Pay-per-views, Reddit rabbit holes — and a semi-ridiculous new TBS show: battle rap is back — if it ever left The gloves-off battles are sweaty, verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces

On Dec. 9, dozens of rap fans crowded into a tiny, undisclosed location to watch a night full of rap battles — including a battle between Rum Nitty and Iron Solomon, who stole the show in what may go down as the most exciting battle of the year — as MCs traded mostly pre-written bars, insulting each other for three timed rounds. The event, called Smack Vol. 1, was held by the top battle rap league in the country, URL — for Ultimate Rap League. The fact that there were only dozens of fans in attendance is a misleading representation of battle rap’s popularity.

The small venue for Vol. 1 was by design — an attempt by URL to take the event to its roots of intimate crowds. But in actuality, battle rap events draw hundreds of fans, while thousands stream them live on pay-per-view before watching the battles on YouTube by the millions. Battle rap is a simmering subculture. It dominates Reddit threads, message boards and YouTube — and it’s going mainstream.

Iron Solomon vs. Rum Nitty

For instance, Drop The Mic. The Tuesday night TBS show is a spinoff of the rap battle segments from James Corden’s Late Late Show in which he battled celebrities like Kevin Hart and Anne Hathaway. Celebrities like the stars of Big Bang Theory lob rhymed insults at each other. The Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett recently battled Vanessa Hudgens — to the tune of almost 1.4 million views. Hosted by Hailey Baldwin and Wu Tang rap legend Method Man, the show employs artists from the battle scene to help contenders craft lyrics and presentation. Drop The Mic is a gentrified but entertaining look at a battle scene that has been bubbling under the surface of mainstream American pop culture for decades.


The godfather of the modern-day battle rap scene is Troy “Smack” Mitchell. He’s an enterprising Queens, New York, native who set out to document New York rap culture in the early 2000s by recording guerrilla-style interviews of rappers. “I had access to a lot of MCs … because I was in the streets and knew a lot of people,” says Mitchell. “I really grinded … waited for artists outside of clubs. It just blew up from there.” He released the interviews and exclusive freestyles on his Smack DVD series, which features early looks at rappers like Kanye West, Cam’ron and Beanie Sigel. The series was hugely popular in the pre-internet era. And at the end of each DVD was a rap battle.

Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers.

“We came up doing the battles as kids,” says Smack. The rap battles on the Smack DVDs took place on street corners, barbershops and clothing stores. MCs surrounded by dozens of spectators. The rappers had prepared “rounds” of timed raps directed at their opponents. No beats played, and if there was a stumble, slip-up or stutter, the rapper’s round was over.

Shells and Jae Millz

Mychal Watts/WireImage for KSA Publicity

The competitions were intense and legendary, and they helped rappers like Murda Mook and Jae Millz get signed to Ruff Ryders and Young Money. Smack brought battles to living rooms, even though the competitions have been part of hip-hop lore since the genre’s inception.

Here’s your history lesson: Rappers have always tested their mettle against one another. Big Daddy Kane used to roam the Big Apple streets challenging the best rappers. Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes infamously rapped against each other in high school. And a young rapper named Biggie Smalls made his name taking on all comers in freestyle competitions.

Eminem in 8 Mile which was one of the first time mainstream America got a glimpse into battle raps.

Universal Pictures

But it was Eminem’s 2002 8 Mile, in which he battled to famous rap beats like Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” that introduced battle rap to the mainstream. The battles in 8 Mile were fictionalized takes on the real-life Scribble Jam battles that Eminem participated in during the late ’90s — and which got him noticed by Dr. Dre in the first place. By 2003, rappers E. Ness and Jae Millz were battling on MTV’s Making The Band. MTV also had a show called “Fight Klub,” and BET’s 106 & Park had a popular Freestyle Friday segment from 2001 to 2013.

Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness.

Battle rap found a new level of popularity via YouTube, and it shed light on leagues that had formed around the world. The two front-runners were Grind Time — the popular, now-defunct league that started in Florida and expanded to Los Angeles — and Smack’s own Ultimate Rap League that sprouted from his DVD series. Today, Smack battles sell out venues like New York’s Irving Plaza and the Highline Ballroom, and fans pay upward of $100 to attend.

The leagues book the battles. The rappers spend weeks preparing rhymes catered specifically to their opponents. The rappers take the stage, flanked by entourages, and perform alternating timed rounds anywhere from two to five minutes. The battles are verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces.

While most of the rounds are pre-written, some rappers open their rounds with freestyled rebuttals to what their opponent just rapped, flipping insults in their own favor. Battlers never know what’s coming, or how personal an insult can get. When it’s a rapper’s turn to listen to his or her opponent, “defense” is employed, which is essentially how someone reacts to the person rapping — standing stone-faced, shaking a head to show disapproval or mumbling sarcastic reactions. It’s a human chess match — mentally taxing. Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“You know who your opponent is ahead of time so you can do research,” Smack said. “Did they get played? Did they get beat up? You can expose them.” Battles have gotten personal and tense, but it’s accepted, especially since the rappers are celebrities within the culture. They are revered within the battle scene but largely lead regular lives. While the most famous battlers like Loaded Lux and Murda Mook can live off of battles, making music and bookings, most battlers have day jobs. And, yes, the day jobs are function as ammo for insults. Nothing is off-limits.

Really. Dumbfoundead and Conceited once spent their whole battle exchanging short jokes and racist Asian stereotypes. Rone went viral for a whole round about Big T’s obesity. Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness. Despite that, you could count on one hand how many battles have turned physical.

Courtesy of Underground Rap League

“It’s very much like a boxing match,” says Kyle “Avocado” Gray, who has filmed and directed battles for Grind Time and URL, adding a cinematic touch to battles broadcast live on pay-per-view. “These two people get into a ring. They have to have a thick skin. They have to be ready for people to say anything, and not be fazed by it. It almost brings them closer in the end, for having been through that battle together.”

Because fans are so invested in the battles — they reach such a fever pitch — battle rap culture has become a community of message board commenters and YouTubers. Battles often refer to earlier battles and online happenings online that may sound like a totally foreign language to the novice. However, catching the references is part of what makes fans feel rewarded for their dedication.

Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“The culture is super incestual,” Gray remarked. “The art in general isn’t that welcoming to an untrained ear.” But that’s what YouTube rabbit holes are for. And celebrities are happy to join in on the fun, even if that means getting called out midround. James Harden has attended — and Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers. Drake and Diddy have co-hosted, with Diddy famously putting up $10,000 of his own money midbattle to see who would win between T-Rex and Aye Verb.

There are now leagues in every corner of the globe. In addition to URL, there’s King Of The Dot (KOTD) out of Canada, England’s Don’t Flop, Atlanta’s Bullpen Battle League and all-woman Queen Of The Ring in New York. Battle rap is as popular as ever, with landmark moments happening at a breakneck pace. This year alone saw KOTD bring in Russian battle rapper Oxxxymiron, whose massive following garners tens of millions of YouTube views per battle, to Los Angeles for the most viewed battle in North American history — and counting.

And Drop The Mic does utilize writing talent of competitors from the scene like Rone and Hollow Da Don. And the satire Bodied, about battle rap, is making a splash in independent movie festivals and should see wide release in 2018. There’s also the permanent roles of rappers like Charlie Clips and Hitman Holla on Nick Cannon’s improv show Wild N’ Out.

The rapid expansion of battle rap culture is what made Smack want to take things back to the basics with Dec. 9th’s Vol. 1 event. “I didn’t want the battle culture to lose its identity,” he says. “We wanted to take it back to the essence.”

Daily Dose: 11/29/17 Timbaland battled opioid addiction

What up, gang? Wednesday’s a TV day, so tune in to Around The Horn at 5 p.m. on ESPN. Also, if you missed #TheRightTime on Tuesday, you can check out the program here.

Matt Lauer is officially out the paint at NBC. The longtime Today anchor, who was reportedly being paid $28M a year, along with access to his own personal helicopter to fly from his home in the Hamptons to New York City, was let go after accusations of sexual misconduct were raised with his parent company. In addition, Minnesota Public Radio personality Garrison Keillor was also fired for similar reasons. You might know him from A Prairie Home Companion. Not to be forgotten, the accusers are adding up for Democratic congressman John Conyers of Michigan.

Now that we’ve decided sexual misconduct is an offense worthy of losing one’s job, there are other questions. Namely, how will this affect not only celebrities and politicians but also people who apparently make the apps we want to love yet haven’t come into fame or notoriety? Mainly, how will this affect upcoming elections in 2020 for both sides of the aisle? FiveThirtyEight has a chat.

Timbaland is a hip-hop legend. The Virginia producer and rapper who rose to fame alongside Missy Elliot has been around the music game for years, crafting hits for stars in different genres over the years. He hasn’t exactly been on the scene recently, and for good reason: He’s had a drug problem. And not like a “he’s been smoking too much fire weed” problem — an opioid addiction that was making his friends tell him to get out of the public eye. This new profile in Rolling Stone is quite revealing.

The NFL looks like it finally wants to engage in social justice. Mind you, this is the same league that went nearly haywire when Colin Kaepernick didn’t stand for the national anthem. It legitimately almost brought down the entire sanctity of the operation. Now they’ve offered a proposal to put $100M toward efforts in conjunction with players, but not everyone is feeling it. A few prominent players have said they’re not supporting this cause, as altruistic as it may seem on the surface.

Free Food

Coffee Break: You know what is one of the hardest parts about being a manager on any job? Managing people’s schedules. It many cases, it can be the most difficult task if you don’t know what you’re doing. Just ask American Airlines, which is now scrambling after a computer glitch basically let all their pilots take the holidays off.

Snack Time: Want a full sit-down with Jay-Z talking about life? The New York Times has you covered. He’s really looking to nail these Grammys.

Dessert: Click and listen. Thank me later.

Daily Dose: 11/28/17 The 2018 Grammy nominations are out

All right, kiddos, Tuesday’s another radio day. I’ll be filling in for Bomani Jones on #TheRightTime on ESPN Radio from 4-7 p.m. EST. You can tune in here.

The Grammys are going back to New York. They’ll be hosted by James Corden again, which at this point feels like a job he’s just going to be doing for the rest of time. The controversy over nominees is always a big one, but there’s really only one thing that matters to me at this point. Cardi B is a Grammy-nominated artist. For me, it doesn’t even particularly matter if she wins at this point. What matters is that she’ll be there and I hope she’ll perform, and it’ll be a huge bonus if she wins. I am so actively excited about this.

Are you familiar with Cyntoia Brown? The hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown has been circulating on the internet quite a bit lately in an effort to call attention to her case. She’s been serving a life sentence since she was 16 years old for killing a man who had paid to have sex with her. She’d been trafficked as a child after running away from home and was put in prison because lawyers argued that her motive was robbery in the killing. Obviously, that’s foul. Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and other celebrities have come to her side, so we’ll see what comes of it.

Our level for the “wow” bar keeps getting higher. Just when you think the president can’t surprise us anymore, he manages to find a way. Monday was no different. At an event honoring Navajo code talkers, President Donald Trump couldn’t help but to make a very bigoted remark about Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He called her “Pocahontas,” a term that is absolutely an insult at best and definitely a racial slur at worst. The White House doesn’t seem to think so on that front. Unreal.

A year ago, the soccer world experienced an unthinkable tragedy. On their way to one of the biggest matches of their lives, the Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense’s plane crashed, killing all but six of the 77 people on board. Nearly the entire team died. The team was eventually awarded the trophy for the 2016 Copa Sudamericana final at the request of its opponent. But that community, never mind the franchise itself, is clearly still recovering from the devastation. This story is from earlier this year but has been resurfaced for this day.

Free Food

Coffee Break: If you missed the 2017 Miss Universe pageant, then you missed Miss Jamaica. While pageants, as a matter of course, aren’t exactly the most progressive of events, it doesn’t mean they can’t have culturally noteworthy moments. Davina Bennett’s rocking an Afro on that stage was definitely one of them.

Instagram Photo

Snack Time: I’ve never been to Japan, but I hope to make it soon. There are a decent number of black folks there, and not just those from the United States. Check out this short documentary on what it’s like to be black in Tokyo.

Dessert: I enjoy Christmas music, so here are some new offerings from D.R.A.M. and, wait for it, Dru Hill. I know.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding is a good thing, right? A black feminist argues with herself about the impending royal nuptials

Rachel Meghan Markle and Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor (better known as Meghan Markle and Prince Harry) are getting married next spring. Upon official confirmation of this news, I immediately began vacillating between feelings of OMG … SO EXCITING … ROYAL WEDDING … BLACK PRINCESS … HARRY PUT A RING ON IT and Dear Lord, I hope someone has taught Prince Philip to stop saying racist stuff in public.

Markle is the biracial American actress who played Rachel Zane on Suits and helmed a popular lifestyle site called The Tig. Now, she’s vaulted to an entirely new stratosphere of fame, thanks to months of speculation about her relationship with Prince Harry.

I’m conflicted. I abhor our culture’s fixation with all things pink and fluffy and princessy because of the way they reinforce narrowly defined gender roles and limit the possibilities that girls imagine for themselves. It’s why, when my niece was born, one of my first gifts to her was a copy of The Paper Bag Princess. There are more important things in life than bagging a man, and doing so is no guarantee that one will live happily ever after. Just ask Charlene of Monaco. Besides, “happily ever after” is just a concept invented by men like Don Draper to sell nylons.

But I’m not immune to princess fever. The Windsors are the weak inheritors of my obsession with the Tudors, which was fed by a steady childhood diet of Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench movies. But the thing that turns my princess fever practically rheumatic is The Princess Bride. I loved that movie so much I named my cat after the title character. Then I rewatched it this year and found myself cringing at Princess Buttercup’s (Robin Wright) general inability to save herself or even recognize the voice of the supposed love of her life.

Still, my ambivalence about the gender politics of one of my favorite movies didn’t stop me from having a conversation with myself as Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) about Markle and her betrothed, Prince Harry:

On the one hand
Aren’t we supposed to be trying to upend the colonialist, imperialist, racist patriarchal system, not marry into it?

On the other hand
This will definitely piss off actual Nazis, especially the ghosts of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII.

On the one hand
Harry dressed up like a Nazi that one time.

On the other hand
We get to watch neurons short-circuit in real time on Fox News the first time Meghan says, “Happy Christmas” in public.

On the one hand
Our obsession with princess crap is bad and we should be trying to KILL IT WITH FIRE.

On the other hand
You definitely rewatched Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Freeform over the holiday and couldn’t tear yourself away, hypocrite.

On the one hand
You grew up obsessed with Elizabeth I and you turned out fine.

On the other hand
Yes, but I was obsessed with her speech-giving and political acumen and the way she navigated power as a woman (and also her relationship with the Earl of Leicester).

On the one hand
Poor Meghan’s going to have some seriously racist in-laws.

On the other hand
Stars, they’re just like us!

On the one hand
Didn’t we fight a whole war so we wouldn’t have to bow to white people who think they’re ordained by God to rule the world? I mean, Longfellow wrote a whole poem commemorating its start.

On the other hand
I hope the wedding dress is Alexander McQueen. (Sarah Burton for McQueen, yes, but McQueen all the same.) Everyone loves an impossibly expensive, pretty dress. Even me.

On the one hand
But Harry dressed up LIKE A NAZI.

On the other hand
We can fantasize about them reading the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning to each other. (You know Elizabeth was black, right? Robert used to call her “My Little Portuguese.” Don’t @ me about how Creole ain’t black. It’s just fancy black. Hush.)

On the one hand
I hope she’s not miserable like Diana and Fergie. I mean, I’m named after a woman who wrote a book called Palace of Solitude after marrying the Shah of Iran.

On the other hand
As far as we know, Harry is Wesley, not Prince Humperdinck. After all, Harry is probably the Obamas’ favorite royal.

On the one hand
Meghan had a website and a career, and now she’s already had to swear off all of that.

On the other hand
Amandla Stenberg can play her in The Crown.

On the one hand
Their kids won’t have a remotely normal life, and everything they do will be scrutinized.

On the other hand
BLACK ASHY BABIES ALL UP IN THE PALACE OF WHITEHALL (*briefly assumes Wendy Raquel Robinson’s role in Something New, whispering, “Nedra! Don’t be so crass!”*)

Daily Dose: 11/21/17 Joe Morgan is asking Santa to keep steroid users out of Cooperstown

What’s up, gang? We’re closing in on Turkey Day, but the news doesn’t stop, so let’s end the week strong. I’ll be on Outside the Lines at 1 p.m. Tuesday, then also doing Around the Horn at 5 p.m. on ESPN. Tune in!

Charlie Rose is the latest man to have the curtain pulled back. The longtime PBS and now CBS announcer’s past was revealed with a Washington Post exposé in which various women accuse him of not only sexual misconduct but also more generally running the type of operation on his show that created a harmful environment for all women he employed. He’s since been fired by both networks, but his co-hosts on CBS are still very much reeling from the news.

The AT&T-Time Warner merger may never happen. The joining of the telecommunications giant and the media programming behemoth would create a huge company that could control quite a bit of television. Now, the Department of Justice is suing to make sure it doesn’t happen. DOJ claims that there’s no reason we should trust such a company to play fair with its counterparts. The two companies say that if you’re going to not let them join, we should consider breaking up Google and Facebook too.

I wear Vans every day. There are days when I wear other shoes as well, but for the most part, whether I’m in my house or at the office, or in these streets, I’ve got a pair of Vans on. I used to skate as a kid, but those days are over, so I’m still rocking them because I like the way they look. However, there was a time when they’d fallen out of favor with basically anyone who wasn’t on a board. Now, you see celebrities of all types with them on their feet, everywhere. Check out how they managed to make this turnaround a real thing.

Joe Morgan is a Hall of Fame baseball player. He is also 74 years old. Now, he’s taking a stance on steroid users and whether they belong in Cooperstown. He says no, and he penned his thoughts in a very long letter to the voters, which basically says that because we all want to put our heads in the sand about the so-called purity of baseball, some of the best players ever shouldn’t be recognized for their greatness. This is the most backward stance ever.

Free Food

Coffee Break: In case you don’t know, Living Single begat Friends. But now that the legendary Fox franchise is being rebooted, it’s got a great opportunity to tackle a pretty serious subject: gentrification. The land of urban living is just not the same anymore and is great show fodder. And necessary, too.

Snack Time: The situation with Tyrese has gotten very dark. After his beef with Dwayne Johnson, then whatever that was with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, he’s now doing weird things with Michael Blackson. Yikes.

Dessert: Miguel’s latest track is extremely uplifting, y’all. His gospel future is set.

Keep your eye on ‘Mudbound’ director Dee Rees: She’s going to be a household name during awards season Tennessee-bred and FAMU-educated, she’s upending traditional Hollywood roles

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.

Mudbound

Steve Dietl / Netflix

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.

Mary J. Blige and Dee Rees during filming of “Mudbound”

Steve Dietl / Netflix

“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.”

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.

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.

Kholood Eid for The Undefeated

“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.”

“I didn’t want to be that woman who’s not hiring women. That was important for me to kinda turn that around.”

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.”

Miami’s turnover chain is the best thing in college football — and we’re about to lose it Big, black, loud, arrogant and winning — how long can it last?

Just as a reminder to myself / I wear every single chain even when I’m in the house … — Drake, 2013’s “Started From The Bottom

Miami is hardly the first college team to rally around an inanimate object, the most recent high-profile example being Alabama’s “Ball Out Belt.” Much like Miami’s chain, the Crimson Tide’s belt was given for performance on the field. But unlike Miami’s chain, the belt didn’t have black South Florida roots. And it didn’t become anything like the cultural phenomenon the gaudy slab of diamonds and Cuban links so connected to brothers and sisters in the 305 area code.

The Miami Hurricanes’ chain was inspired by a quartet. First-year Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was looking to motivate his players. Cornerbacks coach and Canes alum Mike Rumph told famed jeweler Anthony John “AJ” Machado an idea he had for a necklace that defensive players could wear each time they forced a turnover. Super Bowl champion and former Canes standout Vince Wilfork was at Machado’s shop for an unrelated piece of custom jewelry and told Machado and Rumph the chain had to personally reflect who and what Miami stood for. Not just the campus, but the community’s culture. “In Miami, what are we famous for? We’re famous for the Cuban chains,” Machado told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in September. “But we need to add a little something to it.”

The chain’s true price remains a mystery, part of its ongoing fascination. But this 6.5-pound, 10-karat piece of jewelry — like so many trophy-esque watches, tennis bracelets and pearl chokers — is loud, boisterous, arrogant. And fun. Miami is famous for many things, and the swag of a Cuban link chain is one of them. The Miami Hurricanes’ turnover chain is Miami culture to its core. And it goes beyond — just ask Raekwon about his classic 1995 Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.

The U’s ascension back into the ranks of the elite programs in the game is directly tied to the allure of its turnover chain. College football, fun but far from radical, needed Miami’s swagger again. The team — led by guys such as safety/leading tackler Jaquan Johnson, linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, defensive end Trent Lewis, quarterback Malik Rosier and running back Travis Homer — is as counterculture as Allen Iverson was to the Jordan years of the NBA. The team is a breath of fresh air in a landscape with dominant but less personable powerhouses like Alabama, Ohio State or Michigan. The NCAA — chided for years for its lockdown on celebrations, which is seen in many circles as the “Miami rule” — enforces the personality of teams over players. So watching a team not only revel in how good they are but also live up to the hype? It’s rich. And the turnover chain has galvanized a defense that’s as physical, violent and cocky as there is in the country — tied for fourth in the country in turnovers forced (24) in one fewer game. Their Sept. 9 game at Arkansas State was canceled as Hurricane Irma barreled toward South Florida.

At 9-0, and currently first in the ACC’s Coastal Division, the Canes are the No. 2 program in the country. They’re also sitting on a streak of four consecutive games of four turnovers, including Nov. 11’s dismemberment of No. 3 Notre Dame — much to the chagrin of Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who all but called the dogs on his own team with a peculiar pregame on-field rant. A recent poll, too, found that many believe the chain is the best story in sports. And even if it’s not, the financial implications and the marketing behind the chain have already paid dividends of hundreds of thousands of dollars for vendors capitalizing on the sudden nationwide appeal with various forms of apparel. It’s great, right? But is it?


Do it for the culture / They gon’ bite like vultures …Quavo, from Migos’ 2017 “T-Shirt

Because already, infatuation with the chain teeters on appropriation. There’s always this tension when something very black — like a big gold chain, being worn by black men — “catches on.” The success of a thing or a gesture or a style is great, but then suddenly it’s not “ours” anymore, the benefit of it is going to everyone else and it’s wrung out and dead before it can be fully enjoyed.

It’s a feel-good story until it isn’t, right? Take the dab for instance, popularized in 2015 by Migos and brought to the doorstep of middle America on Sundays by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Everyone did the dab. That includes candidates such as Hillary Clinton, as well as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s son.

The dab became a caricature of itself. A pure, fun creation of popular hip-hop was bastardized by an American culture that has always fed off its energy — and yet is so very often ultimately demonized. Comedian Paul Mooney talks about in a bit called “Ugly On Us But Cute On Them” in 2012’s The Godfather of Comedy.

He could well have added big jewelry. On black people: grotesque, over the top, showy. On others: bold, edgy, fancy, innovative.

The turnover chain is more talked about right now than the race for the Heisman Trophy. Everyone wants in on the most recent gold mine, the flavor of the moment. But however impossible, how about we try to let the players have this moment? And let’s not forget: Their spontaneously joyful on-field marketing of the chain has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, yet the guys on the field are entitled to none of the profits. The chain should be theirs.

Their spontaneously joyful on-field marketing of the chain has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, yet the guys on the field are entitled to none of the profits. The chain should be theirs.

The turnover chain is a flashback to “The U” that was the baddest, most intimidating and most threatening force in college football. But the rules changed, and the brand of bullying that made Miami nationwide goons (but neighborhood superstars) has been discontinued. So it begs the question, will this new we-the-best momentum of the chain soon feel the clip of new rules? Yes, because, as ESPN’s Dan Le Batard recently said, “This team is still black. And the people doing the ravaging on defense are still black. There will be a turning on that. Showboaty black guy rarely gets embraced. … To be honest with you, if we’re going deep into this, the chain is the only thing from those overtly black Miami teams that is allowed in 2017.”

This season, the Canes have forced 24 turnovers on defense — 23 from black players. The lone exception was defensive lineman Ryan Fines’ fumble recovery in the season opener against Bethune-Cookman.


“Don’t look down on the youngsters because they wanna have shiny things.” — Pimp C, 2013’s “F—WithMeYouKnowIGotIt

How long The U’s undefeated season lasts is no guarantee, especially since there’s a date with No. 4 and defending national champion Clemson on the very near (Dec. 2) horizon. Yet, there’s history that shines brighter than the 900 orange and green sapphires swaying back and forth on the necks of players who have revived arguably the most culturally relevant college football program of all time.

“This team is still black. And the people doing the ravaging on defense are still black. There will be a turning on that. Showboaty black guy rarely gets embraced.”

The chain creates excitement on the field. The chain is useful because the players are motivated by that gleaming trophy. And the chain is important far beyond just the Instagram ops for celebrities and fly-by-night fans. Don’t let the University of Miami’s turnover chain die the same death as the dab. Don’t let the true essence of the chain be swept under the rug. Don’t allow the history of the chain and its place in Miami culture to be overlooked. Because it’s going to happen. If it hasn’t started already.

Artist Carrie Mae Weems talks ‘Grace Notes,’ patriarchy and punching Nazis Spoiler alert: She’s cool with it

It’s possible to carry an enormous amount of grace and still endorse punching Nazis. So says artist and photographer Carrie Mae Weems, who is performing her newest production, Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, tonight at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Weems began working on Grace Notes after a white supremacist opened fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, killing nine people. The “grace” refers to President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the attack.

I spoke with Weems on Thursday before she headed to the Kennedy Center for a rehearsal of the performance, which uses music, text, spoken word and video to explore the implications of race and violence in America. When I arrived at her narrow rented row house, Weems was on the phone with her assistant trying to solve a last-minute production dilemma. She offered up orange juice, and then we sat at a small bar-height table. Perhaps fittingly, a single blue pendant lamp hung over it, just in case the 2013 MacArthur Award winner was in the mood to revisit her acclaimed Kitchen Table series. Weems offered her thoughts on the 44th and 45th presidents, as well as the pervasiveness of sexual harassment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What made you want to build a show inspired by President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” and the idea of holding on to grace in the face of racist violence?

I’ve been thinking a lot about him, thinking a great deal about his presidency, the meaning of his presidency, the way that he’s been treated as the first black president. Of the ways in which I thought he was a lot of ways maligned and misrepresented and attacked and targeted in the most vicious way.

The terror that accompanied his presidency was really enormous. … I thought that it would be really wonderful to thank him for his service to the nation, to thank him for his extraordinary accomplishment and his courage and his conviction. And his humility in the face of it all. And then, of course, he sang ‘Amazing Grace,’ which was like a shot heard around the world. For a week, two weeks, no matter where you went, no matter what radio station you turned on, whether it was in Berlin or Russia or South America, the United States, everybody had focused on this idea that he had sang this song, and beautifully, and what it called up in them was not unlike what it called up in me.

So in a dream — because I think most of my ideas come when I’m very, very relaxed or in that sort of in-between moment between being awake and asleep, in sort of a twilight zone. … So I was explaining in my dream to a group of students how they might approach making a work about our times and about Obama. It was just sort of laid out in my dream, and I woke up and I rolled over to my computer and I wrote about 30 artists, and I asked them if they would be willing to contribute to a gift box that I wanted to make for the president. They would be musical compositions by great composers and pieces of art and photographs and poetry and essays, and all of it. And I would package it all in a sort of beautiful way and offer it to the presidential library as a gift, as a reflection of what artists were doing during his time and our thanks to him as the first African-American president of the United States.

A number of black artists have blossomed since 2008 because the Obama family’s presence in White House was so inspiring. How has our current climate informed the way you think about things?

It’s sort of like the ‘changing same,’ as Amiri Baraka would say. We’ve always been pressed. The Obamas had to deal with it while they were in the White House running the country. They had to deal with the backlash of white America, conservative America, against their presence. And we’ve had to deal and negotiate that backlash and those feelings of anxiety since. Many of the texts, all of the texts that I wrote remain just as relevant as they were before Trump walked into the White House. It’s really the same sort of historical circumstances. It’s simply more revealed in the most heinous way, and that we would have the president of the United States as the focal point at that animus and anger, I think, is a thing that is really significant about the moment.

Who are you hoping Grace Notes strikes a nerve with?

I don’t imagine any number of conservatives rushing to see this show. I think I always make work for myself, first and foremost, because I’m trying to understand something. Negotiate something. Clarify something. Or just ask myself certain kinds of questions that I need to simply have hanging in the air around me. I may not have the answer. I don’t have the answer to many things. The older I get, the less knowledgeable I become.

As a MacArthur Foundation fellow, you’re a certified genius, though. It’s official.

But I do think that the thing that I care about most is asking the right kinds of questions for our time, and that is what I’m hoping to share with our audience. Just asking the right kinds of questions. So, for instance, what is grace?

So I started working on this piece, I don’t know, maybe two years ago, three years ago. I can’t remember anymore. Spoleto commissioned it after the Charleston shootings. So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to call this piece Grace Notes: Reflections for Now.’ So what is grace? And I didn’t have an answer. I was still up at 7 this morning struggling with this answer. Struggling with the question. And trying to answer it for myself so that I might be able to provide something for the audience. But then I realized that I really needed to ask the audience the question.

That’s been the process. And so I’m hoping that it engages people that are interested in asking themselves reflective questions about where we are, what we’re doing, how we’re doing it. … What kinds of questions do we need to ask about the sort of ongoing systemic violence against black people? How are we culpable? Is there any moment in which we are culpable?

So my coming to terms, then, with this sort of idea about grace is, maybe it’s the way, even though we’re maligned and mistreated, that we offer the best of ourselves and the best of our humanity to others, even to those who wish we were dead. I am still offering my gift of humanity to you because I know how important it is. I know you need it. I know I can share it. I know that I can reveal it, help you see it so that charity and compassion become critical in the acts of living through grace.

I ask myself at a certain point, well, is it a quality? Is it a state of being? Is it an adjective, a noun, a pronoun, an adverb? And then I call my mother. And in the show there’s a recording of my mother talking about grace.

I’m hoping that, yes, that we ask questions of ourselves and of our audience, and that they walk away curious. If they walk away with just some other questions they consider, then I’ve done my job.

There’s so much frustration and so much anger. I mean, we’re having conversations about whether or not it’s ethical to punch Nazis.

It is. (laughs) Let’s just cut to the chase. Yes.

How do you find grace when you’re fed up? I was wondering, geez, what would you have done if instead of me at the door it was Richard Spencer? I don’t know that I have much grace to extend to him.

It’s bigger than you or I. I think it’s the condition that we have endured, and that in the process of that endurance that we’re still whole. Bent but not broken. Holding on to the core of ourselves. And still being willing to offer the breath of humanity to others, because we’re not actually walking around the streets and marching up and down and shooting white m—–f——.

I know that there is something sick about the way in which you have come to understand yourself in relationship to me. That’s a gift, that I say I don’t hate you. I don’t have the energy or the time to do that. I have to hold on to my humanity. I have to hold on to my dignity. Allowing this detritus to rob you of your essence, to rob you of your beauty, that would be the crime.

So I think that grace is much bigger than — it’s not turning the other cheek. It’s really understanding that someone has lost their humanity and you’re trying to offer it back.

After the Harvey Weinstein revelations came out, wave after wave of women — not just celebrities, but all sorts of women — have come forward to say, “I’ve been sexually assaulted or have been sexually harassed.”

I don’t think I know any women that haven’t been. Somebody has touched your a–, tried to f— you or did f— you. Almost every woman that I know. And we took it.

How do we overthrow hundreds of years of patriarchy?

Start with your husband. (laughs) Start with him. I think that this is really kind of a, what do you call it? A salient moment.

But we really have to talk about the sort of sense of silence that women have endured, have placed on themselves, the way in which we’ve muzzled ourselves because we wanted our job, we wanted a man, we wanted the position, we wanted to be with the boys. Whatever it is, we have to talk about that, too, as we talk about the larger issues of the ways in which women have been historically treated.

What’s your source of hope?

You. Us. Even in my dismay, even as I watch the moral fiber of the country collapse under the weight of this very dangerous man that’s in the White House, he’ll only be around for a minute. The arc of history is long, and we have much to do. As people in New Orleans said and other places, honey, we lived through Jim Crow and came through. Right? Couldn’t get on a bus. Couldn’t move around. Couldn’t drink from a water fountain.

In the broad scheme of things, it doesn’t mean a thing. It just represents the worst of what America has to offer. But we’ve always known that that was there anyway, so he’s in one way no surprise. We thought that we had gotten a little further down the road. But I do think of that silly saying, ‘Hope does spring eternal.’ And that I can’t allow this moment to rob me of my humanity. It’s a time to really invest and anchor and be clear about my intentions and what I believe is best for me and the people that I care about and think about and honor. And to figure out ways to do that in the best possible way that allows as many people as possible to participate in that and to look at that and to see that. And I think that, in some way, Grace Notes is that.

Jay Pharoah knows a lot about being ‘White Famous’ The ‘Saturday Night Live’ alum stars in a new series about the perils of making it big

Truth is, Jay Pharoah isn’t sure if he’s “white famous” or not — yet. But he sure gets the head nod — and maybe the occasional side-eye, if he’s keeping it all-the-way honest — from some of the world’s most famous athletes, a surefire sign that the comedy he produces is landing in the inboxes and on the flat-screens of cultural tastemakers. “When LeBron James said, ‘What’s up?’ to me at the [Mayweather] fight this year,” Pharoah says, stopping to laugh, “it was like, ‘Ohh, snap! LeBron knows me! And everybody knows LeBron! So …”

“White famous.” Get it? It’s ostensibly that moment for people of color working in music, television, film or comedy (or whichever culture space) when one’s star power penetrates the mainstream: Masses of white folks know who you are. One is not just ’hood famous. Or solely Latino famous. One is not purely internet famous, or famous in some other, smaller sector. White famous means one is so famous that one has to mind all one’s p’s and q’s because everyone knows of you — which usually also means that the check is fat.

White Famous also happens to be the name of Pharoah’s new show (it premieres on Showtime on Oct. 15), inspired by the early career moves of Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx, who executive produces the show in collaboration with Californication creator Tom Kapinos. Californication creator Tom Kapinos) directs the first episode. Pharoah plays a rising comedian trying to maintain his cred with black fans while crossing over to a broader audience.

But as for himself? Pharoah made his mark starring in NBC’s Saturday Night Live — he joined in 2010 — on which he delivered memorable impersonations of President Barack Obama, Jay-Z and even First Take’s Stephen A. Smith. His tenure there ended unceremoniously before this last keystone season, in which Alec Baldwin won rave reviews in 2016 (and an Emmy last month) for his impersonation of President Donald Trump. But for Pharoah, the time was right to step away, he said.

“LeBron knows me! And everybody knows LeBron!”

“I was looking for the next-level type of thing … something that would show every aspect of Jay Pharoah, and not just from one area. I was looking for something that was going to show the spectrum. You start knowing it’s time to go when everything’s like, ‘OK, I’ve seen it all.’ When you start to get antsy.”

This new character, Floyd Mooney, of course feels familiar to Pharoah. “I immediately connected with the material,” he said. “I know how that journey is. I know how it is to being a hot, popping comic and trying to cross over. I know how that feels. I know that story.” But here’s what’s foreign: being the main guy. This is Pharoah stepping out and anchoring a show — for the first time. Pressure.

“There’s definitely less sleep [and] there’s more memorization, but I always feel like I was being groomed to be what I am now,” he said. “It’s a little nerve-wracking! But it’s not as intimidating as maybe it would’ve been when I was 22, you know? I actually had a chance to be a lead of a show. [But] I was … nervous, and nobody really [knew] me. I’d rather build my base, build a name, and then get off of that show and go do something where I’m starring. And that’s exactly what happened.” He said he feels like he’s right where he needs to be.

“I’m ready for everything. I’ve seen this industry; I’ve seen what it entails. I know what to stay away from. I know what type of vibe I don’t click with. I get that now. I’m 29. Before, I was a little more wet behind the ears … but now I feel like I’ve fallen into the position very well.”

Pharoah’s character is very principled, and in some ways it feels like a direct lift from Pharoah’s own life story. Pharoah has talked before about the back-and-forth toward the end of his tenure at SNL. “They put people into boxes,” he said in April, not long after his contract was not renewed. “Whatever they want you to do, they expect you to do. And I’m fiery. I’m not a yes n—–.”

He continues to think about things he refused to do — such as wear a dress.

“The dress conversation is a big topic in the black community,” Pharaoh said. “There’s always a conversation [about] Hollywood trying to emasculate black men.”

The series addresses that very thing, right away, with a savvy assist from Foxx. It’s one of those topics — complex, risqué — that the show wanted to have a conversation about.

“That definitely gets brought to light in this show. A lot of topics that get talked about behind closed doors, that celebrities, especially black celebrities, have to deal with,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of water cooler conversations.”

“I know how it is to being a hot, popping comic and trying to cross over.”

One conversation he likely won’t be part of with this new show, though? Uncomfortable ones with superstar athletes. This new Showtime series is scripted, of course, and doesn’t rely on his spot-on impersonations.

“I do LeBron James, I do Shannon Sharpe, I do Stephen A., of course,” Pharoah said. “I do [Floyd] Mayweather, I do [Mike] Tyson. Draymond [Green]. Charles Barkley. Shaq. I get flak from some people. I do all these folks, but it’s all on love. I never have any malicious intent. I just want everybody to have a good time and laugh at themselves. Just like if somebody impersonates me, I’ll laugh at myself.”

David Robinson’s advice on effective social change: ‘Slow down’ ‘The Admiral’ says it took years to get his school and investment fund up and running

SAN ANTONIO — The students making their way through a first-floor corridor at Carver Academy and College Prep grew wide-eyed when they bumped into the school’s founder. A few gasped when the still-trim, 7-foot-1 Spurs legend David Robinson stopped to wave, and they beamed when he posed for a few selfies.

Most of these young people were not yet born when Robinson’s Hall of Fame NBA career ended in 2003. But, to them, the man nicknamed “the Admiral” is as much a star for what he has done off the court as for what he did on it.

Robinson launched what was then called Carver Academy 16 years ago with $10 million of his own money. It began as a small parochial school serving elementary students, but it is now a publicly funded charter school that enrolls more than 1,100 pupils. Most of the students are Hispanic or black, and most of them are from low-income families. Nearly all of them are on track for college, school officials say.

We’re in an age when athletes are embracing social activism in a way that rivals anything in the past. Following the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, scores of NFL players have stirred a national debate by taking a knee or sitting during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality and racial injustice. Others have worn T-shirts or hoodies to protest the deaths of Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin. Many athletes have started foundations or otherwise tried to leverage their wealth and fame to spur social change.

It is a level of consciousness that heartens the 52-year-old Robinson. And while Robinson is careful not to criticize any protesting players, he says it remains to be seen whether their strong words will be matched by meaningful deeds — or make the kind of difference that is happening at Carver.

“There is certainly more awareness now. Guys understand their influence and opportunity,” Robinson said. “I’ve talked to a lot of young athletes. They care. They want to do something significant. The question is, how? How do they do it?”

It is something Robinson knows firsthand. It took him years to turn his dream of a school into reality. He says the athletes eager to make change should be prepared for a similar struggle.

A line of students eagerly greet David Robinson as they walk to their next classroom at the IDEA Carver College Prep campus. “I’m a teacher at heart,” said Robinson. “I’m a lifelong student.”

Julysa Sosa for The Undefeated

“Guys in the NBA visit Carver all the time. Some of them say, ‘This is great. I want to start a school too,’ ” Robinson said. “My reaction is usually, ‘Wait. Slow down.’ You’ve got to be sure this is what you want to do. There is so much to learn. It is daunting. When a lot of guys come into the league, they are not prepared to write a check, much less run a school or build something.”

Robinson’s patient brand of activism led him to not only open a school but to also co-found Admiral Capital Group, a private equity firm that helps pay for his good deeds. Admiral controls more than $1 billion in office space, hotels and apartment developments. The company also has invested alongside several NBA and NFL team owners in an online platform that helps coaches at all levels break down game film as well as a separate online platform that automates management of youth athletic leagues. The firm sets aside 10 percent of its profits for donations aimed at making social change.

“The business is a sustainable way of making a long-term impact,” said Daniel Bassichis, a former Goldman Sachs banker and the firm’s co-founder, who once served on Carver’s board. “It has a constant income, which is key. Most [athletes’] foundations do not have this kind of income.”

Admiral has also helped guide investments by other professional athletes, including Spurs guard Tony Parker, former NFL defensive lineman Justin Tuck (who served an internship with the firm as an MBA student) and retired major league outfielder Torii Hunter. Not only are the investors immersed in the details of their investments, but they also receive advice on how to make lasting social change.

“There is so much to learn. It is daunting. When a lot of guys come into the league, they are not prepared to write a check, much less run a school or build something.”

For instance, each year the firm hires 25 Houston-area high school students to work in a Hilton Garden Inn hotel it owns there. The idea is to expose young people to careers in the hospitality industry. If students take to the work, they are given scholarships to the University of Houston, which they attend as Admiral scholars.

Robinson’s vision for social activism came into focus three decades ago during a two-year military commitment after his graduation from the Naval Academy. During that time, Robinson visited a couple of dozen Washington, D.C.-area high schools to deliver a simple message: Just say no to drugs.

Most students seemed thrilled to have the basketball star in their midst. Still, Robinson’s words frequently fell flat, particularly with the students who most needed to hear them. He realized he had to do more than say something. He had to do something.

“I realized it was like trying to put a Band-Aid on a big wound,” Robinson recalled. “Some of the kids would say, ‘This ain’t reality to us.’ From what they knew, drug dealers were making money. Or education wouldn’t change their lives. I found myself wondering, what can I do to help these kids? How do I make change?”

Robinson, a devout Christian, prayed on it. The answer he got convinced him that he should one day open a school to help guide young people to make better choices, regardless of the difficult circumstances they may confront.

“You can talk until you are blue in the face, but you can’t change people,” he said. “But you can plant seeds, and education is a natural way to plant seeds.”

Robinson nurtured his dream for most of his NBA career, making donations and connections and learning what he could about educational policy. Finally, he made his move, opening Carver Academy in 2001, two years before he retired from basketball. As a parochial school, it had just 120 students. To expand its reach and relieve the constant fundraising pressure, Robinson agreed in 2012 to convert Carver into a publicly funded charter school by joining forces with IDEA, a nonprofit that operates 61 schools serving 36,000 students across Texas. Robinson is now a member of IDEA’s San Antonio regional board.

The school, renamed Carver Academy and College Prep, now has more than 1,100 students in kindergarten through 11th grade. (It will add 12th-grade classes next year.)

David Robinson originally founded George W. Carver Academy in 2001. Eleven years later, he partnered with IDEA Public Schools to expand his goal of accessible quality education for all children.

Julysa Sosa for The Undefeated

“When I started Carver, I did not know what I was doing,” Robinson said. “It is a huge undertaking: fundraising, curriculum, finding partners. It is a commitment, and it takes a long time to learn.”

Carver is located not far from the Spurs’ home arena. “We have students in homeless shelters, or who have lived in cars for periods of time. There are all kinds of life issues,” said Guadalupe Diaz, principal of Carver’s elementary program. “But there is an abiding belief that they can overcome. They can do it.”

One of Robinson’s core beliefs is that tough circumstances should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles to achievement. He named the school after George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery but nonetheless went on to become a widely respected botanist, inventor and teacher. He thought Carver’s life story contained a lesson for young people today.

“If you think you have a bad situation, that man grew up in a worse situation,” Robinson explained. “But Carver knew there was a reason he was here. That led him to do amazing things. We have to start where we are, use what we have and make something of it. And never be satisfied.”

Robinson says another one of his core strategies is to inspire young people to tap into their own gifts and leverage whatever opportunities they have.

“Every time you turn on the television, people see rap stars, athletes and actors. You don’t see the everyday people who are doing well. The culture points us to these unattainable roles. How many of us are going to be athletes? Practically nobody. Success is not being Jay-Z. There is only one Jay-Z. Who is telling kids that this long journey of being a father is crazy important? The idea is to get them excited for the life before them.”

Too often, Robinson said, schools that serve low-income students succumb to the instability and low expectations that often accompany poverty. It is a problem identified by many educators but one Carver has apparently found a way to conquer. Its elementary school students consistently score near the 70th percentile on standardized math and reading tests, an achievement that officials attribute to their individualized focus on the students. Parents have responded: This year the school could enroll just 120 new students out of 300 who applied through a lottery.

“Who is telling kids that this long journey of being a father is crazy important?”

“What I think Carver has figured out is how to help students grapple with community issues that might come up and not hold them against the kids,” said Brittany Hibbert, an assistant principal at Carver’s upper school. She said students and administrators do home visits, staff Saturday school and take calls from students at night. “We literally do whatever it takes.”

High expectations and individually tailored instruction help. But it is also helpful that one of San Antonio’s best-known celebrities is a regular presence at Carver. The first floor of the upper school has a small museum dedicated to Robinson, a two-time NBA champion, 10-time All Star and former league MVP. There are jerseys from the Naval Academy, the Spurs and the two U.S. Olympic teams he played for. There are also medals and trophies, and even a small section of basketball floor marked with the footprints of Robinson and some of his former teammates and coaches.

“His presence is significant,” said Chang Yu, principal of Carver’s upper school. “His name appeals, and it resonates quality, sportsmanship, education — all good things that people gravitate toward. He definitely is a factor in our success.”

Robinson says that is where many people who command the spotlight can be helpful. Robinson applauded stars such as LeBron James, Chris Paul and others who have backed up their calls for social justice by donating millions of dollars for things such as after-school programs and college scholarships. As he watches more athletes find their voice embracing the new civil rights movement, he said he will be dividing them into two categories: those who just say things, and those who back their words with action.

“I can say anything I want to say, but you can also go back and track what I’ve done over the last 20 years to see if what I’m saying matches up,” Robinson said. “Where is your money going? What have you given to? So you have the nerve to make a public statement. Now I am going to check and see how much you’ve done so I can determine whether your statement has any value.”