Earth, Wind & Fire among this year’s Kennedy Center honorees From ‘Sweet Sweetback’ to ‘September,’ they built a soundtrack for the black experience

The holiday season is five months away, but Earth, Wind & Fire received an early gift Thursday. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., announced that the group will be one of the marquee recipients at the 42nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors later this year.

Standing alongside Earth, Wind & Fire on the prestigious night in the nation’s capital will be actress Sally Field; singer Linda Ronstadt; conductor, pianist and composer Michael Tilson Thomas; and the founders of the revolutionary children’s television show Sesame Street, the first TV program to receive the award.

The Honors recognize contributions to American culture through the performing arts. A gala performance toasting this year’s winners will be held at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 8 and aired on CBS a week later.

It’s EWF, though, that will give the night an unmistakable groove. The group, formed in Chicago in 1969, spanned genres from soul and Afropop to disco. Its lead singer, driving force and all-around musical savant, Maurice White, died in 2016. Surviving members Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson will be on hand to accept the honor.

Earth, Wind & Fire’s earliest success can be traced back to the ’70s, when the group helped ignite the blaxploitation era by creating the soundtrack for Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. From there, the group, which included up to 10 different musicians during its prime and hoisted six Grammys, carved out its own musical lane and identity during a culturally rich decade that helped shape the sound of black music. Its biggest records include “Reasons,” “Sing A Song,” “Would You Mind,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “Shining Star,” “Boogie Wonderland,” their cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” and arguably its two biggest cultural touchstones in “Let’s Groove” and the 1978 dance classic “September.”

From left to right: Verdine White, Ralph Johnson and Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire attend the 37th Annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7, 2014, to honor Al Green.

Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images

“My principle for producing,” White told Billboard in 1979 after the runaway success of “September,” “is to pay attention to the roots of America, which is doo-wop music.”

Forty years later, Earth, Wind & Fire’s music is still at the root of love, peace and the black experience in America. They’ve performed for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and inspired Prince, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder with their aesthetic execution. The band’s legacy continues to pump heartily through hip-hop, their music having been sampled by the likes of Drake, Kanye West, Timbaland & Magoo, Cam’ron, Yo-Yo and Ice Cube, Mac Miller, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z and countless others.

In his 2014 biography, Bailey reflected on the process of recording the group’s 1975 triple-platinum album That’s the Way of the World. He dubbed it “a spiritual experience” and said that “when Maurice [White] played us the finished mix … I thought we sounded like angels. … It was as if God had been guiding us.”

When the Kennedy Center commemorates the band later this year, it will be further proof that Earth, Wind & Fire’s journey isn’t done yet.

As 2019’s new fall TV shows come into focus, more black antihero stories need to be told In putting black characters who dwelled in darkness on screen, ABC and others expanded the meaning of mainstream blackness

TV’s major networks made their upfront announcements recently, and there are some interesting shows coming to screens this fall.

Saturday Night Live vet Kenan Thompson finally lands a starring vehicle with NBC’s The Kenan Show, a family sitcom about a single dad. ABC’s black-ish spinoff mixed-ish stars Tika Sumpter and centers on an interracial hippie family in the 1980s. Megalyn Echikunwoke is one of the leads on Not Just Me from Fox. It’s about a woman coming to grips with discovering her father sired multiple children. Sunnyside is a Kal Penn-driven NBC sitcom with a multiethnic cast about a former New York City councilman who helps immigrants living in Queens, New York. Folake Olowofoyeku stars with Billy Gardell in Bob Hearts Abishola, a CBS sitcom about a middle-aged white guy who has a heart attack and falls for his Nigerian cardiac nurse. “Hardy har har.”

“Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

Considering returning shows such as The Last O.G. and the ever-popular black-ish on traditional networks, there seems to be a resurgence in sitcoms as it pertains to black programming. That isn’t incidental; networks have only recently been embracing of dramas driven by black leads. And that aversion spoke to how those networks saw black imagery and how it is received by white audiences. We had to fight to get black antiheroes on the small screen.

So often in American pop culture, dysfunction in characters has been used as a parallel for the wider human experience — and that dysfunction is regularly white and male. No matter how many snitching wiseguys or horse-killing compadres Tony Soprano strangled, bludgeoned or shot, no matter how many rivals, partners and associates Walter White murdered or manipulated, it was all supposed to show us something about the human condition.

As is the function of privilege, white storytellers not only have the benefit of larger, wider platforms but also of not having to navigate racism’s dizzying maze of double standards and slanted expectations. White criminality on screen could say something about humanity; black criminality on screen was expected to say something about black people. From the ‘hood movies of the early 1990s to that other beloved HBO drama The Wire, if bad black people were at the center of the story, there would be a lot of hand-wringing about what the portrayal was going to yield in a culture that undoubtedly relishes demonizing black folks.

That burden of portrayal and mainstream platforms’ indifference toward black creators and audiences meant that, at least on the small screen, dark or dramatic black content was suddenly in short supply. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as dysfunctional white people became the centerpiece of American television, black shows nearly disappeared from the popular landscape. Even during the beloved “heyday” of black TV shows in the ’80s and ’90s, scripted black TV tended to be predominantly family sitcoms. The few shows that were still prominent in the 2000s remained PG-friendly half-hour comedies — until Scandal.

The hit show Scandal, created by Shonda Rhimes (left) and starring Kerry Washington (right), debuted in 2012 and announced the arrival of a new era in black television.

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

Debuting to strong ratings back in 2012 and becoming the No. 1 show in its time slot, Shonda Rhimes’ hit announced the arrival of a new era in black television. The show was the first major contemporary drama with a black female lead. In centering on a complex black woman who was both obviously brilliant at what she did but who was wrestling with personal demons and character dysfunctions that would threaten all that she’d built, that prime-time hit changed what popular black television in the “prestige TV”-driven age could look like. Characters such as Olivia Pope of Scandal, Paper Boi of Atlanta, Ghost St. Patrick of Power, Taystee of Orange is the New Black and Cookie Lyon of Empire would be driven by drama, heightened spectacle, suspense, surrealism and provocative storytelling. They showcased intriguing characters of questionable morals but undeniable charisma and riveting conflict. Of course, these were all very different kinds of shows, but they all highlighted the development of a new wave.

The black TV experience of the 2010s has not been defined by sitcoms or reality shows, although both have remained consistently popular. No, much like the wider culture, so much of our television experience has been driven by melodramas, crime shows and nighttime soaps. And in putting black characters on screen who dared to dwell in darkness, it’s helped expand the scope of mainstream black content. “Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

But that doesn’t mean disparities have disappeared.

The Starz series Power became a surprise hit in 2014 when it debuted. A glitzy urban series about a drug kingpin attempting to climb the social ladder of Manhattan’s elite, the show is the biggest on the network, but the writing and acting aren’t quite at the level of top-tier television dramas, and the tone keeps its storytelling just shy of grim, forgoing (or negating) suspense for shock and salaciousness. And while a character such as Lucious Lyon was always portrayed as the devil in a suede jacket — and there is no denying Cookie Lyon is no angel either — Fox’s Empire relies more on pomp and melodrama than actual suspense, casting the show’s darkness against a blinged-out haze of camp and histrionics. There still seems to be a dearth of black-themed shows on television willing to fully commit to taking their protagonists to an unsettling place, one that, while compelling, also doesn’t assuage the audience’s discomfort.

Taraji P. Henson (left) and Terrence Howard (right) star in the Fox hit Empire as Cookie and Lucious Lyon.

Photo by FOX via Getty Images

And Netflix’s ever-popular ensemble prison drama Orange Is the New Black has showcased a diverse set of black female characters: inmates of varying backgrounds thrust together in a minimum security prison. The show highlights personalities that can be as sympathetic and relatable as some are manipulative and murderous. But the acclaimed series was initially marketed as the story of an upper-crust white woman plucked out of her pampered world and now doing time — something it eventually subverted, to be sure. But did being pushed as such help ensure that it wouldn’t be received as a niche “black show” by audiences and critics?

The May 19 series finale of Game of Thrones was the talk of pop culture, as HBO’s gargantuan hit wrapped eight seasons of ice zombies, dragons, brothels, torture and incest with a controversial last episode that underwhelmed many and confounded others. But the better finale that night was from the cable network’s half-hour thriller-comedy Barry, a stunning little show that ended its second season in emotionally gripping (and shockingly violent) fashion. While obviously not the grand blockbuster that HBO has had in Thrones, Barry has proved to be another major critical success for the network, with star Bill Hader earning the outstanding lead actor in a comedy series Emmy last year for his work on the show, which he executive produces with Alec Berg.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting.

On the show, Saturday Night Live alum Hader gets to indulge his serious side and delivers some stellar performances. As hitman turned aspiring actor Barry Berkman, Hader’s everyman persona and comedic talents are still evident, but it’s secondary to a starkly stellar dramatic performance as the emotionally fraught, reluctant killer. The show deftly balances the more screwball moments with searing tension that has all the suspense of a David Fincher thriller. When the violence happens, it’s often swift and brutal — and without a wink or nod. Barry’s genuine desire to change his life sits parallel with his more rage-filled tendencies, and that inner conflict often leads to someone catching a bullet.

Popular shows Orange Is the New Black, Empire and Power will all be concluding soon. The final season of Orange Is the New Black hits Netflix in July, with Fox’s hip-hop soap opera and Starz’s 50 Cent-produced hit ending their runs with their upcoming respective sixth seasons. As such, we will be saying goodbye to some beloved on-screen bad people in the next several months. Hopefully, when we look back at these characters and shows, we’ll see what was only the beginning of a more diverse era in black programming. With upcoming shows such as For Life (described by ABC as “a fictional serialized legal and family drama about a prisoner who becomes a lawyer, litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit”) and returning series such as Snowfall and How to Get Away With Murder, black antiheroes are still on our screens — but networks shouldn’t let such shows fall to the periphery.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting. Our deepest dysfunctions can make for compelling truths on screen. Our dark tales are as affirming as any, and they only added to the broadening of our on-screen identity. If these wildly different shows have one common legacy, that is certainly it. And that’s not a bad thing to be remembered for.

Can LeBron James’ new reality competition show distance itself from the pack? ‘Million Dollar Mile’ is the latest in a crowded field

LeBron James might have finally found his first real challenge in the television game. The debut of his new CBS reality show, Million Dollar Mile, drew less than stellar ratings Wednesday night despite a promising lead-in from network stalwart Survivor.

As a producer, James is best known for shows that reflect his social justice interests, such as Warriors of Liberty City, Shut Up and Dribble and Student Athlete. Million Dollar Mile is a lighthearted departure that pits amateur athletes (who are given a two-minute head start) against pros who excel at things like Tough Mudder, CrossFit, Spartan Races, etc.

There’s a crowded field of these shows, including The Titan Games (Dwayne Johnson), Ultimate Beastmaster (Sylvester Stallone), American Grit (John Cena) and Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge. (The last of which prompts this viewer to wonder whether you’re guaranteed a new 3-D-printed skull if you do, in fact, break the one you came with.)

Million Dollar Mile defender Isaiah Vidal (left) races to scale a building before runner Kenny Bennett (right) can catch up.

CBS Broadcasting

Hosted by minor league baseball celebrity Tim Tebow, Million Dollar Mile fits in with the rest of the genre, which is to say it’s best watched on mute while fast-forwarding straight to the physical challenges. It’s shot in the dark, and the competitors are outfitted with harnesses that feature strips of fluorescent-colored light over each shoulder. The production design makes the mile-long course, which runs through downtown Los Angeles, look like a video game. And the course itself is characterized by obstacles with names that make you wonder which intern had the responsibility of coming up with them. To earn the chance to win the $1 million grand prize, competitors must first win five in a series of Byzantine challenges, including:

Bamboo forest – A field populated with bendy poles that look like pool noodles with little platforms on them. Competitors must jump from pool noodle to pool noodle without touching the floor. The floor is “lava.” (It’s not. It just means you have to start over again.)

Flies on the wall – It’s described as a parkour obstacle, but it’s really more of a test of how well you’d do hanging onto the ledge of a building and then scuttling from that ledge to another for about 80 or so feet.

Spiraling up – A bunch of vertically arranged honeycomb-shaped platforms. Competitors must pull themselves up until they reach the last platform, then bungee jump to the ground.

Each challenge is worth more than the previous one. If you decide to quit after, say, three challenges and $50,000, you get to keep the money so long as you beat your opponent at scaling a building. But if the opponent wins, the competitor forfeits everything. No one got past more than two challenges in the pilot.

The show possesses the same sort of professional gloss we’ve come to expect from a King James production. But will anyone miss it if it disappears from the CBS prime-time lineup? Give it a few weeks and we’ll know.

Mahershala Ali: Baller or nah? We checked out whether the Oscar nominee could really ball back in the day

From Gabrielle Union, Queen Latifah, 2 Chainz, and Dwayne “The Rock’”Johnson — singers, actors and rappers have often bragged about their athletic accomplishments. #ShowMeTheReceipts, a recurring feature at The Undefeated, will authenticate those declarations. In this installment, we verify actor Mahershala Ali’s receipts.


As the player development manager for the Washington Wizards, Kamran Sufi doesn’t have a lot of time to watch much television. But he’ll try to make an exception on Sunday night about the time the Academy Award for best supporting actor category is announced.

“’I’ll be interested,” Sufi said. “I want to see what happens with Hershal.”

“Hershal” is Mahershala Ali, the Academy Award-winning actor who is favored to win his second Oscar on Sunday for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley in the movie Green Book. But before Ali played Shirley, or Cottonmouth (Luke Cage), Remy (House of Cards) and Juan (Moonlight) he was known as Mahershala Gilmore, a Division I basketball player at Saint Mary’s College of California, just outside of Oakland.

Before he won an Oscar, Mahershala Ali played college hoops at Saint Mary’s College

Ali played four years at Saint Mary’s, with his best season coming as a senior when he averaged seven points and 1.8 rebounds in 27 games as a starter. His college career ran parallel to Steve Nash at Santa Clara, which means the two-time NBA MVP faced off against the 2017 Academy Award winner for best supporting actor in the movie Moonlight at least twice a year for four years.

That 2017 Oscar earned Ali, a 6-foot-3-inch guard known for his slashing ability on offense and his tenacity on defense, the privilege of being the first Division I basketball player to win an Academy Award.

“If there’s a player I would compare him to it, would be Marcus Smart,” said Sufi, who was a year behind Ali at Saint Mary’s. “Wasn’t a great 3-point shooter, but did just enough to keep you honest. A solid defender who was physical. Hershal was competitive, and he always played hard.”

Remember how LeBron James entered the NBA with a man’s body? That was Ali when he entered Saint Mary’s, a solidly built guard who was a standout player at Mt. Eden High School in Hayward, a city just under 20 miles south of Oakland.

“In terms of the look of a ball player, he had ‘it,’ ” said Ernie Kent, the head basketball coach at Washington State who was about to enter his second year as the head coach at Saint Mary’s when he recruited Ali. “His body was very developed, and once he got into the weight room with us, he got stronger and stronger. We tried to turn him into a point guard, but it would have been a lot better had we just left him in the off-guard position.”

That’s the position Ali played in high school, where he was a key player on the Mt. Eden High School team that played for a state championship during his sophomore season (losing to Servite High School from Anaheim in the 1990 CIF Division III state title game played at the Oakland Coliseum).

Ali was part of the Mt. Eden team that was stacked the next year, rising to No. 1 in the state Division III rankings going into its February 1991 game against Hayward, the No. 1 ranked Division IV team.

That game is always a huge crosstown rivalry. But in 1991 there was added drama as Ali had emerged as a key player for Mt. Eden after leaving Hayward, where he played on the junior varsity team as a freshman and was expected to be a key contributor once he made the varsity.

Mahershala Ali in his high school uniform for Mt. Eden.

Courtesy of Mt. Eden HS

“He really should have stayed with us, but he went to Mt. Eden because his stepdad wanted him to become the focal point of the team,” said Gerald “Juma” Walker, who ended his career as the No. 2 all-time prep scorer in California. “We played a more free style of basketball, while at Mt. Eden they had a Bobby Knight-style coach that had them playing like robots.”

That robotic team went on to beat Hayward rather easily, 78-56, that night before an overflow crowd. Walker, a Bay Area legend who played for four years at San Francisco, led all scorers with 25 points that day, Ali scored 14, leading five Mt. Eden players in double figures.

“They were restricted,” Ali told the San Francisco Chronicle after that game. “I don’t think anyone’s played that kind of defense against them.”

That’s a comment that Walker said held true when it came to Ali. “Hersh was like a Trevor Ariza-type player: athletic, strong defender who would hit the open shot. And he would dunk on somebody from time to time.”

To be an effective player in the Bay Area during that era of the late ’80s and early ’90s — which featured Jason Kidd, Lamond Murray and Drew Berry — you had to be tough. In a 1991 sectional semifinal, Ali and his teammates helped hold Murray — who played 12 years in the NBA — to 19 points (which was 10 points below his scoring average) in a Mt. Eden win.

In 1992 Ali, a co-captain at Mt. Eden, was named the prep player of the week by The Daily Review newspaper in Hayward. The newspaper credited Ali with “being the defensive leader”on a team that was limiting opponents to just 46.5 points a game.

“Every region has players that play different ways, and [Ali] wasn’t your typical Bay Area player,” said Hashim Ali Alauddeen, co-founder of the Oakland Soldiers youth basketball organization. “He played a game like he was playing football: nonstop aggression. Determined. Never passive.”

It wasn’t just Ali’s aggressive play that allowed him to fit right in at Saint Mary’s. He connected immediately with his teammates because of his hair-cutting ability. “He’d come to our room — or we’d go to his — and would charge us $5 for a haircut,” said Troy McCoy, a forward at Saint Mary’s for two years. “I’m a picky guy, but he had skills. I let him cut my hair.”

Ali was also considered the best dressed player on the team. “I’d get up at 8 in the morning and throw on some slip-ons and sweats for class, and [Ali] was putting on a nice outfit to look presentable,” Sufi said. “He always had interests that were outside of basketball. Not only was he into fashion, he also wrote poetry. He just had a different energy about him.”

Which made it easy for Ali to detach himself from the game as playing time, early in his career, was scarce due to more refined players occupying most of the playing time in front of him. As he reflected on his time at Saint Mary’s in an essay he wrote for the school’s website in 2011, Ali said that by the time he graduated, “I no longer thought of myself as an athlete.”

He elaborated on that during a 2017 interview with NPR, as he explained his shift toward acting. “At a certain point, basketball became the thing I was doing the most, but it was really in my periphery. It was really a focus on how to, in some ways, keep moving in this direction towards something that allowed me to express myself in a way that sports didn’t.”

That direction was leading him to acting, which Ali put his energies into at Saint Mary’s. After graduating from Saint Mary’s, Ali left for the opposite coast to attend New York University, where he eventually earned his master’s degree in fine arts.

His first noticeable role came in 2001, when he appeared on the television series Crossing Jordan.

“Someone called me at home and told me to turn on NBC, and I see him on Crossing Jordan,” McCoy said. “If he’s on something, I watch it. I really liked him in Benjamin Button, and he was outstanding in Green Book. I stopped watching Luke Cage after they killed him off.”

Over time, the roles became more significant to the point where Ali is today: one of the top actors in the business.

Mahershala Ali poses with his Oscar for best supporting actor.

EPA/NINA PROMMER

“I give him credit because here was someone who had a vision, and he pursued it at an early age,” Kent said. “He just blossomed to the point where he’s one of the best actors out there.”

Ali was able to connect those acting skills with basketball in 2017 when he narrated the CBS opening for the NCAA national championship game.

While he says he no longer plays, Ali stays connected with this college teammates regularly via group chats.

“All of us who played at Saint Mary’s are close,” said McCoy, who hosted Ali on his recruiting trip to the school. “We know what everyone’s doing, and we support one another.”

Which is why many of Ali’s college teammates — even if they’re not television or movie fans — will likely tune into the Academy Awards to catch the best supporting actor category.

“I remember when he became involved in theater, and you could see the rush he got from doing that replaced his rush of playing basketball,” McCoy said. “It’s amazing to see him in the acting game as one of the best.

“I don’t care about award shows,” McCoy added. “But I’ll be watching.”

Today in black history: Aretha Franklin records ‘Respect,’ Morehouse College established, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 14

1760 — Richard Allen, founder of the first independent black denomination, is born into slavery in 1760, eventually buys his freedom and moves north. He converted to Methodism but grew tired of the mistreatment of black parishioners. He founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first national African-American church, in 1816.

1867 — Augusta Institute, now known as Morehouse College, is founded in Augusta, Georgia, by William J. White and former slave Richard C. Coulter. In 1879, the school was moved to Atlanta and its name was changed to Morehouse College after Henry L. Morehouse, the corresponding secretary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society.

1936 — National Negro Congress is organized. The inaugural meeting was held in Chicago and attended by 817 delegates representing more than 500 organizations.

1946 — Happy birthday, Gregory Hines (1946-2003). The theater, film and television actor won a Tony Award as best actor in a musical in 1992 for his portrayal of Jelly Roll Morton, the pioneering jazz composer. Hines had roles in films such as Waiting to Exhale, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club and White Nights, as well as his sitcom, The Gregory Hines Show, on CBS from 1997 to 1998. He was also a recurring character on NBC’s Will & Grace and ABC’s Lost at Home.

1966 — Wilt Chamberlain scores 41 points against the Detroit Pistons to break the NBA career scoring record, finishing the game with 20,884 career points.

1967 — Aretha Franklin records “Respect.” Fifty years ago today, Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” recorded her iconic song in Atlantic Records’ New York studio. This Otis Redding cover became the influential soul singer’s first No. 1 hit, providing a soundtrack for the civil rights movement and proving to be an important piece of music for women who were seeking the same type of regard as men.

On Flag Day, the most patriotic among us should be kneeling ‘This Land is Your Land’ would be a better anthem for justice and freedom

“… Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me. ”

— Woody Guthrie from “This Land is Your Land”


With Memorial Day behind us, Flag Day next week and Independence Day next month, I’m reminded of my grandfather, Elzie Bowman. Born in the 1880s, he was too young to fight in the Spanish-American War and too old to fight in World War I.

Like many people who were never tested in battle, grandpop loved to wave our nation’s flag. This time of year, he decorated our homes with flags: In the 1950s and early 1960s, he festooned our North Philly home with little flags he placed in window boxes or a white planter; in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he unfurled a larger flag that flapped majestically in the wind from our front porch in Southwest Philly.

He loved his country. And he was willing to forgive our great nation its many transgressions without question, again and again. And he had little patience for those who’d sought to change or debate the status quo: “What are you,” he’d thunder, “some kind of red?”

Fifty years ago, my grandfather spoke in a Midwestern rumble that reminded me, vaguely, of that of Walter Cronkite, a CBS TV anchorman. Like grandpa, Cronkite hailed from Missouri, the Show Me State.

There was no way to show my grandfather that questioning the government and protesting against its failures and follies, at home and abroad, was an essential part of challenging, strengthening and sustaining America, even though the First Amendment protects protest, just as it does the press, which he loved. My grandfather waved the notion of protests away, especially protest against the Vietnam War, as if it were an insistent fly buzzing around his head.

Consequently, if my grandfather, a tireless sports fan, were alive today, it’s likely he would dismiss the NFL players who kneeled during the playing of the national anthem to protest police misconduct and societal inequality.

My grandfather, like those who would choose the sensibilities of some over equality for others, like those who would choose decorum and protocol over justice, like those who would drape their prejudices and privilege with Old Glory, would be wrong.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the nation’s most fervent and meaningful flag-wavers fighting for social justice, in the streets, the courts and the voting booths.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always numbered change agents such as Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez among the nation’s greatest patriots.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” as a national anthem that had blessed America and spurred Americans to act in the name of justice and freedom, from sea to shining sea.

The kneeling NFL football players have stood tall for freedom and justice in this great land for you and me. Ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and those who have followed him have been among the standard-bearers for the nation’s highest and most enduring ideals. Some, even those who will proudly display the flag during our most patriotic holidays, forget how important protests, especially those of the dispossessed, have been in making and keeping America great.

Last month, NFL officials put the finishing touches on an agreement with players that committed $89 million to a social justice platform. But the bosses and the people who boss the bosses for the NFL also ruled that before games NFL players must stand for the national anthem on the sidelines or stay in the locker rooms when it’s played. Failing to comply with the new rule, which was instituted without talking with the players, could result in fines. The two league actions form a latter-day Missouri Compromise aimed at maintaining the balance of power between team owners and players, just as the original Missouri Compromise sought to balance political power between Southern and Northern states during the long run-up to the Civil War.

Today, the NFL and the nation live in what Abraham Lincoln called a house divided. Who knows if, when, where and how NFL players will protest next season? But when they present ways to wave the flag for justice in America, whether it’s kneeling on the sidelines or standing tall in their communities, let’s stand ready to salute them.

Happy Flag Day.

In honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Dance Theater of Harlem tells its audience to ‘keep movin’’ Dancer Carmen de Lavallade and civil rights activist Xernona Clayton were feted at the company’s season-opening performance

Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, 50 years ago reverberated through society, bursting through in riots across the nation but also in less obvious decisions. It was King’s death on April 4, 1968, for instance, that prompted Arthur Mitchell to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Mitchell was on his way to Brazil to start the National Ballet Company of Brazil. But in the wake of King’s death, he decided to return to Harlem, New York, the following year and founded a dance company and school in the basement of Harlem’s Church of the Master.

Wednesday night, 50 years after the death that ultimately led to its founding, Dance Theater of Harlem opened its performance season at New York City Center with a celebration of King’s legacy. It did so by honoring one of his most trusted deputies, Xernona Clayton, and dancer Carmen de Lavallade, who brought a magic to the stage that exalted in the joys of blackness.

Last month, the company had announced its new season with a video starring its students that connected the movement of dance with The Movement.

Wednesday night, the students recreated the performance on stage, accompanied by Tony Award-winning singer and actress Lillias White singing “Keep Movin’.” They even added a quick Wakanda salute to the choreography.

The program connects social movements with bodily movement, and so the company honored Clayton with a performance called Change, introduced by Michelle Miller, a correspondent for CBS who called Clayton her “fairy godmother.” Besides her work on civil rights, Clayton became the first black person to host a talk show in the South in 1967 and later went on to become an executive at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta.

Besides heading King’s advance team, Clayton was a close friend of the King family. She’s featured in the new documentary King in the Wilderness, where she revealed how she used her own makeup compact to hide the clay filling King’s face as he lay in his coffin after Coretta Scott King expressed horror at the job done by King’s undertaker.

In a nod to the oft-unseen women, like Clayton, of the civil rights movement, Change featured three women dancing to the vocals of the Spelman Glee Club. At one point, the onstage lights dimmed and the atmosphere grew ominous. The voices of the Glee Club rang out — Don’t let nobody turn you ’round — and the dancers emerged, arms interlocked, determined to power through whatever followed.

Clayton addressed the movement’s gender gap in a phone interview Wednesday morning.

“I resent the fact when people said Dr. King was a chauvinist. I said, ‘Everybody was!’ Men didn’t give us women the same regards that we deserved then,” Clayton said. “We get some of it now, of course. With a lot of effort it brought us to this point now where we’re doing better. We’re not really there yet, so I don’t want anybody to think that we think we have arrived when it comes to maximum inclusion. You certainly knew at that time that women had a role to play, and it was the distant background role, but everybody was doing it.”

“I resent the fact when people said Dr. King was a chauvinist. I said, ‘Everybody was!’ Men didn’t give us women the same regards that we deserved then.”

Civil rights leader Xernona Clayton in Atlanta, June 12, 2017.

Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for Hyatt

If Change was a recognition of struggle, the evening ended in full-on celebration with a performance of choreographer Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla, recreated under the supervision of Leo Holder, the son of Geoffrey and de Lavallade.

Judith Jamison, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and a mentee of de Lavallade’s, introduced the performance. “It’s a work that proves that being a black ballet dancer does not mean leaving your culture behind,” she said.

Dougla is also a reminder that there is more to blackness than pain, grief and triumph over trauma. It’s a dance that tells the story of a wedding ceremony between African and Hindu. De Lavallade beamed as she watched from the audience, clapping her hands, which were encased in gloves covered in silver sequins.

“For me, this means don’t stop,” de Lavallade said after the performance. “Just keep going. You can contemplate, but you have to move forward in contemplation. There’s so much going on. You can’t let outside influences get to you, and that’s what’s happened. You can’t do that. You have to keep your eye on the prize — isn’t that what [King] said?”

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.

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.