#Oprah2020 misses the point of her epic Golden Globes speech The media mogul’s speech wasn’t about her at all

Shortly after Oprah Winfrey delivered a galvanizing, inspiring speech about visibility and accountability while accepting her Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes on Sunday night, the internet started gushing over how presidential she sounded. “Nothing but respect for OUR future president,” NBC (not NBC News) tweeted before deleting. Then people started speculating about whether she actually would run for president and arguing about her competence for the office.

But this conjecture unfortunately takes away from the power of Oprah’s speech as its own self-contained, and completely necessary, call to action. Her speech wasn’t about her at all, which is what made it so impactful. She, instead, used her platform and visibility to draw attention to exactly the kind of women who are often shunned and ignored in our society. The most vulnerable among us. The ones who can’t say #MeToo and #TimesUp and speak their truth without experiencing devastating consequences. She lifted those women up in her speech Sunday night, and she also asked men to take an active role in shutting down the cycle of abuse that happens in Hollywood, in media, in academia, in factories, in just about every part of society one can think of.

Before we breathlessly move on to The Next Big Thing in our news cycle, let’s make sure we take a moment to internalize what Oprah told us Sunday night and appreciate the moment for what it was: not the start of a run for the presidency but a night when a black woman, while being honored with a prestigious award, used her platform to tell vulnerable communities that they are seen.

Oprah struck the perfect tone at the Golden Globes, on a night when almost no one else could Her speech remembered the women our society too often forgets

I don’t know what we’d do without the first black woman to be awarded the Cecil B. DeMille award by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. But, by God, what I know for sure is this: We don’t deserve Oprah Winfrey.

Sunday night, Oprah pretty much rendered the rest of the Golden Globes irrelevant, glib and forgettable. The night was supposed to be serious and glamorous but not frivolous, and somehow also funny.

Mostly, it was just weird.

There was a distance and an awkwardness to the show, which is usually a rollicking good time because its guests are spit-shined and boozed up. Sunday’s event had to adjust for the sobering revelations driven by months of #MeToo, days of #TimesUp and an endless parade of expensive black protest dresses. The pendulum indicating the tone of the evening kept swinging wildly and not quite stopping anywhere that felt right, save for host Seth Meyers’ pull-no-punches opening monologue.

Even though #MeToo was the central focus of the evening, even though the movement’s creator, Tarana Burke, was in the room, there was an inescapable whiteness to the celebration. There were the multiple wins for Big Little Lies, which took on the well-heeled lives of quiet desperation led by rich white women in Monterey, California, and barely bothered to consider the details of its one black character, played by Zoë Kravitz. It was also a predictably big night for the adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which made women of color and the racism they face an afterthought. There were the multiple wins for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film whose worst problem may be that it advances the idea that being an incompetent buffoon of a policeman is somehow a worse character flaw than being a violent, power-abusing racist so long as he tries his best to capture somebody’s rapist.

And then Oprah, in a black velvet gown and hair that recalled the glory of her 1998 Vogue cover shot by Steven Meisel, swooped to the stage of the Beverly Hilton like a patronus, not just for Hollywood but for the nation, and delivered the speech we desperately needed to hear.

In 10 minutes, she told us a story that began with Sidney Poitier and the importance of feeling seen, crested with the recognition of invisible women and ended hopeful, joyous and inspiring. She remembered the oft-forgotten women who, she said, “have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farmworkers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.”

Oprah brought us back to earth and out of whatever alternate dimension the rest of the room seemed to be swimming through, and then lifted us up as though she’d been giving Barack Obama speech lessons. When she said, “Their time is up!” she spoke with the authority of a sexual assault survivor who believed what she was saying and made us believe it too.

She humbled us with her invocation of Recy Taylor, the woman who died recently at 97, never having experienced justice after she was brutally raped by six white men one night in 1944 and threatened with death if she spoke one word about what had happened. Oprah made sure the country knew that there are women who had not just their livelihoods but their very ability to live and breathe threatened by men more powerful than them. She recognized Rosa Parks as more than just a sweet lady who refused to give up her seat on a bus but rather as a woman who kicked off a movement for civil rights because she was tired of black women being violated freely and without consequence.

Oprah took all the rage and confusion and hurt and shame and frustration of the past few months and somehow, in her magical singularity, transformed it into not just a light but a beacon.

Singer and actor Rotimi on the difference between him and his ‘Power’ television character Rotimi vs. Dre: ‘I pray for them if they don’t realize that it’s an art. I don’t know what else to do’

“I hate Dre, but this tune by Rotimi is actually a banger.”

I heard Rotimi’s song for the first time yesterday. I had been skipping it ’cause I hate Dre.”

“I really don’t like Rotimi ’cause I don’t like Dre.”

A quick Twitter search including the name of singer and actor Rotimi will reveal a dozen more comments about how torn Power fans are when it comes to distinguishing between singer and actor Rotimi Akinosho, and his character, Andre Coleman (Dre). At the mention of fan conflict, Rotimi laughed it off.

“I pray for them if they don’t realize that it’s an art,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do. I’m just doing my job. If they believe TV is real life, you gotta pray for them.”

Rotimi is not Dre. Dre is not Rotimi. Dre, a handsome, smooth and calculating yet grimy character developed nearly four years ago, is night and day from Rotimi, the smooth crooner whose latest project, Jeep Music, Vol. 1, has captured a different audience with his relatable tunes. But the fun of playing such a different person has taught Rotimi to be more comfortable with his character to reel fans into the storyline.

“I’ve been playing [Dre] for about three years now, so I know who he is,” Rotimi said. “I’ve created a backstory of who he is, how he was as a child, the girlfriends he’s had, why he’s doing X, Y, Z, his daughter. I’ve created a backstory that I’m now comfortable living in. The creator and writer of the show, Courtney Kemp Agboh, she gave me so much freedom that I can finally just live in the character. And that’s what’s happening now.

The 29-year-old does admit that there are only a couple of similarities he shares with his character.

“They’re very similar in terms of ambition. I’m very ambitious and I want to be the best,” Rotimi said. “He wants to be the best. He’s just hungry and I’m hungry. I think that’s the only similarities. Just the hunger for greatness, and that’s what I live every day.”

After perfecting his character for nearly three years on the show, Rotimi has grown accustomed to the reactions.

“This year for me was very polarizing,” he said. “It was music, then acting took over and I feel like people are really confused because I’m really good at both. So being that way, they don’t know what to expect. They don’t know how to truthfully know the difference and I have to accept that because what’s different about Rotimi the person is I’m in this industry, but I’m not of it. I give my craft to them, but it’s like you really believe my part or musically it’s like you really believe what I do. I know that it comes with the territory. Once I signed that contract, I knew my life was now for the people. It’s dope.”

Music was a path that chose Rotimi, born Olurotimi Akinosho, at an early age. As an only child growing up in his Nigerian household in Maplewood, New Jersey, it was possible for Rotimi’s parents to start his musical education at 5 years old. His mother, upon learning he could sing, enrolled him in classes that would help his craft, including learning to play the piano, violin and joining the children’s choir.

“My mom had me singing at weddings at 5 years old. I was a wedding singer. She had me doing that early, and that was my passion. I always listened to Bob Marley as a kid and my mom heard me and it just took off from there for her. My mom did everything that a normal Nigerian woman wouldn’t do. She was my first manager.”

Rotimi and his mother continued to nurture his natural talent and at 15 years old, Rotimi placed first in an amateur night competition at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Rotimi eventually took his talents to Chicago, where he attended Northwestern University and majored in theater. After graduating in 2010, Rotimi remained in Chicago as he figured out his next steps. Singing and songwriting remained his top priorities, but he would need to add a little more to his arsenal.

“After college, I was in Chicago and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I loved music, but I was struggling financially,” Rotimi said. “My manager at the time was like, you really need to just try acting and see how it goes.”

As luck would have it, Rotimi found himself in talks with Hollywood producers and executives who could jump-start his acting career — one being actor, producer and director Kelsey Grammer.

“I went in and it was my first audition that I booked a major role on a TV show called Boss,” Rotimi said. “After booking it, it was kind of like, ‘Whoa. Am I an actor?’ It felt like a natural fit for me. I think it was just my fear of failing. I didn’t want to fail. So, my fear of failing drove me to obsessing over making sure I was doing the right thing. It was natural, but it was the fear of not being good enough that made me want to dedicate my time to this.”

The political drama starring Grammer only lasted two seasons, but gave Rotimi enough experience to take on other roles in projects such as ABC’s short-lived series Betrayal, and movies including Divergent and Deuces, the Netflix originals Imperial Dreams, and Burning Sands before landing a key role on Starz’s hit show Power, one of his most well-known roles to date.

Rotimi’s role as Dre somewhat complements his music career. Although some fans may struggle to differentiate between Rotimi as an actor and what he brings to the table as a musician, he has seen an uptick in the number of fans who are discovering his not-so-secret musical talents with the help of Power.

“It’s been dope because Power puts me on a platform where people actually have eyes and ears to see and listen to what I do,” Rotimi said. “Out of curiosity, they’re like, ‘Oh, he does music? He’s really, actually good at this.’ Power is kind of like a label. It’s like an RCA. It’s like a Jive Records. It puts you on that platform for me where I can show what I do. And I know that my music, when people hear it, they understand it and they get it and they’re like, ‘whoa.’ It’s been good. Negatively, it’s human nature. Some people are like, ‘I don’t know if I should listen to it because it’s Dre.’ But then out of curiosity, they’ll still listen to it and vibe. It’s a beautiful situation and I really thank God for this opportunity.”

The role of Dre has also allowed Rotimi to challenge himself and show more of his personality through “Mr. Sexy Nigerian Buttascotch,” the exaggerated extension, or alter ego, of Rotimi’s Nigerian roots who occasionally appears on the star’s Instagram page.

“He’s always been here,” Rotimi said of the character. “It’s one of those things where I was chilling and I realized I was so afraid of showing my personality as an artist. But when people say show who you are and be true to yourself, that’s something I’ve been doing for years. So, it just felt right one day to just roll the Instagram camera and hit play. Being that it’s been received so much has been really awesome.”

With Rotimi’s career on an upswing, the singer and actor has no plans of slowing down. But greatness, in whatever career path Rotimi has chosen, is what he strives to attain the most.

“I strive for it. I want it, Rotimi said. “I want thousands of people to feel like they have to speak at my funeral. I expect of the world that much. I know what I’m doing is so powerful, and I want people to say he made me feel this way and he did it with a smile.”

Pistons, Cavs, Jay-Z and the Red Wings: 72 hours in the New Detroit Three new arenas have changed the face of the D’s downtown, and a hometown girl wonders if it’s for the better

Digital images of perhaps the world’s most famous rapper flash across giant screens. The screens rise toward the ceiling of Little Caesars Arena, the most recent of three new sports venues to emerge in downtown Detroit. It’s where the Pistons play.

Near one side of Jay-Z’s 360-degree stage, LeBron James, perhaps the world’s most famous current NBA player, can barely control his fandom as Jay-Z delivers his 1999 hit with UGK, “Big Pimpin’.” James and the rest of his team are in town ahead of a Pistons game. For nearly two hours, the arena is roaring. And as the last few fans spill onto Woodward Avenue — the drag in downtown Detroit that also houses Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers play, and Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play — the party ain’t over. Far from it.

The sold-out Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

313 Presents

That’s because the area is a far cry from what it was 15 years ago, when the downtown landscape was practically bare. Empty and windowless brick buildings were the standard. Every now and again you could fall into a hidden gem — a teahouse in neighboring Corktown, near the old Tiger Stadium, served a good quiche, and crumpets with fresh preserves. But those kinds of places were few and far between.

But now? There are sports bars, dive bars, throwback juke joints and new late-night spaces thriving next to revived longtime staples. Taxis line the streets, and people are texting friends to find out where the after-after-parties are. The basketball, baseball and hockey arenas, which also host concerts and even Catholic masses, are central to this bustling scene, daytime as well as nighttime. It wasn’t until this new NBA season that all of the Detroit teams, finally, were playing within the city limits. Welcome, kindly, to the New Detroit.

Now where are all the black folks?

Women hold a coat to shelter themselves from the rain as they enter Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated


In the fall of 1998, I was wrapping up an internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and heading to my first full-time job as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. A roommate’s mom, who was white, asked about my plans. When I told her about Detroit, her reply was, “Ugh. Detroit. The armpit of the Midwest.”

The armpit. Insulting, of course. And, I think, racist. I say that because we’re talking about a majority-black city, and one that has been through so much — too much. In the fall of 1998, it seemed the city was only and absolutely declining, although around the dinner table we’d delight in announcing the city’s upswing, based on the smallest of developments. For me, though, the best development was that I was home.

“It’s like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.” — Rick Mahorn

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, in Oakland County. In one of the white-flight townships to which so many families, white and black, moved after the ’67 riot. Yet I have many memories of my maternal grandparents’ home on Indiana Street between Lyndon and Eaton on Detroit’s West Side. They’d moved after the riots, so Mother actually grew up on Lawton Street. Her childhood home and the block it was on burned down decades ago, never to develop again. It looks now like too many Detroit neighborhoods do.

But downtown Detroit? Working at the Free Press, I drove in at least five days a week. And after the day was done, there wasn’t much to do. Near the newsroom was The Anchor Bar, a socially/racially integrated dive beloved by both Red Wings fans and newspaper reporters. I had more grilled cheese and steak fry lunches there than I care to recount. The Free Press’ offices were about a mile away from where the three new stadiums have sprouted. While cafes and chain restaurants abound now, a week before I started, the big news story was that a Starbucks was opening on East Jefferson. It’s right near Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park that functioned as a student hangout on summer weekends.

An abandoned building in June 2005.

JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

And the city of Detroit was nearly throwing a ticker-tape parade for the cappuccino outlet. Legendary Detroit Piston Rick Mahorn remembers with a laugh that Starbucks excitement. “When I first got to Detroit, in ’85, I was living downtown because I wanted to be close to water, and it was a beautiful view. Wasn’t a lot to do downtown. … I made that commute all the way up to the Silverdome and then the Palace.”

A Detroit native suggested we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places.

The Silverdome, which was imploded on Dec. 5, was in Pontiac, about 31 miles from Detroit’s city limits. The Palace of Auburn Hills, which is soon to be flipped into a “high-tech research park,” is a good 35 miles away from the 313 — Detroit’s area code.

“We love [being back],” said Mahorn, who’s now a radio analyst for the Pistons. “It gives you a more up close and personal feeling. [Team owner] Tom Gores saw a vision to partner up with [Red Wings owners] the Ilitches and the Dan Gilberts [who has invested nearly $2 billion in downtown Detroit] and [current Lions owners] the Ford family. Those things used to be a competition, and now it’s a togetherness to develop the resurgence of Detroit.”

It’s also of course about business and jobs, this downtown sports district with both Comerica Park and Ford Field less than a mile away from the multipurpose arena. “When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.”

Scenic view of downtown Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

But before downtown’s Woodward Avenue was filled with shiny new spots such as Nike Community Store, Lululemon and Under Armour Brand House, as well as line-out-the-door breakfast spots such as the Dime Store or Hudson Cafe — Detroit had not only decades of segregation and decline from which to rebound. It had what felt like a singular tragedy.

A new, fresh, black mayor was elected in 2001. Kwame Kilpatrick was 31 years old, had played on Florida A&M’s football team, was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and became the youngest mayor in the city’s history. Ridiculously long story short, he was a massive disappointment — it started with him using his city-issued credit card to rack up thousands of dollars in personal, luxurious charges, and it ended with an FBI felony corruption case that got him thrown in a federal prison for 28 years. The Kilpatrick case featured sex and money and race and captured big headlines just about everywhere. My old newspaper earned a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of his misdeeds.

But the story, the trajectory of Kilpatrick’s life, still makes me sad. And what makes me sadder is that Detroit was the biggest loser. Eventually, in 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy: the biggest “municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.” Even with some new crowds bringing money to Detroit’s casinos — and those came with much conflict and pushback — Detroit was officially broken.

Ben Wallace came to the Pistons in 2000. He remembers the first piece of advice he and his teammates were given. “People were encouraging us not to go downtown, not to hang out downtown. ‘Whatever you do, avoid going downtown,’ ” said Wallace, who led the Pistons to their third NBA championship in 2004.

The Pistons retired Wallace’s jersey last year; he’d returned to the team after stints in Chicago and Cleveland and finished his career in Detroit in 2012.

He lives in West Virginia now but finds himself periodically in Detroit, like last summer when he was hanging out downtown and marveling at the new arena, which wasn’t quite finished then.

“To see the city coming to life, and people actually walking downtown and enjoying themselves, having a great time. To see people, to see things going up, it was amazing,” Wallace said. “It was a proud moment for me to see the city breathing and finding the light again. It was great for me to actually … see the city thriving.”


At the Free Press, we used to have a weekly features meeting. All were welcome to attend and discuss story ideas. One attendee, a Detroit native, suggested that we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places and talk about the history that used to be there. All over there was emptiness where grandeur used to exist. Detroit wasn’t 360 degrees of pretty. But it was home.

I sold my small suburban condo and moved to downtown Detroit to live with my college roommate Joy, a white woman who grew up in Brighton, Michigan. Brighton neighbors Howell, a town known as the KKK capital of Michigan. Robert Miles, grand dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, lived in a nearby township and hosted rallies there.

Joy and I both worked downtown, she for the rival Detroit News, and quite frankly, as girls from the ’burbs, we wanted that authentic Detroit experience. We saw things that were starting to happen and figured it was an ideal time to be part of building a community.

“When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden.

Comerica Park had just opened, and with it came new life. Hockeytown Cafe was erected next to the historic Fox Theater — a place to grab grub and a brew and head to the rooftop lounge. I remember hanging out with some Detroit rappers and managers there for an open bar event, and you couldn’t have told us we weren’t Hollywood lite.

Downtown Detroit on an uptick? It seemed like it. Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in 2006, and everyone was amped to flex and show the sports world how we’d grown. As is the case in most Super Bowl host cities, empty spaces were quickly rented out, transformed into magical one-night-only party venues with the aid of corporate checkbooks. But daily conveniences were scarce.

Joy and I spent our weekends on Interstate 75, driving 22 miles north to a grocery store in Troy. The headlines back then were that the entire city of Detroit was a “food desert” with no major supermarket chains in the entire city. Joy and I lasted downtown a year. But now there’s a Whole Foods on Woodward, technically in midtown. It opened in 2013, a 21,000-square-foot location, and it’s apparently doing well.

Something Jay-Z rapped to the crowd on Saturday night resonated. See, Jay-Z is from the public housing projects of Brooklyn, New York, and knows about struggle, and about seeing your worn and torn neighborhood transformed into something greater than anyone could have imagined. All this happens as the black and brown people who kept that place alive aren’t able to benefit from the new richness: gentrification.

Paul’s Liquors next to Little Caesars Arena before the Pistons Game. The store has been there before the changes began downtown and is a stop for many of the regulars in downtown.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

There’s an area of Brooklyn called Dumbo, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. In his recent and Grammy-nominated “The Story of OJ,” he raps, I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like $2 million/ That same building today is worth $25 million/ Guess how I’m feeling? Dumbo.


Fans cheer after a goal is scored during the Red Wings game on Nov. 19 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night, the crowd at Little Caesars Arena was different — as I expected. Twenty-four hours before, a hip-hop icon stood center stage and told a sold-out, mostly black audience that kneeling during the national anthem is an act of patriotism and not something for which athletes should be persecuted.

But on this night, there was a white crowd, a characterization that could very well be a stereotype of hockey fans. They were there to take in the Red Wings vs. the Colorado Avalanche. And it did seem like a lot of folks wondered why a lone black woman was roaming around, taking in Gordie Howe’s statue (one of three statues of Red Wings legends that were brought over from Joe Louis Arena, where the team played the season before).

A man stretches on the escalator during intermission at the Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

As happy as I am for all of the new development in downtown Detroit, it comes at a cost — a feeling that hit me as I was sitting perched high in the press box looking down as the Zamboni smoothed the ice rink where Jay-Z’s elaborate stage had been the night before. Culturally, as well as geographically, things just feel so segregated.

On one side of the coin is a pristine new district, one that should be celebrated, as it’s taken exactly 50 years for Detroit to rise from the dust of the 1967 riots. On the other, much of this has come at the expense of long-standing businesses such as Henry the Hatter, which couldn’t afford the 200 percent rent increase and was forced to shut down.

Hallie Desmet, 21, and Megan Elwart, 24, hold each other during a Red Wings game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. The two traveled from Marquette, Michigan, to see the team play for Hallie’s 21st birthday.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“I’ve lived all of my life in Detroit,” said David Rudolph. He’s a small-business owner who played outside linebacker on Michigan State University’s 1988 Rose Bowl-winning team. “What I’m used to is a city that basically lacked a lot of things, so it is kind of special to now live in a city that looks like and starts to feel like other places across the country. Now we have a cross-section of different types of restaurants. We now have all of our sporting [goods] in the area; you don’t have to travel.”

The flip side is there, though. “It’s always been a black town,” he said. “I was born in a time when the legislative body was African-American. Now you’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. … Their presence is way more noticeable. Boutique businesses, small businesses, entrepreneurs coming from all over the place. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes of ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ [But] I never left Detroit. I was really keeping a seat warm … keeping warm whatever was viable about this city through my presence and my business, which has been here for 23 years, through my tax dollars.”


The Detroit Pistons play the Cleveland Cavaliers at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night at the arena, the Pistons game hosted its biggest crowd of the season. The Cavaliers were in the building, and seeing King James live, even if you’re a diehard Pistons fan, is a moment. Fans mill about the newness of the arena loading up on Detroit-famous coney dogs, burrito bowls and Little Caesars pizza.

Pistons fan at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

This night, it’s a diverse group of people, an aesthetic that looks like what some pockets of greater Detroit look like. At a Detroit NBA game, there’s no one culture defining the fan base of Detroit’s newest and shiniest sports arena. It just feels like everyone.

I took my dad with me to see the Pistons. He came to Detroit after he graduated from Alabama State University, and he’s told people he’s from Detroit since forever — he arrived in ’71. He and my mom still live in Oakland County, about 15 miles from downtown, and don’t have a real reason to head downtown with any regularity. Dad marveled at the jam-packed traffic that hit about a mile before we got to the parking structure. There was never traffic on a Monday night in this part of downtown, not that either of us could recall.

Piston fans at Little Caesars Arena on Nov. 20 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“It’s good, in terms of what’s happening,” said Rudolph. “Revitalization. There’s so many good things that I see. I only live seven minutes from downtown. I’ve found over the last couple of years is that I actually travel less out of the city to do a lot of things. Which is what we’ve always wanted. Not always to have to go to metro Detroit to eat. Everything was always outside [downtown]. I slept in Detroit, but I spent all of my time outside of Detroit. So now things have changed. It’s kind of fly. … We’re rediscovering our own city.”


There’s nothing like summertime in Detroit. Nothing.

The downtown festivals gave us life. At Hart Plaza, every weekend there was something different to do. The African World Festival was the spot to go to and stock up on shea butter, black soap and incense for the year. Each summer there were gospel festivals: Detroit staples such as The Clark Sisters, Fred Hammond and the Winans family would perform. And the Electronic Music Festival featured some of the best house music and Detroit-based ghetto-tech music you’ll ever treat your ears to. There was one festival that was noticeably different: the downtown Hoedown, which was the country music festival that would take over Detroit’s downtown streets. It was the one weekend where you would see white people out on, say, Larned Street.

“You’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes: ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ But I never left Detroit.” — David Rudolph

To be at Hoedown, metro Detroit white folks had to engage with the city. They probably felt it was “an armpit.” Homeless folks, with few exceptions, were black. In our minds, they gazed without context at the burned-out buildings and gutted areas — a painful reminder of what racism did to this city 50 years ago during the 1967 Detroit riots.

But today, downtown Detroit is filled with a sea of white folks. I barely counted anyone who looked like me as I dined two days in a row at The Townhouse for brunch. The second day, I took Jemele Hill with me and we sat in an atrium where a DJ played and where of all the patrons, there were four black folks — including us. This is the new Detroit.

On the Pistons team is former NBA player (and native Detroiter) Earl Cureton as Community Ambassador, a role he’s held since 2013. He’s helping the team embed in all kinds of Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Cureton, who played forward-center at Finney High School on Detroit’s east side back in the early ’70s, is charged with connecting the franchise to real Detroit. Cureton grew up in the infamous Mack and Bewick area.

“Tom Gores’ plan was [get] the team to be impactful for the city, not only to entertain basketballwise,” Cureton said at halftime of the Cavaliers game. “We made an attempt at doing that, out at the Palace of Auburn Hills, but now that we’re back — which makes me so happy — we have the opportunity to connect, [and] not just to the downtown area but to areas away from downtown that desperately need it.

“And by the players being right here, it gives them the opportunity to mingle and mix with the kids. The kids get a closer relationship, seeing them, just like I did when I was a kid.”

It’s all different, though. Soon, once the Pistons’ practice facilities are completed, many of those players will take a look at the plush residential lofts popping up on downtown Detroit’s landscape, and at some of the restored historic neighborhoods located not too far from where they punch in. There’s a side that says the white people are here, and so goodbye, poor people. And there’s a side that says wealth is needed to help ease inequality. The way forward likely is someplace in between.

Folks wanted the best for this city. So many black folks stuck around, through the riot, and then the recessions, in hopes of seeing this city rise again. It’s rising again now, and their place in it is uncertain. But it feels like some moves are being made, so that new Detroit is still theirs. Maybe, as the sign flashes when you’re on the escalator at Detroit Metro Airport, my hometown can be America’s Greatest Comeback City. Maybe it can be true for everyone. It’s time.

No matter the circumstance, black men walk through life with swag In their new movies, Denzel Washington, Chadwick Boseman and Rob Morgan walk like brothers with a certain attitude

Something in the way three black men move in their current movie roles is evocative not only of the characters they play but also of the times in which these men each lived.

As soon as Denzel Washington walks on-screen in the eponymous role of Roman J. Israel, Esq., it is clear the two-time Oscar-winning actor is exploring new terrain as an actor. Gone is his soulful strut, which has taken its place alongside Marilyn Monroe’s wiggle, Charlie Chaplin’s waddle and John Wayne’s saunter as one of Hollywood’s most recognizable gaits.

Denzel Washington stars in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Glen Wilson

Instead, in his new movie, Washington walks as if he’s a tightly wound rubber ball who, nevertheless, doesn’t bounce very high, instead rolling through life with harried purpose, often uphill.

In the movie, Washington comes to grips with the internal and external forces he’s been battling to an anonymous and noble draw, just as so many people in real life do.

In movies such as 42 and Get on Up, a James Brown biopic, Chadwick Boseman has used different walks to portray very different men. As Jackie Robinson in 42, Boseman used his walk to portray a great athlete burdened by the pressure of breaking major league baseball’s color line. As Brown, he glided more than walked, a high-flying bird circling his own sun.

Now, as Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, Boseman walks with open and confident strides as the crusading civil rights lawyer who would later become the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice. I’m eager to see how Boseman will walk in Black Panther, a 2018 superhero movie based in Africa. If the teaser trailer is any indication, the Black Panther will walk a little like James Brown. Black superheroes have soul, and they are superbad.

And as Hap Jackson in Mudbound, Rob Morgan walks as if his soul and spirit dance, despite the bone-breaking work he does to support his family in the 1940s American South. And he stands tall, as if he can see a better day for his family and his people.

In Hollywood, actors of all races root their characters in how they move, how they walk. But in much of black America, our men turn everyday walking into a kind of performance art.

During the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. walked with the serenity of a man who could hear the waters parting as he sought to lead his people to the promised land.

Twenty years later, a young Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls walked on to NBA basketball courts as if it were Friday night and he carried two weeks’ pay in his back pocket and the prettiest woman on the South Side of Chicago waiting for him back home.

And a generation after that, Barack Hussein Obama, the nation’s first black president, walked into the White House as if the majestic horns of John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” or Earth, Wind & Fire’s “In the Stone,” fanfares for an uncommon man, heralded his arrival.

When I was a child growing up in Philly, I learned that there was nothing pedestrian about the way black men walked. Instead, each man’s gait revealed a journey, whether it was from the street corners, the factory floors or the cotton fields.

Today, too many young black men walk as if they wear chains around their ankles, tottering back and forth, with no particular place to go. We’d do well to understand the sorrow and disaffection revealed in the way they walk.

In their current movies, Washington, Boseman and Morgan explore the inner and outer space of their characters’ lives. They take us to places we know. They take us to foreign places. They take us to places we’d like to be: a bite of the good life, a sip of forbidden water, the embrace of a good woman.

They ask us to walk with them and see what they see, feel what they feel. We do. And we are better for the journey.

Spike Lee’s ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ reboot is radical and timely With help from a Pulitzer-winning playwright, the reboot is a sexy and worthy binge

It’s appropriate: Right when high-profile white Hollywood actresses and feminists are calling out predatory white men in the industry, igniting a major conversation about sexual harassment and male accountability, an empowered black woman character is speaking out against the street harassment and patriarchy she experiences each day — and she seems to speak for real-life black women everywhere. This character is the iconic Nola Darling from Spike Lee’s progressive new Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It.

DeWanda Wise (Shots Fired, Underground) plays Darling in the small-screen version of Lee’s movie of the same name. More than 20 years after he introduced the radically free character (originally portrayed by Tracy Camilla Johns), the new Nola is still challenging the same archaic, toxically masculine landscape — exacerbated by gentrification and casual racism.


Like in the film, Nola is a smart, 20-something artist and sexually liberated New Yorker who refuses to abide by or be defined by societal norms. She’s a good daughter and a good friend, the type of woman you want in your circle. She balks at commitment, but not because she’s particularly jaded or afraid of it. She just doesn’t find it necessary, especially not when so many men around her are happily and unapologetically engaging in multiple relationships with no strings attached. The playing field isn’t level, but she can still attract and entertain as many men as she pleases.

The difference, of course, lies in the way she is perceived — versus how men are perceived. To men, even the ones she’s bedded, Nola is a “freak,” greedy, and open to any and everyone who wants her, regardless of whether she’s interested. Nola is self-possessed, and she wears club clothes during the day, which is enough to threaten even the most confident man. “What kind of lady acts like a man?” one male character asks. But still, as the saying goes, she persists. Midway through the 10-episode season, Nola experiences a powerful turning point. This isn’t a moment that makes her adjust her identity — Nola’s purpose is actually clarified.

Courtesy of Netflix

A confident evening walk down her block is interrupted by a random man who tries to push himself on her. He fails, fortunately, as she scurries up her steps. Then he calls her a “b—.” Nola is visibly shaken, and angered by the fact that this dude got to her. He made her feel weak and helpless in front of her own home, in the neighborhood where she grew up. As demeaning as the situation is, it thrusts Nola further into her creative work. She produces her most revolutionary piece yet, a graffiti series that calls out rampant street harassment.

Nola Darling splatters words — including “b—-” and “mamacita” — across the walls of Brooklyn buildings. Written anonymously, and while blinded with anger, the artwork strikes a nerve within Nola’s community, imploring both enablers and perpetrators to reckon with themselves.

But as Nola finds this artistic release and reclaims her own power, she’s still confronted by the oppressive natures of the men in her life. Pretty boy Greer (Cleo Anthony), married businessman Jamie (Lyriq Bent) and fellow free spirit Mars (Anthony Ramos) predictably want to rescue her. But Nola resists, leaving each of them to hold their fragile egos in their own hands. She finds her way back to the more grounded and drama-free Opal (Ilfenesh Hadera), a woman with whom she’s been in and out of a relationship. It’s no accident that Nola finds companionship with someone who sees her as an equal, and who embodies maturity and empathy.

This is not to say that Nola is a commitment-phobe. She just chooses to approach romance in a way that satisfies her — and frees her from dictatorial rules of dating and relationships that benefit men. So these three men in particular become extensions of her sexuality, whether they’re comfortable with that or not. Like herself, Greer is self-assured, artistic and constantly searching for his next inspiration. But, as the son of a French black man and a white mother, he’s also blinded by his light-skinned privilege and uses it to present himself as superior to others. He can throw it down between the sheets, though, so there is that.

Jamie is the stable one, the older, distinguished gentleman who has his stuff together but goes home to a wife and son. But that’s OK, as Nola apparently isn’t checking for him quite like that right now, or perhaps any day. Jamie is protective of Nola, always claiming he’s ready to throw it all away for her. He’s fascinated by her youthful spirit and sexy confidence and how easy it is for her to express herself — basically for being everything he is not. But, like all the men in her life, he makes the mistake of thinking his interest in her guarantees a commitment from her.

Courtesy of Netflix

Then there’s Mars, Nola’s kindred spirit. The half Puerto-Rican, half black artist in black-rimmed glasses and new $200 kicks. He’s fun, woke and quirky, makes sex as thrilling as an amusement park ride and is always there just when Nola needs him. He can’t be taken seriously, which is why Nola keeps him around. But he still gets in his feelings when Nola doesn’t give him the attention he craves.

Lee, along with an impressive writing staff that includes Pulitzer Prize winner and professor Lynn Nottage (Sweat), breathes present-day life into Nola at just the time when the amplification and celebration of black women who choose, as opposed to being chosen, is needed. Elevated via a pitch-perfect portrayal by Wise, the new She’s Gotta Have It is unapologetically black, sexy, radical and feminist in a way that has never really seen before on-screen. This is a binge-watch worth your time.

‘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.

Paramount comes to the rescue with Taraji P. Henson movie explaining ‘What Men Want’ With men in charge of, uh, almost everything, it’s really, really hard to know what they’re thinking

You know, I want to be part of the solution and not the problem, and so I’m publicly announcing my commitment to doing a better job of amplifying men’s voices. Because, according to Paramount, we must be living in a matriarchy in which men’s inner thoughts, desires, and insights are a huge mystery. And that’s just not fair.

According to a report this week in entertainment industry publication Deadline, Paramount is remaking the 2000 Mel Gibson film What Women Want with Taraji P. Henson playing Gibson’s role. In The Before Time, when girls did not run the world, Gibson starred in this movie as Nick Marshall, an arrogant, womanizing man’s man of an ad executive who only sees women as potential sexual conquests, ego fluffers or maids. He never bothers to consider women as people with their own thoughts and lives that have nothing to do with him until a bit of magic gives him the ability to hear all those thoughts. Suddenly, Nick realizes, the world does not revolve around him, at which point he becomes a marketing genius because he just starts stealing women’s ideas.

Now Paramount is remaking this movie, and with Taraji P. Henson, who is a woman. Here’s how Deadline describes What Men Want: “The new version follows a female sports agent (Henson) who has been constantly boxed out by her male colleagues. When she gains the power to hear men’s thoughts, she is able to shift the paradigm to her advantage as she races to sign the NBA’s next superstar.”

Man, that whole witch hunt thing went QUICK!

If only we had some magic way to know what men are thinking. Apparently none of them are left to run media companies or Silicon Valley or transportation authorities or real estate empires or universities or four-star restaurant kitchens or law firms or city councils or movie studios or architecture firms or investment banks or any of that stuff.

As an ally, I gotta tell you: Men — you in danger, boys.

It’s so obvious that women are to blame. And so now that the ladies are leaving all their men at home because the workplace is jumping, jumping, I want to extend a hand and say, “I get it.”

Why can no one see that men are the real victims here? That’s why we’ve had 45 straight presidencies — by men. They have to keep running the country because it’s the only way anyone will pay attention to them.

And so to the oh-so-perceptive people running Paramount, I say, you go! Way to be generous! Because if there’s anything the world desperately needs right now, it’s a movie that tells us what men want.

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.”

An unofficial ‘Queen Sugar’ reading list derived from each episode title The epic drama has a treasure trove of writing by black authors

From its all-female roster of directors to its richly saturated cinematography to its truthful, raw dialogue that will have you grabbing Kleenex after Kleenex, Queen Sugar has been one of the most wholly original television shows on the air since its debut in 2016.

So it makes perfect sense that embedded within all but one episode title of season two is an unofficial reading list. As the title flashes in before the episode’s start, it has been eye-catching to notice that each one is named after poems, novels and anthologies by black writers from the Harlem Renaissance era — in particular the poet Countee Cullen.

With director Ava DuVernay at the helm, Queen Sugar’s show execs have done a phenomenal job of paying homage to the past while lifting up contemporary artists of the present. On the cusp of the season two finale, here is a breakdown of how these poems, anthologies and novels relate to the themes of this roller coaster of a season.


Queen Sugar season two, episode one — After the Winter

After the Winter by Claude McKay

Some day, when trees have shed their leaves

And against the morning’s white

The shivering birds beneath the eaves

Have sheltered for the night,

We’ll turn our faces southward, love,

Toward the summer isle

Where bamboos spire the shafted grove

And wide-mouthed orchids smile.

In the season two opener, the Bordelons are facing their own unique and formidable challenges. Nova (Rutina Wesley) is reeling from the aftermath of her breakup with married cop Calvin by taking multiple lovers. Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) is processing the news that their father left the land to him alone while reconciling his relationship with Darla (Bianca Lawson), the mother of his child. Charley (Dawn Lyen-Gardner) is still hurt divorcing her cheating baller husband, Davis (Timon Kyle Durrett). Their son, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe), has a terrifying encounter with a police officer on his 16th birthday. McKay’s poem about finding solace after suffering through a proverbial winter is especially fitting for this episode. Where will the Bordelons find solace after their personal winters?

Queen Sugar season two, episode two — To Usward

To Usward by Gwendolyn B. Bennett

And let us be contained

By entities of Self. . . .

Not still with lethargy and sloth,

But quiet with the pushing of our growth.

Not self-contained with smug identity

But conscious of the strength in entity.

But let us break the seal of years

With pungent thrusts of song,

For there is joy in long-dried tears

For whetted passions of a throng!

To Usward definitely speaks to themes of the episode, as Micah processes his traumatic encounter with the police and Nova organizes a bail fund rally to raise money for people who can’t afford to bail themselves out. This episode represents the struggle that people of color often endure to retain humanity in the face of an unforgiving, institutionalized criminal justice system.

Queen Sugar season two, episode three — What Do I Care for Morning

What Do I Care for Morning by Helene Johnson

What do I care for morning,

For the glare of the rising sun,

For a sparrow’s noisy prating,

For another day begun?

Give me the beauty of evening,

The cool consummation of night,

And the moon like a love-sick lady,

Listless and wan and white.

Johnson declaring her love of night over day is an extended metaphor representing her love of people of color in a mostly white society that explains, in covert and overt ways, that loving blackness is a sin. In this episode the themes are seen in Nova’s sparring and later bonding with love interest Dr. DuBois (Alimi Ballard) over how best to uplift African-Americans in the face of institutional racism, and again with Ralph Angel and Micah as they share their traumatic experiences with each other, and Ralph Angel comforts his nephew Micah. The scenes show how the black family chooses to love each other over and over again, even when they don’t always agree.

Queen Sugar season two, episode four — My Soul’s High Song

My Soul’s High Song, anthology of poems by Countee Cullen

An anthology of poetry and prose from one of the most prominent voices of the Harlem Renaissance.

As usual, Charley and Ralph Angel argue over their methods of tending to the farm, revealing the ever-present distance between the siblings, including privilege, wealth, access and skin tone. One of the recurring themes in Cullen’s work is the emotional fallout of America’s continuous unfair treatment of black citizens. It is fitting that this anthology serves as the title of this episode.

Queen Sugar season two, episode five — Caroling Dusk

Caroling Dusk, a 1927 anthology of poems edited by Countee Cullen

Cullen’s purpose in creating this anthology was to highlight “lights and shades of difference” in poetry by black writers, as he wrote in the book’s introduction. The focal point of this episode presents Charley and Darla as a set of contrasts as they both try to rebuild their lives. Charley is strong-willed, determined, confident and outspoken, while Darla is more tentative and introspective. However, they have more in common than what seems to be on the surface, as Charley struggles with her grief for the dissolution of her marriage. Darla is much stronger than she seems, as she applies for jobs after getting fired and eventually becomes Charley’s personal assistant.

Queen Sugar season two, episode six — Line of Our Elders

Lines to Our Elders by Countee Cullen

Here’s the difference in our dying:

You go dawdling, we go flying.

Here’s a thought flung out to plague you:

Ours the pleasure if we’d liever

Burn completely with the fever

Than go ambling with the ague.

While the episode is titled Line of Our Elders, it is so similar to Cullen’s poem Lines to Our Elders that it must be another homage to this writer. Ralph Angel finally comes clean about who their farm truly belongs to. Charley nearly has a panic attack after a malfunction during the opening of her sugar processing mill. The grief she never expressed over her father’s death comes pouring out in front of the family and members of the press. Both Nova and Charley are hurt that Ralph Angel didn’t tell them about the land being left only to him and express their feelings about the fact that their father excluded them. That last couplet in Lines to Our Elders in particular relates because the episode shows the problems that occur when problems fester and individuals hold feelings within (go ambling with the ague) rather than face the truth head-on (burn completely with the fever).

Queen Sugar season two, episode seven — I Know My Soul

I Know My Soul by Claude McKay

And if the sign may not be fully read,

If I can comprehend but not control,

I need not gloom my days with futile dread,

Because I see a part and not the whole.

Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted

By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.

This episode shows how the characters view themselves by their late father after hearing the amended will that leaves the land solely to Ralph Angel, after they believed the land was left to all three of them. Viewers experience a rift form between the Bordelon siblings as Charley begins to question what she’s doing and where she is going after learning about what she believes are Ernest’s (Glynn Turman) true feelings about her. None of these characters are in control.

Queen Sugar season two, episode eight — Freedom’s Plow

Freedom’s Plow by Langston Hughes

If the house is not yet finished,

Don’t be discouraged, builder!

If the fight is not yet won,

Don’t be weary, soldier!

BETTER DIE FREE,

THAN TO LIVE SLAVES.

This poem certainly echoes themes of episode eight. Nova and Dr. DuBois constantly debate throughout their relationship. Viewers finally discover what happened to Micah the night he was arrested in a heartbreaking scene played beautifully by Ashe. In the scene, Micah describes how the arresting officer put his gun in his mouth and threatened to kill him. The episode shows how these questions manifest themselves in everyday encounters and how they affect the most vulnerable among us.

Queen Sugar season two, episode nine — Yet Do I Marvel

Yet Do I Marvel by Countee Cullen

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:

To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

In this episode, Charley finally learns what happened to Micah when he was arrested, and she blames herself for not preparing him enough for how harsh the world is for young black men and women. The episode introduces Charley’s mother, Lorna, who is white. Suddenly we gain a better understanding of Charley — why she grew up apart from Nova and Ralph Angel, the distance between the three siblings, and why Charley has struggled to determine where she truly belongs.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 10 — Drums at Dusk

Drums At Dusk, a 1939 novel about the Haitian Revolution in 1791, by Arna Bontemps

It is fitting that Drums at Dusk — a novel that explores the connection between wealthy plantation owners, poor whites, free people of color and the slaves who staged the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere — is the title of this episode. We see these themes of land, money, blood and power in Charley’s ongoing conflict with the Landrys, who used to be the only family with power and land in the parish. And they are determined to take away what little of both the Bordelons have managed to attain. Charley is undermined by the Landrys in ways great and small, and it is a conflict that her mother, as much as she loves her, simply cannot understand because she has never experienced the racism and sexism Charley has come up against her entire life.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 11 — Fruit of the Flower

Fruit of the Flower by Countee Cullen

And yet my father’s eyes can boast

How full his life has been;

There haunts them yet the languid ghost

Of some still sacred sin.

Cullen’s poem about his ambivalence about the two sides of his heritage fits the theme of this episode, as this is when we learn about the true nature of the relationship between Charley’s mom, Lorna (played by Sharon Lawrence), and Nova and Ralph Angel’s mom and their father, Ernest.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 13 — Heritage

Heritage by Countee Cullen

What is Africa to me:

Copper sun or scarlet sea,

Jungle star or jungle track,

Strong bronzed men, or regal black

Women from whose loins I sprang

When the birds of Eden sang?

Cullen’s poem asks important questions: “Who am I?” “How do I hold on to my humanity in the face of chaos?” And in this episode of Queen Sugar, each character asks these questions in some form or another. Darla’s parents return after a years-long estrangement; Remy and Charley ponder what next steps they should take in their budding romantic relationship; and by the end, Darla’s father encourages her to reveal a painful secret that has devastating consequences: Ralph Angel might not be Blue’s father.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 14 — On These I Stand

On These I Stand, an anthology of poems self-selected by Countee Cullen, which was published a year after his death in 1946

Charley and Nova face professional challenges, while Ralph Angel slowly unravels in the wake of the news about Blue possibly not being his son.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 15 — Copper Sun

Copper Sun, a 1927 collection of poetry by Countee Cullen

Cullen’s third book of poetry, where he discusses love and race relations in more oblique terms, serves as the title of the penultimate episode of season two. Ralph Angel tells Charley, Nova, Aunt Vi and Hollywood about Blue, and the whole family feels the reverberations of Darla’s secret. And Darla, who has worked so hard to regain the Bordelons’ trust, appears to have lost it forever. Meanwhile, Micah faces suspension after he channels his Aunt Nova and protests the display of Confederate memorabilia at his posh private school. Each member of the Bordelon family faces the consequences of his actions — or inactions.