Venus and Serena Williams: from Compton to the world By changing how the world views black women, they’ve changed everything

It’s really just a makeshift dance floor in a small hotel conference room.

But then a song — some might consider it the Black People’s Party Anthem — drops and everyone falls in line, moving, shaking and, yes, wobbling to the beat of V.I.C.’s 2008 “Wobble,” a song that hasn’t vanished from many black family gatherings, even after a decade. Everyone moves to the beat, celebrating, as if a couple has just jumped a broom.

At the center of this dance-happy moment is Venus Williams. She’s at her most comfortable, dressed in a look from her own athleisure line, EleVen by Venus, and surrounded by family members. For a night, anyway, she gets to just be Venus — instead of “Venus Williams,” who as a burgeoning star tennis player made her Australian Open debut in 1998, playing her baby sister, Serena, in a professional match for the first time at that tournament.

That was the Venus Williams who rocked freshly oiled cornrows adorned with blue and white beads that shook something fierce every time she whacked what became her signature serve return in the direction of Serena Williams, whose own cornrows were bright with green and white beads. This was the Venus Williams who, along with Serena, demonstrated early dominance and took center stage in one of the most stridently white of professional sports. Tennis, a game of rackets and stretched nets, that at times is played in the world’s most stridently white spaces.

But when “Wobble” was on? The revolutionary “Venus Williams” was just Venus — a woman with a mean body roll and a swag surf that dropped so low, gravity was no match for all 6 feet, 1 inch of her very recognizable frame.


Before the holidays, both Venus and her superstar sister sat on a panel to discuss violence in the inner city. A poignant and effective conversation, it reminded everyone at the December 2017 “A Family Affair” that these two beautiful brown women who have both helped change how we consume pop culture — and yes, tennis — aren’t immune to the harsh realities and social justice issues of American “inner” cities.

After all, they both hail from Compton, California — the birthplace of Kendrick Lamar, and the now-gentrifying city that Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre helped make infamous via their provocative supergroup N.W.A. Compton is the city that took the life of their sister, Yetunde Price, who was killed on Sept. 14, 2003, at the age of 31. She was the victim of a drive-by shooting.

But now the Venus Ebony Starr Williams who we all know best is back. And she’s ready to take the place of her rightful throne at the 2018 Australian Open. Serena Williams, a newlywed and new mom to baby Alexis Olympia, is still waiting for what her big return might be. But at the very least — which, certainly is the very most — we get to welcome back half of the duo who helped to change the pop culture game. And Lord, are we ever ready.


Both Venus and Serena Williams have challenged traditional global beauty standards — by simply being.

In 2015, a hater tweeted that Serena Williams was “built like a man.” It was a tweet heard round the world. That affected us all. It insulted us all. Then Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling shut it down by posting a photo of Serena Williams in a slim-fitting red dress with the text: “She is built like a man. Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress. You’re an idiot.”

A year earlier, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, called the tennis legends the “Williams brothers” and said, “It’s scary when you really look at them.” Insulting. The ensuing clapback was mighty too. Tarpischev was fined $25,000 and banned for a year, and Serena Williams called him out for being sexist and racist.

That insult penetrated, though. Throughout history, black female bodies have been both sexualized and besmirched. But the Williams sisters, via presence and practice, have turned any negative black woman body image trope on its head. They create and embrace their chiseled, athletic shapes and flaunt their world championship bodies in public arenas, draped in silks and jewels, in the coolest sneakers, in disruptively fashion-forward tennis “whites.” They continue to shock the world.

Both Venus and Serena Williams have challenged traditional global beauty standards — by simply being.

There are some who are afraid of the Williams sisters’ dominance, confidence and beauty. They both have a similar dark brown hue and features that read very the Motherland. They look like so many woman around the world do. Their hairstyles over the years have transformed as ours have — from little-girl cornrows to micro braids to tree braids to sew-ins with wavy tracks to just a simple hot comb and flat iron of natural hair, at times, brushed back into a bun. So much of this black girl beauty used to be hidden. Right now, at this moment, it’s on the cover of Vogue.

But perhaps the most amazing Williams sisters moment came in April 2016 when Serena made a surprise appearance in Beyoncé’s HBO special Lemonade, which itself turned out to be a surprise album. In “Sorry,” we see Serena (to the tune of close to 250 million views) displaying a not-so-secret talent of hers as she dances and twerks alongside the Bey, who is sprawled across a throne, declaring in a casually aggressive way that she, in fact, is not sorry for the ill behavior of an untrustworthy lover. Beyoncé is queen — and Serena is equally regal.

But perhaps the sisters’ biggest contribution to the culture is just by being excellent, and expanding our horizons through their excellence. The Williams sisters represent us. They make us strong.

Russell Simmons revolutionized the culture, but now it doesn’t matter Recent sexual assault charges reveal the damage that can be done to women under the cover of fame

To date, more than 10 women have accused Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct. The accusations range from harassment to rape. Simmons says, “I vehemently deny all these allegations.

The accusers include model Keri Claussen Khalighi. She says she begged for help as Simmons coerced her to have oral sex. Musician Sherri Hines accuses the author and Def Jam Recordings founder of throwing her on a couch and raping her. Tina Baker, a lawyer, says that Simmons, who managed her career at the time, invited her to his apartment, where he held her down and raped her. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet says that Simmons coerced her into sex after having his driver take them to Simmons’ place without her consent. Drew Dixon, a former Def Jam A&R executive and daughter of former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, accused Simmons of sexual abuse and also says former Epic Records chairman L.A. Reid sexually harassed her. (Reid stepped down from his position at Epic in May amid sexual misconduct allegations.)

The allegations against Simmons span from 1983 to 2016. “These horrific accusations have shocked me to my core,” he wrote to The New York Times, “and all of my relations have been consensual.”

Since the initial allegations were made public at the end of November, Simmons has stepped down from all of his companies. HBO comedy series has removed him from All Def Comedy. The New York Police Department is now opening an investigation, as seven of the alleged incidents occurred in New York City.

The question shouldn’t be what would the world look like without the art these men provide.

Any stories about Simmons up to two weeks ago would have had a totally different first paragraph. Before the allegations of sexual misconduct and assault, Simmons’ story would have started with his immeasurable contributions to black culture and, by proxy, American culture. With Def Jam, Simmons helped take hip-hop from street corners to Wall Street. His visionary approach to the music business is largely responsible for making rap music the pop culture juggernaut it is today.

Beyond that, his Def Comedy Jam launched the careers of comedians such as Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, who are of course now household names. The debacle of his RushCard debit card, in which thousands of customers were locked out of their accounts over a weekend and unable to access funds, was a stain on his otherwise good reputation. All of these accomplishments, and more, used to be Simmons’ resounding legacy.

Used to be, because none of that matters anymore. While the fruits of Simmons’ cultural labor are spread across global pop culture to this day and beyond, none of those contributions would be equal to the cost from the painful toll he’s accused of inflicting on women over the course of the past three decades. The road to greatness isn’t worth a damn if that road is paved with pain and violence toward women.

So we’re left with the idea that one of the main architects of the current musical landscape — in September, Nielsen reported that the combined genre of hip-hop and rhythm and blues is No. 1, for the first time, in overall consumption — has allegedly victimized women along the way. These women were managers, artists, journalists, all who — who knows, but — could perhaps have made even larger impact on the culture.

Simmons has always been a role model for what creativity, business acumen and hard work can do, how one person’s brilliance can transform the world. Now, he may be another example of the damage that can be done to women under the cover of fame.

There will be a push — as always, and especially when black female victims are involved — to litigate just how much sexual assault is acceptable in relation to a particular artist’s contribution to popular culture. R. Kelly defenders love bringing up that his music is just too iconic to discard. Bill Cosby defenders protest that their love for The Cosby Show is just too much to sacrifice, no matter his charges. The same goes for less-discussed accused transgressors: We revere Martin despite the allegations that the titular star sexually harassed Tisha Campbell. What about Dr. Dre? Floyd Mayweather? Mike Tyson?

Where is the line, and what will be left if every man who abuses a woman is exiled from his respective level of achievement? The fact is, art will survive. Brilliance is an infinitely replenishable resource that women who are free from the anxiety and trauma of violence are more than capable of providing. The question shouldn’t be what would the world look like without the art these men provide. The question should be how much better would the world be if everyone were free to create in a world where sexual assault and violence didn’t exist. Isn’t that more valuable than a few great albums and TV shows?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mudbound’ is an American classic. Will that be enough to sway anti-Netflix Oscar voters? A heart-wrenching and masterfully executed look at the legacy of Jim Crow

I can’t wait to see how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handles Mudbound.

Within the academy, there’s an institutional aversion to Netflix, the streaming giant that’s upended how we see movies, much to the chagrin of traditional distributors and movie theater exhibitors. But if ever there was a Netflix film that deserves to break through the bias, it’s Mudbound, a heart-wrenching, masterfully executed period epic from director Dee Rees.

Mudbound, which opens Nov. 17, takes the idea of two Americas popularized in the early 1960s by Michael Harrington and pivots from his thesis of a country divided by class to explore the way poor Americans of The Other America are divided by race. Based on the 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, the film follows two families in the lead-up to World War II: the Jacksons, who are black, and the McAllans, who are white. The Jacksons are sharecroppers on the McAllans’ land, and both have sons who end up fighting for their country.

It’s almost Shakespearean, except unlike the Capulets and Montagues, the Jacksons and McAllans need each other, even if they don’t see themselves as the same. That goes double for Pappy McAllan, the family’s racist, sexist patriarch played with expert precision by Jonathan Banks. Pappy’s an irascible vestige of the Confederacy who is short on tact and long on grievances with everything around him, from the black people contributing to his family’s livelihood, to his daughter-in-law, Laura (Carey Mulligan). While the McAllans may not have much — in fact, they have so little that Pappy sleeps in a lean-to — the Jacksons have even less.

Still, if there’s anything like a great equalizer, it’s military service, and both the Jacksons and the McAllans experience anguish as sons Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) head off to kill Germans. Mary J. Blige gives a stunning performance as Ronsel’s mother, Florence. Her emotions, especially in front of Pappy’s daughter-in-law Laura (Carey Mulligan), his favored son, Henry (Jason Clarke), and other white people, are layered and controlled, rendering Blige nearly unrecognizable. It was nearly 45 minutes into the film before I realized why Florence felt so familiar — she’s played by the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.

Florence is worried about her son and how the family will manage to break even in his absence, especially after her husband, Hap (Rob Morgan), suffers a gruesome injury. Laura worries about her brother-in-law Jamie, who is everything his father can’t stand: cultured, charming and not remotely cut out for farm work. Before he shipped off to Europe he even dabbled in acting. While Pappy may seem indifferent to his son’s fate, Laura insisted on moving a piano into their dirt-floor shack and sees Jamie as more than just a cosmopolitan nuisance.

It’s Laura and Florence who find a way to bridge the racial divide, if only because it’s key to their continued existence. Farming in the Mississippi Delta is backbreaking, frustrating, never-ending work, especially without the luxuries of electricity or indoor plumbing.

Rees also leaves her stamp on the Mudbound script, which she co-wrote with Virgil Williams, weaving in some thematic continuity from her stint as the writer/director of the HBO biopic Bessie. There’s a line in Bessie in which the famed blues singer from the early 20th century explains the difference between Northern and Southern racism. Northern whites, she says, don’t mind if you get big as long as you don’t get too close. And Southern whites don’t mind if you get close so long as you don’t get too big.

Once Ronsel returns from commanding a tank in Belgium, it becomes clear that he’s way too big for his white countrymen in Mississippi, and they’re itching to take him down a peg.


Hollywood’s anti-Netflix bias, the one that likely killed the Oscar chances of Beasts of No Nation in 2016, has scared off some independent filmmakers who want their films to have a shot during awards season. When a bidding war erupted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016 for Birth of a Nation, for instance, Netflix had the highest offer. But director Nate Parker went with Fox Searchlight, betting that the company and the film would be better received when it came to award campaigning.

Mudbound highlights how much the motion picture academy needs to get over its Netflix snobbery. Netflix is one of the few studios consistently offering opportunities to minority directors to do ambitious, unconventional projects. Its best recent films have boasted directors of color: 13th (Ava DuVernay), Okja (Bong Joon-ho), Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukunaga) and now Mudbound. Minority directors do not often have the luxury of dismissing generous offers from Netflix. So when the members of the academy turn up their noses at the company, they’re also dismissing some of the best work Hollywood has to offer. If Mudbound is ignored during awards season because the academy and other industry groups can’t get over their aversion to Netflix’s business model, it will only reflect poorly on them. Mudbound is just that good.

Netflix is one of the few studios consistently offering opportunities to minority directors to do ambitious, unconventional projects.

Rees directs Mudbound with a confidence often anathema to mainstream film. She trusts her audience to follow her around narrative blind corners. And so, as Mudbound unfolds, it inspires engagement and curiosity. Every small choice Rees makes is a deliberate one with immense payoff. There are no extravagances, no unexplained moments that could have been done away with in the edit bay. (That’s why I’m revealing so little of the plot. It’s best if you come to it cold.)

If there’s a downside to Mudbound, it’s that most audiences will experience it from the comfort of their couches, or on their laptop or tablet screens. This is a film ideally experienced on the biggest screen possible. A theatrical audio system allows for a full appreciation of Damian Volpe and Pud Cusack’s chillingly immersive sound design, which captures the misery of a midsummer driving rain on the Gulf Coast and the thick, squelching morass of waterlogged Mississippi Delta silt loam.

On the other hand, Netflix, which boasts more than 50 million American subscribers, offers ample opportunity for almost anyone to witness a magnificent work of art — one that brings us face-to-face with the massive cruelties and savage inequalities of Jim Crow and forces us to reckon with its legacies. Here’s hoping the academy sees it the same way.

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

Keep your eye on Dee Rees. Chances are you’re going to be seeing a lot of her this awards season.

Rees is the Tennessee-raised, historically black college-cultivated writer-director whose latest film, Mudbound, is already stirring up Oscar buzz, and rightfully so. Not since The Color Purple has there been a film so lush, so exhaustive and so thoughtful about rural life on the eve of America’s entry into World War II.

Mudbound, which Netflix will release Friday, is about two American families struggling to survive on a farm in the Mississippi Delta. The Jacksons are a black family who sharecrop on land owned by the McAllans, who are white. Their coexistence is marked by physical closeness and psychological distance, by interdependence and prejudice. Mudbound illustrates what happens when all of that gets stirred together in one of the hottest, dirtiest, most miserable places to be without air conditioning.

What makes Mudbound notable is that Rees is not interested in examining prejudice simply to say, “Look how awful this is” and then wallow in that awfulness. She’s interested in the consequences, both immediate and generational, of that prejudice and the complicated, unexpected ways those consequences surface in daily life. In one part of the film, Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) is suffering from pregnancy complications. The only person close enough to help her in time is Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige). While Laura wants to get herself and her baby out of harm’s way, her father-in-law, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), is stuck on the fact that the helping hand in question comes from a black person. Meanwhile, Florence is paralyzed by the fear of being blamed if something goes wrong, and how that would affect not just her but her entire family. Everyone is struggling to free themselves from a peat bog of hate and injustice except Pappy McAllan, who seems perfectly fine with letting himself drown before ever acknowledging black people as equals.

Mudbound

Steve Dietl / Netflix

Rees favors restraint over melodrama. The result is that the emotional power of her films tends to sneak up on you because her hand in guiding the film feels practically imperceptible. She’s the Adam Smith of directing. Rees is not interested in showing off how she’s manipulating you. Instead, she presents the story and lets you sit in it.

When it comes to vision, to the ability to look at a location and a script and know what story you want to result, “I would say only really 20 to 25 percent of directors really have it to the degree that [Dee] does,” said Paris Barclay, a former president of the Directors Guild of America and one of Rees’ champions and mentors. “When she’s looking at a scene — and also, you know, she’s a writer as well — she’s constructing a scene, she’s always thinking about, ‘What is the most dynamic way I can bring this to life? With the fewest possible shots.’ She’s not about the adornment of work, she’s about creating this sort of dynamic moment.

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

Steve Dietl / Netflix

“A lot of people are just making shots and hoping that in the editing room they’ll be able to figure out how to put them together in some attractive way. But Dee’s making a movie. She’s really thinking about the moment, where the camera needs to be to tell the story and how she can do it with a minimum of fuss. Some of that minimum of fuss creates dynamic and original shots because it’s all about the story. So you end up forgetting about Dee Rees the director and just get sucked into Bessie Smith [the subject of her 2015 biopic for HBO]. You just get sucked into the characters.”

In a way, that makes Rees rather brave because she dares to depart from the standard model of male directorial genius in Hollywood. Unlike David O. Russell, or Woody Allen, or Wes Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino, or, yes, Spike Lee, Rees isn’t using her movies to scream at you about what a good, interesting, different sort of director she is.

Her restraint is what ends up making Mudbound a more effective film than, say, Detroit. Both are about the ways racism infects people’s lives, but only the former looks at it from 360 degrees, as an ever-present part of the American condition rather than something that periodically boils over into inexplicable violence and evil.

The patience required to pull off that sort of storytelling doesn’t happen by accident.

“I’m just very into blocking [determining where to place actors and where they’ll move] and where you place people in relationship to each other,” Rees said during an interview in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. “For example, if two people love each other, placing them far apart is more effective than placing them close together, because then they’re reaching for each other, the looks are longer. Or placing people who dislike each other in extreme discomfort, so putting [them] in this truck together. Things like that where the blocking helps inspire the actors, I’m thinking about that stuff and editing.”

Unlike David O. Russell, or Woody Allen, or Wes Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino, or, yes, Spike Lee, Rees isn’t using her movies to scream at you about what a good, interesting, different sort of director she is.

Rees’ work arrives at a time when the fallout from public accusations of sexual predation against producer Harvey Weinstein continues daily, and we’re starting to peel back the various layers of how women are flattened by an industry that preys on insecurity. The women who work in it are finally airing, en masse, long-held frustrations with the limited space allowed for them there. Mudbound is an example of the fantastic art that’s lost by prioritizing an environment in which women like Rees are the exceptions. She’s basically the opposite of everything women are told to be in Hollywood.

She’s not white.

She’s not straight.

She’s not an actress.

She’s not the sort of woman who asks for permission.

She’s not interested in emulating a filmmaking model that turns directors into celebrities.

During a recent interview in New York, Rees, 40, was rocking a pair of suede powder-blue cowboy boots, jeans, a white button-down with a black zigzag pattern across the front and a blazer. Her hair was braided along the sides of her head, with the remainder puffed out into a frohawk. This is a woman who knows who she is and likes herself. And it shows not just in her personal style but also in her filmmaking.

Kholood Eid for The Undefeated

“She is, first of all, one of the most sure black women I’ve ever met in my life, so she knew exactly what she wanted,” said Jason Mitchell, who plays Ronsel Jackson in Mudbound and is best known for playing Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton. “She also created this family amongst us. Like, we did acting workshops together, we did all kind of different things together, and she made it safe enough for us to be able to kick it into a high gear and still be able to hug it out immediately after.”

Rob Morgan, who plays Ronsel’s father, Hap, worked with Rees on her 2011 debut feature, Pariah. “From the first time working with Dee, I saw that she was very secure in what she wanted,” Morgan said. “That was a crazy environment because we were shooting in this one brownstone. We used the same brownstone, three different floors to make different sets. Even in that kind of environment, Dee was so secure and strong and able to communicate exactly what she wanted. To see her do this, Mudbound, with obviously a bigger budget … she’s still just the same Dee, if not sharper.”

Rees’ directorial style is remarkable for a few reasons. We know, thanks to loads of research, that women in leadership positions are often faced with an unfair choice of having to be seen as either likable or competent. The pressure to conform to gender-based stereotypes of women as caretakers and consensus-builders tends to breed passivity and insecurity at first, and then rage and resentment later. Or it demands an irritating false modesty because women aren’t supposed to be aware of their own talents. That would make them bitches. Or witches — take your pick. If navigating workplace gender politics in the rest of America is a minefield, in Hollywood, it’s like trying to ride a unicycle through volcanoes. Because Hollywood, and directing in particular, is so dominated by men, there’s immense pressure for women to emulate the behavior, style and approach to the work that men do. After all, that’s what is recognized as successful and as valid.

If you’re a female director, you’re already handicapped, and the best way to make up for that handicap is to adopt as many male affectations as possible. You see it when actresses try their hand at directing and their red carpet style switches from girly or sexy to something more androgynous. (Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win a directing Oscar, for The Hurt Locker, a film that parrots an obsession with violence of a bunch of men before her.) Rees rejects the idea that you have to be like all the men to be seen as a good director. Her blackness and her queerness made her too far afield anyway.


By the time she began directing, which is her second career, Rees had a personal foundation secured in years of attending Tennessee State homecomings with her parents while growing up in the Antioch neighborhood of Nashville. Before she asserted her identity as Dee, she was Diandrea, the name her parents gave her. She went to Florida A&M University and earned an MBA.

“I think FAM was good because … it wasn’t this abstraction. Like, ‘Oh, we really are different,’ ” Rees said. “We didn’t have to agree with somebody just ’cause they were the other black kid. You have wildly different groups and ideas. I first started really understanding how interesting we are and how diverse we are. Like kids from California are different from the kids from Detroit, and it’s like the kids from D.C. are different from everybody else. … I’m not Diandrea The Black Girl, I’m just Diandrea.”

Rees decided to study film after four years of working as a marketing executive for brands such as Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive and came out to her family at the same time. She explored that experience in Pariah, which stars Adepero Oduye.

Rees initially came out to her parents and grandmother, who still live in Tennessee, over the phone after she’d moved to begin film school at New York University in 2004. Her mother was horrified; her grandmother wasn’t happy either. Both of them trekked to New York to figure out what was up. Her father came the following week. Her father, she said, was afraid that Rees had been sexually abused as a child. She wasn’t.

“I’m in love with a woman,” she told them.

There was some initial tension and pushback, but gradually it eased.

At first, “my grandmother was like, ‘We don’t do that,’ ” Rees said. “But in a weird way, that was all my grandmother ever said on it. And then in the Thanksgivings since, it was my mom who was saying a prayer about being thankful for who we are, and my grandmother said, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing about you.’ And my mom was like, ‘Well, there’s one thing,’ and my grandmother was like, ‘No, I wouldn’t change a thing about you.’ ”

Rees studied with Lee, who became one of her biggest advocates. She came to filmmaking knowing that since she already exists outside of the narrow constraints for women in Hollywood, there’s no need to shape herself into something she’s not. Rees is hyperaware of the fact that Hollywood isn’t a meritocracy. She sees herself as a force for change.

“I didn’t want to be that woman who’s not hiring women,” said Rees, whose cinematographer, composer, lead makeup artist, sound engineer and editor on Mudbound are women. “That was important for me to kinda turn that around.”


Rees’ knack for pinpointing and communicating what she wants is especially valuable in independent filmmaking, where directors are working on shorter timelines and with smaller budgets. The luxury of waffling simply isn’t available. The entire shoot for Mudbound, which clocks in at 134 minutes, took just 28 days. Most of it was shot in Louisiana, while the World War II battle scenes were shot in Budapest, Hungary. Black directors especially are forced to be intentional because they’re already working on a tightrope. They can’t afford to shoot fewer than the planned number of scenes in a given workday or not have a contingency plan for on-set crises because those are the cudgels used against them to say, “This person is unreliable. This person shouldn’t be hired for [insert subsequent project here].”

Rees has a selflessness that’s similar to that of a coach. Actors, Barclay said, respect that.

“She’s got enough [life] experience that her intuition is very strong,” Barclay said. “People say, ‘I’ll go with you.’ People will take that ride with Dee.”

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

Pariah impressed Barclay the way he was impressed by Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep in 1978. Her film played in only 24 theaters at the height of its release but netted praise from industry figures and critics. Rees won the John Cassavetes Award at the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Award for Best Breakthrough Director at the 2011 Gotham Awards. Her cinematographer Bradford Young took home the top cinematography prize at Sundance.

“From the first scene to the end, I didn’t leave my chair,” Barclay said of Pariah. “I think if it had actually come out this year, it would probably be nominated for best picture, because the environment has changed in such a short time. The film, even on a small scale, as moving as that, would get some sort of recognition. That wasn’t available to her just five years ago.”

Now, Rees stands on the precipice of a bigger, brighter future. With Mudbound, she uses that position to show just how capable she is with a group of experienced, award-winning actors and talented female crew members.

She’s so invested in creating a path for others that she’s already thinking about using her home as a creative retreat. Rees named her property in the Hudson River Valley of New York F.A.C., which stands for “Free Artists of Color.”

“When my partner and I die, we wanna … make it like a residency where artists come and work and get a little space,” she said. When she talks about F.A.C., she sounds like a woman with her eye on recreating the magic of Lorraine Hansberry’s upstate New York creative compound, which the playwright winkingly named “Chitterling Heights.”

“It’s good to have land and freedom and to be able to create and also have the space to be,” Rees said. She likes “being in a rural area because it also forces a closeness, because you need your neighbor when your driveway is iced out or to help each other with mail.”

LeBron, Blake, Kyrie and Kobe go Hollywood — in the best way NBA All-Stars charge into the entertainment world on a massive scale

There’s Uncle Drew. The remake of White Men Can’t Jump. And soon, possibly, a new sitcom. Everybody wants to be Hollywood-famous — even your favorite NBA players. Several are taking to the screen as front-facing talent with aspirations, in some cases, of being the next Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a former athlete who became one of Hollywood’s biggest box-office draws. Others are looking to give iconic producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Will Packer a run for their silver screen money.

Either way, it’s happening. When they’re not on the court, some All-Stars are working on their postgame plan for Tinsel Town dominance. “Kobe put out a thing saying that he wants to be remembered as an investor, not a basketball player,” said television/film producer Kenya Barris. “So many athletes have these other things that they want to do, but a lot of times their physical stature, or what they’ve been doing their whole life, sort of takes the focus [off] what they’re going to be. But … they have other things they want to do. Here are some of the most impressive Hollywood moves soon coming from your faves.


Lebron James

The NBA champion has already made his mark as a TV producer. James’ well-written and highly regarded Survivor’s Remorse (recently canceled after four seasons) was very loosely inspired by his own NBA life. Most recently, he’s partnered with best-selling author, actor and activist Gabrielle Union (who is also his best friend’s wife) for an ABC development deal; on deck is a comedy, White Dave. James’ successful production company, SpringHill Entertainment, has been making some impressive moves lately, and this new show (should it be picked up) will be a single-camera sitcom from writer/director David E. Talbert (First Sunday, Almost Christmas, Baggage Claim). It’s based on Talbert’s experiences as an African-American teen raised in an all-white neighborhood who moves to a black neighborhood when his mother remarries. But that’s not all: James is empire-building. Other possible projects include an HBO show that he and longtime biz partner Maverick Carter are developing that is centered on an Los Angeles-based sneaker store. It’ll be a look inside the wild — and expensive! — world of sneakers, with Lemon Andersen also on board as a producer. Their company also has a three-part Showtime documentary coming at the top of next year that will take a look at the NBA’s influence on pop culture.

Blake Griffin

A remake of 1992’s beloved White Men Can’t Jump is on its way, with the help of Griffin and black-ish creator Barris. Also on board productionwise is Ryan Kalil of the Carolina Panthers. The two budding producers have a company called Mortal Media. But don’t be surprised if we see Griffin in front of the camera. “Blake is unbelievably funny,” said Barris. “He went to the Montreal Comedy Fest, and he was what everybody was talking about. … He did a stand-up routine every night and everybody from the industry was calling me like, ‘Have you heard Blake Griffin?!’ ”

Kyrie Irving

When Kyrie Irving’s not making headlines for why he left the Cleveland Cavaliers to head to the Boston Celtics, fans are marveling at his hilarious alter ego Uncle Drew. If you’re unfamiliar, Uncle Drew is an “older” hooper who masquerades the fact that he can ball very well and dominates local pickup games — for Pepsi commercials. He’s a YouTube marvel, and soon he’ll be on the big screen. Next summer a full-length film will arrive, and besides Irving and co-star LilRel Howery (Get Out), several former NBA and WNBA stars will make appearances, including Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Nate Robinson, Reggie Miller and Lisa Leslie.

“He did a stand-up routine every night and everybody was calling me like, ‘Have you heard Blake Griffin?!’ ”

Kobe Bryant

Might the 18-time All Star soon be adding Oscar nominee to his growing list of career accolades? Could be. He penned a poem, Dear Basketball, to announce the end of his storied career as a player, and now he’s turned the words into a brilliant animated short that he executive-produced and narrated. He worked on the film — it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and screened again at the Hollywood Bowl last month — with Disney animator Glen Keane and composer John Williams. And folks are already talking Oscar. Watch him perform it live with Williams here.

‘Marshall’ turns Thurgood into the contemporary hero Americans want, but ignores the one he was Not enough of the real NAACP lawyer shows up in Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal

Marshall, the new film from director Reginald Hudlin about the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, comes from a production company called Super Hero Films.

It’s an appropriate moniker, given that the star of Marshall is Chadwick Boseman — or, as he’s sure to be known after February, Black Panther. But it’s also appropriate given the way Marshall presents the man once known as “Mr. Civil Rights” as a swashbuckling, arrogant, almost devil-may-care superhero attorney barnstorming the country in pursuit of justice and equality.

Written by Connecticut attorney Michael Koskoff and his son, Joseph, Marshall is not the story of the first black Supreme Court justice’s entire life. The movie takes place decades before Marshall was ever nominated to the court. Instead, Marshall provides a snapshot of young Thurgood through the course of the Connecticut trial of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur who was arrested in 1940 for the rape, kidnapping and attempted murder of his white boss, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

Marshall, at the time an attorney in the NAACP’s civil rights division and seven years out of Howard University School of Law, travels to Connecticut to defend Spell. When the white judge presiding over the case refuses to let Marshall be the lead lawyer on the case, Marshall enlists a local Jewish attorney, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), as the puppet for his legal ventriloquism. Marshall feeds Friedman his strategy, arguments and ideas and sits on his hands as he watches Friedman clumsily make his way through them.

Hudlin ends the film with an image of Marshall after he’s pulled into a train station in the Deep South. A mischievous smile creeping across his face, he grabs a paper cup to get a drink of water from a whites-only water fountain. Marshall tips his hat to an older black gentleman who’s watching, clearly astonished, and continues on his way.

The scene exposes how Marshall is more of an exercise in reflecting contemporary black attitudes about race and rebellion than it is connected to the way Marshall enacted that rebellion in his life as an NAACP lawyer, solicitor general under Lyndon Johnson, and then as a member of the Supremes. It’s certainly ahistorical. The real Marshall was a skilled politician, which made him an effective courtroom lawyer. He was charmingly persuasive, according to those who knew him, able to persuade white Southerners to do his bidding even against the wishes of fire-breathing racist sheriffs.

“He wasn’t an activist or a protester. He was a lawyer,” Marshall’s NAACP colleague, attorney Jack Greenberg, said in a 1999 documentary that asserts Marshall always followed the rules of the segregated South during his many trips there.

In any fictive portrait based on true life, a certain amount of interpretation is expected. But Marshall fundamentally changes our understanding of Marshall as a person and a real-life superhero. Thanks to accounts from family, colleagues and biographers such as Juan Williams, we know Marshall was smart, strategic and conscious of preserving his life and safety so that he could live to fight another day.

Hudlin superimposes modern conceptions of black heroism onto a period courtroom drama. He’s not the first to do so, of course. Both the 2016 adaptation of Roots and the now-canceled WGN series Underground told historical stories calibrated for a modern audience that wants and deserves to see black characters exhibit agency over their fates. Combined with the decision to cast the dark-skinned Boseman and Keesha Sharp as Marshall and his wife, Buster, Hudlin’s choices feel reactive to the colorism and racism in modern Hollywood. That choice ends up flattening an aspect of Marshall that certainly had an effect on his life: his privilege as a light-skinned, wavy-haired lawyer who grew up as the middle-class son of a Baltimore woman with a graduate degree from Columbia and a father who worked as a railway porter.

If ever there was a couple who fit the profile of the black bourgeoisie, it was Thurgood and Buster Marshall. Casting Boseman and Sharp may be a way to thumb one’s nose at the screwed-up obsession with skin tone that pervaded the black elite in the early 20th century and continues to block opportunities in modern-day Hollywood, but it also erases part of our understanding of how Marshall moved through the world.

Marshall possessed a terrific legal mind and used it to hold the country accountable to its founding ideals. He was a pioneer for daring to think that equality could be achieved by challenging the country’s institutions, but he also expressed a deep reverence for and faith in them. He would have been seen by whites in the South as a Northern agitator, and he knew it — the real Thurgood slept with his clothes on in case a lynch mob decided to confront him in the middle of the night. Altering Marshall so much in a movie meant to celebrate him ends up cheapening the gesture. It’s like making a biopic about Barack Obama and turning him into Jesse Jackson. He just wasn’t that type of dude.

It wouldn’t matter so much that Boseman’s Marshall strays so far from the real man if it wasn’t for the fact that Marshall tends to exist now mostly as a Black History Month factoid (even though multiple biographies have been written about his life and work).

Thurgood, a 2011 HBO movie starring Laurence Fishburne, goes too far in the opposite direction. Clips of Fishburne show a stiff and overly reverential character better suited for a museum video re-enactment or a Saturday Night Live sketch.

I sound like the story of Thurgood Marshall is a Goldilocks conundrum. Fishburne-as-Marshall was too stiff. Boseman-as-Marshall was too loose. Maybe a third attempt will get it just right.

Every time I see a film by a black director or that stars black people and I love it unreservedly, I experience a mélange of awe, reverence and respect that comes from witnessing an amazing work of art. And then comes the wave of relief.

Because the stakes are so high — every so-called “black film” must succeed to secure another! — you feel some kind of way about having to type all the reasons a film doesn’t work, knowing that those words have consequences but still need to be expressed. In short, it’s the feeling of “I don’t know if I like this, but I need it to win.”

I hate this feeling. If ever there was a selfish reason for wishing the film industry would hurry up and achieve racial and gender parity, this is it.


Hudlin’s directorial oeuvre is squarely commercial. His gaze is unfussy, with few stylistic flourishes, likely influenced by his past 15 years directing episodic television. His last movie was Wifey, a TV movie starring Tami Roman. His last feature was the 2002 romantic comedy Serving Sara, starring Matthew Perry and Elizabeth Hurley, but he’s probably best known for Boomerang, House Party and The Ladies Man. Thus it’s no surprise that Hudlin directs Marshall as a crowd-pleaser, but the nuances of Marshall’s life get lost.

What’s disappointing about the way Marshall is translated for the big screen is that real-life heroes come in a variety of forms. They’re complicated. They’re not saintly, nor are they all hot-headed crusaders. And that’s OK.

One of the most admirable aspects of Loving was that it was a historical drama with the patience to tell the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, portrayed by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, as the quiet, country people they were. They seem as unlikely a pair to make civil rights history in the film as they were when they lived. But Loving came from the Focus Features division of NBCUniversal, a production house known for unconventional work. Marshall is not an art house film, and I don’t think it needed to be to tell Marshall’s story. Hidden Figures was another historical drama meant for wide consumption. It’s not perfect, but Hidden Figures was so full of charm that it overcame the white saviorism added to Kevin Costner’s character, which didn’t exist in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book.

The shortcomings that separate Marshall from Hidden Figures and Loving are the same ones that give it the feeling of a TV movie. Aside from focusing on one specific area of Marshall’s life rather than the whole of it, Marshall does little to escape or subvert some of the most irritating biopic tropes.

For instance, the screenwriters jam Boseman’s mouth full of exposition about his accomplishments rather than demonstrating them. He rattles them off to Friedman in the form of a verbal resume.

The movie includes a nightclub scene that functions as little more than a non sequitur to shout, “HEY, THURGOOD MARSHALL WAS FRIENDS WITH ZORA NEALE HURSTON AND LANGSTON HUGHES. DID YOU KNOW ZORA AND LANGSTON HAD AN ICY RELATIONSHIP? BECAUSE WE DID!”

The three aren’t around long enough to discuss anything substantive. Their interaction doesn’t serve as foreshadowing for some other part of the movie. They’re just there because they all lived in Harlem. It’s little more than fat to be trimmed in a nearly two-hour movie.

But the most obvious weak point may lie in the flashbacks to the interactions between Strubing and Spell, which are filled with so much melodrama that they’d be perfectly at home on Lifetime. It’s not that those tropes don’t have their place. It’s just not on a screen that’s 30 feet high.

Boseman, as watchable as ever, makes Marshall a winking, confident wisecracker with a disarming smile. He’s full of smarts and bravado, communicating the real off-hours aspects of Marshall’s ribald sense of humor.

In the future, though, I hope screenwriters and filmmakers have more faith in the capacity of audiences to appreciate all kinds of heroes. As tempting as it is to superimpose modern politics onto historical figures, it can be more edifying to simply let them breathe so that we can appreciate their efforts within the context of their own times. Such context allows us to more fully understand the cost of their struggles and celebrate them all the more for winning.

Cam Newton said something stupid and other news of the week The Week That Was Oct. 2 – Oct. 6

Monday 10.02.17

A former South Florida plastic surgeon, who in 1998 was placed on probation by Florida’s health department for a botched penis enlargement procedure, didn’t let his reputation get in the way of being sentenced to 44 months in prison for a failed butt lift. Big Baller Brand owner LaVar Ball, an expert in basic economics as evidenced by offering a $495 basketball shoe, is pulling his 16-year-old son LaMelo Ball out of high school and will homeschool him. Former 10-day White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci launched a social media-only news company that “doesn’t have reporters or staff” and will “100% be getting things wrong” sometimes. The white New York police officer who mistakenly tackled black former tennis player James Blake but was not fired is suing Blake for defamation for being “cast as a racist and a goon.” The lawyer for O.J. Simpson called the Florida attorney general “a complete stupid b—-” and said “F— her” after the woman petitioned to deny Simpson a transfer to serve parole in Florida following his release from a Nevada prison. Rock musician Tom Petty died, then didn’t die, and then died again. One member of country act the Josh Abbott Band finally supports gun control legislation after being affected by a gunman killing 59 people and injuring another 500 at the Las Vegas music festival where he and his bandmates had performed. Hours after the Nevada shooting, former boxer George Foreman challenged actor Steven Seagal to “one on one, I use boxing you can use whatever. 10 rounds in Vegas.”

Tuesday 10.03.17

President Donald Trump threw paper towels at hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. The Tennessee Titans, in need of a mobile quarterback following the injury of starter Marcus Mariota, signed a quarterback not named Colin Kaepernick. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has obviously never seen an episode of Game of Thrones, a show about terrible war strategies, said, “If I’d have watched [Game of Thrones] two years ago, I would’ve been president. … It’s got a lot of good strategies.” The NBA found a way for former teammates LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to not have to play together for the Eastern Conference during February’s All-Star game. Proving that the office of the president of the United States is now a joke, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he is “considering” running for president. The CEO of HBO, a network that will spend a reported $15 million per episode of the final season of Game of Thrones and greenlit Confederate without seeing a script, said “more is not better” in response to streaming competitor Netflix’s plan to spend $7 billion on content next year. Three billion Yahoo accounts were breached in 2013, exposing names, email addresses and passwords; roughly 100 people were actually affected. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.), who allegedly asked his mistress to abort their love child, voted for a ban on abortions after 20 weeks.

Wednesday 10.04.17

Murphy plans to retire at the end of his term. Based on, you guessed it, emails. Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. were almost criminally indicted in 2012 until Donald Trump’s lawyer donated $25,000 to the re-election campaign of the Manhattan district attorney. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to NBC News, called Trump a “moron” during a meeting at the Pentagon in July; Trump denied the report and tweeted that NBC News “should issue an apology to AMERICA!”; an MSNBC reporter then clarified that Tillerson called Trump a “f—ing moron.” Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice crashes weddings in his free time, sometimes “cutting a rug,” including to rapper Too Short’s “Blow the Whistle.” Former Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom said he “woulda put my hands on” D’Angelo Russell after the former Lakers guard surreptitiously recorded teammate Nick Young admitting to cheating on his ex-fiancee Iggy Azalea. Former NHL forward Jiri Hudler, while on a flight to the Czech Republic, allegedly solicited cocaine from a flight attendant, threatened to kill her when she refused, eventually ingested cocaine in the plane’s bathroom, and then attempted to urinate on a food court; Hudler denies the allegations.

Thursday 10.05.17

Murphy resigned. NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart, responding to an incident involving the Washington Redskins and a racial slur, said “we have no tolerance for racial remarks directed at anyone in an NFL stadium.” Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton lost a yogurt sponsorship because he just had to get some jokes off. Former Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, conveniently retired, said if he were playing today he would “kneel” for the national anthem. Following an “offensive” performance at a Roman Catholic college, comedian Nick Cannon said he “ain’t apologizing for s–t”; the university’s president, winning this war of words, said the school had hoped to get the “NBC or MTV version of Mr. Cannon.” Former New Jersey Nets forward Kenyon Martin said there would have been no way current Brooklyn Nets guard Jeremy Lin, who is Chinese, “would’ve made it on one of our teams with that bulls— on his head” in reference to Lin’s dreadlocks hairstyle; in unrelated news, Martin, who is black, has Chinese symbol tattoos. The St. Louis County Police Department, following a lab test, concluded that bottles labeled “apple cider” were in fact apple cider and not “unknown chemicals used against police.” A Baltimore high school was evacuated due to a possible “hazardous substance” found in the building; the substance was a pumpkin spice air freshener.

Friday 10.06.17

Not to be outdone by Yahoo, AOL announced that its 20-year-old instant messaging program, AIM, which was apparently still in operation, will be discontinued in December. Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bogut, who last year pushed the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was running a child trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza joint, said “there are bigger issues … rather than focus on this stupid political s—.” Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has followed through on roughly zero of his big promises, says he can bring power to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In a development that surely has D.A.R.E. shook, marijuana sales led to $34 million in funds for Oregon public schools. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who said last month that he doesn’t believe he ever lied to the public, accused The Washington Post of intentionally not publishing a story about famous Democratic donor Harvey Weinstein on its front page for a story The New York Times broke. Despite (alleged) white supremacists (allegedly) infiltrating the White House, white supremacists killing a woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a reported increase in hate groups since November 2016, the FBI says the group that poses the greatest threat to law enforcement are “black identity extremists,” who don’t actually exist.

Hispanic Heritage Month: Felipe Esparza laughs at his life in first HBO special ‘Translate This’ is the result of studying the comedy greats

Actor and comedian Felipe Esparza describes himself as raw with a real comic sensibility. His new HBO special, Felipe Esparza: Translate This, airing Saturday during Hispanic Heritage Month, captures today’s climate for Latinos in America, and it’s delivered in a manner that would make the most unassuming person laugh.

There are no real pauses in a conversation with the comedian, because he takes any available second to insert an anecdote that rings so true that you have to say, “I almost thought you were serious.”

Esparza finds humor in his life experiences, discussing topics such as immigration, his difficulty translating for his parents, being a once-not-so-great single dad while dating single moms, his current challenges in raising his blond-haired, blue-eyed stepson, and more. He knows his past was part of his journey that would lead him to this point, where he is able to share his story in a way that fills hearts with laughter.

The winner of Last Comic Standing in 2010, Esparza has appeared on numerous TV shows, including Superstore, The Tonight Show, Lopez Tonight, Premium Blend, The Eric Andre Show, Comic View and Galavisión’s Que Locos, where he made more appearances than any other comedian. His film credits include The Deported and I’m Not Like That No More, a feature based on his stand-up comedy, as well as his first stand-up special, They’re Not Gonna Laugh at You. Esparza is also the host of the What’s Up Fool? podcast that he launched in 2014.

Just ahead of his HBO special, he spoke to The Undefeated.


How did your project with HBO come to fruition?

I’ve always wanted to be a comedian and I’ve always wanted an HBO special because I saw Paul Rodriguez, George Carlin, Robin Williams, Howie Mandel — you know, all the greats — and I thought, like, I need to be one of those guys on HBO so I could be considered one day a great, or somebody to say, ‘Oh, man, he’s a great comedian.’ The verification of being on HBO, because HBO is part of my generation. The comedians before me wanted to be on Johnny Carson, you know? They wanted to be on The Tonight Show, and the people would be on The Tonight Show, then they’d be a little famous and that’s it. My dream was to be on HBO. I did my special with my wife. We produced it ourselves, and once HBO found out about me doing my own special, they got 100 percent behind it, and they wanted to show it on HBO, so we’re very happy about that.

Why did you decide to infuse your upbringing into your comedy?

I grew up in a gated community. The windows were gated, the back door was gated. No, I’m only kidding. That’s part of my jokes. A lot of my jokes come from my upbringing, because I grew up in the housing projects, so it was a very tough neighborhood. A lot of my jokes come from there. Once when a burglar broke into our house and they couldn’t find nothing to steal, they woke us up to make fun of us.

When did you know you wanted to be a comedian?

When I was a little boy, my friends played an album of Bill Cosby, and I fell in love with Bill Cosby stand-up comedy, and I wanted to be a comedian right there and then.

How did you overcome your addiction?

Along the way, I got into a lot of trouble. I was in a gang. I was into drugs, and I got into a lot of trouble and Father Greg Boyle from Humble Industries, he came to my house and he offered to help me, and he put me in a rehab for drug addicts for drug rehabilitation. I was there with a bunch of men. It was more like it was open for all religions, they were, like, nondenominational.

It was funny because on Sundays we would all go to different churches. Then at dinnertime, we would all be together again, a lot of drug addicts. It’s like, heroin addicts, I mean, people who just came out of prison, people who were out of prison from doing 20 years, and these are young men. Me, I was in my 20s, hanging around with these old guys. I’ve never been in prison. I’ve never been in jail. The only crime I committed was bringing videos back late.

He said, ‘Hey, guys, write down five things you want to do in your life and accomplish.’ I didn’t know what to write, so I wrote I want to be a comedian No. 1, of course, because that was my dream. No. 2, I like Olive Garden, so I want to go to Italy. No. 3 was to be happy. Four and five, I couldn’t think of anything else. I really thought that he was going to read these in front of everybody and judge us, but he didn’t. I just put it in my pocket and he said to bring it out whenever you’re feeling sad, or feeling down, or you have a lot to do, pick up your five goals and try to see if you can do at least one. I chose the easier one, to be a comedian, because I wanted to be a comedian.

How did you get started?

Back then there was no social media, so I had to do everything like a caveman. I had to go to the library. Remember the library? That place with books. I went to the L.A. County library on Fifth and Grant in downtown L.A. It’s huge! I went there when it opened, and I asked the librarian to help me find books on comedy writing. She introduced me to a lot of comedy writers, people I never heard of, like Steve Allen. I started learning from those guys, and then I started like checking out books of comedians like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and checking out those videos and taking them home and watching them and bringing them back and picking up another one. One day I picked up a magazine called the L.A. Weekly, and it said open mic for young comedians, and I went over there and I did my comedy show. One of the first comedians I met was Jamie Kennedy, and then from knowing him, I started to know other spots to perform. I met other comedians.

What were your reservations about getting into comedy?

At that time I was worried, like … are only Latino people gonna laugh at my jokes? I was only performing in coffeehouses. Then I went to like other places, but mostly like, Latino people were gravitating to me. They were really laughing.

What was the best piece of advice you’ve received?

I asked Paul Rodriguez, ‘How did you cross over to mainstream America?’ Then we started talking about mainstream America and crossing over and being funny. He said, ‘If you’re funny enough, you don’t have to worry about that stuff. They’re going to cross over to you.’ So I took that with a grain of salt and I stuck to it, and here we are, Sept. 30, HBO special. That kind of advice helped me out a lot.

How do you feel about where you are in your life?

I think I started at the right time, you know? I was born at the right time where social media got big, and I was there when hip-hop started. I was there when the podcast world began. I have a podcast. Now I’m doing a sports show with a woman interviewing me. You know what I mean? I’m in the beginning of the best times. I’m at the cusp, man.

What’s been the hardest part of your journey?

The hardest part of my journey, in my opinion, is staying focused, because as comedians, we have a lot of time to kill. Like right now, if I wasn’t doing this interview with you, I don’t know what I would do. I would probably play Madden for the next four hours. A lot of comedians, they fall off the track. They start worrying about, ‘I’m not famous yet. I don’t have enough followers on Twitter; 12 people showed up to my show. My girlfriend showed up, my ex-girlfriend showed up with her new boyfriend and sat in the first row when I was performing.’ So much stuff goes through my head to be a better comedian.

What advice would you give to other comedians?

My advice to anybody who wants to be a comedian is if you really want to make it in this business, start your family at 39 years old, because this is a very selfish business. This business is all about me, you know? Staying focused and writing every day is one of the main things that I’ve done. I try to force myself to write at least one sentence every day, whether it’s funny or not.

‘Ballers’ recap: Oakland? Miami? Las Vegas? Spencer is home again In the season finale, everybody’s looking for a new start

SEASON THREE, EPISODE 10 | “YAY AREA” | SEPT. 24

There’s no question that Marshawn Lynch would pour up some Hennessy with Spencer Strasmore. Because, in the end, Spencer did everything he could to prevent the NFL from turning its back on The Town.

In the first nine episodes of season three of Ballers, Spencer (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) dedicates himself to leading the charge on relocating the Oakland Raiders from the Bay Area to Las Vegas (which was approved in the real-life NFL earlier this year). In Sunday’s season finale, however, Spencer experiences a huge change of heart after his business partner, Las Vegas hotel tycoon Wayne Hastings Jr. (Steve Guttenberg), pulls a last-minute okeydoke by pledging his checkbook and resources to a competing group also seeking to deliver the NFL to Sin City.

Yet in a presentation in front of NFL owners and executives, including the beautifully cutthroat Candace Brewer (Emayatzy Corinealdi) — the only woman and person of color on the committee of league representatives, mind you — Spencer, Joe Krutel (Rob Corddry), their boss Brett Anderson (Richard Schiff) and his deep-pockets little brother Julian Anderson (Steven Weber), who’s called in at the 11th hour for reinforcement, explain why “the reality is, the Oakland Raiders, they need to stay in Oakland.” His group argues against relocating a third NFL team in two years (after the Rams left St. Louis and the Chargers left San Diego) by proposing a new, state-of-the-art stadium to be built in Oakland, which would be privately funded.

After deliberation, the league approves the privately funded stadium — but in Las Vegas, not Oakland, leaving Spencer with a huge choice to make: Will he continue to support the Vegas push after the NFL screwed him out of his new Oakland plan? Or will he return to Miami to continue his work as the beloved financial and social adviser to NFL players?

Before the episode gets to what the future holds for Spencer, two of his clients, Ricky Jerret (John David Washington) and Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller), reach the brink of huge decisions themselves. Charles takes a meeting with the Los Angeles Rams for the team’s open general manager position, while Ricky takes to his Instagram Stories, with his pregnant girlfriend, Amber, to announce his retirement from the NFL, telling the world that he’s picking a new life as a father over a “roller coaster of a career” full of concussions.

Although Brett and Julian Anderson don’t want to pass up on the opportunity to spearhead the construction of a new Raiders stadium in Las Vegas, Spencer chooses loyalty over money and power by backing out of the deal. He and Joe return to the Anderson Sports Management offices in Miami, where his team is packing up boxes under the impression that the company will be sold to fund the Las Vegas stadium. Yet Spencer announces that not only will the company be retained, but expansion across the country and to encompass more athletes from different sports is also in store.

But maybe as Charles moves up in the front-office ranks of the NFL, and Ricky moves on to a life after football, they won’t need an adviser anymore. We all know, however, that Spencer will still need them.