HBO’s new ‘Black Lady Sketch Show’ is both funny and long overdue All you need to survive the apocalypse is a headscarf and a League of Extraordinarily Funny Black Women

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from A Black Lady Sketch Show, it’s this: All you need to survive the apocalypse is a headscarf and a League of Extraordinarily Funny Black Women.

HBO’s newest late-night sketch show, created by Robin Thede, is an instant classic. It premieres at 11 p.m. ET on Friday.

The apocalypse provides a frame for the show’s sketches, which are built around a core cast of Thede, Quinta Brunson, Ashley Nicole Black, and Gabrielle Dennis. The women kiki it up in a well-appointed living room in between each sketch, but when one of them opens the front door, the world looks like a scene out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Among the topics explored: How ashiness feels like slavery, groupie culture in the era of the Negro Leagues, and the relative invisibility of plus-size black women and how it makes them excellent candidates for espionage. The last bit is adapted from a conceit made popular by Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy in Spy, but Black and guest star Nicole Byer successfully push the idea further along. That energy propels the show from the start. Its title sequence is populated by Crank Yankers-style marauding puppet versions of the actresses and backed by a Megan Thee Stallion track.

The show, co-produced by Issa Rae, is a rarity in modern television. Its writers, Lauren Ashley Smith, Holly Walker, and Amber Ruffin, are all black women. The show is directed by Dime Davis, whose most recent credits include a directing stint on the television reboot of Boomerang.

Thede, at this point, has grown accustomed to pathbreaking. She made history in 2014 when she became the first black woman to serve as head writer on a late-night comedy show, The Nightly Show, hosted by longtime Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore. She then had a short-lived turn as host of her own show, The Rundown with Robin Thede.

While A Black Lady Sketch Show provides ample time for each of its cast members and guests (which include Angela Bassett, Laverne Cox, Aja Naomi King, Gina Torres, and Patti LaBelle) to shine, Thede is exceptionally malleable. One of the great blessings of A Black Lady Sketch Show is that she’s used it to showcase her acumen with accents, from a spot-on send-up of Jackée Harry’s perpetually lustful 227 character to a rarely heard Louisiana Creole drawl in a sketch about a “Bad Bitch Support Group.” Her best may be a character named Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, a “world-renowned philosophizer” who marries Iyanla Vanzant-style self-actualization woo-woo ideology with the hotep paranoia of Frances Cress Welsing.

Ali-Youngman is a “pre-Ph.D.” who sports platinum blond locs, African mud cloth, and calls herself a “hertep.” She’s got the sort of pop culture stickiness that’s bound to take on a life of its own, like the Key and Peele sketch that turned TV football player introductions into an extended mockery.

From left to right: Holly Walker, Robin Thede, Quinta Brunson, and Daniele Gaither send up 227 in A Black Lady Sketch Show.

Courtesy of HBO

A Black Lady Sketch Show is so funny, and so packed with fresh ideas that it’s bound to leave audiences wondering: What took so long for something like this to exist?

Well, because like so many other aspects of American life, white guys had a head start, one that began in 1876 with the founding of the Harvard Lampoon, the oldest college humor magazine in the country. The Lampoon has had an outsize influence on American comedy, one that’s arguably just as influential as the writing of Mark Twain. For decades, it’s served as a feeder pool for writers, comedians, and actors to break into television. But that pool has been overwhelmingly white and male.

Seeking to provide a solution to the racial disparities in comedy, Chris Rock attempted to start a humor magazine at Howard University in 1998. The Illtop Journal, its name a takeoff from the university’s student newspaper, The Hilltop, eventually fizzled, with Rock conceding in a 2014 piece for The Hollywood Reporter that a lack of resources contributed to its demise. The piece, was, among other things, a response to an earlier controversy, when Kenan Thompson said in an interview that the reason Saturday Night Live hadn’t hired a black woman since Maya Rudolph left in 2007 was because “in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”

Dennis was one of about a dozen black women called in for a showcase aimed at finding such women and the show eventually announced that it hired Sasheer Zamata as a featured player and Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes as writers.

Since Saturday Night Live’s premiere in October 1975, seven black women have been either part of the repertory or featured players on the show (Danitra Vance, Yvonne Hudson, Ellen Cleghorne, Rudolph, Zamata, Jones, and Ego Nwodim). Many of its cast and writers come from a farm team of improv troupes around the country: the Upright Citizens Brigade, the Groundlings, and Second City, as well as the Lampoon. Those haven’t necessarily been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion, either. Even though Jones, who was personally mentored by Rock, has carved a niche for herself on SNL, her role there is routinely oriented around the idea that she’s undesirable. See her running gag with Colin Jost, in which Jones is positioned as a hulking, predatory black woman unaware that she’s trying to punch above her perceived dating weight class. The roles for black women there have been stunted by the limited universe of possibilities SNL writers have imagined for them.

A Black Lady Sketch Show simply has a different starting point. In Black, Brunson, and Dennis, Thede has assembled an all-star team from all over television. Black came from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Brunson is perhaps best known for her work in Buzzfeed video’s humorous shorts, but blew up in 2014 with her The Girl Who Has Never Been on A Nice Date series. Dennis, who played Candice on Insecure, has worked on a number of shows.

Compared with its people of color-dominated predecessor, In Living Color, A Black Lady Sketch Show highlights the changes in social norms that have taken place since the Fox sketch show debuted in 1990. For one, it’s considerably more queer-friendly. Brunson is a surprisingly handsome stud in a sketch about about a butch lesbian who steals dance moves.

It’s also amazing what happens when a show simply features black women instead of centering men playing them in wigs. A sublime weirdness results, one that recalls the goofy, left-field wit of Key and Peele while incorporating a critique of modern expectations surrounding beauty and grooming.

Because black women have historically been so poorly represented in improv and sketch comedy, especially on the nation’s ultimate platform for it, it was easy to draw a faulty conclusion: Maybe this is just how sketch comedy works. Maybe it’s just an inhospitable form for black women.

That makes about as much sense as concluding that maybe black people just aren’t good at playing quarterback when a black quarterback is shunted into an offensive system constructed for a different set of talents from his own. A Black Lady Sketch Show is the long-overdue meeting of a highly skilled quarterback with an offensive system that works with, rather than against, the athlete’s talents.

From ‘The Last O.G.’ to hosting The ESPYS, Tracy Morgan is back Returning from a horrific accident, the comic had to learn to be funny again

Tracy Morgan’s sharks don’t have names.

“Are you crazy?!” he asks me, jutting his head back in mock dramatic fashion at the idea of such a silly question. And then comes the isn’t-it-obvious? tone familiar to anyone who has heard Morgan’s deadpan delivery: “They’re sharks!”

Still, he’s enamored of them. Proud even. He smiles as he points out a hammerhead, a whitetip and a Japanese leopard shark. A puffer fish coexists in that same tank; he’s the first fish to greet us as Morgan uses a remote control to turn the security system off and open the doors to the pool house to reveal the shark tank in the backyard of his palatial, 31,000-square-foot estate in suburban Alpine, New Jersey.

He smiles as he looks over at me. Nearby, there’s a swingset and play area for Maven, his 6-year-old daughter, a barbecue grill area that only he can touch and a pool that would rival that of any five-star vacation compound.

“My babies swim in here,” he says of the house his fish live in, “and my family swims out here,” he says, pointing at his pool.

Morgan, who will host the 27th annual ESPYS show July 10 on ABC, smiles again.

It’s one of the last times he smiles during my time here. For much of our conversation this day, Morgan, who became famous for his ability to make people laugh, is reaching for tissues as we sit next to one another in matching leather recliners in his office, unapologetic about the tears that continually fall from his eyes.

We’re only a few weeks removed from the five-year anniversary of a crash that nearly took Morgan’s life. He had to learn how to walk again. He had to learn how to talk again.

He had to learn how to find, and be, funny again.

“My face was this big,” he says, measuring a space big enough for three Tracy Morgan-sized heads to fit inside.

The accident was horrific. But he’s been coping with trauma since he was a small child. Like many sports superstars, he understands what it takes to return from a devastating injury.


Tracy Morgan and Allen Maldonado of TBS’s “The Last O.G” attend the WarnerMedia Upfront 2019 arrivals on the red carpet at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 15, 2019 in New York City.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

2019 has been Morgan’s comeback year.

Yes, he’s been working steadily since a triumphant return 14 months after his accident to host Saturday Night Live, the show that made him famous.

But 2019 is where the payoff begins.

His TBS series The Last O.G., which he created with Jordan Peele, is some of his best work ever. Morgan plays Tray Baker, a recently sprung ex-con who is surprised to see how much Brooklyn has changed during his 15-year stint in prison, with chain coffee shops, yoga studios and white people inhabiting the old haunts where Baker once worked as a petty drug dealer.

The series launched as the network’s biggest original TV debut last year, came back for a successful second season and was recently renewed for a third. The funny wasn’t a surprise — this is Tracy Morgan, after all — but the show’s depth was revelatory.

“A lot of times as a writer you’re scared of playing with the tone too much because people, admittedly, tune in to a show because they want to laugh or they tune in to a show because they want to see dragons. Very few of us ever think consciously, ‘Oh, I’m going to tune in to that show because I want to laugh and cry,” says comedian and actor Diallo Riddle, who wrote on season one of The Last O.G. “But I think that Tracy had such a good relationship with his audience and such a good relationship with the truth. Even old white people in rural communities can watch that show and watch black men in Brooklyn and be like, ‘I love Tracy Morgan!’ ”

The good news doesn’t stop there. Later this year — Morgan beams every time he mentions this — he’ll begin filming his yet-to-be-announced role in the highly anticipated Coming to America sequel that is set to hit theaters sometime next year. Eddie Murphy is an idol, and now he’s also a friend.

And this week, of course, the 50-year-old Morgan will host the ESPYS, perhaps his biggest audience since the Saturday Night Live gig in October 2015, 16 months after a crash that nearly took his life.

“I still remember the time I saw Tracy after the accident and you just go, ‘I’m so happy he’s alive.’ That’s all you could say,” Riddle says. “I’m so happy he’s alive because he kept grinding, and then to go into a third season of the show and to be hosting the ESPYS? … The ESPYS is a beast of an undertaking. It’s not easy physically or mentally. And the fact that he’s hosting it, given where he was, is incredible.”


June 6, 2019: Tracy Morgan at his home in Alpine, New Jersey just a few weeks from the five-year anniversary of the traffic accident that nearly killed him.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

Back inside his home, Morgan is wiping away a fresh set of tears.

I ask if his ability to be emotionally open is a result of his accident or if this is who he was before June 7, 2014. We don’t generally give black men license to feel like this — not without it being some sort of indictment on their masculinity.

His life has been painful, far more than one person should have to deal with, really. And Morgan allows himself to be, well, human.

“My dad survived Vietnam … he came home a junkie. He didn’t go there that way, [but he] came home that way. That was his terror, seeing babies dying in villages, and he expressed those to me,” Morgan says. “I didn’t understand it because I was a kid in [his] prime in high school, playing football, but I didn’t know what his struggles. … He had demons. You go to war, nobody wins.”

Certainly not Jimmy Morgan Sr., who died of AIDS when Tracy was 19. Morgan also talks about how much he looked up to his Uncle Alvin, the cool uncle who played college football and who died of the same syndrome.

That kind of trauma can be crippling. Somehow, Morgan discovered comedy.

“You find it in that pain,” he says softly. “Without no struggle there’s no progress. People don’t know. ‘How did he get that funny?!’ My father and my mother breaking up when I was 6. My oldest brother being born with cerebral palsy. … Him having 10 operations by the time I’m 5. My mom’s by herself, struggling to help my brother with them Forrest Gump braces on, him screaming, she trying to teach him … I seen all of that.”

Morgan pauses.

“You know why I became famous?” he asks quietly. “Because the kids of the playground could be mean. When they be mean, you go get your big brother, your big brother got your back. … I couldn’t do that. I go get my brother, he come, hey, he crippled. They start laughing. So I had to learn how to be funny to keep the bullies off my a–. All of my life, turned into business.”

Then, as if tossing it over in his head for a bit, he chases all of that heft with some lightness: “And plus, I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?” he recalls. “They want you around, you make them laugh! My biggest audience is female. Same motivation. I’m married now, but I still want to make the girls laugh. Y’all got the world on your shoulders. At the end of the f—ing day, if you can make her forget about all that s— for an hour, you the man.”

“Great comedians — which Tracy is one of the great comedians — their comedy comes from pain,” says director David E. Talbert. “And the great ones allow themselves to access that, and then they share that.”

Morgan’s first taste of fame came in 1993 via HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, which was hosted by Martin Lawrence. Back then, it was a must-watch series, introducing and amplifying many now-famous black comics like Chris Tucker and Bernie Mac.

His childhood best friend Alan always told him how funny he was and that he should really make a go at pursuing comedy. Morgan, who was born in the Bronx and reared largely in Brooklyn, took workshops and eventually was working the local comedy club circuit. Comedy was his love, but he still had one foot in the hustle game.

“I was selling crack [when] my friend Alan got murdered, my best friend,” Morgan shares. Losing Alan made him focus.

“I come home, my youngest son is 2 years old. … Told him, ‘I’m gonna do comedy. …’ By all means, [my first wife, Sabina] could’ve said, ‘No you ain’t m—–f—-, we got three kids. What you going to do is go get a f—ing job.’ She never did that. She said, ‘Pull the trigger, Tracy.’ ”

“Four months later, I was on Def [Comedy] Jam.”

And then, another painful memory: “She passed away three years ago. Cancer.”


Comedians Chris Rock, left, and Amy Schumer, center, sit with actor Tracy Morgan and Morgan’s daughter Maven during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the New York Knicks and the Golden State Warriors, Feb. 26, 2018, in New York.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Morgan was almost gone too.

On June 7, 2014, a Walmart truck driver who had been awake for more than 28 hours was going 20 mph over the 45 mph speed limit in a work zone on the New Jersey Turnpike. He crashed into a limousine bus carrying Morgan and a small group of friends and colleagues. Morgan’s friend James McNair died, and Harris Stanton and Ardie Fuqua were hospitalized. Morgan himself was listed in critical condition and was comatose for two weeks.

The driver, Kevin Roper, was indicted on charges of manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault. He later accepted a plea deal that dismissed the charges in exchange for entering a pretrial intervention program. Walmart settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

Morgan’s life changed that day. He came out on the other side appreciative. Attentive. Spiritual, yet spirited.

“When bad things happen to you, that’s when you grow. It was painful at the time,” he said. “But now you look back on it and you go, ‘Wow.’ So this story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

But before he could do the work physically, Morgan’s road to recovery had to start with forgiveness.

“You have to learn to forgive yourself before you can forgive anybody. OK, you had a setback on the field. But a setback ain’t nothing but a setup. Because when you come back better, you going to do something that ain’t been done,” Morgan says. “Don’t you ever let no doctor, nobody, tell you you can’t. They said no, I broke every bone in my face. On this side of my skull you could see my brain. … I was scared. I didn’t know if I was ever going to walk. That’s when I had to put the work in. …”

Morgan begins to cry again.

“Ugh. Damn. Excuse me.”

I tell him to take his time. Soon, he begins to tell a story of sitting in his wheelchair and watching his infant daughter scoot around in her walker.

“I don’t want her looking at me like this; she ain’t understand what’s going on. I’m working, I’m working hard, because I want to walk again, I want to play with my daughter, I want to chase my daughter. That was my motivation. I wanted to chase my daughter. I didn’t care about show business. I wanted to chase my daughter,” he says, wiping away fresh tears. “And I worked so hard for a year just to get back on my feet. And I don’t care what athlete you are, you better pick a motivation, something near and dear to you. Something that you would give the world for. And you better go for it, don’t let it be over. I put the work in for a year, and then the triumph, like we was talking about. I saw my daughter — she was 14 months — and I seen her take her first steps. It made me get out my wheelchair.”

I ask him to clarify: seeing his daughter take her first steps motivated him to attempt to take his own first steps?

He nods.

“She took her first steps and I got up, and my wife started screaming. She said I was going to hurt myself because my femur was crushed. And I was like, ‘F— that,’ and I stood up and I took a step to my daughter. I took a step with my daughter,” he says. “That was four months after I got hit. The rest of the year, I just started working. It wasn’t just physical, it was cognitive — I didn’t even know my name. I had to learn how to talk again.”

Drying up the last tears with a new piece of tissue, he says, “It was a bad accident.”


This is who Tracy Morgan has always been.

In 2008 he co-starred alongside Ice Cube in First Sunday, a comedy written and directed by Talbert, who was a top-grossing playwright before he directed Morgan in what was his directorial debut.

In that film, Morgan played LeeJohn Jackson, best friend to Cube’s Durell Washington. Together they were portraying petty thieves who concoct a rather desperate scheme to steal $17,000 from a neighborhood church in order to pay off a debt for Durell’s ex-girlfriend — to not do so would mean that she and their son would relocate to a different state.

“This story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

After Morgan auditioned for the role, he and Talbert went out for lunch.

“He started telling me about his relationship with his mother, which is a complicated relationship,” Talbert recalls. “I knew that if I could access that, then he could really dig into the character.”

“And I remember when he was about to do his big scene with Loretta Devine. And he says, ‘Today I’m going to cry because real actors cry! Richard Pryor cried!’ That’s all he was screaming all day! The scene singing ‘Happy Birthday’ with Loretta Devine, he was just telling everybody, ‘I’m going to cry! Real actors cry!’ ”

Talbert gave Morgan some advice before they dug into the scene: “I said, ‘Tracy, the thing about emotion is you have to try not to cry, but it moves you so much that you can’t help but to cry.’ And I said, ‘So I want you to try as hard as you can not to cry. And as she’s singing to you, I want you to think about all those birthdays that were missed.’ ”

That scene is one of Morgan’s favorites. By the time Devine gets to the last few notes of the song, she pulls Morgan in close for an embrace. The camera zooms in on his face, a mixture of bewilderment and sadness. Tears are streaming down the sides of his nose.

It wasn’t just good acting. It was real life. When Morgan was 13, he left his mother’s home to live with his dad in the Bronx. He and his mother went years without speaking.

“Loretta Devine started singing. And Tracy, I saw him. [He] wasn’t playing the character anymore. He was the little boy thinking about his own relationship with his mother. And slowly as Loretta started to sing, he was welling up and just the most genuine, authentic tear fell. I yelled, ‘Cut!’ I only had to do one take of that scene,” Talbert says. “It was beautiful. It was perfect. I only did one take, and he said, ‘D, excuse me for a moment.’ And he went to the back, and about 15 minutes later he came out and I said, ‘You OK?’ He said, ‘I just called my mother and I told her she missed out on a real actor.’ ”

Since the accident, Morgan and his mother have reconciled.


“I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?”

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

As we’re wrapping up, I remind Morgan of a joke I once heard his friend Chris Rock tell in a stand-up routine. Rock observed that he was the only black man in his tony neighborhood and shared all he had to accomplish to afford to live on the street. One of his neighbors is a dentist, Rock said, before landing the punchline: “Know what I had to do to afford this house? Host the Oscars!”

Morgan breaks into the hardest laugh I’ve heard from him this day. He has a similar story.

“Just last week I had some rich white man jogging in front of my gate. So I’m coming out my gate, and he’s looking at my house. And he’s looking at me …”

“So what do you do?” the jogger asked him.

“And I said, ‘About what?!’ ”

Morgan and I both break out laughing.

“I had to justify why the f— I live here … but you know I start f—ing with him,” Morgan says.

“You know the McDonald’s box the french fries come in?”

“Yeah.”

“I make those. You know the straw you drink the Coke [out of]? I make those.”

Morgan laughs at his own story.

“And he started laughing. … In your mind, you got to justify why I’m here.”

Tracy Morgan is here — and hosting the ESPYS.

“That’s going to be fun. Because everybody knows that Tracy Morgan thinks outside the f—ing box. … Buckle up, kids. It’s about to get wild and woolly.”

Today in black history: Alcorn University is founded, Chris Rock is born, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 7

1871 – Alcorn University opens. The oldest public historically black land grant institution in the country and second-oldest state-supported institution of higher learning in Mississippi is founded by former slaves in 1871, named after Gov. James L. Alcorn. Seven years after the school’s opening, Alcorn University changed its name to Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College. In 1974, Alcorn A&M became Alcorn State University after Gov. William L. Waller signed House Bill 298.

1945 – President Harry S. Truman appoints Irvin C. Mollison judge of the U.S. Customs Court, making him the first African-American appointed to a position in the federal judiciary.

1967 – Comedian, actor and talk show host Chris Rock is born in Andrews, South Carolina. He’d go on to enjoy tremendous success as a comedian, including hosting his self-titled show on HBO.

1974 – The Caribbean nation of Grenada attains its independence from Great Britain. The island was claimed as a French colony in 1674 and remained under French rule for 203 years. In 1877, the British proclaimed Grenada its colony until the natives achieved their independence 97 years later.

1989 – Future NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas is born in Tacoma, Washington.

After 30-plus years and 100-plus roles, Samuel L. Jackson ranks his own roles No. 1 is not what you think it is

Samuel L. Jackson, who stars as “Frozone” in this week’s The Incredibles 2, knows a dope character when he sees one. The legendary actor, now 69, has been bringing to life some of the world’s most quotable characters for 30 years now — his first film credit comes from Spike Lee’s 1988 historically black college classic School Daze.

In 2011, Jackson entered the Guinness Book of World Records because he’s had roles in movies with more than $7.4 billion in total box office, making him the highest-grossing actor of all time. Since then, those totals have only grown. And even when he’s not in a high-grossing film, he can simply turn a movie out. He has more than 100 feature film credits, with several repeat roles in big-budget sequels and prequels and more on the way.

Jackson has done a lot over the years, but something he’s never done is rank his own work. In the spring, we sent Jackson a list of his 111 feature films and asked him to rank his top 20. He did it, while qualifying the list as his very own favorite roles. He’s aware that this list will spark arguments from die-hard fans — pun not entirely unintended. With that, in reverse order, Samuel L. Jackson ranks Samuel L. Jackson.

20. Lazarus Red

Black Snake Moan

2006

“Black Snake Moan”

AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

I spent a year learning to play the guitar to do the role. I had a really great guitar teacher … it was fun. Being back in Tennessee and shooting … [I had] an awesome time with Christina [Ricci]. She’s a great actress.

19. Charles Morritz

The Red Violin

1998

“The Red Violin”

AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

A really beautiful film. One of the most cerebral characters that I’ve played. I spent time with guys that made violins so that I’d understand the process of evaluating violins and knowing their authenticity. It’s just a sprawling and beautiful movie.

18. Elmo McElroy

Formula 51

2001

“Formula 51”

Alliance Atlantis/Getty Images

The most appealing part was I got to wear a kilt the whole movie, which was kind of awesome. And I was running around with these golf clubs on my back the whole film. I rocked these braids and a big turtleneck sweater. We shot in Liverpool, where … I knew about soccer, football, but I never invested in it. So because I was there they took me to some Liverpool games and I became a fan.

17. Major Marquis Warren

The Hateful Eight

2015

“The Hateful Eight”

The Weinstein Company

Just because he is who he is. Major Warren. Always fun having a character who explains himself in plain words, and there’s no mistaking who he is and what he’s about.

16. Darius Kincaid

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

2017

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”

Lionsgate Entertainment

I could have put Kincaid higher. I loved doing that film with Ryan [Reynolds]. We were able to put together two interesting characters with really diverse life views that meshed very well. Ain’t it funny?

15. Ordell Robbie

Jackie Brown

1997

“Jackie Brown.”

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Robbie could have been higher on the list. Ordell is just a good-time guy who lives in a world of his own. He’s his own man. He’s a great friend to have, but he’s definitely the wrong guy to cross. He definitely will put you in a trunk of a car. There’s no ‘might’ about that.

14. Ken Carter

Coach Carter

2005

“Coach Carter”

Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Inspirational. A great story. And the real Ken Carter was around all the time, talking and hanging around. … [He] helped me with some of the characterization. And my relationship with those guys — I liked those kids a lot. We had a great time shooting that movie. And in reality, the team won that championship that year, but the studio decided it was a better object lesson to have them lose, after sacrificing and doing all the things they did to let them know that things don’t always work out that way. But the journey is the thing — not the thing.

13. Carl Lee Hailey

A Time to Kill

1996

“A Time To Kill”

Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Carl Lee is a powerful character. And I have a daughter. I understood the dynamic of what was going on … and how it all worked. I have a lot of mixed feelings about that film. I know it’s a powerful film, and it’s great. But we shot a lot of stuff that’s actually not in that movie, which taught me the power of editing. When we did it, I was doing one thing, and then when the film comes out, it looks like Carl Lee had this plan that he was going to kill these dudes and he was going to get away with it. But that was never the plan. The object of that whole thing was to let my daughter know that I am your protector. And if anything happens to you, I will take care of it. So she wouldn’t have to worry about those two guys being on the planet that she’s on, ever again. And that was the goal of Carl Lee, to do that. And if he got away with it, fine, but if he didn’t, he still did his job as a father. But they made Carl Lee seem a little conniving. I still love him. He represents all the black men in my family, because that’s who they are: hardworking guys who believe family first.

12. Mr. Barron

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

2016

“Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children”

20TH CENTURY FOX/MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTD

I always wanted to play a sort of demonic, crazy guy, and Mr. Barron fits that bill. It’s a Tim Burton movie, so I got to be as bizarre, as quirky as I wanted to be. And that’s very freeing in its own way.

11. Stephen

Django Unchained

2012

Stephen is my dude! Stephen was the king of that plantation, because Leo [DiCaprio] is off fighting his slaves and running his strip joint or whatever. The people didn’t know he could read. They didn’t know he could write. He wasn’t as decrepit as he portrayed himself to be. He was a very formidable guy. Without him, that plantation wouldn’t function. And once again, it’s awesome to be unapologetically evil. And believe me, there are some scenes we shot that aren’t in that movie that Quentin [Tarantino] was like, ‘I don’t want nobody to kill you.’ We shot some stuff that’s pretty nasty. I keep telling [Tarantino], ‘You can do it as like a five-part thing on Netflix or something.’

10. Zeus Carver

Die Hard with a Vengeance

1995

“Die Hard: With a Vengeance”

20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

A springboard role. Most people say that I got famous after Pulp Fiction. When we were shooting DHWAV, Pulp Fiction happened. And Bruce [Willis] and I went to France and watched Pulp for the first time. We’re like, ‘Wow, this is great.’ Bruce is like, ‘Yeah, this is a good movie. People are going to know who you are. But this movie that we’re doing right now is the movie that’s going to put you on the map.’ And Die Hard With a Vengeance was the highest-grossing film in the world that year. So all of a sudden I was an international name.

9. Richmond Valentine

Kingsman: Secret Service

2014

“Kingsman: Secret Service”

Fox Movies

I was fussing to [director] Matthew Vaughn about Kingsman. I was like, ‘So how can I shoot this dude in the face and he still be alive and I kind of got stabbed in the back and I died? Valentine deserves a second take, right?’ I loved him.

8. John Shaft

Shaft and Son of Shaft

2000

“Shaft”

Eli Reed/Paramount Pictures Corp./Getty Images

I was like everybody else: ‘Why do we need to do another Shaft? The one we’ve got is like totally good.’ But then I thought about it: ‘OK. But you have to put Richard [Roundtree] in it so that everybody would know I’m not pretending to be Richard; our characters are relatives.’ It was Shaft for the millennium. The Christian Bale character was going to be the bad guy. But I kept saying that I can just go by his house and kill him. Why would he be the bad guy? And Jeffrey [Wright] was killing it as Peoples. He was the best of bad guys. It’s easy to catch this little rich white kid from Jersey who is hanging around. But [Peoples] is part of the fabric of that community, Uptown, where Shaft is supposed to be.

7. Elijah Price

Unbreakable

2000

“Unbreakable”

Getty Images

Elijah could be up higher too. I love Elijah. He’s just so cerebral. He has his own sense of cool and style. He’s sure of who he is, what his path is and where he’s going. And he’s made plans to find out why he is the way he is, and why other people are the way they are. Even more will be revealed in February when Glass comes out in 2019.

6. Gator Purify

Jungle Fever

1991

“Jungle Fever”

David Lee/UNIVERSAL PICTURES

“Dance for me, Gator!” Gator was me — I was that character. I’d been out of rehab maybe two weeks when we shot Jungle Fever. I didn’t need makeup or nothing. In fact, when I showed up to shoot and I went to craft services to get something to eat, Spike [Lee] had all these Fruit of Islam guys around the set, and they thought I was one of the crackheads from around the neighborhood. They were like, ‘Get away from the table!’ Gator is really close to me because [he] signified me killing that part of my life and moving on. So when Ossie Davis, the Good Reverend Doctor, killed me in that movie, it kind of freed me from all those demons I had in my real life. That was kind of cool. That was the summer of dueling crackheads. It was me, and Chris Rock was Pookie in New Jack City. Gator was that guy everybody had in their family. I was like, ‘This has to be about me ruining my family relationships with all the people that care about me because you get stuff from them, and then you just break their hearts.’ It’s easy to play high. He was just always looking for that next thing. Using his mom, using his brother, using all these people was what Gator was about.

5. Nick Fury

Marvel Universe films

2008-19

“Marvel’s The Avengers”

Marvel

Nick is one of those blessings that just kind of fell out of the sky. I was in the comic book store because I’m in Golden Apple like once a month or twice a month. I saw the ‘Ultimates’ cover and I’m like, ‘Did I give somebody permission to use my face on the comic book?’ So I called my agent and manager and they’re like, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ So I told them, they called Marvel and they’re like, ‘Well, you know, we’re thinking we’re going to make these movies and we hope he’d like to be a part of it.’ And it also says so inside the comic. ‘If they make a movie about us, who would you want to play you?’ And Nick Fury says, ‘Samuel L. Jackson.’ I’m like, ‘Done!’ Because the Nick Fury I knew was this white dude, because I’ve been reading comics all my life and that’s who he was. It was a wonderful opportunity to step into a place and hang out with some superheroes.

4. Frozone, Lucius Best

The Incredibles, 2004

The Incredibles 2, 2018

“Incredibles 2”

Disney/Pixar

He has a superpower. And Lucius is this really cool dude. He shows up, he hangs out, he’s got a solution. He never gets flustered. And he’s got this really dope wife that nobody’s seen yet.

3. Mace Windu

Star Wars

1999-2005

“Star Wars: Attack of the Clones”

Lucasfilm

He’s a Jedi. Come on! I remember going to the first Star Wars in New York when it came out and I was sitting there staring at that movie like, ‘Wow, how do you get in a movie like this? How? How? How?’ And then I was on a talk show in London and this guy asked me if there were any directors I hadn’t worked with that I wanted to work with, and I knew they were shooting Star Wars. I was like, ‘I would really like to work with George Lucas, blah blah blah.’ And I didn’t think anything about it. [Then] I got a call: ‘George would like to meet with you, he heard you wanted to work with him.’ So I went to the ranch and I talked to him and he said, ‘I know your work, but right now I don’t know what I could do. And I was like, ‘Look, man, I could be a stormtrooper. You could put me in one of those white suits, I’ll run across screen, nobody even needs to know!’ He was like, ‘I’m going to find something better.’ Two months or so later, I got a call: ‘George wants you to come to London, he’s found something for you to do …’ I showed up … hadn’t seen the script. They put me in this room, and [someone] came in and said, ‘OK, why don’t you try on this costume?’ And I go, ‘Is this a Jedi costume? Am I a Jedi?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh. Yeah.’ And then somebody came in and gave me a little piece of paper — they still hadn’t given me a script. Who is Mace Windu? And they go, ‘That’s you.’ So I’m actually going to be in the movie?! And then I go downstairs and this man comes over with this big [case] and he opens it and is like, ‘Lightsaber handles; pick one.’ My goal from that point on was, ‘OK, don’t get killed. Just don’t piss anybody off, don’t get killed. Just stay alive.’

2. Jules Winnfield

Pulp Fiction

1994

“Pulp Fiction”

Miramax/Giphy

Jules is one of those kind of dream roles you get. I saw Quentin [Tarantino] at an audition for Reservoir Dogs and I didn’t get the job. But I was at Sundance when they had the first screening. So I watched the movie, I went to him and I said, ‘I really enjoyed your movie.’ And he was like, ‘So how did you like the guy who got your role?’ I didn’t even realize he knew I’d auditioned because I was so bad! But he said, ‘I’m writing something right now, and I’m going to send it to you.’ So I’m off doing a movie and I get this brown envelope with a script in it, and I read it and I’m like, ‘Is this as good as I just thought it was? Wait a minute. Start over.’ I read it again and was like, ‘Wow, amazing!’ And it was just … John [Travolta] and I hanging out and talking and being about who we’re about. It was the most natural and not movie-ish, picture-ish kind of things that I’d ever read. It was like doing a play on the screen.

1. Mitch Henessey

The Long Kiss Goodnight

1996

“The Long Kiss Goodnight”

New Line Cinema/Getty Images

My dude! I love that movie so much. A movie way ahead of its time. Geena Davis — awesome Charly Baltimore character. The studio didn’t know how to market that film because they didn’t know that women like seeing themselves as badasses. I kept saying, ‘You need to advertise this thing during the day when women are watching soaps.’ Whatever. They were like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ But it’s gone on to be like this really great cult classic because Geena is so good. And the Mitch character in the original iteration got killed. When they did a test screening, the audience like lost its mind. Like no, you cannot kill Mitch Henessey. So we went back and we redid those [shots] with Larry King. We did that like three days before the movie opened. And they stuck it in the movie. But I just loved Mitch because he’s got such a big heart. He’s a fun-loving, kind of profane guy that wants to be this thing that he’s not. But he’s not afraid to step into the space for somebody that he cares about.

Comedian W. Kamau Bell says we’re all just waiting for ‘the straw that breaks the racist camel’s back’ The ‘United Shades of America’ host has thoughts on Starbucks, Rage Against the Machine and comedic journalism

Comedian W. Kamau Bell’s Emmy-winning series, United Shades of America, recently returned to CNN. The show, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET, follows Bell around the country as he has conversations with all sorts of people, from doomsday preppers to residents on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Usually he’s in the role of curious everyperson, asking questions to get us better acquainted with all the folks who make up the country.

But recently, Bell found himself in the position of expert when it came to the matter of two men who were arrested and removed from a Philadelphia Starbucks for being black and not purchasing a drink. Bell was the target of a similar slight in 2015. He was at an outside table at the Elmwood Cafe in Berkeley, California, with his wife, who is white, and her friends. According to Bell, an employee saw him as an unwelcome interloper and told him to “scram.”

I spoke with Bell about the renewed relevance of that incident, along with the latest season of his show, which includes episodes about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Gullah Geechee culture and the border.

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

Do you think there is a heightened understanding of racism since the election? The Starbucks incident not only turned into a multiday news story, they’re shutting down 8,000 shops for racial sensitivity training.

You think about all the racist things that have happened to black people — and I’m just focusing on black people for the sake of this conversation — in the history of this country, we don’t know about, like what percentage do you think we know about? You have all of the racism from like, even this morning, I was walking out of my kids’ school and this white woman I don’t know goes, ‘Mr. Michael!’ Mr. Michael is a black man that plays guitar for kids at the library who is shorter than me, has a full beard, doesn’t wear glasses, there’s like all sorts of different ways I’m not Mr. Michael. And I go, ‘Nope.’ And she goes, ‘Oh, I thought …’ and I just kept walking.

I was like, ‘Should I tweet this?’ No, because I’m going to have Twitter all day going, ‘Everything that happens to black people is racism.’ We don’t tell our friends and family about it because then somebody will talk about it all day long. The thing that happens when someone looks at you weird on the subway instead of sitting down next to you. You don’t tell those stories to everybody.

Black people in this country have been waiting forever for the straw to break the racist camel’s back so that America can finally confront its legacy and present, future of racism. So every time that something like this happens, we get excited. Maybe this is it. Maybe it’s not Stephon Clark being shot in his backyard. Maybe it’s these two black men at Starbucks being kicked out.

You’ve said that you think comedy can fix creative issues but it can’t fix real-world issues. But your show spends quite bit of time in the real world.

Yeah, we do, but I think that what I’m doing in the real world is highlighting those issues, but I’m not fixing them. I’m just sort of going, ‘Hey, look at this thing.’ That is either something you should know more about or something that’s really bad that we’ve gotta fix. But I’m not, I can’t think of myself as, the actual fix of the issue. At the best, I’m like the doctor that diagnoses you and then walks out of the room and says, ‘I hope another doctor comes.’ I think that comedy is great with lubricating the conversation or getting people to pay attention. I think the arts are great for that in general.

One of my favorite bands is Rage Against The Machine. Now, you know, Rage Against The Machine has some great songs that are about political activism and about responding to oppression but they’re not actually political activism. They’re just songs.

I try to do things to help people out and highlight black voices and support causes, either through my privilege or through money. But I know that’s different than making a TV show. When people say the show’s either a tool of activism or education, then I feel like I’m doing a good job.

Do you feel like that’s enough?

No, it’s not.

Over the course of several years, I had to sort of convince people, producers on the show, that it’s not enough to just talk to somebody who’s an activist. We actually have to say what organization they work with and actually say in a way that people can hear it so they can Google it later. You know what I mean? Or be clear about where the agenda lies. And go, ‘Oh, and I went here where people are allowed to volunteer.’ You make sure that that is part and parcel of the thing, encouraging people to get involved.

I can’t waste time convincing people of how I want the show to be done at this point. It’s got to be done the way that I want it to be done, which is certainly pointed and clear. I want it to be relatively easy for teachers to use it as a tool for education and/or activists use it as a tool for activism. If it’s not entertaining and doing that, then it’s not the show I want.

Now that you’re in your third season, do you feel that you’ve worked out exactly the way you want it to be?

I’m never satisfied, so I still look at every episode like, ‘Why did we do this?’ ‘I should have done that better.’ ‘Who let me wear that shirt?’ The show is still a work in progress. I still watch [Anthony] Bourdain’s episodes and think, ‘Jesus, how did they do that?’ There’s still a goal, and I’m not trying to do Bourdain’s show, but it feels like that is a pure expression of him. And I feel like with my show I’m still working on getting it to be the pure expression of me.

That’s hard with television no matter what you’re doing.

That’s why I still do stand-up comedy, ’cause I can step up on stage, just sort of think of a thing, say the thing, see what people react and then say good night.

A bunch of comedians are doing some marriage of comedy and news, such as Wyatt Cenac and John Oliver and Samantha Bee. There’s this overlap with journalism because they’re both in the business of seeking truth. Or truth-telling.

I think they’re both in the business of trying to explain the world. And I think we certainly know journalists who explain the world in a way that is not truthful. And we know that there are comedians who explain the world in a way that is not truthful. So that’s the one thing I would say, we’re both trying to explain the world. But then it’s about what our agenda is in trying to explain the world.

Do you think comedians are more effective at delivering truth?

I think comedy is always the most effective way to deliver truth, not just through comedians but comedy in general. Every public speaker in the world is trying to open on a joke. It’s the first thing they tell you in public speaking. Everybody who is a good public speaker is using humor. Martin Luther King Jr. used humor. Malcolm X used humor. Maya Angelou could be funny. It doesn’t mean they’re cracking jokes, but they’re using humor to sort of get the message across. I think comedy is the most effective way to communicate anything because if somebody laughs at what you say, you know they were paying attention. It doesn’t mean they agree with you. It just means you know they were paying attention.

It makes sense that the comedians that America always elevates to be the best examples of the art form are the so-called ‘truth-tellers,’ people who are politically minded, whether it’s Richard Pryor or George Carlin or Lenny Bruce, Chris Rock. Those are the people we put as the best versions of the art form. Margaret Cho, Joan Rivers. There’s a lot of comedians who are funny, that make a lot of money, but we don’t at the end of the day put them on that Mount Rushmore of America’s stand-up comedy heroes.

‘Why didn’t you punch him in the face?’ First of all, I wouldn’t have, because that’s not how I do it.

I see you’ve got an episode on Gullah Geechee culture, and you’ve got an HBCU episode. Are you planning to sue Beyoncé for stealing all your ideas?

[Laughs.] We do mention Beyoncé in the Gullah Geechee episode. Lemonade certainly came out before we did that, but she did the Coachella thing, and we can’t re-edit that episode. Beyoncé, give me a heads-up next time! You’re making me look bad, Beyoncé! I thought we had something. No, I didn’t. She doesn’t know who I am.

The thing that’s possibly good is that it helps people come to those episodes with a little more knowledge. Maybe they’ll be more excited about our episode. I can’t promise that our HBCU episode is going to be as good as Beyoncé’s Coachella performance. I’m not prepared to say that as much as CNN might want me to say that for headlines: ‘Kamau Bell says his HBCU episode is better than Beyoncé’s Coachella performance! But I do think it’s a good companion piece.

Is there anything you regret about sitting down with white supremacist Richard Spencer?

That it didn’t happen closer to the time it aired. That’s the only thing I regret. People were asking me questions about things that hadn’t happened yet. ‘Why didn’t you punch him in the face? First of all, I wouldn’t have, because that’s not how I do it. Second of all, he hadn’t been punched in the face at the time I sat down with him. I would have asked him about it. I regret that we didn’t tape the episode and air it a week later. But that’s not how our show works.

The thing we didn’t do this season is we didn’t interview any sort of quote-unquote obvious TV villains like Richard Spencer or the Ku Klux Klan because I was tired of it and I didn’t want people to think it was my go-to move. I don’t want people to predict what I’m gonna do based on, ‘Oh, he’s gonna find some white supremacist somewhere and sit down across from him.’ I feel like I got the white supremacists’ voice in the show and also America runs on white supremacy, so we don’t have to go find a person. It’s there; it’s always running on America’s computer. That did maybe hurt CNN’s ability to put out a clip of me sitting across from someone who wants to kill me and certainly that gets us good headlines and things. But I feel like I’m tired of it and I think America’s probably tired of it, too, because we are always sort of talking about the divide. We’re going to talk about the divide but we’re just going to focus on the part of the divide that I think needs to be focused on.

I don’t need to do an episode about HBCUs and go across from somebody who’s like, ‘I don’t think there should be HBCUs.’ We hear that every day.

You have an episode in Alabama this season. How did spending time in Alabama when you were a kid influence your adult life?

Every year of my life I would spend nine months with my mom in, like, Boston, and then I would go to Alabama for three months for every summer. And the worlds couldn’t have been more different. And then eventually I traveled back and forth so much that people in the North would go, ‘You sound like you’re from the South’ and people from the South would say, ‘You sound like you’re from the North.’ And so I was always like an outsider wherever I went. It taught me how to travel. It taught me how to go anywhere and be portable, how to talk to people wherever you go, and that’s what I do now. I travel all over the place. I’m portable and pretty good at talking to people no matter where I go. It also proved to me at a very early age that there wasn’t one version of America. I knew there was two: The North’s version of America and the South’s version of America, and then when I got older I found that there was even more than that.

It taught me from a very young age that a lot of people thought they knew what America was. But no, there’s a lot of different Americas out here.

Russell Simmons revolutionized the culture, but now it doesn’t matter Recent sexual assault charges reveal the damage that can be done to women under the cover of fame

To date, more than 10 women have accused Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct. The accusations range from harassment to rape. Simmons says, “I vehemently deny all these allegations.

The accusers include model Keri Claussen Khalighi. She says she begged for help as Simmons coerced her to have oral sex. Musician Sherri Hines accuses the author and Def Jam Recordings founder of throwing her on a couch and raping her. Tina Baker, a lawyer, says that Simmons, who managed her career at the time, invited her to his apartment, where he held her down and raped her. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet says that Simmons coerced her into sex after having his driver take them to Simmons’ place without her consent. Drew Dixon, a former Def Jam A&R executive and daughter of former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, accused Simmons of sexual abuse and also says former Epic Records chairman L.A. Reid sexually harassed her. (Reid stepped down from his position at Epic in May amid sexual misconduct allegations.)

The allegations against Simmons span from 1983 to 2016. “These horrific accusations have shocked me to my core,” he wrote to The New York Times, “and all of my relations have been consensual.”

Since the initial allegations were made public at the end of November, Simmons has stepped down from all of his companies. HBO comedy series has removed him from All Def Comedy. The New York Police Department is now opening an investigation, as seven of the alleged incidents occurred in New York City.

The question shouldn’t be what would the world look like without the art these men provide.

Any stories about Simmons up to two weeks ago would have had a totally different first paragraph. Before the allegations of sexual misconduct and assault, Simmons’ story would have started with his immeasurable contributions to black culture and, by proxy, American culture. With Def Jam, Simmons helped take hip-hop from street corners to Wall Street. His visionary approach to the music business is largely responsible for making rap music the pop culture juggernaut it is today.

Beyond that, his Def Comedy Jam launched the careers of comedians such as Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, who are of course now household names. The debacle of his RushCard debit card, in which thousands of customers were locked out of their accounts over a weekend and unable to access funds, was a stain on his otherwise good reputation. All of these accomplishments, and more, used to be Simmons’ resounding legacy.

Used to be, because none of that matters anymore. While the fruits of Simmons’ cultural labor are spread across global pop culture to this day and beyond, none of those contributions would be equal to the cost from the painful toll he’s accused of inflicting on women over the course of the past three decades. The road to greatness isn’t worth a damn if that road is paved with pain and violence toward women.

So we’re left with the idea that one of the main architects of the current musical landscape — in September, Nielsen reported that the combined genre of hip-hop and rhythm and blues is No. 1, for the first time, in overall consumption — has allegedly victimized women along the way. These women were managers, artists, journalists, all who — who knows, but — could perhaps have made even larger impact on the culture.

Simmons has always been a role model for what creativity, business acumen and hard work can do, how one person’s brilliance can transform the world. Now, he may be another example of the damage that can be done to women under the cover of fame.

There will be a push — as always, and especially when black female victims are involved — to litigate just how much sexual assault is acceptable in relation to a particular artist’s contribution to popular culture. R. Kelly defenders love bringing up that his music is just too iconic to discard. Bill Cosby defenders protest that their love for The Cosby Show is just too much to sacrifice, no matter his charges. The same goes for less-discussed accused transgressors: We revere Martin despite the allegations that the titular star sexually harassed Tisha Campbell. What about Dr. Dre? Floyd Mayweather? Mike Tyson?

Where is the line, and what will be left if every man who abuses a woman is exiled from his respective level of achievement? The fact is, art will survive. Brilliance is an infinitely replenishable resource that women who are free from the anxiety and trauma of violence are more than capable of providing. The question shouldn’t be what would the world look like without the art these men provide. The question should be how much better would the world be if everyone were free to create in a world where sexual assault and violence didn’t exist. Isn’t that more valuable than a few great albums and TV shows?

Are we entering the end times for the NFL? Professional basketball offers the NFL a blueprint for success: embrace the black culture of the majority of your players

The National Football League, the American sport that comes closest to resembling a religion, has its end times in sight: the year 2021. “The likelihood,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said in August, “of either a strike, or a lockout is in ’21 a virtual certainty.”

Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them.

Every religious text has mention of the end times. In just the past 30 years, we’ve survived Halley’s comet, Y2K, the end of the Mayan calendar and the rapture that was supposed to happen in September. But nothing lasts forever. The NFL has survived lockouts and strikes before and has seemed like Teflon for the past decade with sky-high broadcast ratings, massive revenues and an annual American holiday called Super Bowl Sunday. But the league has serious competition for American pastime status from the National Basketball Association.

This may seem far-fetched now, while the NFL’s television ratings lead the NBA’s by a wide margin (although numbers were down last season, and some wonder whether television ratings, in a streaming world, matter as much as they used to). And the NBA doesn’t have anything close to dominating a whole day in America like the Super Bowl. But the NBA, which is as popular as ever in this social media era, continues to embrace an important fact about American culture: Black culture and black people determine cool. Cool resists linear structures. If the NFL wants to maintain its dominance, it needs to embrace black culture or get left behind. Just like baseball.


Let’s be clear: The 2017 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers was the league’s most watched Finals since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls played the Utah Jazz in 1998. But the average 20.4 million viewers who tuned into each game is equal to the average viewership for a single Sunday Night Football game in 2016. And the NFL is still an unmitigated cash cow, with a net worth of more than $13 billion, dwarfing the NBA’s $6 billion figure. The average NFL franchise is worth $2.5 billion. Worth of the average NBA franchise: $1.36 billion, a 3.5-fold increase over the past five years. Over at Major League Baseball, the average team is worth $1.54 billion, but 50 percent of viewers are 55 or older, up from 41 percent in 2010. And in its defense, the MLB can still captivate the country when it has historic World Series matchups like last year’s battle between Cinderellas in the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. And they almost doubled back with a monster championship series between the Yankees and Dodgers if the former hadn’t lost to the Houston Astros. ESPN data shows the average age of baseball viewers at 53. The average age is 47 for the NFL, and it’s rising. The average age is 37 for the NBA, and it seems to be staying there. Baseball’s television ratings continue to trend downward.

Howard Bryant, ESPN senior writer and author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, summarizes the NFL’s stance in relation to the NBA and MLB: “Post-ABA merger,” he says, “basketball has done by far the best job of adapting to the people who play the sport, baseball the worst. The NFL has been in between, leaning towards a bad job.”

Why might the NFL be on its way to becoming MLB? Because the NFL is looking at a 2021 season that may not even be played. Because the NFL’s ostensibly mainstream stars — Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Eli Manning — who have dominated the past decade, are getting old. And many kids are being steered away from playing the game in its tackle form. “Participation has dropped,” Mark Murphy said in January. He’s president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers and a board member at USA Football. “There’s concern among parents about when is the right age to start playing tackle, if at all.” In a recent (nonrandom) study of NFL players, 110 out of 111 brains examined showed signs of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

But the NFL could spiral mostly because, perhaps more than at any other time in pro football history, the league is at a crossroads when it comes to race. League news right now leads with racial conflict. Players are protesting. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners are somewhere between demanding and begging them not to. And in the middle, fans fight over whose boycott of the NFL is actually having an impact on the ratings, if any at all.

“The NBA has caught up or passed the NFL on the cool factor. Whether that translates on the revenue side, that’s hard to know.” — Andrew Brandt, director, Moorad Center for Sports Law at Villanova

Free agent Colin Kaepernick, to bring attention to systemic racism and police brutality, opted on Aug. 14, 2016, not to stand for the national anthem. This has placed the NFL at the center of a discussion about race and sports. Kaepernick’s protest has spread around the world, from European soccer games to Midwestern high school football games. By most accounts, the NFL has botched the handling of the protests. A year later, Kaepernick isn’t in the league despite evidence of him being good enough to start on some teams, and he could surely be a backup.

The reason the anti-protest backlash has become so impactful for the black community is because there’s an understanding of what the fervor about protests is really about—silence. There are contradictions in just about every sentiment of outrage about the protests. Just look at the viral image of an NFL fan wearing a “I stand for the National Anthem” shirt while sitting on a flag. And at the fact that the NFL didn’t even start requiring players to stand for the Anthem until 2009—after the Department of Defense paid the league $5.4 million for “paid patriotism.” And at the fact the NFL actually violates flag codes in some of their representations of patriotism. Jerry Jones himself sat during the anthem at his first Cowboys game, in 1989. And Donald Trump’s finger-pointing at players (and owners) doesn’t erase the fact he insulted John McCain for being a prisoner of war and has lied about calling Gold Star military families who lost soldiers in battle this year. The anger over protests isn’t about patriotism, it’s about silencing black athletes. Steps the NFL may or may not make to quell protests will be seen as an endorsement of that silence.

On Oct. 15, Kaepernick filed a formal grievance against the NFL alleging collusion by team owners. “I think he should be on a roster right now, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers said in August. “I think because of his protests, he’s not.” Jay-Z rocks a custom Kaepernick jersey on Saturday Night Live, and his actual jersey leads the 49ers’ sales, even though he hasn’t taken a snap for them this season. Kaepernick’s likeness rules the streets. All the while, Kaep rarely speaks, instead continuing his push to donate a million dollars of his own money to various charities across the country, volunteering to donate backpacks to students and suits to parolees. Without so much as a news conference, Kaepernick is part of a daily news cycle, thanks to a massive social media following that watches his every move.

What Kaepernick is learning is something NBA players have known for years: Their social media channels are the best ways to get their points across. So when NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo reinforcing the rule that players had to stand for the anthem, NBA players (J.R. Smith notwithstanding) mostly took it in stride. That’s because they understand their social impact reaches further than the average NFL player’s. (Odell Beckham Jr., with 9 million Instagram followers, has the most by far of any NFL player.)

LeBron James, who has 39 million Twitter followers and 33 million Instagram followers, expressed that much in a news conference after he called Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter: “My voice … is more important than my knee. What I say should hit home for a lot of people [to] know where I stand. I don’t believe I have to get on my knee to further what I’m talking about.”

The NBA, its individual players, and fan community have used social media to become a 12-month sport.

Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors goes to the basket against the Houston Rockets on October 17, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

And that’s where the NBA dominates the NFL: at social media, where everything is happening. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, NBA teams have an average of more than 7 million followers, while NFL franchises average 4.6 million. Even during the NFL’s last season, there were more hashtags on Twitter dedicated to the NBA. In 2016, Forbes ranked the top athletes on social media: Four of the top 10 players were from the NBA, and the rest were international soccer stars. NFL players didn’t crack the top 10. The NBA social media connection allows players to enter lives and households in new and intimate ways.

Another major reason for the NBA’s ability to lap the NFL in social media is the NFL’s draconian rules about sharing videos online. Last October, the league sent out a memo barring teams from posting clips or GIFs of games. Teams that did so would be fined up to $100,000. While teams such as the Atlanta Falcons use clips from Madden video games to “show” highlights every Sunday, the NFL’s hard line limits many teams’ ability to deeply connect with fans where they are — which is, so much of the time, on their phones.

“The NBA is the more progressive league when it comes to digital,” said Jaryd Wilson, digital content manager for the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks have become an online darling thanks to creative Twitter posts and engagement with fans online. “In-game highlights are our highest digital performers and our most engaging types of content.”

The NFL’s limits on social media, and teams’ subsequent mockery of the decision, exposes a blind spot about American culture. African-Americans dominate what’s trendy on social media, and if “Black Twitter” determines that something is viral, it often becomes an American cultural phenomenon. Think of phrases such as “lit” and “on fleek” or crazes like the mannequin challenge — these began in blackness. On any given week, a new black-centered sensation, such as the NSFW #ForTheD challenge that dominated social media last month, takes over the country.

The NFL had that viral moment with Cam Newton doing his signature dabbing celebration in 2015, but he was as chastised for it as he was celebrated. Letters were written to newspapers about his “pelvic thrusts,” and Newton’s “arrogance” became the center of the story. And after a humbling Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos, Newton seemed put in his place. Instead of embracing him, the NFL demonstrated that it didn’t understand what moves the needle in American culture. It cut down one of its viral superstars — something the NBA just doesn’t do.

“The NBA has been significantly ahead of other leagues in diversity since the ’80s, and excitement has grown since.”

“Diversity is very important to us,” said the Hawks’ Wilson. “We know our demographic, and our audience, and it is about keeping up with those trends. We always think about how can we tap into diverse communities while trying to push ourselves forward.” It affects the Hawks’ bottom line significantly. The organization has taken things a step further by offering a full-on embrace of Atlanta music: acts such as T.I., Gucci Mane and Big Boi perform at halftimes throughout the season, which has resulted in increased ticket sales and price inflation every time a concert is announced. The Hawks’ Philips Arena is even now home to rapper Killer Mike’s Swag barbershop.

The NBA understands that rock is no longer the dominant genre of music. Last year’s Finals marketing soundtrack featured songs from Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. while the NFL featured the return of Hank Williams Jr. — who was dropped from ESPN’s Monday Night Football six years ago for likening President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. And while the NBA features a list of rap stars and rhythm and blues singers during All-Star Weekend festivities, this year the Super Bowl will feature Justin Timberlake, whose last, 2004 Super Bowl performance featured him pulling off a piece of Janet Jackson’s clothing, exposing her breast. Whether or not the move was planned, it went awry, and Jackson caught the backlash as Timberlake’s career flourished. These kinds of things resonate, and the NFL’s de facto pardoning of Timberlake is another reminder to the black consumer that the league doesn’t cherish their concerns the way the NBA so often does.

“The NBA has caught up or passed the NFL on the cool factor,” said Andrew Brandt, director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at the Villanova University and host of The Business Of Sports podcast. “Whether that translates on the revenue side, that’s hard to know.”

Yet, even as black America is ravaged by socioeconomic disparities, a 2015 Nielsen study explains that we’ve reached a tipping point with regard to black economic influence. “Today’s American mainstream is rapidly changing, and that change can be attributed in part to the growth and activities of African-Americans in the marketplace. Social media and the internet have become go-to communications platforms for African-American stories and content.” The study goes on to state that black consumer power is growing at unprecedented levels, reaching $1.2 trillion in 2015, a 275 percent increase from 1990. So the appeal to the black consumer is about more than just what’s “cool.” It’s about a consumer base that is increasingly vital.


The NBA season kicked off last Tuesday with a display of the chokehold professional basketball has on compelling storylines. LeBron James faced off against his former teammate and passive-aggressive foe Kyrie Irving. The Warriors lost a buzzer-beater to the newly constructed Houston Rockets that now boast Chris Paul — all while a Klay Thompson doppelgänger was the social media joke of the night. But the NBA’s offseason was almost as entertaining, full of memed stories and social media buzz, from the petty feud between Irving and James to Thompson’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-like adventures in China, Hoodie ’Melo and Kevin Durant’s bizarre Twitter dramas. The NBA, its individual players and fan community have used social media to become a 12-month sport.

Meanwhile, the NFL is years-deep into a seemingly never-ending barrage of Spygate, Bountygate and Deflategate. There was the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. Accusations about covering up CTE analysis. All of this, though, seemed only to slightly dent the NFL’s impenetrable shield: People seemed to have accepted the judge and jury status of Goodell, the misogyny and abusive history of too many players who continue to play despite domestic abuse cases, and folks kind of knew that playing football was damaging to athletes in the long term. But Kaepernick’s protest and its fallout illuminated a sharp and deep conflict within the NFL—and among its fans—that many weren’t expecting.

“Go back to Ken Griffey Jr. wearing his hat backwards in batting practice and they all lost their minds.” — Howard Bryant

An Oct. 11 study by The New York Times makes clear that the NFL is now one of the “most divisive” brands in America. The league doesn’t have to choose between its black players and white audience, but it does have to find a middle ground between black players and fans, and its white fans, a dilemma unique to the National Football League. The NFL is the only major male American sport that has mostly black players and a mostly white audience. The NFL is 67 percent black, but its audience is measured at 77 percent white. And although the league is two-thirds black, its top stars are white. In 2015, seven of the NFL’s nine top endorsement earners were white. Since then, black athletes such as Cam Newton and Odell Beckham Jr. have stormed the top ranks, but endorsements largely focus on quarterbacks. The New York Giants are the only team in the NFL that has never started a black quarterback. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, there were six black starting quarterbacks as of Week 7.

But by the time of the 2021 labor negotiations, the aforementioned Brady/Brees/Rodgers/Manning quadrumvirate will be out of the league. Andrew Luck, Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota are the quarterbacks most poised to be the league’s next torchbearers, and with them are Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott. So what happens when the faces of the league are as black as the rest of the players? How the NFL reacts will determine the future of the sport. Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have both been at the same racial crossroads. One league offers the NFL a blueprint for success, and the other a cautionary tale.


The NBA has had multiple eras in which it has had to realign based on demographics and its top stars. In 1979, three years after the NBA merged with the ABA, the league had a nearly identical demographic makeup as the NFL. Seventy-five percent of the NBA’s players were black, up from 60 percent a decade before, and only two of the league’s top 20 scorers were white. At the same time, 75 percent of the audience was white. Attendance was down, as were ratings, to the tune of a 26 percent decrease against the previous season. A 1979 Sports Illustrated article titled There’s An Ill Wind Blowing For The NBA laid out the question plainly: Is the NBA too black?

The article examined the feeling among fans and some owners that black athletes were “undisciplined,” “overpaid” and played “playground basketball” — all dog whistles. An unnamed executive was quoted: “The question is, are they [the black players] promotable? People see them dissipating their money, playing without discipline. How can you sell a black sport to a white public?”

There was a time when it seemed impossible for major league baseball to fall out of favor as the leading American sport.

The NBA answered that question two ways. One, David Stern became commissioner in 1984. “Stern said, ‘I’m just going to put the best people on the floor,’ and he said the same thing for the front office,” said Richard Lapchick, founder/director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sports (TIDES). “The NBA has been significantly ahead of other leagues in diversity since the ’80s, and excitement has grown since.”

The league also lucked up by being able to lean into its racial divide with a ready-made rivalry between the bombastic and very black Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Stern, to his credit, embraced the clash, marketing the rivalry and letting the racial subtext become one of the main storylines. The league rode that popularity through the ’80s and ’90s with respectable black stars like Michael Jordan who didn’t upset the American status quo. Jordan was, in many ways, the perfect black athlete for corporate America. He stayed out of politics, seemed nonthreatening, and was a money machine.

Then came the NBA’s next racial crossroads: Allen Iverson. AI, the anti-Jordan, had cornrows, tattoos, jewelry — and he just did it his way. Iverson tested the limits of Stern’s acceptance of black culture. Iverson was from the ’hood, had been embroiled in a nasty fight before going to college, and didn’t bother cleaning up his language. While the NBA struggled with Iverson’s imaging, Reebok embraced his persona, tying their AI shoe to urban culture. They called it The Answer, and it was a monumental success.

A generation of athletes looked up to Iverson. And as those players mimicked his style, the NBA cracked down. In 2005, Stern instituted a dress code for the NBA, making players drop the baggy clothes and dress business casual. LeBron James, just entering his third year, was amenable to the change: “No it’s not a big deal, not to me.” The usually reserved Tim Duncan had stronger thoughts: “I think it’s a load of crap.” Of course now NBA players are the most style-forward athletes in the world. Every night is a runway show.

In 2014, when a tape of the Clippers’ then-owner Donald Sterling uttering racial slurs leaked online, new commissioner Silver was quick and decisive, issuing a lifetime ban. It was the only viable option. The fans were ready for Sterling (who had a long history of animus toward African-Americans) to go, and the Warriors’ Stephen Curry had planned on walking out during a game if Sterling kept his status. There could be no wiggle room. In fairness, the NBA had to work out many of its racial battles before the era of social media. So while the league’s virtual expulsion of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the mid-’90s was just as despicable as what’s happening to Kaepernick, the league didn’t have to fight those issues in real time on social media, like the NFL does now.

“There’s a cottage industry in predicting and hoping for some sort of downfall in the NFL due to concussions, or domestic violence or whatever the latest crisis people seem to make of it,” said Brandt. “I kind of smile when I hear that, because we’ve been talking about that for a long time and NFL continues to grow financially.”

But it’s important to remember that there was a time when it seemed impossible for major league baseball to fall out of favor as the leading American sport. There are numerous reasons for baseball’s dwindling cultural impact: steroid scandals, strikes and shrinking attention spans. However, it’s undeniable that baseball’s lack of connection with America as a whole is directly tied to its refusal to embrace black culture.

“You go back to Ken Griffey Jr. wearing his hat backwards in batting practice and they all lost their minds,” said ESPN’s Bryant. “It was the greatest threat to the integrity of the game because the best player in the game, who all the young people loved and wanted to emulate, was doing something cool, and they shot it down. That was baseball’s last opportunity to catch people and be hip to Madison Avenue, because drugs ruined the game for the next 25 years.”

Baseball’s tacit insistence upon “tradition” and unspoken rules are all too often coded language for a refusal to accept cultural norms that aren’t firmly white American. Bat flips and celebrations are seen as being anti-baseball when they’re really bits of culture inserted by nonwhite athletes. In 2015, Chris Rock landed a scalding indictment of baseball’s popularity during a video for HBO’s Real Sports.

Calling himself an “endangered species, a black baseball fan,” Rock insists that baseball’s focus on its history, a history that excluded African-Americans for the first half of the 20th century, is a turnoff for black fans who aren’t into a time when only white players were allowed to play. And Rock suggests that baseball will fall further away from mainstream popularity as long as it continues to ignore the black fan and players. “Maybe if baseball can get a little hipper, a little cooler and just a little more black, the future can change,” he said in the monologue. “But until then, blacks and baseball just ain’t a good match anymore. Blacks don’t seem to care, but baseball should be terrified.”

The NFL may be gaining an understanding of its need to let black players express themselves to their fans. The league has loosened up the penalties for touchdown celebrations, which has so often been a vibrant space for black player expression and trash talk on the field. Now, players can celebrate while using the football as a prop, celebrate as a team and celebrate on the ground, which were previously 15-yard penalties. And the ESPN Twitter account promoted a Week 5 Packers vs. Cowboys game with a video of battle rappers DNA and K-Shine rhyming about their favorite teams at a barbershop. It’s a start, and a sign that the NFL is inching toward some of the cool points that the NBA snatched. But with Kaepernick still unemployed, the league, stuck in its ways, continues to scramble without a sophisticated strategy or uniform approach in place.

Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them. But the NFL is at a crossroads at a time when black culture is simultaneously as powerful, relevant and under attack as at any point in American history. What side of that history is the NFL going to stand — or kneel — on? The almighty National Football League has decisions to make, and so do its players and fans.

America is comfortable with protesting athletes on their screens, but not in their stadiums In the movies and on TV, white players join in and no one demands athletes kneel on their own time

From Curt Flood to John Carlos and Tommie Smith to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to Colin Kaepernick, there’s a long tradition of black athletes standing up for themselves and the rights of others.

Such protests are highly controversial, both with authority figures in sports and with fans: Carlos and Smith were immediately banned from the Olympic Village, Abdul-Rauf’s NBA career came to an early end and President Donald Trump called players who kneel during the national anthem “sons of b—-es” and demanded they be fired. Some of those still-employed kneeling players met with NFL owners earlier this week to discuss a path forward.

Yet when America sees protesting athletes in movies and on TV, the dynamic is different from what happens in real life. Really, really different.

In the idealized settings of television and film, just as in real life, the protests come with great cost and risk. Still, when screen athletes stand up for their principles, not only do they win, they’re clearly identified as the “good guys.”

Audiences are comfortable with fictional athletes who stand up to corporate bullies, in part because movies and TV demand character development. Even when fictional players begin as compliant automatons, being told what to do and how to do it, their personal journeys are characterized by growth and self-awareness. There’s an expectation that once athletes discover their power and witness injustice, they will be compelled to act. After all, a bunch of guys looking at a problem and shrugging their shoulders doesn’t make for good drama.

But those expectations don’t translate well to real life, as polling data on NFL player protests has shown.

When fans and political critics demand that players “stick to sports,” they’re saying they want the excitement of games and terrific athletic ability, but they want it divorced from players’ full humanity. They want the action sequences, but no plot or character development. Which is how we get people saying athletes should protest “on their own time” — essentially, after the credits have run and no one’s watching.

In TV and film, once we’ve gotten to know characters as people who have the same emotional needs as we do, it becomes easier to digest the necessity of their protests. Their motivations drive our sympathy. We want them to win.

The racial dynamic is different on-screen as white characters are cast as protest leaders. And these works also communicate why the element of public spectacle is so important: It raises the stakes. Public or near-public showdowns are a key trope in these stories because they’re seen as necessary to achieving the desired results.

Here’s a look at some of the movies and television shows in which athletes stood up to the man(agement):

Survivor’s Remorse (2014-17)

Courtesy of Starz

The recently canceled Starz comedy starred Jessie T. Usher as Cam Calloway and Chris Bauer as Jimmy Flaherty, the owner of Cam’s professional basketball team in Atlanta. The two have a few standoffs, but the disagreement between Cam and Jimmy that carries special resonance these days comes after Flaherty signs a $5 million contract with a firm to put advertising patches on players’ jerseys. The problem is that the company is the second-largest funder of private prisons in the country. Cam, flanked by his lawyer and manager, tells Flaherty he won’t play as long as the patches are on the jerseys. Every great fortune may have a great crime behind it, but this is where he draws the line.

This standoff takes place in the arena, hours before tipoff, and Flaherty, who knows he can’t win without Cam, backs down. This confrontation takes place not in the first season but at the end of the fourth, after we’ve had plenty of episodes to witness how Cam’s activism has been inspired by the suffering he sees around him, and after we know that Cam’s commitment to criminal justice reform is motivated in part by his own father’s imprisonment. Not only that, we know that Cam is generous to a fault. His manager is constantly trying to talk him out of giving away more of his money. If Cam hadn’t taken a stand on the patches, it would seem unnatural given what we’ve learned about the content of his character.

Varsity Blues (1999)

The cast of Varsity Blues.

Getty Images

I forgive you if the only thing you can remember about this movie is Ali Larter in a whipped-cream bra, but it really did have a bigger message.

James Van Der Beek starred as Jonathan Moxon, a backup quarterback for a Texas high school football team that has won two state titles under coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight). But Kilmer is merciless, racist and megalomaniacal — traits the school and community at large are happy to overlook so long as he keeps adding wins to West Canaan High’s record books.

Kilmer uses his star black running back, Wendell (Eliel Swinton), as little more than a mule, repeatedly deploying him for physically taxing runs but never allowing him to score a touchdown. The audience is treated to a bruising up-close-and-personal experience of those hits and the toll they exact on Wendell’s body. They’re gruesome.

Moxon is talented but not nearly as invested in football as his father or his coach are. And he hates Kilmer’s racism and mercenary disregard for the health of his players. Moxon gets tapped to lead the team because first-stringer and all-state quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker) suffers a career-ending injury. It’s Kilmer’s fault — he insisted on pumping Harbor full of cortisone and forcing him to play until he was no longer physically able, costing him a college football scholarship.

When Moxon starts calling his own plays, gets Wendell into the end zone and generally pisses off his coach while still winning, Kilmer goes ballistic. He threatens to alter Moxon’s transcripts and derail his plan to attend college on an academic scholarship. But Moxon’s teammates have had enough of Kilmer’s antics, and they mutiny during halftime of the final game of the season. Kilmer’s team will only take the field of the second half without him, and the coach must relent or risk further public humiliation. The team wins the game, and Kilmer is forced to leave West Canaan and football for good.

The Longest Yard (2005)

In this remake of the original 1974 film that starred Burt Reynolds, prison inmates play a football game against a group of racist, sadistic prison guards who are constantly abusing their power.

In the 2005 version, Adam Sandler plays Reynolds’ role of washed-up quarterback Paul Crewe. Crewe isn’t an easy person to root for. Besides point-shaving, Crewe endangers himself and others when he gets drunk and leads police on a high-speed car chase in his girlfriend’s Bentley.

When he gets to prison, the warden, Rudolph Hazen (James Cromwell), forces Crewe to assemble a ragtag team of prisoners to give the guards an easy, confidence-boosting win before their season playing against guards from other prisons begins. The other prisoners sign on because they see an opportunity to give the guards a taste of their own depraved behavior. They’re comically bad at first, but under Crewe’s stewardship, they pull together. They start to develop hope and confidence of their own. Maybe they can really win this thing!

The black prisoners, led by Cheeseburger Eddy (Terry Crews), are loath to join the team until another prisoner, Megget (Nelly), is forced to swallow his dignity and pride. The guards confront Megget in the prison library and repeatedly call him “n—–,” in an attempt to cajole him into a fight. Megget resists the bait but relishes the opportunity to get his revenge on the field.

Once game day arrives, the prisoners are unaware that Hazen has made a deal with Crewe to throw the game. Crewe must comply or face life in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, one that resulted in the death of his closest jail friend, Caretaker (Chris Rock).

When the big day arrives, Crewe starts out leading the prisoners in what looks like a rout of the guards. Hazen reminds Crewe what he has to lose, and Crewe begins to throw the game. But he has a crisis of conscience and tells his teammates what’s happening. He decides to try to beat the guards anyway, leading the prisoners to a game-tying touchdown and a two-point conversion to win as the clock runs out.

In both Varsity Blues and The Longest Yard, the protests are led by charismatic white quarterbacks who have their own grievances but are happy to loop in those of black players as well. Would kneeling be more acceptable if Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady had started doing it first, citing the same reasons as Kaepernick? Would Brady and Rodgers be criticized as un-American and unpatriotic, or praised for their compassion and for using their privilege to help minorities? And if the reactions to them would be different from those to Kaepernick or other black players, what does that say?

Both The Longest Yard and Varsity Blues feature unambiguously terrible antagonists in the warden, prison guards and Kilmer. They paint pictures of racists as unsubtle, selfish and uncultivated. They portray bigotry as a problem of individual extremists rather than something that’s endemic to the country. Again, we’re faced with the luxuries afforded by (admittedly uncomplicated) character development. If we don’t know NFL players and owners as well as we know the characters in these movies, how do we judge their actions?

The White Shadow (1978-81)

Ken Howard (right) portrayed high school basketball coach Ken Reeves and Byron Stewart (left) portrayed student and athlete Warren “Cool” Coolidge in the CBS series The White Shadow.

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Ken Howard stars as Ken Reeves, a former player for the Chicago Bulls who injured his knee, ending his professional career. One of his college teammates, Jim Willis (Ed Bernard), offers him a job coaching basketball at the dilapidated, majority-black Carver High School in Los Angeles. The team is a band of undisciplined misfits — Reeves has a bad habit of referring to them as “animals.”

Carver’s star player, James Hayward (Thomas Carter), needs a job to care for his mother, who has ulcers, and his siblings because their father is dead. Another player, Curtis Jackson, doesn’t want to face the fact that he has a drinking problem.

Unlike the other examples here, the relationship between Reeves and the team is more symbiotic than purely adversarial. The chief conflict doesn’t hinge on Reeves being a bad person. Rather, Reeves is blindly navigating his new job and everything it entails. He’s in charge of a group of players who talk back and who are skeptical of authority because they’ve learned that no one expects much of them. The state of Carver’s campus — strewn with detritus, missing letters on its signage — communicates to its students that they don’t matter much. And if the students know they don’t matter, how is anyone going to be able to get them to care about school?

Vice principal Sybil Buchanan (Joan Pringle) acts as interpreter and student advocate in her interactions with Reeves, giving a credible voice to the players’ concerns. She tells Reeves he’s not a “white knight” and won’t be able to swoop in to the school and fix everything in 20 minutes. She’s indignant when Reeves enlists the team to move him into his new apartment on a Saturday for free, telling him the days of slave labor are over. Reeves and Buchanan are working toward the same goal, which is helping the students. But she and the basketball team are teaching a man who probably doesn’t think he’s racist not to behave like one. Created by Bruce Paltrow, The White Shadow offers a more nuanced view of race and racism than The Longest Yard or Varsity Blues. And it also says something about what it takes to be a useful ally.

Eddie (1996)

Whoopi Goldberg (center) starred in Eddie.

Getty Images

Eddie (Whoopi Goldberg) is a limo dispatcher and devoted New York Knicks fan who wins a public relations contest to coach the floundering team. There’s a twist though: Eddie’s a pretty decent coach. Fans like her.

Eddie becomes more than a novelty act. She quickly discovers there’s more to coaching than calling plays. She’s the team’s chief haranguer, marriage counselor, therapist and mother. Her pestering and rule-setting pays off, and the team starts not only winning but also enjoying basketball again. They lose their arrogance and sense of entitlement once they realize they have a person who cares about them as more than ball-dribbling widgets to be yelled at, traded and cut. She’s a real coach.

Meanwhile, the team’s owner, “Wild Bill” Burgess (Frank Langella), a Texas billionaire oil baron, has decided to convert the Knicks’ unbelievable good fortune into profits — by secretly negotiating a move that would send the team to St. Louis.

Eddie, once she gets wind of the plan, stands up to the man whose ego is about as inflated as the 10-gallon Stetson on his head. Burgess sees the Knicks as chess pieces he can move about the country at his pleasure. When he won’t listen to Eddie privately, she takes their disagreement public, revealing Burgess’ plans to a packed house at Madison Square Garden and daring him to censure her for it. After Eddie risks the job she loves and the cushiest salary she’s ever had in her life, it’s not just her team who backs her up. It’s the city of New York.

In Varsity Blues and The Longest Yard, the athletes in question are not millionaires. The audience doesn’t have to overcome feelings of class resentment to sympathize with them. But what happens when that’s not the case? What happens when the players in revolt are professionals who make piles and piles of money?

You use an intermediary.

Eddie received terrible reviews when it was released in 1996, but it’s really smart about one thing: It uses Eddie first as a vehicle for criticizing spoiled players. And then, once it’s clear that Eddie is a sports fan, just like the audience, the perspective of who is “good” and “bad” begins to shift. Once we see Eddie and the Knicks players as part of the same team, working toward the same goal of making the NBA playoffs, we’re willing to accept their revolt — which, again, is public — against Wild Bill.

There’s a delicate balance that’s achieved, and there’s a thoughtfulness in positioning Eddie this way. When she stands up to Wild Bill, she’s a fan advocating for other fans. Eddie comes the closest of these shows to placing fans (particularly the ones who have been vocal about wanting athletes to sit down and shut up) on the same side as the pro athletes who make so much more than they do. Even though the movie isn’t directly about race, it illustrates how being rich doesn’t automatically zero out the balance on life’s problems. It doesn’t matter how much money you make if your boss simply sees you as a moneymaking property, and that’s a sentiment any populist can get behind.

Five new TV shows worth watching this fall Last year’s bonanza of blackness hasn’t repeated itself, but you should still plug these shows into your DVR

What’s new in TV this season? Worth checking out? Honestly, the pickings this fall are slimmer than last year’s bonanza of blackness. Both The Carmichael Show and Pitch have been canceled. Atlanta’s second season was delayed so creator and star Donald Glover could go be Lando Calrissian, and Insecure became the most celebrated and discussed show — of the summer.

Empire, black-ish and ABC’s Shondaland lineup have been around long enough that they’ve morphed into reliable fall standards: This Is Us, though still young in television years, has clearly captured the country’s imagination — along with its appetite for Kleenex. And the OWN juggernaut and prestige drama Queen Sugar returns this week for the second half of its second season. We’ll finally get to see those episodes directed by Julie Dash!

[‘Queen Sugar’s’ second season explores a fraught mix of family and historical legacy]

So what’s left? Allow me to walk you through the best of the rest.

Big Mouth (Netflix)

Netflix’s oddball animated show about puberty is currently streaming. It features Jordan Peele as the ghost of Duke Ellington (he lives in one of the character’s attics) and Maya Rudolph as a hormone monstress. Yes, she’s a hairy, horny, imaginary monstress who puts bad ideas in the head of a 12-year-old girl named Diane.

Big Mouth follows the lives of a group of 12-year-olds navigating the hellacious road map of wet dreams, peer pressure, unfortunately timed boners, first periods and, yes, hormone monsters. Big Mouth also contains its share of meta TV and Hollywood jokes — there’s a shocking stinger about director Bryan Singer that I didn’t see coming — but mainly it really gets just how awkward, fraught, miserable — and, in hindsight, quite funny — puberty can be. It is not a show for 12-year-olds, but it is fun for anyone who felt like a mess as their hormones went bonkers for several years.

The Good Place (NBC)

If it feels like all of your favorite smart internet people are talking about The Good Place on Twitter, it’s because they are.

The Good Place, which recently began its second season on NBC, is a sitcom about ethics and philosophy — yes, the stuff Immanuel Kant spent so much time noodling in his brain about. It’s smart, funny, fresh, inventive and quite good at anticipating the questions viewers will form in their own minds. It’s also like The Good Wife in that it excels at finding ways to circumvent and poke fun at profanity restrictions on prime-time network television (and The Undefeated). You can’t curse in The Good Place, and so “f—” has been replaced by “fork.”

The show stars Ted Danson as Michael, the architect of what he hopes will be The Worst Place in the Afterlife. His grand plans for reinventing hell — or The Bad Place, as it’s known — keep getting upended by his wards, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason are all dead and have been sentenced to spend eternity in The Bad Place, though they don’t know it. They think they’re in The Good Place, although they all (except for Tahani) have a sneaking suspicion that they’re not supposed to be there.

By the end of season one, Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi and Jason have figured out that they’re in The Bad Place and that Michael is using them to experiment with a new form of torture. Rather than subjecting folks to lakes of fire — you know, your run-of-the-mill hellish unpleasantries — he’s created an elaborate scheme of psychological torture and gaslighting, mostly by making an environment that’s supposedly perfect a bit of a drag. To Michael, hell is the suburbs.

Now that we’re at season two, there’s just one problem with Michael’s scheme: Eleanor, Chidi, Jason and Tahani keep figuring out what he’s doing and Michael constantly has to erase their memories so he can start over with his experiment. Being middle management in hell is tough, man. Michael’s problems just keep compounding: Even though Eleanor and Chidi are deliberately mismatched as soul mates, Eleanor’s begun to fall for him anyway. Even Jason, the dumbest of the bunch, has independently figured out what Michael’s up to. There’s also a very helpful android named Janet (D’Arcy Carden). Every time Michael has to wipe the memories of Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason, he has to reboot Janet too.

There’s a lot to like about The Good Place, from its critique of our conceptions of utopia to its interrogation of what it means to be truly “good” or “bad.” The show follows four characters who are kind of terrible, but not genocidal maniac terrible. They’re terrible in an everyday, narcissistic, common sort of way — and they’re capable of change.

The Good Place also works in diversity in a way that doesn’t feel forced or like an afterthought, or as though it came from a network on a cookie-seeking mission. It just feels natural. Anagonye is one of the few African characters on television. (While both Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji are kids of African immigrants in real life, their ethnicity hasn’t come up in Insecure.) There’s such a dearth of characters who are Africans living in America, which is why I was disappointed to hear that HBO would not be developing the K’naan Warsame pilot Mogadishu, Minnesota.

Loosely Exactly Nicole (Facebook)

After garnering less-than-impressive ratings in its first season as an MTV comedy, Loosely Exactly Nicole, starring Nicole Byer, has moved to Facebook for its second season.

Given the return of Curb Your Enthusiasm, there’s obviously still an audience for shows about people who are awful and also unaware of (or maybe simply don’t care about) their awfulness, and the comedy that ensues as a result.

[The temerity to be terrible]

Byer is quietly daring in that the Nicole of Loosely Exactly Nicole is sexual, nervy and self-obsessed in a way that’s generally reserved for Beckys. Like Gabourey Sidibe’s Empire character (actually named Becky), Nicole hooks up with cute guys (white guys, at that). She’s not consumed with hatred of her body or her hair or her blackness, and she’s not an irritated government employee in the way that fat, dark-skinned black women often show up on television.

I want to see success for Byer, for Yvette Nicole Brown, for Retta, for Amber Riley, for Leslie Jones and for all the funny black women who don’t necessarily look like Yara Shahidi or Tracee Ellis Ross but are still bawdy, dangerous and funny. What’s more, their youth and sexuality deserve acknowledgment, and I don’t just mean in the predatory, Leslie-Jones-is-obsessed-with-Colin-Jost sort of way either.

That’s part of the reason that the summer show Claws was such a hit. In many ways, Niecy Nash is a precursor for a lot of these younger women. It’s taken years for her talents to be acknowledged, although playing Nurse Didi in Getting On may have been what it took for her to be taken seriously — she was nominated for Emmys twice for the role. Octavia Spencer is a terrific comic actress (see: Spencer as Harriet Tubman in Drunk History). There’s no doubt her career has blossomed since The Help, but I hate seeing her typecast as dowdy, matronly figures, and the more women like Byer insist on playing otherwise, the more that will hopefully change.

The Mayor (ABC)

From creator Jeremy Bronson and executive producer Daveed Diggs, The Mayor (which debuts Tuesday on ABC) stars Brandon Micheal Hall as Courtney Rose, a rapper who just wants to get some shine — so he decides to run for mayor of his hometown of Fort Grey, California. And, as you might have guessed from the title, he wins. So now you’ve got a person with zero experience or qualifications, who really just wanted a bit more fame, in public service as the head of the executive branch of a city.

I know — impossible to imagine something like that happening, right?

The Mayor reminds me of the 2003 Chris Rock movie Head of State, in which Rock stars as alderman Mays Gilliam, who is engaged in a long-shot bid for president (mostly for the publicity) with Bernie Mac as his take-no-prisoners, blackity-black hype man and brother. Head of State found comedy in the process of running for office, and the movie ends just as the awesome, weighty reality of being president is falling on Gilliam’s shoulders.

The premise of The Mayor is certainly interesting, but what I’ve seen so far doesn’t necessarily make me excited about where the show will go once Courtney has to actually start governing. It’s hard to avoid cynicism there, but maybe as the mayor, Courtney will grow into something a little more like Leslie Knope. Otherwise, there’s a scenario that’s so serious, there’s little to laugh at. Yvette Nicole Brown, who was such a treasure in Community, stars as Dina Rose, Courtney’s mother. It’s a bit of a waste to see Brown, who in real life is young and vivacious in the role of churchy, kinda sexless (though quite funny) mom. Which again, says something about the type of woman Hollywood sees as plausibly forkable.

White Famous (Showtime)

White Famous, the new comedy from creator Tom Kapinos starring former Saturday Night Live actor Jay Pharoah, joins the ranks of shows that expose, comment on and make fun of the artifice of Hollywood, such as BoJack Horseman, Episodes and Entourage.

In terms of the callouts that raise eyebrows for torching real-life relationships, White Famous, which premieres Oct. 15 on Showtime, does not disappoint. Pharoah plays an up-and-coming comic named Floyd Mooney who’s a bona fide star with black people but still gets mistaken for a restaurant valet by white Hollywood producers. Within the first 15 minutes of the show, Pharaoh has already thrown two symbolic middle fingers at director, producer and vocal Bill Cosby critic Judd Apatow.

It’s a tricky jump. Mooney has a meeting with the thinly veiled Apatow character named Jason Gold (Steve Zissis), who is directing a movie about an imaginary attorney who was the first woman Cosby assaulted. Gold wants Mooney to play the woman, a la Eddie Murphy or Tyler Perry. Mooney tells Gold that focusing solely on Cosby’s lechery is racist, although he makes the unfortunate misstep of downplaying the accusations against Cosby of drugging and sexual assault from more than 50 women.

[Why the hot black bodies on ‘Insecure’ are more revolutionary than you think]

White Famous engages in a practice I find annoying about premium cable shows: It treats naked women as mostly silent pets that can be sent to another room when their nude bodies are no longer useful to a scene. Sometimes that works as a reflection of the actual sexism that pervades Hollywood and makes pretty women disposable. For example, there’s a scene in which Mooney and Gold walk in on Jamie Foxx going to town on some unnamed woman in his trailer, and he just keeps going while continuing to hold a conversation. But sometimes, like the moment we’re introduced to a clothed Gold sleeping next to a naked woman, it’s not saying much of anything except, “Hey, I too have the power to put naked women on TV for no reason except to show boobs and butt.”

How novel.

Despite its sexist deficiencies, White Famous is still engaging. It confronts race and success in Hollywood head-on, raising questions about when and why artists end up compromising their own principles.

‘Survivor’s Remorse’ recap: Making a case for reparations Wealth, philanthropy and the question of ‘good’ white people

Season 4, Episode 7 | “Optics” | Oct. 1

Talk about perfect timing.

The writers and executive producers of Survivor’s Remorse must be cackling with glee at how prescient its latest episodes have been. Last week was the furthest the show has gone in exploring Cam’s nascent interest in athlete activism, pitting him in a possible showdown situation with his team owner and boss.

This week’s episode is about the harder to see, and harder to acknowledge, byproducts of white supremacy. It starts with M-Chuck, who, after getting invited to a private, advance tour of Atlanta’s new Museum of African-American Life with Chen, raises her trademark ire.

They haven’t even finished walking across the parking lot when she does it. M-Chuck (Erica Ash) is pissed that Atlanta’s new museum of African-American history is called the Leonard Moskowitz Museum of African American Life. Her rant about the building’s name is essentially a skewering of narcissism and a need for, if not absolution, loudly signaling that you are one of the “good” white people.

Atlanta’s fictive museum of African-American life is a stand-in for the newly opened Blacksonian, where the Walmart brand appears prominently in the lobby. But the message of Optics is broader than that. It argues that white people are often guilty of taking something that’s supposed to be about blackness and black people and making it about themselves, status and reputation-building. And the wealth that allows them to do this, of course, is a side effect of the advantages bestowed by the omnipresence of white supremacy. (This is why it was so important that Brad Pitt and Plan B understand the value and importance of getting out of the way.)

M-Chuck, incensed by the fact that Moskowitz (Saul Rubinek) has plastered his name across the front of the museum, presses Chen (Robert Wu) for a meeting with Moskowitz.

“How would you feel if you went to the Holocaust Museum and it said ‘Brought to you by Tyler Perry?’ ” she asks.

Moskowitz gets defensive, telling M-Chuck that Jews were also oppressed by “whiter white people” (true) and were also enslaved by Egyptians (also true). He brings up common arguments: Your brother is rich, how could he possibly be oppressed? And: You’ve had a black president, which means black people are clearly doing better. Plus, Jewish kids are obsessed with hip-hop. Black kids are not going around milly rocking to klezmer, he argues.

The most powerful, subversive and truthful thing that Survivor’s Remorse writers did was to put these words in the mouth of a man who sees himself as an ally, rather than a swastika-waving, “blood and soil”-chanting, tiki-torch-wielding racist. Optics offers a critique of white liberalism that echoes Get Out, Brit Bennett’s essay for Jezebel, I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.

[Mike Wise: Gregg Popovich’s speech about white privilege felt like a personal rebuke]

Recently, I had a wonderful conversation with writer and professor Crystal Fleming about this topic. Fleming is an associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at State University of New York, Stony Brook, and author of Resurrecting Slavery and the forthcoming How to Be Less Stupid About Race.

“White supremacy … exists not only on the right among conservatives or Trump supporters, it exists on the left. It exists pervasively and systematically throughout our society,” Fleming said. “What tends to happen is, even in the so-called liberal discourse, is a focus on progress, is a focus on things that have changed, rather than a focus on, No. 1, the fact that, again, white supremacy continues to exist and, two, that it doesn’t just exist in certain pockets of society or, you know, in a Klan rally.”

As M-Chuck faces off with Moskowitz, she tells him, “This museum is not yours. It’s ours. So if you’re going to give it, give it graciously.”

Moskowitz fires back: “And if you’re going to receive it, receive it graciously.”

Oof. Wasn’t Jelani Cobb just talking about how “ungrateful” is the new “uppity”? It’s one thing to see the words. It’s another to see the idea reflected on a screen.

It takes another white person, Moskowitz’s wife, to persuade him that his actions were both wrong and offensive. M-Chuck telling him wasn’t enough.

These ideas also show up in the B-plot of the episode, as Reggie (RonReaco Lee) is trying to persuade Chen to give him access to his real estate deals. Reggie is hosting the weekly rich guy poker game in his basement (the same group to which he lost enough money to buy a house).

After Reggie has once again taken a beating in the poker game, he pressures Chen to let him invest in his business deals. And here, things get complicated. Chen informs Reggie that the relationships he has with his millionaire friends are “friendships of convenience.” His relationship with Reggie and his family, on the other hand, is personal and valuable to him in a different, much more priceless way. He doesn’t want to destroy that. Reggie still wants in on Chen’s next development deal, despite the fact that the stakes are much higher for him if things go wrong. The chasm between Reggie’s upper-middle-class net worth and those of his poker buddies is a great example of the difference between being rich and being wealthy. Or, as Chris Rock would say, “If Bill Gates woke up with Oprah’s money he’d jump out a f—ing window.” It also illustrates how difficult it is to bridge this wealth gap if you’re starting from behind. It’s damn near impossible.

White supremacy is not just the practice of neo-Nazis but also “the social and political and economic dominance of people socially defined as white,” Fleming said. “So we’re talking about systemic access to resources, and that this is something, again, that even … among Democrats and liberals, people don’t want to talk about it. It’s easier to talk about racial disparities without admitting which groups are actually being systematically disadvantaged and advantaged by those disparities.”

The folks behind Survivor’s Remorse have already aired an episode called Reparations. Off the strength of Optics, I wouldn’t mind seeing them attempt to make a case for them. Then again, maybe they already have.