The untold story of wrestler Andrew Johnson’s dreadlocks How the high school athlete endured his infamous haircut

When Andrew Johnson walked into The Line Up barbershop last April, all eyes focused on him. Since that awful day in December when a referee had forced the 16-year-old Buena Regional High School wrestler to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match, he felt as if the world was constantly watching him, especially in his small New Jersey town. Watching and whispering about things beyond his control.

Yo, that’s that kid who got his locs chopped by the white ref.

Andrew, who goes by Drew, sat down in Mikey Morales’ chair. Morales has tended Drew’s hair since middle school. After a video of Drew’s shearing attracted a massive social media audience last December, Morales had reshaped Drew’s hair into shorter dreadlocks that radiated from his head.

But now Drew had a new problem. The night before, he had grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and hacked at what remained of his dreads, then asked his little sister to finish the job. Drew loved his hair but was tired of it causing so much trouble. Tired of being treated differently and made into something he was not. Tired of looking in the mirror and seeing the referee, Alan Maloney, looking back.

Since the incident last December, support for Andrew Johnson, seen here during a bout on Jan. 5, has poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of his schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended referee Alan Maloney as simply enforcing the rules.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Maloney already had a racist incident in his past before telling Drew that his hair was “unnatural” and giving him 90 seconds to cut it. What resulted was far more than a humiliating haircut for one high school student. It became a shared and painful experience for many who see how issues of identity, subjugation, power and freedom are intertwined in African American hair.

Support for Drew poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of Drew’s schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended Maloney as simply enforcing the rules. Another local contingent believed that even if Maloney was wrong, Drew should have just shaken it off and moved on.

The shy, quiet teen was trapped in a suffocating bubble. Maybe those kitchen scissors were meant to let in some air.

The barber surveyed the damage and looked at Drew’s father, Charles Johnson III, who goes by his middle name of Sheridan. Sheridan and his three sons come to Morales once a week. Their hairstyles vary, but they always stay crisply edged and trimmed. The Johnsons are not a family who walks around looking jacked up.

The barbers and most of their clientele are Puerto Rican here at The Line Up, which is located in one of the strip malls dotting the South Jersey farmlands between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Drew, too, is more Puerto Rican than anything else, despite being widely portrayed as strictly African American when his haircut entered the viral pantheon of American racial injustice.

During several trips to Buena Vista Township, and while attending several of the wrestling team’s home and away matches, I had in-depth conversations with Drew, his parents and siblings, close friends of the Johnson family and their attorney. I talked to Drew’s schoolmates, coaches, other members of the Buena community, and wrestlers and coaches from around South Jersey. The Johnsons declined to be interviewed on the record. Some of the descriptions of Drew’s emotions come from his attorney; others from people in Buena who interacted with him. Maloney declined an interview request, and his attorney didn’t respond to phone messages.

What I saw in Buena was a close-knit, mixed-race family crushed by our country’s tectonic conflict over racial justice and demographic change. This took place in a small town with a rich wrestling tradition where people say sports brings them together, even as they are further apart than most want to believe.

Watching the video of the match, I saw Maloney give Drew 90 seconds to shatter either a pillar of his identity or his bond with his teammates and his home. Sitting in the barber chair beneath Morales’ buzzing clippers 3½ months later, Drew was still trying to reassemble the pieces of who he used to be.


Hair is Africa’s most enduring marker in America, the phenotype most likely to persist through generations of interracial children. Hair is what black folks look at when trying to determine who is one of us. Many mixed-race people are not permitted to fully determine their own identity because of how the world insists on defining them. That’s when hair can represent a manifesto of self.

Sheridan Johnson is the son of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother. He looks black, grew up with his black grandparents and has always identified himself as black. His hair is cut close but dark on top, with a fade melting into his thick, impeccably groomed beard.

Wrestler Andrew Johnson forced to cut hair before match

Sheridan’s wife, Rosa, has a Puerto Rican father and an Irish mother. Rosa has straight, shoulder-length brown hair and fair skin. She values her Puerto Rican heritage and maiden name of Santiago, but much of the world sees her as a white lady with black kids.

The four Johnson children are Drew, who is now 17, 13-year-old Cami, 15-year-old Nate and 19-year-old Matt. Each of their complexions is a different shade of brown. Their hair, too, varies in texture and degree of curl. Drew has the lightest skin, and freckles. He cultivated his dreadlocks in early 2018 by rubbing his hair nightly with a towel. Cami is the darkest, with caramel-colored skin and hair that, when I saw her, fell past her shoulders in cascading coils. Cami is the only sibling who sort of considers herself black. Her brothers never defined themselves that way. If pressed, the Johnson boys will break themselves down mathematically: 50% Puerto Rican, 25% black and 25% white.

Last December, Drew’s calculated identity went up in smoke. That’s when the world decided he was black.


Long, straight roads slice through the farms and woods of Buena Vista Township, 45 minutes southeast of Philly. Tractors creep through fields of tomatoes, peppers and corn. Farmers from Italy arrived in the mid-1850s because the sandy soil was good for grapes. The area remains heavily working-class Italian: Buena is pronounced “BYOO-nuh” because of how it was said by those from the old country. The census says 75% of the township’s 7,299 residents are white, 13% are Hispanic and 7.5% are black.

On Dec. 19, furrowed empty earth ran right up to the parking lot of Buena Regional High School, where the Johnson family gathered to watch Drew wrestle. It was not a special occasion. Where you see one Johnson, you often see them all.

The meet took place in the Charles Johnson Memorial Gymnasium, which is named after Sheridan’s grandfather, who was a beloved custodian at the school. The opponent was rival Oakcrest High. Buena had beaten Oakcrest eight years in a row, but this meet was expected to be close. They were the top two teams in the Cape Atlantic League’s National Division, so the division title was likely on the line. Every match would be crucial.

Wrestling has been part of the fabric of Buena since the early 1970s, when Mickey Caprese, who owned a greeting card store across from Buena’s junior high school, got a bunch of neighborhood kids together and started a youth program. Buena and wrestling are a good match. They’re both tough but not loud, small but proud. There’s no room for pretty boys. Scarred hands or cauliflowered ears are a mark of pride.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Alan Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

“We’re just a small community with values and work ethic,” said Doug Castellari, one of Caprese’s first recruits. He became an All-American at Temple University in 1984, coached the Buena team for almost three decades and is one of five Buena alumni in the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame.

“Wrestling’s not a sport you can just go out there and play,” said Castellari, who is still fit from daily workouts and tanned from running his family’s farm. “You have to put a lot into it just to win one match. You have to get a kid to buy in. You have to dedicate yourself and put in the time.”

Castellari’s son Eric wrestled for his dad and now volunteers with the Buena wrestling team. “Buena is not a participation trophy kind of place,” Eric said. “Other sports, there’s somebody next to you. This is one-on-one. If you mentally break, if you give up, you will be abused. Nobody can save you. There’s no safety over the top.

“Nobody realizes how hard those six minutes are.”


Five minutes and 30 seconds into the December match, blood dripped down Drew’s bottom lip. Cramps wracked both calves. He was losing 2-1 and trapped on his stomach underneath his opponent. The shock of having his dreadlocks cut before the match had given way to the desperation of trying to survive.

Drew is not the most talented wrestler in his family. That would be his younger brother, Nate, who started varsity as a freshman at 113 pounds. Drew didn’t join the varsity until his sophomore year, when his record was 13-12 with six pins. In some of the losses, he hit a mental wall and couldn’t climb over, one of his coaches told me. Drew let himself think he could not win.

Drew had big goals last season, his junior year, in the 120-pound division. It was cool having his brother on the team. Nate wouldn’t have to learn by getting abused on the wrong side of the wall.

Referees are supposed to handle hair and other issues at the pre-meet weigh-ins, but on that day Maloney was late. He conducted the “skin check” about 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the 7 p.m. start, according to a statement submitted to the school district by Buena’s head wrestling coach, George Maxwell. Maloney told Drew he needed to shave. After Drew returned from the locker room with no stubble, Maloney said he had “concerns” about Drew’s and Nate’s hair, according to the statement and the Johnson family’s attorney, Dominic A. Speziali.

Drew returned to the locker room to get a cap. Maloney left because the meet was about to begin. In the first match, refereed by Maloney, Nate wrestled without a cap and lost. Drew’s match came second.

When Drew was on the mat about to shake hands with his opponent, Maloney stopped him and said his cap was illegal because it didn’t attach to his headgear. Drew and his team did not have an attachable cap because they didn’t think it was needed. Drew had wrestled earlier that season without one.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

“It’s unnatural,” Maloney told Drew and his coaches, according to a letter sent by Speziali to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, which is investigating what happened.

Andrew Johnson (left) wrestles for Buena Regional High School against Cherokee High School’s Andrew Aromando (right) during a match in New Jersey on Jan. 11. Aromando won the match 4-2.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

Rosa and Sheridan sat in the bleachers, unable to hear what was going on.

Maxwell and his assistants argued Drew’s case. After less than two minutes of discussion, Maloney turned his back on them and twirled his finger to start the 90-second injury clock. When it ran out, Drew would forfeit.

It didn’t take Drew long to decide. Wrestlers make immense sacrifices — running in rubber suits to cut weight, starving themselves, vomit-inducing practices. The whole team had suffered to beat Oakcrest. If Drew didn’t wrestle, and win, they could lose the meet and the division title. He did what any Buena wrestler would have done. “I’m going to cry, but cut it,” he told his coach.

As a trainer began to hack off fistfuls of locs with a pair of tape scissors, a wave of anguished noise rolled down from the packed bleachers. Shouts of “Noooo!” can be heard on the video.

Rosa did not run down to the mat. Neither did Sheridan. Later, they would be flamed on social media for not stepping in. But the situation was out of their hands. Would it have been less humiliating for Drew if his parents made him forfeit the match? How much hair would Drew have had left by that point? What could Rosa and Sheridan have done as the clock ticked down to zero?

When about half of Drew’s dreadlocks were gone, Maloney deemed him acceptable. Drew walked onto the mat with tears in his eyes, his face a mask of hurt and anger, breathing so hard his cheeks puffed out from his face.

Oakcrest’s David Flippen bloodied Drew’s lip in the first period. Watching the video, there are moments where Flippen’s hair flops past his eyebrows, which is supposed to be illegal. Drew’s legs convulsed with cramps. With less than a minute to go in the match, Flippen was on top of Drew, leading 2-1. Drew escaped, earning one point to tie the match. He was poised on top of the wall. Sudden-death overtime: The first wrestler to score again would win.

Less than a minute into the overtime, Drew emerged from a tangle of limbs and took Flippen down. Maloney blew his whistle. Drew staggered upright, let Maloney briefly raise his right arm, then yanked it away and stumbled off the mat.

Buena won the meet and at the end of the season won the division with a 6-0 record. Oakcrest finished 5-1.

Forty-five minutes after the match, Drew sat in a hallway, tears streaming down his face. Rosa massaged his trembling legs. He had broken down the wall. But another was rising in its place.


In the days after the video detonated on social media, reporters circled the high school. TV trucks parked outside the Johnsons’ house, right up to Christmas Eve. Sheridan, a cable TV equipment installer, and Rosa, an elementary school teacher in the Buena district, were deluged with comments, ranging from well-intentioned to overbearing to hurtful.

Man, Drew is a trouper. Glad he’s done with all that stuff. … What’s the big deal? … It’s just hair, it’ll grow back. …

Drew sat in his classes in a daze. He walked the halls with his headphones clamped tight. With his new celebrity supporters and fame, he felt yanked from euphoria to anger to depression. One day he left the wrestling room and walked past a basketball game. He felt every eye in the gym on him as he left the building.

Buena’s next match was canceled, with no clear explanation given. The match after that, the referee called the school and said Drew’s hair was still illegal. That match was canceled too. Now the whole team was being penalized. Nobody wants to suffer through making weight for nothing. Drew struggled with whether the canceled matches were his fault, and whether he should quit the team.

He decided against it. He was a varsity starter. The team needed him. Who knows what foolishness Nate would get into in practice without Drew. And if you mess around in practice, the matches will be hell.

Buena’s Andrew Johnson (left) has his 195-pound teammate Sammy Drogo (right) in his ear as they prepare to wrestle against Clayton at the Williamstown Duals in New Jersey on Jan. 5.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Most of all, Drew just wanted to wrestle.

He got pinned in the two matches after his hair was cut, then recovered to win eight in a row at the end of January. He did well enough at the district meet to qualify for regionals but lost in the first round and ended his season with a 19-10 record and eight pins. Nate finished 21-7 with 15 pins.

The Johnson family has made no public comment since a statement six days after the December match.

“Wrestling has taught Andrew to be resilient in the face of adversity,” Rosa and Sheridan said in the statement. “As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community. We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”


There is a long history of white people trying to legislate and regulate the gravity-defying, shape-shifting glory of black hair. White people may think their rules are neutral, but they come from a mindset that, consciously or not, defines white hair as normal and black hair as deviant. Black hair must be controlled, conform or cut down. Its mere existence is often seen as illegal, from a North Carolina pool banning swimmers with locs to a Texas junior high school coloring in a boy’s part with a Sharpie.

Maloney has a horseshoe of dark hair around the sides of a bald scalp. He is 63 years old, about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, with a paunch and an outsize reputation built on four decades of refereeing in South Jersey. He has held several offices in the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, or NJWOA.

Maloney is an extremely knowledgeable official but also abrasive, frequently late to matches and a showboat, according to three wrestling coaches I spoke with and other coaches interviewed by NJ Advance Media. What the coaches didn’t need to tell me, because it received statewide media coverage, is that Maloney once called a black referee the N-word. Maloney was briefly suspended, but his punishment was overturned by the NJWOA.

All this history set the context for Maloney calling Drew’s hair “unnatural.”

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) follows the wrestling regulations of the National Federation of State High School Associations. The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” In a photo of Drew’s hair just before the match, he did not violate any of those restrictions.

The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” This is a photo of Drew Johnson’s hair just before the match.

SNJ Today via Johnson attorney’s Jan. 9 letter to the state Division on Civil Rights

Amid the postmatch outrage, the NJSIAA and NJWOA agreed not to assign Maloney to any more matches until an investigation was completed. Three weeks later, Roy Dragon, who holds offices with both organizations, sent an email to NJWOA chapters to clarify the hair rules.

Dragon’s email tried to outlaw the hair that Drew still had left. The email, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media, showed examples of what it called illegal hair that required a cap, including this photo.

But the hair in the photograph was actually legal, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Asked by local media about that contradiction, NJSIAA executive director Larry White sent out another email, which included this guidance from the national rules federation:

“There is a wide spectrum of modern hair styles that might give the appearance that they are in violation of the hair rule, but in actuality they are just creative expressions of today’s youth,” the guidance said. It defined hair in its natural state as “how your hair appears when you wake up in the morning.”

But that still leaves room for judgment about what is “natural.” Can you wrestle with hair dyed orange? With gelled hair?

Can the people who run South Jersey wrestling recognize their assumption that everything white is normal and anything else needs to conform or get cut down?


It’s false to say that mixed-race people are caught between two worlds, but it’s a fact that the reaction to Drew’s haircut placed the Johnsons in a bind.

The support Drew received, locally and beyond, helped him and his family get through the experience. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted, “I don’t just wear locs. They are a part of me … So to watch this young man’s ordeal, wrecked me. The criminalization of what grows from him. The theft of what was his.” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he was “deeply disturbed.”

But many supporters focused their outrage on Drew’s coaches, teammates, trainer, school and neighbors. “Why didn’t people as a group walk out of that room? It speaks to the culture that this is acceptable,” Rachel Green, a member of the civil rights group Action Together New Jersey, said at a public meeting called by the school district. Action Together called for racial bias training for the entire Buena district.

In a passionate Twitter video, four-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, who grew up 15 minutes from Buena and attended the same high school as Maloney, told Drew: “The fact that the parents and the coaches in that gymnasium allowed for you to be put in that position and didn’t protect you is absolutely shameful.

“The bottom line is this young man, especially a young black man in a traditionally and predominantly Caucasian sport, out there defenseless, you guys gotta help this young man. You gotta protect him,” Burroughs said. He criticized Maloney — “You gotta pay the consequences of your actions” — and later FaceTimed with Drew to offer more support.

Drew’s coaches did argue on his behalf. The trainer reluctantly did what Drew asked her to do. Drew wasn’t thinking about systemic racism when Maloney started that 90-second clock. He was thinking about a division title.

And yet …

Buena can be uncomfortable for people of color. It’s one of 53 New Jersey towns that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after choosing Barack Obama in 2012. There is prejudice against Mexicans who come for agricultural work. Since Trump was elected president, a few Confederate flags have been spotted flying from pickup trucks at Buena high school football games.

“Buena is no different than most of the communities around here,” said the Rev. David Mallory, the black pastor of First Baptist Church in adjacent Richland. “There are still racial tensions in a lot of areas, but I also see more interracial activity that is favorable.”

Since Drew’s hair was cut, much of Buena has assumed a defensive crouch. Many residents don’t want to acknowledge the role of race in what happened to Drew.

“Ambivalence toward racism is a form of racism in itself,” Speziali told me.

Rosa and Sheridan grew up in Buena and enjoy living there, have meaningful friendships among people of all races and never told me anything negative about their home. But it was clear to me that Buena could become an inhospitable place if they spoke publicly about the toll Drew’s humiliation took on their family.

The uproar over Drew’s hair “upset me because it became a racial issue. Buena is a melting pot,” said one resident who is close to the Johnson family. The woman, who is white, did not want to be named in order to avoid upsetting the Johnsons. “My boys were brought up not to judge people based on color. We have all types of kids staying over at our house. We’re just a little town, as far from racist as possible.”

Well, maybe not that far.

“There’s a few racists, like anywhere else,” she continued. “But we’re family.”


A three-minute drive from The Line Up, inside the Sports Cuts barbershop, owner Frank Baldissero rings up haircuts on a 1950s-era R.C. Allen cash register. A 1932 photograph of Rockefeller Center skyscraper workers eating lunch in midair hangs on the wall. A grease board has customer appointments written into 15-minute time slots. “That’s my computer,” said Baldissero, who has been here 31 years.

The Johnson family, pictured from left to right: Matt, Rosa, Drew, Nate, Cami and Sheridan.

Johnson Family

At Sports Cuts, Maloney is the hero and the Johnsons are villains. “The kid got away with it for some number of matches and finally got a ref who followed the rules,” said Baldissero, whose head matches his name. “They didn’t enforce the rules until that point in time, and that’s it.”

“The media left out that no adults or coaches made him follow the rules,” chimed in Katrina D’Allessandro. Her son Will was getting his hair cut for the prom, a fade with bangs hanging down over the front.

“It was upsetting to a lot of people at school,” Will said. “Buena isn’t a racist school. We’re all diverse, we have different views. We’re all human. It’s just a matter of rules, I guess. The rules are that hair has to be a certain length. You can’t really have dreads.”

“The parents and the kid, they should step up and say this isn’t about race, it’s about rules. The kid didn’t follow the rules,” said Baldissero.

“The media is way out of whack,” the barber continued. “They turned it into a racial thing. It got to be a racial thing based on what the ref did years ago. People change. I’m sure he’s not the same person he was back then.”

What Maloney did “years ago” happened in 2016, during an informal gathering of referees after they worked a Jersey Shore tournament. During a disagreement about homemade wine, Maloney poked a black referee named Preston Hamilton in the chest and called him the N-word. Hamilton, a former wrestler, responded by body-slamming Maloney.

The NJWOA was asked to discipline Maloney, who was NJWOA membership chairman and training supervisor at the time. He apologized to Hamilton and volunteered to take alcohol awareness and sensitivity courses. The NJWOA ethics committee decided that Maloney should be suspended from refereeing for one year. The committee also suspended Hamilton for “assault.”

Both men appealed. Ethics appeals are handled by NJWOA officers, several of whom had been friends with Maloney for decades. They voted to rescind both suspensions, outraging a swath of the South Jersey wrestling community. Numerous schools told the NJWOA not to assign Maloney to their meets.

Maloney wasn’t interested in public contrition. “I really don’t think this should go any further than it’s gone anyhow. … It was two men, a group of guys, having fun and it was just a slip-up. If you can’t see past that, then I don’t know what to say. I made a mistake and I apologized for it,” he told the Courier-Post newspaper.

It was not his first mistake. In 2012, Maloney told a 6-year-old wrestler that he couldn’t compete with dreadlocks because “hair doesn’t naturally look like that,” according to a statement by a parent who came forward to state civil rights investigators after Drew’s haircut. Finally, “a younger referee, who was a person of color, told him that my son’s hair was natural and he was able to wrestle with it,” according to the statement, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media. Maloney also was accused of kicking an 11-year-old mixed-race wrestler after he wandered onto the mat during a match.

Maloney owns an auto repair garage in West Berlin, about 30 minutes north of Buena. I stopped by one afternoon in May and walked around the gray building with three car bays. A police car was up on one lift. I asked a mechanic if Maloney was around, and he went to get him.

I waited in the garage’s tiny office. Several NJWOA awards hung on the wall. “Presented in recognition for your outstanding achievements, leadership and contributions to New Jersey Scholastic Wrestling,” read one faded plaque. Nearby was a framed newspaper article from Maloney’s 1989 induction into the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame. The pinnacle of his competitive career was finishing fourth in the state in 1974. He started reffing two years later.

A short white man with a cigar jammed into his mouth entered the office. He was not Maloney. “Who’s calling?” the man asked. I told him.

“You have to leave,” the man said, and pointed at the door.

Maloney has filed a legal notice preserving his right to sue the Buena school district and 11 other possible defendants, not including the Johnson family. He is claiming defamation of character and emotional distress.


Mikey Morales spun Drew around in his barber chair and went to work on what was left of Drew’s dreadlocks. Hair fell to the floor, just like on the mat four months earlier. Only this time, Drew was reclaiming his identity as a mixed-race, bighearted athlete in a small town that doesn’t fully understand what it means to be Drew Johnson.

Drew had played baseball as a sophomore but decided not to go out for the team this past spring. He did go to the prom. He got an after-school job busing tables. Last summer, he worked on a farm during tomato harvest and received an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend Burroughs’ wrestling camp in Nebraska. Nate went to the camp too. Drew is looking forward to wrestling his senior year with Nate. Their bond is closer than ever.

The civil rights division of the state attorney general’s office is investigating the incident, along with the NJSIAA. Their findings will determine whether Maloney will referee again.

Thanks to the publicity over Drew’s hair, other dreadlocks will thrive. California just banned employers and schools from discriminating against people based on their hair. A similar bill is pending in New Jersey.

Maloney saw Drew as another black boy who should have followed the rules. Now rules are changing because of Drew.

Morales snapped off his clippers. Drew looked at himself in the mirror. The sides of his hair were faded close to his scalp. A low carpet of hair lay on top. From the crown grew one last dreadlock, uncut, in its natural state, with inseparable strands of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States of America.

A$AP Rocky case shows the discomfort of fighting for freedom Wanting black folks free means freeing even those we disagree with

Grammy-nominated Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky (real name Rakim Athelaston Mayers) has spent the past three weeks in a Swedish jail. He was arrested on July 3 after a now-viral video allegedly showed the MC and his entourage beating up two men. In the multiple videos of the incident to hit the internet — Rocky himself released two to tell his side of the story — the two alleged victims are seen following Rocky and his crew, refusing to leave them alone, before the attack transpired. But cooler heads did not prevail, and Rocky’s crew is seen punching and kicking the two men. Rocky himself tosses one man, sending him flying before he crashes down on the street.

Rapper A$AP Rocky speaks at the 2019 SXSW Festival Featured Session: Using Design “Differently” to Make a Difference on March 11 in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Diego Donamaria/Getty Images for SXSW

While Rocky’s video did garner him some sympathy — he is, after all, seen trying to defuse the situation before any blows land — it hasn’t gotten him out of jail. Now, Rocky’s arrest and impending July 30 trial have become the focal point of an international debate over prison reform, race and politics, a debate that has involved everyone from Rocky’s rap peers to fans bombarding trending Twitter hashtags with demands for his release to Kim Kardashian and even President Donald Trump. All of this is intersecting with Rocky’s past comments and the realization that freedom for all also means freedom for people we don’t always agree with or even like.

One reason so many rallied behind Rocky was that he was held in jail for weeks before even being charged with a crime. One of the touchstones of prison reform, in America especially, is that in America alone there are more than half a million people in jail, mostly minorities, who have yet to be charged. They’re in jail simply because they don’t have enough money to pay for bail. The most infamous example is Kalief Browder, the New York teenager who was jailed in Rikers Island for three years in a minor theft case because he couldn’t make bail. He was the victim of brutal violence and spent two years in solitary confinement. After being released, he committed suicide in 2015 and is the focus of a Jay-Z documentary.

Additionally, sources told TMZ that Rocky was being held in abhorrent conditions in Sweden — unclean rooms with feces on the walls, he was eating only an apple a day and sleeping on a yoga mat — and we have the makings of a human rights story that shows how incarcerated people are treated across the world. The widespread support for Rocky, however, has waned in the past few days, as an old interview of his surfaced in which he disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement and said he’d rather talk about fashion than liberating black folks:

Demonstrators hold aloft a symbolic coffin bearing Kalief Browder’s name as they rally near the gate of City Hall in New York on Feb. 23, 2016. About a dozen prison reform activists demanded the closing of the long-controversial Rikers Island Corrections facility, where Browder was held.

Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

“So every time something happens because I’m black I gotta stand up? What the f— am I? Al Sharpton? I’m A$AP Rocky. I did not sign up to be no political activist. I wanna talk about my … lean, my best friend dying, the girls that come in and out of my life, the jiggy fashion that I wear, my new inspirations in drugs! I don’t wanna talk about … Ferguson … because I don’t live over there! I live in f—ing SoHo and Beverly Hills. I can’t relate.”

For many, this was quite the karmic treat. A man who didn’t believe in the most prominent black liberation movement of his lifetime is suddenly in need of help from the activists he would have continued to ignore had he not been incarcerated. And while the schadenfreude is quite delicious to some, that shouldn’t mean that anyone should feel less obligated to find justice for the rapper if they believe he is truly being mistreated. Wanting black folks free means freeing even those black folks we disagree with — even black folks who don’t care about extending that freedom to the rest of us. A$AP Rocky deserves the same revolutionary acts of liberation and kindness we extend to any other incarcerated people, regardless of his stupid comments on activism.

Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served.

Rocky’s situation has been further complicated in recent days by newly converted social justice activist Kardashian lobbying for Trump to get involved. Trump responded by tweeting out support for Rocky, directing aggressive tweets toward the Swedish prime minister and stating that “Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States.”

So to recap, we have a man in jail who has expressed ambivalence about black liberation movements being supported by a woman who has made a career mining black culture for her own gain and who asked for help from a president who went on a racist outburst just last week demanding that four Democratic congresswomen go back to the countries they “came from.” The rest of us have been handed a cocktail of race, entertainment and politics in which we’re left wondering whether the enemies of our enemies are really our friends and which side is right here.

In the end, there should be only one winner: justice. Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served. Because so often, our black and brown brothers and sisters are denied their rights. Of course, if we can extend the resources of Kardashian and the president to get one black man free, then it should be no problem to find the same justice for the Kalief Browders of the world. Then we can really talk about what liberation looks like.

HBO film ‘True Justice’ recounts Bryan Stevenson’s crusade for the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned The nation’s most important civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall still believes in equal justice under law

Bryan Stevenson may well be the nation’s most consequential civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall.

While Marshall stared down unrepentant racists in Southern courtrooms at a time when inequality was enforced by law, Stevenson’s work is being done decades after the most important legal battles over civil rights supposedly were won. If Marshall and his legal colleagues from the NAACP helped dismantle Jim Crow, the task Stevenson has carved out may be even more difficult: working to eliminate Jim Crow’s legacy.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” — Bryan Stevenson

He is the subject of a new documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, which premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT on HBO. Stevenson, 59, is the founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, and he has dedicated his career to helping some of the most scorned people among us: the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned, and even the guilty.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Stevenson says.

Since EJI was launched in 1989, Stevenson and his staff have won release, reversals or relief for more than 125 death row prisoners. Stevenson has prevailed in several cases he argued before the Supreme Court, including a victory in a case outlawing mandatory sentences of life without parole for children 17 or younger.

In the documentary, Bryan Stevenson makes clear that the problem with the criminal justice system starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

Courtesy of HBO

He has spearheaded the creation in Montgomery of The Legacy Museum and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors more than 4,000 lynching victims. He has earned dozens of honorary degrees and won numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant. By any measure, he has done outstanding work.

Yet, Stevenson’s achievements make up a relatively small part of the film. Instead of shouting out his many successes, directors Peter Kunhardt, George Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt home in on Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Stevenson illuminates the line connecting the racial disparities evident in so many parts of our society to a criminal justice system that nurtured and rationalized white supremacy, making it both legal and acceptable. In the documentary, he makes clear that the problem starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

While the high court eventually became an ally of civil rights, for many years it was just the opposite. The 1857 Dred Scott decision called black people an inferior race who had no constitutional rights. The 1875 Cruikshank case reversed the convictions of members of a white mob whom federal prosecutors had tried for their part in killing 150 black people protesting for political representation in Colfax, Louisiana. The high court said the convictions impinged on states’ rights, helping to form the legal underpinning for legal segregation and Jim Crow.

Even in the years following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the seminal ruling striking down state-sanctioned segregation in public schools, the court sometimes looked the other way in the face of evidence of obvious racial disparities, Stevenson argues.

In the film, he talks about his advocacy for Warren McCleskey, a black man convicted of killing a white police officer in Georgia during a 1978 furniture store holdup. McCleskey was the only one of four defendants sentenced to death in the case, and by the time his case made its way to the Supreme Court, his defense team had produced a study showing that in Georgia, defendants who killed whites were more than four times as likely as those who killed blacks to be sentenced to death. The court shrugged off that study in its majority opinion, saying disparity does not prove deliberate bias. Moreover, the court ruled, such disparities are “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” McCleskey was put to death in Georgia’s electric chair in 1991.

The HBO documentary focuses on Bryan Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Courtesy of HBO

The film makes clear that Stevenson loses in court regularly, and when he does the consequences are often fatal for his clients. Even when he represents clients who are innocent and he is able to win, the injustices wrought by the system cannot be fully rectified because of the trauma of being imprisoned. “For me, the innocence cases are the hardest cases,” Stevenson says in the film. “I think people think of that the other way. They think, ‘Oh, it must be great to work on a case where there is clear evidence of innocence.’ ”

Much of the documentary is narrated by Stevenson, who talks about the need to eradicate “the narrative of racial difference” that infects the country and runs through its history. That is why he has poured energy into creating memorials to help Americans confront this history of racial horrors that he says often manifests itself in the criminal justice system.

“You can’t disconnect the death penalty from the legacy of lynching, and you can’t disconnect the legacy of lynching from the era of enslavement,” he says in the film. “I think that this line is a very real one.”

Yet, Stevenson has an unshakable belief in the power of the law to help make things right. “I’ve argued a bunch of cases before the United States Supreme Court, and each time I go, I stand there in front of the court, I read what it says about equal justice under law,” Stevenson says in the film. “I have to believe that to make sense out of what I do.”

Tony-nominated playwright Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people She’s nominated for her work on the hit Broadway musical ‘Ain’t Too Proud’

Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people, and she’s doing it by paying homage to her hometown of Detroit.

The 41-year-old playwright has been having a banner year. In October, she was one of 25 fellows to win grants from the MacArthur Foundation. Morisseau wrote the book for one of Broadway’s hottest shows this season, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. Now, it’s nominated for 12 Tonys, including best musical. There’s a possibility Morisseau could be taking home a statue for herself on Sunday night, as the show is nominated for best book (for spoken dialogue and storyline).

Oprah Winfrey (standing, center) poses with the cast and creative team backstage at the hit musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations on May 17 at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.

Photo by Bruce Glikas/WireImage

The jukebox musical tells the story of one of Motown’s most beloved groups as it soars to worldwide fame while balancing the needs and egos of a rotating array of singers. Founding member Otis Williams, played by Derrick Baskin, narrates the timeline from his beginnings as a teenage singer straight up to the modern day. At 77, the real Williams is still very much alive, and Ain’t Too Proud is based on his memoir. The musical briefly touches on issues that affected the group’s many singers, including being an absentee father, drug abuse and the pressure to avoid commenting on the Vietnam War, segregation or anything else that might pierce the melodic escapism they came to represent. But those issues are never allowed to overtake the tone of the show.

A big Broadway musical is a departure for Morisseau, and as her profile continues to grow, it’s something she’ll likely have to navigate more in the future.

“There are some things about writing a musical that are different than writing a play,” Morisseau told me. “The scarcity of language, how fast I have to convey an idea because we don’t have a lot of time between songs. The songs are really the story.”

Morisseau is married to musician James Keys, and music factors heavily in her plays. She figures they’ll likely write a musical together.

Before Ain’t Too Proud, Morisseau was a queen of off-Broadway, which is typically less commercial, racking up plaudits including a 2015 Steinberg Playwright Award and an Obie for her play Pipeline in 2018. Her work challenges audiences with complicated, interweaving social issues, especially when it comes to race. Pipeline, for instance, is about a black mother and public schoolteacher confronting her feelings of powerlessness in trying to prevent her son from getting sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Morisseau is a passionate advocate for her fellow black playwrights and actors, and for ways to improve the faults she sees in contemporary American theater, whether or not there’s a proscenium involved.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people.” — Dominique Morisseau

“I will say no to very shiny productions of my play if it does not feel like everything around it has the kind of artistic integrity that I want,” Morisseau said. “I’ve had to stand up to theaters several times around the curation of my work or my relationship with them. … I have a really great relationship with a lot of theaters in the city, but it comes from push and pull and us developing mutual respect, because I’m just not going to be the kind of artist that you can tell what to do.

“When it comes to making decisions about who’s going to be in my plays, who’s going to direct my plays, I take a strong stance. I collaborate with a theater. Sometimes they want to push a director on me. I have worked with directors that the theater has brought to the table, but those directors that they brought to the table have been African American women directors or African American directors. Then I’ll go, ‘Oh, OK, well let me meet that person.’ ”

She’s also vocal about calling for more black artistic directors, the people in charge of programming theater seasons who are responsible for maintaining an existing donor base of largely white patrons while courting new, younger and browner audiences. When Hana Sharif was named artistic director of St. Louis Repertory, Morisseau shared her huzzahs on Facebook.

“You don’t see artistic directors of color, period,” Morisseau explained. “And you don’t see women artistic directors very often. There’s a few white women artistic directors of a few regional theaters, significant regional theaters, but not enough. St. Louis Rep, that is a huge regional theater, so for Hana to run that regional theater, it’s a big seismic shift in our industry.”

Actress Simone Missick, who is best known for playing Misty Knight in Luke Cage, told me she considers Morisseau “one of the pre-eminent writers of our time in the theater world and in television.” Although Morisseau’s chief focus is theater, she was also a co-producer on the Showtime series Shameless, and she is currently developing projects for FX and HBO.

Missick starred in Paradise Blue, the middle play of Morisseau’s Detroit Project trilogy. Set in 1949, Paradise Blue follows a talented trumpeter named Blue, who is trying to decide what to do about the jazz club he owns in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. It’s not bringing in much money, and Blue wants to move on. At the same time, white speculators are buying up property in the neighborhood intending to gentrify it and pushing out the black residents. Oh — Blue also has a serious mental illness, and he’s troubled by the fact that his girlfriend, Pumpkin, wants to stay in Detroit even though he wants to leave. A mysterious woman from out of town, a literal black widow known as Silver, raises everyone’s hackles. Morisseau, who played Silver in the play’s original staging, describes the character as “Spicy. Gritty and raw in a way that men find irresistible. Has a meeeeeaaaannnn walk.”

“Dominique has a mastery which I wish more writers had,” Missick said. “When you read it, it reads the way that people talk.

“You could drop a microphone in Detroit or in Alabama, where some of these characters are from, or Louisiana, where my character was from. You could drop a microphone and those people would sound exactly the way that Dominique has written. And that is a beautiful thing because so often when I read work as an actor, you read things and you think, people don’t talk like that. … But she also gives her writing a musicality, and if the rhythm of it does not sync with her spirit, then she changes it.”

Within Morisseau’s story of gentrification and the upheaval it brings is another story about Pumpkin and the fights black women face battling racism and sexism. Morisseau chuckled when I referred to her in conversation as a feminist August Wilson. It turned out that I’d tripped over one of the things she hopes will change about theater, which is that the press compares every black playwright to Wilson, no matter how incongruous their styles may be.

“I laugh when people liken me to August Wilson in any way or shape or form,” she said. “They do that for so many of us young black playwrights. It’s like any of us that have poetry in our language and kind of capture this unapologetic rhythm of black dialect, we all are writing in the fashion of August.

“Some of us actually really are, and would own that. And I don’t think others are doing that at all or intending to do that. I think that they’re getting called that because that’s the easiest go-to reference for a lot of people.

“I can’t ever deny August’s influence on my work,” Morisseau said. “I started writing the Detroit [Project] because I was reading August Wilson’s work. I read his work back to back, and I read Pearl Cleage, who was from Detroit, I read her writing back to back. I was just so inspired by their canon of work. … I just thought, Wow, what his work is doing for the people of Pittsburgh, how they must feel so loved, so immortalized in his writing, I want to do that for Detroit.”

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters, gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect.” — actress Simone Missick

Like Wilson, Morisseau focuses on working-class black people, and her Detroit trilogy (Paradise Blue, Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew) shares some broad ideas with Wilson’s famous Pittsburgh Cycle.

Furthermore, Morisseau writes fully realized black characters who exist in a racist society without being polemical. The contours of white supremacy are very much part of the worlds she creates, but her plays are about people, not arguments. Detroit ’67 is set during the infamous riot that took place in 1967, and Skeleton Crew, set in 2008, examines the difficult decisions autoworkers face as their industry weathers storm after storm. All of them seek to portray a Detroit that’s more than a collection of pathologies, as evidenced in Morisseau’s dedication for Skeleton Crew, which is pointed and personal:

“This is for my Auntie Francine, my grandfather Pike, my cousins Michael Abney and Patti Poindexter, my Uncle Sandy, my friend David Livingston, my relative Willie Felder, and all of the UAW members and autoworkers whose passion for their work inspires me. And this is for the working-class warriors who keep this country driving forward.

“This is also for the politicians, financial analysts, and everyday citizens who echoed the negating sentiments, ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’ Yep, this is for you, too, dammit.”

In some ways, Morisseau plays a role in theater similar to the one Ava DuVernay occupies in film. Both women are vocal about inequities in their fields and the way they affect whose stories get told and the budgets allotted to tell them. Just as DuVernay has been committed to creating a pipeline of female directors with her OWN drama Queen Sugar, Morisseau has pushed to work with black directors in theater.

Like DuVernay, Morisseau’s writing is ambitious, deeply researched work that focuses on characters surmounting challenges large and small stemming from racial inequality.

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect,” Missick said. “It’s not trivial. It’s not trite. There is no character that is used to push the story along. I very rarely see that onstage or on screen, that every single person has something that they’re fighting for. … It’s something that I think makes her writing something that actors for generations will want to perform.”

Morisseau wants to keep challenging audiences. And she wants artistic directors to internalize that approach. She told me that artistic directors too often underestimate how much white audiences are willing to be pushed. And their conception of potential audience members remains blinkered.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people,” Morisseau said.

‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ puts a new face on death from despair Movie from Brad Pitt’s Plan B is a tale of gentrification and loss

In 2015, a couple of economists coined a term to describe the decline in life expectancy among middle-aged white Americans due to elevated rates of suicide, drug use and alcoholism. They called these untimely deaths, which they tied to a lack of opportunity among whites lacking a college degree, “deaths of despair.”

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which opens in theaters Friday, is not about working-class white people. But it is very much about despair that’s not so different from that described by the economists.

The film, directed by Joe Talbot and written by Talbot and Rob Richert, tells the story of actor Jimmie Fails, who plays a version of himself in the film. Jimmie has been crashing on the bedroom floor of his best friend, Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), for some time as he tries to stake a claim on a multilevel Victorian house in San Francisco that his grandfather once owned. His father, Jimmie Fails Sr. (Rob Morgan), eventually lost it, and Jimmie Jr.’s childhood became pockmarked by lack and uncertainty.

Jimmie Fails as Jimmie in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Courtesy of A24

The house, now worth several millions of dollars, is occupied by an older white woman who doesn’t treat it with the regard Jimmie believes it deserves. So he makes surreptitious improvements — trimming hedges, touching up paint — to honor both the house and his grandfather, who supposedly built it at the turn of the 20th century.

Produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B with A24 and Talbot’s company Longshot Features, The Last Black Man in San Francisco joins Jimmie and Monty at a crucial point: The woman who lives in the Fails house is forced to move out because of family circumstances, and before it can go on the market, Jimmie occupies the property he believes is rightfully his, even though he has no money and no deed. Instead, Jimmie has righteousness and lore on his side — until he doesn’t. Capitalism holds no romance or respect for moral abstractions; only financial assets are revered, and Jimmie has next to none.

The Last Black Man appears to be a story about robbery via gentrification in one of the American capitals of income inequality, and it is. But it’s more than that. Stories about gentrification are also stories about the loss of identity, about the loss of the place a set of people once called home.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco has a scab to pick off a bigger wound.

Monty and the needy curmudgeon Grandpa Allen (played by Danny Glover in one of the best performances of his career) live across the street from Bayview-Hunters Point, an area that is a case study in environmental racism. The movie opens with a shot of a little black girl, no more than 6 or 7, in a dress skipping along the same stretch of street being traversed by a man in a hazmat suit. Jimmie and Monty are well aware of how race has affected their tenuous positions in society. Such inequality wallpapers their lives. Set off with a Greek chorus of neighborhood ne’er-do-wells who congregate outside the Allen house, the script for The Last Black Man in San Francisco dances with wit, tragedy and originality. It’s punctuated by the kinetic photography of Adam Newport-Berra, whose shots of Jimmie and Monty sharing a skateboard through San Francisco’s steep grades and curving blacktops simultaneously invite snickers and awe.

Jimmie isn’t mourning the fact that drunken tech bros in a chaperoned party trolley pollute the city he loves with obscene chants directed at a nude hippie waiting for the bus. (It’s one of my favorite scenes because of the way it cheekily illustrates how definitions of normalcy are relative.) Jimmie’s despair comes from realizing that the option to participate in a key aspect of the American tradition may have never really existed for him. He’s lost out on the opportunity to homestead a new existence, to create his own myth and live it until what’s true and what’s family lore blends into a triumphant, interesting-at-cocktail-parties truthiness.

Before he moved in with Monty and Grandpa Allen, Jimmie was homeless, and before that, he was a ward of the state. Jimmie’s mother is a former drug addict with whom he barely communicates. James Sr., also in recovery, is a grifter who sells bootleg movies to pay his rent in a single room occupancy building. No wonder Jimmie wants to look back a generation in search of a better story, one that puts him in the lineage of a builder of a Victorian masterpiece and injects some greatness into his veins.

Rob Morgan (left) and Jimmie Fails (right) in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Courtesy of A24

It’s a beautiful, unexpected sort of greatness too, because it’s wrapped up in antique furniture and sunlight streaming through lace curtains. Greatness, for Jimmie, is preserved in a time warp.

In this light, we can see all the complementary aspects of Jimmie’s friendship with Monty, the one man in the world fluent in Jimmie’s particular language of weird. Monty’s a playwright who copes with real life by pretending that he’s actually directing it, a man who hoards old playbills and dresses like an East Coast humanities professor. Once you see past Monty’s surface-level strangeness — and he is, by every objective measure, awfully odd — you see a man who worships the promise and magic of created worlds and their ability to transport as they tell the truth.

When tragedy rocks their world, it’s no wonder that Monty’s grand gesture as he tries to save his closest friend involves staging a play about their lives. It honors Jimmie’s current life but also reminds him that there’s still hope of creating a new one.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an exquisite dirge for the loss of a city, of home, of community. But most of all, it mourns the loss of possibility, and for some that load is just too heavy to bear.

How the ‘Black Godfather’ changed baseball legend Hank Aaron’s life Aaron joins Hollywood to toast new Netflix documentary about music executive Clarence Avant

LOS ANGELES — Hank Aaron was closing in on Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs when the death threats started coming.

Thousands of letters, many of them racist, poured in weekly. Those folks didn’t want to see a black man break the record, which had stood since 1935. But there was also a call the superstar got before April 8, 1974, the day that Aaron hit his 715th home run off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing — a call from the Black Godfather.

That call changed everything.

Everything.

Former MLB slugger Hank Aaron (left) and his wife, Billye (standing), attend Netflix’s The Black Godfather premiere at Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles on June 3.

LISA O'CONNOR/AFP/Getty Images

The Black Godfather, known as such inside the tightknit music and entertainment fraternity, is music executive Clarence Avant, who quietly became one of the most influential dealmakers in the business over the past six decades.

Avant, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, had a varied career as a manager, the founder of two record labels and an occasional concert organizer and event producer. But his real influence came from advocating for black artists and advising them on how to get paid what they were worth.

Avant, now 88, would in many cases reach out to people he saw making moves and help them make better ones. When he saw what was happening with Aaron, he called then-U.S. Rep. Andrew Young (D-Ga.), whose political career he helped launch, and told him that he’d be calling Aaron to help formulate a plan for endorsements. The deals needed to be in motion before Aaron broke the record, Avant said.

And Avant got it done. How? He walked into the office of the president of Coca-Cola and, without any small talk or pretense, announced that “n—–s drink Coke too.”

The Black Godfather, known as such inside the tightknit music and entertainment fraternity, is music executive Clarence Avant, who quietly became one of the most influential dealmakers in the business during the last six decades.

Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix

“He is the godfather,” Aaron, 85, said in an interview with The Undefeated before the Monday night world premiere of The Black Godfather, a Netflix documentary that tells that story and more about how Avant connected people, closed deals and made sure that black creatives and athletes moving on from sports were getting their due. “He’s mine. I love him. He played [a role in] almost 90 percent of my career. He broke down doors to get [me] in to do certain things. I always say I am who I am because of Clarence Avant.”

The film will have a limited release in theaters and will begin streaming on Netflix on June 7. The story of Avant and the Coca-Cola deal is one of many shared in the documentary, which was directed by Reginald Hudlin. Monday’s premiere brought out an impressive amount of star power, nearly rivaling those featured in the film itself, which includes former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Also in the documentary are Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, music mogul Sean (Diddy) Combs, Bill Withers, Quincy Jones, Babyface, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and others. Much of the focus of the documentary — which is produced by Avant’s daughter, Nicole, an ambassador to the Bahamas in the Obama administration — is on Avant’s influence in the music industry. But he also made an impact in the political world, fundraising for Clinton and Young and advising them and Obama.

On Monday, Avant gathered with Pharrell, Foxx, Ava DuVernay, Snoop Dogg, Chadwick Boseman, Leonardo DiCaprio and others inside a small theater on Paramount Pictures’ lot to watch a film that felt like a love letter to a man who has been shaping pop culture behind the scenes for decades. (And, in many ways, still is. Several people said in the documentary that they’re distraught at the idea of who they’ll call once Avant is gone.)

Nicole Avant says she’s been thinking of telling her father’s story since she was 8 years old. She remembers the day well; she was at a Dodgers game with dugout seats, gifts from Aaron.

“I was like, ‘How did you do business with Hank Aaron? Why did you do business with Hank Aaron?’ And he told me the story … of how he got him endorsement deals and why it was a big deal at the time. I knew when I left that day, something clicked in my brain and said there’s something different here. These stories need to be told. This is over 40-something years ago,” she said in an interview before the premiere.

“What’s so amazing is that he did deals for Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, three of the greatest athletes ever in three different sports. … Here is this guy there at the crucial moment of them transforming their careers.” — director Reginald Hudlin on Clarence Avant

That understanding that her father’s work transcended what he was doing in music and in Hollywood, and that it was her dad who helped three of the most prominent athletes of all time, made her as an adult want to bring this project to light.

“What’s so amazing,” Hudlin said before the premiere, “is that he did deals for Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, three of the greatest athletes ever in three different sports. … Here is this guy there at the crucial moment of them transforming their careers.

“He took Jim Brown from being a professional athlete to being an actor. At the time when Hank Aaron is worried about whether someone is going to shoot him on the field if he breaks Babe Ruth’s record, here’s this guy who got him endorsement deals when no one would touch him. With Muhammad Ali, here he is nearing the end of his career, he steps in and makes sure that Muhammad makes a transition into being a personality beyond simply being an athlete. Really important for all three of these great athletes in that really challenging time in their careers. Can you transition? Can you go to that next place? In all three cases, Clarence was there for them.”

In ‘When They See Us,’ Ava DuVernay shows the horrors that swallowed the Central Park Five Netflix series establishes her as the pre-eminent truth-teller about our flawed justice system

Ava DuVernay has now established herself as the country’s pre-eminent director in using film and television to foreground the truth about black people, white supremacy and justice.

If it wasn’t obvious before, it is after watching When They See Us, DuVernay’s limited series about the Central Park Five, which begins streaming Friday on Netflix.

When They See Us represents the pinnacle of a directorial career examining injustice. A righteous confidence propels her telling of the story of Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson and Antron McCray, the five boys who were wrongfully convicted of the brutal 1989 rape of a woman known simply as the Central Park Jogger.

Trisha Meili, who is white, was sexually assaulted and left for dead while running in Central Park. A group of brown and black teenagers was implicated. The five were all between the ages of 14 and 16 when they were held for hours by the New York Police Department, without lawyers, and coerced into confessing to the assault. The demand for blood — for revenge, really — reached a fever pitch. Donald Trump — then a publicity-seeking real estate developer, not a president — paid for ads in four New York newspapers calling for the state to bring back the death penalty and apply it in the case.

Although the five were minors, the police released the names of the teens as suspects, and their reputations were trashed across print and local news before their guilt or innocence had been proven.

It wasn’t until 2002, when the real rapist confessed to the crime, that Wise, Santana, Salaam, Richardson and McCray were exonerated. At that point, four of them had served six years each in prison. Wise, who was prosecuted and sentenced as an adult at age 16, spent 13 years bouncing from Rikers jail to Attica prison before he was finally released.

In 2012, Ken and Sarah Burns told the story in their documentary The Central Park Five. It revealed that DNA testing done by the FBI in 1989 concluded that none of the five boys could have raped the victim, yet the New York Police Department and New York district attorney Linda Fairstein proceeded with their prosecution anyway. The Central Park Five told a straightforward story of a horrifying miscarriage of justice, with Wise, Santana, Salaam and McCray speaking about their experiences. But it didn’t have the power to match the onslaught of media coverage from 1989 that defamed a group of scared boys as out-of-control hoodlums and bloodthirsty monsters.

When They See Us does. It is David come to slay the Goliath of a destructive, wrongful, racist narrative once and for all.


Storm Reid (left) and Jharrel Jerome (right) in When They See Us.

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Reframing the systematic and racialized indignities inflicted by America’s prison system is a recurring theme in DuVernay’s narrative and documentary work, from Middle of Nowhere (2012) to Queen Sugar (2016) to 13th (2016) and now When They See Us. In each of these, DuVernay repeatedly turns her lens on those who are dismissed, disregarded and thrown away because they’ve been labeled as criminals. Furthermore, DuVernay always expands her view to consider how mass incarceration affects not only those serving time but also the people they love.

That’s where the impact of When They See Us truly lies. DuVernay takes full advantage of the limited series form, patiently unfurling humanizing details about the lives of the five boys before, during and after police hauled them in for questioning and prosecutors tried and convicted them.

The moral confidence of When They See Us is especially notable considering the flak DuVernay received during the awards campaign for Selma because of her refusal to paint President Lyndon B. Johnson as an anti-racist saint. Selma (2014) took a huge hit in its Oscar campaign when former Johnson aides expressed their discontent with the way he was depicted. A lesser director might have backed down in subsequent projects after weathering such consequences. DuVernay simply dug in.

Fairstein, who went on to become a successful crime fiction writer after leaving the prosecutor’s office, comes off especially poorly. Even though the timeline of the jogger’s run and the vast geography of the park made it impossible for the group to have raped her, Fairstein doubled down on their guilt anyway. The series is sure to reignite questions about the consequences (or really the lack thereof) that she faced for knowingly stealing years from the lives of five innocent boys.

DuVernay repeatedly turns her lens on those who are dismissed, disregarded and thrown away because they’ve been labeled as criminals.

Once again, DuVernay has teamed with Selma cinematographer Bradford Young. The effect is similar to that of If Beale Street Could Talk in the way it captures both the preciousness and banality of freedom and everyday life. DuVernay shows us young love before it’s interrupted, with Wise (Jharrel Jerome) joyously flirting with a girl he likes named Lisa (Storm Reid). Richardson (Asante Blackk) exclaims his pride about making first chair trumpet in the school band. It’s these moments that most get to take for granted that become so precious when they’re wrenched away. She named the series When They See Us as a cue to the audience to really see Richardson, Salaam, Wise, McCray and Santana as discrete individuals rather than as part of the Central Park Five, a moniker, which they had no part in choosing, that works to obscure and dehumanize.

Except for Wise, each of the five is played by two sets of actors, first as free children and then as wounded, previously incarcerated adults. When They See Us follows the group after they’re exonerated in 2002, as they try to reintegrate themselves into society and find new obstacles at every turn, from the difficulties of finding a new job or navigating romantic relationships to the hardship of being an innocent person who still has to register as a sex offender. By its end, the audience understands the true cost of the case, of the unseen toll of wrongful conviction that extends far beyond the prison yard and into the soul.

The decision to keep Jerome, best known for his role as Kevin in the second act of Moonlight, through the entire series is deliberate on DuVernay’s part. It’s meant to underscore that Wise, 16, was the only member of the group tried and sentenced as an adult. Jerome shows impressive range as he charts the loss of Wise’s innocence at the hands of unscrupulous guards and disgusted fellow prisoners who don’t know that he’s been wrongfully imprisoned. Though solitary confinement offers some respite from the physical violence of being in the general population at Rikers and later Attica, it brings madness too. Jerome’s take on a young man whose most resonant life lesson is “trust no one” is impressive and devastating. It stands apart, even as the ensemble cast of When They See Us delivers one gutting performance after another.

Caleel Harris (left) as young Antron McCray and Michael K. Williams (right) as Bobby McCray in When They See Us.

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Michael K. Williams, who plays Bobby McCray, the father of Antron, provides another. When the police are holding Antron for questioning, Bobby tries desperately to persuade his son to tell the police that he was involved in the rape — not because it’s true but because it’s what they want to hear, and the cost of not cooperating is just too high.

“Goddamn it! Why you not listening to me? Tron, these police will mess us up,” says Williams-as-McCray in a heart-rending scene that fully illustrates the racial power imbalance between the police and the black people they’re pursuing. “They’re not playing. They’re not. Look, when the police want what they want, they will do anything. Do you hear me? Anything. They’ll lie on us. They will lock us up. They will kill us. I ain’t gon’ let them kill my son. But you don’t know nothing about that yet. But you will do what they say. You will go along. Do you understand me? Do you understand me?”

What’s incredible is how DuVernay weighs and balances each boy’s story across four episodes. No one gets short shrift. Instead, she marries the drive of a historian with a keen sense of fairness, purpose and, frankly, love. When They See Us gives Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Kevin Richardson back their names. DuVernay knows that she can never replace what was lost, but she is fearless and direct when it comes to revealing what was taken, and why.

New Montgomery, Alabama, memorial recognizes black victims of lynchings It also highlights the trauma and toll that white supremacy has taken on America

Decades after black people were subjected to enslavement, lynchings and beatings by white mobs, a memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, is recognizing the victims and forcing America to acknowledge its ugly past.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opening today, is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to enslaved black people, victims of lynchings, and those who endured police brutality and injustice. The memorial is, in part, a display of the trauma that white supremacy has caused in America.

The memorial sits on 6 acres near the Alabama State Capitol. Within the bright greenery of trees and shrubs surrounding the site lie sculptures, art and various designs to drive the messages home. A memorial square in the inner yard contains 800 6-foot monuments; inscribed on the long corten steel columns are the names of those who suffered a grim fate, followed by a death date. Although many names line the columns, just as many are simply listed as “unknown.” The design was inspired by the Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

Between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,400 black men, women and children were lynched, shot and beaten to death, according to the website. While many families were left to grieve over unrecognizable bodies, some loved ones remained missing and unable to receive a proper burial. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) took an interest in these findings eight years ago and began extensive research on the history of lynchings in America. In their findings, the crew gained a better understanding of the true nature of the crimes that had taken place. Because of the terrorization and trauma being endured in the South, 6 million black people fled the area in search of refuge elsewhere.

Having gathered enough information, the crew created a report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, that documented lynchings in 12 states.

“I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America,” EJI founder Bryan Stevenson told The New York Times. “I want to liberate America. And I think it’s important for us to do this as an organization that has created an identity that is as disassociated from punishment as possible.”

The memorial’s grand opening week will host several events. After the opening ceremony, which will feature civil rights activist John Lewis, other national leaders and a performance by BeBe Winans, there will be “justice summits” and guest speakers including journalist Jelani Cobb, writer and activist Gloria Steinem, and film director and producer Ava DuVernay. Topic discussions include race and implicit bias in education, climate change and environmental justice, reforming criminal justice and activism.

A full schedule of opening week events can be found here.

Ava DuVernay to be honored by Gordon Parks Foundation The group also will fete Ronald O. Perelman, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Sherrilyn Ifill

Ava DuVernay will soon be toasted by the Gordon Parks Foundation in late May, the group announced on Tuesday. The group’s annual dinner happens May 22 and it honors individuals who make strides in performing and visual arts as well as humanitarianism.

The A Wrinkle In Time filmmaker will be joined by businessman and philanthropist Ronald O. Perelman, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill, photographer Sally Mann and documentary photographer Jamel Shabazz, all who also will be honored at New York staple Cipriani 42nd Street. The night will be co-chaired by Karl Lagerfeld, Kendrick Lamar, Valerie Jarrett, Alicia Keys, Kasseem Dean (megaproducer Swizz Beatz), Usher Raymond, Janelle Monáe, Common, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Kenneth and Kathryn Chenault, Judy and Leonard Lauder, and Alexander Soros.

Previous honorees include: U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, entertainer Janelle Monáe and photographer Annie Leibovitz.

DuVernay’s honor comes on the heels of good recent news: last week it was announced that DC Comics tapped her to direct the superhero film The New Gods for Warner Bros., which makes her the first woman of color to tackle a DC Comics film.

‘The Plug’ podcast: ‘The Madness Begins’ feat. Jenisha Watts (episode 14) All things March Madness, Odell Beckham Jr., LeBron Sr. playing with LeBron Jr., and more

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Thanks to Mother Nature making sure we felt the effects of winter one last time before spring, we had a delayed recording this week.

It’s no worries, though. The show was still lit. Jenisha Watts, an editor with espnW, joins Terrika, Kayla and me (and later Tes) to talk about Ryan Coogler’s letter to Ava DuVernay, Cam Newton and much more. From there, the crew chops it up on Odell Beckham Jr.’s recent video controversy, whether or not LeBron James Sr. will actually stay in the NBA long enough to play with LeBron Jr., the validity of Tiger Woods’ latest impressive showing and, of course, all things March Madness.

We’re back on our regular schedule next week — provided it doesn’t snow another 10 inches again next week, of course. Rain, sleet, ice, snow or heat wave, you can always subscribe to The Plug via the ESPN App. But you knew that already, didn’t you?