Pay-per-views, Reddit rabbit holes — and a semi-ridiculous new TBS show: battle rap is back — if it ever left The gloves-off battles are sweaty, verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces

On Dec. 9, dozens of rap fans crowded into a tiny, undisclosed location to watch a night full of rap battles — including a battle between Rum Nitty and Iron Solomon, who stole the show in what may go down as the most exciting battle of the year — as MCs traded mostly pre-written bars, insulting each other for three timed rounds. The event, called Smack Vol. 1, was held by the top battle rap league in the country, URL — for Ultimate Rap League. The fact that there were only dozens of fans in attendance is a misleading representation of battle rap’s popularity.

The small venue for Vol. 1 was by design — an attempt by URL to take the event to its roots of intimate crowds. But in actuality, battle rap events draw hundreds of fans, while thousands stream them live on pay-per-view before watching the battles on YouTube by the millions. Battle rap is a simmering subculture. It dominates Reddit threads, message boards and YouTube — and it’s going mainstream.

Iron Solomon vs. Rum Nitty

For instance, Drop The Mic. The Tuesday night TBS show is a spinoff of the rap battle segments from James Corden’s Late Late Show in which he battled celebrities like Kevin Hart and Anne Hathaway. Celebrities like the stars of Big Bang Theory lob rhymed insults at each other. The Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett recently battled Vanessa Hudgens — to the tune of almost 1.4 million views. Hosted by Hailey Baldwin and Wu Tang rap legend Method Man, the show employs artists from the battle scene to help contenders craft lyrics and presentation. Drop The Mic is a gentrified but entertaining look at a battle scene that has been bubbling under the surface of mainstream American pop culture for decades.


The godfather of the modern-day battle rap scene is Troy “Smack” Mitchell. He’s an enterprising Queens, New York, native who set out to document New York rap culture in the early 2000s by recording guerrilla-style interviews of rappers. “I had access to a lot of MCs … because I was in the streets and knew a lot of people,” says Mitchell. “I really grinded … waited for artists outside of clubs. It just blew up from there.” He released the interviews and exclusive freestyles on his Smack DVD series, which features early looks at rappers like Kanye West, Cam’ron and Beanie Sigel. The series was hugely popular in the pre-internet era. And at the end of each DVD was a rap battle.

Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers.

“We came up doing the battles as kids,” says Smack. The rap battles on the Smack DVDs took place on street corners, barbershops and clothing stores. MCs surrounded by dozens of spectators. The rappers had prepared “rounds” of timed raps directed at their opponents. No beats played, and if there was a stumble, slip-up or stutter, the rapper’s round was over.

Shells and Jae Millz

Mychal Watts/WireImage for KSA Publicity

The competitions were intense and legendary, and they helped rappers like Murda Mook and Jae Millz get signed to Ruff Ryders and Young Money. Smack brought battles to living rooms, even though the competitions have been part of hip-hop lore since the genre’s inception.

Here’s your history lesson: Rappers have always tested their mettle against one another. Big Daddy Kane used to roam the Big Apple streets challenging the best rappers. Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes infamously rapped against each other in high school. And a young rapper named Biggie Smalls made his name taking on all comers in freestyle competitions.

Eminem in 8 Mile which was one of the first time mainstream America got a glimpse into battle raps.

Universal Pictures

But it was Eminem’s 2002 8 Mile, in which he battled to famous rap beats like Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” that introduced battle rap to the mainstream. The battles in 8 Mile were fictionalized takes on the real-life Scribble Jam battles that Eminem participated in during the late ’90s — and which got him noticed by Dr. Dre in the first place. By 2003, rappers E. Ness and Jae Millz were battling on MTV’s Making The Band. MTV also had a show called “Fight Klub,” and BET’s 106 & Park had a popular Freestyle Friday segment from 2001 to 2013.

Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness.

Battle rap found a new level of popularity via YouTube, and it shed light on leagues that had formed around the world. The two front-runners were Grind Time — the popular, now-defunct league that started in Florida and expanded to Los Angeles — and Smack’s own Ultimate Rap League that sprouted from his DVD series. Today, Smack battles sell out venues like New York’s Irving Plaza and the Highline Ballroom, and fans pay upward of $100 to attend.

The leagues book the battles. The rappers spend weeks preparing rhymes catered specifically to their opponents. The rappers take the stage, flanked by entourages, and perform alternating timed rounds anywhere from two to five minutes. The battles are verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces.

While most of the rounds are pre-written, some rappers open their rounds with freestyled rebuttals to what their opponent just rapped, flipping insults in their own favor. Battlers never know what’s coming, or how personal an insult can get. When it’s a rapper’s turn to listen to his or her opponent, “defense” is employed, which is essentially how someone reacts to the person rapping — standing stone-faced, shaking a head to show disapproval or mumbling sarcastic reactions. It’s a human chess match — mentally taxing. Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“You know who your opponent is ahead of time so you can do research,” Smack said. “Did they get played? Did they get beat up? You can expose them.” Battles have gotten personal and tense, but it’s accepted, especially since the rappers are celebrities within the culture. They are revered within the battle scene but largely lead regular lives. While the most famous battlers like Loaded Lux and Murda Mook can live off of battles, making music and bookings, most battlers have day jobs. And, yes, the day jobs are function as ammo for insults. Nothing is off-limits.

Really. Dumbfoundead and Conceited once spent their whole battle exchanging short jokes and racist Asian stereotypes. Rone went viral for a whole round about Big T’s obesity. Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness. Despite that, you could count on one hand how many battles have turned physical.

Courtesy of Underground Rap League

“It’s very much like a boxing match,” says Kyle “Avocado” Gray, who has filmed and directed battles for Grind Time and URL, adding a cinematic touch to battles broadcast live on pay-per-view. “These two people get into a ring. They have to have a thick skin. They have to be ready for people to say anything, and not be fazed by it. It almost brings them closer in the end, for having been through that battle together.”

Because fans are so invested in the battles — they reach such a fever pitch — battle rap culture has become a community of message board commenters and YouTubers. Battles often refer to earlier battles and online happenings online that may sound like a totally foreign language to the novice. However, catching the references is part of what makes fans feel rewarded for their dedication.

Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“The culture is super incestual,” Gray remarked. “The art in general isn’t that welcoming to an untrained ear.” But that’s what YouTube rabbit holes are for. And celebrities are happy to join in on the fun, even if that means getting called out midround. James Harden has attended — and Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers. Drake and Diddy have co-hosted, with Diddy famously putting up $10,000 of his own money midbattle to see who would win between T-Rex and Aye Verb.

There are now leagues in every corner of the globe. In addition to URL, there’s King Of The Dot (KOTD) out of Canada, England’s Don’t Flop, Atlanta’s Bullpen Battle League and all-woman Queen Of The Ring in New York. Battle rap is as popular as ever, with landmark moments happening at a breakneck pace. This year alone saw KOTD bring in Russian battle rapper Oxxxymiron, whose massive following garners tens of millions of YouTube views per battle, to Los Angeles for the most viewed battle in North American history — and counting.

And Drop The Mic does utilize writing talent of competitors from the scene like Rone and Hollow Da Don. And the satire Bodied, about battle rap, is making a splash in independent movie festivals and should see wide release in 2018. There’s also the permanent roles of rappers like Charlie Clips and Hitman Holla on Nick Cannon’s improv show Wild N’ Out.

The rapid expansion of battle rap culture is what made Smack want to take things back to the basics with Dec. 9th’s Vol. 1 event. “I didn’t want the battle culture to lose its identity,” he says. “We wanted to take it back to the essence.”

Backstage at ‘The Late Show’ with Jon Batiste The musical director and former point guard on why it’s important to keep score

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Jon Batiste reached over to the Crosley record player in his dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater. He lifted the needle so that Stevie Wonder’s In Square Circle could provide a little background music while he talked in the dim glow of what once was Carol Burnett’s dressing room. Old-fashioned showbiz lights still frame the vanity’s mirror, although the vanity itself is covered with books, hats, records and a speaker. A couple of paintings lean against the mirror.

The musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was quiet and relaxed, possibly the most subdued he’d been all day.

Batiste, 31, rarely stays still, which is the only way a person can hold down his Late Show gig while also acting as artistic director at the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, recording new music, promoting a Christmas album, reimagining “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” collaborating with Wynton Marsalis, writing op-eds for The New York Times and constructing a tribute to dancer Carmen de Lavallade for the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. Batiste is arguably the country’s most visible preservationist and celebrator of jazz. He and Stay Human, The Late Show’s house band, reach roughly 3 million people each night through their televisions.

Full Track

Jon Batiste’s fingers glide across the keys of a Steinway & Sons piano in the Stay Human rehearsal space ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show has recently vaulted to the top of the late-night ratings on the wings of host Stephen Colbert. Monday through Friday he provides a wry yet sunny accounting of how the world is descending into a morass of fear, uncertainty and, lately, how it’s being pushed there by famous men who can’t keep their hands to themselves. Batiste sets off the monologues with a tinkle of piano keys, a laugh or a quip. He’s the amen corner for Colbert’s sharpest jabs.

On the gray, overcast day after a terrorist plowed into a bike path in New York, killing eight people, Batiste strode into his eighth-floor office. When he crossed the threshold to find a stranger waiting for him, he held out his hand and let out one of his trademark “Yeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaahs.”

His buoyant, irrepressible happiness might seem inappropriate for the day after a tragedy, even for a man who comes from the land where people give you a parade when you die. (He grew up in Kenner, Louisiana, about 20 minutes from New Orleans, before moving to New York as a teen to attend The Juilliard School.) Nevertheless, he was humming, scatting and upbeat. Batiste considers transmitting that energy to be part of his job.

“It’s an interesting line to thread, to find a joyous sound that also matches the tone of the material in the show,” Batiste said. “That’s the real challenge every day, is finding out, OK, how do we find that thing that’s gonna push the energy that we want forward but not come across as insensitive or not come across as kitsch or out of taste? And that’s what I enjoy. I love these artistic challenges.”

He’d been listening to The Commodores on the way to work, and he sat down on the small gray couch in his office, barely able to contain his humming until I joined him in the chorus of “Lady (You Bring Me Up).”

Admittedly, it’s hard not to bop your head once you hear the lively strings and driving beat of “Lady.” The Commodores are part of a playlist that Batiste made for 2017. At the beginning of every year, he compiles a mix of songs, a sort of aural lookbook for the next 365 days. This year’s mishmash included contemporary Bob Dylan, 1920s and ’30s Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee and Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album.

The yearly mix provides a thematic foundation for what Batiste wants to reference in the show. About a week after we spoke, Batiste and Stay Human played an arrangement of “Lady” during a Late Show commercial break. It’s evidence of the thoughtfulness that defines his tenure as Late Show bandleader.

“I like putting stuff into the machine and then seeing what comes out of the machine. The brain, that’s like our processing machine,” Batiste said. “So for me, I like to just make a list of all the stuff that I want to digest and assimilate and then I just live with it.”


Batiste has had years of experience putting music into his “processing machine.” He began playing with his father, Michael, in the family’s Batiste Brothers Band when he was about 6 or 7.

The Batistes are one of New Orleans’ most respected and legendary jazz clans, and they’ve often worked side by side with the Marsalis family. Both Batiste and his mentor, Wynton Marsalis, attended high school at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Wynton’s father, pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., headed the jazz department there and was succeeded by clarinetist Alvin Batiste, a distant cousin of Jon’s.

“Him and Alvin and Clyde Kerr and Kidd Jordan, they were like the four village elders who taught everybody in New Orleans music from the last 40 years,” Batiste said. His upbringing in a family of jazz musicians and his experiences playing point guard, both in school (where he was part of a state championship-winning squad) and for an AAU team, gave Batiste his energy, his musical acumen and his constant all-American drive for self-improvement.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for ESPN

“It’s a discipline to achieve whatever your desired end result is,” Batiste explained. “In sports, there’s a score. There’s statistics, and there’s a winner and a loser and a championship, and there is one team that gets it. It’s just very clear-cut.

“I think, in order to get better at being a musician and a bandleader and a composer and all these different things, you have to create things that are that clear-cut, because the competition that you’re up against is yourself. So it’s harder, if you’re not willing to look into the mirror, to define what the end result is. It’s very easy to get to a certain level and to just coast, and to not push yourself to be better, because nobody is really keeping score.”

That constant pushing isn’t just what Batiste expects of himself. He expects it of his bandmates in Stay Human too.

It’s important to get “the team to where’s there’s a built-in camaraderie and built-in sense of purpose, that you’re OK passing your guy the ball to take the shot when it counts in the fourth quarter,” Batiste said, again likening the job to running a basketball team. “It’s not always going to be you that gets to take that shot. You may have to trust your sixth man, or your 2 guard. You’re running point, and I played a lot of point. You’re going to have to trust … I’m not going to be able to take this shot. This is not a smart shot for me to take.”


Batiste comes to work after lunch — this time, he raved about the meatball sandwich at a spot on 53rd Street and Ninth Avenue — usually taking a car from his apartment in midtown Manhattan. His office is filled with sunlight, although the view is basically of a construction crane, thanks to New York’s never-ending real estate development. He’s got two keyboards, a Mac, an amp, a drum set, an electric bass and a Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano. An unopened bottle of Dom Pérignon still in the box, sits on his windowsill — he doesn’t drink.

He catches up on the news and tries to get an idea of what the show will address. Because Colbert riffs on the day’s news for his nightly monologue, things at The Late Show are often in flux right up until it’s time to tape the show. That means Batiste finds himself flipping through the musical library in his head on deadline and making last-minute changes at sound check.

“Picking music for TV is so specific,” Batiste said. “It has a mystery to it until you pick that right song, play that right beat, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, of course I should have been doing that.’ So it’s a mystery until then. You gotta crack the code.”

The code-cracking continues in the Stay Human rehearsal space, which is about the size of a McMansion bathroom.

Jon Batiste, left, reacts to the music while practicing new material with his band, Stay Human, a few hours ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show tapes four days a week. So Monday through Thursday, 10-plus people cram into the space with their instruments, including a tuba and a drum set, and jam.

Batiste’s assistant squeezes into a chair next to the upright Steinway and plays a song from her phone through the Marshall speaker that sits on the piano. Gradually, the band picks up the groove and joins in. There’s little to no sheet music.

Batiste and the band rehearse for roughly an hour, their choices guided by that night’s guests and notes from a morning production meeting that his assistant attends. Then he’s off to comedy rehearsal with Colbert, where the two go through Colbert’s proposed monologue. A small gathering of crew makes up the audience for the rehearsal, which was kept so off-limits that not only could I not watch, I couldn’t even be in the building while it was taking place.

All those little riffs and interjections that feel natural and spontaneous when you watch Colbert’s monologue? They’ve been rehearsed.

After comedy rehearsal, Colbert and his staff make script changes and Batiste refines his music selections. Then there’s a sound check on the stage with the whole band. This time, Batiste was working through a song with Jonathan Groff, who played King George in Hamilton and now stars on the Netflix series Mindhunter. The two fumbled around to find the right key for a jokey promotional duet for Mindhunter that Groff sang with Colbert.

While everyone ventured off to hair and makeup, Late Show staff members shepherded the night’s audience into their seats. They were treated to a bawdy warm-up act by comedian Paul Mecurio. Batiste and Stay Human played a 15-minute concert, and Colbert came out, introduced himself to the audience and took questions.

Finally, they make the television that shows up after the local news five nights a week.


Duke Ellington favored natty suits and a top hat. Cab Calloway rarely performed without his conductor’s baton, white waistcoat and tails.

While Colbert sticks to a uniform of sober suits and dress shoes, his bandleader favors blazers from Mr. Turk and fresh Jordans. Batiste is a consummate sneakerhead, and while he sat and talked on his sofa, he casually dribbled a basketball between his feet.

Now Batiste has access to an entire collection of covetous footwear, an actual binder full of sneakers, via The Late Show’s stylist. He’s an admirer of Russell Westbrook’s sartorial boundary-pushing, and though his loyalties are not wedded to one particular NBA team, he casually follows Oklahoma City.

Unlike Calloway, Batiste doesn’t come out in a zoot suit every night. But there’s a special element of showmanship involved in being a bandleader. It’s a skill, one that Batiste, who swears he used to be shy, had to learn. And his personal style, which he began to cultivate after moving to New York, is part of it. Presentation, he insists, is separate from being a skillful musician.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I think it really is important to think of them as different things,” Batiste said. “It requires a certain understanding of yourself and your comfort zone, and then stepping outside that and expanding your comfort zone. I actually didn’t see a connection with the two. Also, when I was growing up, it was more the older family members who took that role of presenting the band and everything like that. … That’s always a shock to people who I’ve known for a long time, to see how both those things have developed. It’s a surprise, almost, like a different person has emerged.”


Batiste interprets the world through the youthful ears of a wizened soul. His workspaces at The Late Show are a cornucopia of old and new. Crosley and Marshall are companies that specialize in making music equipment that draws on vintage aesthetics but benefits from modern technological innovation. It’s a theme that recurs throughout Batiste’s working life — he began playing for vocalist Cassandra Wilson, now 61, when he was just 22. He’s a jazz musician whose instrument of choice is the melodica, a contraption that looks like a small hand keyboard with a mouthpiece and sounds like a harmonica.

“A lot of people think that this instrument, you know, is like a child’s toy,” Batiste said, but he loves it. He recounted how he showed it to Stevie Wonder the first time they met, when Batiste was still a student at Juilliard.

“Man, you ever played one of these?” Batiste asked Wonder.

Wonder took the instrument, played it, then gave it back.

“Yeah, I used to play them, but I would get so much spit in them, I stopped,” Wonder told him.

“Oh, you got jokes!” was Batiste’s retort.

Unlike many of his earliest predecessors in jazz, Batiste boasts formal musical training besides everything he learned in his family’s band. He earned a master’s degree from Juilliard.

“I feel like it connects me to the ancestors more, the kind of founding fathers of the music,” Batiste said of his musical education. “Mothers and fathers, because women were a big part of it as well. There’s a lot of female artists that I think are still actually becoming recognized that we don’t even know about. The training just gives me another tool. Nothing can hurt you in pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of your craft.

“You know, there were great musicians who were the most erudite, studied, and they knew everything there was to know even before there were all these schools. And there were also musicians who didn’t know all that stuff, but they knew it in their own way. So, in my mind, I don’t even think about it like I’m educated more so than a musician who didn’t go to a conservatory. It’s just I know the terminology. But the person who knows it is the one who experiences it. So, if somebody is playing it on their instrument, they know it. … Whether they call it a C scale or dominant seventh chord or they just know it by whatever they know in their mind, when they play, it’s there.”

In Batiste’s office there’s a poster of Mavis Staples, one of his many heroes.

“She’s not just a musician now, she’s bigger than music,” Batiste said. “[Her involvement] in the civil rights movement and being a force for goodwill and a force of peace and a force for faith and a force in all kinds of ways. It’s amazing.”

Staples represents what he wants to achieve, Batiste said, “just what kind of energy I want to have as a performer and a celebrity. Somebody that’s authentic and is very real and also accomplished and all that, at the same time.”

In marrying youth with tradition, drawing a line from zoot suits to Jordans, Batiste has become a vehicle for advocating and communicating about jazz. He’s reverential, but not stuffy, and always repping New Orleans. (When it comes to gumbo, Batiste prefers filé to okra as a thickener for the city’s signature stew — that’s how his mama makes it.)

For decades, there’s been a panic that jazz, born in Louisiana and spread via the Great Migration, radio and vinyl, is dying. As once-booming jazz corridors in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Kansas City have shrunk or transformed, those changes are accompanied by understandable worries that no one’s interested in carrying on the genre’s traditions, that a uniquely American art form is going underappreciated outside of Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and rich people’s wedding receptions. Damien Chazelle won an Academy Award for directing a movie around that theme.

But there’s always a young, handsome, passionate and charismatic ambassador keeping the legacies of Bird and Miles and Satchmo alive. In the ’90s, it was Batiste’s mentor, Wynton Marsalis. Now Batiste has picked up the torch, along with the requisite fedora and porkpie hat — he’s got a stack of them in his dressing room and more in his office. As for the next generation? Well, Batiste turned 31 in November. He celebrated by traveling to see his 8-year-old nephew’s piano recital. The culture is in safe hands.

No matter if it’s a rehearsal or an actual performance, Batiste and his band member play full out, laughing and having fun with each note they play.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I don’t expect that jazz is always going to be on top like it was in the ’20s, for example,” said jazz pianist and bandleader Herbie Hancock. “The music is always evolving and constantly changing, and it’s very difficult for a lot of listeners to keep up with that.”

But he’s optimistic about Batiste’s work on The Late Show. “That experience is incredible because you’re challenged in a lot of new ways, doing that type of TV show,” Hancock said. “Because of the kind of talent he has and his experience in jazz, he’s able to more easily adapt and include new ways of dealing with the music for that kind of show than if he had not had it.”


As darkness began to settle over Manhattan, it was time for a show.

Batiste sprinted onstage to greet the show’s live audience. Joined by Stay Human, they pumped up the crowd with James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and an arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” modeled after Tito Puente’s salsa-fied version.

One of Colbert’s guests was writer and Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson, who was there to promote his new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. To introduce Isaacson, the band played an up-tempo rendition of “Oh! Didn’t He Ramble,” a New Orleans ditty from 1902 later popularized by Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

“I grew up with his whole family,” Isaacson explained to Colbert. “The wonderful Batiste family of New Orleans.” Isaacson gestured toward Batiste. “He’s a great man.”

When the interview concluded, Isaacson walked over for a hug, thrilled that Batiste had chosen to pay musical homage to their shared roots.

Later, Colbert said goodbye and the band exited. While the audience made its way to the lobby, stopping for pictures with cardboard cutouts of Colbert, Batiste huddled with the host for a post-mortem of the night’s show.

The process of assembling and putting out a newspaper used to be known as the Daily Miracle. Making late-night television involves many of the same pressures related to accuracy, tone and intellect. On top of that, it’s got to be funny, and it’s done in front of a live audience.

No wonder The Late Show tapes smack in the middle of Broadway. With Colbert and Batiste at the helm, it’s clear that’s exactly where it belongs.

Daily Dose: 12/6/17 Craig Melvin rumored to be up for ‘Today’ show gig

Back at it on television Wednesday, folks, so tune in to ESPN at 5 p.m. for Around The Horn. Going for my second win in a row, so we’ll see if it happens! But speaking of Around The Horn, our new Advent Calendar is out, and I got to be a part of it!

Time magazine has named its Person of the Year. It’s the women of the #MeToo movement, the hashtag started to call attention to sexual harassment and assault across the globe. This has been the year that this country has apparently started to take this matter seriously, with men losing their jobs all over the place, for good reason. In a very weird way, though, this feels a bit disingenuous because last year’s person of the year was … Donald Trump, who has admitted to sexual assault on a few occasions.

Every once in a while, some people come up with really good ideas. Craig Melvin replacing Matt Lauer on the Today show would absolutely qualify as such. I’ve been a fan of Melvin ever since he was on NBC4 here in Washington, D.C., and his wife Lindsay Czarniak used to work for ESPN (as well as with him at the local station, where they met). If he makes this jump, it’ll be a great way to recover for NBC as Melvin is not only deserving, but also very well-liked. We’re really hoping this happens.

Right now, wildfires are destroying the greater Los Angeles area. These kinds of natural disasters happen with some regularity, but the pictures from today are truly mind-boggling. I’ve genuinely never seen anything like this in my life, and if I did, I don’t know how I’d just continue driving like nothing was wrong. This stuff is next-level scary and it feels like a movie just looking at it. Alas, those flames are on a path of damage and shutting down operations all over the area. Including the UCLA basketball game.

The NFL is all over the place right now. They’re suspending dudes for head hits, then not suspending others and none of it seems to make much sense at all. If you’re going to say that hits to the head are a priority, but allow guys to get away with WWE moves after plays, the message you’re sending is that you, in fact, don’t care. Now, the guy responsible for handling a lot of this, the commissioner of the league, has signed a new contract to the tune of $40M a year. No word on the private plane or lifetime health care for his family.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Jordan Peele has had an incredible year. After the success of Get Out, he’s basically become Hollywood’s go-to scary movie guy, which is cool. Now, he’s on board to reboot The Twilight Zone, which is a brilliant move for CBS.

Snack Time: Y’all gotta get your girl Rachel Dolezal. Homegirl has a new calendar out for 2018, with photos of her in various states of dress and some black history facts thrown in. What on earth??

Dessert: There are emergencies. Then there are EMERGENCIES.

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

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

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

Denzel Washington stars in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Glen Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

African Ancestry Inc.: Telling black folks where they’re from Maryland company pioneered the science for determining the genealogy of the Seahawks’ Michael Bennett and people of color across the diaspora

Few people on the planet are as funny as comedian Tommy Davidson. But when Davidson decided to learn about his heritage, it was no laughing matter. He had questions and wanted answers. African Ancestry Inc. provided them.

A leader in the field of genetic ancestry tracing, AfricanAncestry.com followed Davidson’s roots to Africa. Through DNA testing, he discovered he’s a descendant of the Mende people of Sierra Leone. The information provided a sense of belonging that Davidson previously lacked. Many African-Americans can relate.

“Because of the slave trade, we never really had the inner sovereign feeling of home,” said the celebrity, who rose to fame on the groundbreaking 1990s sketch-comedy show, In Living Color. “We never had that same feeling that Europeans, Asians, other people who came here [to the United States], have experienced in their lifetimes. Getting the information, man, it was significant for me.”

That’s what AfricanAncestry.com likes to hear.

Founded in 2003 by Dr. Rick Kittles and Gina Paige, the Silver Spring, Maryland-based company pioneered the science for determining the genealogy of people of color across the world. Other genealogy companies, obviously, are capable of tracing roots as well, but “we’re able to be more specific because we have a larger database of African lineage,” Paige said. That’s the reason in a nutshell.

“And we have a larger database of African regions because we are specifically in business to help black people understand where they’re from and who they are. That’s our sole focus. We are not in business to give you health traits or genetic traits. We are not in business to tell you who you’re related to and who your seventh, eighth and ninth cousins are. We’re in business for a very specific reason.”

A swab from the inside of a person’s cheek is all that’s needed for testing.

Based on which test is purchased, AfricanAncestry.com analyzes either mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) inherited from a person’s mother, the Y chromosome that men inherit from their fathers or autosomal DNA from both parents.

Through the analysis, markers or mutations indicate where ancestry is found. If genes indicate that a person is from Africa, the company compares those genes to what it describes as the world’s largest database of African lineages. AfricanAncestry.com is then able to specify the present-day African country and ethnic group with which the person shares maternal and paternal ancestry.

Once a sample is provided, the process takes about eight weeks to complete.

Seattle Seahawks learned the results of his testing last week. On his mother’s side, Michael Bennett descends from the Mandinka people in Senegal and, like Davidson, the Mende people in Sierra Leone. His father’s folk come from the Bubi people of Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea.

Courtesy of African Ancestry, Inc.

AfricanAncestry.com also has provided DNA testing for the PBS television show, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. The company did all the testing for African-American guests during the first two seasons. AfricanAncestry.com informed Davidson that he’s a descendant of proud fighters.

The Mende were aboard the Amistad, the ship on which a slave revolt occurred in 1839. The story became widely known because of the 1997 Steven Spielberg-directed movie starring Djimon Hounsou and Morgan Freeman.

“It really is something,” Davidson said. “Just to find that link to things because of what happened in slavery. Just the psychological effect that that’s probably had on us. It’s real.”

AfricanAncestry.com’s employees take pride in bridging the gap for black folks.

“I’ve seen the impact that [testing] has had on people across all walks of life, across all professions, across all interests, across all different beliefs,” Paige said. “There’s something sobering and also humbling about having the ability to provide people with this information. Not everyone can do it. We’re the only ones who can do it. That’s heavy.”

Dr. Edward Kim is helping lung cancer patients with a Stuart Scott grant North Carolina researcher knows early detection and clinical trials can save lives

Tuesday marked the start of ESPN’s 2017 V Week. During the fundraiser for cancer research, The Undefeated will tell stories about early detection, clinical trials and research in minority communities. ESPN hopes to raise funds and awareness about the important cause championed by our friend, coach Jim Valvano. One hundred percent of all cash donations go directly to cancer research. Donate here today.


No one in Edward Kim’s family was in the medical field. His father was a finance professor and his mother was an artist, but he knew he always wanted to be a doctor. After finishing a seven-year medical program at Northwestern University, he thought he wanted to become a cardiologist, or maybe a surgeon. But he ended up in internal medicine.

“Internal medicine is one of those fields where you go there because you need to buy more time,” Kim said. “I knew I liked medicine, and I thought I would be in a teaching institution down the road. That’s what I really liked. My father was a teacher, and I really enjoy that education part.”

He started his residency in Houston at Baylor College of Medicine. In the fourth month, he was in an oncology rotation.

“After that month, it changed everything inside of me,” Kim said. “I really appreciated the patients and how their perspective was fighting this type of disease. Cancer is still one of the diagnoses that resonates very differently than most other diagnoses. It just brings a whole different connotation to it than just spending an extra couple minutes with a patient with cancer. They get it. That’s what really turned inside of me.”

Now Kim is chairman of Solid Tumor Oncology and Investigational Therapeutics at Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina. And he has received grant money from the V Foundation’s Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Research Fund, which allocates dollars to minority researchers to fight cancer in minority communities. The fund helps to continue Scott’s fight against cancer and assist some of the most vulnerable and disproportionately affected communities battling the disease.

“We’re very excited about being part of the V Foundation,” Kim said. “We’re very excited to bring this type of research to our patients.”

Kim’s research under the grant involves collecting information to try to develop a blood-based test that will help determine which patients being treated with an immunotherapy drug will receive the best benefit.

“That will hopefully help us refine treatment for those patients, not overtreat patients, or perhaps treat them adequately so they don’t need to continue treatment if their blood marker status looks good,” Kim said. “It’s still in the very early stages. We have a scientist here who has developed a blood marker, and that’s what we’re going to try. I think the scientific community sees the need of trying to identify those patients at highest risk, or who may benefit the most, or those who may not benefit so much.”

The V Foundation has awarded more than $7 million from the Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Research Fund. The groundbreaking minority cancer research initiative funds outstanding minority researchers and research that explores the biology behind why some cancers are more likely to occur, are more aggressive or are harder to treat in some minority populations. Nineteen grants have been awarded since the fund was started in 2015.

Before joining the Levine Cancer Institute, Kim landed a fellowship across the street from Baylor at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he gravitated toward lung cancer and head/neck cancer patients. This opportunity led to his current research.

“Tobacco-related cancers, and how to prevent them, was a lot of my research there,” Kim said. “They asked me to stay on staff and faculty there. I stayed there, and I was there for 12 years, tenured and doing very well.”

Five years ago, he took the position at Levine because he was captivated by its vision to deliver regionally based health care. He began as a cancer care expert treating patients with lung cancer.

“Over the years, I’ve done a lot of research with treatments, prevention, cancer markers in lung cancer,” he said. “It’s naturally evolved to what we’re doing here in Charlotte, and really in the Carolinas, because we are so regionally spread that we had an opportunity to compete for V Foundation grants.”

Kim was part of a V Foundation grant in Houston.

“You have to have a strong team, a strong bench, to succeed or even really battle,” Kim said. “That’s what we’ve put together here.”

Kim said the unique aspect of their patient population in the Carolinas is that they’re on the front lines.

“Part of the attraction of leaving a great center like MD Anderson is that the patients you see there are all usually very well-educated, they have the means to travel or the savvy to travel to a top-notch cancer center, whether that be New York, Boston, Houston,” he said. “But the majority of patients treated out there, 85 percent of them, are seen in the community. That is what our system is structured around. We see patients who don’t know about clinical trials, who don’t know about the cutting-edge therapies. This is an opportunity to try and test, not only have them participate in this type of study, but also keep them informed of these types of things that are going on.”

It has been well-documented, especially in recent research, that minorities respond differently to medical and pharmaceutical treatment. So it’s important to Kim that he has a diverse population of patients.

“We know that there are characteristics that are different in each individual patient,” Kim said. “I’m Asian. We know that some drugs work better in patients who are Asian than others. We know that this is different among Hispanics, Caucasians and African-Americans. That is one of our primary objectives, to make sure we have cohorts of different ethnic subgroups to look at those differences. There’s also a big cultural aspect. Each culture is very different. I’m not even talking about whether you grew up in the North, or the South, or the East, or the West, or Indiana versus Tennessee. The cultural aspect of perception of clinical trials, experimental therapy, has a very checkered history among different groups.”

Near the end of his life, Scott participated in a clinical trial study. Socially disadvantaged and racial/ethnic minority groups have been historically underrepresented in clinical research. Lack of African-American participation in clinical trials stems from distrust historically, most notably with the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932-72). Earlier this year, the story of Henrietta Lacks and her stolen cells was made into a movie. The convoluted history of medical experimentation on African-Americans in the United States, along with many other structural factors, plays a huge part in the lack of participation by the black community.

“Part of what we are trying to overcome is that participation in these trials really doesn’t do any harm because we’re not giving experimental drugs or anything,” Kim said. “We’re collecting extra blood, blood that normally would be tested for standard lab values, to try and learn from them, learn from their experience, and hopefully can benefit someone down the road. That’s how research is. It really is an altruism where you’re trying to get some benefits now, but you’re hopefully benefiting those down the road.”

Like Scott, Kim has a vision that includes increasing early detection and participation from minority groups in clinical trials.

“I think it’s still something that health care professionals, different support groups and education need to occur so that folks can understand what the opportunities are, and what’s the benefit for them,” he said. “I’m not saying that everybody should be on clinical trials, and every clinical trial can be a little different, but it is a way where we make progress. We can’t get a new drug unless we have a clinical trial. That’s what leads us to the next study, and the next study. I’m a strong advocate for people to be on clinical trials. I feel like we need more clinical trials out there. You find the right biomarker and identify the patient that’s going to benefit, that drug works really well.”

For early detection, Kim is an advocate for identifying at-risk populations to try to intervene and prevent cancers.

“It’s great that there is a CT screening exam now for people who are heavy smokers, that are at high risk for developing lung cancer,” Kim explained. “That study finally was positive, and now Medicare reimburses.”

Besides his study with the V Foundation grant, Kim and his team have built a mobile lung cancer screening unit that’s called the lung bus, a project at the Levine Cancer Institute spearheaded by his boss.

“Just like you see these mammograms on these buses driving around and stuff? Well, we did it with a CT screener. Since April this past year, we go to underserved communities in North Carolina and offer free CT screening to them. These are people who would not have sought out this treatment.”

More funding means more research. More research means more lives saved. Join our campaign to raise $200 million by 2020. You can contribute by visiting this link: www.jimmyv.org/stuartscott.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding is a good thing, right? A black feminist argues with herself about the impending royal nuptials

Rachel Meghan Markle and Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor (better known as Meghan Markle and Prince Harry) are getting married next spring. Upon official confirmation of this news, I immediately began vacillating between feelings of OMG … SO EXCITING … ROYAL WEDDING … BLACK PRINCESS … HARRY PUT A RING ON IT and Dear Lord, I hope someone has taught Prince Philip to stop saying racist stuff in public.

Markle is the biracial American actress who played Rachel Zane on Suits and helmed a popular lifestyle site called The Tig. Now, she’s vaulted to an entirely new stratosphere of fame, thanks to months of speculation about her relationship with Prince Harry.

I’m conflicted. I abhor our culture’s fixation with all things pink and fluffy and princessy because of the way they reinforce narrowly defined gender roles and limit the possibilities that girls imagine for themselves. It’s why, when my niece was born, one of my first gifts to her was a copy of The Paper Bag Princess. There are more important things in life than bagging a man, and doing so is no guarantee that one will live happily ever after. Just ask Charlene of Monaco. Besides, “happily ever after” is just a concept invented by men like Don Draper to sell nylons.

But I’m not immune to princess fever. The Windsors are the weak inheritors of my obsession with the Tudors, which was fed by a steady childhood diet of Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench movies. But the thing that turns my princess fever practically rheumatic is The Princess Bride. I loved that movie so much I named my cat after the title character. Then I rewatched it this year and found myself cringing at Princess Buttercup’s (Robin Wright) general inability to save herself or even recognize the voice of the supposed love of her life.

Still, my ambivalence about the gender politics of one of my favorite movies didn’t stop me from having a conversation with myself as Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) about Markle and her betrothed, Prince Harry:

On the one hand
Aren’t we supposed to be trying to upend the colonialist, imperialist, racist patriarchal system, not marry into it?

On the other hand
This will definitely piss off actual Nazis, especially the ghosts of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII.

On the one hand
Harry dressed up like a Nazi that one time.

On the other hand
We get to watch neurons short-circuit in real time on Fox News the first time Meghan says, “Happy Christmas” in public.

On the one hand
Our obsession with princess crap is bad and we should be trying to KILL IT WITH FIRE.

On the other hand
You definitely rewatched Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Freeform over the holiday and couldn’t tear yourself away, hypocrite.

On the one hand
You grew up obsessed with Elizabeth I and you turned out fine.

On the other hand
Yes, but I was obsessed with her speech-giving and political acumen and the way she navigated power as a woman (and also her relationship with the Earl of Leicester).

On the one hand
Poor Meghan’s going to have some seriously racist in-laws.

On the other hand
Stars, they’re just like us!

On the one hand
Didn’t we fight a whole war so we wouldn’t have to bow to white people who think they’re ordained by God to rule the world? I mean, Longfellow wrote a whole poem commemorating its start.

On the other hand
I hope the wedding dress is Alexander McQueen. (Sarah Burton for McQueen, yes, but McQueen all the same.) Everyone loves an impossibly expensive, pretty dress. Even me.

On the one hand
But Harry dressed up LIKE A NAZI.

On the other hand
We can fantasize about them reading the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning to each other. (You know Elizabeth was black, right? Robert used to call her “My Little Portuguese.” Don’t @ me about how Creole ain’t black. It’s just fancy black. Hush.)

On the one hand
I hope she’s not miserable like Diana and Fergie. I mean, I’m named after a woman who wrote a book called Palace of Solitude after marrying the Shah of Iran.

On the other hand
As far as we know, Harry is Wesley, not Prince Humperdinck. After all, Harry is probably the Obamas’ favorite royal.

On the one hand
Meghan had a website and a career, and now she’s already had to swear off all of that.

On the other hand
Amandla Stenberg can play her in The Crown.

On the one hand
Their kids won’t have a remotely normal life, and everything they do will be scrutinized.

On the other hand
BLACK ASHY BABIES ALL UP IN THE PALACE OF WHITEHALL (*briefly assumes Wendy Raquel Robinson’s role in Something New, whispering, “Nedra! Don’t be so crass!”*)

Daily Dose: 11/27/2017 Prince Harry and Meghan Markle get engaged

Look, Monday is a tough day in my world. It’s the 10th anniversary of Sean Taylor’s death. He was my favorite football player of all time, and his death was a shock to so many people. It still hurts. I’ll have more on this later.

The royal family just got a lot blacker in England. Prince Harry has officially gotten engaged to Meghan Markle, whose identity has been the subject of much scrutiny over the years. Whatever. It doesn’t really matter, but the way that people talk about colorism these days makes this a matter of concern for some people, which is unfortunate. You’ll probably hear about how Buckingham Palace is about to look a whole lot more like the rest of the country, which is pretty trite. We’re happy for them.

President Donald Trump must think we’re stupid. For whatever reason, his latest bit is that the Access Hollywood audio with Billy Bush that we all heard, saw, digested and processed was somehow fake because his face wasn’t actually on camera when the most offensive of his words (if you even want to dignify that notion) were spoken. This is clearly a massive insult to our collective intelligence, but Trump has been trafficking in conspiracy theories for years, most notably the birther one about his predecessor in the White House.

Online dating is not something I’ve ever done. I’m just one of those people who was never really about that action, but it’s certainly a great way to meet people and a popular method. I’ve heard so many horror stories over the years that I can’t even imagine having to do it personally, but then again, those tales aren’t any worse than people who meet folks any other way. That said, Tinder did sort of disrupt the market in terms of immediacy, but not everyone uses it like that. One woman asked her old dates why they didn’t work out.

LeBron James is hilarious. The Akron, Ohio-born megastar is outwardly a Dallas Cowboys fan, something that over the years has offended many. I mean, who can blame him? If you were a guy his age, why on earth would you have ever rooted for the Cleveland Browns? They’ve been god-awful his whole life. That said, someone asked him Sunday about the NFL, and he said that his favorite player is Carson Wentz. That’s Wentz, of the Philadelphia Eagles, who are certainly not the Cowboys and most definitely not the Browns. Do you, Bron.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Now that Mase is back to beefin’ with Cam’ron, we’ve all gotten to revisit exactly how much we liked the former when he was really at his peak. Putting Biggie aside, Mase was basically the perfect Bad Boy Records artist in terms of his whole appeal. Check out this list of the best Bad Boy songs of all time.

Snack Time: Speaking of LeBron, he’s going to be in a new kids movie this summer. The premise of it is hilarious: There’s one Yeti in the whole world who’s actually seen a human being.

Dessert: How anyone thought they would get away with this is beyond me.

It’s almost Christmas: the 11 best black holiday films ever — and ranked From Queen Latifah to Ice Cube to Gabrielle Union and Fat Albert — it’s time to dig in

After Big Mama and Big Daddy clear the table of fried turkey, mac ’n’ cheese, collards, potato salad and more — and after the last football game ends — it’s time to head to the movies with a slice of pie. But instead of vegging out to watch marathons of delicious reality shows (you know you’ll do that on another day this holiday season!), fire up the On Demand, your fave streaming service or the Blu-ray and check out every one of these holiday favorites.

11. The Last Holiday (2006)

Not one of my favorite Queen Latifah film moments, but when this bad boy comes on cable, it’s hard to change the channel. The Queen is a sweet store assistant named Georgia who thinks she’s dying — so she cashes it all in to take a super grand vacation before she kicks the bucket. She may not be dying, though! And it turns out her super secret crush (played by LL Cool J) likes her back! #BlackLove

 

10. The Perfect Holiday (2007)

Some of your faves star in this little-seen (but it’s not too late!) holiday flick. Gabrielle Union, Morris Chestnut, Charlie Murphy and Terrence Howard all appear in this romantic comedy — and it’s narrated by Queen Latifah. Chestnut is an aspiring songwriter, and Union is a divorced woman with three kids and is in desperate need of a good word from a good man. In the end, will everything be beautiful? Surely. And what more could you want on Christmas?!

 

9. This Christmas (2007)

The official holiday track for black households everywhere is Donny Hathaway’s most excellent 1970 “This Christmas,” so it’s fitting that we get a holiday film about all of the obstacles that a typical family has to overcome. Also: The cast in this one is STACKED. Delroy Lindo, Idris Elba, Loretta Devine, singer Chris Brown, Columbus Short, Regina King, Sharon Leal, Lauren London and Mekhi Phifer all have roles.

 

8. Black Nativity (2013)

Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) directs this feature film based on a Langston Hughes play. The big cast includes Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, Tyrese, Angela Bassett, Mary J. Blige, Jacob Latimore, Vondie Curtis-Hall and Nas. Yet the film didn’t perform well at the box office. Maybe it should get another look this holiday season?

 

7. Almost Christmas (2016)

Storyteller David E. Talbert gives us a story centered on a patriarch (Danny Glover) who is mourning the recent death of his wife and trying to keep the rest of his family together. Another star-studded cast helps bring this family holiday tale to life: Gabrielle Union, Kimberly Elise, Oscar winner Mo’Nique, Nicole Ari Parker, Keri Hilson, Jessie Usher, Omar Epps and Romany Malco.

 

6. The Kid Who Loved Christmas (1990)

This is Sammy Davis Jr.’s last screen performance — and he only appears briefly. But this is a sweet, poignant story about young Reggie (Trent Cameron), an orphan who is juuuuuuust about to be adopted by a jazz musician (Michael Warren) and his wife (Vanessa Williams). Tragically, right as the adoption is almost done, Williams dies in a car accident and a social worker (Esther Rolle) doesn’t approve of the adoption. Grab your Kleenex.

 

5. Fat Albert’s Christmas Special (1977)

All the ’70s kids, and those younger ones with cool parents, grew up watching this animated series that was created by He Who Shall Not Be Named. This was a half-hour, animated prime-time TV special that saw the kids staging a production of a Nativity pageant in their junkyard clubhouse.

 

4. A Diva’s Christmas Carol (2000)

VH1 isn’t only good for a soapy reality TV series; it’s also gifted us with a remake of the Dickens classic starring an ego-driven singer portrayed by Vanessa Williams (as Ebony Scrooge!) who needs the type of check you cannot cash at the bank. TLC’s Chili also appears.

 

3. the best Man Holiday (2013)

If you don’t break down in tears toward the end of this film, you are not human. And you have no soul. Morris Chestnut’s Lance Sullivan is on the precipice of retiring from the NFL while also battling grief due to his severely ill wife, Mia (Monica Calhoun). The reunion of college friends — Harper (Taye Diggs), Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), Jordan (Nia Long), Chestnut, Calhoun, Julian (Harold Perrineau), Candace (Regina Hall), Quentin (Terrence Howard) and Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) — assembles some of the most gifted young working black actors out there. And the “Can You Stand the Rain” scene is forever.

 

2. The Preacher’s Wife (1996)

Denzel Washington is an angel in this beautiful family comedy directed by Penny Marshall. It’s a remake of 1947’s Bishop’s Wife — and this time it’s set in a poor New York City neighborhood. A Baptist preacher (Courtney B. Vance) is trying to get his parish out of financial trouble. Whitney Houston and that voice shine in this story, which earned her and Loretta Devine NAACP Image Awards.

 

1. Friday After Next (2002)

Damn you, Ice Cube! For making us wait all these years for another Friday movie. In the interim, we have this gem, which gives us more cousin Day Day comedy from Mike Epps. This Friday, Santa Claus is the neighborhood’s biggest bully — Rickey Smiley — as he robs Craig (Cube) and Day Day on Christmas Eve, getting away with presents and the rent money. The film feels like what most of our holidays are like: trifling relatives, lots of love and laughter and, if we’re lucky, a pink limousine to save the day. Much foolishness ensues, especially from Katt Williams, who is ridiculous as Money Mike.

 

Oscar winner John Ridley wants us to keep asking questions about the L.A. riots The writer-director — ’12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Red Tails,’ ‘American Crime’ — tells truths via fiction and nonfiction

If you’ve been paying attention these past few years, you see exactly what John Ridley is trying to do. The Oscar-winning filmmaker — he earned Hollywood’s biggest prize for writing the adapted screenplay of 2013’s 12 Years a Slave — has been working on projects that entertain and educate. When you experience a John Ridley project, you end up ordering a book or going down a Google rabbit hole. You figure out a way to learn more. He challenges his audience to think more deeply.

His latest project is documentary Let It Fall, which was released in New York and Los Angeles theaters earlier this year (a shorter version ran on ABC). The film documents the mood and events that led to the Los Angeles riots, which happened 25 years ago in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. Like most of what he does, the work is rich. And now his name, once again, is being whispered in Academy Award circles.

Why do you gravitate toward the kind of work — statement art — that you do?

I started in a space where much of the work that I did was self-expression. I started as a novelist, and the first novel I wrote was made into an Oliver Stone film, U Turn (1997). And with Three Kings (1993) and Undercover Brother (2002), [they] were about me trying to speak to people. That was good, and I think I was successful to a degree. But it was a time in my career where things shifted, and I was very fortunate to be involved in stories that were less about me and more about who we are. And where we came from, and representatives of, I’ll say, our community — certainly in our country, and in general. People of color who, against all odds, and without a desire for much recognition of self, just work to achieve, and to be, and to excel.

So you do things like Red Tails and get involved with the Tuskegee Airmen, and you do things like 12 Years a Slave, or American Crime, which were fictionalized stories but real human accounts. We spent so much time with people, listening to them. Their stories and their struggles. Their hopes, their dreams and their desires. People compliment me on my work, and I go, ‘Look, I don’t know that I’ve gotten better over the years as a storyteller. But I think the stories that I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in, they are more potent and they are more emotional. And they touch people in a greater way.’ I’m absolutely attracted to those kinds of stories.

“These individuals, who on the surface have no connectivity, will forever be connected by a very particular tragedy.”

Let It Fall certainly falls into that. Why did you want to document this horrific moment in American history?

There were so many very personal stories, very personal narratives, that were beyond the narrative. People called it a ‘riot.’ ‘The Rodney King Riots.’ Rodney King didn’t start it; the riots didn’t start right after the arrest. There were so many incidents … that led to these tragic events. They affected many different communities and many different kinds of people. One of the reasons I wanted to tell the story was I thought it deserved to be told from multiple perspectives, and over time. These different points of views, and these different neighborhoods, and these different individuals were given equal weight and equal measure … a tapestry was being woven. One can do that and not obscure a central point that we’re all sharing these spaces. If we don’t see the commonality that we have, on an everyday basis, we will end up seeing it in a shared way, and usually with a shared tragedy. It shouldn’t come to that before we see ourselves in other people.

So much rich material is coming out of the documentary space right now, and black directors and creatives are telling these stories — look at the Oscars documentary category last year.

There are moments in Let It Fall, … [where] I don’t think I could create characters or moments or emotions that are as strong as they are in reality. I also think now is a very good time for telling documentaries because there are so many platforms that are very supportive of the documentary space, and audiences no longer have to go to an art house or see them in a movie theater. You have these great stories, you have audiences that are now being cultivated — and you have artists, whether it’s Ezra Edelman, whether it’s Ava DuVernay — who want to tell stories.

The L.A. riots happened 25 years ago, but so much of what was happening then feels very contemporary. What surprised you most when putting this together?

How raw some of the subjects’ emotions remained, even 25 years later. The stories they’re telling, it’s like they happened yesterday. The sharpness of their pain, or their loss, or their regret, things they wished they could do differently. Things that they wish they could do again. These individuals, who on the surface have no connectivity, will forever be connected by a very particular tragedy. That was my strongest takeaway … just the rawness of the emotions.

What would you hope audiences take away from this doc?

It’s wrong to put something in front of people as though I have the answers and I have the solution. I think people need to be continuing to ask questions. Questions about their environment, questions about how they interact. What would be my decision? What would be my choice? What would I do in a similar circumstance? Or more importantly, what can I do now so that I can avoid ever having to make a choice like that? There’s far too much of that going on right now, people being told what to think. But not enough of us being inspired to ask more questions, dig more deeply and upend expectations.

Let it Fall is available on ABC.com and Netflix.