‘The Chi’ and ‘South Side’ go beyond the violent rep of Second City’s South Side Is television finally starting to represent the real Chicago?

In the premiere episode of the already critically acclaimed The Chi, a fresh-faced, precocious African-American teen is shot to death on the streets of Chicago’s South Side. After lifting a gold chain and sneakers from a dead body, an affable teen named Coogie, portrayed by Jahking Guillory later runs into the deceased boy’s stepfather, Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) — he’s racked with grief and looking for payback. Coogie tries to reason with the man, but it’s too late.

A gun goes off, and Coogie is left stretched on the pavement, bleeding to death. There are no heroes and no villains. It’s a devastating moment. And while it seems in line with all-too-familiar real-life headlines associated with the South Side, things are more complex and nuanced on The Chi.

Chicago has struggled to shake off a rep as America’s most dangerous city. According to a recent USA Today piece, 650 people were killed in the city in 2017, a 15 percent drop from 771 people in 2016. And for much of last year, the Windy City didn’t even rank among the highest murder rates in the country: St. Louis; Baltimore; New Orleans; Detroit; Kansas City, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; and Cleveland. Chicago did, though, surpass New York and Los Angeles’ combined murder rates for the second straight year. And most of these murders happen on the predominantly black West and South sides.

And yet The Chi, created by actor/producer/activist Lena Waithe, avoids being tragedy porn. Waithe portrayed Denise in Netflix’s acclaimed and award-winning Master of None and made history in 2017 as the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing for the show. A proud native of the South Side, Waithe grew up on 79th Street near Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway before moving to suburban Evanston, Illinois, during her preteen years.

There was comedic gold in the lives of everyday, hardworking, blue-collar black folk.

“[Chicago] is not a jungle,” she said a few weeks ago on CBS This Morning. “It’s not a bunch of hooligans with no hearts and no souls. Every black boy isn’t born with a gun in his right hand and a pile of drugs in his left. They’re born with the same amount of hope and joy as every other little baby in the world.”

Hollywood has had a long, complex history with regard to its portrayal of Chicago — and way before today’s gang issues, it’s very often been about the city’s infamous gangster side. Starting with 1931’s Little Caesar (Edward G. Robinson as a not-so-subtle stand-in for the Chi’s Al Capone), it’s taken years for the city to transcend its image of a lawless town under siege by gunfights and political corruption.

There’s the beloved 1975 tearjerker Cooley High, the 1997 romantic poetry drama Love Jones and the Ice Cube-headlined 2002 box office hit Barbershop. “Black Chicago” has had an even more turbulent representation, particularly on the small screen.

The landmark ’70s CBS series Good Times is perhaps the most celebrated (and polarizing) television show about the Chicago black experience. Hailed as a game-changer during its initial run starting on Feb. 8, 1974, the groundbreaking Mike Evans-created series, developed by legendary television producer Norman Lear, took America inside Chicago’s poor Cabrini-Green housing projects.

There were struggles, but Florida and James Evans instilled family values and a strong moral code into their three children. But the controversial death of James, Good Times’ lone father figure, had critics crying foul. And it didn’t help when the catchphrase-wielding J.J. Evans — Dynomite!!! — was pushed front and center as the show’s reigning star.


The Chi is executive produced by both Waithe and rapper/actor Common, a fellow Chicago native. The 10 episodes are directed by Rick Famuyiwa of the film Dope, as well as behind-the-camera talent that includes Tanya Hamilton (Night Catches Us), Dave Rodriguez (TNT’s Animal Kingdom and USA’s Queen of the South) and Roxann Dawson (Netflix’s House of Cards, PBS’ Mercy and ABC’s Scandal).

This is not to say that The Chi doesn’t delve into hard-knock realities. There’s a distinct feel in its scripts and in the acting that you won’t find on such procedural dramas as the Dick Wolf-produced Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med — so vanilla, so pedestrian that they may as well have been set in Any City USA.

Showtime’s long-running Shameless (shot largely in Los Angeles) follows a dysfunctional yet tight-knit white family in the North Lawndale section of the South Side. And CBS’ formulaic “Chicago” sitcom Superior Donuts revels in the diversity of its black, white, Latino and Middle Eastern cast members. But it doesn’t aim for the idiosyncrasies of The Chi, filmed on the South Side, giving it a rich, textured feel, and the narrative is ignited by the murder of a promising young basketball player.

Frustrated law enforcement officers struggle for answers in a neighborhood weary and distrustful of cops. This is a city, in real life, that has been embroiled in a series of high-profile police brutality scandals. And everything about the series screams authentic all-caps CHICAGO, even down to the show’s sound, which included the homegrown genre of stepping music, as well as Chicago artists such as Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, Chicago Children’s Choir, Sir Michael Rocks, and Noname. On The Chi, there is life, laughter and even hope.

For the Chicago-born Sylvia Jones, one of the scribes behind The Chi, working on the series has been a revelation. “This is Lena’s baby … her vision,” said the former local news producer at WGN and WLS. She quit her job in 2016 and flew out to Los Angeles to chase her dream of becoming a television writer. “Very often, shows about Chicago show people either tragically poor or affluent. But there’s not a whole lot in between on television, and that’s what most of us are in real life. … The Chi tries to show black people in all their complexities.”

Indeed, Jason Mitchell (Mudbound, Straight Outta Compton) plays Brandon, a gifted, hungry chef with dreams of opening up his own restaurant with his ambitious girlfriend, Jerrika (Tiffany Boone). There’s the aforementioned Coogie, Brandon’s half brother: a wild-haired, unabashedly quirky kid who rides past murals of Chicago’s adopted son President Barack Obama on a canary yellow bike while listening to Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got.” And Mwine as the drifter Ronnie, a troubled yet loving stepfather who also happens to be a police informant. Alex R. Hibbert (Moonlight) dives into the show-stealing role of Kevin, a charismatic tween who has a crush on a cute schoolmate. And Jacob Latimore is Emmett, an obsessive sneakerhead and girl-crazy playboy living with his mother. The all-too carefree young man is finally forced to face the sobering responsibilities of fatherhood.

It’s a stellar cast, rounded out by Chicago native and Oscar-winning rapper/actor Common and the criminally underrated Sonja Sohn (The Wire) as Brandon’s protective alcoholic mother. The Chi is a welcome nuanced television portrayal of Chicago’s black working class shown through a complex lens that sidesteps the usual one-dimensional stereotypes. And The Chi is not alone.


This fall, Comedy Central will debut the workplace comedy South Side. It’s set in and around a rent-to-own appliances and furniture business in Chicago’s notorious section of Englewood. It’s a risk-taking premise for sure: finding comedy in the heart of an infamous neighborhood that in past years has claimed Chicago’s highest murder rates. But according to Bashir Salahuddin, who came up with the idea for the series with his brother Sultan Salahuddin and former fellow Late Night With Jimmy Fallon writer Diallo Riddle, humanizing the community of Englewood is priority.

Many of the actors and workers on the set of South Side are actually from Chicago. And Salahuddin says he hopes to show another side of low-income communities like Englewood, which is experiencing a noticeable upswing. From January to October 2017 there were 130 fewer shootings, a 43 percent decrease. And, even as conversations about gentrification swirl, openings of both Starbucks and Whole Foods have injected a sense of economic optimism.

“A huge chunk of our show is actually shot in Englewood,” said Salahuddin, 41, from his Los Angeles home. Like The Chi’s Waithe, he was born and raised on the South Side. Salahuddin, who also stars as referee Keith Bang in the breakout Netflix wrestling comedy GLOW, recalls hearing hilarious stories from his boy who worked at a Rent-A-Center in Chicago. That’s when the idea hit. Salahuddin knew there was comedic gold in the lives of everyday, hardworking, blue-collar black folk.

“I remember being shocked the first time I saw Friday because all I knew about the West Coast was Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society,” he said. “So to see the same ’hood backdrop where those two movies took place in, but with a strong black family where the mother and father are together and working and they are staying on their son to better his life, those values portrayed in that environment … blew my mind. We want people to experience the same thing with South Side and say, ‘Oh, there are other kinds of things going on in Englewood, and some of it is really funny and thoughtful.’ ”

For Atlanta native Riddle, also 41, immersing himself in the idiosyncrasies of Chicago culture as well as the city’s notoriously segregated history was an eye-opening experience bigger than West Side vs. South Side, Harold’s Chicken Shack vs. Uncle Remus or Chicago Cubs vs. White Sox.

“When I meet a white person from Chicago, I’ll often say, ‘Man, this person can be from anywhere,’ ” Riddle said. “But a black person from Chicago feels a lot more specific. It’s a weird mix of Midwest and heavy South. Even when I would talk to Bashir’s family or listen to Chicago artists like Kanye [West], there are little things that were tapped into their way of speech and culture that you don’t see anywhere else. For us, this was unclaimed territory. We knew we needed to do a definitive show that jumped into that specific culture.”

“Often, shows about Chicago show people either tragically poor or affluent. But there’s not a whole lot of in-between on television. And that’s what most of us are in real life.”

The emergence of The Chi and South Side come at a time of exceptional growth for the Chicago entertainment industry. According to the Illinois Film Office, which awards a 30 percent tax credit to film, television and advertising productions, in 2016 alone projects generated an estimated $499 million in Illinois spending, a 51 percent increase over the previous year. From 2011 to 2015, $1.3 billion was injected into the cities’ economy, bringing in local jobs and a much-needed kick to hard-hit neighborhoods.

One of the eight major television series filmed full time in Chicago is Empire. “Chicago has such a great pool when it comes to local actors,” said Joshua Allen, a supervising producer on the Fox ratings-fixture and himself a Chicagoan. “People have slept on Chicago forever as a theater town, because when people think theater, they usually think of New York. But it has a huge, vibrant theater scene, so we have a lot of actors we can pull from.”

Both South Side and The Chi offer fresh, challenging takes on the home of the blues. Perhaps that’s why The Chi in particular resonates so profoundly, and South Side, even before its premiere, seems full of possibility. Lena Waithe, and the trio of Diallo Riddle and Bashir and Sultan Salahuddin, are creating work that tells their truth: the good, the bad and the absurd. There’s a newfound black power and freedom that jumps off the screen — as on such other uncompromising shows as Donald Glover’s surreal Atlanta (FX), which returns in March, and Issa Rae’s fearless Insecure.

“There are millions of TV shows, so we have to stand out,” Salahuddin said. “Why do all this stuff and then not show people something authentic?” Indeed.

ABC has two more Shonda Rhimes shows coming despite her new deal with Netflix Television Critics Diary: Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan are pals on the new ‘American Idol’ and Roseanne Conner is a Trump voter

PASADENA, California — If you liked Regé-Jean Page’s performance as Chicken George in A&E’s 2015 update of Roots, I have good news for you. The British-Zimbabwean actor now plays a jerk of a federal prosecutor named Leonard Knox in the new Shondaland legal drama, For The People. And because it’s a Shonda Rhimes show, yes, you’ll see him shirtless.

Her company, Shondaland, has a giant new deal with Netflix. But it still has remaining shows at ABC, including For The People, scheduled to premiere in March, and an untitled Grey’s Anatomy spinoff set three blocks down from Seattle Grace in a firehouse.

Paris Barclay, the former Directors Guild of America president, is directing again on The Spinoff That ABC Refused to Name, after previous Shondaland stints on Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.

Barclay is a groundbreaker in all sorts of ways, including as the first black and first openly gay president of the Directors Guild of America. So he knows how rare it is to be directing on a show executive produced by a black woman, for a network run by a black woman — ABC president Channing Dungey is the first black person to run a broadcast network.

“Shonda is a whole new world,” Barclay told me during the Television Critics Association press tour here. “It’s been one of the best experiences of my career. I love going into a room with executives at ABC and they’re mostly women and I think that’s great. And the shows that she creates, with Stacy [McKee], and with other people, put women in the forefront and I guess that’s what I’m going to have to do for the rest of my life because I enjoy it so much.”


The cast of the “American Idol” reboot.

ABC/Image Group LA

ABC is also reviving American Idol, with Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan as judges and Ryan Seacrest still hosting. There was a strict no-spoilers policy in place, so I can’t tell you if the show found any memorable singers this season. But the chemistry between the judges seems amicable and genuine. One of the fun things about press tour is reading the body language between co-stars to figure out which ones aren’t exactly fans of each other. But there’s clearly mutual respect between Richie and Bryan, and it started to make sense why Bryan was tapped to be part of the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony paying tribute to Richie.

“Shonda is a whole new world. It’s been one of the best experiences of my career.”

The tribute acts for the Kennedy Center show are closely held secrets because they’re supposed to be a surprise for the honorees. The Kennedy Center reached out to Bryan about honoring Richie while the two were working together on Idol, leaving Bryan to find a way to keep mum about the whole thing.

“I’m around this man seven or eight times, and I know I’m going to be a part of this secret,” Bryan said.

Bryan said that he really wanted to walk the red carpet at the Kennedy Center but couldn’t.

“You want to get out there and do the red carpet and tell everybody why you were so honored to honor Lionel and just be a part of it,” he said. “It is a beautiful, beautiful night, Kennedy Center Honors. So I get on the red carpet, and I’m, like, going to take my first picture, and they are, like, ‘Get off the carpet! He’s here! He’s here!’

“I guess … either I was running behind, or Lionel was running ahead. And so they run me around, and I’m literally standing outside of a bathroom for about 30 minutes because Lionel is out there hamming it up on the carpet talking to everybody. Then I’m like, ‘The heck with it. Let’s just sneak around the back.’ ”

Richie was none the wiser until Bryan appeared on stage that night.


The cast of “Roseanne.”

ABC/Image Group LA

Roseanne is being revived at ABC, but one of her best qualities has been complicated by recent events.

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, I wrote in an essay for The Undefeated that many people of color were wondering about public and private truths in American society. Namely, who among us would wish us harm?

Monday, I had the chance to ask that question about a beloved character from the 1990s, Roseanne Conner, who famously and forcefully lectured her son DJ that there was no place for bigotry in their house after DJ refused to kiss a black girl in his school play. It was a striking scene in one of America’s most popular shows. Conner was a groundbreaking character and it was incredibly significant to see a white woman saying that just because their family was economically disadvantaged, that didn’t mean they would stand for looking down their noses at black people.

Well, the Roseanne Conner of 2017 is a Trump voter. And so I asked her creator Roseanne Barr, who was also a Trump voter, how that happened. How did Conner become a person who didn’t see Trump’s well-documented instances of xenophobic and racist statements as disqualifying?

“Well, he says a lot of crazy s—,” Barr said. “You know, I’m not a Trump apologist and there are a lot of things he has said and done that I don’t agree with, like there’s probably a lot of things Hillary Clinton has done and said that you don’t agree with. And so nobody is brainwashed into agreeing with a hundred percent of what anybody says, let alone a politician or a candidate. But one great thing that I read today is that this is the lowest black unemployment. This is the lowest level of that for many, many years. So I think that’s great, and I do support jobs for people. And I think that that’s a great way to fight racism, is for everybody to have a good job.”

Barr continued: “It’s always a lesser of two evils, and we all have to face our own conscience of how we do that. And speaking of racism, I mean, I’m just going to say it: I appreciate your concern, but I am going to say that a large part of why I could not vote for Hillary Clinton is because Haiti.” (In 2009, the State Department under Clinton sided with Haitian garment manufacturers in opposing an increase in the minimum wage because of concerns it would jeopardize efforts at labor reform.)

Former walk-on at Temple now stars in ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ Actor Rafael V. DeLeon says meeting Spike Lee at NBA All-Star Weekend was a dream come true

Former college basketball player Rafael V. DeLeon got the introduction of a lifetime during NBA All-Star Weekend in 2015 when he met famed film director Spike Lee. He promised himself that he’d grind until he got the chance to work on a film with Lee.

That promise was fulfilled when DeLeon was cast in Lee’s newest project with Netflix, She’s Gotta Have It, a 10-episode dramedy that follows a young woman, Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), who dates three very different men in current-day Brooklyn, New York.

The series is a reworking of the 1986 film of the same name that launched Lee’s career. Besides directing, he also starred in it as the character Mars Blackmon, an aspiring rapper and one of Darling’s love interests. In an interview with The New York Times in 1986, Lee described the film as being about a woman “leading her life like a man, in control, with three men dangling at her fingertips.”

In the series, DeLeon plays Manny Garciela, the best friend to Blackmon (Anthony Ramos).

DeLeon played for Temple University, where he started out as a walk-on and worked his way up to an athletic scholarship. After earning his degree in business administration and marketing, he landed a job working for the mayor of Washington, D.C., in the Executive Office of Boards and Commissions. The actor has also appeared in House of Cards, The Americans and The Breaks.

The Undefeated spoke with DeLeon about working with Lee, why Will Smith from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was his childhood hero and lessons he’s learned growing up black and Puerto Rican in America.


What do you hope viewers take from the Netflix series?

When Spike did the original film in ’86, he was already in uncharted territory on what was commonplace in cinema at the time. Since then, a lot has changed in culture as it relates to marriage and equality. Spike touches on some of that content from the original film, but with this remake, there’s a strong focus on black women, their liberation and being the captain of their own fate.

How was it working with Lee?

Spike is awesome! On set we were deciding on certain dance moves, and he asked me to do the worm at one point. He’s so collaborative and asks questions that really brings the best out of actors. It was a dream come true to work with him.

How did you get into playing basketball at the collegiate level?

I was always taller than my classmates as a kid, and pretty skinny and lanky too. I grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which had a strong reputation for hoopers, so I gravitated toward basketball and made use of my height. I played collegiately at Averett University in Danville, Virginia, my freshman year. I knew that I wanted to play at the highest level, so the summer going into my sophomore year I sent some of my [game] tapes to the assistant coaching staff at Temple. I knew that Temple’s basketball program was in transition, so I thought if there was ever an opportunity to get a fresh start with the new coaching staff and program, then would be the time. I started off as a walk-on and made the team.

Temple Owls forward Rafael DeLeon (center) passes away from the double-team.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

If you could be any athlete dead or alive, who would it be?

Muhammad Ali. Being stripped of his title in the middle of his prime and having the self-confidence to stare the unknown down while also maintaining his sense of self is something that I aspire to. Second would be LeBron James. I admire his athletic greatness. For players to navigate the world, especially in this current climate, is a fine art. LeBron does a phenomenal job both on and off the court.

After college graduation, what drew you to working in politics?

I have a strong passion for social activism and justice. When I graduated from college, it was 2010 and President Barack Obama was in office. One of my focus areas was outreach and helping move the conversation along in actionable way. I felt like politics was the quickest and most impactful way to make change, both on the systemic and personal level.

What have you learned from working in politics as a man of color?

There are a lot of variables in play in the political space. Some of it works contrary to what the perceived greater good is, and vice versa. As a biracial man of color in America, there have been things that I recognized from an early age. As a kid, I would get asked about why my father looked the way he did. Being in an African-American-dominated county, my father being Puerto Rican stood out. I was aware of how I was perceived at a very young age … when you add on to that the layers of middle-class America and how that looks to white America, I began to kind of see different levels of it play out at different stages. In college I studied business administration, and in my upper-level classes there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me. I witnessed and experienced little trickle-down effects of just how deeply entrenched certain societal mechanisms were.

Who was your childhood hero?

Will from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When you look back, you see that the entire premise of the show was watching Will try to assimilate to a completely different culture and norm based on socioeconomic status. That in itself is like … whoa! The level of comedy and topics discussed was done so tactfully. It had a lasting effect on me and laid the groundwork and planted the seeds for where I am today, as far as being aware and identifying different things in life and culture.

What lessons have you learned from basketball that you’ve transferred to your acting career?

Making the team and the successes that we had as a team at Temple really showed me how it takes courage to take a leap of faith. If you keep doing that, good things will happen — shoutout to [Redskins quarterback] Kirk Cousins who said that — and you can chart your own course. I’ve always been interested in film and the arts, so when I told my parents about pursuing acting, they were really supportive. I had a track record at that point for leaving something that was secure for something that wasn’t and making it work.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

‘Never get too high. Never get too low.’ My dad told me that. Especially as an actor in New York, the highs are extremely high and the lows are pretty low, as far as when you’re in between jobs or casting says, ‘No, thanks.’ Maintaining that center of balance and not allowing too much success get to your head, and not beating yourself up too much when things aren’t going your way, have been extremely valuable in all elements of my life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

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


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

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

Courtesy of Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Netflix

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

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

Daily Dose: 11/17/18 Jesse Jackson reveals Parkinson’s diagnosis

Happy Friday, kiddos. Hope you’re ready for the weekend, folks, because it’s all downhill from here in terms of the holiday season. This is the last weekend you are reasonably allowed to ignore your relatives.

Jesse Jackson is an American legend. He is not without his faults, obviously, but his run for president in 1988, on top of all his work as a civil rights activist, will go down in this nation’s history as transformational. A lot of people were prepared to vote for that black man, which is no small matter. He’s now disclosed that he’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an unfortunate turn. I’ve met Jackson a couple of times, and each time it was an enlightening experience. We’re all wishing him well with his health.

Dave Chappelle’s last stand-up was pretty problematic. The comic legend who graced the world with his Comedy Central show came back to the small screen earlier this year, and it included a whole bunch of jokes that felt like he had maybe not really kept up with the times in terms of what we joke about in polite society. That aside, many people thought it was quite funny, and, if nothing else, it was good to see the familiar face back in his element. His newest Netflix special drops on New Year’s Eve, with him also doing a Stranger Things cameo.

Al Franken has admitted to inappropriate behavior. The Minnesota senator, a Democrat, was called out by radio personality Leeann Tweeden, who told her story about how the former Saturday Night Live writer and actor touched and kissed her inappropriately while the two were part of a USO tour years back. He apologized, and many people have been calling for him to resign as a result. In defense of him, the governor of Ohio came out and dropped a very weird letter about his sexual history because, well, dudes are the worst.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is not here for your nonsense. One of the biggest knocks about the sport recently has been pace of play, and as a result the bigs have instituted all sorts of rules to try to speed things up. Clocks between innings, cutting down on nonsense before and after pitches, it’s all been very helpful. But now, Manfred just doesn’t care. He plans to consider a pitch clock as well as opening up the strike zone, and he might just implement it whether the players want it or not. Alrighty then.

Free Food

Coffee Break: I just want to give a shout-out to all my basics out there. You know who you are. Embrace it. I shop at the mall. I go to normal grocery stores. And when I’m on the road, I eat at pretty basic joints. Here’s a ranking of the top 25 restaurant chains in America, by sales.

Snack Time: If you have a problem with Lil Uzi Vert, that sucks for you. He might be weird, but his dance is awesome and his joints bang. Speaking of, here are four new songs of his.

Dessert: Look, do not have this at your family functions this holiday season. I will destroy the whole table.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mudbound

Steve Dietl / Netflix

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

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

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

Steve Dietl / Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’s not white.

She’s not straight.

She’s not an actress.

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

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

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

Kholood Eid for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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