Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ led him to Jim Crow Florida His new novel, ‘The Nickel Boys,’ is based on a real reform school notorious for its brutality

Elwood and Turner, the adolescent protagonists of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, become fast friends at a brutal, segregated reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, but they are opposites. Elwood is bookish, optimistic and gullible. While working in a hotel kitchen before being sent to the Nickel Academy, Elwood gets duped into dishwashing “competitions,” ending up doing the work of his older, wised-up peers. At home, he listens again and again to a Martin Luther King Jr. oration — “containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be” — and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision he waits expectantly, and in vain, for a black man to enter the hotel’s whites-only dining room and sit down for a meal.

Turner is already at Nickel when Elwood arrives, so he knows how the world works. Turner, Whitehead writes, “was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls upon a creek — it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current.”

Colson Whitehead says he sees himself in the two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, in his book “The Nickel Boys.”

Penguin Random House

Whitehead, who is 49, says he sees himself in both boys. We were having lunch at a diner on New York’s Upper West Side, where the author spent his high school years. He recently moved back to the neighborhood after 18 years in Brooklyn. “It’s really boring and the food’s terrible, but we don’t go out much and my wife’s parents live here,” he said.

The idea for the novel came in 2014, after Whitehead came across news reports about the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which serves as the model for the Nickel Academy. Throughout its 111-year history, Dozier, which shut down in 2011, was known for brutality: beatings, rapes and, yes, murder. Dozier was segregated, but there was one building, “The White House,” where both black boys and white boys would be taken for beatings and worse.

When he first read these accounts, Whitehead was writing The Underground Railroad, which was published in 2016 to wide acclaim. It has since won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and it is being adapted into an Amazon series by Barry Jenkins. The novel follows an enslaved woman’s escape from antebellum Georgia. It’s a haunting, brutal, hallucinatory journey set against the backdrop of several fantastical conceits, including the central one: What if the Underground Railroad were, in fact, a real subterranean railroad?

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book,” Whitehead told me. “The Nickel Boys was a departure because I had just finished Underground.” He was planning to write a detective novel, but current events intervened.

“It was the spring of 2017 and Trump was trying to get his Muslim ban, and I was angry and discouraged by the rhetoric you’d see at his rallies,” Whitehead said. “I hadn’t written anything for a year and a half, and it was time to get back to work. I could do the detective novel or The Nickel Boys. I thought that with the optimistic figure of Elwood and the more cynical character of Turner I could draw on my own confusion about where we were going as a country.”

Unlike with The Underground Railroad, for which Whitehead drew upon stories from former slaves collected by the New Deal-funded Federal Writers’ Project and other historical accounts, there are living survivors of Dozier.

“It was a horrible place,” said Jerry Cooper, president of The Official White House Boys Association, an alumni group of sorts for the abused. Cooper, who is white, said, “We didn’t have interaction with the black boys, aside from maybe when we saw them bringing produce to the cafeteria. They were in one area of the campus, and the whites were another. And if the guards caught you interacting, you’d be sent to the White House — no matter your color.”

Cooper, who was at Dozer in 1961, told me African Americans may have had it worse overall because their work detail involved toiling in fields under the burning Florida sun. “But there wasn’t any difference in the beatings,” he said.

Cooper recalled a 2 a.m. trip to the White House, where he was placed facedown on a mattress and given 135 lashes with a 3-foot leather strap. “I passed out at around 70, but a boy waiting outside for his punishment kept count,” he said. “I still have the scars. That night I realized what it must have been like to have been a slave.”


But neither Cooper nor his ancestors were slaves. Many of Whitehead’s ancestors were.

His mother’s side of the family hailed from Virginia. Her father was named Colson, as was another enslaved forebear, “who bought himself out of slavery,” Whitehead said. His father’s side of the family was rooted in Georgia and Florida — “there’s an ancestor on that side from whom I got the name Turner” — while his paternal grandmother emigrated from Barbados through Ellis Island in the 1920s.

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book. ‘The Nickel Boys’ was a departure because I had just finished ‘Underground.’” — Colson Whitehead

“A lot of my family history is lost to slavery,” Whitehead said. “And some that’s out there, I didn’t know at the time of writing Underground.” After it was published, some of his cousins reached out to chide him. “They’d say, ‘Didn’t you know about this, and this and this, about our history?’ ”

Whitehead grew up in Manhattan to upper-middle-class parents and spent his summers at the family vacation home in an African American enclave of Sag Harbor, New York. “The first generation came from Harlem, Brownstone Brooklyn, inland Jersey islands of the black community,” writes Whitehead in his fourth book, Sag Harbor (2009), a semiautobiographical novel that captures a nerdy, carefree adolescence. “They were doctors, lawyers, city workers, teachers by the dozen. Undertakers. Respectable professions of need, after Jim Crow’s logic: White doctors won’t lay a hand on us, we have to heal ourselves; white people won’t throw dirt in our graves, we must bury ourselves.”

Whitehead’s mother’s family owned three funeral homes in New Jersey, and his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. His mother and father became the parents of two daughters, then Colson and a younger brother. On paper, it was a Cosby Show existence. But as Whitehead recently told Time: “My dad was a bit of a drinker, had a temper. His personality was sort of the weather in the house.” (There are two sad examples of such temper in Sag Harbor, including one in which the father repeatedly punches young Benji, the protagonist, in the face as an ill-conceived demonstration of standing up to racial taunting.)

Colson (right) grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s with his brother Clarke Whitehead (left) and their two sisters.

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

After attending private schools in New York City, Whitehead went to Harvard. Growing up, he had immersed himself in comic books and horror films. “I wanted to write horror, science fiction and comic books,” he said. “A lot of writers my age had similar influences,” he added, citing Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem. “Then, in late high school and college, I started to think, Maybe I don’t have to write about werewolves.”

He was approached by another young African American writer at Harvard, Kevin Young, who is now an accomplished poet, the poetry editor at The New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “I was working with a friend on reviving a black magazine from the 1970s, Diaspora, and she had met Cole and said he could be our new fiction editor,” Young said. “We hit it off instantly, and I published his first story.”

After college, Whitehead worked for five years at The Village Voice, eventually becoming the television critic. It was there he met writer-photographer Natasha Stovall, whom he married in 2000. (They later divorced.) He wrote a novel, but it was turned down by publishers and his agent dropped him.

“I was depressed,” Whitehead said. “But I wasn’t going to get a real job, and no one was going to write my books for me, so I understood I needed to get going. That’s really when I became a writer.”

His second effort, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and is set in a simulacrum of fedora-era New York, where there’s a war brewing within the city’s powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, the first black female inspector in the department, is tasked with investigating a mysterious elevator crash. The book was well-received, including comparisons to debut efforts by Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison.

In 2001, Whitehead published John Henry Days, a multilayered, encyclopedic narrative thematically tied to the legend of John Henry, the railroad laborer who is said to have bested a steam-powered drilling machine. The following year he won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Other novels (Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One), a historical exploration of his city (The Colossus of New York) and even a poker memoir (The Noble Hustle, spun off from a Grantland article), followed. But it was The Underground Railroad (with a boost from Oprah’s Book Club) that launched Whitehead into literary stardom.

“It’s been remarkable to see Cole’s journey both in terms of his writing and as a person,” said writer and publisher Richard Nash, whom Whitehead met at Harvard and to whom The Nickel Boys is dedicated. “I remember going to one of his readings for his first book, The Intuitionist, at a bookstore in Soho. His hands were shaking, he was so nervous. And now I fully expect in a few years you’ll see his name crop up on the betting lists for the Nobel Prize.

“Especially with the last two books, it’s clear that’s where he’s headed.”

Whitehead has his critics. In a stinging review of John Henry Days, The New Republic’s James Wood (now at The New Yorker) pointed out instances of sloppy writing, such as using “deviant” for “divergent” and “discreet” when the intended meaning was “discrete.” Wood went on to note that Whitehead “tends to excessively anthropomorphize his inanimate objects” to “squeeze as much metaphor from them as he can.” Whitehead returned the favor a few years later when he satirized Wood in a Harper’s Magazine essay.

But Whitehead’s style has evolved, and his writing has become more precise. In The Nickel Boys, the anthropomorphization is sparing and powerful, as when he describes the shackles employed on defenseless boys who were beaten to death: “Most of those who know the stories of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”


After our lunch, Whitehead said he was considering making chili for his family — his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, and 5-year-old son, Beckett. “It’s hot, but there’s something about chili, it’s so hearty and satisfying,” he said. Cooking is a passion, and he’s been perfecting his meat smoking skills at his new vacation home in East Hampton.

Colson Whitehead’s book, “The Underground Railroad,” launched him into literary stardom when it was published in 2016.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

When he was writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead said, he was struck by the parallels between the 1960s and today in terms of race relations. As a father myself, I was curious about how he broached the subject of race with his own children.

“It comes up more when we talk about police,” he said. “[My son is] really into cops and robbers. So when we’re walking around and he sees a police car with its sirens blaring, he’ll say, ‘They’re going to catch a robber.’ And I’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s an innocent man. Maybe it’s just a dark-skinned guy driving a nice car.’ ”

Whitehead couldn’t remember when his daughter first became aware of race — when she discovered that, to borrow a phrase from one Nobel Prize-winning writer, the world is what it is.

“That was a long time ago, and I can’t recall a particular moment,” Whitehead said. “But the thing is, everyone figures it out sometime.”

Phillip Youmans becomes first black director to win at Tribeca with his feature debut, ‘Burning Cane’ Teenage whiz kid is about to finish his freshman year at NYU

For months, 19-year-old Phillip Youmans had to hold fast to what he called “the best-kept secret” of his life. His first feature film, Burning Cane, which he wrote, shot, directed and edited himself, was accepted into the Tribeca Film Festival, making him the youngest director ever to have an entry there.

In March, when this year’s lineup was announced, the New York University freshman could finally exhale. Now, the stomach butterflies associated with great news have returned anew: Last week, Youmans won the Founders Award, the festival’s top prize for narrative film. He is the first black director to win the prize. Youmans also won the prize for best cinematography in a U.S. narrative feature film. And Wendell Pierce, who co-produced the film and stars as Reverend Tillman, took honors for best actor in a U.S. narrative feature film. Both Ava DuVernay and Black List creator Franklin Leonard tweeted their admiration.

“Everything has changed,” Youmans said when I reached him by phone Monday. “Now it feels like we actually have a trajectory. It feels like there are so many opportunities. … Production companies now wanna work with me. It’s crazy!”

Youmans made the film at age 17 with the goal of commenting on the strictures of religious fundamentalism and the ways men blame their internal faults on outside forces — in this case, the devil. It was a way to voice his discomfort with the beliefs held by members of his own family who harbor transphobic or homophobic attitudes.

“I grew up in the [Baptist] church,” Youmans said. “There’s so many things about the doctrine that I disagree with, and because of that I had to separate, but I’m not antagonizing or demonizing the church. … I still love my family despite our differences, but there are some things I just can’t come to terms with.”

Burning Cane director Phillip Youmans

Bijan Gouri/Denizen Pictures

Youmans grew up in New Orleans and first picked up a camera when he was 13. He attended the city’s high school for creative arts and became interested in filmmaking after acting in small roles in projects filming around New Orleans (Sex Ed, For A Dark Skin Girl and American Hero).

When he worked on American Hero, “I saw a bigger budget set in action and I saw the crews interacting with each other,” Youmans said. “There was so much going on behind the camera that became so clear to me. That was part of the catalyst for me to go behind the camera.”

He started to make short films and experiment.

Burning Cane drops its audience into the cane fields of rural Louisiana, following the life of Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers) as she tries, to no avail, to cure her dog Jojo of mange. There are two violent, no-account drunks in Helen’s life: her son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan), and her pastor, Reverend Tillman.

That the Southern gothic aesthetic of Burning Cane recalls Benh Zeitlin’s work in Beasts of the Southern Wild is no accident — Zeitlin was a co-producer on the film. After the release of Beasts, Youmans contacted the director via Instagram.

After making a short based on the same concept, Youmans started an Indiegogo campaign to expand Burning Cane to a feature-length film. He combined that money with savings and family contributions to fund the film. Pierce, who has had roles on The Wire, Suits and Treme, agreed to take the role as Reverend Tillman based on the script. Youmans was too embarrassed by his attempts at short films to share them with the veteran actor.

“Even though they’re all older than me, none of them imposed any sort of hierarchy or pecking order,” Youmans said of his actors. “None of them were talking down to me because I was younger. The camera is a great equalizer with people on a set — usually, if it’s a respectful set. … I think they respected the vigor that I had.”

Burning Cane is clearly literate in the style of Charles Burnett, and the spare way Youmans lights his characters brings to mind the work of cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma). Youmans also cited Barry Jenkins and Paul Thomas Anderson as inspirations. Youmans is the latest in a line of talented black NYU directors to make waves early in their career; Pariah and Mudbound director Dee Rees is another.

NYU students have to leave the dorms for the summer by May 13, Youmans said, so he’ll be moving to a Brooklyn apartment, where he’ll continue to work on projects already in motion, including a couple of new films with Stay Human and Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste, who also graduated from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. One is a short documentary that will accompany a release of the band’s recent concerts at the Village Vanguard. Youmans is also fine-tuning the script on his next narrative project, which will focus on the Black Panther Party in 1970s New Orleans.

John Singleton’s storytelling legacy will live on for generations to come As the first black filmmaker nominated for best director at the Oscars, Singleton helped pave the way in Hollywood

Perhaps John Singleton’s biggest contribution to popular culture isn’t the gripping, relatable portrait that is his 1991 instant classic Boyz n the Hood. It’s that he introduced so many talented players to the Hollywood cinema landscape — both on camera and behind the scenes.

Director John Singleton attends A Conversation With John Singleton: Celebrating 25 Years of Boyz n the Hood at The Gathering Spot on Aug. 23, 2016, in Atlanta.

Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

That film, in all its glory, was a first for so many significant voices in this industry. It was Ice Cube’s first film. Regina King’s first film. Morris Chestnut’s first film. It gave Angela Bassett and Cuba Gooding Jr. their first major film roles. And, as Singleton excitedly quipped before giving a pound to a nearby friend as he watched the 2019 Academy Awards telecast from the Dolby Theatre bar earlier this year, it was Peter Ramsey’s first. When Ramsey, who collected an Oscar for SpiderMan: Into the SpiderVerse, stood up onstage to accept his accolade, Singleton rushed to the TV monitor and quieted most of the people around him (celebrities included) and hooted and hollered at the appropriate moments. It was the second time that night that someone from Boyz got up on Hollywood’s biggest stage (King picked up the first award of the night for her work in If Beale Street Could Talk) and collected the town’s most beloved token.

He was a proud papa that night, as he should have been.

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This is where it all started. The Genesis – The Genius – The Genre Maker/Star Maker (Taraji P. Henson, Ice Cube, Tyrese Gibson, Lawrence Fishburne, Regina King,Nia Long, Angela Basset, Cuba Gooding, Jr. – in no particular order as these are all great actors/actresses). John Singleton gave me a chance. When I left the audition for "Boyz N' The Hood" as he shook my hand, he gave me a stronger grip than normal and looked me in the eye. I felt he was basically giving me a signal that I had the job without telling me. From there, there was no comprehension of the massive chain of events that were about to follow. People from all over the world literally tell me how they’re affected by Boyz ‘N The Hood. The magnitude and world-wide impact that his ground-breaking film would have for society cannot be measured. Helping to bring awareness of what it takes to come to maturity as a black male in the 'Hood, or die trying… Helping to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges faced. Dealing with challenges and adversity in life and in general. From that lesson, for anyone who watches Boyz N’ The Hood, we are able to learn a little more about ourselves and each other. Hopefully, we are able to grow, evolve and gain a deeper love and understanding of our humanity. John Singleton, thank you for your vision. Thank you for holding my hand a little stronger. Thank you for connecting with me and thank you for connecting me to history. Thank you for connecting and transcending generations, nationalities, nations, races, communities, societies. Thank you, John Singleton, for connecting us all. #RIP #JohnSingleton

A post shared by Morris Chestnut (@morrischestnutofficial) on Apr 29, 2019 at 12:36pm PDT

Since his own nomination at the 1992 Academy Awards, Singleton has been a constant presence at Hollywood’s big to-do. At 24 years old, his dynamic portrayal of South Central Los Angeles — and, if we’re being honest here, Any ‘Hood USA — was rightly acknowledged. He didn’t walk away with a win that night all those years ago, but he walked away with something much bigger: an important voice as a storyteller and a person who accurately portrayed familiar situations that were at times, yes, tragic — like young Ricky Baker, who was moments away from landing a football scholarship to better his family when he was senselessly gunned down.

Moments like those, and the talent, were epic.

Sadly, this year would be his last Academy Awards ceremony. On Monday, Singleton died at 51 after suffering a major stroke, a family rep told TMZ.

Yes, his legacy will live on — for generations to come. The gifts that he leaves behind are rich. Singleton, at 24, was the first black filmmaker nominated for the best director Oscar and the youngest. He paved a way. Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele and Spike Lee have since been nominated.

A win for best director by a black person has yet to happen.

Cuba Gooding Jr. (left) and filmmaker John Singleton (right) attend the 32nd annual Television Critics Association Awards on Aug. 6, 2016, in Beverly Hills, California. Gooding was one of the stars of Boyz n the Hood, which was directed by Singleton in 1991.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

But the loss didn’t deter Singleton one bit. He wrote and directed 1993’s Poetic Justice, the iconic pairing of Janet Jackson and rapper Tupac Shakur (which also gave King a co-starring role). The 1995 movie Higher Learning rounded out back-to-back films, this one putting Ice Cube (who was beginning to break out big post-Boyz) on a college campus with King, Tyra Banks, Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Laurence Fishburne and Michael Rapaport, among others, and highlighted clashes, date rape, racism and the student-athlete struggle.

Singleton’s train didn’t slow down.

He also directed films Rosewood (1997); Shaft (2000); Baby Boy (2001), which introduced us to Tyrese Gibson and Taraji P. Henson; 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003); and Four Brothers (2005).

And as much as Singleton has done, it felt like he was only just beginning.

This was not the way Singleton’s story was supposed to end. Most recently, the creator threw us back to 1983, where he homed in on how the crack epidemic has culturally impacted Los Angeles with his most excellent series for FX, Snowfall, which was renewed just last year for a third season.

Singleton had more to give. And he — like Gooding, King, Ramsey, Bassett and Henson, now all Oscar winners or Oscar-nominated actors to whom he helped give a leg up — deserved more time to put out a project that allowed him to get up on that big stage, thank the appropriate people and take a bow.

Singleton had more to give. And he — like Gooding, King, Ramsey, Bassett and Henson, now all Oscar winners or Oscar-nominated actors to whom he helped give a leg up — deserved more time to put out a project that allowed him to get up on that big stage, thank the appropriate people and take a bow.

At times like these, we often kick ourselves for not handing out flowers to people who deserved them. Certainly, the Hollywood voting body failed Singleton, considering his contributions beyond just the culture. His cinematic landscapes have been plentiful, layered and, in many cases, excellent. But perhaps he was OK with where his impact really mattered: in having a vote to cast for the past 27 years — long before April Reign’s viral #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which opened the door for other people of color to have a say in what Hollywood’s best work should be — and in having that sharp eye for good and, yes, black talent.

And truthfully, considering how excited he was as we high-fived one another in the little room off the lobby — the place where for the past 12 or so years I’d get up out of my seat and gather to watch the Oscars and would see him there every year as well; and as Ramsey’s name was called, I reminded him that a win for King (his former USC classmate) and Ramsey and all the others he helped to hone also was a win for him — I think he got it.

Oscar-winning director of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ was a prep running back who went to FSU — as a film student Barry Jenkins loves his Liberty City, Florida, high school

Don’t be fooled by director Barry Jenkins’s 5-foot-8-inch frame and nerdy, bespectacled appearance. Once upon a time, the Oscar winning-director of the new and already critically acclaimed If Beale Street Could Talk was a pretty good football player — he had skills. And he competed with and against some of the best in the state of Florida. Guys who made it to the NFL.

Before Jenkins collected his gold trophy in 2017 for his coming-of-age story Moonlight, he was putting in work at Miami’s famed Miami Northwestern Senior High School as a running back. The school and its surrounding neighborhood, Liberty City, produce more NFL talent than anywhere else: wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Amari Cooper, linebackers Marvin Jones and Khalil Jones, and so many more. There’s even a LeBron James co-produced (with Luther Campbell and Maverick Carter) docuseries, Starz’s Warriors of Liberty City, that debuted Sept. 16. It’s focused on the Miami neighborhood — and on football. Jenkins has fond memories of his hometown, and his high school, where he ran track besides playing football.

“When you go to FSU, you see what actual athletes look like, and it’s like, Yeah. OK. Cool.”

“I played with people who were really, really, really good,” said Jenkins. “I was decent, but I was not as talented as those cats. There were three running backs on my team at Northwestern, and two of them made it to the NFL — the other one is me.”

But don’t cry for Jenkins. He’s done quite well by his life choices. At the age of 39, he’s earned an impressive list of nominations and wins for 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy and, of course, 2016’s Oscar-winning Moonlight, which also picked up wins from the Independent Spirit Awards and Los Angeles Film Critics Association, a Writers Guild of America award and a New York Film Critics Circle award. And surely there are more wins on the way.

For Jenkins, football beyond high school was nonexistent. His grades were excellent and he earned an academic scholarship to football powerhouse Florida State University, where he saw former schoolmates suit up for games. Jenkins knew he made the right choice. “When you go to FSU, you see what actual athletes look like,” he said, deadpan, “and it’s like … Yeah. OK. Cool.” The Florida State Seminoles won one of their three national championships in 1999. Jenkins’s high school has won at least five Class 6A state championships.

“The most concrete examples of nurturing, of tutelage, especially as far as black men were concerned, was in my athletic endeavors.”

Track wasn’t the wave either. “I was a good hurdler, but the hurdles get higher in college and I’m like 5-8, so there’s no way. And it was just one of those things that was fated, because there just happened to be a film school at Florida State, and I kinda stumbled into it.”

That stumble proved fruitful, but Jenkins didn’t abandon sports altogether. It’s clear the writer and director has a love affair with athletics; sports somehow show up in nuanced and overt ways in his work. In Beale Street, which was adapted from James Baldwin’s novel and is already a front-runner for the coming awards season, there’s a line whispering of Muhammad Ali’s greatness. But it’s Jenkins’s background as an athlete that he works through when he’s creating his art.

“When you demystify the process of making films, when you’re actually on a film set, it is a very immersive physical endeavor,” said Jenkins. “And it is like the director or producers are like football coaches or GMs [general managers], in a certain way. Because I’m not the one who’s setting up the lights. I’m not the one giving the performance, doing the acting. I’m just calling the plays and, hopefully, helping people bring out the best in themselves.”

Instagram Photo

He said that when he got into film school, his only experience in a similar collaborative environment was in athletics. “It always just seemed like the two things were related in a certain way,” he said. “The most concrete examples of nurturing, of tutelage, especially as far as black men were concerned, was in my athletic endeavors, to be honest. Even though I didn’t pursue a life in athletics, I think so much of what I do now, whether it’s the operation of a company or the operation of my film sets, is dictated by the things I learned while an athlete.”

Much of that is evident in Beale Street. In it, he coaches new film actor KiKi Layne (this is her first film role) into what is already an award-worthy performance. So far, she’s earned a nomination for breakthrough actor at the Gotham Independent Film Awards, which were held Monday night in New York.

Beale Street is a story of white supremacy and blackness in 1970s Harlem — and, eerily enough, the same type of story that dominates today’s headlines. It’s narrated via the voice of Layne’s character. She’s facing an uphill battle against an unfriendly system.

“I wanted to make a film about high school football at some point that really challenged what high school football is like in a place like Miami.”

This is how Jenkins’s art works: as activism. In Moonlight, he delivered a black, gay, coming-of-age story unlike anything audiences had ever seen. In Beale Street, a relatable lack of social justice, presented through the experiences of a black woman.

“I’m just trying to tell these stories in the way they demand to be told,” said Jenkins. “It’s really important for me to use my … visual voice … to do things with the work that takes it and extends it to a whole place beyond. … So now, visually, artistically, what is it about this image? Is it about the way these actors’ skin looks? Skin tones? What is it about the way two black men can sit in silence and sit with this trauma that they were doing to each other? What is it about that? And the themes that Mr. Baldwin is working at, they take [the cinematic characters] to a new place.”

The film is visually stunning. Perhaps even overriding the trauma laid out in the story is simply how beautiful the characters look on film. Embedded in the horror of black skin being criminalized for being black is a magnificently shot story of young, black love. It’s reminiscent of the way Jenkins received acclaim for how gorgeous his shots were in Moonlight while bathing his characters in pain and hurt.

Looking past this film — and all that’s sure to come with it, considering the early hoopla and cheers for it — Jenkins may be bringing this same brilliant aesthetic to a sports story. At some point.

“The first script I ever wrote was a high school football movie,” he said. “I’d seen the feature film Friday Night Lights, the [2004] one by Peter Berg, and it bothered me how, after the big game at the end, the big, black school … how they didn’t show respect to the small, prairie-town school. As an athlete, I was like, ‘That don’t make no sense!’ ”

It left a bitter taste in his mouth.

“There were three running backs on my [high school] team, and two of them made it to the NFL. The other one is me.”

“I was like, ‘No, I wanna tell the story of Friday Night Lights from the perspective of that team.’ And that was what the script was,” Jenkins said. “I wanted to make a film about high school football at some point that really challenged what high school football is like in a place like Miami. When you see stories of athletics, they’re always small-town Texas. And it’s like, well, yeah, the city with the highest per capita players in the NFL is Miami, Florida.”

And specifically Liberty City?

Jenkins laughs before speaking again, clearly beaming with pride as he said: “Specifically Liberty City! Exactly!”

Director X says his new ‘Superfly’ is more fast and furious than ‘The Wire’ ‘We need some antiheroes. We need diversity of characters. We deserve a mindless action movie too.’

There’s a moment in the 2018 SuperFly remake where Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson) has a go with Scatter (Michael K. Williams). It’s only the two of them: mano a mano on gym mats. Aggression is thick. They’re trying to best the other in a round of jiujitsu — teacher versus star pupil. It’s but a small scene in Director X’s feature film directorial debut, but it is the moment that sets Youngblood Priest on his adventure. It’s the scene where you learn the pretty brown boy with the relaxed hair, styled into a bouffant-looking silhouette, can throw down if need be. He’s a ‘hood superhero who can and will take on four guys all by his lonesome, and win.

But that scene also is a glimpse into how X brought new life to one of the pre-eminent blaxploitation movies of the early 1970s, which was directed by the legendary Gordon Parks Jr. In the original film, Super Fly, the protagonist (played by Ron O’Neal) does enter a gym, so this scene is in homage. But for X, it’s also personal.

“I definitely wouldn’t want to disrespect anyone by saying, ‘I fought like this guy …,’ ” he says with a quick laugh and a shrug — but when he lived in Brooklyn, New York, he had a fight club in his place where people would come over, pad up and spar. X is a fighter. And when he fought, his mind was clear and he imagined bright, crisp visuals — the kind you see in some of his more famous music videos for artists such as Drake. It was beautiful. And welcome.

“Which I think is why fighting is such a … it’s strategic,” he said. We’re in an edit bay on the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City, California. “It’s physical. … You tap into the unspoken.” He pivots slightly to talk about a game he made up one time called 330: He and his friends would draw three 30-second sketches of each other. You pose for 30 seconds, then the other person draws you. They pose for 30 seconds, you draw. You realize that in the short amount of time you’re trying to make a good image, it’s next to impossible.

“I didn’t want to make a super real movie. I’m not trying to inspire young kids to make their neighborhoods worse.”

“It’s removing yourself from this end result and living in this moment. … It just seems to work for all things,” he said. “It’s the same thing when we’re sparring. There’s a Zen place of being aware and being in the moment and doing what you’re doing but not putting yourself ahead of the moment. … By being in the result you’re not in the moment, and if you’re not in the moment, you can’t do the work. You know?” And this was exactly how he created SuperFly 2018.

“I wasn’t making SuperFly like, ‘This has gotta be great! It’s gotta be a hit! It’s gotta be this!’ I never had a big hit when I walked into it thinking, ‘I’m going to make a big hit.’ But I’ve had big hits walking into it thinking about what I’m doing, and being completely focused on the job and vision of the thing.”


Julien Christian Lutz was born almost 43 years ago near Toronto. After an internship with Canadian music video channel Much Music, he moved to New York City. There, he worked under the tutelage of Hype Williams, an influential music video director who, along with music director Alan Ferguson, gave him a pep talk when X thought about giving up and going in a different direction. The two men got him into gear.

Then: “I went and bought all the books I could on filmmaking. Makeup, hair, lights, camera … and then the next time I did a very tiny little job, it was, ‘Scrim that light! Flag that unit!’ Whoa. I said that? And I was right? Oh,” he said. “It was my education, and needing a proper education because you’ve gotta learn the technical side. … That was the turning point. That was really the moment that set me on the path of knowing what I’m doing.”

And it’s a good thing too. The Canadian is of Swiss and Trinidadian descent, and he’s done much to create and shape African-American hip-hop culture for the better part of 20 years. Since 1998, he’s created and collaborated with artists such as Rihanna (“Work”), Usher (“Yeah!”), Kanye West (“The New Workout Plan”), Jay-Z (“Excuse Me Miss”), Kendrick Lamar (“King Kunta”), Nicki Minaj (“Your Love”) and, of course, countless Drake music videos, including “Hotline Bling” and the more recent “God’s Plan.”

“That’s not what [Harlem] is anymore. The music and the culture of black folks emanates now from Atlanta.”

Since 1998, X has collaborated with several hip-hop and R&B artists, including Rihanna (“Work”), Usher (“Yeah!”), Kanye West (“The New Workout Plan”), Jay-Z (“Excuse Me Miss”), Kendrick Lamar (“King Kunta”), Nicki Minaj (“Your Love”), and Drake, most notably for “Hotline Bling.”

GL Askew II for The Undefeated

His music videos are cinematic in approach — he’s helped elevate the genre, his work a throwback to a time when people set their schedules around when a hotly anticipated music video was premiering on MTV or on Sunday nights on In Living Color.

“I come from this stigmatized part of filmmaking where they’re, ‘Oh, music videos. Ugh. Really?’ But I’ve always embraced it,” he said. “That’s where the innovation comes from. This is the stuff that pushes all the boundaries. This is the place where a director has true freedom. I take that with me and put it in this. I’m unconcerned with people’s thoughts. There is no form of filmmaking that’s this free as what you [do] in music videos. It’s allowed me to hone my own style.”

He’s successfully transferred his style and work ethic to the new SuperFly. He also understands what’s at stake, especially after the success of Marvel’s Black Panther, which not only earned more than a billion dollars at the box office but also gave black folks a far different narrative to which to aspire on the big screen.

We were beautiful. We were royalty. We were technologically advanced. And we were superheroes. We are something, quite frankly, that we’ve never seen on film before. A film like SuperFly could feel contrary to this moment, considering that it centers on the drug game and the perils that that particular world brings upon the black community. And X knows this. He’s expecting such a conversation to happen around SuperFly.

He has an answer: This, like those glorious African superheroes from the fictional land of Wakanda, is fantasy too. And it’s entertainment. And he’s not trying to create an instruction book on how to further set back struggling neighborhoods; what he is doing is adding to the canon of black film, expanding the spectrum. He’s giving moviegoers options.

“He goes to his mentor. He gets caught up with some cops. Freddie’s dead. You know what I’m saying? Now we’re hitting.”

“We need some antiheroes. I love ‘The Sopranos.’ It’s insane how much we love Tony Soprano with all the evil sh– he did over six or seven seasons. We need that diversity of characters as well. “

GL Askew II for The Undefeated

“I didn’t want to make a super real movie. I’m not trying to inspire young kids to make their neighborhoods worse,” X said. “This isn’t the movie to watch if you want some inner workings of the drug game. … I remember The Wire, the greatest TV show that ever happened, it also f—ed the ’hood up.” X says he’s toned things down on some sides and made the story bigger. “In the original Super Fly they snort coke to say hello. … They don’t even smoke cigarettes in [the updated film]. They smoke blunts, but I wasn’t trying to make [cocaine use] cool for a new generation. If we were making Sicario, yeah, then maybe I’d deal with functioning addicts. We’re not making that. This is a more Fast and Furious.”

This new film is set in Atlanta as opposed to Harlem. “There’s a Whole Foods on 125th,” he said. “You can’t do Super Fly with a Whole Foods around the corner. I’m sorry.” The director says that in 1972, if you were hot in Harlem, you were hot around the world, as it was the epicenter of black culture. “And that’s not what [Harlem] is anymore. The music and the culture of black folks emanates now from Atlanta. You got a hot record in Atlanta, you got a hot record around the world. You got a hot record in New York, you got a hot record in New York. So it made sense for this [film] to grow.”

Atlanta does makes sense. The cultural explosion can be partially attributed to the idea that a couple of decades ago, it seemed as if every famous black celebrity in music or in the world of professional sports had a home in Atlanta. “Black folks still run it, you know? When we were out there … when I sat with T.I., he was in the other room with Mayor Keisha Bottoms,” he said.

“I remember The Wire, the greatest TV show that ever happened, it also f—ed the ’hood up.”

And his SuperFly is classical by nature. “I treated this like ‘hood Shakespeare. If you’re going to do Romeo and Juliet, there’s a few things that have to happen. Two groups of people don’t get along, two of the people from each group fall in love, a curse on both your houses, and then they die tragically. … You’ve seen all the different iterations of Romeo and Juliet, but they stick to those points. That is how I treated this. The city does not matter. There’s a bunch of s— that does not matter. What matters is Priest gets into an altercation with some kind of drug-related people that inspires him to want to leave the game. He goes to his mentor. He gets caught up with some cops. Freddie’s dead. You know what I’m saying? Now we’re hitting. This is the SuperFly story. That was the mindset.”

One thing that audiences likely will appreciate about this film is that it’s helping to give black films diversity. There’s representation on camera — and not for nothing, it’s introducing a new potential star in Jackson, who is best known from Freeform’s successful, inaugural season of Grown-ish, the A Different Worldlike spinoff of ABC’s black-ish.

“We need some antiheroes,” said Director X. “I love The Sopranos. It’s insane how much we love Tony Soprano with all the evil s— he did over six or seven seasons. We need that diversity of characters as well. We deserve a mindless action movie too.”

Oscars 2018: Jordan Peele nets history-making Academy Award for best original screenplay for ‘Get Out’ He’s the first black person to win the award

Actor, writer and director Jordan Peele has a new title for himself: Academy Award-winning screenwriter.

Actually, it’s history-making, Academy Award-winning screenwriter. He’s the first black person to win the award for original screenplay.

“I stopped writing this film about 20 times because I thought it was impossible,” Peele said during his acceptance speech, figuring that no one would let him make a film where the black hero violently kills a bunch of white people. (They totally had it coming, by the way.)

Peele dedicated his Oscar to his mother, “who taught me to love in the face of hate,” he said.

At publishing time, the Oscars for best picture, best director or best actor, the other categories for which Get Out netted nominations, had not been announced yet. Peele still has the opportunity to make history again. He’s only the fifth black man in the 90-year history of the Oscars to be nominated for best director. The other four are John Singleton, Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen and Barry Jenkins.

Without Charles Burnett and the L.A. Rebellion, there is no ‘Moonlight’ Why the motion picture academy is honoring the director of a film about slaughtering sheep

There’s no Moonlight without Charles Burnett.

Burnett, 73, is the director best known for his feature debut, Killer of Sheep. But beyond that, he’s the auteur behind To Sleep With Anger, arguably the best performance of Danny Glover’s career. His 1994 film The Glass Shield, which starred Ice Cube, was an exploration of corruption and racism within the Los Angeles Police Department. With 23 directorial credits to his name, Burnett has had a massive impact on independent filmmaking.

On Saturday, he will be honored at the Governors Awards ceremony, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizes contributions to the film industry. Its honorees usually include individuals who might not have been acknowledged with Oscars awarded during the academy’s ritzy annual televised fete, and they often include artists who have used their platforms to advocate for social change. Harry Belafonte, for example, received the board’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014.

Nearly 40 years ago, Burnett was an upstart director at the forefront of a movement of students of color enrolled in UCLA’s film school. His thesis film, Killer of Sheep, made on a tiny budget, was beautifully poetic. It was about black people who didn’t have much money, and it starred first-time, untrained actors.

The film follows its main character, Stan (Henry G. Sanders), who works in a slaughterhouse killing — you guessed it — sheep. He hates it, but he needs the income to support his family.

Killer of Sheep is a meditation on blackness, broke-ness and social mobility. It’s a look at how doing something you hate for eight hours a day deadens your soul. And when that job involves taking life from another being, it becomes difficult to separate yourself from that killing and it can make you feel personally targeted by Murphy’s law. There’s a point in Killer of Sheep where Stan is planning to sell an engine to make a little extra cash. Alas, when he and his friend hoist it onto the back of a truck, it falls off almost as soon as they start driving. The engine block gets cracked, rendering it useless, and so they just leave it in the middle of the street, because really, what’s the point?

While he was able to work more than many of his UCLA classmates, Burnett didn’t engage in filmmaking as a way to get rich. Throughout his career, Burnett sought to highlight the humanity of black people and to stay true to his politics. When he wasn’t making his own films, he often served as a cinematographer on others.

The fact that the academy’s board of governors is bestowing an award upon Burnett the same year Moonlight won best picture makes for a lovely tribute and a fitting piece of symmetry. You see, the film that won best picture this year had the tiniest budget of any best picture. It was about black people who didn’t have much money. It starred first-time, untrained actors. It was the first film with an all-black cast to win best picture. It was lauded as a work of cinematic poetry. And Moonlight was helmed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, who, with both Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight, seems to have carried forth Burnett’s legacy in black independent film.

Killer of Sheep is a meditation on blackness, broke-ness and social mobility.

“There were many movies that should have been recognized before — at least up for an Academy Award or nominated,” Burnett said. “But I hope that what Moonlight does, the effect it would have or should have is that maybe Hollywood would look around and start releasing films that previously they thought would never make it, you know that … no white audience would be interested in. This sort of proves them all wrong, again and again. You know, so I hope it has a big change that they can start recognizing the potential of people who are really interested in seeing human stories, not just the typical car chases and violence continually being represented over and over and over again.”

The L.A. Rebellion

Burnett was part of a movement of filmmakers now known as the L.A. Rebellion. It comprised about 50 filmmakers, including Burnett, Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) and Haile Gerima (Sankofa, Ashes and Embers), who attended UCLA film school between 1970 and 1992. Besides black students, it included Chicano and Asian students as well, all working to create a movement that rejected the confines that Hollywood had created for anyone who wasn’t white. The movement began when filmmaker and professor Elyseo J. Taylor began a program in the film department called Film and Social Change. Moonlight’s best picture win, in some ways, was a culmination of mainstream recognition of the principles for which the L.A. Rebellion had long been advocating.

The perspective of the L.A. Rebellion was originally informed by living through the Watts uprising of 1965, chafing at police violence and racism, housing segregation and discrimination. It’s filled with curiosity about black people’s African origins and their connections to their ancestors, and a love and commitment to seeing the beauty in themselves. Often, the works were more experimental than traditional Hollywood fare, rejecting three- or five-act structures with easily identifiable protagonists and antagonists. The work of the L.A. Rebellion was like a black American New Wave, influenced by Third World Film and Italian Neo-Realism because Hollywood was so centered on whiteness and white conceptions of blackness. L.A Rebellion filmmakers didn’t see a place for black authenticity, so they created one.

It was distinct from ’70s blaxploitation and more in the vein of the 1961 adaptation of playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, although — and this is hugely significant — unlike A Raisin in the Sun director Daniel Petrie, these directors were actually black. They had far more control over the images they were presenting than Hansberry did when she agreed to work on the film version of Raisin, one of the notable depictions of a regular black family in Chicago.

Blaxploitation, which became so popular and so profitable in the 1970s, “didn’t show us who we really are,” Burnett said. “It was basically things that were entertaining at the expense of who we are as people and how it would affect generations to come. It didn’t show us who we are; it didn’t have any empathy.”

Burnett recounted a time, after one of his films had been shown at a festival, when an audience member told him he didn’t realize black people had washing machines.

Washing. Machines.

“I remember … seeing Japanese represent themselves on-screen and I was so surprised and taken, and I started looking at people differently and you see the effect of this constant barrage of distorted images, what it can do to you,” he continued. “So you can sort of understand how people looking at your films, the films of color, you know how it sort of opens their eyes and it makes you aware of people as human beings. I think that’s what art does, it makes you aware of these subtle things that we all share.”

Of all of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, Burnett had the most prolific career. Killer of Sheep, now nearly 40 years old, is a breathtaking work, even more so when considering Burnett made it while still a student.

“I was in New York, just starting my music video career, when Charles Burnett’s film — ‘The Sheep Movie,’ as we call it — sort of rattled everybody. … Like, wow, this is a real director,” said Paris Barclay, who in 2013 became the first black and first openly gay person to be elected president of the Directors Guild of America. “He’s one of the reasons why I thought, ‘Hey, a black man can do a feature film like this and rip my heart out? Why can’t I do this?’ It’s one of the things that led me out of music videos into doing feature film and then later television.”

Even though Saturday’s award is going to Burnett, it feels like a win for other directors from the L.A. Rebellion, such as Dash and Gerima. After they spent years outside the Hollywood system, the academy finally invited Dash and Gerima to join its ranks in 2016.

‘Hey, a black man can do a feature film like this and rip my heart out? Why can’t I do this?’

University of California, San Diego professor Zeinabu irene Davis, one of the last filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, is largely responsible for curating and preserving its history, which she compiled in the documentary Spirits of Rebellion: Black Independent Cinema From Los Angeles. (She expects Spirits of Rebellion to be released on home video in the next year or so.)

“The legacy of Charles in American cinema is something that should be celebrated in a big way,” Davis said. “You know, too many times in the cinema history books, when you read about black cinema, most of the times it’s just a caption on the side. A still image from Killer of Sheep, and then just a caption underneath it. If you get really lucky, then it might be a paragraph. But I think that there should be more recognition of the contributions that the L.A. Rebellion film movement gave to American cinema, and especially American independent cinema in general. It should be honored, and it should be celebrated with more than just a brief mention.

“I wish there was more places where people could actually get to see his work, or more venues that would honor his work.”

This is what influence looks like

Burnett’s thematic, aesthetic and emotional markers are all over Moonlight, if you know what you’re looking for.

To the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, it wasn’t just important to create works that captured black people as they were, it was also important to include their communities in the storytelling, training them to be crew members or casting them in their films. That was also partly out of financial necessity — it took a village to make a film.

That’s a tradition Jenkins continued with Moonlight, and in interviews he’s talked about the fact that residents of Miami’s Liberty City housing projects appreciated having the Moonlight film crew’s lights around at night. Their presence helped make the neighborhood safer because drug dealers would shoot out the streetlights.

Killer of Sheep does not follow a conventional plot structure because it’s about existing with its main character, going about a day the way Stan does, and understanding why Stan feels the way he does. It’s meant to be contemplative. Moonlight functions similarly with its main character, Chiron. The difference is that it’s divided into three acts, and Chiron is played by three different actors at distinct points in his life.

There’s something striking about Killer of Sheep’s depiction of the dangers of ordinary life, from a scene of children playing on train tracks that has you holding your breath until they’re all safe to Stan’s work in a slaughterhouse. It’s shot in black and white, and the emphasis of the film is on understanding how Stan’s work and financial struggles color his interactions with his family and the way he lives his life. The film boasts an extraordinary soundtrack, which features music such as Paul Robeson singing “The House I Live In.” A tender scene between Stan and his wife (played by Kaycee Moore) is punctuated with Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” It’s completely wordless yet utterly effective, not unlike the beach scene between Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).

The bathtub scene in Moonlight, which shows Little (Alex Hibbert) heating water on the stove of his apartment, then carrying it to the tub, feels directly tied to Burnett and his insistence on capturing the unglamorous, everyday life of poor black people and finding the beauty and profundity in it. So do the scenes in which Jenkins captures black children playing, similarly elevated by Nicholas Britell’s score.

“[Burnett’s] someone that’s been long overlooked but is a seminal figure for many of us, along with Spike [Lee] in the late ’80s,” Barclay said. “We were just thinking, who are our voices out there? Who are we emulating? He was one of those people.”

So why is Burnett still a cult figure while Lee is probably the best-known black independent filmmaker of our time?

1) Lee is enormously prolific. He’s like a shark that never stops moving. He’s constantly creating, producing and influencing, and as a result he’s made about three times as many films as Burnett — some of which, admittedly, have been clunkers.

2) Lee is unapologetically outspoken. His Driving Miss Daisy rant is the filmmaker version of Allen Iverson and “practice.”

3) He helped establish his identity by putting himself in his movies. He has, essentially, branded himself. We don’t just know Lee as a director, but as Mars Blackmon, as a man who goes hard for Brooklyn, shows up at AfroPunk and never stops supporting the Knicks. He’s a New York institution.

Burnett, on the other hand, like so many black American jazz artists and social critics, found that he was far more celebrated overseas than he was at home.

“I think that was a saving grace in many ways, going over there and being written about in all the major magazines and newspapers,” Burnett said. “If you know your history, you sort of understand that — not that you accept it — but it makes you aware that things repeat themselves. And also gives you a sense of connectedness in the sense that you can look back at people like [James] Baldwin, Chester Himes and all those folks … like W.E.B. Du Bois. How we’re doing the same thing, and you feel a much closer connection with those folks you know because you experience what they experience. Like Josephine Baker. It’s both a plus and a minus.”

Because we’re still starved for equitable representations of blackness in pop culture despite the explosion of it in the past few years, it can be easy to overlook the parents of such images, especially if you didn’t learn about them in film school. That’s not just because we have short collective memories but because their work is often hard to find. To Sleep With Anger, which won multiple Independent Spirit Awards, can be streamed on Amazon video, but Killer of Sheep is only available on DVD, as is the director’s cut of My Brother’s Wedding. Similarly, when Gerima made Sankofa, the 1993 film that shares its name with his Washington, D.C., bookstore, he couldn’t acquire distribution, so he toured the film himself. It’s still not available on DVD or through a streaming service.

I asked Burnett what needs to happen for the traditions of the L.A. Rebellion to continue, to be remembered, to travel farther than the confines of the art house.

“There needs to be more of an education of the audience that you have to realize that if you see a film that you can respond to, you have to go out and support it immediately,” Burnett said. “You can’t wait for it to come on DVD. You have to show the studios and the producers the fact that these films are appreciated and they can make money, because if you wait till they come on television or on DVD or whatever it is, it loses its importance and effectiveness and influence, and towards influencing studios and people with money to finance these films.”