Lena Waithe: ‘Your art is stunted when you’re trying to pretend to be something you aren’t’ The actor/producer and Emmy-winning writer is in love, in ‘Ready Player One’ and in the business of kicking down doors

Before my conversation with Lena Waithe begins, I issue a warning. She is, after all, the creator of Showtime’s excellent The Chi, a fictional series about Chicago’s South Side.

“Nothing better ever happen to Papa! I mean it, Lena!”

Waithe laughs mightily at my plea to keep the innocent and charismatic Papa free of harm. Charmingly portrayed by Shamon Brown Jr., he’s one of the three preteen black boys through which we see the neighborhood.

“Look, man,” the Emmy winner says with a giggle, “no one stays safe in The Chi. Even the children.”

What Waithe has done is create characters so tangible they feel like family. She gives an episodic answer to the “What about Chicago?” crowd. In The Chi, Waithe gives us family that you want to protect, support, and keep safe and sound. Her series takes much of what we loved about HBO’s groundbreaking The Wire and shifts focus to spotlight the very real people behind the very real headlines that we see — or don’t see enough. The Chi just ended its inaugural season’s run, but it’ll be back for a second season soon. But Waithe? She’s just beginning. Like for real, for real.

Lena Waithe turns 34 soon. She’s been working steadily in Hollywood since graduating from Chicago’s Columbia College in 2006, and she’s worked for some of the most prominent black female directors in the business — Ava DuVernay and Gina Prince-Bythewood have both been bosses — and in 2011, the S— Black Girls Say video series went viral. The much-debated sensation was written by Waithe.

And by 2018? On the eve of the Oscars, Waithe was feted by Essence at its Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, where she was honored by Angela Bassett, Justin Simien and Steven Spielberg. “Here’s the thing,” she said. “I tend to be really rounded … and I think that’s because I’ve paid a lot of dues. I genuinely love this business, this industry. I love what I do. And also, my lady, my fiancée, keeps me really grounded.”

So much of Waithe’s story stems from her own personal life — on her willingness to live out loud and stand in her own truth as a black lesbian. Last year, she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series for her work on Master of None; the “Thanksgiving” episode of that series mirrored her own experience coming out to her mom.

And despite her rocketing fame — she was featured, solo, on the cover of Vanity Fair last week — she’s unbothered. “It’s commerce, it’s exchange,” she said. “It’s like you’re hot right now, someone else will be hot next year. What happens to some people — we’ve seen it, when they get all caught up — they start to think, ‘Oh, ain’t I grand?’ There are a lot of us who are talented and gifted and great … and I see this with Donald [Glover] too, where at the end of the day we’re like, ‘Look, man. We’re pretty good at what we do, but there’s always folks coming up after us.’ There’s always [people] nipping after you. People should never get comfortable … you just have to always be a student, you have to always be humble, and you’ve got to always know that the business loves a new, shiny toy.”

But Waithe is not just talent. She’s a creator, someone who is passionate about representation and progression. And she has heavy hitters in her corner, like Spielberg, the legendary director who hired her for her most recent role, as Aech/Helen in Ready Player One.

“I’m probably going to stumble, I’ll fall, I’ll mess up, and I think that’s when you get a real sense of where you stand.”

“I don’t know if he’s ever stood back to think about, ‘Oh, how are people receiving me?’ Or, ‘Where’s my legacy?’ He’s like, I just want to make things that I’m passionate about, and I think that’s my mission,” she said of Spielberg. And of herself she says, “I figure that as long as I do that, I’ll be on the right track. I’m probably going to stumble, I’ll fall, I’ll mess up, and I think that’s when you get a real sense of where you stand. But my hope is that folks will just rock with me and go on this journey with me.”

Much of her journey is about inclusion. In this season of The Chi, the series introduces us to one of the families on the South Side that is made up of two mothers, a teen daughter and a preteen son. It was subtle, and it quietly helped normalize a nuclear family that’s headed up by two lesbians in love; it wasn’t that episode’s central focus. It just was. And that’s important to Waithe.

“It’s the thing that’s on my heart,” she said. “Everybody has a cause, a thing that is … a thorn in their side, and that’s one for me.” Then she gets into the complex subject of being black and gay and out and verbal about it all — in Hollywood. “I’m so confused by it,” she said. “Maybe I shouldn’t be, because I can somewhat understand why some people want to keep their sexual orientation private — typically African-American people who are in the public eye. I guess to some extent, but I think that our children are literally killing themselves. Our queer children are thinking that they’re less than. Are thinking that they’ll never be loved. Are thinking that they’ll never have a normal, happy life. … No. Their lives are priceless.”

Waithe said something very similar and poignant to that room at the Essence luncheon earlier this month. It pierced the crowd and resounded loudly to a group of mostly black women, who were already emotionally laid out by the electrifying speech on beauty and acceptance that Black Panther’s Danai Gurira, who also was honored, had delivered earlier that day.

“The reason why people are closeted,” she continued, “is because they’re afraid, particularly in Hollywood. They’re afraid of losing a fan base. They’re afraid of losing people — lost endorsement deals and roles, things like that. [But] if they walk away from you once they figure out who you really are, like, why are we even dealing with that?”

“We keep hearing the story of the white girl and her mom. We keep seeing the story about this old white man on the mountain. There’s so many other narratives that we should be exploring.”

Waithe wants everyone to experience the authenticity she’s living right now. You can’t create a moment like the Thanksgiving coming-out episode inside of a black family unit, she says, without a willingness to be vulnerable.

“I think your art is stunted when you’re trying to pretend to be something you aren’t. You can’t be as happy,” she said. “If I was in the closet, I would not be a happy camper. I just wouldn’t be. I’m a real b—-. I’m a truth-teller. I can’t sit here and act like I don’t have a phenomenal woman at home, with an engagement ring on her finger that I bought as a token of my love.”

There’s of course a long history of gay people in Hollywood performing heterosexuality. Waithe takes a moment to remind. “[People] literally have partners and wives and husbands, and like — because of what? They want to protect the facade. It’s like you’re preventing your art from being as great as it can be, and that’s because you’re not being completely honest with the public. And I think it’s bulls—. If James Baldwin can be out and proud and effeminate … in Harlem and in Paris and walking around and all that kind of stuff, so can we.”

Waithe can’t say enough about this idea of unveiling and revealing. Because she doesn’t want to be out here alone. She doesn’t want to be the only revolutionary out here with a megaphone. It’s lonely.

“I see these cats all the time, out and about, they hug me and say, ‘I’m so proud of you. You’re out! You’re doing it!’ And I want to look at them and go, ‘Why aren’t you?’ Why do I have to be out here on the diving board by myself?’ ”

Lena Waithe as Helen in Warner Bros. Pictures’ Ready Player One.

Jaap Buitendijk

And now we have Lena Waithe the actor.

It’s not a space that she had designs on. But she’s being asked to come in and read for parts, as with Ready Player One, and being cast in shows like NBC’s emotionally gripping This Is Us. Casting directors are calling her people and asking for her as front-facing talent. She has, in fact, a seat at the table. All of the tables.

“That’s what I’ve always wanted to be, a television writer. When you have a presence in front of the camera, the business treats you differently. You get a little bit more of a red carpet rollout. If you send somebody an email, they respond right away. It’s just that weird caste that we have in this town.”

But she’s using her newfound power for good. And her mission is clear: help writers of color. She’s making sure a diverse group of writers has access to writing classes, and she’s all about making connections.

“People look at me and Donald and Issa [Rae] and Justin and Barry [Jenkins] and … I’m like, there’s so many phenomenal writers of color that are just dope. And not just black, but Native American, Latino and members of the queer community. People who live with disabilities. From the trans community. People who are nonbinary,” she said. “We keep hearing the story of the white girl and her mom. We keep seeing the story about this old white man on the mountain. There’s so many other narratives that we should be exploring that are interesting. We haven’t even scratched the surface.”

Waithe is already thinking ahead to the next season of The Chi. Common executive produces, and Ayanna Floyd Davis has signed on for season two as executive producer and showrunner. The show will go back into production later this year.

“We’re going to really step it up. It’s going to be blacker. The women are going to have a lot more to do. And I just have a lot more power this go-around,” Waithe said. “It’s only going to get better. For Atlanta season two, I feel like it’s a little more lived in, and Donald’s a little more confident in what he’s doing, and he’s taking a few more risks, which is really cool. And I want our season two to kind of feel like what season two of Atlanta feels like. Just a little more seasoned.”

And she has more on the way: a pilot order for TBS with Simien, with whom she last teamed up for Dear White People. “I get to be back in the saddle again,” Waithe said, “and to tell a story about a queer black girl and her two straight best friends. And them navigating life in Los Angeles, and what that looks like.”

Because telling stories, stories that don’t often get told, is what Waithe does best.

So long as Papa survives. Please?

Briana Owens’ Spiked Spin isn’t just the new wave in wellness — it’s the new standard The hip-hop-heavy spin class has become a haven for women and men of color

Want to make health and wellness guru Briana Owens laugh? It’s simple. Ask her how many times she’s heard the phrase, “I’ll be damned if I go to SoulCycle while Briana’s got Spiked.” The line is a flip of Jay-Z’s I’ll be damned if I drink Belvedere while Puff got Ciroc, from 2017’s “Family Feud.”

Spiked Spin is Owens’ creation — a hip-hop inspired soul-cleansing physical sermon moonlighting as a high-intensity spin class. Her target: wellness issues in the black community. Owens’ is about “generational health.” It’s what wakes her up at 6:30 every morning. But in the nearly two years since Spiked got off the ground in New York City, the paranoia of the days, weeks, hours and minutes leading into her inaugural event stay with her.

“Treat everything like your first project” is advice Biggie Smalls offered with regard to staying humble — and it’s advice Owens, born in Queens, New York, follows daily. Before Spiked, many knew her as an interactive and detail-oriented part-time spin instructor at a private gym in Columbus Circle in Manhattan. That Owens embarked on her own path in came as no shock to friends and family who knew of her ambitions as a rider.

The then-marketing specialist at CBS reached out to every one of her New York e-mail contacts, telling them of her first event. That took place at the lower Manhattan gym 10 Hanover Square. These days she can laugh about her early days, but it was so funny two years ago before her first solo class under the brand she created. “I was just so anxious, so freaked out. [But the class] was actually amazing. Once I did the first one, I kinda was like, ‘OK, I think I’m on to something.’ ”

That “something” continues to evolve in the $3.7 trillion global wellness industry, according to figures from the Global Wellness Institute. Fitness and mind-body, which Owens specializes in, accounts for $532 billion. Yet it’s an industry where black women are traditionally underrepresented, though awareness of the problem has inspired a new wave of women of color to punch their way in via avenues such as fitness, spin classes, yoga and more. Spiked Spin still takes place at 10 Hanover Square — her home base until the brand’s flagship, permanent headquarters open, “very soon.” In the past year and a half, Owens said, Spiked has opened its New York doors to at least 1,600 women and men — many who look just like her. The numbers don’t include the pop-ups Spiked has held in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Having already been featured in several outlets, the 2011 Hampton University alum is humbled by the continued growth of her class, her brand and, most importantly, her as a woman. She credits the omission she saw in the industry as inspiration, but she’s equally as complimentary to her longtime boyfriend Zach, whom she frequently features both on her personal and work Instagram pages. What’s next for Owens, Spiked Spin and the health and wellness industry? One thing’s for certain. Owens has something to say.

Instagram Photo


Music is obviously an integral aspect of working out in general. But why is particularly important with Spiked?

Full transparency — the whole idea for Spiked came from music. Before I even thought of this as a business … I was teaching classes and having to download music that would never be on my iTunes. I was having to talk to co-workers or look up Top 40 and look up all these songs that I would never listen to in my personal life. I loved my classes and I loved the students who came to my classes, but I realized this is the kind of music they like and if I want us to have a good workout … that’s where I got my first idea saying I’m going to teach a class with hip-hop. Instead of playing Taylor Swift, I just wanna hear Future. I don’t even wanna do the Beyoncé vs. Jay Z. I wanna hear ’93 Ice Cube. I wanna go in! You can come to Spiked Spin and hear Eazy-E or you could hear Drake or Luther Vandross. It is always gonna be hip-hop, R&B and soul, because that’s who I am. I think of it like when you go to the club. If the music isn’t poppin’, you don’t wanna go. Before we go somewhere in New York or Atlanta, we always ask, ‘What’s the music?’ That’s how I approach the class. The vibe has to be right.

But how do you find time for balance in your life with CBS, Spiked, your personal and social lives? Especially in a city like New York.

It’s definitely a challenge! As Spiked is growing, I’m learning how to be more creative and fluid with my time. As much as people think I’m doing so much socially, there are a lot of things I don’t get to do socially because I’m usually, if I’m not at work, I’m teaching class. If I’m not teaching class, then I’m usually doing something relevant with Spiked.

Don’t even talk about what your body looks like. What is your heart doing?

I wake up early. That’s something I’ve had to commit myself to because, trust me, I love to sleep! But I don’t have that luxury as much now. I usually try to get my day started around 6:30 a.m. so I still have time to work out for myself. Then I go to work. Then I go teach. And after teaching, I focus on anything that I have to do for Spiked. I’m extremely organized. I think that’s something that has helped me for a long time.

The issue of women of color in the health and wellness space has become a necessary topic of conversation. But since you’ve really been immersed in this field, what have you seen as the biggest example of progress?

When it comes to those … who are not as educated on the field, or live in lower-income areas, they have the least amount of awareness. That’s where, for me, there’s trouble. And there’s trouble [where] people who are aware of wellness and enjoy it … they deserve to have an experience that keeps them in mind. They shouldn’t have to go to a class that only plays a certain type of music or only have a certain type of instructor. And then there’s also that set of demographics who no one even thinks about. No one’s talking to. They [can be] unaware of just the basic things, like moving for your heart. Don’t even talk about what your body looks like. What is your heart doing? Do you know you’re at a higher risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney failure? All these things. Those are the conversations that are not even being had. Before we even get to body image, foundationally there’s a miseducation. Within our community, there are levels. And with those levels, look up health statistics. There’s a direct correlation with income and health.

There are definitely strides being made. There is some representation. Is there opportunity for more? Of course. One person can’t do it. How many more people can be inspired to be part of this conversation, and figure out how to reach the people? So we can have a larger effect on what I call #generationalhealth.

Courtesy of DJ Akisanya

What was the moment when you realized this passion of yours was becoming your new reality?

It’s something that’s been happening over time. Spiked Spin started as a ‘business’ because people paid for my service. I didn’t even realize the passion that I had for the conversation element of it. And for the importance of it beyond the class. It literally just started as a class. Like, here’s a cool workout that’s hip-hop. It’s fun. I am my No. 1 target audience. That’s where it started.

Since then I have met so many people, men and women, who have literally cried and said, ‘I needed this. Beyond the classes, I needed to feel like I’m important. I needed to feel like I can do more than whatever I thought I could do.’ That’s when I started to say this is bigger than the class. This is a conversation. This is empowerment. These are people who have not felt like they mattered in the space. My one-on-one conversations with people are where I really find the drive to keep going.

Pursuing your passion as a woman of color in this space … how important is it to have a partner [her boyfriend of seven years and college classmate Zach Thompson] by your side in this journey? It’s something that gets overlooked when we hear success stories.

It’s actually one of the best things. We’ve been together since I was 21 years old. I’ve been about 20 different people in these seven years. He’s seen the evolution to this point … little things that most people probably don’t pay attention to, but when I take a second to reflect, I realize how much of who I am is directly correlated with … things that he has seen in me before I even saw them in myself.

Him just being supportive like when I come home and say, ‘I wanna start this business.’ He doesn’t say is this a crazy phase. He’s like, ‘Aight, let’s do this.’ He’s always, always, always been supportive. It feels good because in this process there are people who support me wholeheartedly and there are people who don’t. It’s just nice to see he’s remained consistent all the way through my hardest days when I’m probably just yelling at him over something that has nothing to do with him. He gets me. It’s nice to have someone who isn’t a business partner. He has no skin in the game aside from wanting to see me win. But he’s still 100 percent in as if it were his baby, too.

Instagram Photo

How much of a blessing has it been to really see the support of your community? The classes are inclusive to everybody, but what does it make you feel when you see a room full of carefree black women really getting something out of your classes?

In real time, it’s (pauses) literally the best feeling. That’s because I realize I’m not the only one getting something out of it. Whatever they’re getting from it, they consistently get it and they feel good about it. The room is filled with electric energy. Just so much love and support. It’s not only just women. It’s women and men. We end every single class with what we call ‘The Spiked Way.’ It’s a few moments of reflection, of support, of love, self-acceptance. You can tell those are the things the room is filled with the entire time. It’s an overwhelming feeling of excellence. It feels so, so great.

In ‘A Wrinkle In Time,’ Oprah appears as the earthly deity she’s been for years Guru, self-help maven and fabulously kitted angel

It’s pretty amusing that a science fiction film based on a book published in 1962 is the one that delivered a role in which Oprah basically plays … herself.¹

How much was this a factor in drawing people to the cineplex? Unclear. A Wrinkle in Time took in $33.3 million at the box office this weekend. But the imagery itself, and the context behind it, is still worth examining.

The first time Oprah appears on screen in A Wrinkle in Time, it’s a breathtaking stunt. She materializes in the backyard of the Murry house as the shimmering, larger-than-life Mrs Which, rising to a height of 30 feet, with a crown of curly, platinum blond hair and fabulously bejeweled eyebrows. Her bottom half never quite fully materializes, giving her an ethereal quality. Mrs Which is the oldest and wisest of the Mrs W’s, which include Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), by a billion or so years.

But upon meeting her, it’s impossible not to think, “Someone finally found a way to visually render Oprah’s role in our culture!”

Throughout her career as an actress, Oprah has brought empathy and dignity to the black women whom society actively overlooks, from Ms. Sofia in The Color Purple to Deborah Lacks in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to Sethe in Beloved.

Mrs Which is a guardian seraph to Meg Murry (Storm Reid), the girl who must travel through space and time to find and rescue her lost father, a famous NASA physicist who’s been missing for four years. Mrs Which is patient and firm with Meg, who’s having trouble loving herself and having faith in her own abilities. Where Mrs Whatsit grows impatient with Meg’s typical teen-age sullenness and doubt, Mrs Which offers realism and gentle reassurance. She repeatedly urges Meg to “be a warrior.” IRL, Oprah may not have an army of warriors for peace, but she does have an Angel Network. The movie isn’t explicit in labeling the Mrs W’s as angels, although that happens in the book, which was heavily influenced by author Madeleine L’Engle’s many years in the Episcopal Church.

Oprah’s role as a quasi-religious figure in America is legendary. She was ahead of many Americans in publicly declaring herself as spiritual rather than an adherent of a specific religious dogma. In doing so, she broadened Americans’ tolerance for religious practice that doesn’t rely on organized religion, and she may even be something of a prophet herself.

“I know some people have called Billy Graham America’s pastor, but in many ways, in a more realistic sense, Oprah is America’s pastor,” said the Rev. Broderick Greer, an Episcopal theologian at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver.

In attempting to parse Oprah’s role as The Oprah Winfrey Show was drawing to a close, The New York Times’ Mark Oppenheimer once called her a “child of poverty” who became “the leader of a worldwide cult.”

Greer said he thinks of her as more of a “guru.” He noted that, like L’Engle, fundamentalist Christians have seen Oprah as a threat, and sometimes that threat was due to Oprah’s race and gender. She was used as a “bogeyman” in sermons, he said, and church leaders would caution their audiences against listening to her.

“I know some people have called Billy Graham America’s pastor, but in many ways, in a more realistic sense, Oprah is America’s pastor.”

“She was seen as being too powerful. She had too much influence,” Greer said.

“Throughout Christian history, women had been very specifically and methodically marginalized by the church. They’ve been called crazy,” he continued. “That has been the struggle of a hyper kind of masculinized, Western Christian church culture: ‘I just can’t believe that this kind of lesser being is saying something that’s profound and life-changing. I need to do everything within my power to make sure that the least amount of people possible hear her.’ ”

So it’s notable that Oprah created a flock of her own, espousing love, generosity and compassion through television without the fire and brimstone of Pat Robertson or Jim Bakker. Oprah exposed people to the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Ed Bacon and Brené Brown. She’s helped remove the stigma associated with talk therapy.

“I do know how my mom and aunt and my deceased grandmother understood her, and it was a black woman with agency they could identify with,” Greer said. “Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, they watched Phil Donahue every day, and took his expertise and followed his taste. Sometime in the late ’80s, early ’90s, that shifted, and they were able to see someone who looked like them, who sounded like them, who came from a similar background, say, ‘I have agency. I’m the host. I’m not the sideshow or the sidekick. I am the host.’ ”

Those are good things, right? Well, yes. But with great power comes great responsibility, and when you consider Oprah’s grounding in journalism, maybe she let us down sometimes. Especially because as we’ve invested in her and her recommendations on our own roads to self-actualization, Oprah has led us down some dubious paths.

Remember The Secret?

The reason you don’t have the life you want is because you just haven’t visualized it hard enough!

Iyanla Vanzant?

Who needs to be licensed as a therapist when you can call yourself a “life coach” and do whatever you want?!

Dr. Phil?

He’s not even an MD, people!

OK, fine. Oprah’s track record as a spiritual leader is a mixed bag. But somehow, her ultimate message that it’s possible to transcend suffering, and even find beauty in that transcendence, that we’re all capable of doing good in the world and that spreading love and light is a worthwhile cause, has gotten through and made her a figure who inspires intense admiration.

And it’s because for decades, we sat in front of the television on weekday afternoons and took part in The Church of Oprah. She’s flawed, sure. But Mrs Which is a powerful visualization of the best Oprah has given us. I’m glad there’s an image that so fittingly captures her contributions with a swoosh of wind or a wrinkle of time.

Ava DuVernay on the importance of images, having a voice — and why she flipped the script in ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ ‘There was no black woman I could call to say, “How does this go?” Because she doesn’t exist.’

“I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 32,” says Ava DuVernay. “So you finally get to pick up a camera and do these things and it’s like, ‘Wow. I get to say something. I get to make something, and people will pay money to sit down and see and consume,’ and it becomes a part of the culture.”

DuVernay is making a statement — and if you’ve been paying attention for the past eight years or so, you’ll know that she has been making a statement. Film enthusiasts finally got put on to her brilliance in 2012 when her indie film Middle of Nowhere was a Sundance delight and captured the directing award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2012 festival. In that film, she took viewers on a journey of self-discovery, wrapped in a very important story about incarceration — and love. That film was a follow-up to her first indie classic, I Will Follow.

What would this indie-directing darling do next? Tell the story of tennis superstar Venus Williams and her fight for pay equity by way of 2013’s “rousingVenus Vs. (ESPN). DuVernay expertly guided viewers through Williams’ 2005-07 battle for gender-equal prize money at Wimbledon.

The documentary helped establish what DuVernay would give us moving forward. She wants to work on things that say something, and things that mean something. And she’s doing it again with A Wrinkle In Time, which opens in theaters on Friday.

“I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. [The films] go beyond box office, they go beyond reviews.”

“I put my blood into these films,” Duvernay says in a recent interview with The Undefeated. “This is what I do. I’m not a workaholic, I just love this. I think workaholics are like chain-smoking, chained to their death. Yes, I work all the time, but I love it … and I don’t want to be frivolous with that, and I don’t want it to lose meaning. I want it to be worth my time and my energy and my effort. My name is on this.”

And what a name. In a relatively short time, DuVernay has established herself as a visionary director, a big name in Hollywood who delivers nuanced projects that inspire academic conversations. She rightly earned an Oscar nomination in 2017 for her 13th documentary (Netflix), which examined America’s prison system and how it exposes our country’s history of racial inequality. The top prize ultimately went to Ezra Edelman for his “O.J.: Made in America.” But DuVernay was victorious in the best way possible.

That moment gave her a bigger voice in culture overall. Often, she sparks much-needed social media conversations, and the work that she creates is often central to those conversations. The global headlines she grabbed when the Los Angeles Times reported that her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time would make her the first woman of color in history to direct a movie with a $100 million budget were massive. “When I was making this film,” says DuVernay, “as a black woman and I was handed this budget by Disney, there was no one that I could call. There was no black woman I could call to say, ‘How does this go?’ Because she doesn’t exist.”

And her poignant reply back to the news at the time was so Ava. “Not the first [black woman] capable of doing so,” she tweeted. “Not by a long shot.”

DuVernay just believes that it’s incredibly important that we’re having all kinds of people rendering images that focus and concern women and people of color. “You know, 92 percent of the directors that are making the top films people see in theaters … are Caucasian male directors,” she says. “Only 8 percent of the films that you consume are made by women or people of color, or women of color. And that is a percentage that is untenable as it is unacceptable, and yet it’s what we have accepted as an audience, as a culture and as a society for decades.”

She reminds us how powerful film is. “They were draining pools when kids with HIV got in pools,” she says. “It wasn’t CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] reports that changed that. It wasn’t politicians that changed that. It was a story that changed that — it was Philadelphia, that film. It was Angels in America. … It was film that started to help people. It was images [that] people watched … that made them think. These images mean something … and to be able to be a black woman director and be in charge of budgets of this size, render images … about a black girl?”

DuVernay pauses — because, whew. In A Wrinkle In Time, she changed the young protagonist from a young white teen to a young teen of color. In the film, Meg Murry, the main character in Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 fantasy novel, is the daughter of two scientists, a black mom played by British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw and a white dad played by Star Trek’s Chris Pine.

DuVernay presented her vision to Disney, that her dream was that Meg was a young black girl, and they bought in. Asking for that change — a very big, important and remarkable change at that — was courageous. But DuVernay said she approached asking the studio about that as if she had nothing to lose.

“It’s kind of like living in the Hollywood Shuffle, where the mother always told him, ‘You can go out and audition, but you can also have a job at the post office. You can always fall back on the post office.’ Independent film is my post office.” She says she feels like she can walk into any meeting and ask for what she wants, because if they say no, she can go make something else. “I don’t feel like I live and breathe all of [this] … Academy Awards … studio approvals. None of that stuff is my heart’s desire.”

She said she has this take on things because she started being a filmmaker when she was in her early 30s. “Ryan Coogler is 31, and he’s made three films. I look at that and I think I started late. My story’s not just race and gender. It’s age. … Beautiful women filmmakers have made films, but it’s been a challenge for them to have certain resources and support. So it just makes me feel like, ask for what you want. … They’re probably going to say no, but you can still ask and you can still push, and if their answer’s no, you say yes to yourself in a different way.”

It’s a good thing she asked.


There’s an important moment in A Wrinkle In Time where Calvin (Levi Miller) turns to Meg (Storm Reid) and tells her that he likes her hair, which at the time is in its natural, curly state.

“These images don’t exist. People told me early on, ‘This book is unadaptable, this is a very hard book, it’s unadaptable.’ I said, ‘You know what? [Let’s] make Storm Reid fly as a little girl, and boys can see that.’ [Real] Caucasian boys seeing a Caucasian boy on screen say [to a young black girl], ‘I like your hair. You are beautiful with that natural hair, and I will follow you.’ Those are the kinds of things that if some of these boys that I deal with out here in Hollywood, in these boardrooms and on these sets, had seen that when they were young, maybe I’d be treated differently when I walk in the door,” DuVernay says. “When I have the opportunity to do it, I say, ‘I’m going to take this big swing. This is important to me, to just … put this stuff out into the world, and I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. They go beyond box office. They go beyond reviews.”

And it goes beyond black and white — she makes sure of that. Originally from Compton, California, right on the edge of Lynwood, DuVernay talks about how culturally rich her neighborhood was: black, Latino and Filipino. “Me and my friends would put our hands next to each other, and we were all the same shade of brown,” she says. “There’s a lot of people who don’t see themselves.”

One of DuVernay’s stars is actor/creator Mindy Kaling, who first gained notoriety as Kelly Kapoor of NBC’s classic The Office. “Mindy said to me yesterday, and it really got me … ‘I was a chubby Indian girl with glasses who loved sci-fi, but sci-fi never loved me back. I could never, ever find myself on screen …’

“Girls will see this, [and] if I had seen a brown girl doing these things, I would say, ‘Oh, it loves me back!’ It’s an emotional thing. That’s why I did it, [and] that’s why I chose to do this.”

But here’s the good news — because there is good news. DuVernay is actively working to ensure that the headlines she’s grabbing now — especially the ones proclaiming her to be the first black woman this, or the first woman of color that — won’t be wasted.

DuVernay, after all, doesn’t just walk through a door — she holds it open. And she builds a new door — a new house, even — to make sure that other people can come in. In 2010 she founded ARRAY, a grass-roots film distribution collective that focuses on projects by people of color and women. And amid the promo tour for A Wrinkle In Time, she announced that she and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are launching a diversity initiative that will fund internships in the entertainment industry for young people from underserved communities.

“I will be there for whoever’s next,” she says, “because they’re coming. They’re coming. I feel proud that I can call them and that they can call me. That I’ll be able to talk to them about everything I experienced. … We can’t be safe in our boxes. That’s how we don’t move. We have too many freedom fighters and too many sisters that have gotten out there and gone into the darkness. Harriet Tubman had it in her front yard, and she said, ‘There’s something else out there, right?’ Not to compare myself, but you know what I mean? Rosa Parks. Or Amelia Boynton. All of these women who said, you know, ‘I don’t know how this goes, but I’m going to walk over there and see how it is — over there.’ ”

She mentions Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott and Ron Howard. “These men … have been able to make film after film after film,” she says. “Some work, some don’t. They got another one, another one, another one. Women don’t get that. Black directors don’t get that. And black women directors surely don’t get it.

“So the idea that you can say, ‘I want to be Spielberg, I want to be able to move [between] genres,’ go from E.T. to Schindler’s List to The BFG to The Post … make intimate character dramas and historical dramas. But to also make fantasy? Is that possible for us? It remains to be seen, but we have to try. And so, I try.”

‘Insecure’s’ Natasha Rothwell knows a thing or two about (teaching) drama The writer and actress taps into her life for a new role in ‘Love, Simon’

You probably know Natasha Rothwell as Kelli, who, along with Amanda Seales, rounds out the foursome of female friends on Insecure anchored by Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji.

Kelli had that rather, err, explosive scene in season two. The one in the diner where she’s enjoying herself at the surreptitious hand of her male partner. Men experiencing pleasure in inappropriate places is a whole subgenre of comedy (See: Vince Vaughn and Isla Fisher at the dinner table in Wedding Crashers for an especially memorable example.) But like with so many things, Insecure takes that trope and flips it. There was Kelli, drunk and eyes widening, as her friends looked on.

Did she just … ?

Or maybe you remember Rothwell because she’s been immortalized in GIF form for the way she delivered one word.

Rothwell, a former Saturday Night Live writer, is both a writer and series regular on Insecure. She’s also developing a show of her own for HBO. And on March 9, her new movie, Love, Simon, opens. The film, directed by CW rainmaker Greg Berlanti, is about a kid (Nick Robinson) who struggles with coming out, even though he’s surrounded by supportive family and friends. Instead, he seeks solace and community online, emailing pseudonymously back and forth with another kid at his school who’s also closeted.

All of this happens against the backdrop of regular senior-year angst. Rothwell is a natural scene-stealer as Ms. Albright, a perpetually unimpressed drama teacher trying to lead her students through a production of Cabaret. She does a lot of eye-rolling and huffing about the fact that her career never took off after she was an extra in The Lion King, which is why she’s a high school drama teacher.

There’s a bit of truth in all fiction, and Rothwell didn’t have to look particularly far to find inspiration for Ms. Albright.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Did you have any instructors like Ms. Albright?

I definitely was inspired by drama teachers in high school named Mr. Walsh and Ms. O’Neil, and both of them were very formative in helping me sort of understand theater. But I think my biggest inspiration is that I was a high school drama teacher in real life for four years in the Bronx. It was really sort of nuts how real life had prepared me for this a while ago. When I moved to New York, I really wanted to find my bread job as close to my passion as possible. There’s nobility in waiting tables. But I really wanted to find a job in the arts, and so I started teaching.

What did you take from that experience? High school life is so melodramatic anyway. I have to imagine the kids were a source of entertainment.

Oh, absolutely! I mean, there’s one student who wrote the monologue he was supposed to have memorized down his arm. So, it’s like the comedy of watching someone looking down at his arm and trying to get away with that kind of stuff. And then there’s a real sense of community. I feel like theater in high school seems to be sort of like the safe haven for the outsiders and people who don’t necessarily fit in. And it was a … come-as-you-are sort of class and it’s a come-as-you-are after-school activity.

I often worked with students who didn’t necessarily excel academically, but they thrived in the arts. And I think a lot of the sports teams felt the same way. They may not thrive in this area but were finding a home for their passion. And then that in turn motivated them academically because in order to participate in the theater program, they had to make the grades academically.

“I can sit at home and lament the fact that a really honest-to-goodness romcom starring me doesn’t exist. I could bemoan that and throw a penny in a well, or I can write it.”

You have quite a bit of experience in sketch and improv comedy. What is the most ridiculous ‘yes, and’ situation you’ve ever had to play off of?

It would probably be an improv situation where I was a part of [Upright Citizens Brigade]. We would do jams where you do a show with a bunch of people, and you invite members of the audience that didn’t necessarily come there to participate and do improv in front of an audience. And depending on the time of the jam, some of the audience members could be intoxicated, and so there definitely have been times where I found myself onstage trying to triage the scene with a drunk audience member. Or new people to comedy confuse funny for mean. And so, in those jam situations you get an audience member onstage and they want to be funny so badly that they end up saying something mean or hurtful to someone else. So you’re there to spin it in a positive way to save the scene.

The really awkward moments of just like, ‘I have to agree with this person onstage, but then I have to end it with something that will make the scene palatable.’ I definitely have been there.

Last year the Los Angeles Times published a spread about black women in comedy. There were all these talented actresses, some with years of experience, talking about limits and stereotypes with the roles they’re approached to play. As a writer, have you given thought to the role you want to play that no one else is going to write?

I do feel as a writer the sort of inspiration I get for things … is to fill that gap of “Oh, these are things that I want to do that I don’t get the opportunity to do.” Or scenes [where] people aren’t necessarily considering women of color, they won’t cast women of color in a specific story. I think about it often, but I don’t necessarily think of it in terms of “I want to be cast” or I don’t think about in terms of “Here’s a role that I wish someone would cast me in.” I just feel like to sit and have that wish is inactive. And what’s active is writing it.

I can sit at home and lament the fact that a really honest-to-goodness rom-com starring someone like me doesn’t exist. I could bemoan that and throw a penny in a well, or I can write it. And I can type that version of that story in a writers’ room, if I should be so lucky. Or if I am blessed to direct or cast and have those says as an executive producer, I’ll do those things, and for me that’s an active approach.

You know, we work twice as hard for half as much has been the hand we’ve been dealt. I want to get to work and I want to start creating those roles.

What can you tell me about your project with HBO?

HBO has been incredible and a huge champion of my work, my passions, and has been a great home for my talent, I feel. Developing my own series that I will be writing and starring in is just massive. It’s a comedy. It takes place in New York, and it’s going to be an opportunity to write myself into the role and situation that we haven’t seen yet. And, I am really, really excited because I think we are going to be doing something that I haven’t seen before and HBO hasn’t seen before. That’s about all I can get into it about it. But I can’t wait for everyone to see it.

‘Essence’ celebrates black women at annual pre-Oscar gala Tiffany Haddish, Danai Gurira, Lena Waithe and Tessa Thompson all honored

 

Just about everyone in the space at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel was patting away tears.

The General — our general — was in the middle of delivering an impassioned speech about beauty and about how, despite having physical attributes that run contrary to traditional American beauty standards, as a child she was embraced by a majestic-looking woman 31 years ago with long flowing braids who cupped her face in her hands and told her she was beautiful.

And there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. That woman, said actor Danai Gurira — whom the world now is coming to know as General Okoye from Marvel’s Black Panther — was Susan Taylor, the legendary editor who ran Essence magazine for many years.

It was appropriate that Gurira was honored by the magazine at its 11th annual event that always happens the week of the Academy Awards. The luncheon is preamble to the big event, and in many ways is as significant as the Academy Awards themselves. It was the place where Lupita Nyong’o delivered a powerful speech about being a dark-skinned little girl in 2014 — days before she would go on to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Patsy in 12 Years A Slave — a speech that had everyone in the room that year nodding their heads in understanding, regardless of the actual hue of their skin.

Tiffany Haddish speaks onstage during the 2018 Essence Black Women in Hollywood Oscars Luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on March 1 in Beverly Hills, California.

Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Essence

This event is a safe space. And it’s a place where black women are celebrated by the communities that cultivate them, inspire them and uplift them even when the rest of the industry doesn’t know to do any of those things. It’s a place where before Gurira even launched into her beautiful, tear-inspiring speech, she led everyone into the Stevie Wonder version of the “Happy Birthday” song for Nyong’o, who turned 35 this week.

This year, the event also honored Tessa Thompson — who talked about how awful she felt about the advantages lighter-skinned women in this industry have, and how she loved existing in a time where diverse representations of black womanliness was ever-present.

“She told me that my broad features and my brown skin looked beautiful when classmates did their best to convince me otherwise. She went to a beauty supply store with me, where she bought an eco relaxer, which we were prepared to apply together,” Thompson said of her mother, who is of Mexican descent, while the crowd laughed. “But she was proud and patient when I decided I wanted to keep my then-crusty, crunchy, over-gelled curls because she realized that being the fullest expression of yourself is an act of bravery. She wanted me to be brave and because of her, I aim to be.”

Tiffany Haddish brought laughter and levity despite talking about having been a foster child and a homeless adult. Lena Waithe talked about being a gay black woman from the South Side of Chicago who grew up loving the Wizard of Oz because of a scene where the Good Witch tells the munchkins to “come out,” a refrain Waithe repeated while asking others in the room — in the industry — to embrace who they are regardless of fear. “They were forced to hide in hopes that one day we wouldn’t have to and now look at us, still hiding. Being a gay black female is not a revolutionary act,” Waithe said, talking about the black LGBT community that came before her. “Being proud to be a gay black female is.” And, of course, Gurira also talked about the power that Black Panther is having on young kids.

“Sometimes I forget what it was like to be that young, to struggle in your own skin that much,” she said. “To grapple with a world system that was clearly not made with us in mind. To be unsure of your place in this realm, of how you will ever find it or how you will ever like yourself, let alone love yourself.”

Each of the afternoon’s honorees were presented by someone remarkable: Gurira was honored by Nyong’o, Thompson was honored by Janelle Monae, Waithe was honored by Justin Simien and Angela Bassett and Haddish was honored by Lil Rel Howery. The event was hosted by Yvonne Orji and will air on OWN on Saturday at 10 p.m.

‘The Plug’ podcast: ‘Run Me My Money feat. Jalen Rose’ (Episode 12) The ‘Fab Five’ legend sheds light on exactly how it feels to be young, dumb, talented and broke

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With the NCAA news exploding over the weekend, The Plug crew brought in an expert to discuss the state of collegiate athletics. Fab Five phenom, now NBA analyst, Jalen Rose sheds light on exactly how it feels to be young, dumb, talented and broke. Rose also talks about how he thinks the NBA can stand in solidarity with its collegiate counterparts, as well as how he became the first “Jalen” and what that means to him. Plus, we gear up for the Academy Awards and discuss the upcoming clash of two of the most powerful black women to hit the small screen. And, of course — the hot takes are plentiful. As always, please make sure you subscribe to The Plug using the ESPN app!

Previously: ‘The Plug’ podcast: NBA All-Star recap + Chris Tucker on ‘Rush Hour 4’ (Episode 11)

Kobe Bryant, Quincy Jones, Halle Berry honor Cheryl Boone Isaacs at private pre-Oscars event The pioneering former Academy president is presented with legacy award

When the legendary Quincy Jones took the stage on Tuesday night, he immediately launched into a story. It was about hanging out one day with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Yao Ming. He said he’d grabbed a chair and stood on it so that he was able to look down on the three NBA big men — and instructed a photographer not to shoot his feet. The crowd laughed.

But this night wasn’t actually about sports. Jones was one of many celebrities and true icons to pay tribute to Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who was presented with the inaugural Legacy Award at ICON MANN’s sixth annual pre-Oscar dinner. The dinner was the conclusion of a day-long takeover that also included daytime panels at the SAG/AFTRA headquarters, like an intimate conversation with Boone Isaacs and director and producer Reginald Hudlin and a Black Panther panel that was moderated by ICON MANN founder Tamara Houston.

Jones had just been introduced by Kobe Bryant, who told the dinner guests at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel — Halle Berry, Nia Long and Shannon Sharpe among them — that he’d cold-called Jones when he was 18 years old to ask for advice. “I asked the most random questions,” Bryant said before stopping to laugh at the memory. “I said, ‘How do you do what you do?’ And he laughed. And he proceeded to break down his process. It’s important … to understand the great minds that came before you, and how you do what you do in hopes that we can create something … in our own disciplines and industries to future our own craft.”

Bryant and Jones were among a long line of famous folks and industry influencers who lauded Boone Isaacs and her contributions to film, as well as her work to diversify the voting body of the Academy, in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which started in 2015 after April Reign created the hashtag. The dinner was hosted by Cedric the Entertainer, and before Boone Isaacs took the stage, a parade of people paid tribute to her — some were creative, like rapper and actor Common, who performed a few verses about the power of black women. Others, like Berry, were emotional.

“I’m so proud to be your friend. I’m so proud of everything you’ve done. I’m so proud to be a black woman when black women like you are leading organizations like the Academy,” Berry said to Boone Isaacs. “All the work that you did while you were there has changed the way the Academy runs, and nobody takes that away. I was saddened when I got the news that you weren’t running for re-election, I was, because it meant so much as a black woman that you were there. I felt safer. I felt better about it.”

By the time Boone Isaacs took the stage, she used sports as an analogy, citing the days when there were Olympic games with no black swimmers, when there were no golf champions and when tennis had no diversity. It wasn’t until people of color were given opportunities that progression happened in those sports. There’s still more work to be done, she was careful to note, but she sure was happy that she was no longer the lone person in a space. The organization also announced a special scholarship named for Boone Isaacs and her late brother, Ashley Boone Jr., who was a groundbreaking motion picture marketing and distribution executive for many years in Hollywood.

Oprah is talking about box braids and listening to Kendrick. Has she changed or have we? At her latest ‘SuperSoul Conversations,’ a more outspoken version of the world’s most powerful black woman

NEW YORK — A few weeks ago, after she’d delivered her news-cycle-dominating barn burner of a Golden Globes speech, Oprah Winfrey held court at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

She’d booked the place for a marathon day of interviews with pop culture luminaries, which were being taped for the televised OWN series SuperSoul Conversations and the podcast of the same name. Part one, which features Jordan Peele, Salma Hayek Pinault and Trevor Noah, will air on Tuesday at 10 p.m. The interviews with Stephen Colbert, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Yara Shahidi will air in part two on March 6 at 10 p.m.

One moment was especially shocking: Oprah was speaking with Peele, the Oscar-nominated director of Get Out. “I won’t shame anybody, those who haven’t yet seen it. Most of them are up there — ” Oprah said, pointing toward the upper mezzanine, “— and there’s a reason for that.” The black women in the audience, especially those in the orchestra section, erupted with whoops and laughs.

“Those of you who are white, you should go and see it with a black friend,” Oprah continued. “Gayle [King] said she’d seen it at a screening or something and then she went as saw it with a black audience and it was completely different.”

Another round of laughs.

Kill the b—-!” Oprah jeered, referring to the character who lures unsuspecting black men to her family’s compound where she and her family auction them off to whites seeking younger, stronger bodies to inhabit.

This was followed by about 30 seconds of raucous applause, and more whooping.

Where in Sam Hill did this Oprah come from?


Oprah’s always been black and she’s always been forthright about her own experiences with racism. But many black people have had a complicated relationship with Oprah, with her wealth, with perceptions of her obligations to The Black Community. See: those who called on Oprah to rescue the television series Underground even after she explained it didn’t make good financial sense for the OWN network or those who resented her for building a school for poor girls in South Africa instead of stateside or those who resented The Color Purple and her role in it because they thought it unfairly maligned black men. For years, like much of middle America, she had a distant-to-lukewarm relationship with hip-hop.

As some black people saw it, Oprah had an unspoken covenant with the white people who delivered the bulk of her bonkers ratings and subsequent wealth: Sure, she’s allowed to periodically remind white people that she’s black, but she’s sure not going to turn into Assata Shakur.

Oprah is the preeminent white lady whisperer of the 20th century, an observation Saturday Night Live recently resurrected amid speculation of an Oprah 2020 run for president.

Leslie Jones-as-Oprah stopped by the Weekend Update desk to explain why she might turn to public service.

“I need to get white women back on track,” said Jones-as-Oprah. “Ever since I’ve been off the air, they’ve gotten out of control. They voted for Trump. They voted for Roy Moore. They kept 12 different shows about flipping houses on air. It’s a mess!”

In the past few years, though, something has shifted ever so slightly. It was evident from the reactions of black women in the Apollo audience, who murmured with gleeful astonishment to Oprah’s “kill the b—-” comment. I saw a few more eyebrows go up when Oprah suggested to Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, the Two Dope Queens who opened the event for her, that the trio “go to a salon and get box braids.” There was a similar reaction when the bass line to Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” thumped in during a video accompanying Peele’s introduction: OK, Oprah! We see you, girl.

Has black people’s relationship with Oprah changed or has she? Maybe it’s a bit of both.

Oprah’s role in the public imagination, and the attention and commerce it commands, has always been raced and gendered. I remember my college poetry professor dismissing her as a “mammy diva,” referring to Oprah’s penchant for making white people comfortable while also putting herself on the cover of her eponymous magazine every month.

I think she’s following the compass of her power as a public figure. For Oprah, magnetic north has been shifting back toward black women ever since she decided to endorse Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential race. It’s a shift that’s been unfolding for years, as OWN, which launched in January 2011, found its ratings footing thanks to black women, rather than the Oprah show’s bread and butter demo of white mothers and housewives. Oprah has returned the love by investing in programming that caters directly to them, from Black Love to Queen Sugar to Greenleaf to the forthcoming Love Is ___, an hourlong drama from Salim and Mara Brock Akil, the couple behind Girlfriends, Being Mary Jane, and most recently, Black Lightning. (Tyler Perry, the much-maligned actor-director-producer who was responsible for the network’s early ratings success, is moving on to Viacom.)

Oprah is the most powerful black woman in the world, and through her programming choices, she’s redoubled her efforts to reach other black women, reaffirming that, yes, deep down, beneath all that money, she really is just like them. That’s precisely why, upon meeting her last June at a press junket for Queen Sugar, I asked Oprah if she’d ever consider hosting a presidential debate on OWN. It seemed like another way for the mogul to use her network to serve black women, especially considering how the Democratic Party has been criticized for overlooking the one demographic that’s continually bailing it out. If there’s anyone who could refocus the party’s attention on its most loyal constituency, it’s Oprah, right?

Oprah immediately shook her head. “No.”

She started to walk away, then turned back to me. Her eyes narrowed a bit, she pursed her lips, and you could see her considering the idea for another beat. “Wait. You mean in 2020?”

“Yes.”

“Anything’s possible.”

In February, Oprah addressed the crowd before her at the Apollo. The audience was mostly women, mostly black, and filled with people turned out in the stylish, elaborate garb that makes for street-style photography gold. Everyone dresses right for Oprah.

Oprah is the most powerful black woman in the world, and through her programming choices, she’s redoubled her efforts to reach other black women, reaffirming that, yes, deep down, beneath all that money, she really is just like them.

“I know so many people are feeling uneasy about the state of our world right now. It’s gon’ be aight,” Oprah said in the calm tones of a parent reassuring her children. “We. Have been. Through tougher times than these. It’s going to be OK. OK? Especially if you don’t buy into the hysteria. OK?”

When she was taping the Oprah show, Oprah always had a more irreverent side to her than the nation’s needy projections of comfortable matronliness would suggest. Our understanding of Oprah as a woman with youthful energy and a sex drive seems to fluctuate with her weight. She can be bashful and flirty — remember the time Jamie Foxx hit on her? She has admitted, on air, to not wearing underwear and she’s drunk tequila shots, too. After her 50th birthday, director Lee Daniels reminded us of Oprah’s sultry side in The Butler, where Oprah, as a drunken Gloria Gaines, took a long drag on a cigarette as she entertained the advances of Howard (Terrence Howard).

But she was also adept at knowing when to use her auntie affect as a way to get her celebrity guests on the Oprah show to divulge details about their lives that they didn’t necessarily wish to discuss. It’s on full display in a 2007 interview with Beyoncé, when the singer was still being cagey about her relationship with Jay-Z, and wasn’t even overtly confirming whether or not the two were married (they were).

Now, at 64, Oprah seems to be in the midst of a youthful renaissance, and not just because she embraces the awkward Gen Z humor of Twooooo Dooope Queeeeeeeeeee-eeeeeeeens, as she calls them. For the SuperSoul taping, Oprah was dressed in an outfit that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place on a woman 30 years younger: skinny black jeans, kicky black moto boots, and an ice-blue velvet blazer over a partially sheer white blouse. Her hair was pulled into a high, bouncy ponytail that gave her a girlish quality. She was sporting a pair of round glasses that featured leopard print detail on the bridge and temples. She looked, well, cool.

More than any other time during her life in the public eye, Oprah seems to be enjoying the freedom to do and say whatever she wants. This was hugely apparent when she told her audience at the Apollo that she had more power being Oprah than she could ever wield as president of the United States.

What does it look like to preserve your faith in humanity while shedding the last remnants of damns you have to give?

Keep your eye on Oprah. She’s showing us.

From ‘Dawson’s Creek’ to ‘Buffy’ to ‘Frasier’ to ‘Seinfeld’ — what happened to those lone, ‘token’ black actors? Eight talents tell stories of offensive scripts, stunt people in blackface and the heartbreak — and hope — of portraying Thug No. 2 and the dope dealer’s girlfriend

This is about television in the 1990s but let’s start with a quick, tragic and important trip to 1975.

Happy Days is about to deliver its infamous and most cringe-worthy episode. In “Fonzie’s New Friend,” the leather jacket-clad Fonz meets up with Sticks Downey, a new-to-town wisecracking drummer. The Fonz decides that Sticks, played with seemingly effortless timing by John Bailey, would make a great addition to Richie Cunningham’s band. When Richie asks a young woman on a date to a luau — with Fonzie’s new buddy as the perfect hookup for her friend, the punchline is of course that Sticks is black.

“Why do I get the feeling I was just humiliated?” Sticks deadpans as the studio audience roars with laughter. From there: one-liners about Downey’s lack of basketball prowess, about eating fried chicken and watermelon and yes, a low-key slavery joke. “Sticks was a very offensive character,” said artist Alida Bailey from her Palmdale, California, home. The easygoing stepdaughter of John Bailey wasn’t alive when the episode aired, but she’s seen it many times. “It was so over-the-top,” she said. “But to his credit, my father was still hilarious. He could shine in any role even if it was a token one.” He appeared in 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie, but by the ’80s, John Bailey bolted to the adult film industry, where he went by name Jack Baker. In 1994, he died of bladder cancer due to complications from AIDS.

“My dad got his foot in the door … despite race being an issue,” Alida Bailey said with pride. “But once the roles started to dry up, he could see that there was no equality in Hollywood … What you’re left with are token roles.” Downey was the 1970s. And while ’80s television — a groundbreaking era that launched The Cosby Show, the criminally underrated Frank’s Place, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and 227, the 1990s were actually awash in tokenism.

Yes, the adored 1990s. Even with the shows that are seared into our collective DNA: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Roc, In Living Color, The Arsenio Hall Show, New York Undercover, and Martin — all of these were must-see TV. There was A Different World, Family Matters, Moesha, Sister, Sister, Living Single. Indeed, in the 1990s, the wealth of black representation on television could lull you into thinking — if you turned the channel from Rodney King taking more than 50 blows from Los Angeles Police Department batons — that black lives actually did matter. But almost all of these shows were in varying ways, an extension of segregated America. It’s there in the memories of the stars below: There were “black shows,” and there were “white shows.” If you were a black actor appearing on a white show, you were usually alone.

For some of the most visible black actors coming of age in the 1990s, it’s clear that along with the triumphs came isolation, blatant racial stereotyping and biased casting calls. As for “crossing over” to the mainstream, in the mostly segregated worlds of Seinfeld, Frasier, Melrose Place, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Felicity, V.I.P., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek and more, blacks were usually relegated to bit parts or were there for a short time. The Undefeated sat down with eight of these talented women and men. These are their stories. This is history.


PHIL MORRIS, 58

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Iowa City, Iowa

Throwback: Melrose Place, Seinfeld

Currently working on: CBS’ 9JKL

When you live in the same house as a father that created such an incredible legacy — not just for himself and his family, but for an entire race of people — it’s expected that you should do the same. Greg Morris broke down racial barriers on Mission: Impossible. Him, Bill Cosby, Diahann Carroll [Julia], Bernie Hamilton [Starsky & Hutch], Lloyd Haynes [Room 222] … they opened the door for all of us as black actors on television. I wanted to continue to break down those barriers.

My first acting job was on Star Trek, way back when I was … around 8. I’m talking about the original Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock. It was stunt-casting episode, so I was in it, my sister Iona was in it, William Shatner’s daughters were in it, and some of the directors’ kids were in it. We were kids who weren’t actors, but we knew when to shut up when the director called “Action!” [Laughs].

“To his credit my father was still hilarious. He could shine in any role, even if it was a token one.”

My earliest adult experiences in the acting world … I stunted my own authenticity because either I was trying to not be my father or trying to live up to his success. But the ’90s kind of opened things up for me. That era allowed for more black images to be seen as intelligent, authoritative, educated, stylish, and beautiful beyond The Cosby Show, which normalized how the world looked at African-American families. I appeared on black shows like 227, The Fresh Prince, and Martin. But I was also able to do series like WIOU [a short-lived CBS news drama], Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and other more mainstream, non-ethnic roles. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the experience for black actors.

I remember [around ’95] going out for a role on Melrose Place — one of the hottest shows on television at that time. I had a long history with Aaron Spelling [Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, and Beverly Hills 90210]. I’ve gone to dinner with Mr. Spelling and I’ve gone to dinner with Mr. Darren Star [co-creator of Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Sex In The City] and I’ve told them, “You need to have more black people on that show than just Vanessa A. Williams.” And they would tell me, “Oh, Phil … it’s all casting … we would bring you in, we would make a role for you in a heartbeat.” I took it as lip service.

A few weeks later, Melrose Place had another role. I told my people to submit me for it. My agents came back and said, “Nah, they’re not going to see you. They want the role to be a white role.” The next time I saw Aaron Spelling, I again told him that I knew I wasn’t going to get the role because I was black. And he said, “Well, I’m only so big. There’s only so much that I can do.” I finally got a role on Melrose Place because I happened to be the right dude.

SEINFELD — “The Finale: Part 1&2” Episode 23 & 24 — Pictured: (l-r) Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, Phil Morris as Jackie Chiles (Photo by )

Joseph Del Valle/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The truth is, you ain’t never going to please everybody, anyway. When I went to audition for Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, I never thought of it as a derogatory token role. They told me, straight up, “We want someone that would give us a rendition of Johnnie Cochran.” I remember seeing Michael Dorn [Worf, of the Star Trek franchise] and Ted Lange from The Love Boat and Michael Boatman. We all looked like the Motown Mafia at that audition with our dark suits [Laughs].

“My Melrose Place experience only strengthened me. I wasn’t going to let no one tell me my worth, or value.”

I’d known Johnnie Cochran most of my whole life. We went to the same barber … Terrell’s Barber Shop in Los Angeles. I’d see Johnnie there almost every Sunday, for years — so I knew this cat way before the O.J. Simpson trial. I had a sense of his rhythm and his thing … that “Uh, huh … You don’t say.” I ended up getting the Seinfeld job, but Johnnie had to sign off on his likeness, which he eventually did. Jackie Chiles was a relief valve for a lot of people who were so frustrated with the O.J. verdict. It gave them a chance to laugh at the proceedings that were sometimes just ridiculous. Personally, I didn’t agree with the O.J. verdict. That’s why Jackie Chiles was so over-the-top. I let them have it.

I saw Johnnie a couple of times after my Seinfeld episodes aired and it was just like an old western movie. I walked into the barbershop and he’s laid back in the chair getting a shave. Everyone was quiet and Johnnie looks at me, laughs and says, “Young man, you are hilarious.”

I don’t know why I don’t have my own show right now. It’s driving me crazy, because my ambition is very high … I’m developing my own show, centering around me as an ex-soap opera star. I’m just trying to control my journey.


BIANCA LAWSON, 38

Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Los Angeles

Throwback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek

Currently working on: Queen Sugar

When I turned 14, I started Saved By The Bell: The New Class [in 1993]. I’d been staying in New York with my dad, and I ended up coming back to L.A. I was in a store and some guy walked up to us and said, “My wife is a manager. Do you act?” And literally that week I got the role for Saved By The Bell. I wasn’t thinking about if I was the “token black girl” on the show. I was just happy to be working.

Bianca Lawson played Megan Jones in Saved By The Bell: The New Class.

Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

I had a recurring role on Sister, Sister and it was so much fun. The UPN writers from that show told me, “Bianca, we’re going to make another series and we are going to write a part just for you.” It was a black sitcom with the legendary Sherman Hemsley called Goode Behavior. I was offered a role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as one of the leads, but I took Good Behavior because the producers had kept their word.

“Can you black it up? Can you make it blacker … more street? That was never me. Honestly, I had more issues with the black directors and producers than the white ones.”

After Goode ended, the Buffy people offered me another part. I thought I was going to be on Buffy longer, but it was only for four episodes. I loved playing Kendra. She was fierce and she was direct. She wasn’t about being liked. She had this mission to accomplish and it wasn’t connected to some guy or some romance.

Bianca Lawson and Alyson Hannigan from season 2 of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.”

I can’t remember how many episodes I was supposed to do on Dawson’s Creek, but there was this thing where my character Nikki, who was a filmmaker, always had to be better than [her white peers]. She even had a discussion with Dawson about this. It was really surreal. The thought of becoming the first black actress on shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer never really occurred to me back then.

Recently, I was on an airplane and someone left a beautiful note on my seat to say what I meant to them as a black actress on television. I didn’t really think about any of that when I was younger because you’re just doing the work. It was only years later as I got older that I realized seeing a young black woman on Buffy and Dawson’s Creek was empowering to a lot of people.

It’s a feeling that I’m experiencing on an even higher level with Queen Sugar. I feel like I’m part of a new black television era.


VANESSA A. WILLIAMS, 54

Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Melrose Place

Currently working on: Vengeance, Days of Our Lives, I Left My Girlfriend for Regina Jones

When I was 6, I wanted to literally know how people got into the TV set [Laughs]. My family is a performing family. My mother was a tap dancer and my grandmother was an accomplished pianist and organist and had played with W.C. Handy, and my auntie sung opera. I started to do singing roles as part of the New York City Opera, and there was a girl there who was also a professional actress. She had an actual manager, which really impressed me. We ended up becoming friends and I got that same manager.

My first big gig was a Bubble Yum commercial with Ralph Macchio [of The Karate Kid] We did a f—ing bubble gum rap [Laughs]. “Yum, so fine, the flavor lasts a long, long time!” It was hilarious … a bunch of white kids and a black girl rapping about gum!

There are two projects that I count as my big break into Hollywood — The Cosby Show and of course New Jack City. As a New York actor, you are trained in theater, and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. So I wasn’t intimidated when I got the Melrose Place phone call. This was a big deal because we knew the show was an Aaron Spelling project coming on the heels of Beverly Hills, 90210. I heard that my role as Rhonda was going to be for a Jewish girl, but I won the role. I just thought, Wow, my dreams are coming true.

“I started out as a standup comedian. I wanted to be Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg.”

When the L.A. riots happened, there was a story line on Melrose Place dealing with the aftermath. In the script, Rhonda was separating herself from her own community — the black community — and saying things like, “Those people … ” I had a serious talk with Darren, who was very amenable about changing that part of the script.

The cast of the TV series, ‘Melrose Place,’ posing on steps, circa 1993.

Fotos International/Getty Images)

It wasn’t until Melrose Place fired me after doing 33 episodes of season one that I felt the sting of Hollywood. There was positive fan feedback about my character, but I guess the Spelling people did some demographic research and decided that they were going to go into a more backbiting, soap opera direction. I thought the only strike against me was that I was a black actress. It had all to do with the fact that they were going to have people sleeping with each other in the cast — and how would that play for Middle America to see a black girl bed-hopping?

But my Melrose Place experience only strengthened me. I wasn’t going to let no one tell me my worth or value. I kept rolling with roles on such shows as Chicago Hope, Soul Food and [most recently] the Bella Thorne-vehicle Famous In Love on ABC’s Freeform network. One thing about the ’90s is there was a plethora of work for black actors even with all the ups and downs. This was the golden age of black television. We literally built Fox and UPN. That is a known fact.


MARKUS REDMOND, 47

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Philadelphia

Throwback: Doogie Howser, M.D.

Currently working on: Wine & Whimsy, The 6th Degree

I always knew I wanted to be a television actor. I was enamored by John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back Kotter. I thought he was the coolest dude in the history of the world, and my parents laughed at me. They were like, “You know acting is an actual job? Travolta is not just some cool guy … he’s acting.” I was like, “Well, I want that job!” It wasn’t until my family moved from North Philadelphia to Ventura County, about an hour north of Los Angeles, that I got into a high school drama class.

I started taking lessons from acting coach Cliff Osmond, rest in peace. After I’d been in the class long enough, he told me, “I think it’s time for you to meet my wife.” She became my first agent in 1989, and I ended up booking a play called Ten November. One of the casting directors from this new show, Doogie Howser, M.D., Beth Hymson, came to the play. She brought me in for an audition to play Friend No. 2.

So I go to the audition and Friend No. 2 is asking Doogie what it’s like being a doctor. Now I grew up in Ventura with a bunch of surfers, so to me it just seemed natural to be like, “Whoa, dude … You get to see blood and guts?!!! Gnarly, dude!” And I’m a big, black guy, so that didn’t make a whole lot of sense doing a white surfer voice, but Beth and the others got a kick out of it. They told me they’d keep me on their radar. And then the very next audition was for Raymond on Doogie Howser, M.D.

The cast of Doogie Howser, M.D.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Early on, I noticed the Doogie script was very surface. My character was written as this tough black guy who’s about to rob a 7-Eleven. Doogie talks him down, he realizes the error of his ways, and Doogie gets to feel good about himself. On the third or fourth day of production, there was a line where Doogie’s mom screams at a cop, “If that animal hurts my son!” She was talking about my character. This became hugely controversial because we had a good number of African-Americans that were extras on set.

The extra that played my mom, she especially took offense to it. I remember production stopped, and when we came back, that “animal” line had been taken out of the script. So there was this slow process of humanizing Raymond on the series.

“I don’t have my own show right now. It’s driving me crazy because my ambition is very high.”

I met a lot of black people while I was on Doogie. They’d be like, “So, wait, you’re on TV?” And I’d say, “I’m on Doogie Howser.” They’d usually respond, “Oh, I don’t watch that show because there ain’t no black people on it.” And that’s the thing. If you segregate yourself, the media will always give those stereotypes to you. If you keep telling the media, “Ghetto, street, rap … that’s all who I am,” the media will respond, just like the universe.

Neil Patrick Harris and Markus Remond on an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

When I’d go out for auditions, there was usually a prerequisite of, “Can you black it up? Can you make it blacker … more street?” And that was never me. Honestly, I had more issues with the black directors and producers than the white ones. I’m not a fan of hip-hop. Look at my Spotify and its mostly country. My favorite actors are William Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart. That’s where I get my juice.

After Doogie, I was able to book a series on UPN called Family Rules as the black next-door neighbor. Everybody knew what the UPN acronym really meant: The Underpaid Negro Network. I was the reverse token … the only black person on a mostly white show on UPN. It was canceled after [six] episodes. It had gotten to the point where none of this acting stuff was relevant to me. I was tired of playing Thug No. 4. Like I said, I grew up with surfers, listened to swing music and loved Woody Allen movies. I didn’t fit in.

I think that’s why I embraced writing. I’ve sold some scripts to studios and I did a film that went to Sundance back in ’07 that Whoopi Goldberg and Sharon Stone starred in along with me called If I Had Known I Was A Genius. I never limit myself. Fortunately, today we have great shows portraying black people in a broad light like How To Get Away With Murder and Scandal. Thank God for Shonda Rhimes for saying, “Let me just make great television shows and just put black people in the lead and surround them with everybody.”


KENN MICHAEL, 40

Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: The Parent ‘Hood, Freaks and Geeks

Currently working on: Artificial intelligence software project

I loved being in front of the camera. I did Reading Rainbow twice, and one of the producers said to my parents, “He’s really good. This seems like something you guys might want to pursue.” I thank my mom, Lola, for my career, because she put in a lot of work.

The first national spot I booked was a commercial for Bubble Yum in 1990. I was around 12, and the role for that ad was originally not created for a black kid, but a white character named Milo, the Mathematical Genius. I guess white kids were only allowed to be intelligent, but the agent I had was incredible. She was like, “Oh, no. We’re going to send Kenn there because they don’t know what they want. And he can do it.” I nailed it.

I always played the smart kid in a lot of crossover roles. And then I hit this rut that was typical with being a black actor where the majority of the roles were the street kid, the drug dealer or the bad kid. All the auditions were the same, and I was bummed, so around 1992 I was an apprentice director on the film Boomerang, shadowing the Hudlin Brothers. I got the chance to watch Eddie Murphy work. I developed a bit of a rapport with him. Eddie noticed I was a little out of sorts.

Hours later, he asked me to see him on his bus. I was excited! I told him what I was experiencing in the television audition game and he gave me this pep talk, like, “Dude, I know. But you have to keep on trucking. Your excellence will shine no matter what you do.” I ended up getting an actual part in Boomerang.

But then you go from being on a big budget film that showed blacks in a nuanced, positive light, and back to the politics of TV. I remember a meeting I had with Darren Star, who was the head of Aaron Spelling’s development company. I walked into this huge office in Beverly Hills. They were interested in creating a show for me, so Darren walks in, puts his feet up on the table and he says, “You may know some of our series like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place …” He had this very arrogant way about him. So I said, “Yeah, I’ve seen those shows, but I don’t really watch them because I don’t see anybody who looks like me.” [A] phrase you heard a lot back in those days [was] … “Oh, we don’t know how to write for black characters.”

Being on the show The Parent ’Hood was an interesting situation. I was on a black series with Robert Townsend, who was show’s creator and executive producer. There was diversity, and it was great at times, but then my character started to get painted in a corner. He was viewed as this superpositive black male character … smart and into music. I was written off the show. The character they replaced me with was this boy who was written as a troubled, streetwise kid. It wasn’t just the white shows that insisted I play the hoodlum. That was an eye-opener.

“I hit this rut that was typical with being a black actor where the majority of the roles were the street kid, the drug dealer or the bad kid.”

When I did Freaks and Geeks, nobody knew anything about it. Judd Apatow was not a huge name at that point, so for me it was just another audition. I was just happy to be on a show where the writing was really funny. We know that Apatow’s projects are mostly white. In hindsight, yeah, it would have been great … for them to have more characters of color.

I got tired of the politics of auditioning for roles. I’d always been directing my own short films before I got my first official directing gig. I was doing film festivals and some projects on the digital side of filmmaking before anybody was talking about it, because the picture quality wasn’t of quality back then. I was also doing a lot of voiceover work for video games and cartoons. I ended up directing BET’s Let’s Stay Together. That was my multicam, sitcom, directorial thing. It was a lot of fun. Doing voice work for video games has been a lot of fun because you get to play all these crazy characters. I do a really great German accent [Michael is an in-demand video game voice actor. He has appeared in the Saints Row series and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas].

I’ve started this next phase of my journey. I’ve been building a software project that is dealing with sound, healing, and sacred numbers and frequencies. My thing is bringing spirituality, technology, and science together. Artificial intelligence is upon us. We need to make sure that we are imbuing things into A.I. that we would want.


KIM COLES, 56

Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Living Single, Frasier

Currently working on: Stand-up comedy, speaking engagements (AARP, American Heart Association among others)

I started out as a stand-up comedian. I wanted to be Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg. [In 1987], I auditioned for A Different World, for the role of Jaleesa … the role that Dawnn Lewis eventually got. Dawn and I had been friends since we were 11, so for her to get that was huge. I remember being at an event and meeting Keenan Ivory Wayans. Keenan tells me that he has a television show coming up and that he wanted me to audition. I found out that it was a multicultural sketch comedy show, which had never been done before.

We filmed the pilot for In Living Color in 1989, but somebody had already gotten a hold of the episode! There were bootlegged copies being sold on the streets. There were people who loved the show and others who thought we were too edgy, too black, and hated it. I was only on In Living Color for the first year … it was an incredible experience.

The cast of Living Single. Kim Coles is the to far right.

Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images

Landing the role of Synclaire on Living Single was massive. It was around 1992, and I’d just left In Living Color. The producers reached out to me and said, “We love you. We want to do a series about black women and their experiences and what they think about life and men.” Living Single was an iconic show with a lot of layers. It wasn’t a stereotypical black sitcom. But it wasn’t hard to notice that networks like Fox and UPN were using black shows just to establish their success. There were black series that were watched by millions on Fox, but apparently they weren’t a part of the network’s vision.

I booked The Geena Davis Show, but they kindly let me walk so I could do an episode of Frasier. Then I booked a second episode, and I have to tell you, the experience was amazing. Kelsey Grammer was beyond kind to me and he loved my Dr. Mary character. I knew that there were no [black people] on Frasier, but I saw that as a challenge.

“That just was the reality of the times … you usually were the only black person on a so-called ‘white’ show.”

The response to Dr. Mary was incredible, so we tried to get the Frasier people to do a spinoff. This was at the time Kelsey was about to do Girlfriends, so I knew he had to be open to black women being the lead [of a show]. The writer who wrote my two episodes on Frasier even won a diversity award because before that they didn’t have anyone like me on that show! But the spin-off never happened.

I do some stand-up and I have my own one-woman show. And I do a lot of speaking engagements for AARP and the American Heart Association. I tell my story and I try to inspire, motivate … and I get to be funny. I think there should be more black shows like black-ish. We have Shonda Rhimes, who is putting together these amazing series with these amazing black women at the helm. But I’m not waiting around for Hollywood to call me for jobs. Everything that I’m doing today keeps me fed until I’m able to get that free food. Because that’s the only reason to do a television show … it’s the free food [Laughs].


TANGI MILLER, 47

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Miami

Throwback: Michael Hayes, Felicity

Currently working on: Nwannem: Sisters

Acting seemed kind of far-fetched. It wasn’t practical. But there was a show called Michael Hayes, which starred David Caruso. It was a detective series, like Miami Vice, and I played a drug dealer’s girlfriend. I was more concerned about my hair than how my peers would perceive me as an actor [laughs].

Thank God I don’t have to worry about that now, because today they have a lot of black hair stylists, but back then that wasn’t the case. So I showed up on set with my hair clean and washed and no makeup. And they would look at me like, “What happened to you?” This one white girl came to me with a pressing comb and she tried to comb my hair in the opposite direction, and I’m like, “No, no, no … the comb goes the other way.”

Cast of the show Felicity.

Getty Images

I don’t think I ever felt like Elena was this lone, token black character when I got the role for Felicity. As a black actress, that just was the reality of the times … you usually were the only black person on a so-called “white” show. When I met J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, who created the show, I actually thought they were assistants because they were so short and cute [Laughs]. I was talking to them like they were my peers … but they were really cool about it.

“When I went to audition for Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, I never thought of it as a derogatory, token role.”

What I was really concerned about was wanting Elena to come across as more than just Felicity’s black friend. It was important to me that you saw some of my character’s girlfriends from before she came to college. If you look back at some of the episodes of Felicity, you will see Elena’s backstory with her family and father. Whenever I made those suggestions, the producers actually followed through. I felt supported.

I didn’t realize how lucky we were until Felicity was over. It was an amazing, well-written show. J.J. is a genius. I wanted another meaty character that I could sink my teeth into … that I could be proud of, but I couldn’t find one. That’s one of the reasons why I started producing and making my own movies. Recently, I directed Diva Diaries. I’ve done Hurricane in the Rose Garden, My Girlfriend’s Back, Love … & Other 4 Letter Words. I’ve done like 10 or 12 films, mostly as a producer and actor. I love what I do.


SHAUN BAKER

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: V.I.P.

Currently working on: Atone, The Zim

The first thing I did when I came out to Los Angeles was House Party, but the first television series I booked was a [1993] sitcom called Where I Live. It was a positive depiction of a young Caribbean family and young African-Americans from Harlem who were supportive of each other. It featured myself, Doug E. Doug and Flex Alexander. We were just starting our careers, and were so excited to be working as young actors. After the second season, when we didn’t get picked up, it was heartbreaking.

I was happy to be a part of Living Single. Kim Coles is incredibly gifted. Everybody from that show from [Queen] Latifah, T.C. Carson, and Kim Fields to Erika Alexander to John Henton were heavy hitters. The role I played, Russell, a West Indian music editor, was interesting, because my family is from Jamaica. I tapped into my own experiences. We were groundbreaking, positive, upwardly mobile, young African-Americans, men and women who were flawed individuals striving for friendship and love.

“The thought of becoming the first black actress on shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer never really occurred to me back then.”

But after that success, all of sudden these popular black series like Roc, In Living Color, Martin, and Living Single were getting canceled. Then you would see all of these white shows like Party of Five and Melrose Place pop up. I don’t know if it was strategic, but it did make us raise an eyebrow and ask, “Well, what happened to all those black shows?”

After Living, I had a meeting with Pamela Anderson for an action comedy called V.I.P. and she was transparent … about a lot of things pertaining to a role she had in mind for me. She told me, “You know why you’re here? You have a following … you have an audience.” Living Single helped me get on V.I.P.

The cast of V.I.P.

V.I.P. [1998-2002] was a huge action comedy series. When you’re minority on such a big show, having a support system is very important. I was very mindful of how I was being portrayed as a black man on V.I.P. But there was a situation that I had to deal with. A lot of times in the stunt world if they don’t think an African-American stunt person is not capable, they will actually [blackface] a non-African American. This would usually be a white person.

We were doing an episode where we were supposed to be circus performers, and they told me they couldn’t find any black circus people, but I knew they just didn’t want to spend the money. So I told them to take me out of the scene if they were going to use a painted-on stunt person. I knew the history of blackface. I understood how serious that was. I went to Pam and the producers and I said, “Not only am I offended, but the NAACP will be in here marching.” They wrote me out of the scene.

But looking back, I still feel fortunate to be part of a special time on television. I’m thankful because just to get one acting role back then was like hitting the lottery. But I had several: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, A Different World, Martin, Living Single, V.I.P. TV is powerful. A lot of times, black people are portrayed as savages. That’s why it’s important to see shows like Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar — that’s how we as artists make a difference.