Or maybe he just really likes Tony Montana?
It’s the first anniversary of the opening of Washington, D.C.’s extremely popular National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). While visiting the NMAAHC is a life-changing experience, getting in can feel like praying on Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. But while you wait, you can have an amazing museum experience closer to home. There will almost always be must-see exhibits at places such as New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and Los Angeles’ The Getty Center, but there are a bevy of other museums and galleries around the country that are doing brilliant and important work. This list of museums and galleries — from Miami and Houston to Sao Paulo and Cincinnati — feature new and continuing exhibits around race and identity, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, hip-hop’s golden age, activist grandmothers, salsa as a social movement, black women in silent films, the age of Black Power, Oregon during the civil rights era, African-American umpires, design and technology in the time of slavery, and so much more.
Tennessee’s oldest and largest art museum is home to a major collection that spans all eras and encompasses all mediums. It also serves as a cultural center, hosting a variety of programs, events and films. The vision: “Transforming lives through the power of art.”
New this winter: Black Resistance: Ernest C. Withers and the Civil Rights Movement. Withers (who has been accused of being an FBI informant) was a prolific photographer who documented everything from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Negro Leagues. It’s estimated that he took almost 2 million photographs over the course of his career. The exhibition focuses on the 50th anniversary of events that took place from March 27 through April 8, 1968, such as striking sanitation workers carrying “I AM A MAN” placards, Martin Luther King Jr. returning to Memphis and the march to Memphis City Hall. On view from Feb. 3 to Aug. 19, 2018.
The Muhammad Ali Center is a museum and education center in The Champ’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and is rooted in his core principles of confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. The permanent exhibit tells Ali’s story via interactive exhibits, images and artifacts.
New this fall: Grandmother Power: A Global Phenomenon. The exhibit features photo essays about activist grandmothers from around the world who are working to create a better future for their grands. On view through Jan. 8, 2018.
Birmingham, Alabama, was the site of some of the most horrific events of the civil rights era. The Civil Rights Institute is an educational and cultural center dedicated to preserving that bloody and inspiring history. Inside, there’s a Ku Klux Klan robe, as well as the bars of the cell in which Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham jail.” The institute is across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of the bombing that took the lives of four young girls 54 years ago this month.
New this fall: To create Blood Mirror, Jordan Eagles encapsulated the blood of 59 gay, bisexual and transgender men into a large resin block. The result is a luminous sculpture where viewers can see themselves reflected in the blood. The work is meant to raise awareness about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s discriminatory blood donation policy. On view through Dec. 9.
Charlotte, North Carolina
The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture is an art and cultural center located in a neighborhood once known as Brooklyn, the epicenter of black life in Charlotte, North Carolina. Named for Harvey B. Gantt, who was the first black student at Clemson University and Charlotte’s first black mayor, the building’s interior is a nod to the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder, while its exterior evokes West African textile patterns and quilt designs from the Underground Railroad era. Aside from great art, the center hosts talks, films and plays.
New this fall: Shows from North Carolina natives Miya Bailey and Sloane Siobhan, and an exhibition curated from the private collection of John and Vivian Hewitt, including work from Jacob Lawrence and Charlotte’s own Romare Bearden. Also of note: the premiere of the Darryl Atwell Collection of African-American Art as Simple Passion, Complex Vision. Atwell’s collection was put together in collaboration with retired NBA player and avid art collector Elliot Perry, and it includes Theaster Gates’ provocative assemblage In the Event of Race Riot XIII. All shows run through Jan. 22, 2018.
The George & Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art was born from the private art collection assembled over 30 years by Dwight McKenna and his wife, Beverly Stanton McKenna. The permanent collection includes works by Clementine Hunter, Kerry James Marshall, Jacob Lawrence and many more. The McKennas are also passionate about supporting new and emerging artists. Past exhibitions have included Contemporary Artists Respond to the New Orleans Baby Dolls, The Spirit of Haitian Culture and From Moussor to Tignon: The Evolution of the Head-Tie. Besides owning the art museum, the McKennas own Le Musee de f.p.c., which is dedicated to telling the story of free people of color. They also founded the New Orleans Tribune in 1985. On top of all of that, Dwight McKenna is poised to become the first black coroner of Orleans Parish.
New this winter: The New Orleans 2018 African American Tricentennial Art Exhibition: Painting Our Own Story, Singing Our Own Song. The exhibit will celebrate the city’s 300th birthday and is being put together with the New Orleans chapter of the National Conference of Artists. Artists from around the country were invited to submit work for the show. The show runs from Jan. 13 to Oct. 27, 2018.
The contemporary Yeelen art gallery is owned by Karla Ferguson. Originally opened in 2008 in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District, the museum was moved over to Little Haiti in 2013. A slew of galleries have since followed, making Little Haiti the hottest art district in the city. Yeelen doesn’t operate like a typical gallery. Instead of planning shows a year in advance, Ferguson stays open to responding to what’s happening in the moment. In the past, that has included such shows as Woke AF, Black Freedom and TransCuba. “A lot of my curatorial work is based in legal theory and social justice,” she has said. No surprise, given Ferguson’s educational background in law, political science and artist relations. Hurricane Irma knocked Yeelen’s power out for a week and causing water leaks, forcing Ferguson to postpone a planned photography show. She now has her sights set on Art Basel, which hits Miami in December, and she will be up and running for the October iteration of her monthly Afro Beats N Bites day party.
New this fall: A fresh exhibit (still to be determined) will most likely go up around mid-November. Afro Beats N Bites — which combines the culinary arts with visual arts, and a DJ — happens the second Saturday of every month.
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is an award-winning research library and National Historic Landmark. The center preserves, documents and promotes the study of black history and culture with its collection of more than 10 million items. The Schomburg also promotes lifelong learning through a calendar of events, talks and other programming.
New this fall: The unveiling of The Sonny Rollins Collection, which highlights the life and career of the saxophonist. The Black Power! exhibit is a collection of interviews, essays and images covering key areas of the movement, and Power In Print is a presentation of Black Power Movement posters. On view through March 30, 2018.
The Museum of the City of New York contextualizes all things NYC. The museum also hosts a number of events and educational and public programs.
New this fall: Rhythm & Power: Salsa in New York explores the popular musical genre and its role as a social movement. On view through Nov. 26.
The steel baron Andrew Carnegie opened an art museum with a vision of collecting “the old masters of tomorrow.” Embodying that mission, the Carnegie Museum of Art makes a good case for being “the first museum of contemporary art in the U.S.” The museum is one of four institutions that make up the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
Continuing this fall: Co-curated by the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Carnegie, 20/20 aims to prompt discussions about race and identity during this turbulent time. Called “the most important art show in America” by Vogue, the show is made up of works by 40 artists, including Glenn Ligon, Titus Kaphar, David Hammons, Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall. “There was a point where I marched for Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, and I just couldn’t be angry anymore,” co-curator Amanda Hunt told ArtNet. “I couldn’t figure out what I could do to start affecting change, either in a more immediate sense or in a collective community sense. So this show represents our power, our purview — this is what we know and have been trained to do, and have voice and ownership of, and a platform for. We’re curators at major institutions in America. And that’s powerful.” On view through Dec. 31.
The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture is dedicated to documenting, preserving and exhibiting the lives of African-Americans in Maryland. Its permanent collection includes photos, artifacts and textiles, as well as expanded collections focused on jazz recordings and military history. And be sure to peep the gift shop, where ESPN Radio’s Freddie Coleman picked up a fly Frederick Douglass T-shirt.
New this fall: Maryland Collects: Jacob Lawrence. The exhibit features 50 prints from private collectors in and around Maryland. “This is an exhibit we put together ourselves,” says Lewis executive director Wanda Draper. “We wanted to bring this community a collection by an esteemed African-American artist that they can’t see anywhere else.” On view through Jan. 7, 2018.
With two campuses, Boston and Nantucket, the Museum of African American History is the largest museum in New England dedicated to African-American history and culture. It includes four historic sites and two Black Heritage Trails.
Continuing this fall: Picturing Frederick Douglass. With a brisk understanding of visual language and its effects, Douglass used his photographic images as a tool to counteract the ways that imagery was often used to create stereotypes about African-Americans. This is the first major exhibition of Douglass photos, many unseen until now. On view in the Abiel Smith School on the museum’s Boston campus through December.
You may know the DuSable Museum of African American History as the place where Chance the Rapper is donating his best rap album Grammy. But it’s also one of the oldest and most revered African-American museums in the country. The DuSable is also involved with the Hyde Park Jazz Festival and The Margaret Burroughs Centennial Film Series.
New this fall: Chicago: A Southern Exposure features the work of architectural photographer, critic and DuSable vice president Lee Bey. It’s the first major show dedicated to often overlooked South Side architecture and highlights black architects such as John Moutoussamy and Roger Margerum, alongside the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. “The city’s best architecture, outside of downtown, is on the South Side of Chicago,” Bey told New City. “You can tell these things in other places and tell a fine story, but to have it here in a black institution, and to have the story told by black people and have those exhibitions in the context of other exhibitions for and by black people, gives a richer story.” On view through February 2018.
Charles H. Wright, a Detroit doctor who delivered 7,000-plus babies, got the inspiration for opening a museum after visiting a Denmark war memorial. Initially known as I AM (International Afro-American Museum), the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History opened in 1966 as a small physical location with a traveling mobile-home version. The Wright has grown through the years and is now a cornerstone of Detroit’s Midtown Cultural Center, along with the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Michigan Science Center.
Continuing this fall: Say it Loud; Art, History, and Rebellion. The exhibit is rooted in the Detroit rebellions and the ways in which art has responded to those rebellions and continued events. The exhibit begins outdoors with photos, quotes and a 24-foot sculpture by Charles McGee. Inside, there are works by 40 artists, including Faith Ringgold, Sanford Biggers and Jeff Donaldson. On view through Jan. 2, 2018. (A complementary exhibit, Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement, is up at the nearby Detroit Institute of Arts until Oct. 22.)
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center encourages visitors to remain active participants in the continued struggle for freedom of people everywhere and is involved in combating modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Earlier this year, the center launched the Open Your Mind learning lab, designed to teach visitors about implicit bias.
New this fall: The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection, an exhibit culled from the private collection of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey. It will feature archival material related to Malcolm X and Zora Neale Hurston besides artwork by luminaries such as Richard Mayhew. “Remembering, celebrating, examining and commemorating the black experience … is something we invite all to participate in,” Ashley Jordan, curator at the center, said in a statement. “African-American history is American history.” Opening Nov. 4.
Kansas City, Missouri
Dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of African-Americans in baseball, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum weaves together black history and baseball history via multimedia displays, photographs and artifacts. “The premise is baseball, but the story is so much larger than the game of baseball,” said museum president Bob Kendrick. “It is America at her worst, but it’s also America at her triumphant best.”
New this fall: An exhibit celebrating African-American umpires from the Negro Leagues to the majors to little league. The exhibit is unnamed as yet but will be dedicated to Bob Motley. Barrier Breakers: From Jackie to Pumpsie will look at the complete integration of baseball, from Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby to Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green. An expanded piece will feature the women of the Negro Leagues — Toni Stone, Mamie Johnson and Connie Morgan — who played with and against the men.
The California African American Museum does a great job of using art to contextualize historical events; its rich history is reflected in the depth and breadth of its exhibitions. The state of California supported the museum early on, acknowledging the cultural and political impact of California’s African-American community.
Continuing this fall: On view through Oct. 8, Face to Face: Los Angeles Collects Portraiture is an exhibit of 50 works put together from L.A.-based collections. Artists from Titus Kaphar to Mickalene Thomas examine the changing ways in which artists are approaching portraiture. For Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films, the museum screens multiple “race films.” “Directors often created these films in retaliation against disparaging portrayals of African-Americans, to challenge the larger narrative and to get across themes of upliftment, pride and self-sufficiency within the black community,” said co-curator Tyree Boyd-Pates. On view through Oct. 15. For Fade to Black, Gary Simmons combines his signature smudged erasure technique with the titles of “race films” to create an installation in the museum lobby. “Fade to Black provides a nuanced history of black representation in motion pictures from the early to mid-20th century,” Naima Keith, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator, told the Los Angeles Times. “History’s subjective bent is also a strong theme within Gary’s work, and the simple nature of chalk lends itself to his artistic concerns — especially in its suggestion of basic communication, the human hand, education systems and of easily erasable or altered information.” On view through July 21, 2018.
New for fall: We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-1985 focuses on the intersection of art and activism and includes the work of more than 40 African-American female artists. It touches on every major social movement of the period, including the civil rights and Black Power movements, the women’s movement, the anti-war movement and the gay liberation movement, among others. “This exhibition feels especially relevant for our audiences because it includes women artists working in various parts of the country, not just on the East Coast,” Keith said in a statement. On view Oct. 13 through Jan. 14, 2018.
The Museum of the African Diaspora uses contemporary art to help audiences engage with the African diaspora via exhibitions, public programs and events. The vibrant space focuses on cultural expression rooted in four themes: origin, movement, adaptation and transformation.
New for fall: En Mas: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean explores the artistry behind carnival parading, masquerading and procession. The exhibition tracked nine artists — John Beadle, Christophe Chassol, Charles Campbell, Nicolás Dumit Estévez, Marlon Griffith, Hew Locke, Lorraine O’Grady, Ebony G. Patterson and Cauleen Smith — during the 2014 carnival season. On view Sept. 20 to March 4, 2018.
The Houston Museum of African American Culture explores and shares the history and culture of African-Americans. Besides exhibits, the museum hosts talks, screenings and other public events.
New for fall: The Telling and the Told: The art of David McGee. Curated by artist Benito Huerta, The Telling and the Told is an exhibit of works on paper and continues McGee’s exploration of the intersection of imagery, politics, race, class and pop culture. On view Nov. 4 to Jan. 12, 2018.
The Kansas African American Museum provides a mix of art, history and special programming to engage audiences of all ages. Past exhibitions have included an homage to President Barack Obama’s Midwestern roots and Undefeated: The Triumph of the Black Kansas Athlete. The museum is also spearheading the creation of The Kansas African American History Trail.
New this fall: UNDEREXPOSED: Contemporary Black Women Photographers. These women have often been overlooked for their contributions and creativity. This exhibition looks to rectify that by shining a light on the work of Toni Parks-Parsons, Chandra McCormick, Pat Patterson, Shineta Horton, Labeebah Beruni and Keshia Ezerendu. On view through Dec. 30.
The Northwest African American Museum is dedicated to preserving the culture and telling the stories of the African diaspora in the Pacific Northwest. This includes both historical contributions and those being made today by a continuing wave of new immigrants from places such as Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia.
New this fall: Professor/writer/historian Daudi Abe gives a talk on Emerald Street: Race, Class, Culture, and the History of Hip Hop in the Northwest on Nov. 9.
The Oregon Historical Society documents the history and culture of the state and presents it via physical and digital exhibits, talks and events. OHS’ commitment to inclusion is evident in its partnerships and programming, which address themes from Native American history, the struggles faced by the Japanese-American immigrant community, and broaching the subject of “Peace in the Middle East” with an assemblage of religious leaders. On view online: Black Athletes Disrupting White Supremacy in Oregon.
Continuing this fall: Racing to Change: Oregon’s Civil Rights Years. The exhibit is presented by the Oregon Black Pioneers and tells the story of the civil rights battles fought by African-Americans in Oregon, particularly sparked by discrimination in housing and employment practices. “No matter what you do in Oregon, you’ll find the footprint of a black person that was there. And that’s all over the state. Black folks weren’t congregated in Portland; 32 of Oregon’s 36 counties had African-Americans in them,” Willie Richardson, board president of the Pioneers, told Portland Architecture blog. “They provided services. They owned land. They did all the things that Oregon laws said they couldn’t have.” On view through June 24, 2018.
Frederiksted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
The Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts focuses on promoting Caribbean arts and culture through exhibits, events, classes and other programming.
New this fall: Pride Through Art. The exhibit showcases the work of LGBTQ artists and allies, addressing themes of gender identity, society and inclusion. On view Sept. 28 to Nov. 13.
If you’re looking for very cool modern art in London, head to the Tate Modern. As part of the Tate group (which also includes the Britain, Liverpool and St. Ives), the Tate’s collection comprises international modern and contemporary art from 1900 through today.
Continuing this fall: Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. The exhibit showcases the ways in which artists responded to events of the day, from the civil rights movement to Black Power, and addresses issues of revolution, pride and solidarity. Artists include Barkley L. Hendricks and Emory Douglas. “The show provides a whole array of American artists who should be part of the art curriculum,” Zoe Whitley, curator of international art at the Tate, told The New York Times. “It shows that black artistic culture at that time was as varied as any other culture. It’s not ‘black’ art, it’s a range of practices.” On view through Oct. 22.
Marseille, France, is the hub of hip-hop in southern France — so it’s no wonder that the Musee D’Art Contemporain would host an exhibit around the culture’s origins. You can also get your Jean-Michel Basquiat fix there. Although small, the museum is known to have an impressive collection of modern and contemporary art.
Continuing this fall: HIP HOP: a golden age 1970-1995. The exhibit features many elements of hip-hop culture: graffiti murals, sketchbook pages, racks of spray paint cans, Kangols, shell toes, nameplate belt buckles, a Zulu Nation medallion and even a Wild Style diorama. On view through Jan. 14, 2018.
The Museu Afro Brasil, a major repository of Afro-Brazilian art, looks at Brazilian art and heritage through the lens of the African diaspora with a focus on (among others) Africa’s diversity and persistence, work and slavery, and Afro-Brazilian religions.
New this fall: Exhibits featuring Baroque masters, geometric forms, and design and technology in the time of slavery.
All right, gang, I’m back from Los Angeles after getting stuck on planes all day Monday, which was not fun at all. But, good news, I’ll be on Around The Horn again Tuesday afternoon, so please do tune in to ESPN at 5 p.m.!
— Deerhoof (@deerhoof) September 19, 2017
President Donald Trump spoke at the United Nations on Tuesday, and it was extremely eventful. Instead of a measured speech in front of all of the world’s leaders, he went full fire and brimstone and basically threatened to blow up North Korea. If you’re wondering, that’s not typically how these things go. He also called Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man,” which is a nickname I definitely don’t understand. He also threw a shot at Iran, calling it a “murderous regime.” Overall, though, Trump’s relationship with the United Nations has been a rocky one.
When it comes to community policing, St. Louis has an awful reputation. After the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, put the entire city and its environs on the map, we’re back in the state in a similar situation. Last week, another officer was acquitted in the killing of a citizen. The entire thing is on body cam, which didn’t help put the cop away in the end. We’ve seen this movie so many times before, and the people are speaking out against it yet again. There’s an eerie Groundhog Day effect to all of this, but here’s a timeline of everything, starting in 2011.
Are things getting better for black people in America? Well, it depends on whom you ask. For someone my age, you’d say definitely not. It seems that around every corner people are appropriating the culture and disrespecting legacies and, in general, are not here for our presence. But if you’re older, you might think it’s better than, say, the 1950s or ’60s. But if you’re white, you apparently believe that things are certainly improving. That’s according to a new study from Yale University. The numbers there are fascinating.
Chris Long has a permanent invitation to the cookout. The superwoke NFL defensive lineman has been extremely vocal about his feelings on the state of the nation and not afraid to stand up, as a white guy, for what he sees as injustice. He also happens to be from Charlottesville, Virginia, where we recently saw one of the ugliest scenes in modern history during a white supremacist rally. Now he’s putting his money where his mouth is, as he will donate six game checks to start scholarships for high school students in his hometown. What a boss.
Coffee Break: Nas and Nicki Minaj are dating. Not only that, but the two Queens, New York, rappers are stunting on Instagram for everyone, letting the world know just how strong their bond is. Check out these photos of the two in matching Gucci outfits, stunting around Queensbridge. Peak blackness.
Snack Time: The incredible return of Gucci Mane continues this month, with the release of his autobiography, aptly titled The Autobiography of Gucci Mane. If you don’t have time to read it, here are a few things we learned.
Dessert: Apparently, there’s an entire underwater city developed strictly by octopi. It’s called Octlantis, natch.
It has been more than two years since Bree Newsome became a household name for climbing a 30-foot flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse and removing the Confederate flag. She knew jail would follow. However, Newsome, now 32, knew it was a task she had to do.
The mood in South Carolina at the time was bleak following the evening of June 17, 2015, when Dylann Roof gunned down nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The flag that Newsome removed was originally raised in 1961 as a statement of opposition to the civil rights movement. Many individuals have always hated what the flag represents.
In many communities, Newsome became a hero and her actions caused a domino effect. In August, two years after Newsome’s act, 22-year-old Takiya Thompson was arrested after helping to take down a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina. Thompson was charged with disorderly conduct by injury to a statue, damage to real property, participation in a riot with property damage in excess of $1,500 — and inciting others to riot where there is property damage in excess of $1,500, according to the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. This was following a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned deadly and prompted a call to action by many people for the removal of Confederate statues.
“I just see this shifting in the consciousness, and people just kind of reaching a point where we just can’t be quiet anymore, because I think there has been, in some ways, this belief that we keep ourselves quiet in order to survive,” Newsome said. “But staying quiet is also like its own form of death. I think people are just tired of living that form of death.”
Newsome is now a local organizer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and focusing on housing.
“We have a real affordable housing crisis going on in our city, as many cities around the country are,” Newsome said. “We have communities that were redlined in the late Sixties, that’s kind of when the cities drew, basically, lines around areas that were predominantly black that had been segregated. So, these are areas that were basically divested from, by the city and now they are prime real estate. So we have a lot of developers wanting to develop in this land, but the folks who have lived here for decades are not benefiting from it. So, housing remains an ongoing justice issue.”
Newsome says housing is a human right.
“A lot of times people say, well, it’s just a byproduct of development. But, it’s really important, again, to understand why,” Newsome said. “That’s obviously one of the basic things that we need in order to live. Then, it’s a justice issue, because we’re still very segregated. Segregation is not forced upon us anymore, it’s not part of the law, but we are still largely racially and economically segregated. How are we addressing any of these issues with wealth and with race if folks are being pushed out of their homes?”
Newsome’s father, Clarence G. Newsome, served as the dean of the Howard University School of Divinity and was the president of both Shaw University and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Her mother spent her career as an educator addressing the achievement gap. Newsome studied film at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts.
She spoke to The Undefeated about social justice, today’s battle for equality and her plans.
How do you feel about today’s racial climate?
What we are seeing today is kind of part of a pattern, I would say, in history. On one hand, I was born in ’85; in my lifetime it is maybe one of the most tense periods, racially, that I have experienced. But, when I look back over the history of America, it’s kind of part of a pattern where racial tensions kind of ebb and flow.
We’re integrating certain institutions. We obviously had the election of the nation’s first black president. Now what we’re seeing is, again, this period of racist backlash to that. But there is, kind of, this pattern of like, we make this progress forward and then there is this racist backlash. No, it’s not as bad, and I think if you talk to most folks, like my grandmother, my grandmother is 91 years old. When she saw on TV the police in Ferguson tear-gassing folks in their yard, she said, ‘It reminds me of the Ku Klux Klan.’ So, on one hand, yes, we’ve gone far, but clearly we haven’t gone far enough at all.
When I look at what is going on today, the main thing it says to me is that we cannot rest on our laurels. And that’s part of what spurred me toward becoming an activist in the first place, it was after the Trayvon Martin case.
What do you think about the protests for Colin Kaepernick?
I think that’s amazing. I support that. Two histories in America that I find really fascinating is the treatment of black veterans and the treatment of black athletes. … Even at the college level, there’s a real justice issue around the treatment of black athletes. They are clearly the majority, especially when you are talking about a sport like football. The majority of athletes are black men. They generate billions of dollars for this industry, not just in pro football, but also in college football. In many ways they are exploited. They are exploited physically. We see the kind of damage that is done physically to their bodies.
Part of what I think is really awesome about what is happening right now is there’s greater solidarity. In some ways, it’s bigger than the NFL. It’s about protesting for Colin Kaepernick to have a fair shot, but it’s also kind of bigger than that because it’s like, he has a right, as a human being, to speak. Especially to speak about a system that is killing us. When he’s out of uniform, and he’s off the field and he’s just driving down the street, he has just as much a chance of getting killed by the police as anybody else. I think that that is sometimes what people forget. They think just because a black man puts on a uniform and goes in to play football that he is supposed to disconnect from all the other realities of the nation in which he lives.
Do you recall the first thing you did as an activist?
I don’t know if you remember the Moral Monday movement that was happening here in North Carolina. That was organized by Reverend Barber and the North Carolina state chapter of NAACP. This was back in 2013. This was the same summer that George Zimmerman was acquitted. This is the same summer that the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. North Carolina just went H.A.M. on the voting issue. They hadn’t yet passed it, but they brought up this legislation, House Bill 589, and at first it was this five-page bill that focused on student voter ID. It said the students could no longer use their IDs to vote.
I go up to this Moral Monday protest about voting rights. At that time, I wasn’t considering myself an activist. I was very much aware of things that were going on. Literally overnight, between that Monday and the Tuesday, they sent the bill from the House to the Senate and they added almost 50 more pages to the bill. It was clear that they were targeting black people. They had things like ending Sunday voting.
That was the wake-up moment for me. I had always been socially and politically conscious, but I wasn’t the person out on the street protesting.
Why did you make the decision to fight for justice in North Carolina?
When I was about 2, my family moved up to Maryland. I grew up in Columbia, Maryland. I would spend all of my summers in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I live now. That’s where my grandmother is.
My grandmother would come stay with us during the school year and then I would come stay with her during the summer. Then my dad’s family is from eastern North Carolina, so the Carolinas have always been kind of like home. In a way, it’s kind of like my family home. It really wasn’t until I got back in the Raleigh-Durham area and Moral Monday was going on and I kind of connected with the folks there and I was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t go back to work now, this is too crazy.’
What has been the hardest part of your journey?
I think it’s always finding the balance. I would say, you know, in 2013 when I’m walking to the protest and I was like, ‘I can’t go back to anything, I’ve got to stay in the street.’ And I pretty much did, for like the next two years. Just protesting. I went up to Ohio when John Crawford was killed. I marched with the Ohio Student Association. I went down to Florida. We were just out protesting, just trying to raise this awareness around what was happening.
I was getting to a point where I’m exhausted. It’s traumatic. … When you ask me what has been the greatest challenge or struggle, I think it has been finding out how to sustain in this work. … How do we continue to support ourselves and do this important work? How do we balance life, and all these other things, because we’re out here fighting for our lives and there really is nothing that’s more important. But I know I reached a point where I was, like, you know, I have to live too.
Living is also resistance. If I’m out here killing myself, that’s not, at a certain point I’m no longer resisting. I have to thrive at the same time.
How would you describe your personal feelings after seeing what happened in Charlottesville?
The first word that’s coming to my mind is revelation. But I don’t know if that’s the right word. I’m trying to think of a word that is kind of revealing, because I feel like what happened with Charlottesville was, like, it was all there. All of that was there. But, it was kind of like Charlottesville was the moment that it could no longer be denied. … We’ve known for a while, we’ve known since 2008, at least. Because as soon as Obama was elected, you had a surge in white supremacist groups.
White supremacist groups have been out here organizing. They have been out here planning and connecting. And in a lot of ways folks are looking away.
So, when I think about Charlottesville, to me it was kind of ‘blatant.’ It was like that’s when America could no longer look away from what had been going on, cause here you had all of these white supremacist groups from around the nation organizing and converging on this city over this monument. And, the same way people kept saying, ‘Well, you know, does the monument really represent this, does the Confederate flag really represent that?’ People were really trying to still be kind of wishy-washy about it and it was like Charlottesville was the moment that they could no longer deny what had already been there. It’s not that Charlottesville was new. It’s that Charlottesville made plain what was already there.
How do you see your work in social justice?
The way I look at the work is two ways. One, I think we have system-facing work. There’s work where we are trying to dismantle a racist system. We have a system of white supremacy, and that’s one of the main things I speak about all the time is trying to get people to understand. Racism is not just prejudice. It’s not just, ‘I don’t like somebody because of the color of their skin.’ It’s a system that was designed. It’s an economy. It’s a social caste system that is built based upon, not just the color of a person’s skin, but African ancestry. It is built on the subjugation of people who are descended from Africans. So, I think there is system-facing work and then there is community-facing work. And I try to get people to see both ends. Because I think sometimes we think it’s either-or. Either we’re out here fighting white supremacy or we are doing work in the community. We’re trying to come out of 500 years of slavery.
My family was enslaved in South Carolina and North Carolina. So, I know the personal story of my family trying to come out of slavery. But as a people … that’s the work that we’re trying to do. It’s about economic freedom, it’s about mental freedom. It’s about having agency over ourselves. It’s about how do we break free of oppressive dynamics that we have internalized from the people who have oppressed us. … Sometimes I’m speaking to the system and then sometimes I’m just talking to my people.
Six years into a 21-year stay in a New York state prison, Colin Warner, the lead character of the new film Crown Heights, is writing a letter.
“Most prisoners know deep down they put themselves here,” he writes. “But I don’t have that comfort.”
Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, Crown Heights uses a 2005 This American Life episode as the basis for its story, charting Warner’s path from freedom to state-sanctioned captivity to freedom once again. The real-life story is harrowing: Brooklyn, New York, police badgered witnesses into falsely fingering Warner for a crime he didn’t commit, and prosecutors used the alternative facts squeezed from those compromised teenage witnesses to send an innocent man to prison for second-degree murder. Once there, he ended up spending more time behind bars than the man who actually committed the crime.
Transposed to a feature-length film, however, Warner’s story loses its gasp-worthy qualities. The film just isn’t biting enough to make Warner a mascot for the race-based injustice that pervades the American criminal justice system.
Instead, it’s a series of prison tropes held together with flashbacks and news clips of American presidents espousing how tough they are on crime. We see Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) struggle to comprehend the loss of agency over his own body as he’s checked into prison, and how he discovers every friendly gesture from a fellow prisoner carries a price. Crown Heights follows Warner’s life from the day he was arrested in 1980 until the day he’s finally released but does little to advance the narrative that black men are systematically victimized by mass incarceration.
Perhaps that’s because Warner, who is West Indian, doesn’t connect his plight with that of American-born black men. If that’s the case, Crown Heights doesn’t effectively communicate that point, and the clearest indication that it’s trying to is the one line from Warner’s letter about prisoners knowing that they put themselves upstate.
We see Warner enter a relationship with a woman, Antoinette (Natalie Paul), whom he eventually marries while imprisoned. But lost are the details that would illustrate how their relationship went from platonic to sexual. Why does Antoinette like Colin so much? What does she feel about him, aside from anguish and pity about his imprisonment? It’s almost impossible to say, because we don’t see it. What’s missing are the small, intimate events of daily life that can slow a film down but are necessary for viewers to connect with its characters.
Former NFL defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha, husband of actress Kerry Washington, co-stars as Carl King, Warner’s friend who never stops working to exonerate him. We see King’s wife get frustrated that King is dedicating so many resources to freeing his friend that he stops paying attention to his own family. But it’s tough to get a sense of how all of these figures are coping with their lots. In the course of making too many safe choices, Crown Heights ends up not saying much at all.
As with previous roles in Short Term 12 and Get Out, much of what Stanfield brings to the screen he communicates through his eyes. Stanfield’s presence introduces a sense of calm and introspection when everything around him is clearly unstable, but Asomugha doesn’t provide enough of a contrast for Stanfield’s quiet suffering.
The story of Colin Warner is a tale of someone’s humanity being disregarded and discarded. Yet Crown Heights fails to push past that initial hook to communicate much else. The inclusion of Clinton, Bush and Reagan is a start, but Ruskin fails to connect their tough-on-crime policies to Warner’s life. In the film’s last political interlude, when the audience has been primed to expect to see the face of George H. W. Bush, Ruskin uses footage of New York Gov. George Pataki instead. This decision only muddles the message. Are these powerful white men responsible for Warner’s imprisonment, or are they mile markers for the time he’s served? Or both?
There are few conclusions to draw from the film aside from “wrongful imprisonment is bad” — and, well, that should be obvious. It’s a shame that beyond that, Crown Heights doesn’t have a whole lot to say.