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

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

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

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

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

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

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Wrestler Andrew Johnson forced to cut hair before match

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

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

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

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

“Nobody realizes how hard those six minutes are.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Most of all, Drew just wanted to wrestle.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, maybe not that far.

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


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

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

Johnson Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

TIFF 2019: Contrasting visions of Africa in ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ and ‘Sweetness in the Belly’  Two films examine political and ethnic unrest in Rwanda and Ethiopia, with vastly different results

TORONTO — Director Atiq Rahimi (Earth and Ashes, The Patience Stone) has once again created a beautiful and disturbing work of cinema.

This time, it’s Our Lady of the Nile, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It’s a story about a Rwandan girls boarding school in 1973 that marries the nastiness and cruelty of Mean Girls with far higher stakes. When the school’s most privileged Hutu student, Gloriosa, decides to launch a crusade against Tutsis based on a lie she concocted to keep herself out of trouble, the result isn’t hurt feelings and stolen boyfriends — it’s murder based on ethnic hatred.

Adapted from Scholastique Mukasonga’s bestselling 2012 novel, Notre-Dame du Nil, the movie script by Rahimi and co-writer Ramata Sy is lush and complicated as it works through the way colonialism warped Rwanda, and how that shows up in a Catholic boarding school run by Belgian nuns.

Our Lady of the Nile foreshadows the genocide of nearly 1 million Tutsi Rwandans in 1994. Gloriosa (Albina Sydney Kirenga) is a member of the Hutu ethnic majority, which was ruling the country at the time. Her father is a Catholic priest overseeing the elite school where she is a student. The school has a quota system for the Tutsi minority. No more than 10 percent of the student body may be Tutsi, and so only two girls in Gloriosa’s class are part of the minority, Veronica (Clariella Bizimana) and Virginia (Amanda Mugabekazi). One other girl, Modesta (Belinda Rubango Simbi), has a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother, but she keeps her mother’s ethnicity secret to avoid being ostracized. Only her best friend, Gloriosa, knows and she’s constantly pushing Modesta to redeem her “dirty” mixture of blood.

Rabid with hatred, Gloriosa sets a mission for herself and Modesta. There is a statue of a black Virgin Mary in a waterfall near the school, but Gloriosa thinks it has a “minority” nose that makes her look Tutsi. When their clothes get muddy attempting to get to the statue, Gloriosa tells the head nun that a group of Tutsi men tried to kidnap and rape her and Modesta. It’s not long before a Hutu reign of terror is implemented. When Gloriosa then tries to replace the Virgin’s nose with a “majority” nose — again, in secret — she fails, and instead, the statue appears to have been vandalized. Again, the Tutsis are blamed.

A scene from Atiq Rahimi’s Our Lady of the Nile.

Courtesy of TIFF

Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, Rahimi fills Our Lady of the Nile with beauty in every frame. He does not begin with deadly violence, but builds to it through four acts: “Innocence,” “Sacred,” “Sacrilege,” and finally, “Sacrifice.” He also shows immense compassion toward the Tutsi minority girls of the school, especially through the eyes of a character named Fontenaille (Pascal Greggory), a French artist who lives in the hills and has built a pyramid on top of the grave of the Tutsi queen Nyiramongi. The Tutsi schoolgirls Veronica and Virginia, unaccustomed to such admiration, label him “crazy,” and an “old pagan.”

Rahimi’s shots of remote mountains and hillsides are lovely. But Rahimi goes beyond, offering moments of surrealism when Veronica gets high drinking a concoction that Fontenaille gives her before he paints her portrait, and a brief black-and-white dream vignette that pays homage to the French New Wave. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Rahimi’s debut feature, Earth and Ashes, won the Prix du Regard vers l’Avenir (“Looking to the future”) at Cannes in 2004.

It’s impossible not to notice the similarities between the genocide of Rwandan Tutsis and the scapegoating and murder of European Jews during World War II. Gloriosa’s calls for the assembly of a Militant Rwandan Youth sound awfully similar to the justifications that led to the inception of the Hitler Youth. Her father only eggs her on, calling her “Joan of Arc.”

When Virginia is desperately looking for a safe place to hide as Hutu soldiers storm through the campus looking for Tutsis, a Hutu friend, Imaculeé (Belinda Rubango), hides her in a pile of laundry and instructs her not to move. But Virginia peeks out, and she’s discovered by a Hutu soldier who orders her to strip off her clothes so that he can rape her. Virginia escapes by killing the soldier, but not before he brands her chest. Viriginia is marked, similar to how Jews were required to wear yellow badges that read “Jude” in Nazi Germany.

With Our Lady of the Nile, Rahimi has created more than a story of how genocide begins, because he never allows the film to turn into suffering porn. Instead, he illustrates how easily countrymen and women can turn against each other, all based on a lie and the creation of a scapegoat.

Dakota Fanning (left) as Lilly Abdal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (right) as Aziz in Sweetness in the Belly.

Courtesy of TIFF

Sweetness in the Belly

Well, here’s something you don’t see every day: a film about a white woman born in England, abandoned by her hippie parents in Morocco at age 7 and raised by a Sufi cleric, who finds her way back to her birth country as an adult as a refugee fleeing the violence of the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974.

That is the story of Lilly Abdal, the main character of Sweetness in the Belly, adapted from the bestselling 2006 novel by Canadian author Camilla Gibbs. Dakota Fanning stars as Lilly, and the film traces her life as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Muslim who is more familiar with the customs of northern Africa than anything to do with England.

After she moves to Harar, Ethiopia, as an adult, Lilly falls in love with a local doctor, Aziz (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). They’re both involved in the underground resistance to the Derg, the military junta that overthrows Emperor Haile Selassie. When Selassie falls, Lilly flees to England and makes a new life for herself. Her beloved, Aziz, chooses to stay in Ethiopia and is later imprisoned and executed.

Directed by Zeresenay Mehari, Sweetness in the Belly is lovely to look at, but also anodyne in the way that seems to plague big-budget films about white ladies in Africa. Thematically, Sweetness in the Belly overlaps with another film from earlier in Fanning’s career: The Secret Life of Bees, an adaptation of the novel by Sue Monk Kidd. It, too, is a movie about a white girl named Lily (one “l,” not two) who is failed by her parents, gets taken in by kindly black strangers, and falls in love with a black boy. It takes place in the fictional town of Sylvan, South Carolina, in 1964, in the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

It would not surprise me if Sweetness in the Belly gets labeled as “Habesha Green Book” given that it contains a few similar beats. For instance, Lilly is far more of a devout Muslim than Aziz — she worries about being denied entry into paradise for sleeping with, or even kissing him when the two aren’t married. Aziz is far less dogmatic.

When Lilly escapes to England, the government immediately places her in a one-bedroom apartment in Brixton. She offers her bedroom to a fellow refugee, Amina (Wunmi Mosaku) who has just given birth to a baby conceived in a refugee camp.

Amina and Aziz offer Lilly gentle reminders of her whiteness. Aziz is curious about her simply because she doesn’t look like anyone else in Harar. But that’s as far as it goes. There’s no real investment when it comes to interrogating how Lilly’s whiteness and her connections to the Ethiopian resistance affect those around her. A few throwaway lines add about as much depth as a London rain puddle.

“Must be nice, having this place all to yourself,” Amina remarks the first time she sees Lilly’s apartment.

“Well, I didn’t ask for it,” Lilly responds.

“You didn’t have to,” Amina says.

The shallow focus isn’t limited to questions of race. Laura Phillips’ script never really delves into how much Lilly is affected by being abandoned by her parents when it comes to issues surrounding attachment or her ability to trust others.

Though Lilly is white, in some ways she’s treated like an immigrant in her “home” country. Her training as a nurse in Ethiopia is not regarded as legitimate experience when she applies for a job in a London hospital. She’s finally hired when she convinces the administrator interviewing her that it might be useful to have a staffer who speaks Arabic and Amharic to translate, given the influx of Ethiopian refugees.

Fanning is by far the biggest name attached to Sweetness in the Belly, and it may be that it was easier to find financing for a film set against the Ethiopian Revolution because a well-known white actress was at the center of the story. Still, the assumption that the presence of a white name is the only way to get people to pay attention to a film about Ethiopia is frustrating and limiting.

Sweetness in the Belly has its moments of grace, and director of photography Tim Fleming has a lovely eye for capturing the beauty of a range of skin tones. But for a complicated story set during even more complicated times, Sweetness in the Belly just feels altogether too simple.

TIFF 2019: ‘Clemency’ and ‘Just Mercy’ offer two differing perspectives on death row One asks us to put ourselves in the position of a warden. The other follows a lawyer seeking justice.

TORONTO — Two films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival offer different perspectives of how death row affects those closest to it when people are wrongly sentenced to die.

Clemency is the sophomore feature effort from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who also directed the 2012 film alaskaLand. It stars Alfre Woodard as Bernadine, a prison warden who grows more and more conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners. It’s bad enough when Bernadine witnesses an execution via lethal injection that turns into a moment of torture, first when the emergency medical technician administering the IV cannot find a vein, and then when the drugs take longer to work than they’re supposed to, leaving the prisoner in agony.

Alfre Woodard as Bernadine Williams in Clemency, is a prison warden who grows conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners.

courtesy of TIFF

Then, Bernadine struggles to reconcile what it means to be good at her job with her own opinions, as she follows the case of another death row inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). As it becomes clear to Bernadine that Anthony is probably innocent, she tries to maintain order and composure in her prison. But the energy it takes to maintain her professional demeanor at work means that something else must be sacrificed, and in Bernadine’s case, it’s her marriage. The more her husband (Wendell Pierce) attempts to get close to her, the more she pulls away. Bernadine must ask herself: Is it possible to be ethical, to be empowered, when being skilled at one’s job means ensuring that the state’s unjust decisions are completed with order and clockwork precision?

Then there’s Just Mercy from director Destin Daniel Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster, Short Term 12). Co-produced by star Michael B. Jordan and Macro, the company of former William Morris agent Charles D. King. If Clemency is an examination of the toll of complicity, Just Mercy is a journey into the psychic and spiritual rewards and pitfalls of fighting injustice. It tells the story of a real-life civil rights hero: Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson is probably best known as the person behind the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, but he has spent decades working to free innocent men, most of them black, from death row.

While it’s rewarding work, it’s not easy, which Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, learns firsthand when he moves to Monroe County, Alabama, after graduating from Harvard Law. Stevenson tries to get a stay of execution for Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the war, he was a hero, an expert at defusing bombs. But back home and neglected by the country he served, Herbert ends up listening to the voices in his head telling him to build an explosive. He kills a woman, and then the state of Alabama moves to kill him. The possibility of sending Herbert to a mental institution, which is where he truly belongs, never even materializes.

For Stevenson, witnessing Herbert’s execution crystallizes the urgency of his work, and he dives even more deeply into trying to save another man, Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx). McMillan has been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there is to support McMillan’s innocence because a white girl is dead, McMillan is black, and another prisoner, in exchange for prosecutorial leniency, has given a statement saying McMillan was responsible.

The real reason McMillan is in prison is because the white people of Monroe County were looking for an excuse to lock him up after a white man discovered McMillan having a consensual affair with the man’s wife. Just Mercy exposes how the cogs of the Alabama justice system line up to condemn McMillan to death — from prosecutors who disregard the truth to public defenders who barely do their jobs to sheriff’s officers who terrorize Monroe County’s black residents.

It’s a new twist on the old formula of Yankee lawyers who come to the South and find a wall of community resistance to racial equality and injustice, but it’s a powerful one. That’s especially true given how the film’s screenwriters (Cretton and Andrew Lanham) contrast the real-life Stevenson and Monroe County’s most famous legal hero, Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ultimately, both Clemency and Just Mercy continue the work of highlighting racial inequality in the justice system, leaving their viewers disturbed and impatient for change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of HBO

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

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

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

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

Some simple advice from New Orleans superstar Leah Chase shaped this chef’s career The Queen of Creole Cuisine, who will be buried Monday, ‘always made you feel loved’

Once small nugget of advice from famed chef Leah Chase shaped Damion Banks’ entire career.

“Continue the art of simplicity and you will go farther and farther in the culinary field,” the Queen of Creole Cuisine told Banks.

Since his first encounter with Chase about 15 years ago, Banks has worked to express himself creatively while also striving to keep it simple, just as Chase told him.

Banks was one of many chefs across the country mourning the death of Chase, who died June 1 at age 96 and is scheduled to be buried Monday in New Orleans.

Before Chase became known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, she worked as a waitress in the French Quarter. In 1946, she married Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., a local musician. His father, Dooky Chase Sr., had opened a bar and sandwich shop in the Treme neighborhood. Eventually, Chase and her husband transformed the location into a dine-in restaurant. Besides serving locals and celebrities, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant often served as a meeting place for politicians and civil rights leaders, and was one of the few places where the races mixed and dined together.

Chase received a lifetime achievement award from the James Beard Foundation in 2016. In the past week, mourners took to the streets to celebrate Chase’s life and legacy with a traditional New Orleans second line complete with brass bands and banners to let passersby know whom they were honoring. Many former patrons, including former President Barack Obama, used social media to express their condolences.

The loss was especially tough for chefs who have followed Chase’s career and were inspired by her exceptional culinary skills.

“It’s hard,” said Banks, 46. “It’s not just that she was a local legend that we lost. It’s like family that was lost. She reminded me so much of my grandmother that I actually cried when I heard [the news of her death]. I feel like I lost my grandmother twice.”

Banks never took for granted the occasional moments he shared with Chase over the years. Each time, she offered a few words of advice that Banks added to his daily life as a chef.

Banks began his career with a summer job washing dishes in the kitchen of Austin Leslie, another world-renowned chef of Creole cuisine. Banks’ uncle, who was the sous chef for Leslie at the time, wondered whether Banks should stick to art, rather than food. Instead of being deterred, Banks was determined to prove his uncle wrong.

Before Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, Banks appeared several times with Chase at multi-chef events around the city, including a dinner for then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. Both of them were also featured in a PBS documentary highlighting five black New Orleans chefs that was originally scheduled to air right before the storm hit.

President George W. Bush (left) holds the hand of Leah Chase (right), the owner of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, where he and first lady Laura Bush took part in a dinner with Louisiana cultural and community leaders in 2007 in New Orleans.

Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

As busy as Chase’s life remained, she was never too busy. He would re-introduce himself to Chase and each time, she’d already known who he was.

“She was always available to talk,” Banks said. “Even at her restaurant. It always felt great when she remembered me. I know I felt special, but that’s how she made everyone feel. She treated everyone the same. We were all VIPs. No matter who Mrs. Chase talked to, she always made you feel loved.”

In 2011, years after Banks earned his position as executive chef at the now-closed Olivier’s Creole Restaurant in New Orleans, Chase and her family would drop by for dinner. Although Banks had come far in his culinary journey, including cooking for celebrities and international figures, the knowledge that Chase was in his dining room waiting patiently for one of his creations to be served still made him nervous.

Banks still remembers the first time she came to the restaurant and the entree he prepared for her: Roasted duck breast with a raspberry plum coulis, roasted asparagus, and dauphinoise chips.

“I remember she was tasting all the food and sampling everything and I was somewhat scared because this is a local legend,” Banks said. “I was doing Creole food and I wanted it to be impressive to her but I didn’t want to go too much over. But she enjoyed it. She was very impressed with it.”

Damion Banks (left) and Leah Chase (right).

Damion Banks

In one of their last encounters, Banks shared the news that he was starting his own business, Beauchamps Catering. And he knew exactly what he’d envisioned for the new company.

“I keep it simple, but at the same time, I love art,” Banks said. “I keep the art of simplicity, but I like for people to see my food and eat with their eyes. If I explain it, if I write my menu down, everything that you read in the descriptions, you’ll be able to taste everything that I’ve explained to you.”

In that chat, Chase left Banks with one last gem.

“I give a lot of effort because I’m allergic to failure,” Banks said. “I’m destroyed by it, but it’s also growth. Mrs. Chase told me to always work hard. Give all the effort that I could. No matter what I did, if I had that, I’d always be successful. It was the truth.”

That was Leah Chase, practicing the art of simplicity.

Zion in Atlanta would be a win for the culture The Hawks landing the No. 1 pick is a long shot. But Williamson would be a good match with the young, disruptive culture of The A.

Don’t try to tease Atlanta with a good time. It is, after all, the city that birthed the phrase “turn up.” Whose residents bear the name of a genre-shifting rap album (ATLiens). Where the nightlife has long been the script of urban legends. Come Tuesday evening, the city will await the results of the most important non-Powerball sweepstakes in recent memory: the NBA draft lottery — or, as it’s otherwise known, the right to draft Zion Williamson.

Landing Williamson is a long shot. (The Atlanta Hawks have a 10.5 percent chance of acquiring the top pick, good for fifth behind New York, Phoenix, Cleveland and Chicago.) That hasn’t stopped ATLiens from wishing upon a lemon pepper wet wing, of course. But Williamson and Atlanta differ from, say, LeBron James and Cleveland because Atlanta doesn’t need Williamson to reroute the city’s future. Atlanta is the best cultural destination for Williamson because this majority-black metropolis is already the mecca for black excellence, a modern-day mashup of the Harlem Renaissance and Sweet Home Chicago.

“Cleveland had their moment with LeBron. New York’s always had [the hoopla]. But it’s Atlanta’s time. We’re welcoming of new, young and talented people,” said Larry Luk, a Hawks enthusiast and head of brand at Localeur, a crowd-sourced recommendation platform for travelers. “Zion Williamson fits that mold.”

Williamson’s pedigree is public knowledge. He was a high school cheat code whose mixtapes gave him a Lil Wayne-like aura. His one season at Duke University only added to the anticipation and debate surrounding his future. He was the talk of the town at this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend. He’s been compared to James in terms of hype and to Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin and Larry Johnson as far as body type and athleticism. By season’s end, Williamson became only the third freshman to win the John R. Wooden Award, given to the country’s best player, and the third freshman in the last 20 seasons, along with Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, to amass 500 points, 50 blocks and 50-plus steals. Williamson’s every step (and shoe explosion) is a modern-day Truman Show.

For decades, New York was the most important place for America’s black culture, the site of the Harlem Renaissance, home court to both Malcolm X and Dapper Dan and the birthplace of hip-hop. But from Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement to its rise to the apex of hip-hop’s leaderboard in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “The A” has reached a cultural zenith. LaFace Records, which introduced household names such as TLC, Usher, Jermaine Dupri, Ciara, Outkast and others, helped craft the sounds of both rap and rhythm and blues not in New York or Los Angeles. Andre 3000’s proclamation, “The South got something to say!” at the 1995 Source Awards is widely accepted as the most prophetic statement in rap history. Freaknik, the Atlanta-based spring break phenomenon, became black America’s most fabled party.

“It’s funny answering [why Williamson fits culturally],” said longtime Hawks fan and Atlanta hip-hop historian Maurice Garland, “because Atlanta’s culture is already pretty solid.”

Tory Edwards is an Atlanta-based filmmaker whose credits include work on Selma, Being Mary Jane, the Raw Report street DVDs and the 2014 documentary ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game. He’s also one-fourth of 404-derived civic and content collective Atlanta Influences Everything. He says bringing Williamson to Atlanta makes sense for one symbiotic reason: The city has always had one constant in its pursuit of cultural dominance — disruption.

“Just like Atlanta, who he is and what he represents is disruption,” Edwards said. Williamson is “something fresh and aggressive, and I believe Atlanta is going through its own renaissance.”

The city’s music scene reads like a list of high school superlatives: The aforementioned Ciara, Outkast, Dupri, Usher and TLC, plus Dungeon Family, Monica, T.I., Gucci Mane, Childish Gambino, Travis Porter, The-Dream, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, 21 Savage, Pastor Troy, Ludacris, Future, Young Jeezy, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, Migos and countless others.

The film industry, in almost a reverse gold rush, has planted flags in Atlanta. ATL, which starred natives T.I. and Big Boi as well as Lauren London, was a 2006 coming-of-age-in-Atlanta film that used one of its storied landmarks, the Cascade Skating Rink, to establish its local legitimacy nationwide. In 2016, more feature films were shot in Georgia than in California — Time magazine dubbed Atlanta Hollywood’s “Southern campus.” More recently, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, in just two seasons, is already a generationally important series. Its nightlife scene, spearheaded by strip clubs such as Magic City and Blue Flame, has given the metropolis an independent identity.

Zion Williamson drives in for a dunk against St. John’s during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 02, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 91-61.

Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

But beyond that, and perhaps what Edwards sees as a natural fit for the Southern-born Williamson, is its youthful energy. From black painters such as Fahamu Pecou to Orchestra Noir (which held court at Cardi B’s baby shower), an active and aggressive arts scene not only lives in Atlanta, it’s thriving.

“I think Atlanta just continues to disrupt culture and influence the world,” Edwards said. “I think Zion is a perfect match.”

“From an art and fashion standpoint, we haven’t really had a guy in town that had a signature sneaker that anyone cared about wearing since [Deion Sanders’ Nike Air Diamond Turfs],” said Luk. “Zion’s signature shoe in Atlanta would be worn by everyone if he was a Hawk, including myself.”

With a 1,000-watt smile and a forthcoming sneaker deal that’s expected to shatter anything before it, Williamson is already his own economy. And if there’s one city that appreciates the black dollar, it’s Atlanta.

“What I’ve noticed is a lot of young black entrepreneurs budding in Atlanta,” said ATL-based blogger and Spelman alumna Jameelah Johnson. “There’s so many ideas and so many young people. It’s the colleges that are here, like Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta,” as well as Georgia State and Georgia Tech. “It’s just amazing how much talent and knowledge there is for young people.”

Andre 3000 (left) and Big Boi (right) of Outkast perform onstage at the ONE Musicfest on Sept. 10, 2016, in Atlanta.

Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Rooting for Atlanta sports teams hasn’t been the easiest job in the world. The city is still haunted by the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss in 2017. (Seriously, don’t say, “28-3” in many places. It’s still too soon.) In the 1980s, Dominique Wilkins, “The Human Highlight Film,” was one of the most exciting players in the NBA. But the team hasn’t won an NBA title since 1958, when it was based in St. Louis. In the ’90s, Deion Sanders and Andre Rison made the Falcons the hottest ticket in town (although the team finally advanced to its first Super Bowl in 1999 with Jamal Anderson and Terance Mathis). The Braves had a majority-black infield and outfield in the ’90s that was hugely popular in Atlanta’s black community.

The city has been brutally criticized for its sports apathy. But that narrative is being rewritten by the new MLS franchise with its attendance numbers north of 70,000, recruitment of fans of color and a commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity. Last year, Atlanta United FC captured the city’s first professional title since the Braves won the 1995 World Series.

Even the slim chance of the Hawks landing the top spot in June’s draft is building Hawks fervor. “This city is dying for a superstar,” said DJ X-Rated, who works at several spots, including Allure, Magic City and XS.

“If Zion were to come to the Hawks, that would probably be the biggest thing since Dominique as far as a real star is here. Not just a good player, but a person that has real star power,” Garland agreed. “To a degree, Trae Young is that right now. This is the most I’ve ever seen Hawks basketball talked about in a long time, and we didn’t even win a damn thing.”

John Collins (left) and Trae Young (right) of the Atlanta Hawks shake hands after a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Feb. 27.

Photo by Jasear Thompson/NBAE via Getty Images

The Hawks finished this season 29-53, a five-win improvement over last year’s campaign. Young, a Rookie of the Year finalist, and second-year forward John Collins are already one of the league’s more exciting tandems, with both averaging nearly 20 points per game for the season. Kevin Huerter, who also just completed his rookie season, shot 38 percent from 3-point range — and won the respect of the recently retired Dwyane Wade.

A different energy pumped through the veins of State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta this season. Part of it had to do with the commitment to providing a different experience, with restaurants such as the city’s famed J.R. Crickets, a courtside bar and even Killer Mike’s barbershop. At the base of the excitement, though, was the product on the court.

“It’s like, ‘Oh … we got [one of] the leading scorers from college last year on the team [in Young]. It was exciting things happening,” said Garland.

“When [the Hawks] started clicking at the end of the season, it got crazy. They would lose games, but it wasn’t like they were really losing. You could see what they were putting out there,” said Johnson. “You’re like, ‘Wow, this team could actually do something. And they’re still young.’ So to see something like that is just inspiring.”

From left to right: Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles from Atlanta.

Matthias Clamer/FX

In an Atlanta version of utopia, Young leads fast breaks for years to come with Huerter sprinting to the corner, Collins flanked on one wing and Williamson on the other. “How do you defend that?” Johnson said with a laugh. “No, seriously, where do you go?”

The answer to that last question for Atlanta fans is easy: to the game. Not since James in 2003 has there been a player with more intoxicating potential and every-household marketability. Williamson is the first high school megastar of the Instagram era to surpass the unrealistic level of expectations — at least so far. College basketball ratings were up 15 percent this season on ESPN and 30 percent for Duke, in large part because of Williamson. Jay-Z, James and former President Barack Obama were all seated courtside within a month of each other to see the show in person.

“He’s the first athlete to really grow up like that in the social media spotlight from a young’un. If you’re on Instagram, you were like, at one point, ‘Who’s this dude dunking on all these little white kids, man?!’ ” said Garland. “Even rappers that may not even be big sports fans, they know who dude is. This is the dude Drake was riding hard for.”

Even those just marginally attracted to the pageantry will be tuning in Tuesday night. It’s not a matter of getting too excited before an inevitable letdown. With potentially two top-10 picks this year, Atlanta is in perhaps the best win-win scenario in the lottery. But the ultimate prize is No. 1 — Williamson’s jersey number and the draft position. “If [Williamson] comes here, everybody is gonna come,” says Edwards. “The city’s coming up.”

Still, it’s not as if Atlanta needs Zion Williamson to establish itself. And it’s not as if the Hawks need Zion Williamson either. ATLiens acknowledge what he can do for them. But they also know what the city, the culture and the creativity here can do for Williamson.

“Atlanta is the perfect breeding place for young talent,” Johnson said. “You just have people here trying to start new things. It’s the perfect place for someone like [Williamson] to come and to start his career.”

An oversized backboard and basketball hoop are seen on a billboard in front of the Atlanta City skyline during practice prior to the NCAA Men’s Final Four at the Georgia Dome on April 5, 2013 in Atlanta.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

John Singleton was Hollywood’s first hip-hop director The success of the creative voice behind ‘Boyz n the Hood’ was a game changer in Hollywood

His first film is an era-defining classic, a movie that helped shape so much black cinema of the 1990s. He cast rappers from Ice Cube to 2Pac to Andre 3000 in serious, dramatic roles that didn’t just trade on their personas but afforded them an opportunity to expand on and/or subvert those personas. No disrespect to luminaries such as Spike Lee and Keenen Ivory Wayans, but John Singleton was truly Hollywood’s first hip-hop director.

So much was made of Singleton’s youth when the 23-year old director’s buzzed-about first film Boyz n the Hood became the talk of Hollywood in 1991. Singleton began making the movie fresh out of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, ultimately calling the experience his “grad school” and learning on the fly the do’s and don’ts of filmmaking. The result was a riveting look at the community that had raised him, told through the eyes of a guy not much older than the high school kids Tre, Ricky and Doughboy who sat central in his tale. Singleton would famously earn Oscar noms for his screenwriting and directing.

His age wasn’t inconsequential and, almost 30 years later, it signifies part of why Singleton’s work was singularly important. Directors such as Lee, Wayans and Robert Townsend were a decade older than Singleton, and their affinities belied an older generation; nods to ’70s blaxploitation, ’60s soul and the civil rights era abounded in their work of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But Singleton was of the age to have grown up in the shadow of hip-hop and President Ronald Reagan, and that sensibility was prevalent in his work early on and would inform it for the remainder of his career.

Singleton’s coming-of-age classic Boyz n the Hood was a new kind of voice — even among a wave of assertive black directors. Eschewing Lee’s self-consciously “arty” flourishes for a straightforward style he indebted to American Graffiti, Singleton presented his version of the Gen X black experience. This was the story of the kids who’d been raised in the post-Watts riots world, the post-crack epidemic world. Boyz was an unpretentious look at growing up in South Central Los Angeles, the community at the heart of notorious news headlines and hip-hop’s most polarizing supergroup, N.W.A. Singleton gave that world the layers and depth it deserved at a time when outsiders were still largely viewing Compton, California, youths through red and blue stereotypes.

Singleton was of the age to have grown up in the shadow of hip-hop and President Ronald Reagan, and that sensibility was prevalent in his work early on and would inform it for the remainder of his career.

Boyz n the Hood was the harbinger of a wave of “growin’ up in the ’hood” movies that would hit theaters over the next three years, but Singleton, still only in his early 20s, sought to tell a different story with the follow-up. 1993’s Poetic Justice dared to center a woman’s journey in an era when so much of the urban experience was being relayed through the eyes of young black men. With pop superstar Janet Jackson as the sensitive poet coping with the violence of her surroundings, Singleton offered a broader rendering of a generation suddenly at the center of so much culture and concern. No filmmaker documented the hip-hop generation’s coming-of-age more succinctly than John Singleton.

It’s not hard to see how influential Boyz, in particular, was on what followed: the popularity of “ ’hood movies” throughout the early 1990s, the almost standard casting of rappers in prominent dramatic roles. Singleton’s success served as a template for the Hughes brothers, Rusty Cundieff and others who came to the fore in the next few years. Of course, Singleton’s emergence coincided with a surge among black voices in mainstream Hollywood. On the heels of Lee’s late-1980s breakthrough, the early ’90s teemed with possibilities, as Lee forged a path for director-driven auteurism with films such as Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues and established stars such as Eddie Murphy blazed a path for box-office visibility with crowd-pleasers such as the Reggie Hudlin-directed Boomerang.

Boyz n the Hood, the 1991 coming-of-age classic written and directed by John Singleton (right) and starring Ice Cube (left), was a new kind of voice — even among a wave of assertive black directors.

Photo by Pool ARNAL/GARCIA/PICOT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Singleton branched off into all kinds of projects, directing the acclaimed music video for Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” in 1992. And his storytelling expanded with each subsequent film: 1995’s Higher Learning attempted to look at race relations via the microcosm of a major American university, and the 1997 period piece Rosewood peeled back the layers on an ugly episode in America’s racist history. 2001’s Baby Boy was a return to the communities he’d always known so well, albeit with a scrutinizing lens that belied how much he’d grown in his commentary in the decade since Boyz n the Hood.

In the 2000s, Singleton’s creative output became more varied and somewhat less definitive. He scored a major box-office hit with 2004’s revenge drama Four Brothers, once again teaming with artists turned actors in Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson and Andre 3000. And, as if reaffirming the potency of telling the hip-hop generation’s stories, he produced gritty urban films such as Hustle & Flow and Illegal Tender. His move to television projects remained undeniably Singleton, from his work on Empire to his acclaimed series Snowfall. And he challenged Hollywood to cultivate black voices that can tell black stories, railing against the idea that white storytellers all too often are given the reins of black history and experience.

“They feel that they’re not racist,” he told The Hollywood Masters in 2014, referring to white gatekeepers in contemporary Hollywood. “They grew up with hip-hop, so [they] can’t be racist. ‘I like Jay-Z, but that don’t mean I got to give you a job.’ ” The previous year, Singleton praised projects such as The Butler and Fruitvale Station as “a number of films helmed by African American directors that raise the bar and also many questions concerning the industry’s historical outlook on what is commercial and what isn’t.”

The success of Singleton’s creative voice was a game changer; it was a generational and cultural push into both Hollywood’s mainstream and black cinema’s more rarefied corners. He made movies for a generation that understood the ideals of the civil rights generation but didn’t always feel beholden to them. His movies could be as brash, and as hopeful, as a great rap album. He demanded accountability in the industry and commanded your attention in his storytelling. With news of Singleton’s passing, we’re losing a huge part of contemporary Hollywood’s soul and black Hollywood’s legacy. But his success forged a path that the Ryan Cooglers and Ava DuVernays now walk — Cali kids who broke through telling stories their way. For almost three decades, Singleton gave us a map to follow.

Thanks, John.

HBO’s ‘Leaving Neverland’ never lets Michael Jackson steal the spotlight Two men who say Jackson molested them reveal how a star weaponized his own magnetism

Leaving Neverland knows you love Michael Jackson.

It lets you love him until, finally, it’s impossible.

HBO’s two-part, four-hour documentary, which first airs March 3 and 4, intentionally mimics the contours of the sexually exploitative relationships Jackson allegedly had with two of his victims, Jimmy Safechuck and Wade Robson.

It’s that ability — that compassion, and that patience — that ultimately makes Leaving Neverland so devastating. Its beginning lulls and seduces you. You’re humming along to the melodies of “Smooth Criminal,” smiling with Jackson as Safechuck is photographed jumping beside him after doing a Pepsi commercial with the King of Pop. You’re marveling along with Robson when he meets his idol at age 5 after winning a dance contest in Australia. You’re thrilled, thrilled, just like young Jimmy and young Wade, when they’re first invited to Neverland Ranch and stay up past their bedtimes to eat junk food and watch movies that aren’t even in theaters yet. How glorious it is to feel liked, to feel special, because one of the most liked, special people in the world sees something in you.

Leaving Neverland is not a character assassination of Jackson. It gives you permission to like him, to like his music, even to love him, because Robson and Safechuck did, and so did their families. It does not demand your immediate sympathy for Robson and Safechuck, nor does it demand immediate condemnation of Jackson.

It only trusts that you will listen.

“He was one of the kindest, loving, gentle, most caring people I knew,” Robson says, “… and he also sexually abused me.”

Jackson’s estate filed a lawsuit against HBO in hopes of stopping the network from airing Leaving Neverland. The suit claims that the cable network violated a non-disparagement clause in a contract it entered to air Jackson’s Dangerous concert in 1992.

Leaving Neverland, directed by Dan Reed, shows how to make a documentary about sexual abuse without allowing the star power of the celebrity in question to upstage his victims. Lesser directors would be tempted to home in on the lurid details of Jackson’s alleged sexual predation and repeat them for shock value. It is the sledgehammer approach to storytelling: Start with the most horrifying, salacious parts, insist repeatedly that the subject was unfathomably monstrous, and then roll credits.

Reed, on the other hand, places his viewers squarely in the mindset of both Safechuck and Robson. He demonstrates how they could be persuaded to lie repeatedly to their parents, to law enforcement officials, and even on the witness stand, to protect Jackson. Yes, Jackson manipulated his young victims by telling them that he and they would go to jail if anyone found out about their assignations. But Jackson didn’t need to resort to violent threats to get what he wanted. He simply withdrew his love, knowing that his young friends would continue to seek it and do whatever was necessary to remain in his good graces, because that is what children do.

Michael Jackson and Jimmy Safechuck (front).

HBO

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the story is that, from a distance, it’s so easy to judge the mothers of Safechuck and Robson as fame-seeking fools who were blinded by celebrity. But Leaving Neverland illustrates how Jackson also endeared himself to the families of his victims. His ingratiating neediness convinced them that they, in some small way, had power over him because he loved them so much. Robson’s mother, Joy, explained that when Jackson died in 2009, she felt as though she’d lost a son.

“Everybody knows he didn’t have a childhood,” she says.

“It was like hanging out with someone your age,” Safechuck explains.

The big reveal of Leaving Neverland is not that Jackson allegedly molested children, or the details of the acts Safechuck and Robson accuse him of committing. It is the emotional time bombs that continued to detonate long after his relationships with Robson and Safechuck ended.

Robson and Safechuck, who did not know each other as children, experienced mirror images of each other’s traumas later in life, from problems with depression to waves of crushing anxiety that developed after their own children were born and they began to imagine their sons experiencing what they did with Jackson. It’s the rifts within the Safechuck and Robson families that distanced both Wade and Jimmy from their own mothers. The actions of one man had consequences that rippled through multiple generations of these two families. Leaving Neverland briefly asks us to consider the same for other victims who did come forward as children, only to be smeared as liars and money-grubbers.

Jackson didn’t need to resort to violent threats to get what he wanted. He simply withdrew his love.

Jackson’s response to being investigated for sexual abuse feels all too familiar. Just as he manipulated the Safechucks and the Robsons into seeing him as a victim in need of love and protection, Jackson did something similar with black people as a whole. Viewers will recognize a commonality with other famous black men accused of sexual assault, such as Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, who publicly fashion themselves as victims of their own success in a racist country seeking to take them down a peg. Jackson made his appeal in a speech at the 1994 NAACP Image Awards, where he equated his legal battles against accusations of child molestation with the organization’s fight for civil rights.

“For decades, the NAACP has stood at the forefront for equal justice under the law for all people in our land,” Jackson said before an enthusiastic crowd brought to their feet by his mere presence. “They have fought in the lunchrooms of the South, in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court, and in the boardrooms of corporate America for justice, equality and the very dignity of all mankind. Members of the NAACP have been jailed and even killed in the noble pursuit of those ideals upon which our country was founded.

“None of these goals is more meaningful for me at this time in my life than the notion that everyone is presumed to be innocent. Everyone is presumed to be innocent and totally innocent until they are charged with a crime and then convicted by a jury of their peers. I never really took the time to understand the importance of that ideal until now. Until I became the victim of false allegations and the willingness of others to believe and exploit the worst before they have had the chance to hear the truth. Because not only am I presumed to be innocent, I am innocent. And I know that the truth will be my salvation.”

Jackson is magnetic. He is radiant. He is a consummate performer, and he revels in his command of the crowd.

“We love you, Michael!” an audience member shouts.

“I love you more,” he responds, beaming.

Leaving Neverland does not blame Jackson’s fans for the love and faith they poured into him for decades. It simply exposes that as much as Jackson might have needed it, that love was never going to be reciprocated. Perhaps it couldn’t be.

“People think his music’s great, so he’s great,” Safechuck said.

Leaving Neverland doesn’t explain or excuse how Jackson became the man he did. There are interviews with Oprah Winfrey and Ed Bradley and Martin Bashir and plenty of others that attempt to do that. Instead, Leaving Neverland redirects the spotlight in the hope that its audience, like Safechuck and Robson, will finally see the truth.

Today in black history: W.E.B. Du Bois is born, a black woman is elected Manhattan borough president and Gen. Frank Petersen is put in charge The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 23

1868 — Happy birthday, W.E.B. Du Bois. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, whom the world would come to know as W.E.B. Du Bois, was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he lived until heading off to attend college at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Du Bois’ experiences in college opened his eyes to the severity of racial discrimination in the South. After graduating from Fisk, he returned north to attend Harvard University, where he earned a doctorate in 1895, becoming the first African-American to do so.

1929 — Baseball catcher Elston Gene Howard is born in St. Louis. Howard led an active life as a child, but it wasn’t until his teenage years that he was taken seriously as an athlete. While playing baseball, Howard was approached by Frank Tetnus Edwards, a former Negro Leaguer and St. Louis Braves staff member. After persuading his mother, Howard played with the Braves over the summer. In 1965, Howard signed a $70,000 contract with the New York Yankees and became the highest-paid player in the history of baseball at the time.

1929 — Joe Louis knocks out Nathan Mann in three rounds to take the heavyweight boxing title.

1965 — Constance Baker Motley is elected Manhattan borough president. Motley was a civil rights lawyer who became involved with the movement after being discriminated against while attempting to enter a public beach. Motley began her studies at Fisk University, then went on to New York University before earning her law degree from Columbia Law School in 1946. In 1964, Motley became the first black woman elected to the New York Senate. Motley broke barriers once more when she was elected the first female president of Manhattan borough the following year.

1979 — Frank E. Petersen Jr. is named the first black general in the Marine Corps. Petersen was determined to serve his country despite racial discrimination. Petersen attended school in Topeka, Kansas, before attempting to join the U.S. Navy. In his first attempt, Petersen was asked to take the entrance exam over again because administrators believed he’d cheated. In 1950, two years after the desegregation of the armed forces, Petersen enlisted in the Navy. Two years later, Petersen, now a Marine, completed flight school and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Petersen also became the Marines’ first black aviator. He served as commanding general for the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and in 1988 retired as the first black three-star lieutenant general. Petersen died on Aug. 25, 2015, of lung cancer. He was 83.

Today in black history: Malcolm X assassinated, John Lewis, Barbara Jordan and Nina Simone are born The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 21

1936 — Happy birthday, Barbara Jordan. A lawyer and educator and one of the leaders of the civil rights movement, Jordan became the first African-American woman from the South elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She is known for her opening statement at the House Judiciary Committee hearings during the impeachment process against then-President Richard Nixon. She was also the first black woman to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. Jordan died in 1996 at age 59.

1933 — Happy birthday, Nina Simone. Born Eunice Waymon, Simone was a singer, songwriter and musician who became a civil rights activist. She owned a broad catalog of music, as her talents represent styles in jazz, classical, gospel, folk, and rhythm and blues. She was born in North Carolina and enrolled in Juilliard School of Music in New York. She recorded influential records such as “Mississippi Goddam,” “I Loves You, Porgy” and “I Put a Spell on You.” She died in 2003.

1940 — Happy birthday, John Lewis, a civil rights leader and political activist who was an early member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He has served as the U.S. representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987 and is the dean of the Georgia congressional delegation. While chairman of the SNCC, he was one of the “Big Six” leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He was a key contributor to the civil rights movement and still moves the needle for equality today. Lewis has received a number of awards, including the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

1961 — Otis Boykin patents the electrical resistor. Boykin invented the electrical resistor, U.S. patent No. 2,972,726, the electrical device used in all guided missiles and IBM computers. Boykin’s noteworthy inventions include a wire precision resistor and a control unit for the pacemaker. He graduated from Fisk College in 1941 and took a job with the Majestic Radio and TV Corp. When he died in 1982 of heart failure, he had 26 patents in his name.

1965 Malcolm X (1925-65) is assassinated in Audubon Ballroom. Born Malcolm Little, the minister and human rights activist was shot in New York just before delivering a speech to his newly founded Organization of Afro-American Unity. After becoming El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X was known as a prolific orator and one of the most influential people in history. His life was chronicled in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to by Alex Haley, and in the movie Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee.