‘Watchmen’ episode three: ‘She Was Killed by Space Junk’ G-woman vs. vigilante cop: Jean Smart and Regina King face off

Laurie Blake can’t get over her blue god of an ex-boyfriend.

So she keeps calling Mars and leaving voicemails, despite the fact that he never picks up.

What at first seems like another round of inscrutable weirdness from the Watchmen writers turns out to be the opposite in episode three, “She Was Killed by Space Junk.” You just have to be willing to sit and ponder a spell, and also be willing to acknowledge that your theory might be completely wrong.

Jeremy Irons as Adrian Veidt in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

She’s only just been introduced, but I’m not quite sure what to make of Laurie (the ineffably great Jean Smart), who, 30 years earlier, wasn’t a G-woman, but a vigilante herself. Laurie was the masked hero Silk Spectre, one of Doctor Manhattan’s original acolytes (peep the Warhol-like portrait that hangs in Laurie’s apartment, and the nifty bit of camera framing that puts her face squarely in the fourth quadrant of it). Not only has the great alien squid hoax of 1985 seemingly turned Laurie off the idea of superheroism, she’s now actively fighting it. Episode three begins with Laurie leading a sting in New York to capture some guy in a Batman suit calling himself Mr. Shadow. She and her team stage a bank robbery and tip the guy off, then shoot and arrest him when he shows up.

Episode three has an oddly inspired structure about it, framed by Laurie’s calls to Mars, which also double as prayers offered in a futuristic-looking confessional of an interplanetary phone booth.

While Laurie seems pretty self-assured in her position at the FBI, she’s clearly harboring some doubts about her role in society. For one, she keeps placing calls to Doctor Manhattan, whom she also refers to as Blue God, to tell him jokes that never seem to have a punchline. “Mostly, I don’t give a s— about humanity,” Laurie says bitterly as she interprets the attitude of her ex.

Episode three has an oddly inspired structure about it, framed by Laurie’s calls to Mars, which also double as prayers offered in a futuristic-looking confessional of an interplanetary phone booth. Her prayers/jokes provide much-needed context for the extraterrestrial craziness that’s happening in the show. Alan Moore’s graphic novel ends in 1985, with Smartypants Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (he of the genetically engineered tomatoes and army of clone servants) deciding to take the Machiavellian approach of ending the Cold War by killing 3 million people. He fakes an alien squid attack on New York to bring about an existential crisis from space with the idea that if there’s a bigger, intergalactic enemy at large, perhaps the Earthly humans will stop fighting each other.

Jeremy Irons as Adrian Veidt in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

The one person who knows the truth and tries to alert others is Rorschach, but because Rorschach is an unreliable source (he’s a psychopath), no one listens to him. Instead, Rorschach ends up inspiring a community of conspiracy theorist truthers, et voila: The Seventh Kavalry is born, no one knows what is true anymore, and they definitely don’t trust newspapers.

Laurie basically recounts this as she’s leaving Doctor Manhattan a voicemail. And just like there’s no guarantee, other than faith, that God, blue or otherwise, actually listens to prayers, Laurie is not so sure Doctor Manhattan is listening to her. Well, until he throws some junk out of the sky in the form of Angela’s (Regina King) car, the one he sucked up with a giant magnet as Will sat in the passenger seat in episode two.

Anyhow, Laurie is dispatched to Oklahoma to investigate the hanging of Chief Crawford, given that the last round of white supremacist terrorism ended in the massacre of nearly the entire Tulsa police department. There’s definitely some deep thinking about federalism going on in this episode, as evidenced by Angela Abar’s choice of song at the Chief’s funeral.

When a Seventh Kavalry suicide bomber shows up at the funeral, Laurie tries to save the day by shooting him. The bomb, which is rigged to the bomber’s heart, begins to tick. Angela quickly drags the dead suicide bomber into Chief Crawford’s grave, then dumps Crawford’s casket on top of him. No one gets hurt, but whatever evidence that is still lingering on the Chief’s body about who might have killed him has been destroyed.

Humph. So far the score is

Will – 1

Agent Laurie – 0

I haven’t said anything about Angela’s choice of undercover detective costume until now, because it looked cool. But there also didn’t seem to be anything to explain why she would choose to be a dominatrix nun named Sister Night when she’s doing police work — well, aside from Angela’s love of beating up white supremacists.

But this episode, with its allusions to faith, confession, and feeling forsaken by the one you love most has me rethinking that. Nuns, according to Catholic catechism, are betrothed to Jesus. Laurie has strayed from her blue god of an ex-boyfriend. She’s not even convinced the universe has a hero. After all, in the joke Laurie offers up on her phone call to Mars, both Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) and (regular) God end up in hell. Laurie says she kills God after throwing a brick in the air that hits him in the head.

She and Angela are both cops; one just happens to work for the federal government. They both have weird relationships with God(s). Might the two have more in common than seems obvious at first glance? Right now, the relationship between Angela and Laurie is characterized by suspicion and mistrust. But Doctor Manhattan seems to be set on bringing them together by dumping Angela’s car at Laurie’s feet with a crash that should have awakened the whole neighborhood. Subtle move, Doctor Manhattan. Real subtle.

(I really hope the Abars had comprehensive coverage on that Infiniti, because it is completely trashed. Perhaps Doctor Manhattan could learn to have a little more respect for other people’s things!)

I’m inclined to take the title of this episode more figuratively than literally, and if anything has been killed, it’s Laurie’s heart and her faith in Doctor Manhattan. If men are trash, well then, perhaps the Mars-dwelling, levitating Doctor Manhattan is the space junk in question.

Stray, but maybe important observations:

  • On their flight to Tulsa, Laurie makes a retort to her FBI fanboy/lackey, a historian who now works for the bureau, after he pulls out a mask in an attempt to show some solidarity with the Tulsa police department and its murdered chief. “When in Rome,” he says.

“Tulsa’s not Rome,” Laurie responds dryly. “And you’re a federal agent. Not the Lone F—ing Ranger.” It’s true. But you know who might have actually been the basis for the “Lone F—ing Ranger”? Bass Reeves!

  • I don’t know where Veidt is, or who The Gamekeeper is, or even the rules of Veidt’s refuge. But unlike the newspapers that have declared him dead, Veidt seems to be very much alive.
  • The American flag in this show is vastly different from our own. A circle of white stars sits on a blue background, surrounded by red and white stripes.
  • Did Doctor Manhattan make that giant blue vibrator Laurie carries around with her? What a hilarious nod to his penchant for calling attention to his giant blue phallus and his trademark eschewing of clothes.
  • Angela’s funeral dirge, dedicated to her dead boss, is “The Last Round-Up,” made famous by Gene Autry in the The Singing Hill.

The film is about the conflict between what’s good for a rich few versus what will benefit the community. In this case, cattle rancher John Ramsey (George Meeker) wants to buy up a big patch of land for his own use from an heiress. If he does, he’ll eject other traders who have been using the land to graze their cattle.

Ramsey wants the land so he can jack up the rates charged to other cattle traders who don’t own their own land. The move would bankrupt the traders and give Ramsey a monopoly. Autry plays the guy who stands up to the Ramsey and convinces town authorities the deal is bad. The West prides itself on the open range and personal freedom, but in The Singing Hill, the traders need Autry and the government to stand up for the little guy in the face of one rich, selfish muckety-muck. Again, the chief clearly sees himself as the good guy, not Meeker’s character.

‘Watchmen’ episode two: ‘Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship’ HBO series asks who gets to be a patriot

The propaganda flyers were real.

Just as the opening scene from the premiere of Watchmen was based on historical events, so too, was this week’s.

Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship, (a reference to this George Catlin painting, which hangs in the Crawford house. Hang on. We’ll come back to that) commences with a German commander giving dictation to a typist during World War I. The message she’s writing is directed at black soldiers, urging them to question their pledge to serve the United States. At the time, around 1917, the military was segregated, the Ku Klux Klan and its attendant terrorism was resurgent, and black Americans, including those serving in the military, were treated as second-class citizens as a result of the strictures of Jim Crow.

The Germans hoped black soldiers would defect when they pointed out the hypocrisy of American democracy: Why would anyone die for a country that would just as soon lynch them for trying to vote?

We still don’t know much about Will (played by Louis Gossett Jr.), but we do know that his father read the Germans’ propaganda and chose to return to a country that hated him because of his blackness. And he wasn’t alone.

Mark Hill/HBO

In Watchmen, one of those soldiers was Will’s father. Will (Louis Gossett Jr.), as we now know, is not just the elderly man who uses a wheelchair and sits outside Angela’s bakery. He’s her grandfather. He’s also the little boy who was watching a silent film about Bass Reeves, the real-life man who became the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi, when the Tulsa Race Massacre began in Oklahoma. And, as Will repeatedly asserts to Angela, he’s “the one who strung up [her] chief of police.”

Will’s most formative childhood memories are fleeing the racialized violence of gunshots and fire without his parents, and the silver-screen tale of Reeves, who, in the film Will was watching, was lauded as a hero for arresting a corrupt white sheriff. As he grows up, one of the few items he has to remember his parents is his father’s World War I uniform and the note stuffed in the pocket: on one side, his father’s words, hurriedly scrawled: “Watch over this boy.” On the other, the Germans’ entreaties to black American soldiers.

One of Watchmen’s many laudable qualities is the way it employs allegory in its exploration of who holds power in America, and how the lived realities of race are difficult to shake, no matter who is in charge, including the sympathetic liberal President Robert Redford.

One of Watchmen’s many laudable qualities is the way it employs allegory in its exploration of who holds power in America, and how the lived realities of race are difficult to shake, no matter who is in charge.

We still don’t know much about Will, but we do know that his father read the Germans’ propaganda and chose to return to a country that hated him because of his blackness. And he wasn’t alone. In Mudbound, director Dee Rees illustrates in great detail the many horrors and indignities that black World War I veterans experienced if they managed to survive their experience of trench warfare. And yet, return they did.

To understand the mindset of Will’s father, and Will himself, it’s helpful to read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay that opens the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones elucidates a point that is vital to understanding the decision of black soldiers targeted by Germans pamphleteering. America’s enemies still use its legacy of racial discord and hypocrisy to sow chaos and upend democracy. It’s just that now, they use social media to do it.

And yet, African Americans hold fast to the promises contained within the Constitution, even when they haven’t included us under the umbrella of equal protection. Wrote Hannah-Jones:

The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals.

… My father, one of those many black Americans who answered the call, knew what it would take me years to understand: that the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776. That black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true “founding fathers.” And that no people has a greater claim to that flag than us.

Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship inspires questions about who gets to be a patriot, and how such a designation is defined, especially because so often it’s conflated with white American identity. Will, who seems so sure of the existence of skeletons in the closet of the (now dead) Tulsa police chief Judd Crawford, is a tricky character. What does he want? And why? This man is 105 years old and he still has this document left by his father. How many times do you think he’s read it, tried to understand it, and tried to imagine why his father chose to return to a country that subjected him to such vicious hatred?

It’s a testament to the skill and charisma of Don Johnson that viewers are left genuinely confused about Chief Crawford’s death until Angela discovers the Klan robe in his closet. In a nod to Oklahoma!, Chief Crawford’s first name is Judd, just like the farmhand who ends up dead at the end of the musical. But he played Curly in his high school musical production. Is he a villain? A hero? Both?

Then there’s Crawford’s interest in Native Americans. He uses “Little Bighorn” and “Custer’s Last Stand” as police codes. Hanging in his house, which we see for the first time during his wake, is the painting from which the episode takes its title: Comanche Feats of Horsemanship. According to the Smithsonian, George Catlin painted it in 1834 or 1835 after he embedded with the United States Dragoons on a journey to Indian Territory. Here’s an excerpt from the artist’s letters and notes, provided by the Smithsonian:

Amongst their feats of riding, there is one that has astonished me more than anything of the kind I have ever seen, or expect to see, in my life: — a stratagem of war, learned and practiced by every young man in the tribe; by which he is able to drop his body upon the side of his horse at the instant he is passing, effectually screened from his enemies’ weapons as he lays in a horizontal position behind the body of his horse, with his heel hanging over the horses’ back; by which he has the power of throwing himself up again, and changing to the other side of the horse if necessary. In this wonderful condition, he will hang whilst his horse is at fullest speed, carrying with him his bow and his shield, and also his long lance of fourteen feet in length, all or either of which he will wield upon his enemy as he passes; rising and throwing his arrows over the horse’s back, or with equal ease and equal success under the horse’s neck.

Is Crawford’s reverence for the Comanche real, or simply a way for him to cover up his own racism? After all, Comanche horsemen are a cavalry of sorts. And the White Night — the coordinated attack on Tulsa police — is a homonym for how the Klan thought of themselves — as white knights.

It’s obvious that Watchmen is interested in how media, especially pop culture, shapes our attitudes about society based on its presentation of American Hero Story, its fictional show-within-the-show. And two films that are seminal in American film history seem to be hanging out in the wings of Watchmen, so to speak. One is The Birth of a Nation, which helped resurrect a dormant Ku Klux Klan and served as cinematic propaganda for white supremacy. The other is The Searchers, the 1956 John Ford western starring John Wayne, who is on a mission to hunt down the Comanche who kidnapped his brother’s family. When Wayne’s character discovers the Comanche have his niece, played by Natalie Wood, he doesn’t actually intend to rescue her, but instead, to kill her because he believes that she’s been indoctrinated and/or raped by the Comanche. It’s an honor killing, of sorts, much like the white woman who is the victim of lascivious black men in Birth of a Nation, and who would rather hurl herself off a cliff than be sexually violated.

So, is Crawford drawing inspiration from the white knights or the Comanche? Judging from the Klan robe in his closet, and Will’s insistence that Crawford is no good, it’s the former.

One of the aspects of Watchmen that makes it so engrossing is creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof’s patient commitment to world-building. So what did we learn about this alternative 2019 Tulsa?

Under the Redford administration, police power has been significantly curbed. Not only are officers required to buzz their precincts to have their guns unlocked and authorized for use but it doesn’t seem like they’re allowed to stockpile DNA evidence, either. Angela is investigating Will on her own, and rather than taking him or his DNA to the police department, she takes it to the local museum dedicated to telling the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre. That’s how she discovers that Will is actually her grandfather. But given that this is a society in which people still read newspapers (even if they don’t believe what’s printed in them) and smartphones don’t exist, it’s not unreasonable to believe that law enforcement databases of DNA have been outlawed, too.

Stray, but maybe important observations:

  • In another nod to the fact that technology has been curbed in this alternate America, it’s not drones that show up to photograph the crime scene where Crawford has been hanged, but “moths,” human photojournalists rigged with motorized wings. But the police still are hostile to the photographers, who insist they have a right to know what’s going on. No matter who is in charge, control of information is paramount to maintaining power, a point that’s reinforced when the black man who runs the newsstand accused President Redford and the “libstapo” of manufacturing the squid falls to keep everyone freaked out, thereby continuing his multi-decade presidency.
  • I’m not going to list every Easter egg that shows up, but the aesthetic similarity between the clock in the Abar house, the egg timer in the bakery, and Adrian Veidt’s watch are too glaring not to note.
  • Tomatoes grow on vines, not trees. Where the heck does Veidt live? We know he’s cloned humans to make a personal army of servants and performers in his strange “plays.” Maybe he’s done some genetic engineering to allow tomatoes to sprout from trees like apples, too?
  • Apparently Dr. Manhattan (who lives on Mars) can deploy magnets and spaceships to suck up cars from Earth. Maybe Will wasn’t lying about his psychic powers, after all. His assertion certainly seems a lot less crazy in light of the episode’s closing scene.
  • The Abar marriage is radically egalitarian, and it’s also Angela’s second. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Cal, Angela’s happy stay-at-home husband, who does most of the child-rearing. In this alternate America, where Soviet communists can be police detectives (Red) and no one bats an eye, Cal is the dutiful Hot Spouse supporting his wife’s career without a lick of resentment to be found. It’s just normal. What a world!

When Ali met Marciano in a battle of undefeated heavyweights The two champs met for a ‘Super Fight’ put together by a DJ and a computer

On the morning of his 1967 fight against Ernie Terrell in the Houston Astrodome, Muhammad Ali sat in his hotel room watching a film of Rocky Marciano challenging Jersey Joe Walcott for the heavyweight title 15 years earlier. Ali leaned forward, his head cradled in his hands, watching intently until a bloodied and trailing Marciano knocked Walcott out in the 13th round with a short, emphatic right. Then Ali turned to his manager, Angelo Dundee.

“Angelo, the man’s tough,” said Ali, according to reporting by Sports Illustrated. “He’d be hell to fight. I’d wear him at the end of my glove for 10 rounds but he’d still be coming. Meanwhile, I’d be tired — maybe too tired to dance — and Rocky would be throwing punches … that wouldn’t be no fight — that would be a war.”

Marciano was already the heavyweight champ in 1954 when a 12-year-old Ali took up boxing after having his bicycle stolen. At night, the boy would listen to his transistor radio in Louisville, Kentucky, and hear Don Dunphy’s staticky voice from faraway Madison Square Garden, announcing Marciano as the heavyweight champ-eee-on of the world.

“The Super Fight” lobby card between Rocky Marciano (left) and Muhammad Ali (right) was shot in 1969 and released in 1970.

LMPC/Getty Images

In 1969, two years after Ali beat Terrell, the champ found himself in the ring with Marciano in one of the more bizarre fights in the annals of boxing. Ali was 27 years old and 29-0. Marciano was 45 years old and had retired 13 years earlier with a perfect 49-0 record, including 43 wins by knockout — history’s only unbeaten heavyweight champ.

The “Super Fight,” as it was billed, was fake, the concoction of a Miami promoter and disc jockey, Murray Woroner. If computers could help put a man on the moon, why couldn’t they predict the outcome of a match between two unbeaten champions from different eras? Woroner fed the fighters’ statistics into a computer, which spit out a script of different fight scenarios that Ali and Marciano were paid to reenact in a film studio in North Miami. The resulting film was edited and shown in movie theaters across the country and overseas, the outcome kept a closely guarded secret, even to the fighters.

Ali and Marciano seemed like polar opposites, the Great White Hope from the ’50s and the Angry Black Man from the ’60s.

Marciano had been a quiet conformist during his career, suppressing his anger toward a manager who stole from him and the Mafia that secretly controlled his career, along with most of professional boxing. He had served in the Army during World War II and became a symbol of American might during the Cold War, with a punch his manager compared to the atomic bomb.

Ali and Marciano seemed like polar opposites, the Great White Hope from the ’50s and the Angry Black Man from the ’60s.

At the time, Ali was one of the most hated men in America, not the folk hero he would later become. During his pummeling of Terrell in 1967, he had screamed at him, “What’s my name?” because Terrell had called him by his former “slave name” of Cassius Clay, as did most sportswriters. He hadn’t fought in more than two years and was locked in a battle with the federal government after refusing to fight in Vietnam, famously declaring, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.

If this fight film was made possible by the new age of technology, promoters played up racial and ethnic stereotypes that had always characterized boxing to hype the gate. Newspapers frequently carried stories that Marciano was considering coming out of retirement, including one report shortly after Ali took the title that a wealthy Texan had offered Marciano $4 million ($34 million today) to silence the loudmouthed young champ.

Shortly before Ali and Marciano met in Miami that summer, a federal judge had ordered Ali to serve five years in prison for refusing induction into the U.S. Army. He remained free on appeal, and in desperate need of funds. “I was in the deep freeze part of my exile, and there was no thaw in sight,” he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest.

Marciano, who had let himself go in retirement, had gone back into training, lost 50 pounds and donned a toupee to mask his receding hairline. At 5 feet, 10 inches, he was dwarfed by the 6-foot-3 Ali, who was 20 pounds heavier. But Ali, who hadn’t fought in two years, looked flabbier. (I was able to recreate those sessions by interviewing two people who were there: Peter Marciano, Rocky’s brother, and Ali’s then-wife Belinda, now Khalilah Ali. I also found, in the archives of Sports Illustrated, a lengthy memo from a Time reporter who had interviewed other eyewitnesses at the time of the film’s release.)

A ticket for “The Super Fight” between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.

Archive PL/Alamy Stock Photo

Over the course of filming, the two champs sparred more than 70 one-minute rounds. They acknowledged that it was just playacting. They never clinched and seldom went for the head. But sometimes things got real. Ali would flick his lightning-quick jabs in Marciano’s face, prompting him to walk back to his corner muttering, “My God, the kid is so fast.” Ali delighted in flicking Marciano’s toupee off. An angry Marciano trapped Ali in a corner and pounded on his arms, then smashed a right to his solar plexus. “Ooof,” Ali exhaled, sinking to his stool. The taping stopped. Ali refused to continue until the promoter sent a driver to the bank to bring him another $2,000. One night they went out to dinner and ran into comedian Henny Youngman, who came over to their table and joked around. Ali’s arms were so sore that he had trouble lifting the saltshaker.

Staging knockdowns was tricky. Marciano had been knocked down only twice in his career, Ali not at all up to that point. Both had to be coaxed to take a dive for the cameras. During one take, Ali shouted, “Drop the Wop” and hit Marciano, who fell to the canvas, took out his mouthpiece and roared with laughter. When it was Marciano’s turn, he teased a reluctant Ali by parodying him: “The onliest way I can be beat by any man is to knock me out.”

During a break one day, the conversation turned to the country’s racial divide and the riots that had swept the country. They sat on the floor next to the ring, sharing a bag of grapefruit. Ali would tear off a section and pass it to Marciano.

“Wouldn’t it be great if there was something we could do, me and you together, a white guy and a black guy?” said Marciano.

They talked about doing a bus tour of inner-city neighborhoods. Ali got excited.

“Imagine, Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano, going into the worst areas,” he said. “We could shake up the world, you and me. Would you do it? Would you do it?”

Marciano said he would. He encouraged Ali to hang tough in his fight with the Army. Marciano had a secret about his own struggle with the Army that he never shared with Ali but which I unearthed from old Army records. His patriotic image as a soldier who served in World War II concealed the fact that he and another GI had been court-martialed for robbing and assaulting two British civilians shortly before D-Day. He never deployed to Normandy but instead served two years as a military prisoner.

Marciano had never been comfortable with authority, nor with the mantle of Great White Hope. He forged close relationships with black fighters, including his boyhood idol, Joe Louis. (He cried after knocking out Louis in Madison Square Garden to end Louis’ career and advance his own.) Marciano told Ali about his Italian-American family’s struggles after settling in the shoe factory town of Brockton, Massachusetts. Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists and laborers, had been arrested on the Brockton trolley and executed in 1927, when Rocky was 3 years old, for a robbery and murder they didn’t commit. Politicians called Italians “a race of pickpockets” and “unfit foreigners.” Congress banned immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

“People fear change,” Marciano told Ali.

The Ali-Marciano bus tour never happened. A few weeks after they parted, on Aug. 31, Marciano climbed into a Cessna in Chicago, bound for Des Moines, Iowa, and a party at a steakhouse owned by the nephew of a mob pal. The plane crashed in a cornfield in Iowa, killing everyone on board. Ali cried when he heard the news.

The following winter, The Super Fight aired in more than 600 theaters across America. Woroner had filmed seven different endings. In the first screening, a bloodied Marciano, trailing on points, knocked out Ali in the 13th round. Later, when the film was shown in Europe, Ali won. The fight looks phony. There are no spectators, just an eerie darkness surrounding the ring, with the sound of piped-in crowd noise. It’s as if the two men have been abducted by aliens and are fighting on a spaceship in outer space.

“He was the onliest one that would’ve given me some trouble,” Ali said shortly after attending Marciano’s wake. Later, Ali said that he felt closer to Marciano during their sparring sessions than he ever did to any other white fighter.

“Our work was phony,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But our friendship became real.”

Another hidden figure: Clyde Foster brought color to NASA Over three decades, he recruited hundreds of African Americans into the space program

Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.

Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.

But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.

A page from a brochure for the Computer Science Center at Alabama A&M. Clyde Foster (on right) started the center.

Alabama A&M

Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.

“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”

Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.

“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”

Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.

“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”

A 1942 photograph of the Foster family: Back row, from left: Betty Foster (Berry), James Foster, James’s wife Elizabeth Foster, Clyde Foster, Dorothy Foster (Sweatt), Otis Foster, Ann Foster (Sweatt), Fred Foster. Front row, from left: David Foster, Katie Foster (Rodgers), Clyde’s father, James Foster, Clyde’s mother, Effie Foster, Geraldine Foster (Franklin), Eddie Foster.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.

While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.

Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.

With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.

Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.

“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”

Foster is seen here in the Army. He landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.

Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”

Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.

George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.

Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.

A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 21, 1931, Foster graduated from Parker High School in Birmingham in 1950 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Chemistry from Alabama A&M College in 1954.

NASA/MSFC

“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”

Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.

“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”

The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.

James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

Photo by Don Rutledge courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”

One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”

Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.

“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”

In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.

Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.

“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”

Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.

The cover of a brochure for the Computer Science Center at was then called Alabama A&M College. Foster started the bachelor’s degree program in computer science.

Alabama A&M

“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”

In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.

“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.

His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.

Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.

Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”

This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.

Richard Wright discovers Joe Louis’ dynamite The author of ‘Native Son’ was strongly influenced by the boxer’s success

In 1941, three giants of African American culture came together to celebrate a king. The tribute, fittingly enough, was a song entitled “King Joe,” sung by Paul Robeson to music composed and performed by Count Basie and his Orchestra. Richard Wright had written the lyrics. Basie, Robeson, and Wright — their names conjure images of foxtrots at the Roseland Ballroom, triumphant performances of Showboat, and the explosive prose of Native Son. The king they lionized was Joe Louis, boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world.

On one verse, Wright clearly wrestles with Louis’ legendary silence:

They say Joe don’t talk much, but he talks all the time.

They say Joe don’t talk much, he talks all the time.

Now you can look at Joe, but sure can’t read his mind.

But the novelist had no doubts about the emotions Louis aroused in black communities across the country:

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

But the best is Harlem when a Joe Louis fight is through.

By then, Wright had witnessed the cleansing power of Joe Louis — the flood of joy on Chicago’s South Side after he defeated Max Baer in 1935, the electricity inside Yankee Stadium during his 1938 fight with Max Schmeling, the lovefest in Harlem after each important victory. Wright knew the importance of the reign of King Joe.

Richard Wright, circa 1950, sits in his hotel room during the Venice Film Festival. Wright had attended the screening of director Pierre Chenal’s film, Native Son, which was adapted from his novel and starred the author.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wright wrote out of the pain of racism. Born in a Mississippi sharecropper’s shack in 1908, abandoned by his father, and circumscribed by the iron chains of Jim Crow, he had a blinding ambition to tell his story, the universal tale of the “color line” in America with all the anger, hatred, and ache that it encompassed. The publication of Native Son in 1940 made him instantly famous — and notorious. Published by Harper & Brothers and selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club as one of its two main selections, it sold 215,000 copies in two weeks.

Wright’s fame, however paled next to that of Louis. Six years younger than Wright, Louis was also part of the great migration of rural Southern black people to the urban north, in his case from Alabama to Detroit. Handicapped by poverty and a stutter, he was virtually uneducated and painfully shy. Yet in 1941 he was in the midst of a 12-year reign as the undisputed heavyweight champion, at a time when the title was, as Eldridge Cleaver once wrote, “the ultimate focus of masculinity in America.” Along with Joe DiMaggio, he was one of the two most celebrated athletes in the nation, and his fame extended across the oceans. Furthermore, Louis was an inspiration and source of pride for black Americans. Especially for Wright.

Wright embraced Louis as an athlete and a symbol early in the boxer’s career. In his 1940 essay, How ‘Bigger’ Was Born, Wright suggested that Bigger Thomas, his protagonist in Native Son, was a composite of a number of men he had known, frustrated men who confronted the racism in their daily life with violence. They were the only people, Wright wrote in his essay, who defied Jim Crow “and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell” before whites killed them or broke their spirits. But in Louis, Wright witnessed a black man who legally beat down white men in the ring without retribution. The novelist alluded to Louis in Native Son, along with boxers Jack Johnson and Henry Armstrong, suggesting that he was a role model for black men. Yet Wright understood that without boxing they may have suffered the same tragic fate as Bigger Thomas.


No one knows exactly when Wright first learned about Louis, but in the mid-1930s they both lived on the South Side of Chicago. The neighborhood’s numbers kingpin, nightclub operator, and sports enthusiast Julian Black was one of Louis’ co-managers, and he arranged for the boxer to move from Detroit to Chicago to train and fight. From the summer of 1934 to the spring of 1935, during Louis’ first year as a professional, he fought two-thirds of his matches in the city. During the same period, Wright became active in politics and began his writing career. He joined the Communist Party, published poetry in leftist journals, and attended various “progressive” writers conferences.

It is difficult to imagine that Wright wouldn’t have read about Louis’ first major bout in New York City, a contest against former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera that took place in June 1935 during the international crisis between Italy and Ethiopia. The 28-year-old Italian fighter was awesome to behold. Sportswriters dubbed him the “Ambling Alp.” In an age when heavyweights were small compared with today, Carnera stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 260 pounds. The 6-foot-2 Louis, only 21 at the time and 196 pounds, knocked him out in six rounds, but not before administering a frightful beating.

Joe Louis scored a decisive technical knockout over Primo Carnera in the sixth round of their bout at the Yankee Stadium in 1935. Here is Louis standing over the bleeding Carnera during one of the three knockdowns in the sixth round.

Getty Images

As he would later demonstrate in Native Son, Wright was keenly aware of how white journalists transformed a powerful black man like Louis into a beast. They transmuted the boxer into a dark, dangerous, primordial creature. Sportswriters compared him with a jungle animal, or, alternatively, a machine. He was a cobra, a panther, or more famously, a Brown Bomber raining death. “Something sly and sinister, and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish a huge hulk that had been Primo Carnera, the giant,” wrote ringside reporter David J. Walsh in the St. Louis Star-Times. Grantland Rice, dean of America’s sportswriters, commented in his report of the match for the New York Sun that Louis moved toward Carnera “as a black panther of the jungle stalks his prey.” Rice especially was struck that Louis’ “expression never changed,” even when the referee raised his hand in victory. He “seems to be the type [of jungle animal] that accepts and inflicts pain without a change of expression,” he wrote.

Judging from his later writings, Wright must have sensed that Louis represented a significant new force. The fighter, Walsh had noted, challenged and defied “the white man’s innate sense of superiority.” The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s leading black newspapers, headlined “HARLEM GOES ‘MAD WITH JOY,’ ” and suggested Louis’ triumph was “its biggest moment since it became the capital of the Negro world.”

Searching the horizon for signs of revolutionary change, Wright latched on to the Louis phenomenon. After the Carnera bout, black Americans could not get enough news about Louis. Newspapers invented his past and speculated about his future. Musicians celebrated his victories in songs. By September 1935, two years before he became heavyweight champion, blues singers had begun to cut records recounting Louis’ fistic deeds. Joe Pullum’s “Joe Louis Is the Man” praised his ring talents as well as noting that he’s “doing things for his mother a young boy should.” Memphis Minnie counseled fans to bet all their money on the “two-fisted fighter” in her joyous paean, “He’s in the Ring (Doin’ the Same Old Thing!).” She sang:

I wouldn’t even pay my house rent.

I wouldn’t buy me nothin’ to eat.

Joe Louis says, ‘Take a chance at me

I’m goin’ to put you on your feet.’

He’s in the ring, doin’ the same old thing.

And in “Joe Louis Blues,” Carl Martin warns all prizefighters “who don’t want to meet defeat … stay off Joe Louis’ beat.”

The early Louis blues songs explode with pride and pleasure, rejoicing in the sheer delight of riding on the Brown Bomber’s bandwagon. As his career progressed, listening to radio broadcasts of his matches became communal experiences for black Americans. Maya Angelou, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recalled joining family and friends to listen to his fights in her grandfather’s store in Stamps, Arkansas. She wondered if the announcer knew that he was addressing “all the Negroes around the world who sat sweating and praying, glued to their ‘master’s voice.’ ”

That white voice became excited when Louis’ white opponent pushed him into the corner and whaled away at his body. “My race groaned,” remembered Angelou. “It was all our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed.” It was one’s worst memory and consummate fear. “It might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.” If Louis fell, she thought, all the vile racist insults and cutting remarks would be true.

Yet, in almost every case, Louis came off the ropes, moved to the center of the ring, and began to punish his opponent. Once again, he assumed the role of a black Moses, delivering his race, at least for a moment, to the promised land. He was their champion. “A Black boy,” wrote Angelou. “Some Black mother’s son.”


The announcer lifts Joe Louis’ arm in token of his six-round technical knockout over Primo Carnera in their bout at the Yankee Stadium in New York City, June 25, 1935. Louis bears only a slight bruise under his left eye as evidence of the encounter.

Getty Images

Wright’s feelings toward Louis came into sharper literary focus a few months after the boxer slaughtered Carnera. Hazel Rowley’s biography recounts how, after battling through a serious bout of pneumonia during the summer, on the night of Sept. 24, 1935, the struggling writer sat in a bar on the South Side, smoking a cigarette, his ear bent toward the radio. It was almost six years since the stock market crash signaled the coming of the Great Depression. It was a hard time to be black in America. Jobs were in short supply, but lynchings weren’t. The wrongly convicted Scottsboro Boys sat in prison in Alabama, sentenced to die in the electric chair. For Wright, their ordeal symbolized the plight of black men in the country. Don’t step outside of your narrowly proscribed path was the message transmitted from white America to millions of black “citizens.”

Yet, Wright knew, something remarkable was happening, and he wanted to understand what it meant. Louis, who would have had trouble reading Wright’s poetry, once more was making quite a stir. In a ring in the middle of Yankee Stadium, the boxer faced former world heavyweight champion Baer, a heavy-punching, wisecracking slugger. Baer was a talker, always ready to deliver a quip. Louis, said one reporter, “says less than any man in sports history, including Dummy Taylor, the Giant pitcher, who was mute.” Neither man, however, had come to Yankee Stadium to debate.

Joe Louis (left) looks to deliver a right jab on his opponent Max Baer (right) during their bout at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, Sept. 24, 1935. Joe Louis would knock out Max Baer in the fourth round of 15.

The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

Wright felt the earth crack that night. Something happened that transcended the punch that knocked out Baer. (After the match, Baer exclaimed he could have gotten up, “but when I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than twenty-five dollars a seat to watch.”) Some belt holding together Jim Crow laws seemed for a moment to break. Looking around the bar, then stepping out in the street, Wright witnessed it. “Something had popped loose, all right,” he wrote in Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite. “And it had come from deep down. Out of the darkness it had leaped from its coil. And nobody wanted to say. Blacks and whites were afraid. But it was a sweet fear, at least for blacks. It was a mingling of fear and fulfillment. Something dreaded and yet wanted. A something had popped out of a dark hole, something with a hydra-like head, and it was darting forth its tongue.”

It was Wright’s first published piece of journalism and appeared in New Masses, a Marxist magazine affiliated with the Communist Party USA. Only incidentally was it a form of sports writing. Instead, it explores the revolutionary potential of black Americans. The central metaphor in the article is water. After Louis’ sensational knockout victory, blacks on Chicago’s South Side “poured out of beer taverns, pool rooms, barber shops, rooming houses and dingy flats and flooded the streets.” More than 25,000 “joy-mad” Louis fans “seeped out of doorways, oozed from alleys, trickled out of tenements, and flowed down the street; a fluid mass of joy.”

They formed a wild river of revolutionary potential, praising Louis at the same time as they expressed their resentment against the varied forms of racism that circumscribed and plagued their lives. Louis had unleashed it all. “Four centuries of repression,” Wright observed, “of frustrated hope, of black bitterness, felt even in the bones of the bewildered young, were rising to the surface. Yes, unconsciously they had imputed to the brawny image of Joe Louis all the balked dreams of revenge, all the secretly visualized moments of retaliation …” Without uttering a word or waving a red flag, Louis had become a revolutionary force. “You see, Joe was the consciously-felt symbol. Joe was the concentrated essence of black triumph over white … And what could be sweeter than long-nourished hate vicariously gratified? From the symbol of Joe’s strength they took strength, and in that moment all fear, all obstacles were wiped out, drowned. They stepped out of the mire of hesitation and irresolution and were free! Invincible!”

Joe Louis Discovers Dynamite concludes with the river receding, moving back into its channel, with the people in the streets “flowing back to the beer tavern, the poolroom, the café, the barbershop, the dingy flat.” Still, freedom imagined is freedom embraced. That evening Wright glimpsed the power of Louis, not only as a fighter but as a potential leveler of social norms, an inarticulate prophet to violent, revolutionary change.

The problem with weighing down Louis with the dreams of revenge and aspirations of the advancement of an entire race, of course, was the possibility that he might lose a fight. It happened on June 19, 1936, when the German Schmeling, another former champion, KO’ed him in 12 rounds. Louis’ physical pain that night was black America’s psychic agony. Singer Lena Horne was performing that evening in Cincinnati’s Moonlite Gardens with Noble Sissle’s band. Backstage, during breaks between sets, she listened to the fight. Schmeling had knocked down Louis in the fourth round, and continued to pummel him with right hands round after round. Men in the band were crying. Horne was nearly hysterical, she recalled in her autobiography. For her, Louis “carried so many of our hopes, maybe even dreams of vengeance.”

Horne’s performance suffered. Outraged, her mother said, “Why, you don’t even know the man.” “I don’t care, I don’t care,” Horne cried. “He belongs to all of us.”


Never did Louis belong to so many Americans, black and white, than on June 22, 1938, when he fought a rematch against Schmeling. By then, Hitler’s legions were jackbooting toward another war in Europe and Schmeling was the darling of the Nazi Party. Also that year, Harper & Brothers published Wright’s first book, Uncle Tom’s Children: Four Novellas. Like so many other Americans, the writer was pulled into the frenzy about the match. Dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” it was the major story from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, and from London to Berlin to Tokyo.

Living in Brooklyn, New York, at the time, Wright agreed to cover the Yankee Stadium event for both the Daily Worker and New Masses. The writing assignment seemed natural. Not only had he published a superb piece on the Louis-Baer fight in New Masses and had worked for the Daily Worker, the Communist Party was actively promoting his career. “Our new comet,” the party hailed him. Uncle Tom’s Children was translated into Russian and praised in a review in Pravda. In England, a leftist publisher had asked Robeson to write the foreword for the British edition.

/> A general view of the fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, on June 22, 1938. Louis won by a knockout in the first round.

The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

An overwhelming racial pride, rather than a class solidarity, distinguished Wright’s approach to the second Louis-Schmeling match. Many white reporters and columnists adopted the black boxer as a representative of American values — democracy, freedom, equality, fair play — doing battle against the racist ideology of Nazi Germany. Wright wanted none of it. Like Horne, he maintained that Louis belonged to the 12 million blacks in America.

Wright’s visit to Louis’ Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, training camp reinforced his feelings. There he discovered “throngs” of black fans “standing around for hours in a state of deep awe waiting for just one glimpse of the champion,” he reported in the Daily Worker. When Louis appeared, “a hush fell on them and they stared.” They knew, as Wright later noted in New Masses, that the Brown Bomber “symbolized the living refutation of the hatred spewed forth daily over the radios, in newspapers, in movies, and in books about their lives … [T]hey have watched a picture of themselves being painted as lazy, stupid, and diseased.” And how could they respond? “[S]o effectively and completely have they been isolated and restricted in vocation that they rarely have had the opportunity to participate in the meaningful processes of America’s national life. Jim Crowed in the army and navy, barred from many trades and professions, excluded from commerce and finance, relegated to menial positions in government, segregated residentially, denied the right of franchise for the most part; in short, forced to live a separate and impoverished life, they were glad for even the meager acceptance of their humanity implied in the championship of Joe Louis.”

Wright left no doubt that Nazi ideology was viler than the American reality, but he also insisted that “reactionary” elements in the United States and Great Britain preached the same racist creed as fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Only among black people in America was the support for Louis universal. For them June 22, 1938, held a promise as sweet, in its own way, as emancipation. On that night, Louis promised to settle an old score and exact revenge for his 1936 loss to Schmeling. Wright knew that symbolically Louis’ revenge would be his race’s revenge.

World heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (left) stands over challenger Max Schmeling, who is down for a count of three, as referee Arthur Donovan sends Louis to a neutral corner at Yankee Stadium in New York City on June 22, 1938. Louis retained his title in a technical knockout over Schmeling in 2:04 of the first round of their scheduled 15-round title bout.

AP Photo

The fight ended with explosive suddenness. Louis had predicted that he would finish Schmeling in two rounds. He did it in one. In a mid-round assault, he broke a vertebra in Schmeling’s back, pounded him with crushing rights, and left him looking, Wright wrote in the Daily Worker, like “a soft piece of molasses candy left out in the sun; he drooped over the ropes, his eyes glassy, his chin nestling in a strand of rope, his face blank and senseless and his widely-heralded powerful right arm hanging ironically useless.” As Wright observed, Louis’ “victory was complete, unquestionable, decisive; his blows must have jarred the marrow not only in [Schmeling’s] but in Hitler’s own bones.” Far from being a competitive contest, Louis’ triumph “was an act of revenge, of dominance, of complete mastery.”

The celebrations in Harlem, the communal finale to Louis victory, interested Wright as much as the actual contest. Using his familiar water metaphor, he wrote that the sight of 100,000 black people pouring into the streets was “like the Mississippi River overflowing at flood time.” Their happiness was inexpressible. “With their faces to the night sky, they filled their lungs with air and let out a scream of joy that seemed would never end, and a scream that came from untold reserves of strength.” Accompanying their primal shouts was a cacophony of beating on garbage pails, tin cans, pots, pans, washboards and wooden boxes. Torn scraps of newspapers snowed from upper story windows on long snake-lines of dancing Harlemites while horns blared, whistles shrieked, and sirens wailed.

The parties in Harlem and other black communities across America were political demonstrations. The racket they created was the sound of freedom long denied and deeply desired. The people in the streets “wanted to feel that their expanded feelings were not limited; that the earth was theirs as much as anyone else’s; that they did not have to live by proscription in one corner of it; that they could go where they wanted to and do what they wanted to, eat and live where they wanted to, like others.” That, Wright knew, was the true dynamite of Joe Louis.

Customers at a bar on 135th Street in Harlem raise a jubilant toast after world heavyweight champion Joe Louis’ first-round knockout of Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium.

NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Antoine Fuqua lets Muhammad Ali tell his own story in HBO’s ‘What’s My Name’ Documentary from LeBron’s production company examines the life of The Greatest entirely through boxing

A year before his death in 2016, Muhammad Ali published an autobiography titled The Greatest: My Own Story.

Although the former heavyweight champion boxer never got to tell his story on film, a new documentary from HBO Sports comes pretty close. Directed by Antoine Fuqua and executive produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter, What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali is culled from at least 1,000 hours of video and audio footage and focuses on Ali’s boxing career, narrated with his own words. It will air May 14 on HBO.

What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali debuted Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Ali’s widow, Lonnie, attended the screening, which took place on the 52nd anniversary of Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army to serve in Vietnam. The decision resulted in Ali being stripped of his world heavyweight title, which he later reclaimed two more times.

Fuqua touches upon Ali’s friendships with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and the boxer’s refusal to submit himself for the draft. But everything is presented through the lens of boxing, from one of Ali’s earliest punches — when, as a toddler, he knocked out one of his mother’s teeth — to his last in the ring, when he lost to Trevor Berbick in 1981. Fuqua doesn’t address Ali’s personal relationships, nor the accusations of domestic violence or infidelity that come up in Jonathan Eig’s biography. The film takes its name from an exchange Ali had with opponent Ernie Terrell, who insisted on calling him by his birth name, Cassius Clay. Ali was so angry he called Terrell an Uncle Tom and repeatedly shouted, “What’s my name?!” at him during their subsequent fight, which Ali won by unanimous decision.

Fuqua is best known for his collaborations with Denzel Washington, including Training Day, The Equalizer and a 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. The Pittsburgh native attended West Virginia University on a basketball scholarship and now uses boxing to stay in shape. We talked about his new documentary, Ali’s patriotism and the class divide in sports that are characterized by risk of traumatic brain injury.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


Photo by Ken Regan © 2019 Muhammad Ali Enterprises

What do you think of dictums like “stick to sports” or “shut up and dribble”?

That’s just silly, and that’s an ignorant thing to say. Just because someone plays sports or does anything doesn’t mean that they don’t have an opinion. I think it’s shortsighted and a very immature way of thinking about an athlete. Athletes have an amazing platform, and a lot of them are highly intelligent people and they can be influential. Most of them have lived on both sides of the tracks, especially African American athletes, so there’s a pretty unique perspective on the world. When you come from not much and you make a lot, that’s a long journey and that’s two different worlds. So a lot of times there’s a very interesting, complex perspective that should be heard.

What were your conversations like with James and Carter about how to make an Ali documentary that would manage to stand out?

They were pretty clear. We all love him. We all love what he stood for, and the man he was. We all agreed to be honest about the journey, his journey. We all eventually came to the conclusion: It has to be from his voice. Ali has to tell his own story; avoid as much talking heads as possible unless it’s him talking. There’s been a lot of documentaries, some well-done documentaries, but there’s never been one where Ali’s telling his entire story. There were things that we discussed that we thought were important, which was ultimately let’s show his greatness, but let’s also show some of his weaknesses.

One of his weaknesses was he was chasing greatness, always. That’s not a weakness, but he was at a place where they just wanted him to stop fighting. But how do you say that to someone like Ali? He has that gene in him, and I think that’s what makes him so amazing. Like the scene when he has the torch in his hand and Parkinson’s is at its worst, he lifts the torch twice. He didn’t have to, he did, the crowd went crazy, he came down, he did it again. Every time I see the movie it makes me smile. I think that ultimately, collectively, we walked away going, ‘What a wonderful life. What an amazing, well-lived life.’

He never loses his charisma.

Never, never. He never blinked. And he stood by his principles. He lost a lot; he paid a heavy price for it. But he seemed cool as ice, always. Even when he was in the ring, leaning against the ropes, taking some beatings at times.

Those are so hard to watch.

Even though you knew the outcome, as we made the doc, there were days where I was sitting there sweating, like, ‘Come on, Ali.’ It was rough, but it was a beautiful journey because I was not disappointed in anything that I saw. We found footage that no one’s seen before. Nothing about his life was disappointing for me. It was all very inspiring, even the low points.

“When I have an opportunity to allow a man, especially a black man, to tell his own story, I’m going to do it.”

This documentary gives little snippets of his life, but always in relation to boxing. Why did you decide to frame this story this way?

Boxing is the thing that put him on world stage. The boxing is the thing that — when he’s beating the guys and, saying, ‘What’s my name?’ — to me it’s the metaphor of his life. Fighting is the metaphor of Muhammad Ali’s life. It doesn’t matter to dig into how many kids he has and who he’s married to or not married to, because that’s a given. I’d rather his children did a documentary about him. I think that belongs to them, it doesn’t belong to us.

What we need right now more than anything, I think, is leadership in athletes. What is your platform, and what are you going to do with it? He had a platform and he did greatness with it. He showed us how to stand by your principles: When things were wrong, to speak up about it. He showed us what it means to be physically beat down and get back up. I think that sometime that’s more important than getting into the headline gossip, which a lot of people want to get into, which you could do about anybody’s life that lives a full life, but why?

What do you consider to be gossip?

Gossip, some people get interested in who he was with and who he wasn’t with, who he married and who he didn’t marry, what woman he was with. I mean, come on. There’s enough of that. He was a handsome, beautiful, charming man — use your imagination. Women loved him, he loved women. Men wanted to hang around him.

I don’t think Muhammad Ali’s story’s done. Somebody can go and do whatever they want to do. In my dream, I hope Laila and his children will tell a version of him one day, for them. But it should be done by them. My goal was to show the man that I admire, love, and I’m inspired by every day.

One of the things that becomes apparent is how much power white members of the news media, especially Howard Cosell, had to shape the public’s perception of Ali. Whether it’s calling the Nation of Islam a “racist cult” or framing his two wins against Henry Cooper as tragedies. Was this a way to hand that agency back to him from the beginning, and not just once he’s famous?

We all deserve that. We all deserve to have an opportunity to tell our own stories. He’s not with us anymore, so the closest I can get to that is what I’ve done. I was just telling the story through his eyes as we shaped it and gathered the material. When I have an opportunity to allow a man, especially a black man, to tell his own story, I’m going to do it.

The way this film is structured makes Ali’s decline from Parkinson’s feel like it’s evident much earlier in his life. We associate Parkinson’s with the tremors, but his speech pattern started to slow down in his 30s.

That was intentional to show that journey, because that was another fight. In the end of the documentary, the goal was to show you all the Muhammad Ali fights in the ring, out of the ring, with the military, the government, the loss of Malcolm, his friends, things like that. Being a black man, just because you change your name, the world turns on you because you changed your name, like you don’t have a right to change your name. But also, the internal battles that come from the wars you’re in in the ring: the pounding, the beating, the fighting, the stress.

I’m not a doctor, so who’s to say it was just the punching that led to Parkinson’s? But it certainly, I would imagine, it had a lot to do with it. Then, imagine the stress he was under during that time period. Black people were getting shot down and hung by trees still. He had all the close friends around him getting murdered, like Malcolm, like Martin, Kennedy. His name was as big as theirs, so imagine walking around every day with a target on your back, and as loud as he was. And going against the military.

So the goal was to also find footage where you start to see that, and I’m happy you noticed that. He was in a lot of battles; it wasn’t just the ones in the ring. But he still came out as great, he still affects us, we’re still talking about him. Even when his voice was taken away, one of his biggest attributes, his charm, his voice, his physical abilities were taken away, right? It’s biblical in a way. That’s why at the end, when he lifts the torch twice [at the Atlanta Olympics], I love him even more, because he was still showing us, he was still speaking to us as loud as he always has. That’s ‘I’m still here, man. I’m still the greatest.’

When I went to Jordan and Israel and places like that, I saw T-shirts and stuff with Muhammad Ali around the world every day. His name was known around the world. It’s amazing. How can someone say, ‘Shut up and dribble?’ Is that person’s name known around the world? I don’t think so. Is that person inspiring anybody? I don’t think so. But LeBron James is. Muhammad Ali is.

Photo by Ken Regan © 2019 Muhammad Ali Enterprises

Do you think we can call Muhammad Ali a patriot?

Absolutely. A man goes to the Olympics, wins the gold medal for this country, comes home, goes to a diner just to get a burger, and they tell him, ‘We don’t serve n—–s here.’

And he says, “Well, I don’t eat them!”

The charm, right? And then they’re going to send him over to a country to go kill some people that never did that to him? A war that we didn’t even really know why we were there, to this day. … I’m very patriotic, I love this country, but that’s some bulls—. Let’s call it for what it is, that’s exactly what that was.

What did you think of the concussion crisis within the NFL before you started working on this documentary? Did your thoughts change in any way? Ali says over and over, he doesn’t want anybody to pity him. He was always reiterating how much boxing had given him. But it also eventually took away his voice.

I grew up playing football. My family and friends would go play for the Steelers. [Fuqua’s uncle John “Frenchy” Fuqua was a running back for the Steelers from 1970-76]. I box now every day; I been boxing for 20-something years. What I’m happy about is I think the NFL is taking serious steps, they have been, to try to help prevent damage. It’s a violent sport, there’s only so much you can do, but I think they’ve been handling it really well. The guys get hit, they’re taken out the game and they don’t get to go back in. They get tested right away. I think they seem to be showing great concern in trying to do something about it. But that’s all you can do is do the best you can do, make better helmets, have better protocols. But it’s a very violent sport, and if you ever played or been around, especially guys at that size, on that level, that’s like being hit by a Volkswagen. There’s only so much you can do.

I go to the fights. I’m friends with a lot of fighters. It’s the nature of the sport, to be punched in the head. Punched in the body. I watched the refs, and they do try to stop it as fast as they can if they see someone in trouble — most of the times, not always. But most of the times, everyone seems to be trying to get in there as fast as they can. Those sports are complicated and difficult because they’re violent sports. The nature of the sport is to hit each other.

Why are you so committed to boxing in your own life?

Boxing has a lot of metaphors. Boxing’s a great sport; it’s definitely chess, not checkers. People think it’s just swinging and punching, but that’s not boxing. The whole objective of boxing is get the other opponent to help you kick his a–. You trying to outsmart somebody. It’s not as primitive as people think it is. It’s a great sport to just learn some life skills, to know when to bomb and leave, when to catch your breath, when to stick and move, when to go for broke, how to get back up. And it challenges you on those things, so that’s what I love about it. It’s just you and the other guy. You don’t have help. It’s all about what you’re made of, what you have in you. So it challenges that, when your lungs are burning, your ribs are hurting, guy’s trying to punch you in the eye or jab a bit. It’s like, ‘Do I really need to do this?’

Economic stratification has a huge impact on defining who goes into football and boxing. If you can afford to put your kid into something that doesn’t carry the same risk for potential brain damage, you’re going to do it.

There’s certainly classism. … It’s just opportunity. If you’re poor living in a ghetto — I know when I was — you bounced the ball, you hit a ball with stick. You punched each other or you play football. There was no golf courses that were nearby, there was no lacrosse. There’s no polo.

But some of those sports, you don’t get camaraderie, you don’t learn how to play as a team player, you don’t physically always get challenged the same. There’s plus and minuses to it all. Classism will always be here, and the gladiators will always be the gladiators and some people will always be in the stands. It’s just the fact of life. It’s not going to ever change, ever. If they took away boxing and football … there’ll be another sport.

For some people, like myself, like LeBron, like Ali, Michael Jordan, sports was a way out. I got a scholarship to West Virginia. That was a way out, that was a way of getting out the streets, getting out the ghetto. But also, you love it. It was a place to go that felt safe. It was a place to go to create a family outside of your family, with your teammates. To get that feeling of success, to win, that’s something that you can’t put a price on.

Today in black history: Michael Jordan, Jim Brown and Huey P. Newton are born, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 17

1891 —Butter churn is patented. Inventor Albert Richardson created the tall wooden cylinder with a plunger handle to improve the butter-making process. Richardson realized the up-and-down movement caused oily parts of cream or milk to separate them from the water portions.

1902 — Opera singer Marian Anderson is born in Philadelphia. Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial in an open-air recital after her concert at Constitution Hall, which was controlled by the Daughters of the American Revolution, was canceled after they refused to allow her to perform. At the age of 17, Anderson placed first over 299 other singers in the New York Philharmonic competition. In 1930, she traveled to Europe after she was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship, allowing her to study abroad for a year. Three years later, she debuted in Berlin and performed 142 concerts in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Anderson signed with the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955.

1936 — Happy birthday, Jim Brown. Over the course of his nine-season tenure with the Cleveland Browns, Pro Football Hall of Famer Brown enjoyed four MVP seasons. The St. Simons Island, Georgia, native was a staunch civil rights activist and the founder of a plethora of organizations aimed at helping the disenfranchised.

1938 — Activist Mary Frances Berry is born in Nashville, Tennessee. Berry became the first woman to serve as a chancellor of a major research university at the University of Colorado Boulder. She has been active in the fight for civil rights, gender equality and social justice. During four presidential administrations, Berry served as chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Berry was also the principal education official in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

1942 — Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton is born in Monroe, Louisiana. As a response to police brutality and racism, in 1966, Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther group. The organization was founded to build self-reliance for the black community. At its peak, there were approximately 2,000 members in city chapters across the nation. In 1971, Newton proclaimed that the Black Panthers would dedicate themselves to providing social services to the black community and adopt a nonviolent approach.

1963 — Happy birthday, Michael Jordan. Jordan, considered by many the greatest of all time, was a six-time NBA champion and Finals MVP, five-time NBA MVP, 14-time NBA All-Star, three-time NBA All-Star MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and more. He retired with the NBA’s highest scoring average of 30.1 points per game. He owns the Charlotte Hornets and created the Jordan Brand for Nike.

1967 — Happy birthday, Ronnie DeVoe. He was the fifth member of New Edition, and was introduced to the group by his uncle, their former manager. DeVoe later became a founding member of rhythm and blues group Bell Biv DeVoe with two other New Edition members, Michael Bivins and Ricky Bell.

1973 — First naval frigate named after an African-American is commissioned. Ensign Jesse L. Brown was the U.S. Navy’s first African-American pilot and was killed in combat during a mission in Korea. Brown earned his pilot wings alone while in the Navy, unlike his Army aviator colleagues, who broke the color barrier with the Tuskegee Airmen. Brown, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper who used to steer mules in cotton fields, saved his money up so that he could attend Ohio State like his idol, Olympic track superstar Jesse Owens.

Grammys: From Cardi B to Drake, a night of come-ups, curves and side-eyes What’s next? That’s the real question

No. Question.

Best acceptance speech goes to Drake. In a surprise appearance, he picked up a trophy for best rap song (“God’s Plan”) in person. He also delivered some strong words to the Recording Academy (formerly the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, or NARAS) about past Grammy snubs.

“We play in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport. It is not the NBA.” — Drake

“Know we play in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport,” Drake said. “It is not the NBA. … This is a business where sometimes it is up to a bunch of people that might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say … or a brother from Houston … my brother Travis. You’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you are a hero in your hometown. If there’s people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don’t need this right here, I promise you. You already won.” Nice. He was, though, like so many, cut off before completing his remarks.

In the days before the beleaguered show, which inched up in ratings last night, there was a lot of social conversation about how the Grammys are not and have not historically been welcoming to black people and people of color.

So when it was reported by The New York Times just days before Sunday’s telecast of the Grammy Awards at Los Angeles’ Staples Center that three of hip-hop’s biggest superstars — Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Childish Gambino — had turned down the opportunity to perform at this year’s show (Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift chose not to attend as well), the message was quite conspicuous, especially on the heels of recent Super Bowl halftime performance anxieties.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

“When they don’t take home the big prize, the regard of the academy, and what the Grammys represent, continues to be less meaningful to the hip-hop community, which is sad,” Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich told the Times. Indeed, a hip-hop act has not won the much-coveted album of the year trophy since Outkast for their brilliant 2003 double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. In the 61-year run of the Recording Academy’s celebration of musical excellence, the prestigious album of the year has been won by black artists only 12 times, and, while he is no doubt a beloved genius, Stevie Wonder is single-handedly responsible for three of those wins: Innervisions (1974), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1975) and Songs in the Key of Life (1977). So yes, there was much drama heading into the ceremony.

What we soon discovered, among other revelations, was that 15-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys should be given the perpetual reins to host the aging music awards show, much in the same way Billy Crystal did for the Oscars. She was that good, folks. Also: Chloe x Halle, the sister duo who gave a pitch-perfect tribute to Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack with “Where Is the Love,” have a transformative cover album within them. Beyoncé and Jay-Z were nowhere to be found at music’s biggest night to collect their award for best urban contemporary album for Everything Is Love. Yet, while there were some grand moments in black excellence, the Grammys still have serious work to do.


A moment of Michelle Obama magic

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

“From the Motown records I wore out on the South Side …” That’s how she began. Forever first lady Michelle Obama’s surprise appearance at the Grammys was so surreal that even the other legendary women who stood alongside her — Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Keys and Jennifer Lopez — were overwhelmed.

But Obama was instantly drowned out by applause from the crowd. “All right, you all, all right, we got a show to do,” she said with a smile. And yet the statement of women’s strength was just the beginning. Viewers witnessed a record 31 wins by women recording artists and a sharp acceptance speech by best new artist Dua Lipa, who took a dig at outgoing academy president Neil Portnow, who once stated that female artists should “step up” during last year’s ceremony. Calling it an honor “to be nominated alongside so many incredible female artists this year,” she jabbed, “I guess this year we really stepped up.” Ouch.

It’s Cardi’s world

Cardi B continued her fairy-tale run, snatching up rap album of the year for her boss platinum debut Invasion of Privacy, thanking her daughter, Kulture, as well as her husband, Offset of the Migos. “I’m sorry,” the Bronx, New York, rap queen said, before joking, “I just, oh, the nerves are so bad. Maybe I need to start smoking weed.” Cardi B became the first solo woman to ever win the category and brought the house down with her piano-driven, chest-beating 808 anthem “Money.” Rocking immaculate black peacock feathers and surrounded by an army of flapper-era dancers, Cardi earned a well-deserved standing ovation for her 1920s-inspired nod to Josephine Baker.

But Cardi B’s big night was nearly overshadowed by a tweet from Ariana Grande, who posted the word “trash” along with some stinging expletives as the rapper beat out the singer’s ex-boyfriend, greatly missed late hip-hop star Mac Miller. Grande, who won her first Grammy for best pop vocal album, quickly deleted the tweet. Cardi B, however, responded on Instagram.

Lady Gaga turns it up to 11

The first award of the night went to an emotional Lady Gaga, whose “Shallow” duet with actor Bradley Cooper won best pop duo or group performance.

Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

And then music’s most earnest ham, clad in a glittery jumpsuit, transformed “Shallow” into a ’70s arena rock workout.

But can you play?

Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Janelle Monáe came out strapped … with a guitar. Within her lustful “Make Me Feel” were echoes of the Purple One, Prince. Yet Monáe was not alone in her throwback musician bliss. Singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes started out on piano and then switched to guitar. A confident Ne-Yo tickled the ivories as well during an otherwise train wreck of a Motown tribute (more on that later). Post Malone strummed an acoustic guitar on his somber “Stay” before joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers as if he’s already counting down to the moment he’s done playing on the hip-hop side of the tracks. But there was another artist who flexed the most impressive talent of the entire night.

A star is born

Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Imagine Lalah Hathaway jamming with Prince Rogers Nelson while wearing cooler-than-cool shades. That’s the best way to describe the music of singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist and all-around badass H.E.R. The enigmatic newcomer not only won two awards, including best rhythm and blues album for her self-titled EP, she gave perhaps the night’s most dynamic show with the empowering “Hard Place.” Her seemingly effortless soulful vocals were backed by her cracking band — and violinists. And H.E.R. even shredded a translucent guitar, bringing the crowd to its feet.

Childish Gambino has the last laugh

Childish Gambino was a Grammys no-show. But that didn’t stop the renaissance man from taking home two of the biggest awards of the night for “This Is America,” his surreal and sneering indictment of gun violence and institutional racism. Childish Gambino, who ironically appeared in a Grammy ad for Google’s Playmoji, became the first hip-hop star to win record of the year and song of the year.

Dolly, Diana and Aretha

Three of music’s most revered figures received well-deserved tributes. For country music crossover goddess Dolly Parton, who was joined onstage by Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Little Big Town and the night’s other big winner, Kacey Musgraves, it was yet another reminder that beyond her bubbly, self-effacing image, Parton is a brilliant songwriting machine defying genres. Just check out her string of classics, including “Jolene,” “Here You Come Again,” “9 to 5” and her 1974 gem “I Will Always Love You,” which was given new life when Whitney Houston’s definitive cover became one of the best-selling singles of all time.

Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

An always regal Diana Ross, floating through in a flowing red dress while celebrating her 75th birthday, moved the audience after a too-cute introduction by her 9-year-old grandson, Raif-Henok Emmanuel Kendrick. “Young people like me can look up to her for her independence, confidence and willingness to be her unique self,” he said, beaming. “She has shown the world that nothing is beyond our reach. So, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my grandmommy, Diana Ross.”

And that was an understatement. Ross launched into “The Best Years of My Life” and her solo signature classic “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” imploring the crowd to “don’t be lazy” and to stand up. With 70 hit singles and a string of leading feature film roles — including her haunting, Oscar-nominated 1972 portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues — Ross is the template for Houston, Janet Jackson, Lil Kim, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé.

Finally, the late, great Aretha Franklin was celebrated with a rousing tribute by powerhouses Yolanda Adams, Andra Day and Fantasia for a once-in-a-lifetime performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Some viewers balked at the idea of Franklin receiving just one song as tribute. “I’m sorry,” said one poster. “Aretha Franklin is one of the most if NOT the most decorated, talented, influential artists in the history of music. The Grammys gave her a ONE song tribute. Trash #Grammys.” Mood.

Berry Gordy Weeps

When it was first announced that Lopez would be taking part in a Motown tribute, the news was met with bewilderment and jokes from the Black Twitter contingent. But to the astonishment of viewers, Jenny From the Block wasn’t merely a supporting player in an already questionable production, she was the star garnering more stage time than the aforementioned Ne-Yo and Smokey Robinson. JLo proved it is indeed possible to lip-sync off-key as she stumbled through such Motown hits as “Dancing in the Street,” “My Girl” and “Please Mr. Postman.”

Free 21 Savage!

Fifteen-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys should be given the perpetual reins to host the aging music award show. She was that good.

There were no loud shout-outs or words of encouragement for the British-born Atlanta native from his fellow rappers. 21 Savage is still being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for failing to depart under the terms of his nonimmigrant visa. Travis Scott made no mention of his collaborator during his performance of “Stop Trying to Be God” and the riotous “No Bystanders.” Post Malone, who partly owes the immense success and the swagger of his career-making single “rockstar” to 21 Savage, apparently wore a 21 Savage T-shirt but was also silent. The first mention of 21 Savage was made by Swedish “This Is America” producer Ludwig Göransson, who warmly stated, “He should be here.”

And album of the year goes to …

Country singer-songwriter Musgraves, whose Golden Hour picked up the top prize. No diss to Musgraves, a talented voice who will shine for years to come. But for the Grammys, it was yet another telling reminder that black art continues to be overlooked in the most coveted categories.

Tell the Grammys f— that 0 for 8 s—, Jay-Z rhymed on “Apes—” in response to the academy nominating his brilliant 4:44 for eight awards in 2018. He left with no statuettes.

The last black act to win album of the year was celebrated jazz pianist Herbie Hancock in 2008, and that was for the star-studded Joni Mitchell tribute album River. Since then, Swift has won the trophy twice, Adele beat out Beyoncé’s monumental 2016 Lemonade and Bruno Mars won in 2018 for 24K Magic, his love letter to Teddy Riley’s new jack swing. It’s a frustration that Prince knew all too well: His genre-busting 1987 double album Sign o’ the Times lost to U2’s The Joshua Tree.

“I don’t go to awards shows anymore,” Prince said in a 1990 Rolling Stone interview. “I’m not saying I’m better than anybody else. But you’ll be sitting there at the Grammys, and U2 will beat you. And you say to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I can play that kind of music, too. … I know how to do that, you dig? But you will not do ‘Housequake.’ ”

Grammys … do better.

Today in black history: Buster Douglas beats Mike Tyson, Nelson Mandela is free, RIP Whitney Houston and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 11

1966 – San Francisco Giants Willie Mays signs the highest contract of his career at that time with a $130,000 salary.

1979 – Clifford Alexander, Jr. is the first African American Secretary of the Army.

1979 – Singer Brandy Norwood is born in McComb, Mississippi and raised in Carson, California. Known in the industry by her first name only, Brandy has sold more than 40 million records worldwide. She starred in the 1990s sitcom Moesha, graced Dancing with the Stars, the BET Series The Game and more.

1981 – Kelly Rowland is born in Atlanta, Georgia. Rowland moved to Houston, Texas at the age of 8. She was a quarter of the original girls group Destiny’s Child. Rowland went on to have successful solo and acting careers.

1990 – Nelson Mandela, leader of the movement to end South African apartheid, is released from prison after 27 years on February 11, 1990.

1990 – James “Buster” Douglas, against all odds, knocks out Mike Tyson in the 10th round in Tokyo, Japan to win the heavyweight boxing title.