Oscar winner John Ridley wants us to keep asking questions about the L.A. riots The writer-director — ’12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Red Tails,’ ‘American Crime’ — tells truths via fiction and nonfiction

If you’ve been paying attention these past few years, you see exactly what John Ridley is trying to do. The Oscar-winning filmmaker — he earned Hollywood’s biggest prize for writing the adapted screenplay of 2013’s 12 Years a Slave — has been working on projects that entertain and educate. When you experience a John Ridley project, you end up ordering a book or going down a Google rabbit hole. You figure out a way to learn more. He challenges his audience to think more deeply.

His latest project is documentary Let It Fall, which was released in New York and Los Angeles theaters earlier this year (a shorter version ran on ABC). The film documents the mood and events that led to the Los Angeles riots, which happened 25 years ago in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. Like most of what he does, the work is rich. And now his name, once again, is being whispered in Academy Award circles.

Why do you gravitate toward the kind of work — statement art — that you do?

I started in a space where much of the work that I did was self-expression. I started as a novelist, and the first novel I wrote was made into an Oliver Stone film, U Turn (1997). And with Three Kings (1993) and Undercover Brother (2002), [they] were about me trying to speak to people. That was good, and I think I was successful to a degree. But it was a time in my career where things shifted, and I was very fortunate to be involved in stories that were less about me and more about who we are. And where we came from, and representatives of, I’ll say, our community — certainly in our country, and in general. People of color who, against all odds, and without a desire for much recognition of self, just work to achieve, and to be, and to excel.

So you do things like Red Tails and get involved with the Tuskegee Airmen, and you do things like 12 Years a Slave, or American Crime, which were fictionalized stories but real human accounts. We spent so much time with people, listening to them. Their stories and their struggles. Their hopes, their dreams and their desires. People compliment me on my work, and I go, ‘Look, I don’t know that I’ve gotten better over the years as a storyteller. But I think the stories that I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in, they are more potent and they are more emotional. And they touch people in a greater way.’ I’m absolutely attracted to those kinds of stories.

“These individuals, who on the surface have no connectivity, will forever be connected by a very particular tragedy.”

Let It Fall certainly falls into that. Why did you want to document this horrific moment in American history?

There were so many very personal stories, very personal narratives, that were beyond the narrative. People called it a ‘riot.’ ‘The Rodney King Riots.’ Rodney King didn’t start it; the riots didn’t start right after the arrest. There were so many incidents … that led to these tragic events. They affected many different communities and many different kinds of people. One of the reasons I wanted to tell the story was I thought it deserved to be told from multiple perspectives, and over time. These different points of views, and these different neighborhoods, and these different individuals were given equal weight and equal measure … a tapestry was being woven. One can do that and not obscure a central point that we’re all sharing these spaces. If we don’t see the commonality that we have, on an everyday basis, we will end up seeing it in a shared way, and usually with a shared tragedy. It shouldn’t come to that before we see ourselves in other people.

So much rich material is coming out of the documentary space right now, and black directors and creatives are telling these stories — look at the Oscars documentary category last year.

There are moments in Let It Fall, … [where] I don’t think I could create characters or moments or emotions that are as strong as they are in reality. I also think now is a very good time for telling documentaries because there are so many platforms that are very supportive of the documentary space, and audiences no longer have to go to an art house or see them in a movie theater. You have these great stories, you have audiences that are now being cultivated — and you have artists, whether it’s Ezra Edelman, whether it’s Ava DuVernay — who want to tell stories.

The L.A. riots happened 25 years ago, but so much of what was happening then feels very contemporary. What surprised you most when putting this together?

How raw some of the subjects’ emotions remained, even 25 years later. The stories they’re telling, it’s like they happened yesterday. The sharpness of their pain, or their loss, or their regret, things they wished they could do differently. Things that they wish they could do again. These individuals, who on the surface have no connectivity, will forever be connected by a very particular tragedy. That was my strongest takeaway … just the rawness of the emotions.

What would you hope audiences take away from this doc?

It’s wrong to put something in front of people as though I have the answers and I have the solution. I think people need to be continuing to ask questions. Questions about their environment, questions about how they interact. What would be my decision? What would be my choice? What would I do in a similar circumstance? Or more importantly, what can I do now so that I can avoid ever having to make a choice like that? There’s far too much of that going on right now, people being told what to think. But not enough of us being inspired to ask more questions, dig more deeply and upend expectations.

Let it Fall is available on ABC.com and Netflix.

HBO’s ‘Baltimore Rising’ shows a city stuck after Freddie Gray’s death An instant-message conversation about the documentary’s portrayal of a community and police department struggling to find solutions

A better name for Baltimore Rising, the new HBO documentary on black life in the city after the death of Freddie Gray, might be Baltimore Stuck. To characterize the city as rising, as director Sonja Sohn does, might be a reach, given the deeply entrenched problems of its poorest residents.

Baltimore Rising attempts to highlight ways community leaders and the Baltimore Police Department are addressing the divide between police and the citizens they’re supposed to protect. It’s a refrain that’s all too familiar: A young black man dies at the hands of police and his community reacts with anger, frustration and contempt for a criminal justice system that appears heavily tilted against them. By the end of the film, which airs Monday night on HBO, there’s not much of a resolution. The city’s problems of joblessness, drugs, violence, racism, structural inequality and intergenerational poverty seem far too complex for one documentary.

One of us (Fletcher) has lived in Baltimore for 36 years and once worked for The Baltimore Sun. When Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police, he wrote an essay about the many circumstances that converged to lead to Gray’s death. He’s also written about Sandtown, the neighborhood where Gray was from, and the parallels in the lives of Gray and William Porter, one of six officers charged after Gray’s death.

We shared our observations of Baltimore Rising in an instant message conversation that has since been edited for length.

Soraya: What did you think of the documentary overall? I felt it wasn’t able to get a granular focus on the historical causes behind eruptions like the ones after Gray’s death.

Michael: I really like how it started. I like how the focus immediately went to the roots of the uprising. It raised urgent questions. Why did this happen? Why do we tolerate entrenched poverty? But, in the end, I’m not sure it answered those questions.

Soraya: It says this tension between the community and the police started when cops began driving their beats instead of walking them. I was a little skeptical of that. Does that ring true to you?

Michael: It is one of those convenient things to say. Like when everybody talks about the good old days when neighbors would discipline kids. I’m old enough to remember the good old days, and I think those narratives, like many narratives, are oversold. Back when cops patrolled the streets on foot in Baltimore, the city was hypersegregated. For years after they introduced patrol cars, black cops in Baltimore were not allowed to use them. The roots of the problem are so much more complex than the lack of foot patrolmen, or footmen, as some say in Baltimore.

Soraya: Right. I feel like this could easily be a documentary series, broken up into episodes. That would allow for an opportunity to look at everything with more detail and nuance.

Michael: That’s it. Just to linger on the police for a moment, you often hear things about policing such as cops should be from the communities they patrol, as if that would be some panacea. But here in Baltimore, where more than 40 percent of the cops are black, many officers are from the neighborhoods they patrol. Some of that is captured in the doc. But the tensions and distrust persist. Why? You could do an entire episode on that.

I’m old enough to remember the good old days, and I think those narratives, like many narratives, are oversold.

Soraya: You mentioned in your essay that Baltimore’s policing problems aren’t necessarily about race. So is it class? Is it just abuse of power? Given the Fraternal Order of Police’s reaction to any sort of community oversight, it seems like there’s just way too much concentrated power. And that always ends up screwing over the people with less.

Michael: Probably a bit of both, along with a lack of empathy. I am often struck by the disdain some cops display to people they are sworn to protect and serve, just as I am sometimes appalled by the lack of respect some people accord to cops. Add to that what I think is Baltimore’s biggest problem, the tens of thousands of people addicted to drugs, and you have what you have. Not to be too cynical, but I think you could staff the cops’ trial board with nothing but ACLU lawyers and the city would not be much better off. The issue is attacking poverty. We have to figure out how to do it as a society, and we haven’t.

Soraya: I kept thinking as I was watching that you have to address the social issues that lead to crime in the first place: namely, poverty. And Genard Barr, one of the community organizers working with the cops, said that too. When police commissioner Kevin Davis is asking him what’s needed to prevent another uprising, he’s like, ‘Jobs.’ He seems to have the most realistic perspective on what’s needed. And that’s not something that can be solved overnight.

But I was also frustrated with Davis. Because if you know that’s so much of the problem, is it fair to expect people to just ignore their situations because the city doesn’t want property damage and ongoing footage of flames on CNN?

There’s this line in the movie where Davis is meeting with cops and community members and someone says that they want residents to ‘value [their] city.’ But it doesn’t seem to value them. And they know that. How are you supposed to feel ownership over something that’s not really yours, that really wasn’t built for you?

Michael: Exactly. And we have to be clear-eyed about the investment that takes and the frustration that is involved. And it is more than jobs, per se. We have to get people ready to work. National coverage sometimes creates the impression that Baltimore is an economic wasteland. It is not. I looked it up: Baltimore’s official unemployment rate is 5.2 percent (however flawed that number is). Yet, it is more than double that figure for African-Americans. And this city has had black leadership for more than a generation. But walking around town, you see ads for $13-an-hour jobs at the Amazon warehouse, for decent-paying jobs in restaurants and the tourist trade. So it’s all very complicated.

Soraya: So we’re also talking about specific neighborhoods within Baltimore, not the whole city, right? Is that because of redlining?

Michael: It is partially because of redlining. It is partially because of middle-class flight. It is partially because of the rise of poverty in some areas, and all that comes with that: disinvestment, crime, drugs, the disintegration of community and even many families. These issues plague huge swaths of West and East Baltimore. But there also remain many strong black working-class communities populated by teachers, bus drivers, postal workers, etc.

Is it fair to expect people to just ignore their situations because the city doesn’t want property damage and ongoing footage of flames on CNN?

Soraya: The film focuses on the neighborhood of North Penn, although Freddie Gray was from Sandtown.

Michael: They are basically adjoining neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Very similar too. Thurgood Marshall is from over there. Billie Holiday, and many other legends, performed on Pennsylvania Avenue during its heyday. Interestingly, the young activists we meet in the film seem to be from the ‘other,’ more prosperous (but still black) Baltimore.

Soraya: Let’s talk about them for a bit. Sohn [who played police Detective Kima Greggs on The Wire] focuses on three main characters: Genard Barr, Makayla Gilliam-Price and Kwame Roseborough. Makayla was a high school senior, and Kwame was 21 at the time this was filmed. It’s that age when you see things that aren’t right and you want to protest them. It’s always young people who are on the frontlines of that. Genard’s a little different, though. He’s a former gang member whose father was a cop.

Michael: They added an intriguing element to the film. To my mind, Genard — who works at a drug treatment center and has connections with gang members, and works to get the formerly incarcerated into the workforce — is the one most deeply immersed in the hard realities of Baltimore. The others, as you say, are committed, bright and passionate, but young. I found the conversations between them and their parents especially illuminating. At one point, Makayla is reading an autobiographical piece and her mother basically tells her she doesn’t recognize the person described in the essay. I found that fascinating. Kwame’s brunch with his parents, who are at best ambivalent about his choice to quit work to be an activist, was also interesting.

Soraya: Their parents seem much more pragmatic. And they’re side-eyeing their children’s idealism a bit. The parents are like, ‘Get your education so you can do something substantive about this.’ And the activists are like, ‘We have to raise our voices about this RIGHT NOW,’ which I can understand. When you see someone your own age or younger be killed, and no one faces any real consequences for it, I imagine that’s incredibly galvanizing. And also scary.

I wish the film, again, had a little more focus. Because Makayla actually seems to have a bit of a journey from when we first see her. By the end, she’s talking about recognizing that protest by itself doesn’t bring about change. I’ve said this about other documentaries, too, not just this one, but I always find myself wanting to know more about policy and what can be done to change people’s lives. I want to see illustrations of the way structural racism or bad policy is baked into governing and how that ends up resulting in black death, mass incarceration, etc. I don’t think we got enough of that. Though, given the FBI’s targeting of ‘Black Identity Extremists,’ I do think it’s important to include how modern protesters and organizers are targeted for retaliation. I had questions about Kwame, in terms of where he fits within Campaign Zero or other Black Lives Matter orgs that funnel money to protesters for bail funds, legal assistance, etc. Is he outside of that network? What’s going on there? I wish Sohn had spent more time on the Justice Department’s findings from its investigation into the Baltimore Police Department and tying that back to Gray’s death, and others.

Michael: I agree with all of that. And here’s maybe my bottom line on the film: If all I knew about the state of Baltimore police-community relations was what I saw here, I’d be confused. As portrayed here, the police are the only ones really getting their hands dirty dealing with Baltimore’s harshest realities. Talk about black death: The city has already seen more than 300 murders this year, as it did last year. The cops we see: commissioner Davis, Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, Detective Dawnyell Taylor, are shown on the street fighting what looks like an unwinnable fight.

There is no mention of the cops on the city’s gun squad indicted for stealing drugs and reselling them. Or the cops accused of planting evidence on suspects. Or the millions paid out to brutality victims. There is a backdrop of injustice, as we hear about the cops charged in the Freddie Gray case acquitted one by one. It feels infuriating, because Gray’s case is so stark. He is arrested, put into a police van and comes out with his neck broken.

But as someone who followed the trial closely, I can tell you that the evidence was thin. The presiding judge (who was the decider, as these were all bench trials) was a black man who formerly prosecuted bad cops for the Justice Department! I say all that to note that there is so much more to explore.

Soraya: Oof. I’m not sure, if you do a deep dive into all that, that you can still call the movie Baltimore Rising. It doesn’t sound like an accurate name. What I see is a city that’s stuck. And I just don’t think things like football games between gang members and cops fixes that. It’s a tiny, tiny Band-Aid.

Michael: At first, the football game came off to me as almost trivializing the deep issues the film raises. But its one virtue is that it humanizes people on all sides. Perhaps that is the only hope here: if we can see the humanity that exists behind these labels we all use — gang member, cop, ex-con, poor person.

Without Charles Burnett and the L.A. Rebellion, there is no ‘Moonlight’ Why the motion picture academy is honoring the director of a film about slaughtering sheep

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.

Killer of Sheep is a meditation on blackness, broke-ness and social mobility.

“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.

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.

‘Hey, a black man can do a feature film like this and rip my heart out? Why can’t I do this?’

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.

2) Lee is unapologetically outspoken. His Driving Miss Daisy rant is the filmmaker version of Allen Iverson and “practice.”

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.”

The Notre Dame vs. Miami rivalry is the most relevant in this monstrous weekend of college football The storied matchup proves the woes of the country are rarely far from the field

Outside of championship rings, the most famous piece of jewelry in sports this year belongs to the University of Miami Hurricanes. “The U” turnover chain — comically huge, made of 10-karat gold and flooded with sapphires — has since the start of the season been momentarily given to defensive players who cause fumbles, recover fumbles or grab interceptions. This new age reward system is, in many ways, a relic of its yester-decade swagger, when The U’s players proclaimed their own greatness and then lived up to it. The team reveled in its bad boy image and intimidated All-Americans even before the coin toss.

On Nov. 4, as the waning seconds ticked off the scoreboard at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, it was clear that “The U” is back. The field was in shambles. They remain undefeated. Alex Rodriguez even wore his own version of the Hurricanes’ turnover chain while cheering Miami on last week — beside his girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez. Its iconic “The U” nickname — bestowed upon the Hurricanes for their rebellious, tyrannical, infectious and infamous dominance over college football in the ’80s and again in the early 2000s — is once again part of the national conversation. Nov. 8’s 28-10 drubbing of ACC foe (and then 13th-ranked) Virginia Tech was a statement win. And as destiny mapped out in its own high-stakes GPS navigation, the Hurricanes now have a chance at revenge against the last team to defeat them and perhaps, historically, their most notorious rival: Notre Dame, which won 30-27 vs. The U on Oct. 29, 2016.


Saturday’s showdown, also at Hard Rock Stadium, is urgent for a litany of reasons. Future Sunday talent resides on both squads — Miami’s star safety and reigning ACC Defensive Back of the Week Jaquan Johnson and Notre Dame’s star running back and long-shot Heisman Trophy hopeful Josh Adams are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Both teams are ranked in the Top 10, meaning very real college playoff implications will be decided before a nationally televised audience. The No. 3 (Notre Dame) vs. No. 7 (Miami) clash is just a third of what will be a monstrous weekend in college football, with No. 1 Georgia taking on No. 10 Auburn and No. 6 TCU squaring off against No. 5 Oklahoma.

Players on both teams are, of course, cognizant of the Miami and Notre Dame lineage. Miami head coach Mark Richt makes it plain: “This is why I came back to my alma mater.” But none of his current players was alive when barely coded lines such as “playing the game the right way” and “Thug U” were a part of the national conversation. “Catholics vs. Convicts,” a T-shirt slogan created by a Notre Dame student and later the title of an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, is a phrase firmly supplanted in football lore, describing their October 1988 clash — a titan of a sporting event surpassed only by a chaotically beautiful and controversial fourth quarter. Saturday’s game is important for what it means for the near future of both programs. Yet, the game itself takes a back seat to the hatreds it took to get here.

To understand Miami/Notre Dame is to understand the cultural dichotomies of the ’80s. President Ronald Reagan’s blueprint to “Make America Great Again” divided an already divided country that was neck-deep in recession. Crack cocaine flooded poor neighborhoods , setting off an epidemic that ripped apart black America. Inner-city plight was the backdrop for political campaigning and newscasts thirsty to capitalize on pain (but not the source). Race was still the straw stirring America’s proverbial drink. Sports were a big part of the cocktail.

“[The American public] likes narratives, and narratives are constructed in a lot of ways in sports. Sometimes it’s good guy vs. bad guy. Sometimes it’s black guy vs. white guy,” said University of North Carolina sports history professor Matthew Andrews. “Those … narratives historically have gotten a lot of juice.” Notre Dame and Miami, in many respects, would follow this same blueprint in the decade of Reagan, N.W.A and Showtime. But not before others paved the way first.

No fight, in the ’80s, represented black vs. white more than the June 11, 1982, Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney clash. “It was a dumb thing to do,” Cooney said later. He vehemently opposed the title of “Great White Hope.” Holmes walked away victorious after a 13th-round stoppage — and later became close friends with Cooney. “I made a lot of money that night,” Cooney told The Washington Times this year, “but the rest was all distasteful.”

The rivalry of the decade, between Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, represented two Americas despite the presence of black and white players on both squads. “People can say all they want about ‘it was just basketball.’ No, it was racial drama. That was part of the allure. Different styles of play, different places. Boston has its racial history. We saw that recently again with the whole Adam Jones incident,” said Andrews. “There was a lot of meaning and narrative in there.” Notre Dame and Miami followed a path already emboldened.


The Notre Dame/Miami matchup is 62 years old; a 14-0 shutout by the Fighting Irish in 1955 marks their first meeting. Notre Dame won 12 of the first 13 matchups, including a 40-15 thrashing at the Mirage Bowl in 1979 in Tokyo. Until the ’80s and the arrival of coach Howard Schnellenberger, Miami was a school with no conference, no tradition and nearly no football team altogether, as the school seriously considered dropping the sport because of funding and lack of overall interest.

Under Schnellenberger, Miami won the 1983 national championship. The arrival of coach Jimmy Johnson, and a 58-7 thrashing of a once-proud Notre Dame in 1985, changed both programs. Johnson represented Miami. A young, handsome, outspoken leader of men who could’ve been a Miami Vice regular, Johnson had players instantly enamored with his coaching style. He cornered a talent-rich region of South Florida, recruited young men from poor neighborhoods and placed them in what seemed the utopian Coral Gables campus. “A lot of my kids come from inner-city backgrounds,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the reasons Miami doesn’t get a lot of respect, because your average football fan might not relate to that.”

The U seemingly tallied as many penalty yards as points, yards and wins.

In Miami/Notre Dame’s 1985 meeting, Johnson refused to take the foot off the gas, though often lost to history is the fact that Johnson played reserves the majority of the fourth quarter and a blocked punt came with only 10 players on the field. The Fighting Irish were in the midst of a coaching change, from beleaguered Gerry Faust to Lou Holtz. Johnson and Miami could not care less. From that moment on, hatred was cultivated. And Miami bathed in it.

As Miami’s program ballooned into a national powerhouse, so did its reputation. They were the bad boys of college football — an image that followed them throughout the decade and beyond. They bullied, trash-talked and ran by and through opponents. Numerous off-field incidents, alleged recruiting violations and rendezvous with law enforcement hung over the program. In January 1987, many members of the team exited a plane in Phoenix wearing Army fatigues — days before playing Penn State in the national championship. They lost 14-10. In a quote still embedded with the program, defensive tackle Jerome Brown notoriously asked, in what was supposed to be a skit, “Did the Japanese sit down and eat dinner with Pearl Harbor before they bombed it?” This was before the entire team walked out of a dinner catered for Miami and Penn State players. Regardless of their loss to Penn State, 34 players on that 1986 team were drafted. Twenty-eight went on to play in the NFL. By 1988’s meeting between Notre Dame and Miami, the game itself was billed as one of the biggest of the decade: “Catholics vs. Convicts.”


“Notre Dame hasn’t cornered the market on Catholic football players,” then-Miami quarterback Steve Walsh said before the game. Yet, the four Miami quarterbacks who defined the ’80s were all white and Catholic: Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde and Walsh. At the time, Miami’s entire starting offensive line and tight end Rob Chudzinski were too. Notre Dame ranked fourth in the country and was viewed as the college responsible for producing arguably the most NFL’s most recognizable megastar in San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana. The Irish were viewed as the classier squad, the Irish-Catholics who “played the game the right way.”

Meanwhile, the reigning champion Hurricanes rode a 36-game winning streak that spanned three seasons. The U seemingly tallied as many penalty yards as points, yards and wins. The Hurricanes were as explicit as hometown heroes 2 Live Crew and, in their own way, as militant as Public Enemy. Miami football, Mike Tyson, the 1985 Chicago Bears defense and the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons — these four balls of energy ruled during a decade when America struggled to find its footing economically, racially and culturally.

Preceded by a raucous pregame brawl, the Saturday heavens favored Notre Dame in a highly debated 31-30 finish with controversial touchdowns and two-point conversions. Miami and Notre Dame played four consecutive years between 1987 and 1990. Miami lived up to its own hype, capturing national titles in 1987 and 1989 — the latter being Jimmy Johnson’s final request before moving on to the NFL ranks, where he’d soon ignite another generation-defining dynasty in the Dallas Cowboys. Notre Dame, immortalized by its 1988 victory over Miami, capped off its season with a title of its own. After the 1990 season, Miami would join the Big East, putting the rivalry on ice for 20 years. The two institutions have played twice since 2010, with Notre Dame winning both times and owning an overall 17-7 series lead.

The stereotypes of both schools remain. And with Miami’s resurgence has come the revival of the wicked narrative of “The U” being no more than a collection of correctional center All-Americans. Yet, in this decade there has been unfavorable publicity from South Bend to Coral Gables — Notre Dame during the embarrassing Manti Te’o debacle and ugly sexual assault and cheating scandals. The latter forced the university to vacate 21 victories from its 2012-13 seasons, including a 12-0 campaign that propelled the school to a national title matchup versus Alabama. And Miami with its crippling battle with former booster Nevin Shapiro that led to a self-imposed postseason ban and a 2013 ruling of losing nine scholarships after an NCAA investigation. Miami, though, has revamped its image in recent years. The team is a current co-recipient of the American Football Coaches Association Academic Achievement Award, and its No. 3 ranking in the NCAA Community Service Top 25 is the highest in the ACC.

Now, the series shifts to its most important meeting in two and a half decades. National championship dreams and season-altering nightmares await both teams. The U’s chain will glisten under the prime-time lights of South Florida for the second consecutive week. Although Notre Dame’s game plan calls for the chain to be a moot point rather than a star attraction, as it was last week when Miami’s defense forced four Virginia Tech turnovers. It’s a fitting revival of a rivalry to serve center stage during a period of American unrest, as it did 30 years before.

History provides the foundation that gives this 2017 installment something no other game on Saturday’s schedule boasts. Notre Dame vs. Miami isn’t what it once was. And maybe that’s a good thing in some ways. But that doesn’t mean Saturday night can’t be the start of something real and relevant. Again.

Ric Flair and black fandom in wrestling The ‘Nature Boy’ is one man in a long, complex history for professional wrestling

About halfway through Nature Boy, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary (Nov. 7, 10 p.m. EST, ESPN) on WWE legend Ric Flair, the conversation turns to Flair’s transcending impact on popular culture. The flamboyant grappler, known for his loud fashion sense, “heel” tactics, braggadocio and quick tongue, was reminiscent of a young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, captivating audiences not only with his physical dexterity but also with his ability to sell himself.

And Flair most surely sold himself. He was the man whom women wanted to be with and men wanted to be like. He was the 16-time world champion, no matter how much he would cheat to win, and made sure you never forgot it.

“I mean, why did people like Ali?” Flair asks in the documentary. “No one has marketed themselves in boxing like Ali.”

Moments later, rapper Snoop Dogg appears on the screen and explains how Flair pulled from and was an inspiration of the early roots of hip-hop and black culture. “As a kid growing up watching Ric Flair, he was very inspirational to myself and a lot of other hip-hop artists because he represented what we wanted to be,” Snoop Dogg said. “We wanted to be Ric Flair; we wanted to be flamboyant and the ‘kiss-stealin, wheelin-and-dealin,’ we wanted to be all of that.

“He was a part of our culture and our life. That’s why we love him and we cherish him. We’ve always held him high in the black community, because Ric is one of us.”

Snoop Dogg, who has hosted and appeared on WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw on multiple occasions and was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame in 2016, paints a peculiar portrait of Flair, he of white working-class roots, bleach-blond hair and 1 percenter persona, as “one of us.” But between the luxurious clothes, brash delivery and unmitigated swagger, how was Flair any different, color aside, from an Ali or Denzel Washington or N.W.A.?

Flair was one of the greatest heels, or bad guys, in professional wrestling history, making you want to hate him as easily as Floyd “Money” Mayweather would some three decades later. But unlike Mayweather, Flair had the charm, personality and lifestyle to make every man envy him. He was also an early adopter of the overindulgent persona that took over 2000s hip-hop. To borrow from Jay-Z, Flair flaunted the “Money, Cash, H–s,” at one point owning 15 $10,000 robes, a pair of $600 custom-made shoes (gators, presumably) and a $15,000 Rolex. Not to mention all of the women.

“You see the Rolex watch, you see the glasses, you see the beautiful women, Baby Doll and Precious,” said Glen Thomas, 39, co-host of the Wrestling Marks of Excellence podcast. “You hear Ric Flair talking about the night they had in Vegas … and you see the sunglasses and the $5,000 Armani suits and shoes and you see the belt, you desire to be that. I didn’t know about Disney World, but I knew about Space Mountain.”

In recent years, the 68-year-old has been reborn as an apparent icon of black culture. Indianapolis Colts players mimicked Flair’s famous “Rolex-wearin’ ” promo during a postgame speech in 2015; rapper Pusha T shouted his trademark “Woo” catchphrase on 2012’s “Don’t Like”; and Flair “ran” for president with rapper Waka Flocka Flame in 2016.

But Flair, who hasn’t been a regular performer since retiring from WWE in 2008, is just one man in a long, complex history of professional wrestling. The “Nature Boy,” as a character, lives in a universe of offensive, sexist, anti-gay and, most glaringly, racist content — there are multiple instances of blackface being used in WWE. Which begs the question: Why do black fans continue to tune in?

There are many reasons, it turns out. Wrestling combines the visual presentation of cinema, the never-ending continuity of television and the pure athleticism of professional sports. In between the perilous stunts and knee-slapping comedy also lie real-world consequences, as evidenced by former wrestler Daniel Bryan having to retire because of repeated concussions. A bit of nostalgia is baked in as well. The average age of a pro wrestling viewer is 54 years old, compared with just 40 for the NBA, with many current viewers having watched the product since its heyday in the late 20th century.

“It’s one of those things where I can’t remember the start date,” said Camille Davis, 28, co-host of the Milwaukee-based TECKnical Foul sports podcast. “It’s kind of like when I think back about why I started sports: It’s just something that was always around.”

Whether it was a parent, aunt, uncle, cousin or deacon from church, most fans of wrestling had a familial introduction to the National Wrestling Alliance, World Championship Wrestling or WWE. Like anyone who grew up a fan of other sports, it wasn’t out of the norm to be a wrestling fan.

Black fans followed the established stars of the 1980s and 1990s like everyone else: Flair, Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and Hulk Hogan. It didn’t even matter that none of these stars weren’t black; wrestling wasn’t immediately about race for those who grew up watching it.

But as black fans got older, many started to also gravitate to the male and female performers who looked like them. For older fans, there was Koko B. Ware, “Iceman” King Parsons, Bobo Brazil and “Sailor” Art Thomas. The most popular and transcendent of the early black wrestlers, though, was Junkyard Dog, who co-starred in Hogan’s Saturday morning cartoon show, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling.

For younger fans who grew up in the 1990s, professional wrestling’s renaissance era, they had what felt like an abundance of talent to root for. There was Harlem Heat, composed of real-life brothers Booker T and Stevie Ray; strongman Ahmed Johnson; black nationalist stable Nation of Domination; female grappler Jacqueline Moore; and, of course, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The Rock, who debuted in WWE in 1996, was the biggest star in the company’s history, winning multiple championships and eventually becoming the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. As half-Samoan, half-black, The Rock was one of the most visible black people in the country, a role model for many young people.

“The Rock was more of an inspiration,” said Brian Waters, 31, who’s hosted internet radio show The Wrestling Wrealm since 2011. “Knowing that he was half-black, half-Samoan, I was like, well, it don’t matter, he’s black. It’s kind of like Barack Obama. It don’t matter, he got a little black in him.”

Once black fans become aware of their own blackness, they would tend to root for the black wrestlers, no different from rooting for the Doug Williamses and Mike Vicks of football, the Williams sisters of tennis or the Tiger Woodses of golf.

This partially explains the ascent of The New Day, an all-black trio of wrestlers who have been a fan favorite for going on three years straight. But, surprisingly, race wasn’t the only factor in the popularity.

“I didn’t like New Day because they were black,” said Davis. “It was more so because they were funny. And even then I’m like not really big on The New Day train. There’s no real black wrestlers I feel like that they even give a chance to achieve.”

For black female fans, like Davis, the female wrestlers weren’t given much of an opportunity to achieve either. There have been only five black women’s champions in WWE history: Moore, Jazz, Alicia Fox, Naomi and Sasha Banks. Moore, in 2016, became the first and only African-American woman to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Even with this black female representation for young women, the wrestlers had such unrealistic body proportions, from Moore’s bust to Jazz’s bulk, that not all viewers could relate to them.

“None of the women wrestlers are technically going to look like me, because their bodies are never going to look like how my body looked or was going to look,” said LaToya Ferguson, 29, who writes about wrestling for pop culture blog Uproxx. “I could enjoy them and appreciate them, but I don’t think I ever really had that connection a lot of girls wanted to have of the Divas.”

While children normally learn about race as young as 6 months old, research shows that they don’t learn about “racism” until they’re teenagers or young adults. For African-Americans who watched wrestling, this meant many didn’t notice the problematic storylines in WWE involving African-Americans until they were adults. And there were plenty.

In 1990, white wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper donned blackface while in a storyline with black performer Bad News Brown, who was supposed to be the bad guy in the feud. Less than a decade later, all-white stable D-Generation X, who, like Piper, were the supposed good guys, painted their skin black while facing off with The Rock and the Nation of Domination. In the 2000s, Shelton Benjamin, one of the most gifted athletes in the company’s history, was accompanied to the ring by a Hattie McDaniel-like “momma” character, while all-black duo Cryme Tyme sported cornrows and platinum grills and stole from other wrestlers as their gimmick.

But two incidents stand out the most. In 2003, white wrestler Triple H delivered a racially charged promo against Booker T, calling the black performer’s hair “nappy” and telling him that “people like him” don’t win championships in the WWE. “He almost called him everything except for the N-word,” Thomas said.

And it didn’t end there for Booker T. Two years later, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon called John Cena, who is white and replaced The Rock as the company’s most prominent star, the N-word on live television as a perplexed Booker T walked past.

Despite these incidents, and many more in American professional wrestling’s nearly 200-year history, black fans haven’t wavered. They still make up nearly a quarter of WWE’s total audience, according to Nielsen, and have many reasons for not jumping ship.

Professional wrestling, like the NFL or MLB, is a form of communal entertainment, with fans tuning in live every week because their close friends or family members are following along as well. If they aren’t one of the 3 million people watching Monday Night Raw on the USA Network, they’re filling up more basketball arena seats than the NBA team that owns the building or watching thousands of hours of content on the WWE Network. Like any parent, wrestling fans can also pass down their fandom to their kids. There are times when the product will let you down or offend you, but how is that any different from a fan pushing his or her kids to root for the Cleveland Browns?

There is a lack of diversity and problematic storylines for wrestlers of color, but black viewers tolerate those same issues in other forms of entertainment. Many African-Americans watched network dramas in the decades before Kerry Washington became the first black female lead in a television show since 1974 when she starred in Scandal. Movie ticket sales still sold in the billions in the years leading up to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. And in sports, despite boycott threats from African-American NFL fans over treatment of black athletes, namely Colin Kaepernick, in response to player protests during the national anthem, NFL games still draw in tens of millions of viewers.

Fans of wrestling just want to be entertained. It’s the golden age of wrestling right now, with the most gifted performers in the history of the “sport” performing right now, whether in WWE or on the independent circuit, including Kentucky-raised Ricochet, the most popular non-WWE black wrestler in the world. And depending on who you talk to, wrestling can be both this amazing art form — “I feel like it’s one of the last true performance arts,” Ferguson said — and guilty pleasure.

“It’s the best soap opera I’ve seen, the best television,” Waters said. “I guess I’m one of those people that if you told me I could only have one channel, it would be USA [Network].”

Thomas added: “People watch Scandal, they watch How To Get Away With Murder, they watch Law & Order: SVU. That’s your TV show, that’s your escape for two hours. That’s your soap opera. Wrestling is my soap opera, where I can suspend my disbelief for three hours on a Monday or two hours on a Tuesday.”

Daily Dose: 10/19/17 Waffle House and football: An American tradition

All right, gang, Thursday’s another radio day. I’ll be filling in for Bomani Jones on #TheRightTime from 4-7 p.m. EST. We’ll be talking baseball, a decent amount of football and, of course, NBA hoops.

Creepy clowns are a hot topic in this space. We’ve been over all the reservations we have about how clowns have hijacked the modern entertainment genre. We’ve discussed the fact that the concept of their evil has unfairly stigmatized those trying to do good. And we’ve even talked about how it’s amazing to think that this bit actually worked for a while, even if cold cases are being reopened decades later. My view on this has always been the same: If a clown is creeping you out, sometimes you gotta let the hands fly. That’s exactly what one kid in Florida did.

Remember the guy who shot and killed his daughter’s boyfriend? The white guy who decided that taking up arms was the best way to avenge his apparent honor being besmirched? Yeah, his little girl was dating a black person, and he claimed he did what he did was in self-defense because she had run away from home and was living in a “crime-ridden neighborhood.” It’s worth noting that dude is an ex-cop. Well, he was convicted of manslaughter after various mistrials, which in itself is scary. His sentencing is next month.

Waffle House is an American treasure. Open 24 hours, always serving breakfast, the restaurant chain’s mere existence is exactly what makes this country great on multiple levels. The last time I was in one, I ended up arguing with a buddy for a good 90 minutes over how I chose to eat my meal, which was funny for obvious reasons. That said, in the South, they’re more than just eateries. This story about the establishment’s relationship with college football is nothing short of magical.

I’ve said this before, but Donald Trump would be a perfect NFL owner. A decent amount of visibility without necessarily having to be in charge of everything, a clearly profitable business group that sort of runs itself, and the ability to boss people around and act like you’re controlling everything when, in fact, the people you’ve hired are more likely the brains of the operation. He tried to get in the league, but they wouldn’t let him. Now, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ owner is doubling down on his comments about Trump, calling him jealous of the NFL.

Free Food

Coffee Break: I thought the catfish trend had come and gone, but apparently not. It’s pretty nuts to think that people are still getting away with that nonsense in the year of our Lord 2017. But it happens, and in some cases the person whose fake pictures are being used actually ends up being the one you land. What a wild tale.

Snack Time: Grace Jones is an incredible human being. The Jamaican singer’s life story is pretty incredible, and now there’s a new documentary coming out about her life.

Dessert: If you’re looking for some musical motivation, these beats should hold you up for the afternoon.

‘The Black Cowboy’ will shine light on history hidden in plain sight Documentary in production lends insight into African-American cowboys and rodeo

Denard Butler is not the typical cowboy in Checotah, Oklahoma, known as the steer wrestling capital of America. He holds an advanced degree in behavioral health and worked for a time as a therapist. He speaks routinely about “the laws of the universe” and quotes Bible verses.

Oh, and he’s black.

Of all Butler’s attributes and uniqueness to his profession, his race is the most surprising — and polarizing.

At 33, he is a third-generation cowboy from Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, meaning he went into his chosen career aware of the challenges that come with it because he was not white. And he chose it anyway.

“It’s a passion,” said Butler, an accomplished steer wrestler who also owns a trucking company. “When you’re black and competing in places like San Juan Capistrano, California; Price, Utah; and Prescott, Arizona, you’re not going to see many people who look like you. So you will hear the N-word. A lot. I use it for power. I feed off it. I tell myself, ‘You’re going to read about me. You’re going to get sick of seeing me.’ I want it more than most, and so I use it as fuel. My belief system is different.”

Butler’s story, which includes four bar fights with white cowboys or patrons who put their hands on him, is part of a revealing documentary in production that promises to lend heretofore unknown insight into black cowboys and their history in America.

Charles Perry’s film, The Black Cowboy, takes a high-definition and comprehensive look at the legacy of African-Americans as cowboys, which dates to the beginning of the lifestyle, up to today’s influx of black cowboys in Oklahoma and other places across the country.

Perry, of Carson, California, said he “escaped” suburban Los Angeles to play college basketball at Northwest College in Wyoming in 1994. In 1997, he visited a friend’s home in Lewistown, Montana, and attended a rodeo.

“And there was this black kid participating,” Perry said. “And it was loud in my mind: ‘That kid must be adopted. A white family must have taken him and made him become a cowboy.’

“That thought stayed in my mind as I drove from Georgia to Portland, Oregon, [in 2014] with a friend. We ran across the Okmulgee Black Rodeo in Oklahoma. I was in a daze, seeing all these black cowboys. I didn’t understand what was going on.”

But it was at that moment that the budding filmmaker embraced the idea for his first major project. He had worked with others on small films where he served various roles. Perry also worked on films as an extra or bit, nonspeaking roles and said he would stick his head in directors’ discussions, and “they never told me to get out, so I learned a lot.”

In April 2015, the resourceful Perry took a job driving a U-Haul truck from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Portland. He drove “directly to Okmulgee, to tell the Okmulgee City Hall my plans of making the documentary.”

He met Delta Higgins, who worked at City Hall and who has been a guiding force for Perry — “my angel,” he called her.

“It is an incredibly important yet omitted story within America’s narrative,” the 41-year-old Perry said. “How often do we see now or in the past the cowboy of the Wild West represented as a black man or woman? Very rarely … and yet, they were there in important ways. Black cowboys and their story have been neglected.”

Filmmaker Charles Perry.

Ivan McClellan

Perry has spent the better part of three years traveling the country, mostly by car, to research, meet and film black cowboys in all points of the country. He said the film should be completed in time for entry into the renowned Sundance Film Festival next summer. He also plans to enter it at Cannes, Tribeca and other festivals.

He used online crowdfunding to raise $25,000, which allowed him to hire Emmy-nominated cinematographer Erik Angra and respected African-American photographer Ivan McClellan, who are working at discounted rates, Perry said, because they “see the vision of the film.”

Perry’s younger brother, Marcus, is on the staff, as well as two high school friends — J.R. Redmond, who won a Super Bowl ring as a member of the New England Patriots, and Tony Harvey, who once played for the Utah Jazz of the NBA — who serve as executive producers.

“It’s been a grind, something Nate Parker [director of Birth of a Nation] told me last year at Sundance what it would be,” Perry said. “But I’m determined.”

The total budget of the film is $220,000, and Perry said he used his savings and supplemented the support and donations he’s received by eating less and working side jobs more. “I will pass up on an extra hamburger but not skimp on using the best-quality cameras we need,” he said.

Mostly, Perry said, “I know how to hustle” to keep afloat. To support himself and the film, he edits online video content, including short films and music videos.

“I’m a one-man crew for $2,500 a job. I get three or four jobs a month [to] sustain myself,” he explained. “I’m doing what I have to do to make this film. It’s that important to me.

“So I’m taking my time, not rushing,” Perry added. “This thing is deeper than I thought when I started.”

Perry, for instance, has learned that the term “cowboy” originated when farmers would instruct black farmhands to “go get that cow, boy.”

He learned that Oklahoma, first home of Native Americans, was a haven for African-Americans who fled the South in the 1800s. Blacks owned land and built thriving communities.

Government officials asked Congress to designate Oklahoma as a “black state” or “Negro Colonization.” It never happened, but the influx of African-Americans produced countless farmers and, yes, cowboys.

“I grew up playing at Will Rogers Park and Will Rogers Beach in California, so to learn the most famous black cowboy, Bill Pickett, was Will Rogers’ right-hand man, well, that was something of a confirmation for me that this was a film I should make.”

Prominent in the film is the story of Pickett, who is credited with creating in 1903 the sport of “bulldogging,” now known as steer wrestling. It is a rodeo sport in which the cowboy rides on a horse alongside a steer, leaps onto the bull and wrestles it to the ground by its horns.

Pickett is a cowboy legend and was the first African-American to be inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma. He died in 1932 after being kicked and stomped in the head by a horse when he was 61.

His legacy did not die with him, however. Pickett also is in the Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame and has been honored with the annual Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in Oklahoma. Pickett’s emergence spawned a wave of black cowboys that, the documentary will show, has continued over all these decades.

“It’s a good thing this story is finally going to be told,” said Clarence LeBlanc, 65, a former black cowboy who retired 13 years ago, but not before twice claiming the world steer wrestling championship (1983 and 1990). “Every ranch since the beginning had black cowboys on them. But when you saw the movies or heard the stories, we were excluded. This film will help let people know our impact.”

LeBlanc said he was quite “uncomfortable” much of his career because “prejudice was strong. When I started out, it was really bad. Most schools weren’t even integrated. Over time, the white cowboys began to get to know me because we were seeing each other every week at different rodeos. Many of them let go of the ignorance.

“But the towns we went to, those people had never been around black people before, and they didn’t want us there. And they let us know that.”

He said he never felt his life was in jeopardy, but “I knew when I was in a place that was more [volatile], and so I stayed close, I didn’t venture off at all. … But I don’t think there was anything anyone could do to run me off, I loved the sport so much.”

That love among African-Americans continues to rise, according to Perry, who estimates there are more than 100,000 black cowboys in the United States. Most are in Oklahoma, but others are in Georgia, California, Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas.

“There are small pockets of black cowboys in many parts of the country, and we visit those places and the people wonder why we want to take their pictures,” Perry said. “It’s like when blacks go to Japan and the Japanese want to take our photos because they don’t see many black people. That’s how it is with the black cowboy.”

This is news to many, including a man Perry recently encountered at a party in Boston. Perry said he wears a hat and T-shirt with “TheBlackCowboy.com” on it almost everywhere he goes. “This was a smart, educated white man,” Perry recalled. “He noticed my hat and I told him a little about the history of the black cowboy, and he said no way in the world was what I told him true. He said, ‘Oklahoma is white.’ He just didn’t want to believe it.”

Perry said he has received skepticism from some in the cowboy community because others before him had committed to documenting its history of blacks in the profession but failed. So many did not “take me seriously,” he recalled.

To gain trust, he paid out of pocket for a sizable portion of historic footage — and has been consistent in his efforts to complete the movie.

“I’m excited about seeing the film myself,” Butler said. “I haven’t studied the black cowboy. I am into Warren Buffett and Napoleon Hill. But do know the black cowboys have two things in common: talent and perseverance. That’s the only way to make it with all we have to go through because of our race.”

And don’t forget money, added Butler, who also raises and sells horses on his ranch. “Really, you have to be close to rich, or have someone in your family with money, to compete,” he said. “My family isn’t rich, but my parents made some real sacrifices to get me out here.

“You’re talking $21,000 in fuel to travel to events, $20,000 fees to enter. A horse trailer: another $40,000. Then there are all kinds of miscellaneous stuff. It’s the No. 1 reason there aren’t a lot of blacks on the [rodeo] circuits.”

For LeBlanc, who has lived in Oklahoma all his life and raised prize-winning horses, seeing the number of black youths in rodeos makes him proud. “I know, in at least a small way, we paved the way,” he said. “I have a little grandson, and I can’t wait for him to get old enough to get out there.”

In the end, Perry anticipates a work that enlightens and entertains. “Our goal is not only to bring their story to the mainstream but to establish resources for young aspiring cowboys and cowgirls to follow their dreams,” he said. “I have almost been like a detective, digging for the truth, and it’s been fun.

“Imagine being a cowboy in a rodeo — the sole black person in an entire arena. It’s as close to Jackie Robinson as you can get. This is a history that has been hidden in plain sight … while going on today.

“Well, we’re bringing it all to light with this film.”

‘The Real’s’ Jeannie Mai is raising awareness of human trafficking in new film The talk show host is executive producer of ‘Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking’

According to the Department of Homeland Security, every year millions of men, women and children are trafficked in countries around the world, generating billions of dollars in profit, making it second only to drug trafficking in transactional crime.

These shocking statistics came as a surprise to Jeannie Mai, co-host of daytime TV show The Real, when she began raising awareness around this epidemic, in which only 2 percent of victims make it out alive.

Mai partnered with filmmaker Sadhvi Siddhali Shree as the executive producer for a powerful and raw documentary entitled Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking. With raw images of life on the streets, heart-pounding rescues and gut-wrenching personal stories, the documentary offers hope and empowerment, with hopes to engage others in a movement to end modern-day slavery and abuse on a global scale.

“It’s all about being woke to what’s happening in the world,” Mai said. “The word ‘trafficking’ is weird in itself and was invented just a few years ago to describe the selling and trading of human beings because we didn’t understand exactly what it was. It started off as sex slavery then modern-day slavery, and now it’s trafficking.”

Mai hopes to create awareness that leads to action. She spoke with The Undefeated about the documentary, as well as about working on The Real, the secret behind her positivity and how she defines success.


What’s the nature of Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking?

This film is gritty and, honestly, painful to watch, but it’s real. It will help people understand how human trafficking takes place 360 degrees around us. You’ll feel a calling to contribute to the movement after watching it.

What motivated you to get involved with the film?

It’s been my dream to put together a piece of art that would describe what human trafficking looks like. I joined forces with [Sadhvi] Siddhali [Shree], a beautiful woman, monk, Army veteran and powerful filmmaker. I fell in love with her passion, and we both had the same fervor to educate the world and get people more socially conscious about the brevity of trafficking.

What was your first experience becoming more hands-on with learning about sex trafficking?

I went to Thailand with an organization called NightLight and lived in a brothel for about three weeks. That’s where I really saw the darkness of these women’s lives. They’re trapped and voiceless, and their families are being used as pawns.

[It inspired another documentary I’m working on,] Along the Line, where we shot in Vietnam, Sa Pa, Thailand, to speak with three traffic survivors who shared what it was like to be enslaved, used, abused and manipulated, and how their lives are now as heroines. It’ll come out by early 2019.

What triggered the need to learn more about sex trafficking?

I didn’t know what it was until about eight years ago, when it happened to a family friend in Vietnam. Her uncle had sold her to a brothel as a sex slave to pay off the family debt. I was angry, disgusted and confused. I did research, made phone calls, spoke with government officials and then learned that this situation happens to millions of people every day. She is OK now.

Switching gears, what can we expect for the live airing of season four of The Real?

It’s going to be a fun season with more giveaways, money and amazing, heartfelt stories that’s going to teach you how to love yourself better. Loni [Love], Tamera [Mowry-Housley], Adrienne [Houghton] and I are able to remind women every day that they are valuable and worthy. All of us ladies on the show are a work in progress. We constantly share our hiccups, and we’re transparent about it.

What have you learned from your co-hosts?

First off, I’ve learned to love brown liquor because of Loni. Tam-Tam [Tamera] has taught me the power of poise. She is so poised in every situation of life. Adrienne teaches me about hopeless romantic love, and I’m just like, ‘Let’s get some Netflix and Cheetos.’

What’s the secret behind your positivity?

It’s from turning L’s [losses] into W’s [wins]. Like anyone else, I’ve gone through my own losses, whether that’s relationships, setbacks or insecurities. But when I look back, I really appreciate those experiences because being on the ground taught me how not to only get up, but to stand up and strut.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

There’s always going to be someone who won’t believe in your worth. Don’t let that person be you.

As a TV style expert, what got you into fashion?

I love fashion; it’s my armor. Fashion allows me to tell you my story before I get myself together to tell you. That’s what’s so powerful about it. Style is having that swag from the way you walk, talk, laugh, move your hands, type of vernacular you use. All of that comes together and you are a dope fashion piece, even if you only have a shirt and jeans on.

What’s your advice to women who don’t feel pretty?

Own your pretty, boo! It can be as simple as that you have a great smile or amazing ankles. Whatever it is, find it and highlight what that beautiful part is and dress the rest up. It starts there, and then from the ground up, boom, you bloom.

Bernie Mac, his ‘Mr. 3000,’ and black baseball’s field of dreams On what would have been his 60th birthday, Mac is remembered for his love of all of Chicago’s games

Mitch Rosen walks into an elegantly furnished condo in Chicago’s South Loop. He doesn’t know what to expect. It’s the spring of 2008, and the longtime program director of influential local sports radio station 670 The Score is about to make a pitch.

Just a day earlier, Rosen had asked a friend for a contact for Bernie Mac, the beloved stand-up comedian, television icon (Fox’s The Bernie Mac Show, 2001-06) and big-screen scene-stealer (Friday, The Players Club and the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy). In 2004, Mac co-starred with Angela Bassett (as an ESPN reporter) in Mr. 3000, a film about a retired Milwaukee Brewer Stan Ross, who comes back to major league baseball to go for 3,000 hits. Even before Mac’s star-making 1994 national television debut on the first iteration of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, Mac had taken the baton from Robin Harris (who died in 1990 at age 36) as the Windy City’s funniest homegrown talent.

It was well-known around Chicago that Mac, a chest-beating, born-and-raised South Sider, was a hard-core White Sox fan. “I always knew Bernie to be around the Sox’s ballpark,” said Rosen. “He’d rent a suite at [then U.S. Cellular Field] for a number of games. I knew he would be fun to have on the postgame show.”

When Rosen made the call, Mac’s daughter, Je’Niece McCullough, answered. “Hold on, please,” she said. Seconds later, a booming voice jumped on the line. “Mitch, this is Bernie. What are you doing tomorrow afternoon? Here’s my address. Come see me.” During their one-hour meeting, Rosen discovered that not only was Mac an unapologetic homer, he was also an animated listener of sports talk radio. Imagine the multimillionaire calling in to passionately debate why a random utility player on the Sox deserved more at-bats.

“Chicago was a different place in the late ’60s and ’70s. This was before the era of Michael Jordan. There was a Little League team in damn near every neighborhood. Bernie was a product of those times.”

“And he was a huge fan of Ozzie [Guillen],” Rosen said, referring to the outspoken White Sox shortstop and Gold Glover who in 2005 managed the team to World Series glory. “We left it at, ‘Hey, let’s follow up in a few weeks and see where the season goes.’ At the time I remember he had an oxygen tank … so it was obvious something was wrong. He told me he was doing a movie out west in California. But we never got the chance to do his segment because he became really sick.”

Mac’s creative work was often deeply rooted in sports fandom. He portrayed a homeless man in 1994’s Above The Rim. In Pride, the 2007 Jim Ellis biopic, Mac scored a role as assistant coach of the first all-black swimming team. The actor detailed his love of competitive sports during a 2007 ESPN SportsNation chat. “I wish I started playing golf earlier,” said the 6-foot-3 Mac, who possessed the frame of a tight end. “But I played baseball, basketball, football, volleyball, and I boxed. In high school,” he repeated wistfully, “I played baseball.”

On Aug. 9, 2008, Bernard Jeffrey McCullough died at the age of 50. He’d been secretly battling a rare immune disease called sarcoidosis. Today he would have been 60 years old.


Bernie Mac sings “Take me out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch of game six of the National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins on October 14, 2003 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois.

Elsa/Getty Images

Bernie Mac made it out of the notorious Englewood neighborhood of Chicago to become one of the most successful comedians of the post-Eddie Murphy era. The onetime janitor, school bus driver and fast-food manager decided that comedy would be his family’s ticket out of the ’hood. During the day, Mac told jokes on the L train, where he often pulled in as much as $400 daily.

At night, he delivered those same routines in front of notoriously tough audiences — when he was even allowed to get onstage. It was only after winning a top prize of $3,000 at 1990’s Miller Genuine Draft Comedy Search that he decided to pursue stand-up full time. His popular Emmy- and Peabody-winning television series The Bernie Mac Show was a layered revelation that went beyond usual laugh-track-fueled sitcom high jinks.

Mac got to live out his high school dream of becoming a professional ballplayer when he starred in the family-friendly Mr. 3000. His comically arrogant character, Ross, finds out that because of a clerical error, he’d retired three hits shy of one of baseball’s most hallowed benchmarks. Only 31 real players are in the 3,000-hit club. Adrian Beltre is the most recently crowned member; Barry Bonds just missed the cut. Albert Pujols is currently closest, with 2,825 hits. Other players in the 3,000 community include Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ichiro Suzuki, Rickey Henderson, Alex Rodriguez, George Brett and Derek Jeter. Quite the list.

The film is fun, but it’s Mr. 3000’s on-field scenes, shot at New Orleans’ Zephyr Field and the Brewers’ Miller Park, that jump off the screen like a love letter to the emotional highs and lows of baseball and its idiosyncratic rituals. “Bernie and I would always talk about the MLB player that didn’t know when to retire,” said Charles Stone III, director of Mr. 3000, Paid In Full and the upcoming basketball comedy Uncle Drew, which features the Boston Celtics’ Kyrie Irving, as well as Lisa Leslie, Nate Robinson, Reggie Miller and Chris Webber. “We even joked about doing an entire documentary about athletes who didn’t know when to walk away. It was obvious Bernie had a real passion for sports.”

Michael Wilbon, a Chicago native and co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, made a cameo appearance in Mr. 3000. He first met Mac in 2001, at a Chicago Bulls game. They bonded. “We both grew up watching the Bears’ Gale Sayers and Walter Payton, the Cubs’ Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, and the White Sox’s [Walt] ‘No Neck’ Williams,” Wilbon said. “Chicago was a different place in the late ’60s and ’70s. This was before the era of Michael Jordan. There was a Little League team in damn near every neighborhood. Bernie was a product of those times.”

Which is one of the reasons that, when Mac was asked by the Chicago Cubs to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field, just months after wrapping Mr. 3000, it was a surreal moment. The prominent Chicago White Sox fan is forever connected to the infamous “Bartman” Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series in which the North Siders suffered a monumental collapse. Some Cubs fans even blamed Mac for purposefully jinxing the team when, instead of singing, “Root, root, root for the Cubbies,” he sang, “Root, root, root for the champions!” Mac admitted to Wilbon that he grew up hating the Sox’s crosstown rivals.

Bernie Mac sings a “black version” of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.”

“This is how you came up as a South Sider,” Wilbon said. “You hated the Cubs because back in the days they were not very hospitable to people that looked like my father. Bernie and I come from that tradition. But a lot of those great black Cubs players like Ernie Banks lived on the South Side with us, so while he didn’t always root for the Cubs, Bernie was a civic person. He didn’t actively root against them. When it came to the [playoffs], he rooted for all teams that had Chicago on their chest.”

Mac of course understood the historical significance of Mr. 3000’s lead character being African-American. Jackie Robinson’s peerless legacy is rich with immortals such as Roy Campanella, Mays, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr., as well as current stars like Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen and Addison Russell. But African-American participation in professional baseball over the decades has steadily declined.

At its height in 1981, professional baseball boasted a robust 18.7 percentage of black players. Today that figure is 7.7 percent, according to MLB. “Blacks no longer being a huge part of baseball is something we’d always talk about,” said Chicago-based SportsCenter analyst Scoop Jackson. When Mac was cutting his teeth at local nightclubs such as All Jokes Aside in the early ’90s, the two would often discuss their mutual admiration for the underrated 1976 Negro Leagues baseball film The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.

“We both loved that film,” said Jackson. “How important Bingo Long was … you had James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor speaking on the importance of the Negro League. It wasn’t just black history … it was baseball history. I know what a film like Mr. 3000 was rooted in.”

And there’s even more to the legacy of Bernie Mac the sportsman. Mac frequently sent messages to Kenny Williams, then the White Sox’s general manager (now the team’s executive vice president), imploring him to improve the staff’s pitching. Mac also grew up idolizing aforementioned legendary Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente. Mac’s standing as the quintessential sports guy was so high that even before he was starring in films alongside the Oscar-winning likes of George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon and Billy Bob Thornton, he was given the unofficial title of 13th Man by the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls during their historic six-title ’90s run.

The Bulls adopted Mac’s signature “Who You With?!!!” catchphrase as their championship battle cry. “When Bernie came into the locker room, that’s all Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the others would scream,” Jackson said. “That meant a lot to Bernie personally. He never really left Chicago, or his love of its teams. … Bernie was a true sports fan.”

Drake really wants Vince Carter to come home Day 4 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — At this point, the most magical words Drake could hear come out of Vince Carter’s mouth might be, “Hold on, we’re going home.”

In July, Carter, 40, signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Sacramento Kings. But at a Q-and-A after the premiere of The Carter Effect at the Toronto International Film Festival, Drake made his feelings plain: He wants the man who launched Vinsanity to come back to this city.

“It would be amazing, hopefully, for Vince to give us one last chance to not just give him a standing ovation for one night or two nights out of the year,” Drake said.

Saturday’s Carter lovefest (with the star basketball player nowhere in sight) was something to behold. The premiere was studded with sports and music notables: LeBron James, Cory Joseph, Akon, Director X (the guy who caused a sensation with the James Turrell-inspired visuals of “Hotline Bling”), sprinter Andre De Grasse, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, and former Raptors Chris Bosh and Patrick Patterson were among those in attendance. And since it was a bright, sunny afternoon, Drake fans were lined up everywhere for a glimpse of their hometown rapper.

Instagram Photo

Drake was an executive producer of The Carter Effect, along with James and his longtime business partner Maverick Carter.

“Me being from Ohio, when Vince signed with Nike, he actually made me believe that putting on those damn shoes would make me jump to the rim,” James joked after the screening.

Director X appears in the film and likened himself to John the Baptist and Drake to Jesus when it comes to Toronto and hip-hop. I asked him where Carter fits into that metaphor.

“He’s Moses,” X answered.

I also had a chance to talk to Mona Halem, a party host who had a front-row seat to the transformation Carter brought with him to Toronto, a city so unacquainted with basketball that its fans didn’t know they were supposed to be quiet when Raptors players were shooting free throws.

Halem, who also appears in the film, is a cross between an NBA doyenne, unofficial Toronto ambassador and social scene producer. She puts interesting people together with liquor and good music and has made it her personal art form here.

“Because basketball and entertainment around basketball was more popular in the U.S., [Carter] shone a light on Toronto,” Halem said. “It was like, ‘Oh, what’s this place Toronto?’ Everyone thinks we live in igloos and it’s so cold.”

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

Courtesy of TIFF

Director Tracy Heather Strain’s documentary on playwright Lorraine Hansberry, in a way, has been her life’s work.

Strain, who is a professor at Northeastern University (she canceled last week’s class to attend TIFF), has been working on Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart for 14 years. Most of that time has been spent raising more than $1.5 million to make the film. The rights for film clips, music and other properties cost about $300,000.

I spoke to Strain on Sunday morning before she departed for Boston so her students wouldn’t miss a second week of class. Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart will air in the future on PBS, and it’s a deep dive into the jam-packed 34 years of Hansberry’s life and the world that created the fictional Younger family of A Raisin in the Sun. Strain said she became taken with Hansberry when she was a 17-year-old in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her grandmother took her to see a community theater production of the autobiographical To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.

“You know how you know something in your gut?” Strain asked. “[That’s] how I felt when I was exposed to Lorraine Hansberry’s words.”

In Sighted Eyes, Strain makes it clear that Hansberry is so much more than the one-paragraph biography schoolchildren get during Black History Month before they watch the film adaptation of her celebrated play. In fact, early in the movie, one of Hansberry’s contemporaries insists on making it clear that Hansberry was not a liberal but a “radical leftist.”

I was astonished to learn Hansberry began her career as a journalist before venturing into playwriting, and even more astonished to learn that she’d basically mapped out her life, and told her would-be husband what it was going to be like, when she was just 23 years old. This woman did not waste time. Strain fell in love with Hansberry’s sense of humor: It’s hard not to crack up upon learning Hansberry bought a house on 2 acres in New York and named the place “Chitterling Heights.” She sounds like someone I’d desperately want to be friends with if she were still alive.

Sighted Eyes also works as a bit of mythbusting. My eyes grew large when Strain informed me that I, like so many others, had been fooled by this photo, supposedly of Hansberry dancing with writer James Baldwin. It’s not her but rather a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) worker from Louisiana. There are no photos, at least none that Strain could find, of Baldwin and Hansberry together despite their close friendship.