‘Tell Them We Are Rising’: Q&A with filmmaker Stanley Nelson The documentary highlighting and celebrating the importance of HBCUs airs Monday night on PBS

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson was on a mission.

After more than 20 years of experience directing and producing, Nelson believed it was time to pay homage to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have done so much to contribute to the world in which we live today. The 100-plus HBCUs still in existence were the first to extend a warm welcome to black students who sought higher education, and many of the black doctors, lawyers, inventors and civic figures heralded for their work to better mankind were the very students who were first turned away from predominantly white institutions.

Thinking of those who came before him, including his father, who graduated from Howard University, Nelson was prepared to celebrate the successes of HBCUs with compelling storytelling through the eyes of those who have experienced the power of education at black colleges and universities.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities begins with the enslavement of black people, when education was forbidden, and explores the arduous journey individuals took to fight for what others had. The documentary ties these connections to modern-day education and transforms into an explanation of why HBCUs still remain so important to our society. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students enrolled at HBCUs rose by 32 percent between 1976 and 2015. Total enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 81 percent, from 11 million to 20 million, during that period.

Tell Them We Are Rising debuts Monday on PBS’ Independent Lens at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the conversation on social media through the hashtag #HBCURising.

The documentary airs tonight. How are you feeling about the nationwide debut of Tell Them We Are Rising?

I’m feeling great. It’s been a year since we premiered at Sundance, so it’s been a year of gearing up to get it seen by a wider audience on TV. It feels great.

How long had the documentary been in the making?

We were probably about three years in production, but probably about five years before that in terms of writing proposals, honing down the idea, and then raising money. And it’s been done for a year. So probably about nine years since the first time I said, hey, let’s do a film about HBCUs, until today. It’s been percolating for a long time.

How were the stories selected?

It was kind of a complicated process. One of the things about this film is that there’s hundreds of great stories of HBCUs, so there’s hundreds of different ways to go. We wanted to tell stories that were dramatic, that were entertaining, that gave an idea of the progression of HBCU history. And there are a couple of stories and ideas that we knew going in that we wanted to cover. So I knew, going in, that I wanted the film to start at the time of enslavement, when education was denied to African-Americans and to set up the idea of the importance of education as something that was denied to African-Americans that became much more important to have that thing that was denied. So there were certain stories like that we knew we wanted to cover. The Howard law school story, the amazing story of it bringing the Brown v. Board of Education suit to fruition. It was a matter of looking for other stories that would help us to tell this long, incredible story of black colleges and universities.

Were there any stories told in the documentary that you wish you could’ve spent more time on?

I think that it all worked out for us. We wanted to tell stories. We didn’t want this to just be a list of a bunch of schools. We went in knowing that what we were telling were short stories. We’re not telling the stories of the killings at Southern in an hourlong documentary. We’re not telling the DuBois-Booker T. story in an hourlong documentary. In some ways, going in, it was freeing to know that I could tell these as short stories.

Were there any stories that didn’t make the cut, but resonated with you?

One thing that happens for me, to be perfectly honest, is that when I finish the film, I kind of don’t think too much about what I didn’t use or couldn’t use or something that I wish I could use. I think, for me, it would just drive me insane to see the film and think about what I wish I could’ve done. So I kind of look at it as a whole. For however my mind works, it’s really good at that. Because I forget. I know stories that we cut, but I don’t feel bad that we cut them. If we had another five hours, we could give you another five hours of stories. I don’t think that you’d want to sit there and watch them, but we could give you those stories.

There are emotions that surface while watching certain scenes. As a producer, director, writer, how do you sort of control your own emotions when piecing these scenes together?

One of the things that happens is you go into producer-director mode and if you know you’re getting something that’s emotional, where the former governor of Louisiana [Edwin Edwards] even today blames the students for getting killed. We know that that was a great piece of film that was really going to help the film. You’re kind of in that other space. I’m a filmmaker, and I realized I was getting something that was going to really serve the production and the film. Inside, I’m not angry. Part of me is just saying, ‘Yes! I’m getting something good here.’ At that point, it’s not about me. It’s about being able to tell this story in a very powerful way to a great number of people.

Later on in the documentary, you have the quote from Richard Robert Wright to Oliver Otis Howard about the plight of former slaves. “Tell them we are rising,” is what Wright said. What about that response spoke so deeply that you wanted to name the documentary after it?

One of the things that happens so many times when you make a film is that sometimes, you have a name going in. You know what you want to call the film before you have the film. Sometimes, you’re in the final stages of editing and you’re still trying to figure out what the name of it is. When we heard that story, we just thought that it embodied so much of the history of black colleges and universities. When the young man told them,”Tell them we are rising,” we thought that was a great title and really kind of had the feeling that we wanted the film to have. The feeling of rising, of positivity, of moving forward.

There’s one point in the documentary where HBCU grads spoke about the type of care and concern teachers showed. It was almost like extended family. Do you think that still exists at HBCUs today?

I think one of the things that HBCUs have done and still do is that they provide a very nurturing environment for their students and that’s been one of the hallmarks for HBCUs since the beginning. That’s something that they still do today. They not only educate, but tell students they can do it. There’s a huge number of students on Pell grants. There’s a huge number of students who are the first generation in their families to attend college. Students are going to need that nurturing, support, that love that they’ll get at HBCUs. It helps them to go forward. In my own family, my father and his brother were the first people to graduate high school. My father went on to Howard and was nurtured there. He was told over and over again that he could do it, that college was for him and he could make it. He went on to the [Howard University College of Dentistry], became a dentist, and is one of the reasons why I’m sitting here talking to you today.

In the 1970s, there were protests at Southern University stemming from financial problems and resources being distributed unevenly. Today, it seems like some of our schools continue that uphill battle. What will it take to preserve these legacies? How can HBCUs survive and thrive?

What I’ve realized today is that we can philosophize about what they need, but really the answer to that is what we can do to support HBCUs. That’s either to support your school or the school of your choice. You can support the Thurgood Marshall College Fund or the United Negro College Fund, which together financially represents the vast majority of HBCUs. Naturally, the question is what can I do to support these HBCUs. And I think it is to give financially. I’m going to do that. I’m going to start tithing my little bit of money per month to HBCUs, and I’ll be glad to do it. I will feel better knowing me and my family give every month to support HBCUs. I think that’s really the answer. We can talk about what HBCUs can do better, but that real question is what we can do as individuals — and collectively?

You’ve visited various HBCU campuses to promote Tell Them We Are Rising. What was that like?

It was crazy. It was great. People came in their school colors and we had standing ovations. What was interesting was that people came from the different cities and towns we were in and also in other school colors, because not everybody in that town went to the same school. People would cheer when their schools came on. The reaction was just wonderful.

These are the schools that I’ve gone to with the film: Howard, Dillard, Jackson State, Virginia State, Fisk, Claflin, Florida A&M, Tennessee State, Texas Southern, Southern, Shaw, Benedict, Morgan State, South Carolina State, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Spelman, North Carolina Central and Allen. Those are the schools that I went to. The film also went to many other schools that I didn’t visit myself. It’s been incredible to be on these campuses, to be with the students and faculty, and see the energy and the love the people have for their HBCUs.

I would be exhausted if I were you.

I am! But it’s been great and fun.

What’s next for you?

[Tell Them We Are Rising] is part of a trilogy we’re doing for PBS. The first film was The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The third is called The Slave Trade: Creating a New World, which is about the Atlantic slave trade and the business of slavery. We’ll be taking a new look at all the incredible new research that’s been done on the slave trade and try to look at it as this business that existed and set so many things that we know today.

How do you balance promotion of this film, and production on the next?

I don’t know how to answer that question. We have a great producer working on the slave trade project. The producer is researching and getting the project off the ground. We’re still raising money for that project and we’re going to go into full production mode pretty soon. We did the same thing with Tell Them We Are Rising. I was running around with the Black Panthers, and we had a great co-producer and co-director named Marco Williams who really worked to do research, get the project off the ground and do a lot of the interviews with this film. As a filmmaker who wants to eat and support a family, it’s not like I can make a film and then stop, wait another year and go on to the next film. I have to figure out how to keep working.

What do you hope the audience takes away from this documentary? Is there one thing you hope resonates more than others?

I hope that the audience is entertained. It’s one of the things we try to do while making these films. Sometimes, they can have a very important and lasting point, but it doesn’t do anything if you’re not entertained by the film. We want them to be entertained and be told something new and have them learn from these great stories that we tell. But the bottom line is that, hopefully at the end, they understand the importance and the pivotal role that black colleges have played not only in the lives of African-Americans, but in all Americans in the world. At certain changing points in our history, it’s been black colleges and black college students who have led the way.

 

‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ doesn’t tell the whole story of HBCUs, but it’s a start Documentary on PBS is the equivalent of an introductory survey course

A new PBS documentary about the nation’s historically black colleges and universities might just provide the best argument for a multihour, Ken Burns-type epic exploration of the subject.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities will air as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series on Feb. 19. Directed by Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution), Tell Them We Are Rising goes broad but not particularly deep as it attempts to recount the history of black higher education from slavery to the present day in an hour and 25 minutes.

It’s a useful primer for those who might not be familiar with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or their purpose, but Tell Them leaves much on the table when it comes to specifics. The documentary arrives at a time when the future of many HBCUs is uncertain as schools face the compounding weight of decades of financial strain, growing competition for students and pressure to keep tuition costs down.

Tell Them is at its best when delving into the birth of the institutions, many of which were established with the help of government land grants after the Civil War. Nelson outlines the philosophical differences between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington and briefly touches on the fact that in their infancies, many HBCUs were run by white presidents. While Nelson outlines the story of Fayette McKenzie, the Fisk University president who tried to ban any sort of social interaction between the sexes in 1924, he neglects to follow the legacy of McKenzie’s thinking, which shows up in the visitation policies on many a modern HBCU campus.

There are so many valuable, urgent story lines worth mining, and Tell Them simply doesn’t have the time to do them justice. The tradition of activism on HBCU campuses, which resulted in the creation of African-American studies programs and the de-Anglicization of many HCBU liberal arts programs also resulted in a deadly crackdown at Southern University. There’s the role fraternities and sororities such as Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Omega Psi Phi played in creating influential networks of black professionals. The legacy of protest hasn’t evaporated from modern HBCU campuses, but Tell Them falters in connecting past narratives to the present, whether it’s Howard University students protesting the George W. Bush administration or students nationwide criticizing their administrators for meeting with President Donald Trump. So much is curiously absent from the film, such as an exploration of the role Morehouse College played in shaping Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries in the civil rights movement. Mary McCleod Bethune, the founder of what’s now Bethune-Cookman University and one of the chief architects of black higher education, is an afterthought.

It’s a useful primer for those who might not be familiar with HBCUs or their purpose, but Tell Them leaves much on the table when it comes to specifics.

Tell Them functions as an outline for what ought to be a deep-dive serialized documentary. Such a format would offer more opportunity to address questions such as what to make of the controversial legacy of the nation’s first black president when it comes to federal treatment of HBCUs. What challenges do they face from a current presidential administration that so far only seemed interested in convening the presidents of those institutions at the White House to use them as props? What are the modern issues students are facing at HBCUs, whether it’s the fight for queer visibility or addressing a national dilemma of campus sexual assault that presents unique challenges for HBCUs and their students?

Still, it’s understandable why we haven’t seen a splurge on such a subject. It’s expensive and time-consuming, and there are only a couple of networks (TV One and BET come to mind) that might be interested in the sort of exhaustive research I’m suggesting, and even then it’s a stretch. Maybe Netflix, with its seemingly endless pool of programming funds, would be willing. Maaaaaaybe.

Tell Them We Are Rising introduces the idea that HBCUs are under threat, and it certainly seems to support the idea of their continued existence. But aside from a broad history lesson, it stops short of offering much else.

Why ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ is a must-see The documentary tells the story of how black colleges brought our people out of slavery

I have watched Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Tell Them We Are Rising, three times now.

The first viewing was in 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival, where Nelson and his team received a standing ovation after the audience watched the film. The second was last summer at a private screening in New York, where Nelson discussed the film and filmmaking with five students from historically black colleges. The third time I joined an audience in the Oprah Winfrey Theater at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to view the film on Monday with Nelson in attendance.

Each viewing uncovers new nuggets of insight that underlined the tenacity and resilience of enslaved men and women so desperate for education that they risked death to learn to read.

Nelson said he was inspired to tackle Tell Them We Are Rising for multiple reasons.

His parents attended historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His mother, Alleluia Ransom, attended Talladega College in Alabama. His father, Dr. Stanley Nelson, attended Howard University. “That changed their lives, and it changed my life,” he said.

Nelson’s larger vision was to pay homage to a significant African-American institution. The subject was not particularly sexy, but it illuminated the quest for black freedom through the prism of higher education. “There have been just a few institutions that we’ve had as African-Americans that have sustained us,” Nelson said during a recent interview. “One of them is black colleges and universities. I thought that it was a story that nobody was lining up to tell.”

With several Emmys, a Peabody and MacArthur Fellowship, Nelson has become one of the country’s most accomplished documentarians. This film, Tell Them We Are Rising, may have been one of the most difficult he has attempted.

There were challenges and hurdles. The first was how to take a collection of great but individual HBCU stories and weave them into a narrative that described a powerful, overarching experience.

“So many times, people think of it as the Morgan State story or the Howard story or the Fisk story or the Spelman story,” Nelson said. “Nobody was looking at it as a united story.”

Unlike his powerful civil rights documentary Freedom Summer, based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, there was no one classic text to draw from. In Tell Them We Are Rising, Nelson and his team had to piece together footage, articles, photographs, “everything we could” to tell a captivating story.

The other challenge was telling the story of an institution whose history continues to unfold.

His 2015 documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, accounted for a period between 1966 to 1972 and chronicled certain watershed moments. By contrast, Tell Them We Are Rising covers the 150-year journey of black colleges in 90 minutes.

Some scenes were especially hard to watch, as the film explores historical events particularly personal to African-American viewers, such as the killings by law enforcement of Southern University students Denver Smith and Leonard Brown during 1972 protests, which remain unsolved.

Every black college graduate 65 or older lived through one of these moments, whether at a predominantly white institution petitioning for more black awareness or at an HBCU petitioning a conservative administration to take back its blackness.

But as president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund Michael Lomax said, the story of HBCUs is not simply a story of deprivation, need and want.

“The story of HBCUs as Stanley tells it is the story of powerful action,” Lomax said. “There are so many stories to choose from we had to figure out what stories would work and leave the audience with a sense of what black colleges have been and maybe where they are going.”

One of the most poignant moments of Tell Them We Are Rising takes place at Spelman College when Alversia Wade, an incoming freshman, explains why she chose the institution.

Wade spent her young academic career, from kindergarten through high school, as the single black student in her school. She describes the feeling of walking on campus and seeing a sea of fellow black students. “They all look like you,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “They all looked like you.”

Tell Them We are Rising, which airs Monday night on PBS, comes at a time when there is a hunger for positive, powerful images and good news within the far-flung black community.

On Friday, Marvel’s much-anticipated superhero film, Black Panther, will open in theaters across the country. Nelson was working on his Black Panther documentary when Marvel announced it was planning to release its superhero movie in 2018.

“When I first heard about it, I thought about Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and the bunch,” Nelson said.

There was some confusion. “People would call up and say, ‘I hear you’re working on this Black Panther film, is it Marvel or is it DC?’ ” Nelson recalled. “I said it’s neither one of them. It’s real life.”

He looks forward to seeing the film. “It’s that it’s creating so much excitement. Like, it’s something African-Americans needed and didn’t know they needed.”

The HBCU student, in many ways, is like the hero of Black Panther — a mythical African superhero existing outside the suffocating institutionalized racism that defines virtually every minute, every hour, of life for black Americans. While their institutions are often under-resourced, black students who choose the HBCU experience enjoy the psychic respite and reinforcement of being in the majority.

At a time when 9 percent of black college students were enrolled at an HBCU in 2015, the often-asked question is do we still need HBCUs? The question overlooks the reality that 90 percent of black students are spread over thousands of predominantly white institutions, leaving those who attend a significant but often overwhelmed minority. The largest concentration of young black college students resides at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities. For many young students, that alone is worth the price of the ticket.

HBCUs are not for everyone, no more than single-gender schools are not for everyone. Still, black colleges and universities are needed more than ever.

During a post-film panel discussion Monday, former Spelman president Johnetta Cole said, “If historically black colleges and universities did not exist, we would have to invent them. … Since they do exist, we have an extraordinary responsibility to support them.”

“Until racism and racialism end in this country, there will be a need for HBCUs,” Nelson told me. “Until the education system is an even playing field — from elementary school to junior high school until college, until those things are equal — we still need HBCUs. Until we have an equal society, young African-American people need a safe intellectual space that HBCUs provide.”

Lomax, the United Negro College Fund president and CEO, said Tell Them We Are Rising was “an inspirational story. It is a call to action to our community, first and foremost to invest in them, to own them, to support them and to ensure that they remain durable in the future.”

That resonates.

Tell Them We Are Rising challenges those of us who attended HBCUs. A challenge to look in the mirror, to step up, to donate what Cole referred to as the three Ts: our time, our talent and our treasure.

This is the only way HBCUs will continue to rise.

“These institutions will not survive without our support,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”


To share in the conversation about Tell them We Are Rising, join us on social media Monday, using the hashtags #HBCURising and #BHMxHBCU.

‘Black Panther’s’ superpower allows it to leap over other superhero movies in a single bound More than a cool-looking bit of escapism, it’s a meditation on colonialism

This review contains spoilers.

The most anticipated superhero movie of the year, and quite possibly ever, is a movie about foreign policy.

In Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler has crafted a thoughtful, personal, detailed exploration of the implications of isolationism and colonialism. It’s gorgeous, emotional and full of inventive, eye-popping fight scenes. And it’s also a really good movie, and not just by the curved standards we’ve developed for standard superhero tentpoles.

Honestly, the worst thing about Black Panther is that it had to be released in 2018 and not during the term of America’s first black president. (The producers of The Final Year, the documentary about former President Barack Obama’s real-life Justice League of Wonks and Nerds, must be kicking themselves.)

Try to imagine all the regal African pageantry of Black Panther’s Los Angeles premiere, copied and pasted onto the East Wing of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Had Black Panther been released while Obama was in office and enjoyed a screening at the White House, it would have made for some powerful symbolism, with Obama, the biracial son of a Kenyan graduate student, greeting Chadwick Boseman, the son of Howard University who plays T’Challa, the king of the movie’s mythical African nation of Wakanda. It also would have offered a lasting rebuke to the legacy of President Woodrow Wilson’s White House screening of a different and deadlier fantasy, The Birth of a Nation. (PBS recently aired Birth of a Movement, a documentary that illustrates the way film, particularly D.W. Griffith’s racist Klan propaganda film, became a powerful force in influencing policy.)

It’s quite moving, then, to consider the message embedded within Black Panther, spread through every inch of Hannah Beachler’s meticulously luscious production design, every stitch of Ruth E. Carter’s costuming creations, every word of dialogue conceived by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole.

The worst thing about Black Panther is that it had to be released in 2018 and not during the term of America’s first black president.

Boseman may be the titular star of Black Panther, but the emotional core of the movie lies with the character of Erik Killmonger, who is T’Challa’s cousin and a lost son of Wakanda. Coogler reserved the most complex role for his friend and leading man of his two most recent films, Michael B. Jordan.

Killmonger grew up in the slums of Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, with his American mother. His father, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), was brother to T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka (John Kani).

N’Jobu and T’Chaka had a fundamental disagreement over Wakanda’s role in the world. The country is a magical one, built on a foundation of the mythical substance vibranium, and hidden in plain sight in West Africa. Vibranium is a substance of endless capability, a wonder of physics that absorbs the energy directed toward it, then uses it as fuel. When ingested, it possesses healing qualities, rendering surgery obsolete. When sewn into clothes, it turns into the sort of lightweight supersuit that Tony Stark could only dream of. Used as fertilizer, it nurtures a herb whose fruit allows those who ingest it to commune with the dead. To outsiders, Wakanda looks like an underdeveloped Third World nation, full of brush and goats. The people of Wakanda have pledged to guard its most closely held secret: that with technology powered by vibranium, it’s actually the most advanced society in the world, a place that makes Elon Musk’s house look like little more than a fancy pigsty.

There’s a compelling argument for keeping Wakanda, which accepts no foreign aid and does no importing or exporting, isolated from the rest of the world. Its people have witnessed how colonialism has ravaged the continent, stealing people and dividing families, poaching precious metals and natural resources, creating arbitrary borders and deadly conflicts and leaving corrupt governments in its wake.

In fact, in the rare instances when they encounter white people, Wakandans simply refer to them as “colonizers.”

But N’Jobu, dispatched to see the rest of the globe, encounters a world full of disenfranchised people who look like him, ignorant of the bounty of Wakanda and struggling against the effects of imperialism and systemic racism. He wants to use vibranium to help them. But T’Chaka says no, worried that once the world learns of Wakanda’s secret, it will suffer the fate of the rest of colonized Africa. At the least, Wakanda will be forced to defend itself against ill-intentioned and well-armed outsiders. When N’Jobu decides to subvert his brother’s orders, T’Chaka is forced to kill him, and little Erik discovers his father’s corpse.

About 20 years later, after the U.S. military and intelligence community has turned him into an efficient, merciless, death machine, Killmonger sets out to complete his father’s vision.

It’s too simplistic, and frankly unfair, to label Killmonger simply as a villain. He’s an angry, half-orphaned son of Wakanda whose mind has been colonized in ways he’s incapable of realizing. Without the support of his homeland and his people, lacking the spiritual grounding that protects vibranium and Wakanda, Killmonger grows into a Che Guevara-like figure. He commits what French philosopher Frantz Fanon called “horizontal violence” against his own people.

Therein lies the brilliance of Black Panther. Superhero movies don’t have to be plotless monuments to excess and violence. With this film, Coogler illustrates the yawning expanse between self-indulgent brooding and true profundity.

Coogler puts on a filmmaking clinic, expertly navigating the tropes of superhero films that have made so many of them a chore instead of a joy. Coogler snatched one of Zack Snyder’s (300, Watchmen, Man of Steel) most irritating directorial habits, shooting action and fight scenes in the dark, and made it not just watchable but artful. That’s what happens when you have cinematographer Rachel Morrison at your service — you find natural ways to capture black people in action while retaining detail and color. Morrison recently became the first woman to be nominated for a cinematography Oscar for her work on Mudbound.

Superhero movies don’t have to be plotless monuments to excess and violence.

There is little that feels derivative, aside from the battle scenes with Wakanda’s flying saucers, which feel like they could easily appear in Guardians of the Ragnarok Star Wars, which isn’t wholly surprising given that they’re all Disney properties (full disclosure: Disney owns The Undefeated). The fight scenes in Black Panther feel original, and organic to the film. That’s a challenge considering how often Marvel employs the same second unit (the people who shoot and choreograph fight scenes) across its movies, which leads to a superhero battle homogeneity.

Everything about Wakanda is rooted in real African nations and peoples, such as the Masai, the Zulu, the Mursi and others, not the imagined “generic tribal African” who shows up in pop culture so often. For instance, the setting of the challenge battle, which determines who will ascend to the throne, is a nod to the natural majesty of Victoria Falls. Audiences have every right to be angry at cultural appropriation when it’s poorly done. Coogler and Black Panther prove that having such expectations is not unreasonable or misplaced.

There’s a quote from playwright and director George C. Wolfe that graces the walls of the Blacksonian in Washington. “God created black people,” said Wolfe, “and black people created style.”

That’s the essence of Wakanda.

Black Panther doesn’t feel like any other Marvel movie because this is not a typical Marvel movie. It’s coming out in the middle of Black History Month, and it’s on track to perform just as well as if not better than any highly anticipated summer blockbuster. It’s funny without falling into the sort of smart-aleck remark-smart-aleck remark-EXPLOSION rhythms that have come to typify Marvel movies to the point that somehow Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 don’t feel all that different. That’s not just a Marvel tic, that’s a Hollywood tic: Find something that works and then run it into the ground. Then reboot it, rebrand it and spin it off as long as it makes gobs and gobs of cash.

There is a requisite scene that connects the film to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s a postscript that comes after the credits roll. It’s the only bit that feels like it was mandated by the company. Best of all, Black Panther doesn’t feel as though Coogler had to sacrifice the brilliance and introspection that characterized his earlier movies such as Creed and Fruitvale Station for scale and product licensing. Instead, it’s a compelling character study and full of mirth. That’s especially thanks to T’Challa’s upstart younger sister, Shuri, played by Guyanese actress Letitia Wright, Black Panther’s breakout actress. She’s witty, charming and completely unfazed by her brother’s enormous power and responsibility. She’s also Wakanda’s whip-smart gadget mistress, the Q to T’Challa’s Bond. Also notable are the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s elite, all-female corps charged with guarding the king. Remember the feeling that swelled from your gut to your heart and out your eyeballs while watching Diana Prince walk through No Man’s Land in Wonder Woman? Witnessing the Dora Milaje, especially any scene that includes Okoye (Danai Gurira) or Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is like that, times 10.

At some point, I suspect that chatter surrounding Black Panther will turn to the 2019 Oscars. Black Panther’s masterful execution makes it an undeniably obvious choice. Not only does it have the revelatory newness of Avatar, but it actually has a story to back it up too.

But beyond the concerns of awards or box-office receipts, Black Panther is something special: thoroughly African and yet completely American, and evidence of just how much black people can and have yet to do. Perhaps it’s even capable, just as The Birth of a Nation once was, of helping to steer an entire national conversation.

These ladies star in Secret’s campaign highlighting successes of women in football The company partnered with the NFL to showcase inspiring women

The success of women in the sports world, particularly those who have been pioneers in their areas, is something that Secret, the antiperspirant brand, deemed worthy of a celebration. This football season, the company partnered with the NFL to showcase women who are rocking out in the field and inspiring others along the way.

“At Secret, we understand the pressures women face both in their personal and professional lives on a daily basis,” said Janine Miletic, Secret’s brand director. “When you add the stress of working in a male-dominated industry to navigating societal and cultural expectations, it can be a very real barrier to achieving your dreams. The women in the NFL are exceptional examples of people who have dedicated their lives and careers to redefining expectations. Our hope is that with more visibility, they can inspire even more women to take their careers and the inevitable stress head-on.”

The series kicked off during the opening week of the NFL regular season with a video tribute during the Sept. 11 Monday Night Football game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos. The four-part video series features Jacqueline Davidson, director of football administration for the New York Jets; Kimberly Fields, the NFL’s special assistant to the commissioner; Michele Tafoya, the Sunday Night Football sideline reporter for NBC Sports; and Samantha Ponder, host of ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown.

According to the annual Racial and Gender Report Card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, NFL hiring practices have improved from previous years, including an increase in the number of women and people of color at or above the vice president level. In the league office in 2015, there were 21 people of color at or above the vice president level, and in 2016 there were 24. This year, that number increased to 31, and women at or above the vice president level jumped from 35 to 45.

The percentage of women at the management level in the league office increased to 35.4 percent in 2017 from 31.6 percent in 2016, becoming the highest percentage in the report’s history. The percentage of diverse employees at the management level increased by 1.5 percentage points, from 26.9 percent in 2016 to 28.4 percent in 2017. The NFL league office earned an A for racial hiring practices, the report stated.

The women involved in the campaign have always had a love for sports, and their determination to be the best at what they chose to do kept them grounded.

“I was inspired to work with Secret because I think it is important for young women to see themselves represented in every industry, and this partnership is highlighting women across the NFL and providing the next generation with examples of what is possible,” Davidson said.

Davidson always knew she’d be involved in sports, beginning as a young girl growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She spent her days watching Alabama football games, and by the time she was 15, the popular 1996 sports film Jerry Maguire helped Davidson confirm that she indeed wanted a job in the sports industry.

Davidson enrolled at Davidson College in North Carolina as an economics major and spent a semester at Howard University in Washington, D.C. While there, she landed a summer internship at ESPN, which would be her first time experiencing what it was like to work in sports. After graduating, Davidson headed to Cornell Law School in New York and interned with the NFL Management Council. Although she worked as a law clerk for years, her heart remained set on finding a job within the NFL.

“In 2007, the opportunity came along, and I took a football administration position with the New York Jets,” Davidson said.

Davidson immediately noticed and appreciated that her colleagues valued her opinion as a woman, but she also recognized some of the struggles women face in the field.

“I attribute that to [NFL chief administrator of football operations] Dawn Aponte having preceded me,” Davidson said. “Having a strong, competent woman most likely made my experience unique in that the idea of a woman in this type of role was not a novelty to the Jets organization. Outside of Dawn, however, there were not many women in this field, so when you are young and finding your way in this profession, your options for a mentor or a sounding board are really limited.”

Ponder knows all too well about the downsides of being a woman in sports. Her father, a football and basketball coach, and mother, whom she describes as a “jill of all trades,” kept Ponder and her three siblings busy. Each of them played three sports a year in their hometown of Phoenix.

“All of our free time was spent either playing, watching each other play or watching Dad coach,” Ponder said.

After graduating from high school, Ponder moved to New York City with dreams of becoming a sports broadcaster. She interned at ABC Sports for three years before reporting for a cable channel while in college at Liberty University. Since then, Ponder has worked for Fox Sports, the Longhorn Network and ESPN’s College GameDay.

Now serving as the host of Sunday NFL Countdown, Ponder said she is continually learning.

“The real pressure I feel is to help make a show that our crew is proud of,” Ponder said. “There are so many people in front of the camera and behind who are so invested in the success of this show. I don’t want to let them down. I know there’s outside pressure to be perfect, but I’ve come to embrace my imperfections on television. … Generally speaking, people want authentic more than perfect.”

Although every woman featured in the campaign has traveled a different path to success, they’ve learned several things along the way, including advice that other women aspiring to join the sports industry can use.

As for Davidson, she keeps it simple.

“Don’t let someone talk you out of your dream.”

‘This Is Us’ recognizes the power of Howard University As a senior, I know exactly how the show’s character Randall Pearson felt visiting The Mecca for the first time

If you didn’t catch the midseason finale of the NBC series This Is Us, you missed seeing on national television the moment a young black boy full of joy arrives on the main campus of Howard University, a place where blackness is unapologetic and excellence is vivacious.

One of the most touching moments of the show’s second season is a throwback to the ’90s in which high school junior Randall Pearson (Niles Fitch) asks his adoptive father, Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), if he could visit the historically black university after initially filling out an application for Harvard University. Randall has been trying to figure out for a while where he would like to go to college.

Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. Alpha chapter performs a stroll during “First Friday” on The Yard of Howard University. These were the very first people I met during my first time visiting Howard on April 26, 2013.

Photo by Paul Holston

After Jack agrees to plan a trip to Howard with Randall, the episode soon shifts to The Yard, the symbolic heart of the campus. The environment and the Afrocentric energy that thrives throughout The Mecca immediately overwhelms Randall. Randall and Jack then walk to the Valley on campus and are greeted by Keith, a friend of Randall’s who is a Howard freshman, and Craig, another student who is a member of my fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma (shout out to the MAB!). Keith offers to give Randall a tour, and to Randall’s surprise, he gets the comfort of being at an HBCU (historically black college or university). From walking the halls of Founders Library to eyeing a young woman who walks by him on The Yard to chilling in one of the dormitories with Nas and Lauryn Hill’s If I Ruled The World gliding in the background, the show does a great job of showing how many Howard students feel during their first experiences at The Mecca.

As a soon-to-be Howard alumnus (December), this show immediately reminded me of my first time at The Mecca on April 26, 2013. It was “First Friday,” and the first people who caught my eye on The Yard were Sigmas in their blue and white paraphernalia strolling to some of the latest hip-hop tracks. Who knew then that I would later become a part of black Greek life and gain a lifetime of brotherhood with that same fraternity? And after walking and talking with some of the students and faculty from the School of Communications, witnessing an on-campus protest for unarmed black victims of police brutality and just soaking up all of the blackness that Howard embodies, I knew that The Mecca came into my life for a reason.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, This Is Us executive producer Isaac Aptaker said this of the episode: “When we started talking about the college stories and where our Big Three would want to go, our writer Kay Oyegun came in with the idea that Randall would potentially be very interested in Howard [University], and we thought that that was such a rich story: that a black kid who was raised in a very, very white world with a few notable exceptions, being Yvette (Ryan Michelle Bathe) and her son, would be very interested in seeking out the total opposite and immersing himself in this culture that he never fully got to be a part of because of his adopted family.”

The storyline reflects the experience of some students at Howard — it is their first time at a place that appreciates you for not only your blackness but also your brilliance. And although no HBCU is perfect, professor Jules Harrell stated perfectly this semester that “Howard University is the students and the faculty. Everyone else is here to support.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

Howard’s up close and personal moment was a chance for millions of TV viewers to see what an HBCU can offer, and to see a black boy finding something he’d been truly seeking: a place he could call home. Even when Randall talks with Jack on the ride home about the trip and the awkwardness of not introducing his adoptive white father to his friends, Jack knew Randall would make the right decision in his choice of school because he always made the right decisions in life.

When the show returns in January, let’s hope not just for more real HBCU cameos but for other popular shows to follow suit and include these institutions so the nation can see the brilliance that lives at HBCUs.

H-U!

Reactions to ‘This Is Us’ coming to Howard

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark says criminal justice is more than locking people up The first woman of color to be elected district attorney in New York is working ‘to change minds and hearts’

Outside the office of Bronx, New York, District Attorney Darcel Clark, a protest rally for Pedro Hernandez this summer began and closed with prayer.

Hernandez, 18, had spent 13 months awaiting trial in Rikers Island prison on questionable weapons charges in the shooting of another teenager because his mother couldn’t afford his $255,000 bond. Eventually, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights group paid a reduced bond of $100,000. Between the prayers for people unjustly locked in the criminal justice system, those gathered at the rally called on Clark to dismiss the shooting charges.

Some local politicians and advocates said the situation was painfully reminiscent of the case against Kalief Browder. Browder spent three years on Rikers Island, two of them in solitary confinement, because he was unable to make $10,000 bail after being charged with stealing a backpack as a 15-year-old. That case was eventually dismissed, but it left Browder a broken man who later took his own life.

The Browder case has haunted Clark. The first woman of color to be elected district attorney in her state, she campaigned as a change agent who understood the burdens the criminal justice system imposes on black and brown lives. But in her previous role as a judge, Clark presided over six of Browder’s 31 court dates while he languished in jail — and admitted during her campaign that she couldn’t remember them.

“This happens all the time,” said Akeem Browder, Kalief’s brother, a few moments before the rally for Hernandez in August. Clark grew up in the Bronx, he noted. “Like, you were raised in our community. You should use it to our advantage and not to lock up kids.” Browder, a long-shot Green Party candidate for mayor, said the presumption of innocent until proven guilty often does not apply to black and brown residents of the Bronx. “District Attorney Clark is guilty of this,” Browder claimed. “The community has to say enough is enough.”

Weeks after the rally, Clark’s office dropped the weapons charges while continuing to pursue an unrelated robbery case against Hernandez. DNAInfo reported recently that the prosecutor in the shooting case is being investigated over allegations that he helped coerce people into falsely identifying Hernandez.

“Prosecution of violent crime is challenging,” Clark said in a statement after the charges were dropped, “especially when victims and witnesses decline to cooperate, but this is the reality we face in the Bronx every day as we continue to build trust with the community.”

“I am very thankful and very appreciative that they did the right thing,” Hernandez’s mother, Jessica Perez, said at the courthouse that day. “But let’s not forget, Pedro is just one of them. I hope this exoneration of his bail can be used for another kid who’s in the same need.”


Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark (center) during the Another Chance event, which allowed participants to resolve outstanding summons warrants, clear their record and attend a resource fair.

David 'Dee' Delgado for The Undefeated

Numbers have long painted a cruel reality in the Bronx. The borough north of Manhattan is home to 1.5 million people, most of whom are black or Hispanic. More than 8 percent are unemployed, almost double the national average. More than 30 percent live below the poverty line. The South Bronx has the bleak distinction of being the poorest congressional district in the country.

Lawyers in its court system routinely handle crimes of poverty, such as subway turnstile jumping. The Bronx also has the highest rate of violent crime in the city and a notorious backlog of felony cases. It’s a system that processes misery day in and day out.

Clark came into office promising a new day. “I want to change the narrative of the Bronx,” she told the crowd at a community meeting last December, a few weeks shy of her first year in office.

Clark, 55, was elected in November 2015, as national headlines questioned the police-involved deaths of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray and the acquittals of the officers involved. She is one of several people of color recently elected as local prosecutors who are vowing to aggressively pursue a reformist vision for the criminal justice system, especially in its interactions with people of color.

In Chicago, Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx argued as a candidate that prosecutors have a conflict of interest in handling police-involved shootings because they must work regularly with law enforcement. In St. Louis, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has said she will work to restore residents’ trust in the criminal justice system and work to divert nonviolent offenders from entering a courtroom.

Clark has a 30-year résumé as a former prosecutor, a criminal court judge and an appellate judge. But her election was controversial. Her predecessor, Robert Johnson, held the job for 27 years. After running unopposed in the Democratic primary in 2015, Johnson resigned a few weeks before the general election to seek a judgeship. Critics blasted the move as politically corrupt, saying it essentially allowed the Democratic Party machine to handpick the next district attorney: Clark. In the Bronx, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 12 to 1. In the general election, Clark won 85 percent of the vote, easily beating Republican Robert Siano. With the party registration numbers so lopsided, insiders say Clark can be district attorney for as long as she wants.

During the campaign, Clark said she would push the office to be more effective, cut the colossal backlog and build a stronger relationship with residents who distrust the legal system. Clark said she would send prosecutors into neighborhoods to hear firsthand the concerns of residents and work with them to prevent crime, particularly gun violence.

“A 21st-century prosecutor is not just about prosecuting cases, you know, having people arrested and locked up and throw away the key. We are here to service the entire community,” Clark said in an interview earlier this year. That includes defendants as well as victims, she said. “Criminal justice includes all of the community,” said Clark, “and as a prosecutor, I have to see myself in that way.

“You have to change minds and hearts,” Clark said, “and somewhat the court culture, in order to get it done. But you know, it’s doable. You just have to do it.”

Some say she’s not doing it fast enough, though, and question how much Clark can truly reform a system in which she was a longtime cog.

More people are in jail waiting for their trials in the Bronx than in the rest of the city’s boroughs combined, Siano said. “Hopefully we see changes in four years,” Siano said. “When her term is over, I hope the Bronx will hold her accountable.”

“A 21st-century prosecutor is not just about prosecuting cases, you know, having people arrested and locked up and throw away the key. We are here to service the entire community.”

Clark has been in office less than two years, arguably not enough time to judge her office’s results. But others are hopeful about Clark’s ability to bring change.

“We were obviously very happy and encouraged that one of our own, a black woman lawyer and judge, would be in this role,” said Paula Edgar, president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. “When there is diversity in thought, diversity in experience and someone who has committed so much to justice in the Bronx, change has happened.”

“She grew up like us,” said Aldo Perez, a community activist who has met with Clark. “She knows what we need, but she also knows her role. She also knows that we don’t need to prosecute for low-level crimes but focus on violent offenders.”

Perez believes that Clark’s experience growing up and living in the Bronx offers hope. “There’s nothing she cannot understand when it comes to how we feel about crime,” Perez said, “how crime affects the community, because she’s seen it. She knows who was selling drugs in the neighborhoods. She knew how to stay away from that. She knew what was going on in the projects. She can identify with the common person who is the victim and the common person who is being tried. She knows. She knows. And you can’t fool her.”


Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark (center) during a news conference during the Another Chance event sponsored by her office and the Bronx Defenders.

David 'Dee' Delgado for The Undefeated

Clark grew up in the Soundview Houses public housing development in the South Bronx. Her father, Daniel, worked there for more than two decades as a groundskeeper. Her mother, Viola, a nurse’s aide, headed the tenants organization. Clark said she was the first in her family to attend college. “It was just really, you know, it took a village,” Clark said of growing up in the Bronx. “It was like if you did something wrong, before your mother came home from work, she knew because someone had already told her. There was always that kind of connection with people. That’s what I grew up on.”

She still lives in the Bronx with her husband, Eaton “Ray” Davis, a detective and 30-plus-year veteran of the New York City Police Department. His perspective deepens her understanding of the police, she said.

After Clark graduated from Boston College in 1983, and from Howard University Law School in 1986, she was hired as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx. She spent 13 years in the office, was supervisor of the narcotics bureau and later deputy chief of the criminal court bureau. In 1999, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed Clark as a judge in criminal court. In 2006, she was elected to the Supreme Court in Bronx County, the trial-level court in the state’s system. In 2012, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed her to be an appellate judge covering Bronx and New York counties. Clark stepped down from the bench in 2015 to run for district attorney.

Clark is described by colleagues as laser-focused, a clear thinker and down-to-earth, as well as someone who possesses a holistic understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in the criminal justice system.

“I think she is a formidable individual,” said Daniel Karson, who co-led Clark’s transition team, recalling how she came into office “brimming with confidence.”

With a 2017 budget of $71.6 million, Clark began hiring, adding new prosecutors, for a total staff of more than 850 people. There is no reason that her office should not be ready for trial, she said. “And if there is, we need to take that in account as to what our approach is going to be on those cases.” Clark said she meets with her staff weekly to review upcoming cases and the oldest cases to determine whether they are still viable. Those measures have cut the backlog from more than 15,000 pending cases at the end of 2015 to just over 11,000 at the end of 2016.

Clark shifted the office to a vertical prosecution model in order to cut delays and build accountability. That means one assistant district attorney handles a case from beginning to end, from charge to disposition, instead of cases being handed off to other assistant district attorneys at various stages.

“She can identify with the common person who is the victim and the common person who is being tried.” — community activist Aldo Perez

Clark opened a 14-person bureau on Rikers Island that includes investigators, administrators and prosecutors to work on cases against inmates and correctional officers. Clark also created a conviction integrity unit. One of its first cases involved Steven Odiase, 31, who was sentenced to 25 years to life in 2013 for the killing of 15-year-old Juan Jerez.

Odiase’s attorneys later came across a redacted police report in evidence that the district attorney’s office had turned over. Blacked out was a witness’s description of Jerez’s killer that did not match Odiase, said Odiase’s attorney Pierre Sussman, who alerted Clark’s office. Prosecutors then asked for Odiase’s conviction to be vacated. In April, he was released from prison, and Clark announced last week that he will not be retried.

“We don’t know whom eliminated it,” Sussman said of the evidence that four years later cleared his client. He did, however, credit Clark and her office for their response. “Once they turned that over to us and it was discovered by us, they did the right thing and the only thing,” said Sussman. “They joined us in helping the court overturn the conviction.”

Sussman also credited Clark for staffing the conviction integrity unit with veteran defense and appellate lawyers. “That tells me that she’s taking it seriously,” Sussman said. But he cautioned: “It’s a nascent unit, so we’ll see what happens in the next few years.”

Clark’s time as district attorney so far shows the complexities and contradictions of her role.

At the community meeting in December, many residents voiced concerns about policing and police brutality. Clark assured them, “If the police want to run wild, they have to come through me.” Many applauded, but one man stood up and challenged her. Even if her office brought charges against a police officer, he said, Clark had little to no sway over a conviction. Some applauded in agreement.

Asked about that moment later, Clark said that “still, the district attorney is the gatekeeper.”

“Police could arrest a whole lot of people, but if the DA doesn’t prosecute them, what is the point?” She added that she has a “fair relationship” with the New York Police Department “and they get that message loud and clear.”

“I’ve had to work side by side with the police. We need the police. You know, people say they don’t like the police until they need them.” Still, Clark pointed out, the Police Department in New York and others throughout the country also need reform.

“How many times are the courts going to dismiss cases?” Clark said. “How many times are there going to be federal monitors on a police department? How many times is a judge going to declare that the tactics of the police are unconstitutional?

“If they keep getting that message over and over, then they’re going to have to change with the times as well.”

Last year, Clark confronted the shooting death of Deborah Danner, 66, by a police officer.

Emergency crews and police officers had come to Danner’s seventh-floor apartment in the Castle Hill neighborhood on Oct. 18, 2016, in response to a 911 call about an emotionally disturbed woman screaming in the hallway. Danner allegedly refused to go to the hospital. At some point, she held a pair of scissors, then swung a wooden bat toward Sgt. Hugh Barry. Barry opened fire, shooting Danner twice.

The mayor and police commissioner both criticized Barry, saying he should have used a stun gun instead of his gun. But the state attorney general, who has the power to investigate police shootings of unarmed people, declined to proceed, stating that Danner was armed when Barry shot her. In response, Clark impaneled a special grand jury to hear evidence in the case.

In May, seven months after Danner was shot, Barry, 31, was indicted for second-degree murder, manslaughter and other charges in the killing of Danner. The grand jury found that Barry should have used other ways to subdue Danner or should have waited for a specialized emergency service unit to arrive before he used deadly force. He was released on $100,000 bond. His next court date is Nov. 27.

In a statement, Clark offered her condolences to the Danner family and acknowledged “the heartbreaking loss they have suffered.” She also thanked them for their patience.

“The men and women of the NYPD protect and serve us and face the possibility of danger every time they respond to calls of emotionally disturbed persons, domestic violence incidents and other crises,” Clark said in her statement. “They answer thousands of these calls each year without incident. I hope that measures will be taken to prevent another tragedy such as this.”


Joseph Ramos cleared a warrant for an open container, a summons he received on his birthday, during the Another Chance event, where participants can resolve outstanding summons warrants, clear their record and attend a resource fair.

David 'Dee' Delgado for The Undefeated

Organizations such as the Legal Aid Society have been pressuring Clark and other borough prosecutors to stop pursuing low-level crimes such as subway fare evasion and possession of small amounts of marijuana. Black and Hispanic New Yorkers are disproportionately targeted for such violations, advocates say.

“When you think about justice and the communities that are being impacted, this goes all the way to the womb,” said Edgar, of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. “If you have a broken system, there are so many things that fall into the brokenness of that system. … It’s that long-standing institutional racial bias that affects our communities in a much more detrimental way than other communities.”

Over the summer, Clark held a second Another Chance event as part of an effort to address the concerns. In the first event, held during her first year as district attorney, she partnered with public defenders and judges to bring a warrant forgiveness program to the Bronx. In a makeshift courtroom at Mount Hope Community Center, 270 people had 355 summons warrants erased, many for offenses such as public alcohol consumption, disorderly conduct or possessing a small amount of marijuana. Because these offenses are handled in criminal court, convictions can prevent people from getting housing, employment and immigration visas.

During the event in August, held in the basement of Eastchester Presbyterian Church, a few men sat in metal folding chairs waiting for their cases to be called. In case after case, the summons was for having an open container of alcohol on the street. Bobby Diago, 56, had eight summonses, the oldest from 2011. After his case was called, the judge vacated his warrants in a matter of seconds.

By noon, more than 100 warrants were dismissed. It was “a drop in the bucket,” Clark said, compared with the 355,000 open summonses in the Bronx and the 1.5 million throughout the city. Many of them, Clark admitted, could not be tried.

As a judge, Clark said, “I presided over these very same summonses when people had them in court, and I can tell you that a lot of them are not prosecutable.” Sometimes the records are missing addresses, the defendant’s name is incorrect or the allegations don’t sustain the charge, she said. “So that’s why I really wanted to do this.”

Standing outside the church and holding his disposition certificate, Diago, a construction worker, said that he had not taken the summonses too seriously (“What, they gonna give me life for an open container?” he said), until his wife told him a police officer had come to their home looking for him.

Clark said outside the church that more of such offenses are being moved to civil court from criminal court. “We’re doing anything that we can to try to keep people out of the criminal justice system and provide them with resources so that they can be stable and really be productive members of the community,” she said.

Another certificate holder, Joseph Ramos, remembered the date of his summons clearly — it was his 26th birthday, June 12, 2015. The whole block in his Bronx neighborhood was seemingly outside celebrating with him, Ramos recalled. “The cops came and gave everybody tickets,” according to Ramos, who said he works as a security guard. One officer, Ramos said, took the plastic bottle Ramos had in his hand and poured its contents, an almost full bottle of Hennessy, onto the ground.

Now, Ramos said, “I don’t have to stand outside and be worried about getting locked up.” But he predicted, “Most likely it’s going to happen again.”


The Bronx court system still runs on delays. On any given day, a long line of defendants with court appearances snakes out the door and onto the sidewalk. A holding room is filled with those transported from prison, awaiting trial. Judges routinely adjourn cases, attorneys say. “It’s a horror show,” said Sussman, who has been an attorney for more than 20 years.

“The Browder case was the kind of illustration,” said Sussman, “the horrible illustration for what can go wrong when a backlog means that a case for theft of a backpack, if that is even what it was, takes three years to unfold in court. And the result is breaking a man. It’s not that Browder was shot down in the streets. He took his own life. They broke him.”

With the Browder case still echoing through the system, Clark says the most challenging aspect of her job has been dealing with youths.

“It’s scary that we really might be losing a generation to some of the things that are happening,” said Clark, who made a point to note the many young people who are succeeding in lives that don’t make headlines. “When I was judge, those were the most difficult cases. Because even though they’re accused of criminality, and may in fact be guilty of it, what do you do really with them? You don’t want somebody’s life to be ruined forever, but you don’t want them to think it’s OK to just prey on their community and do the things that are wrong and that there are no consequences. So it’s just really deciding to figure out that balance between what is wrong and what is right, and how to go about getting a result that is going to be beneficial to the whole community.”

Time will tell which case will determine that balance and define Clark’s tenure as district attorney.

Halftime is game time: An oral history of ‘Drumline’ Nick Cannon, Zoe Saldana, Dallas Austin and more on the film’s legacy and its fictional — but real — HBCU marching band



Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

Drumline is inspired by the life of Grammy-winning super-producer Dallas Austin, who created massive hits with Boyz II Men, TLC, Madonna and more. Austin’s life in music began during his days on his high school band’s drumline, and the 2002 film is the coming-of-age story of an 18-year-old hotshot New York drummer who’s recruited to join the marching band of the fictional historically black Atlanta A&T University.

Nick Cannon stars as Devon Miles, who arrives on campus and quickly outshines senior drum section leader Sean Taylor (Leonard Roberts) and forces band director Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones) to reconsider his approach to musicianship. In the process, Devon wins the heart of upperclassman dancer Laila, portrayed by then up-and-comer Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy). But when Devon’s ego gets the better of him, he’s kicked out of the band and forced to fight his way back onto the drumline, while learning the value of teamwork.

The film was the sophomore effort of Charles Stone III’s film career. He made a name for himself with the iconic (and CLIO Hall of Fame) “Whassup” Budweiser ad campaign, and his directorial debut was 2002’s dark and authoritative ’hood saga Paid In Full. Drumline, which was shot mainly at Clark Atlanta University, raked in a total of $57 million at the box office.

The idea of marching bands consisting of “uncool” kids was laid to rest with the premiere of Fox 2000’s Drumline. The beloved film successfully makes the case that marching bands, especially those found at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the South, are melting pots of artistic athleticism. Drumline showed the world that band members not only train like the pros but also compete like champions.

Everyone quoted is identified by the titles they held during the Drumline era.

First Quarter: Drummer Boys

Before he produced Boyz II Men’s nine-times platinum 1991 Cooleyhighharmony at the age of 19, or won his first Grammy for producing TLC’s then futuristic 1999 FanMail, or worked with Madonna, The Brand New Heavies, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Fishbone, Monica, Michael Jackson and even Deion Sanders, Dallas Austin played snare drum in his high school marching band. The Atlanta (by way of Columbus, Georgia) producer joined the drumline at Columbus High School when his older brother, Claude, a section leader, graduated. With talent far beyond his freshman classification, Austin experienced pushback from the new section leader, who attempted to haze him and expose him to the band director for not being able to read music. Austin’s high school experience is the story of Drumline, a film he pitched at 20th Century Fox in the early 1990s. “Fox said, ‘What’s so interesting about marching bands?’” recalled Austin, who gave studio executives a peek at footage from a high school battle of the bands at the Georgia Dome. His project was greenlit, and a script, by Shawn Schepps, was drafted.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The movie went into turnaround hell for eight to 10 years.

Jody GersonProducer

One day, Dallas and I are having a conversation. I asked, ‘What happened with Drumline?’ He said, ‘It just didn’t go anywhere. … I haven’t heard anything.’

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The movie was just sitting … but I felt like the story needed to be told. … I called Quincy Jones one day, and I was like, ‘Man, what do I do?’ He wasn’t trying to be funny or nothing, but he said, ‘You ain’t gonna make it in that industry unless you got somebody who’s Jewish on your side.’

Jody GersonProducer

I said, ‘What if I brought it to my friend Wendy Finerman [Forrest Gump, I Like It Like That, The Devil Wears Prada], who has a deal at Fox, and we produce it together?’

Wendy FinermanProducer

They came to me and said, ‘What do we do?’

Jody GersonProducer

Wendy, Dallas and I went to Elizabeth Gabler, who was the head of Fox 2000. Dallas pitched her.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I actually wanted to talk Fox out of the movie — I wanted to get it back.

Jody GersonProducer

He told us these stories about how ‘halftime was game time’ in the South, and it was not about the football game as much as it was about the marching band. And about how many of his peers in the music business started their careers on drumlines.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

She goes, ‘Well, damn, we’ve got to make this movie.’

Jody GersonProducer

Elizabeth only wanted to add one thing: ‘Can we make it in college as opposed to high school?’

Wendy FinermanProducer

So we basically started from scratch.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I still have not read the first draft of Drumline … but what was originally pitched felt like a suburban band movie, where a black kid comes to a white, uptight school and brings the funk to the school. … The only thing I knew was that the main character couldn’t read. He was illiterate. I thought, ‘No way could I rewrite this.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I didn’t like the racial implications, or what I perceived to be the potential racial implications, of doing that kind of story.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The first script was too comedic.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I spoke with the band director at Florida A&M [Dr. Julian E. White]. He started mentioning so much about the practices and the culture and just the fabric of what it means to become a band member at an HBCU. He kept saying, ‘You have to see it.’ I went to … hot, muggy Southern Florida. The whole town was just vibrating from the football field at night. They’d practice late nights when the sun went down, and early mornings, because of the heat. And there were always alumni around the field … and they’ve got snakes around their neck; their school mascot is a rattlesnake. I underestimated the richness of the world inside of the band. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be something … ’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I’d passed on the first script, and then six months later or so, it came back with a historically black college, and that was more interesting. The new script allowed me the opportunity to explore percussion … and a style of marching band — the show style — that was much more alluring, more magnetic. Then, learning more about what these kids go through, it was just like a sport, you know? I went to one of the summer training camps, and it’s the exact same thing — a real grind. That’s what inspired me to do it as a full-blown, big sports movie.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

From the first conversation I had with Charles, he’s like, ‘These are musicians, but this is a sports movie.’

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I got a call from Donna Isaacson, who was head of casting for 20th Century Fox. Then Charles and I had lunch at the Beverly Wilshire and talked about the character of Dr. Lee, and the scope, and how he was looking to shoot it. He talked about how he’d dramatize the element of halftime at historically black colleges.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I was excited about the fact that Hollywood was actually telling the story of a part of the experience of attending a historically black college.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

It felt like such a young, hip and super unique college story about young people trying to make a name for themselves. … I just felt happy and grateful to be doing a film about a piece of American culture … and a side of American college life that hasn’t really been tapped on enough.

Jody GersonProducer

But the studio kept focusing on a white character. That we had to have a white character to market the movie.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I got a call from Fox. They said, ‘Dallas, we don’t know how to say this, but put white people in the movie.’ I said, ‘OK, how many white people do you want?’ They said, ‘We want somebody in the band. … We have to have a character, because now it’s turning into a black movie.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

The studio wanted a white character in the midst of this ensemble of color in order to support or give us the amount of money we wanted. We needed $20 million to make it. They were offering us $15 million.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

First, it was a $13 million movie, which is a lot for an urban film, so to speak, at that time. I was trying to tell them, it’s not an urban film, it’s a story … it’s a team story. We started going over $13 million, because nobody knew what it was like to film 300-piece marching bands.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

In order for me to get the additional $5 million, I had to create a white character.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I said, ‘Let me see how a white kid’s story would be inside of a black marching band without making it ridiculous.’ I go to Morris Brown College one day, and I see this kid. He’s one of the cymbal players, a white kid with red hair. I said, ‘Where’d you come from?’ He said, ‘In Atlanta, down the street. I’ve always wanted to be in the band because I grew up in the neighborhood.’ We followed that story into GQ’s character.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

I got this appointment for Drumline … and Charles was like, ‘Hey, can you play the drum?’ … I wasn’t trained growing up, playing the drums, but I’m a musician. So I saw the question as, ‘Do you have rhythm?’ I’m like, ‘Fuck yeah, I got rhythm.’ It’s funny that I ended up getting the role where the guy has rhythm issues.

“In order for me to get the additional $5 million, I had to create a white character.”Charles Stone III

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

I got a hold of the script and really dug the idea. Then, I met with Charles …

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Leonard wasn’t my first pick for Sean. The studio wanted Leonard because he has this beautiful, booming voice, and he’s really good-looking. I thought he was fine in his audition, but I liked Khalil Kain [Juice, Girlfriends, Love Jones] who was good. He was a real antagonist, which is what I liked. … I had to fight the head of Fox 2000. I finally gave up.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

I met with Charles over at Fox. … I got there early and was hanging out. At the time, I’d just done He Got Game with Spike Lee, and I drove a Range Rover in the movie. At that time, it was the nicest car I’d ever driven. I was like, Man, when I get my money, I’d love to have one of these. So I’m sitting at Fox, looking out the window. I see this Range pull up. The window comes down, and it’s Nick Cannon.

Second Quarter: Funky Drummers

The late 1990s and early 2000s? This was before Nick Cannon was really Nick Cannon, although flashes of stardom were apparent. A stand-up comedian from San Diego, he burst onto the Hollywood scene on Nickelodeon’s youth sketch comedy series All That and teen sitcom Kenan & Kel. At age 17, through his work on All That, Cannon became the youngest writer in television history. That talent and charisma led Nickelodeon to give him his own spinoff, The Nick Cannon Show, which launched in 2002 with Cannon starring, producing and directing. While casting for Drumline’s lead role of Devon Miles, a me-against-the-world snare drummer from Harlem who secretly couldn’t read music, screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism remembers sitting in producer Wendy Finerman’s office going through audition tapes. One especially stood out.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I started to hear about all of the different people who were auditioning. I really thought, I don’t know if I’m going to get it.

Jody GersonProducer

I remember a really young Lil Wayne coming in for an audition.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

T.I. auditioned, too. He represented another part of my character, in a different way. But I felt like Nick, at the time, was closer to ‘me’ because I wasn’t overly cocky. I just knew what I was doing.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I definitely saw something in Devon. It was me … I was probably the same knucklehead who thought he knew it all. That’s … why I embodied the character so well.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

Nick … had something that made me vote for him. He was cute, and he was a very talented, strong actor. He was able to show the bad boy but add a vulnerability to it that made it charming. None of the other actors even hinted at vulnerability.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

It got down to Nick and Lee Thompson Young [The Famous Jett Jackson, Rizzoli & Isles].

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

They auditioned me like three or four times. In the screen test, they team you up with different people. They teamed me with Zoe Saldana. I didn’t know who she was, but there was something there.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I didn’t know that much about him … but everybody said great things about him. Once I met him, he certainly did not disappoint me.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

A friend of mine, Kim Porter, I’ve been knowing her since kindergarten. By the time we got to high school … we were kind of flirty and datey. We were in band together — she played bells. … Zoe’s character, Laila, was kind of written after Kim. … I was kind of looking for a girl who reminded me of Kim and was close to what she looked like.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Laila … I felt like she was a relatable character. … I really liked how they’d written her to be — genuinely, like, a nice person.

Wendy FinermanProducer

Zoe … you could imagine somebody falling in love with her at first sight. She had a smartness to her that was really important for her character. She carried herself like a Spelman girl.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I remember me even having a crush on Zoe. … I think she had a boyfriend at the time, though …

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

He was really funny. There was a serenity to Nick’s demeanor that was very pleasant.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

It got down to between Zoe Saldana and Kerry Washington. Zoe had a realism to her. I mean, she’s fine as all hell, both her and Kerry. But Kerry had a refined technique that … for me, at the time, was a little too refined.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

That screen test, it just felt right. I had actually had a conversation with Charles the night before. I had been doing Nickelodeon work, and he was like, ‘I want you to be you. I don’t want you to bring in any of the TV persona.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Nick had raw talent … a boyishness that didn’t feel manufactured, or like he was performing. He was also so passionate to get the job.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I got the call and … I’m gonna be honest, I was just happy to have booked a job. I didn’t know how big, culturally, it was going to be.

Third Quarter: Give the drummer some

Drumline’s fictional Atlanta A&T needed a legit HBCU marching band, and Dallas Austin trusted only one person to deliver. Don Roberts, then band director at Atlanta’s Southwest DeKalb High School, received a phone call from Austin, who asked to attend one of his band’s rehearsals. Under Roberts’ tutelage, the Marching Panthers, through performances at the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Bowl, had become one of the most recognizable bands in Atlanta and the entire nation. Austin was a huge fan. “He came to band rehearsal with his entourage,” said Roberts, a former Florida A&M drum major and the executive consultant on the ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings. “They watched for a little while, and then he said, ‘I wanna talk to you about this project … this movie that’s gonna be coming out two years from now.’” A year later, Roberts got a call from Drumline line producer Timothy Bourne and was brought on as the film’s executive band consultant, tasked with building Atlanta A&T’s band from the ground up. He formed a small team that included two percussion instructors, Keith Sailor and Demetrius Hubert, bass drum coach Corey Lowe and dance coach Glenda Morton. Most of the Atlanta A&T band you see in Drumline is made up of high school students from Southwest DeKalb. As for the drumline? A mix of real HBCU drummers and actors put through training hell.

Wendy FinermanProducer

We assembled the drumline long before we started shooting, because we wanted to make it as authentic as possible.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I knew the work Don was doing. If he could do it with kids, then of course he could put a fictional band together that would be just as good.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

I feel like I owe them all apologies. I didn’t know actors were supposed to be pampered. I don’t want to use the word ‘hazing,’ but, man, they went through it. We treated them as we would first-year band members.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I played in my eighth-grade band. It was a little marching band. The stuff that we were doing in comparison to what we were doing in Drumline? Man, it was small potatoes. Was I prepared? Hell no.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I come from New York, and my sister stepped in high school as a cheerleader, but I didn’t really know that much about the whole Southern HBCU band and dance culture. I was in for a ride.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

We got to Atlanta in late winter of 2001, and we were in music class at Southwest DeKalb High School. Immersing ourselves in it became an all-consuming thing.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Imagine Nick Cannon in a high school band, [next to] my drum players holding the sticks. We did that.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Nick and myself arrived two weeks prior to everyone else’s first day. We were each assigned a drum coach. I had my homie Corey Lowe on the big bass drum teaching me. Nick had this dude named Snoop, who was teaching him the snare.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

The actors get there, and we see they don’t know about drumming at all. So the real drummers, we’re laughing and making jokes, but at the same time we feel some type of way. We’re like, Oh, OK. Hollywood wants to make a movie about drumlines and HBCU culture in the South, but you have actors supposed to be doing this drumming? Like, who is Nick Cannon?

“I was rooting for this movie from the beginning. It felt like we won.”Zoe Saldana

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I didn’t want a drum double. I remember telling Charles, ‘I want to figure out how to do it myself.’ But some of the stuff was so intricate … if I had to have a double, I wanted the best. Snoop was the best.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

All Nick carried around with him throughout that time were drumsticks. It was like, ‘Damn, this dude is really in this.’ He’s beating on tables with drumsticks … he’s flipping the sticks in the air. He’s in his trailer working one of the pads, getting the sticking down.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

In the beginning he would drop them everywhere, and by the time we started shooting he knew how to move these drumsticks so swiftly through his fingers. It was great to see how committed he was to this part.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

Nick was dedicated to getting better. One time he got frustrated … and kind of threw the sticks down. I was like, ‘Oh, you don’t want to play anymore?’ He said, ‘Man, I’m not going to need this after this movie anyway.’ I told him, ‘Yeah, but right now you need this, so you might as well pick up the sticks, because this is your job right now.’

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

At one point … my hand had ripped open. My drum was covered in blood. I had a big gouge taken out of my finger from the repetition of using this mallet … I played through that shit.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

It was literally like boot camp. We’d show up to set, eyes red. Some people would get sick … we were doing B-12 shots. I developed hard scars on the side of my abdomen — it was scar tissue from the weight and pressure of the drum.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Everybody worked really, really hard on their characters. It wasn’t like our characters had easy things to do. They were musicians, we were dancers, and we had to practice. There were a lot of rehearsals, a lot of choreography, and a lot of routines and instruments to learn to sort of maneuver.

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

… I’m over here struggling with this tuba, trying to hold it and at least pretend like I know what I’m doing.

Candace CareyFreshman snare Deidre

You couldn’t be pretending to do any of this.

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I was drumming, as well. … For me, it was wanting to understand exactly what the drumlines were going through and wanting to understand what my role as leader of that band was. That was taught to me by Don Roberts.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

We put the baton in his hand and had to show him how to conduct. You want to look like a real band director or people were going to chew you up. … The choreographer with the dancers, Glenda Morton, she did the same thing with Zoe. She drilled her.

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

Zoe worked super hard learning all the dances. She never let up.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I thought it was a little odd for her at first because there’s such a sassy, black Southern girl thing that goes along with it. But once she settled into her character, it became second nature. Anything is awkward like that at first … shaking your hips like that.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Here I am with a classical ballet background, and I just had no mobility in my hips. … I definitely trained a lot … by the end, I felt like I could drop it like it’s hot.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

We worked the crap out of those guys and they took it. They were not Hollywood. They were not too big for this. They came in and they sweated. … I remember [assistant percussion director] Keith Sailor, he started calling the guys ‘The Senate.’ … We brought it back to Charles … and the next thing I knew, it was in the script.

Fourth Quarter: Different Drummers

The first time the Atlanta A&T marching band took the field on camera was week two of shooting, for “The Halftime Show.” Freshman phenom Devon Miles was named a P-1 snare on A&T’s drumline, and in the tunnel of the football stadium, he anxiously awaited his debut performance. Cinematographer Hurlbut envisioned the scene taking shape in a huge tunnel, like the one the USC football team emerges from at the 93,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. What he had to work with was the tiny tunnel of Clark Atlanta’s Panther Stadium. Capacity: 5,000 seats.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

I was like, ‘All right. So how can we make this work? … What if we just pile the whole band in that tunnel? Not just the drumline, but everyone.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

They’re in this tunnel and you can hear the thumping and the noise outside, the cheering and stuff, but it’s muffled. Then Sean and Devon have an argument, then … the football team comes pouring in, and that adds another sonic layer of commotion.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

I had the tagline of the movie during that scene … ‘Down here, it’s about the marching bands … Halftime is game time.’ It really is that serious … it’s life.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

You see Dr. Lee come in, and he goes, ‘One band, one sound!’ … You see that long tunnel of fluorescent lights … all of a sudden, this stick comes up in the frame and goes completely parallel across the image. Then, it just goes tap, tap, tap, tap. Then, it’s like, BOOM, they explode.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

Coming out of the tunnel all hype, it was cold, we were yelling, there were so many people out there. It was late at night. We were like, Let’s get it.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

When Devon is going onto the field for the first time — go back and watch Gladiator, it feels like the same thing. But instead of lions and swords, it’s drums and sticks.

Wendy FinermanProducer

The first moment the band was together, you kind of go, ‘Oh, my God, I get this.’ The sound. Your body. Your heart. Everything is pounding internally. … It’s really a physical experience.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I had no idea how stylized this movie was going to be. … Charles and Shane did a great job.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

Everything about it felt like I was in a dream, but it felt like I had walked this dream before in real life.

“When Devon is going onto the field for the first time — go back and watch Gladiator, it feels like the same thing. But instead of lions and swords, it’s drums and sticks.”Leonard Roberts

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

The sound hits you like a wave. I’ll never forget that feeling. I was like, God damn, this is so inspiring. This is unbelievable. Halftime is game time. I tried to make it as big and grand as possible. This was Devon’s first game. He gets out there, he sees the crowd, he kind of starts to freak out, he fails.

In this moment, A&T’s senior drum section leader Sean Taylor, played by Leonard Roberts, steps up for a solo. After overcoming his nerves, Devon Miles, played by Nick Cannon, follows suit, stealing the spotlight from Sean. Most of Cannon’s drumming in this scene is done by Jason “Snoop” Price.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

It was stick-around-the-head, stick-around-the-head.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

You see the stuff that’s me. And those super close shots usually are Snoop.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We filmed that part a couple of times because I couldn’t feel my frickin’ fingers … my fingers were frozen. It was so cold in Atlanta. … I made the solo up and everything, but I had to go up into the studio and do it again so it could come out really crisp and clean.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

We had to make sure everything was crisp — whatever it took to make it real.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

They were able to mix all the drumming in afterwards in the edit, so they didn’t miss a beat. Every time that stick hit the snare, it popped. It sang. They made me seem like I was crazy with it. As the filming went on, you saw a bunch of wide shots. If you watch the last drum battle, it’s nothing but wide shots. By that time … I’d picked up all of the cadences.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

By the time we got to the final scene? No doubles.

Fifth Quarter: Drum Machine

Drumline’s halftime scene was beautiful, but the entire film relied upon the cast and crew nailing the fictional BET Big Southern Classic. For this battle of the bands, Drumline received the keys to the Georgia Dome. Within a tight, two-day window, everybody and their mama showed up: ESPN broadcaster Stuart Scott called the event from the booth. Blu Cantrell sang the national anthem. 106 & Park hosts A.J. and Free MC’d the spectacle. And rapper Petey Pablo, who drove a Bentley onto the field, performed with Morris Brown’s actual band. It seemed all of Atlanta came out to watch real-life marching bands, which also included Bethune-Cookman, Clark Atlanta and Grambling State, square off against the Hollywood-crafted Atlanta A&T. Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Southern’s Human Jukebox, however, were noticeably absent. “Both of them gave the same answers,” Don Roberts remembers, and paraphrases: Thank you for the invitation to participate; however, we don’t lose. Not in real life and not in fiction.

As the story goes, the competition ended in a tie between Morris Brown and Atlanta A&T, whose Jackson 5-inspired, old school-meets-new-school routine was nothing short of amazing. To decide which band would emerge as victor, each team’s drumlines went toe-to-toe. But as the film’s crew prepared for the final scene, which screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism modeled after the drumline battles that often unfolded near team buses after games, Stone and Hurlbut faced a problem.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

The producers came to me: ‘We can’t afford to fill the Georgia Dome for more than two days … We can’t use CGI, we can’t do tiling, we can’t do any of this stuff.’ I remember going home and waking up in the middle of the night. … I go, ‘What if we turn the lights off?

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Shane came up with a great idea of shooting it like it’s a boxing match. … All the lights would drop out except for the overheads on the field.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Nick was hell-bent … ‘I’m doing all my scenes. I’m not going to have a stand-in, no double, nothing.’ The same thing with Leonard. Nick stayed up pretty much all night long in the hotel, working.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We really did stay up all night, just drilling, drilling, drilling. We kept going over the cadences. You drop the sticks? OK, pick them up again. I told Nick, ‘If you want this to just be you in the end scene, we’re going to have to grind it out.’ And he was a champ — he grinded it out.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I wanted it to be authentic. I wanted it to be real. You see all these movies where they cut to the double. If I’m supposed to be the best, I wanted to do everything I could do to be the best.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Sometimes scenes in movies are shot out of sequence … but this purposefully and necessarily was shot at the very end of shooting because they needed us, the five actors in the drumline, to be as on-point as humanly possible, so that we actually did beat Morris Brown’s drumline.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

We were so immersed in our characters, and the Atlanta A&T band, that in our minds, when we did that scene, we really believed we were better than Morris Brown.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

You could feel the tension. Everyone on the crew was like, ‘Holy shit. Our boys are going to war right now, and we’re getting to watch it.’ There was this feeling in the air of do-or-die time.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

The real-life drummers … they didn’t feel that great about actors portraying drummers on a drumline that they’d sacrificed and worked very hard to get on [in real life]. They weren’t that impressed. So it was like boxers before a fight, all that trash-talking.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I was kind of stoking that fire a little bit, supporting both sides to bring it, you know? I actually wore a T-shirt I had made … a Morris Brown T-shirt and an Atlanta A&T T-shirt, cut in half and then sewed together. It was an ugly-ass looking shirt … but I wore it in solidarity or just support for both teams.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

One of the best parts of being in the marching band was when … the drumlines would go on afterwards. … Those battles were very intense.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

To this day, one of my favorite shots I’ve ever done is that fucking one that lays on the 50-yard line, and it’s a sea of black, but the 50-yard line is lit, and those two bands come in from the side and just line up right next to each other.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

It was like a Rocky moment.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

But I’ll tell you straightforward, the first time we did the scene, Morris Brown kicked Atlanta A&T’s ass.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

Morris Brown fired up a drum cadence that was so sexy … it was like, If you guys win in this movie, it’s gonna be because of some Hollywood shit.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

They were a seasoned drumline that had been playing for years. We were a drumline that was built in a couple of weeks. If you look at it, we made this movie at the end of the marching season. They’d already been playing these cadences the whole season. They were so tight that it was like, what can we do to top this? We had actors in our drumline. We had actors on the snare line. We had actors on the tenor line. We had actors on the bass line. But that couldn’t hold us back.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

We had to learn new cadences at the 11th hour just because Morris Brown came in smoking.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

After Charles jumped down my throat, I jumped down my staff’s, and we all literally went around the corner at the Georgia Dome, found us a quiet spot … and the guys went to work. Nick went to work. … They took it up a whole notch and elevated the routine. When they came back, it was war. I mean, these guys were not speaking, and Charles was like, ‘Let it stay that way.’ It was like two boxers that were about to fight. These guys were not speaking.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

It got to the point where we lost the fact that we were in a movie. … It was a real battle. … You wanted to kill them, especially after they’d smoked us in the rehearsal.

Candace CareyFreshman snare Deidre

There was an actual fight before we started filming. There was someone from Morris Brown that was on our side, playing with our group. And they checked him. Morris Brown really checked dude … like, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Get him over here.’ He left from our side and went over to Morris Brown.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

People were hot, and you want that.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

The percussion instructor brought me over to see what Morris Brown had cooking up. … They showed me them putting their own drums aside and [simulated] playing on the other [team’s] snares, and I thought, that’s fucking awesome.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

Charles goes, ‘Morris Brown is going to go over there and bang on A&T’s drums … we need a close-up camera here, so the reaction is absolutely real.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I didn’t tell Atlanta A&T that that’s what was gonna happen.

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

Beating on someone else’s drum is a big no-no. It’s a big dis … basically like they were trying to injure the other team’s quarterback.

“It got to the point where we lost the fact that we were in a movie. … It was a real battle.”Shay Roundtree

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

When it happened, I think I just remember everybody freaking out, and it was the exact reaction that Morris Brown wanted.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

I knew that was going to happen, so when they walked up, I was preparing myself, but the rest of the drummers didn’t know.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

We were shocked. We took that as a real insult. It was like, Oh, shit. The reactions that you saw from Nick and everybody were real.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

They looked like, What the fuck? What happened just now? Did they really just hit my drum? I really gotta stay in formation while they’re doing this?

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

We had to show that ability to withstand and hold it all in. It meant a lot when it happened, and we were hot about it. We went back and said, ‘Well, we gon’ beat on their drums.’ But it was like, ‘Nah, that’s kind of redundant.’

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We added — I don’t want to say a gymnast approach, but added different elements … more jumps, more flips, not stick flips but more people doing flips, people getting on other people’s shoulders. Cymbal players getting on other people’s shoulders, doing pushups and playing at the same time, getting on your back and having somebody play the bass drum. We added a different entertaining, performance element.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

Charles would have to say, ‘Cut,’ maybe four or five different times because we were just fully focused.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

Our drumline wins … but nobody cared that that’s what was written on the script.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

We laid it all out there. When you see that last and final cadence, that’s probably the one I worked on the hardest, and you get to actually see. We’re in there drumming, and sticking, throwing the sticks and catching the sticks, doing everything. By that time, we were a well-oiled machine.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

What you saw was real. Those boys were in there. They were in there playing. They were doing their thing.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

Atlanta A&T gave Morris Brown way more go than anybody thought they would.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I’m super proud of that scene. That scene is special.

The Postgame: The Legacy of Drumline

In 2014, the Atlanta A&T marching band returned in Drumline: A New Beat. Originally conceived as a miniseries, it became a made-for-TV movie, told through the lens of a young female drummer who arrives on campus hoping to revitalize the fictional HBCU’s once-revered drumline. In the movie, Nick Cannon and Leonard Roberts both reprise their original roles as the now long-graduated Devon Miles and Sean Taylor. Cannon, Wendy Finerman and Jody Gerson are all credited as producers, and Don Roberts once again serves as executive band consultant. “It was executed well,” said Cannon, “but I think the higher-ups didn’t give it an opportunity to thrive as a television show.” Fifteen years since the film’s debut, the legacy of Drumline is undeniable.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

The legacy of Drumline grows, and continues to grow. No one saw it coming. They thought it was just this little film about this cool subculture.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

It ended up being one of the best-reviewed films that year … very successful, and I cried when that happened, because I was rooting for this movie from the beginning. It felt like we won.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Who would’ve thought that Fox’s little project in Atlanta was going to be the epic cult classic, and beyond cult classic now, that it is today? It’s been run on TV for so long that actually, 15 years later, I get recognized more now than I did in the years right after it came out, because it’s so embedded in people’s consciousnesses.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

We were told we were all a part of a little movie that ended up being a very big thing in America. A lot of young people took to it and supported it.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I’m amazed that now it’s getting to the point where … you can actually see another generation discover Drumline.

Drumline crossed over into … every part of the population — but it’s a black film. … To me, that’s revolutionary.”GQ

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘How do you feel to have influenced a whole generation of young people?’

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I’m really proud of what Drumline spawned into the culture.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I’ll be honest. I thought that really only our community, meaning the black community, was going to be able to appreciate it. … Historically black colleges, the experience of bands, that’s something that’s deeply rooted within our culture and something that, prior to Drumline, was never really talked about and never really exposed.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

People come up to me to this day, not one of them who are African-American, and they tell me how we introduced a subculture to them that they never knew existed … but that it inspired them.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Drumline crossed over into … every part of the population — but it’s a black film. … To me, that’s revolutionary.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We were taking something from black culture and showing it to the world, so it had to be right. It had to be correct. This was the first time that the world was going to see anything about an HBCU marching band or drumline.

Wendy FinermanProducer

No one knew about drumlines. Now they’re common knowledge.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Florida A&M thought the movie was about them. North Carolina A&T thought the movie was about them. Southern thought it was about them. Jackson State thought it was about them. Everybody sees themselves in the movie. … When I talk to these college band directors, and they see their band program in Drumline, I just feel honored that we honored them.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

It was part music movie, part sports movie, part superhero origin story. All of those things wrapped up in one.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

It’s the fifth quarter. We were just as important, if not more important than the football team. It was a music movie, a sports movie, all in one. That’s why it was really special.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

It’s a sports film — the discipline, and the practice. It goes hand in hand with football. It just wasn’t as cool to be in the marching band until Drumline.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Where they are now:

Dallas Austin: Runs Atlanta’s Urban Angels Studios (formerly known as D.A.R.P. Studios), while also recording out of the United Kingdom’s TAPE London studio. He is also one half of the band, Follow the Nomad, with Naz Tokio.

Nick Cannon: Second-year student at Howard University, executive producer and host of MTV’s Nick Cannon Presents: Wild ’N Out, founder/CEO of Ncredible Entertainment.

Candace Carey: Stars as “Canbe” in the indie film Ratchetville, scheduled to release on Netflix in winter of 2017.

Tina Gordon Chism: Made directorial debut with 2013’s Peeples, screenplay writer/executive producer for Hulu’s 2017 single-camera comedy pilot Crushed and screenplay writer for the forthcoming Nappily Ever After.

Wendy Finerman: Executive producer of 2014’s Drumline: A New Beat and Lifetime’s new Loved by the 10th Date; founder/president of Wendy Finerman productions.

GQ: Founder and creative director of Q Brothers, a collective that translates classic pieces of literature into hip-hop musicals, which he co-writes, directs, and stars in. He and his brothers’ plays have toured the world and run off-Broadway.

Jody Gerson: Chairman and CEO, Universal Music Publishing.

Shane Hurlbut: Recent cinematography work includes 2015’s Gabriele Muccino-directed Fathers and Daughters and 2017’s The Babysitter and The Adventurers.

Orlando Jones: Recent work includes starring in films Book of Love and Madiba, the STARZ series American Gods and executive producing Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands: War Within the Cartel for Amazon and Twitch.

Earl Poitier: Recent appearances include The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Shots Fired and Baywatch.

Jason Price: Founder of entertainment company P.O.P. (Power of Percussion) UNPLUGGED, and artistic director of P.O.P.’D (Power of Percussion & Drums) entertainment ensemble.

Don Roberts: Director and CEO of international stage show DRUMLine Live; executive band consultant of 2014’s Drumline: A New Beat and BET series The Quad.

Leonard Roberts: Recent appearances include American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and The Magicians.

Shay Roundtree: Recently starred in 2016’s Save Me from Love.

Zoe Saldana: Stars as “Gamora” in 2018 Marvel film Avengers: Infinity War; filming Avatar 2, set to release in 2020.

Charles Stone III: Director of the forthcoming Uncle Drew, starring Kyrie Irving, LilRel Howry, Shaquille O’Neal, Lisa Leslie, and Reggie Miller. In theaters June 29, 2018.

Jason Weaver: Has appeared in 2006’s ATL, 2010’s Lottery Ticket, the animated series The LeBrons (2011–2014), and a 2016 episode of Black-ish.

‘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.

Black female gun owners speak about Russian Facebook ads ‘I don’t want to be used as propaganda’

Black women who own guns don’t necessarily fit the common conceptions of gun owners. They’re rarely the picture of recreational shooting or gun classes. And some fear that even if they procure the proper training and licensing, they’re not protected by laws designed to shield gun owners from prosecution.

The distance between perception and reality surfaced this week when The Washington Post reported that imagery of a black woman firing a rifle was used in the Facebook ads that Russians bought to influence the 2016 presidential election. The image, which has not been publicly released, might have been intended to encourage African-American militancy and also fan fears among whites, according to the Post report.

Without context, a picture of a black woman firing a rifle is not a neutral image, said Kaitanya Bush, a 42-year-old paralegal in Austin, Texas, who recently bought a 9 mm pistol to protect herself and her family.

Bush said she immediately thought of the cartoon of Michelle Obama on the cover of The New Yorker before the 2008 election. Obama was depicted as a rifle-wielding radical sporting a bandolier and giving her secret-Muslim husband a “terrorist fist jab.” The cover was meant to be satirical — pointing out the ridiculousness of the worst fears of Obama opponents, given that the Obamas were moderate, well-to-do liberals, not the second coming of Assata Shakur and Fred Hampton.

“You can see how that imagery [in the Russian ads] can evoke the same feelings that those had about Michelle Obama bringing this militant side out of the nice and gentle Barack,” Bush said. The New Yorker cover depicted Michelle Obama as “threatening, and fearful, and manipulative, that there is an ulterior motive to this. That we are the temptress.”

Bush said the fear of black women’s radicalism reminded her of the reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa Diab, after she tweeted an unflattering image comparing Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and Ray Lewis to characters from Django Unchained.

Lewis attributed the Ravens’ decision not to sign Kaepernick to the tweet, which he called a “racist gesture.”

Outside the context of law enforcement, military service, or criminality, images of black people with guns tend to be associated with political radicalism, whether it be the Black Panthers, the photo of Malcolm X holding a rifle and peering out of a window, which Nicki Minaj adopted for the album art of her 2014 single, “Lookin A– N—-,” or The New Yorker cover of the Obamas. Images of gun-wielding black people are metonyms for black militancy.

Black gun ownership is historically connected with defending oneself from state violence or lack of state protection, from Harriet Tubman to violent uprisings of enslaved people. And of course there’s a long history of black people who hunt, or shoot for sport, like the women in this 1937 image of the Howard University women’s rifle team. But such representations of black gun users aren’t as well-known.

Black women with guns don’t enjoy the same positive associations as someone such as Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde or Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, who made the empowered and unafraid gun-toting archetype a key part of their appeal as movie stars. That tide may shift slightly with the upcoming film Proud Mary, which stars Taraji P. Henson as a sexy, skilled hit woman. There’s also Lana Kane, the smart, sensible spy in Archer voiced by Aisha Tyler, whose biting comebacks and uniform of clingy sweater dresses set off by two TEC-9s made her a cult hero. But at the end of the day, Kane is a cartoon.

And so the limited context in which armed black women are seen may have provided an opportunity for Russia.

“It makes complete sense to me that they would do that just to incite some sort of rise out of people,” said Marchelle Tigner, a 25-year-old firearms instructor in Savannah, Georgia, who calls herself the “Trigger Happy Panda.” “When articles came out about me or videos came out about me, I would read the comments. And a lot of the comments were extremely negative, like, ‘Oh, black women have guns now. They’re gonna start shooting people. They’re angry and irrational, and the crime rate in black neighborhoods is gonna go up now.’ They were really hurtful, really mean, and really racist comments coming out, so it makes sense that if Russia wanted to get a rise out of people or incite some kind of hateful feelings in a lot of people, they would post pictures of black women with firearms.”

Tigner is an Army veteran who began carrying a gun as part of her job as a military intelligence officer. It made her uncomfortable, but after she was sexually assaulted at age 19, shooting at the gun range became cathartic instead of anxiety-producing. She now travels the country instructing black women in gun safety. When Tigner saw the news that Russia may have used an ad featuring an image of a black woman firing a rifle as a way to sow division and disrupt the election, she was not pleased.

“Although I might not agree with a lot of people’s beliefs, I would never want to be used as propaganda,” Tigner said. “I never want to be a gimmick. That’s why I carry myself professionally when I’m teaching because I never want my words or my images to be twisted and used against me, or against people for making that decision.”


Nobody’s expecting me, this 25-year-old black woman, to have a firearm and to be able to draw and defend myself, and I like that. I like that I’m underestimated.

Courtesy of Marchelle Tigner

Black women interviewed for this story believe they will not necessarily be afforded equal protection under the law as licensed gun owners because of their blackness. As a result, there’s a cost-benefit analysis that takes place. On the one hand, they feel unsafe in America because of their blackness, and that includes experiences as a gun owner. But they have decided that it’s still worth having the gun to protect themselves from, among other things, racially-motivated violence.

Even though North Carolina is an open carry state, Dione Davis, a 32-year-old cosmetologist and mother, said that she chooses to conceal carry her Glock with a permit. The reason is because she’s black, Davis said.

“I guess I feel like I’m covered but I’m not covered,” Davis said. “I would say … there is a double standard as to how we’re viewed, black gun owners versus white gun owners. Nobody’s looking at my husband or myself as … college-educated … law-abiding citizens when we have a gun. Nobody’s thinking about whether I have four kids at home when you look at me at with a gun. Nobody’s thinking about those things. … White America always has the positive view: They’ve got a family at home, they’re always viewed with life behind them. Black Americans, we’re viewed with no life behind us.”

Philando Castile had a permit for his gun, but died in 2016 after the Minnesota police officer who pulled him over shot and killed him, citing fear that Castile, who disclosed that he had a weapon, would kill him. Marissa Alexander, a black woman from Jacksonville, was imprisoned for firing a warning shot in self-defense at her abusive husband after a judge rejected her defense under the state’s “stand your ground” law.

In every class she holds, Tigner said, black women voice their worries about not having their rights respected or acknowledged. “I’ve even had women say that they didn’t want to be in the photo that we take at the end of the class because they didn’t even want anyone to know that they were in a firearms class,” Tigner said. “It’s kind of scary to think that you can’t learn how to defend yourself without being a target or being looked at as a threat. Even Tamir Rice, he was a kid and had a toy. Not even a real firearm, being a child, and was killed in less than two seconds after [police] arrived on the scene. Things like that are why a lot of parents don’t even want their children to learn about firearms or to take a class, because they don’t want them to be seen as a target, like my parents didn’t. We talk about that in the class a lot.”

For Tigner, the decision not to open carry is a tactical one. “If I was a bank robber and I walk into a bank and you’re open carrying, I’m definitely gonna make sure I take you out first. It just makes you an immediate target and an immediate threat. That’s how criminals think. They look for the harder target. Nobody’s expecting me, this 25-year-old black woman, to have a firearm and to be able to draw and defend myself, and I like that. I like that I’m underestimated.”


With regard to the Russian Facebook ads, Tiffany Ware, the 44-year-old Cincinnati-based founder of The Brown Girls Project and founder of the Brown Girls With Guns workshop, didn’t think it was possible for racial tensions to get worse than they already are.

“My only thought was how could they think that would create more of a divide than what already exists?” Ware said. “From where I live, my view, my perspective, there’s always been this huge divide between African-American people and others. Now there’s even more of a divide. I don’t see how they thought seeing that image would create a greater divide, because I come from a very strong and proud background and all I’ve ever received was pushback for being that way.”

She first became interested in guns after a team she managed was harassed while canvassing for Hillary Clinton. Her team members told her they’d been called “n—–s” and that their campaign signs had been destroyed. Ware said she’s lived in Cincinnati for most of her life and before last fall had been called “n—-” twice. Since December, she’s been called the N-word four times.

Witnessing her children’s anxiety after President Donald Trump won the election spurred Ware to action to protect herself and her family.

“It just made me think and I was like, gosh, what if somebody did — anybody, not just some crazy racist person — but what if somebody did run up in this house, what would I do?” Ware said. “Like, how do I handle that? I need to figure it out.”

When Ware began organizing gun training for black women at a Cincinnati gun range, she said, she and the women in her group would draw stares and the owners made it clear they were not welcome. “They told us we couldn’t continue to come because there were so many of us that we were knocking out their Sunday regulars,” Ware said. “We knew what it was.” So they found another range.

“From white supremacists who terrorized that young child’s birthday party to the little boy who took the trash out for his mother and his neighbor shot him down on the side of the street, you know these are realities for us,” Bush said. “And I as a lawful citizen of this country, if I am going to come up against someone who may have a weapon on them, I am not going to be in that position where I have to fear for my life, where I’m unable to protect my family.”