Animated short ‘Hair Love’ to show the bond between fathers and daughters Filmmaker Matthew Cherry wants to help ‘normalize’ black fathers

Matthew Cherry’s evolution has taken him from the football field to a stint as a production assistant to music videos. Now, his résumé includes a heartwarming short film in production called Hair Love.

Cherry said the idea for the film came from watching viral videos of fathers interacting with their daughters. In particular, he focused on ones that showed fathers combing their daughters’ hair, which can be both a chore and a bonding experience.

His five-minute animated film is about the relationship between an African-American father, Stephen, his daughter, Zuri, and her hair. Although Stephen has long locks, he is used to his wife doing his daughter’s hair. When she is unavailable right before a big event, Stephen has to figure it out and concludes that Zuri’s hair has a mind of its own.

Cherry said the “story was born out of seeing a lack of representation in mainstream animated projects, and also wanting to promote hair love amongst young men and women of color. It is our hope that this project will inspire.” He took to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to fund the film. His initial goal was $75,000. To date he has raised almost $252,000, making Hair Love the best-funded short film in the history of Kickstarter.

Cherry, 35, is a former college wide receiver. In his four-year career at the University of Akron, he finished with nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. After college, he played for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens. In 2007, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment, landing work as a production assistant.

“I was just Matt the PA, and I was here to work,” Cherry said. “I was here to learn and work the game from the ground up, and that’s how I kind of got my foot in the door.”

He has worked on more than 40 commercials and was a director for more than 20 music videos for singers and entertainers such as Michelle Williams, Tweet, Jazmine Sullivan, Lalah Hathaway, Kindred The Family Soul, Snoop Dogg, The Foreign Exchange, Bilal, N’Dambi, Maysa Leak, Dwele, Najee, K’Jon and Take 6.

Cherry’s film The Last Fall received awards at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) for Best Screenplay and Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF) for the HBO Best Feature Film Award. After a limited theatrical release, it made its television premiere on BET in December 2012 and is currently streaming on Netflix and Hulu. He recently released a short film, Forward, which premiered on Ebony.com. He also writes and directs the award-winning web series Almost 30 and Almost Home.

Cherry has one sister (visual artist Caitlin Cherry) and grew up on the northwest side of Chicago.

“Sports was a big part of both of our lives growing up,” he said. “I played baseball ever since I was 5. Football ever since I was 6. Played three sports in high school. Had a full scholarship for football in college. … My existence was very much kind of tied into sports growing up.”

Cherry spoke with The Undefeated about his transition out of football, positive representation of black fathers in the media and normalizing black families.


What was your inspiration for Hair Love?

The biggest, and I think the most important, is just we’re seeing a big lack of representation in that computer-generated, animated world.

We really haven’t seen a lot black characters in that space. Bebe’s Kids was the first animated feature film directed by a black director. That came out in 1992; 25th anniversary was a couple of days ago. Peter Ramsey was the first African-American director to direct a CGI [computer-generated imagery] animated film. That was like two or three years ago, Rise of the Guardians. I think in between that time, there’s really only been those two black directors that have done like a full-length feature film in the animated space.

So we only really have had in recent years maybe four or five examples of full-length feature films that really tell our story. But a lot of times you don’t really see the whole, full family dynamic, particularly in these computer-generated feature films. The biggest thing for me is just like really seeing that lack of a presentation. … I don’t have kids myself right now, but got a serious girlfriend, and one day we’re going to get married and be having kids, and I really wanted to make sure that when I did have kids that they had a character that they could relate to.

When you look at mainstream media, and you see all the images, black hair isn’t made out to be the norm. It’s not meant to be the standard of beauty. We have a very Eurocentric standard of beauty in America, and if you watch TV, if you pick up a magazine, if you look at different things, you’re not going to see yourself represented. … You don’t see your curly, kinky hair on these different models, on these different actors and actresses, on these different music videos, etc. It can really do damage to your self-confidence and how you perceive yourself.

That’s why my biggest thing with this project, first and foremost, was just to really hopefully have some characters that were human, that showed black families in a complex but also simple manner, and just have characters that people can relate to but then try to help increase that diversity in the animation world, because representation is everything. I think my biggest thing is if a little girl can see Zuri or see Stephen, and see themselves represented, if it makes them feel better about themselves, to me, mission accomplished.

Who did you consult with about dads, daughters and hair?

I’ve actually had this idea for a couple years. I always thought it would be cute to do a story about a dad trying to do his daughter’s hair. I’ve seen a lot of kind of online videos, and my main dad friends who have kids, they’re always posting pictures and videos online of their failed attempts of trying to do their son’s and daughter’s hair, and just always thought that that would be a really cool angle to hit, particularly because the whole black father angle. I think, again, in mainstream media, we’re really nonexistent.

We look at a lot of these movies and TV shows, they always depict black dads as deadbeats, nonexistent, abusive. These fathers, they’re getting girls pregnant, running off, that whole thing, and while obviously in every race, every group, you have that negativity, but it’s always made out in the black community like that’s just all black men are. We just are deadbeat dads. We’re not in our kids’ lives.

So for me it was just really important to normalize black fathers, normalize black families. And really I think in starring a young black father and his daughter, I think that would just do wonders to kind of help normalize those images, because it’s important.

What’s been the most difficult part of moving from football to filmmaking?

The most difficult part of my journey is feeling like you have to constantly create your own opportunities. Like, to this day, nobody’s ever hired me for anything. All my opportunities have been self-generated in some fashion. Outside the music video world, from feature films to short films, it’s all been stuff that I either created with some friends or I created on my own, and sometimes it gets frustrating because you feel like, ‘I made this. This premiered at a major festival. Help me.’

Help me get to the next level. I did the work. I followed the blueprint. I did everything that they say you’re supposed to do in order to have somebody help you get to the next level. …

You make all these sacrifices like putting your mom’s life insurance money into the making of your first movie. It comes out, hey, you get a little bit of press, but nobody hires you. Damn. OK. You go away for a couple years. You do random things to kind of stay alive. Then my second feature film, 9 Rides. We shoot it on iPhones and that’s the thing that gets you noticed and gets you an agent and then you realize that all the work you and your team put in mattered after all.

They’ve seen us doing the short films for no budget. They’ve seen us doing the music videos. They’ve seen us doing these feature films and all this other stuff, so. I think the biggest, most difficult part of the journey has just been having to continuously create your own opportunities to kind of continue to put yourself in the game, and I think that there’s a lesson in that, in that you can’t predict what’s going to be the thing that hits, or is going to be the thing that helps put you on. You’ve just got to keep working, keep grinding, and eventually something’s going to hit, or eventually someone’s going to help.

Do you miss football?

Not at all. Not in the least. No, I don’t, especially with all this news about what’s been going on with players’ heads and CTE. I’m actually glad that I didn’t play too long. People have been playing since they were 5 years old, too. You know what I mean? Between Pop Warner, high school, college, you might have your five or 10 years in the league, but if you’re 25 you might have played for 20 years.

How did you prepare for your career after sports?

I studied radio, TV, broadcast and media production in college. I interned at a lot of radio stations, and I was the music director at my college radio station at the University of Akron. I interned up at the Cleveland radio stations, KISS and then on WENZ. And so I would always be kind of dabbling in production, but more of an audio-radio side, and it was something I was really interested in. I loved cutting promos, loved working with all these other kind of post-production programs, and I kind of knew even in college that whenever I got done playing ball I’d either be working in radio or some level of entertainment on the production side of things.

I signed as an undrafted free agent. My rookie year with the Jacksonville Jaguars, I knew after training camp, I was like, “Yeah. I’ve got to get my plan B together,” because it was just so political. When you come in as an undrafted free agent it’s like being a walk-on, so all these things have to happen that are outside of your control in order for you to make it. Guys will generally have to get hurt or traded and all these other things. It’s not really about how you perform, necessarily. It’s about, ‘OK, can you justify putting this guy in over the guy we’re paying millions of dollars?’

And I knew literally in training camp like, ‘Yeah. This is kind of unfair. I’m doing my thing, but I’m still not getting rewarded for it on the field.’ I actually got cut during training camp, and then they re-signed me to the practice squad. That’s how they do it, and I learned when I first got cut by just feeling there was nothing more I could have done. I felt like I balled out. I did everything that I should have done to be able to make the regular team, and it didn’t happen for me.

What’s up next after Hair Love?

This has all been a roller-coaster ride. The biggest thing for me is just really trying to just continue to do projects that are personal to me. Things that I really love. We hope to be able to use the characters from Hair Love and turn it into a feature film

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

‘Whose Streets?’ pushes back on what we think we know about Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri New documentary is a potent combination of social and media criticism

Deep into Whose Streets?, the new documentary about Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown, there’s footage of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Brown, giving an interview to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

“You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you,” Wilson tells him. At the screening I attended, there was an audible mix of gasps and laughter from the audience.

Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis spent much of the film’s run time up to that point establishing just how much racism lurked within the Ferguson Police Department and the city government. A 2015 report from the Justice Department established that Ferguson provided about as clear an illustration of institutionalized racism as could possibly exist: The city not only targeted black residents for tickets and arrests they couldn’t afford, it was also using the revenue from such stops to fund the nearly all-white police force. The court clerk, police captain and police sergeant were all implicated in sending and receiving racist emails, including one that compared President Barack Obama to a monkey.

Protester Brittany Ferrell hoists a bullhorn as her daughter hugs her in a scene from ‘Whose Streets?’

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

And yet here was Wilson telling a national television audience that racism was anathema to policing.

Whose Streets? arrives in theaters Aug. 11, marking the third anniversary of Brown’s death (Aug. 9, 2014) and the uprisings that followed it. It’s a deeply moving work, and the passion of both the filmmakers and their subjects is palpable. “FYI I was literally homeless throughout the first year of production. Worked as a canvasser and put money back into the film,” Folayan, an activist, theater geek and former advocate for prisoners at Rikers Island, tweeted recently. Davis is an interdisciplinary artist whose work is currently featured in the permanent collection at the Blacksonian (aka, the National Museum of African American History and Culture).

The focus of Whose Streets? is the residents of Ferguson and St. Louis who keep marching and screaming for justice till they’re hoarse, who keep agitating long after the national media has turned its attention elsewhere. It establishes the movement for black lives in Ferguson as one driven by young people such as rapper Tef Poe, who are fed up with being targeted by police, and others like organizer Brittany Ferrell and her partner, Alexis Templeton, as well as Copwatch recruiter David Whitt, who want better for their children.

Whose Streets? is likely to serve as a counterweight to Detroit, the new Kathryn Bigelow film about the 1967 Detroit riots and the police murder of three unarmed black people at the Algiers Hotel. It’s not necessarily fair to compare narrative films like Detroit to documentaries, but there’s a similarity in the dynamic between the two that existed with Nina and What Happened, Miss Simone? Both Whose Streets? and What Happened, Miss Simone? end up correcting, or at least augmenting, the record of ahistorical narrative films that struggle with details in which race is central.

Nina made the mistake of casting Zoe Saldana as Simone, then putting her in makeup to darken her skin and prosthetics to make her facial features more closely resemble Simone’s. Detroit fails to imbue its characters with any depth or humanity and devolves into a slog of racist white police officers terrorizing a group of people in the Algiers.

Bigelow’s herky-jerky camerawork and editing in Detroit deliberately create a sense of chaos. Whose Streets?, by contrast, presents real footage of Ferguson buildings in flames after Brown’s death, but the overall effect is far more nuanced. It’s much easier to get a sense of what happened in Ferguson as pockets of violence and property damage pockmarked peaceful, if emotional, protests. Whose Streets? refuses to equate property damage with the loss of human life.

Folayan and Davis offer a potent work of media criticism too. Folayan and Davis communicate just how much cable news, by repeatedly and selectively broadcasting the most violent, hectic footage, was responsible for making Ferguson seem like a war zone whose residents were animalistic and out of control. That narrative was furthered by a distant, largely white media corps accepting police reports as gospel. Whose Streets? challenges that by juxtaposing footage of Ferrell and her cohorts protesting to shut down a highway in Missouri with the official police account of what happened, in which the arresting officer accused Ferrell of yelling out “tribal chants.”

For a moment, we also see what it means to send black journalists into a situation like Ferguson, where police in tanks and armored vehicles are shooting rubber bullets, smoke grenades and tear gas (a chemical agent that the Geneva Convention prohibits in warfare) at the city’s black residents. There’s a clip of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Ernie Suggs walking through Ferguson at night with his hands above his head as police bark orders at black protesters. The police draw no distinction. He’s black, so he might as well be one of them.

Brittany Ferrell leads a line of protesters as they face off with police in ‘Whose Streets?’

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The film gives voice to a community that’s reeling, mournful and frustrated. It has little faith in a government that’s failed it repeatedly. Spliced with footage of white public officials delivering statements that are often canned and worded to avoid legal liability, Whose Streets? brings the idea of two Americas, and two wholly different realities, to life. “Question normal,” it demands of its audience.

Despite the gravity of its subject matter, Whose Streets? has moments of dark levity. One interview follows a clip of President Obama giving a statement about Brown in his trademark style of measured reason.

“I’m waiting on me to have a black president. I still ain’t had me one,” a Ferguson resident named Tory says. “Wasn’t he a constitutional professor? Ain’t no constitution in Ferguson. Tell that n—- he need to teach a new class or bring his a– to Ferguson … and figure out why we ain’t got no constitution.”

Whose Streets? is understandably close in spirit to The Hate U Give, the best-selling young adult novel by Angie Thomas published earlier this year. The Hate U Give is told from the perspective of a teenage girl who is the sole witness as her unarmed best friend is shot and killed by a white police officer. The book, which is heavily influenced by Ferguson, is slated for a film adaptation starring Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby and Lamar Johnson. It’s early days yet, but I suspect that the film version of The Hate U Give and Whose Streets? will serve as cinematic bookends to understanding what black people went through in Ferguson before and after Brown’s death.

The documentary ends on a hopeful note, but no one in Whose Streets? is a Pollyanna, least of all Ferrell. She’s open about the fact that she’s taking prescription medication to treat anxiety and says she’s not sure the justice she and her partner are seeking will come in their lifetimes. They’re counting on another generation of troublemakers and revolutionaries to carry on. They’re raising one in their elementary-school-aged daughter McKenzie, seen in the film with her mothers leading a crowd and screaming as loud as she can, “WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS!”

South Carolina church shooting survivors support filmmaker’s new project exploring similar experience La Trycee Fowler is bringing to light what happens to survivors after tragedy

Two years ago, Dylann Roof opened fire at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing the pastor, Clementa Pinckney, and eight members during an open Bible study.

The aftermath for the family members has been an overwhelming and difficult journey. Like many tragedies, life goes on for the rest of the world, but it brings an entirely new meaning to life for those affected. One independent filmmaker is depicting a similar tragedy in her new project, Broken, and it has the support of family members of the South Carolina shooting victims.

La Trycee Fowler, writes, produces and stars in the film. According to a press release, Broken follows the lives of two children in a small Southern Mississippi town who witness a massacre at their church, leaving one of them orphaned. The film tells a visually captivating story of how they are coping with the tragedy 10 years later and what happens after an unexpected run-in with the murderer. Ray, once a happy, playful child, has become bitter and angry with the world. Nori has vivid recurring nightmares and physically finds herself frozen in terror after awakening from them. As the sole survivors from that day, they only have each other. A fateful face-to-face encounter with one of the murderers causes all involved to remain “Broken.”

“I wrote this film because I wondered what effects something like this would have on society,” Fowler said. “How does such a hate-filled, senseless act affect the lives of those left behind? My goal is to use the film to start a dialogue about hate as a cancer in our society, in the hopes of people realizing that our actions cause a ripple effect not only in others’ lives, but in our own lives as well.”

The family of Ethel Lance, a victim of the AME shooting, said the “film should be introduced at the high school level as a teaching tool to think before you act.”

Bethane Middleton-Brown, whose sister, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, was killed in the shooting, said, “I don’t want the world to ever forget the Emanuel 9. … There are a lot of broken hearts that need to be healed, a lot of stories that need to be told. … I want mine to encourage people to love, and love monetarily by giving, because that’s what it’s going to take to help others.”

Fowler has started a HatchFund campaign to raise money for the film set to begin production on Aug. 31 in Virginia. The Dale City, Virginia, native is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a concentration in pre-medicine. She relocated to Hollywood, California, shortly after graduation to pursue a film career. She created, directed and produced a web series, Hope, that was an Official Selection for the 2012 Los Angeles Web SeriesFestival and won Outstanding Ensemble Cast and Outstanding Drama.

‘Queen Sugar’s’ second season explores a fraught mix of family and historical legacy Halfway through season two, we’re wondering what happens when the Bordelons fight back

Family legacy and the legacy of race in the South are the compelling — and intermingling — themes midway through the second season of Queen Sugar.

That’s an ambitious load, especially considering a series of adjustments for the widely lauded OWN drama: There’s a new showrunner in Monica Macer to free up day-to-day obligations for executive producer Ava DuVernay. And the show is now wandering farther away from the Natalie Baszile novel that inspired it.

Last week’s episode gave us one big startling revelation, but there’s plenty of unresolved conflict still simmering. So far, we’ve witnessed Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) powering through some serious upheaval. She’s divorcing her husband, she’s opened the first black-owned mill in the fictional St. Josephine’s Parish, and she’s struggling to help her teenage son, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe), after a harrowing encounter with a police officer. Meanwhile, her sister Nova (Rutina Wesley) is second-guessing how much their late father accepted her decision to eschew a husband and children to throw herself into journalism. Their brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), has been desperately trying to grasp some independence for himself now that he and the rest of the family know their father, Earnest, intended to leave the Bordelon farm solely to him, thanks to a letter Earnest left that contradicts his will.

Alfonso Bresciani/ ©2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment

On its face, it’s easy to identify how Queen Sugar is wrestling with ideas of legacy. In the wake of Earnest’s death, Charley poured her energy into opening the Queen Sugar mill as a way to honor him. But that’s a bit of a ruse. After Ralph Angel confronts the family with Earnest’s letter, which leaves the family farm entirely to him rather than split between the three siblings, Charley is reeling. She tells a magazine reporter profiling her that she honestly doesn’t know what Earnest would think of her efforts. Opening the mill has provided Charley with an escape from having to deal with her divorce, her son’s post-traumatic stress disorder and her burgeoning relationship with Remy Newell (Dondre Whitfield).

There’s another legacy Queen Sugar is examining, one that’s less obvious than the land and independence Earnest left his family and far more compelling. Remember, the Bordelon farmland used to belong to a white family, the Landrys, who are eager to buy it back. The Bordelon ancestors used to belong to the Landrys too. DuVernay uses the antebellum connection between the two families to explore legacies of slavery, racial terrorism and emotional violence wrought against black people in Louisiana. Since it debuted, Queen Sugar has repeatedly revisited the concept of invasion into black spaces, whether it’s the repo man who comes to take Earnest’s tractor, police coming to search Bordelon property at night, or showing up again to question the ownership of a rifle, which Ralph Angel can’t have because he’s been convicted of a crime, or Landry deploying a drone to the Bordelon farm.

The Landrys and law enforcement are the two most obvious remnants of the Jim Crow-era South. That’s why the scenes of hostile white people showing up to Bordelon land to take something that’s not theirs — either people, property or both — engender the same feelings of panic and tension you get from watching night riders or the Klan accosting black people on TV and film.

Skip Bolen / @2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved

The feud with the Landrys is fertile ground, and not just because of the echoes of racial implications that still ring true in Louisiana today. The parts of the show that set me most on edge are the ones with Samuel Landry (David Jensen), even as the two-dimensional villain he is. Because of the enormous wealth the Landrys possess, they effectively control the St. Jo’s sugar market. With the only mill in the parish, they have a monopoly on grinding cane, and they use that monopoly to financially subjugate the area’s black farmers.

Charley and the Queen Sugar mill hold out the promise of a better deal for the farmers. Landry doesn’t take it well and deploys a drone to spy on the Bordelon farm. Ralph Angel discovered it when it crashed into his young son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison). The scene was deeply unnerving, both because of Blue’s already-established vulnerability and because the drone’s presence was such a contumelious intrusion of privacy. It was such an effective disruption of the calm, quiet and relative safety that rural living can provide that I wondered if it was fair to designate its use a form of high-tech terrorism. Who needs white hoods and burning crosses when you’ve got unmanned cameras and a private prison system eager to make money off the missteps of black people?

Ralph Angel’s status as a parolee continues to hang over his head — one wrong move and he’s back in prison, a weakness Landry is happy to exploit. For now he’s safe, but I have a feeling the second half of the season will get even more difficult for Ralph Angel.

But perhaps nothing is as awful as the revelation of what happened to Micah after a police officer pulled him over as he was driving his new Porsche.

In a gut-wrenching eighth-episode scene with his father, Davis (Timon Kyle Durrett), Micah reveals that the officer who stopped him didn’t take him directly to the parish lockup. Instead, he drove past it, pulled into a darkened alley, forced the barrel of his gun into Micah’s mouth and pulled the trigger.

Micah left jail without so much as a scratch on his body, but he was so shaken by the experience that he’s barely been recognizable to his parents since he was arrested. That’s how Queen Sugar examines a legacy of emotional violence and terrorism. The white people of St. Josephine’s Parish like their power, and they don’t want to let it go. But they’re smart, too, and their relationship to the black people of the parish can resemble that of an abuser toying with a victim. Sometimes it’s enough to simply flex the power that you have to send someone’s life off course, without ever firing a bullet. That’s something that the Landrys and the officer who arrested Micah know and are happy to exploit.

The midpoint of season two leaves us wondering: What happens when the Bordelons fight back?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did you major in?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Milk + Honey about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are films like ‘Step’ inspiring or are they inner-city uplift porn? Maybe they’re both

After seeing Step, the new documentary about a step team at a girls charter school in Baltimore, two things happened:

  1. When I walked out of the darkened theater and into the light of day with the other people at the screening, everyone’s eyes were wet, including my own.
  2. I immediately wondered if what I’d seen was well-crafted inner-city uplift porn.

Step, the first feature-length documentary from director Amanda Lipitz, a Broadway producer whose credits include Legally Blonde the Musical, follows the journey of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW, pronounced “bliss”). Most of the girls in the film are seniors, and this is their last chance to win a competition in the midst of typical senior-year concerns, in particular, getting into college.

Their lives are set against a backdrop of hardship: poverty, hunger, the threat of police violence, and parents who aren’t or can’t be as involved as would be ideal. But thanks to their determination and hard work, and constant prodding from coach Gari McIntyre (known in the film as Coach G) and college counselor Paula Dofat, the girls not only persist, they all are accepted into college.

It reminded me of a scene from Primary Colors, the 1998 film based on Joe Klein’s roman à clef about the first Clinton presidential campaign.

In the scene, Gov. Jack Stanton (John Travolta) tells his wife, Susan (Emma Thompson), about an adult literacy program that he encountered on the campaign trail. The program’s home is in the library of a rundown, graffiti-covered, underfunded school in New York.

“Honey, this was so great today, this reading program,” the governor says. “You shoulda seen the people. And the teacher — well. She was just inspirational.”

“Give me a break,” Susan responds. “Tell me how good the curriculum was, not the teacher. We can replicate a good curriculum.”

The scene gets at the crux of the issue with films, both narrative and documentary, such as Step, Dope, Dangerous Minds, All the Difference, and Check It. Such stories rely on individuals, in this case, McIntyre, Dofat and the step team members, to get an audience to pay attention to issues that are far bigger in scope. In the scene from Primary Colors, failing public schools and social promotion created the need for such a literacy program in the first place. In Step, there are larger issues that created the problems the BLSYW girls face, among them housing discrimination, the racial wealth gap, the resegregation of public schools, and unjust allocation of public resources.

So what purpose does a film like Step serve? Lipitz, a graduate of the Park School of Baltimore, where yearly tuition can run as high as $29,620, was inspired by the success of a similar girls leadership school in Queens, New York, with a 100 percent graduation rate. Her mother founded BLSYW on Lipitz’s suggestion and chairs its board.

I asked Lipitz if she worried that the success McIntyre and Dofat were able to achieve would lull audiences into a false sense of security. It’s easy to believe that these women have found a way to solve these larger problems so that the rest of us don’t need to focus on them quite so much.

“I didn’t worry about that,” Lipitz said. “ ‘Cause I think they’re so inspiring that you’re like, ‘I want to go do what Coach G does.’ I feel like they inspire you to get up and move and do something about it. Mentor someone, take interest in someone. I think they inspire people to do that.”

She’s not wrong. There’s tremendous value in films that aim to uplift. That’s what made the Stantons such an effective team: Theirs was a marriage of both pragmatism and inspiration. But it’s a challenge to find films that accomplish both, and frankly, films that skew more toward policy usually end up on public television, not the big screen. Because it’s so hard to make compelling films about policy — Ava DuVernay’s 13th is a notable exception — we end up with a glut of films that are high on uplift and short on the nitty-gritty.

Step doesn’t ignore these larger social issues — McIntyre mentions that she lives on the same street where Freddie Gray was killed. But there’s an underlying message that personal responsibility, hard work, and school personnel so dedicated they qualify for beatification are enough to circumvent the consequences of being born poor, black, and female in a country that’s systematically hostile to people who are poor, black, and female.

In Jack Stanton’s story, it’s the inspiring teacher who’s the savior. Susan Stanton gets at something more practical and less sexy: You can’t scale an inspirational teacher. You need a curriculum. Step illustrates just how important women such as Dofat and McIntyre are, but they’re not enough. We have to fix the problems that make them so invaluable.

Working as an educator in public schools is not easy. Dofat, 50, has been working as a college counselor for 17 years. There’s an emotional scene in Step where she tearfully pleads with two college administrators to take one of her students. She’s afraid that if they don’t, the girl’s life will essentially be ruined. I asked Dofat what kept her from burning out.

“Faith,” she answered. But she also told me about the need to separate guidance counseling from college counseling to achieve more effective results. Public schools that serve poor, majority-minority populations need enough resources to hire some counselors who focus solely on social and emotional issues, and others who focus on getting kids into college, Dofat said. Most schools employ counselors who are responsible for all of it, and therefore are often overwhelmed.

Changes like those Dofat recommends could have huge implications in steering students away from the for-profit certificate and diploma mills that disproportionately target students who are poor, female, and ethnic minorities, saddling them with worthless degrees and debt they often cannot repay.

But wonkier points like that get obscured by Step’s feel-good inspiration. The film recently won the audience award at AFI Docs Film Festival and got a loving reception at Sundance earlier this year. Ultimately, public education should be the responsibility of everyone in a community. It is a public good that only works well when affluent white parents are not scared to send their children to school with poor black children and when they recognize that everyone deserves the same chances and the same resources.

McIntyre began working as a step coach and logistics coordinator at BLSYW in 2015. She went to Milford Mill Academy, part of Baltimore County Public Schools, and eventually graduated from Coppin State after initially dropping out. She’s no stranger to the hardships many of the BLSYW girls face.

“I did have a very rough time with completing high school, because I was more focused on social and creative outlets,” McIntyre said. “I graduated with a 1.8 GPA. I barely went to school, because I felt like the teachers were not challenging me, and I didn’t need to go to school. I would go to school and get A’s on tests and quizzes, but I would never prepare for anything. So, I had the ability, I had to think and had to focus, and I really felt that the teachers were not challenging me or catering to me in the way that I felt that I needed to learn.”

But even more teachers who cared wouldn’t have been enough, she said.

“There are problems that are on a way bigger scale, based off of the way our country votes,” McIntyre said. “Decisions that are based in racial and gender bias, housing discrimination, and there being actual laws that are legally segregating communities, and determining who gets resources and who doesn’t, and that’s not by mistake.

“I think that it’s clear what type of people they want to be successful. It shows grit when a little black girl like Cori [Grainger, a BLSYW senior], who never even thought that she would be Johns Hopkins material, not only makes it in Johns Hopkins, but then graduates and does well. … I think that specifically [when others look at] African-American communities, people truly believe that we want to be impoverished and in violence. Poverty is not what you see in Third World countries in the United States. The poverty is sometimes not knowing where your next meal is going to come from, or being on government assistance, or being a victim to the failed mental health system, or health care system in the United States. … So, I do think that these are way bigger issues, that people are seeing on a smaller level.”

Step is the story of young girls who are beating the odds. After seeing it, I hope audiences remember these girls never should have had to face such odds in the first place.

Idris Elba talks ‘The Dark Tower,’ Mayweather vs. McGregor, Usain Bolt — and Pelé Even with a resume that includes ‘The Wire’ and playing Beyoncé‘s husband, an underdog mentality keeps him motivated

It’s media day for Idris Elba: 48 hours before the release of his newest film, an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Elba takes on the role of Roland Deschain (The Gunslinger) as he battles Matthew McConaughey as Walter O’Dim (The Man In Black) for the safety of the universe. Elba is genuinely excited, but admitted he knew very little about King’s eight-part, 4,250-page magnum opus when he first read the script. In fact, he hadn’t read a single page.

“It hadn’t piqued my interest,” he said. “But as soon as I got invited to the script, I was intrigued. I looked at all the iconography, thinking, ‘That ain’t me!’ ” He lets out a laugh from the pit of his stomach. “I’m reading the script like I’m the Man In Black, right? No, no, no. You’re The Gunslinger.”

Besides his title role in the BBC’s acclaimed series, Luther, for which he won a Golden Globe after being nominated five times for a variety of roles, Elba’s appeared in Prometheus, Finding Dory (2016), Beasts of No Nation (2015), Pacific Rim (2013), Thor (2011), and Takers (2010). He had a recurring role on the landmark series The Office, and starred with Beyoncé in 2009’s Obsessed. There were also many rumors about him becoming the next James Bond — Elba’s no stranger to diversity in his character portfolio.

But for many, the 45-year-old London-born superstar’s most lauded role will forever remain the shrewd, vindictive drug capo Stringer Bell in HBO’s Baltimore gospel The Wire.

He says that he works best when he feels a bit of an underdog.

“I grew up in a time where the complexion I have was not favored,” said Elba. “Lighter-skinned actors were favored in these roles. I’m used to being the underdog.” Could King’s character look like Elba? A black guy? The doubt was motivation for Elba. “I don’t really listen to it,” he said. “I’ll always go for the guy who has to work harder to get there. That’s pretty much been my journey.” (King has sung the praises of Elba’s work as The Gunslinger. He sees it as nothing short of incredible.)

In an ideal world for Elba, The Dark Tower is the beginning of what becomes a series — like The Lord of the Rings. There’s so much of King’s opus to be told that can’t be whittled down to a two-hour movie. But he’s also excited to talk about Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor’s upcoming fight, his fave athletes, and how certain streaming apps please the music nerd in him.

Favorite athlete of all time.

My favorite athlete was/is Pelé.

Exceptional choice. But why Pelé?

Phenomenal footballer. One of the greatest that’s ever did it.

“I’m a competitive person. I love to fight. I have a pain threshold.”

Favorite current athlete?

Usain Bolt, at this point.

I know you’re a big music fan. Are you #TeamTidal, #TeamSpotify or #TeamAppleMusic?

I use Tidal and Apple Music. I think they’re both great. I find Tidal interesting in terms of the accessibility to the footnotes and album credits. That’s something I like. I’m bit of a nerd. I like to see who wrote stuff and produced it. I find Tidal a lot more accessible in that sense. I think Apple Music is a great service all around. It works almost everywhere in the world. I like that.

To train for The Dark Tower, you trained in both boxing and mixed martial arts.

The best I’ve been in physical and mental health, the time my body works the best, is when I train. I’m a competitive person. I love to fight. I have a pain threshold. I consider myself alive as long as I’m able to go somewhere and hit a bag.

“I grew up in a time where the complexion I have was not favored.”

How do you think Mayweather-McGregor will play out later this month?

Floyd Mayweather has a challenge on his hands. He’s fighting someone at the peak of his career who’s a very agile mixed martial artist. I believe that there is a real chance of McGregor not penetrating the impenetrable Floyd Mayweather as a boxer. But penetrating his composure as a fighter.

So you’re giving McGregor a legit shot?

Listen, Floyd Mayweather’s camp is like, ‘Yo, man. How you gon’ say that?’ (Laughs.) But I never said he was gonna get beat. But there’s a chance that McGregor can lay one on him. And if he does that, he’s such a fast striker that he will continue to do it. Conor McGregor has nothing to lose. Floyd Mayweather has an impeccable 49-0 career to lose. So Conor McGregor’s coming in to fight and Floyd is gonna have to box because that’s what he knows. When you’re a mixed martial artist, you have certain agility that does a couple of things. One, boxers move slightly different when you’re being struck. And two, it gets annoying. Your composure goes in a different way because of the way kickboxers move. Now he’s not allowed to kick. He’s gonna have to box, but it’s about the agility. It’s about the striking, about how quickly they strike and the tempos. There are all sorts of things that I think Floyd needs to be very, very careful of. That’s just my opinion.

Oscar winner Halle Berry talks Prince, Bruno Mars — and having no regrets, ‘not a one’ The star of ‘Kidnap’ took on her new role to prove a point

Two years ago, Halle Berry — perhaps the best known black female actor of our time — sat on a dais at Comic-Con and talked about how challenging it was for her to secure roles as a 40-something black woman in Hollywood. Halle Berry said that. She of great beauty. And of great achievement: the speech Berry gave on the occasion of her historic 2002 Oscar win for the emotionally complex Monster’s Ball has more than 4 million views. And she of great superhero badassery. Halle Berry struggles to get Hollywood to see her.

“It’s a different landscape for men when they age,” she says now. “Men somehow get better, and women just get older. It’s part of the stereotype, right? I think my mission … now is to try to dispel those images and those stereotypes … And also to personify that as women get older, we get better, too. With our age comes confidence, comes assurance about our craft. We want to tell stories that we really want to tell.”

This week, Berry is turning a Hollywood trope on its head. She’s starring in the new feature film Kidnap, as a mother fighting — literally, and physically — to get her child back. Berry resonates with movie magic and can save the day while she’s at it.

This role is one that real-life mom Berry is primed to tell. “Being a mother now of two children … I’ve always known … if you put a mother’s child in danger, she’ll become a lioness, ferocious and fierce. I’ve always known the heart of a woman, the heart of a mother,” she said. “So, when the script came my way, I just felt … what I’ve been through — on many different personal journeys — I just knew that this was something I needed to express. And I thought it was time for women — men always save the day. It takes me back to Taken with Liam Neeson, a movie I absolutely love. I thought, Why can’t a woman do that?”

Berry chats about the real-life woman who saved her, why she’ll always champion black lives and women and why you’ll never — ever – get her to do karaoke.

Who is your childhood hero?

My fifth-grade teacher Yvonne Sims. She was my hero then, she’s my hero now. She’s the godmother to my children. She is like a mother figure, but also like the best friend you could ever have. I was so lucky that she found me in the fifth grade. I was at a crossroads. There was a lot of drama and turmoil in my family. She came along and just like an angel, just plucked me up, and really her influence changed the trajectory of my life.

Where does your courage come from?

Her. My courage came from her. Because she had the belief in me when I was very young, that I could achieve. That I was worthy. I was a bit bullied, and she esteemed me — always — and taught me to fight through the hard times. And one of the biggest lessons she taught me was to always shine again, and to just kind of deal with the valleys — because the peaks always return.

“It takes me back to Taken with Liam Neeson, a movie I absolutely love. I thought, Why can’t a woman do that?”

What will you always be the champion of?

Children. Women’s rights. Black Lives Matter — and causes like that. [Places] where I feel like I can use my voice, and actually make a difference.

What’s your favorite social media spot?

I’m Instagram. That’s my medium right now. That’s my favorite place to kind of express myself right now. But I have an app that I’m [launching] called Hallewood that will become a place that I’m going to really love to be. It’s a fan-based site, but it will be a place where I can really connect with fans, and talk to them, have contact. Actually meet them. We can have real, deep conversations about the things you just asked me about, like what do I stand for. It’s going to be a really interesting place.

Last show you binge-watched?

Probably HBO’s The Night Of, was my last binged show.

What’s your go-to karaoke song?

That’s one thing I cannot do! That’s one thing you cannot get me to do. I’m serious. You cannot get me to karaoke. I am not. I’m really not. I will not. There are lots of other things. Just not that!

“And one of the biggest lessons she taught me was to always shine again, and to just kind of deal with the valleys because the peaks always return.”

First concert you went to?

My first concert was Prince. That man, his music changed my childhood and my teenage years. He got me through some s—! I was a huge, admiring fan of his, and I became a friend of his during his lifetime.

Last concert you went to?

Bruno Mars. We saw him in Vegas on New Year’s.

What would you tell your 15-year-old self?

I would say, ‘Girl, do it just as you did. Because when you act, you’re pretty damn good.’ All I know is that. I have no regrets. No regrets, not a one.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica has a different idea about what should happen.

“Good night,” says Boone.

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

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

Courtesy of Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have to talk about the sex on Insecure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of HBO

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

For men, full frontal is generally reserved for comedy.

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

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

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

Courtesy of HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Courtesy of HBO

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

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


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

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

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

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

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