images, especially if you didn’t learn about them in film school. That’s not just because we have short collective memories but because their work is often hard to find. To Sleep With Anger, which won multiple Independent Spirit Awards, can be streamed on Amazon video, but Killer of Sheep is only available on DVD, as is the director’s cut of My Brother’s Wedding. Similarly, when Gerima made Sankofa, the 1993 film that shares its name with his Washington, D.C., bookstore, he couldn’t acquire distribution, so he toured the film himself. It’s still not available on DVD or through a streaming service.
I asked Burnett what needs to happen for the traditions of the L.A. Rebellion to continue, to be remembered, to travel farther than the confines of the art house.
“There needs to be more of an education of the audience that you have to realize that if you see a film that you can respond to, you have to go out and support it immediately,” Burnett said. “You can’t wait for it to come on DVD. You have to show the studios and the producers the fact that these films are appreciated and they can make money, because if you wait till they come on television or on DVD or whatever it is, it loses its importance and effectiveness and influence, and towards influencing studios and people with money to finance these films.”
Happy Monday, kiddos. It was quite the weekend around the football world and, alas, another devastating one in terms of violence in America. Hug your friends and family a little harder tonight.
Another day, another mass shooting. I don’t mean to be flip about the matter, but this is basically where we’re at in this country, which is really scary. A guy walked into a church in Texas and killed 26 people with a gun and injured 20 others. He was later shot and killed. Authorities believe the gunman had some type of connection to the specific congregation he chose to attack. The president is choosing to blame this tragedy on mental illness, not gun control, which seems like something that I’m not sure anyone can really call right now. But, yeah, guns kill people.
If you’re wondering whether an iPhone X is a smart investment, I’ve got some news for you. They are rather fragile. Of course, they look and feel incredible, but because the whole thing is basically made of glass, you’ve got to be EXTRA careful handling it, because if you drop it, the likelihood of it breaking is extremely high. No, like, for real, people have tested this and basically the phones instantly shattered. I’m sure you can get a case that’ll keep your worries down, but that’s gonna be one delicate device to deal with.
ComplexCon happened over the weekend. Basically, every hypebeast and tastemaker in America descended upon Long Beach, California, to celebrate all things related to what we’ll just call “the culture.” While there were quite a few news items to come out of the proceedings, for me, there was one standout. N.E.R.D unveiled a new album and performed for the first time in a couple of years. Obviously, the three of the group members are in completely different life places at this point, but I’m very much looking forward to the complete project.
Lamar Odom has suffered another setback. The former NBA basketball player and Kardashian-adjacent reality star collapsed at a Los Angeles nightclub over the weekend, which is extremely troubling. Let’s not forget that his battle with substance abuse is well-known, so while his people are saying that a heavy workout and hot conditions at the venue are to blame, we just hope he’s OK. It’s unfair to speculate about what he may be doing, but we do know his health has taken a major hit in the past few years.
Coffee Break: The situation with Tyrese has taken another turn. While his beef with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has apparently subsided, his friends Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith threw some paper his way and told him to shut up. What did he do? He posted about it on the internet. This dude just doesn’t get it.
Snack Time: Remember that lady who flipped off the presidential motorcade while she was riding her bike, and went viral? Well, her boss found out and she got fired.
Dessert: San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich continues to be a national treasure.
— Jabari Young (@JabariJYoung) November 6, 2017
One of Jesse Iwuji’s favorite quotes is from motivational speaker Les Brown.
“He said, ‘Someone’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality’ and that’s huge,” Iwuji said.
The 30-year-old NASCAR K&N Pro Series driver incorporates that axiom into his personal and professional life.
A former naval officer, Iwuji says his goals are to progress through the ranks in NASCAR while promoting sportsmanship, mentorship for youth and representing the military community with professionalism. As a rookie in 2016, Iwuji finished among the top 10 in points for the season out of 59 drivers in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.
He recently teamed up with former NFL star Shawne Merriman. Merriman and his company Lights Out became Iwuji’s first big sponsor. Merriman is the owner of Iwuji’s car through Patriot Motorsports Group.
“I met Shawne at this fashion show for the grand opening of his store in L.A.,” Iwuji said. “His products were going to be sold from Lights Out. When I saw him, I mentioned to him about the NASCAR stuff I was doing and the journey I was taking in the sport, and he took interest in it. We decided to link up and make him the car owner of my car in NASCAR, and that was going to get him the opportunity to get his feet wet and into the door of NASCAR so that he could start making big waves and an impact in the sport, especially on the diversity side of things.”
Diversity is a goal of NASCAR, as the organization currently has only three African-American drivers. Twenty-five-year-old Jay Beasley rides in the K&N Series with Iwuju, and Darrell Wallace Jr., known as Bubba Wallace, just became the first black full-time driver in the NASCAR Cup Series.
“I think it’s awesome that he’s getting the opportunity to do this,” Iwuji said of Wallace. “It’s definitely been a long time coming for him, and I think he’s going to do some great things. The guy’s a really good driver. He’s had a lot of great opportunities in his life to be on some great teams and learn a lot and compete at a high level, which has been great. I’m just trying to follow along and hopefully get the same opportunities to compete on great teams and make it up to his level so that maybe I can be the second African-American in recent times to race full time in the NASCAR Cup Series.”
His company, Red District, has hosted drag racing events since 2015.
How did you take the dive into racing?
I’ve always loved cars and racing my whole life. When I was younger, I used to watch a little bit of NASCAR here and there randomly. I don’t know why. None of my family comes from any racing background at all. We’re Nigerian. Both my parents were born and raised in Nigeria before they came over to the U.S. in the ’80s and had me, my two brothers and my sister. Living in Texas, football was the main thing. So my big goal was to get to college, play football for a big Division 1A school, and have a great education, too.
In the middle of college, I started gaining a big interest in cars and racing, and I started researching it more. When I graduated college in 2010, I finally had a little bit of money to go buy a Dodge Challenger. I started drag racing with it at different tracks in Southern California. I kept on building it up and adding more horsepower. Around 2013, I bought a Corvette and started taking that to different road course tracks, where I was spending a lot of time learning how to take turns, left and right, at speed.
In 2014, I met a guy at a car show who had asked, ‘Hey, would you be interested in trying some stock car racing?’ I was like, ‘Stock car racing as in NASCAR?’ He was like, ‘Yeah.’ Then, I was like, ‘Sure. I mean, I’m open to it. I’ve always loved cars and racing. I’ve been thinking about becoming a professional driver, and this might be my opportunity to start going down that path.’ So I went and did a test with his racing team in May 2014. It went well. Right after that, I went on deployment with my ship. When I came back from deployment in early 2015, I decided to start going down that path of the whole NASCAR route. That’s when my racing career began in, really, April 2015.
What drives your passion?
I’m always seeking challenges. I love challenging myself. I love doing things that are fun and exciting and that you can look back on when you’re 57 years old and know that, hey, I lived an exciting life.
How is the NASCAR K&N series for you?
I’ve been learning a lot. Unlike most drivers who race in the series, I don’t have a lot of racing experience. Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve basically only been racing for about 2½ years now, whereas some of the people racing in my series have been racing for 20. I have that learning curve that I’m trying to get over. … I’ve been getting better and better every race, every year. I’m just going to continue to do that and try to really continue to move forward so that I can keep going up the ladder of NASCAR.
How is NASCAR approaching diversity?
They’re trying to reach out to different demographics of people nowadays like African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, you name it. They’re trying to diversify a little bit to gain more fans from different backgrounds, and I think they’re doing a pretty good job on it. Yeah, it could always be better. There’s more things that they can do, and I think they’re working hard to try to figure that stuff out. There’s a lot of opportunity to really bring new demographics into NASCAR so that we can continue to grow, get more fans out there, and continue to be the No. 1 watched motor sport in the U.S. and maybe, one day, the No. 1 watched motor sport in the world.
What goals have you set for yourself on the track and off the track?
I see myself making it to the Cup Series. I want to get up to the top level of NASCAR. I want to compete. I want to be good and eventually win a championship in that series. Also, on the way going up and while I’m there, I want to be able to help people get to their goals and dreams. A lot of people look up to me because I’m just a regular person trying to do some big things. Every step I take that is in the positive direction, people see it, they love it, and it gives them hope for them to know that, hey, they can also do the same thing, too, whether it’s in racing or the business world, school, their relationships, whatever.
What’s been the hardest part of your journey?
The toughest part of my journey has just been the experience and the funding part of it. You know, racing’s not cheap at all, and it takes a lot of money. Thankfully, I’ve been able to make it this far so far, but it hasn’t been easy at all. I had to go and start my own company to put on drag racing events. I just recently captured my second big sponsor, which is Perfect Hydration. Perfect Hydration, they are a 9.5 pH alkaline water company based out of Southern California. They sell water in Costco and places around the U.S. Great company, great people, and they’ve been really supportive.