Dave Chappelle returns home to Washington to claim Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize Erykah Badu, Neal Brennan, Kenan Thompson, yasiin bey, Jon Stewart and others gather to honor the man who gave us ‘Chappelle’s Show’

WASHINGTON — For a night, the concert hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts — home to the National Symphony Orchestra — was a Juke Joint, specifically, Dave Chappelle’s.

Sunday evening, a parade of comedy and music luminaries gathered to fete one of the greatest comedians of his generation, who also happens to be a hometown hero. Chappelle, 46, is a graduate of Washington’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts. To mark his accomplishment as this year’s recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the Kennedy Center brought together the two sets of artists Chappelle loves most: comedians and musicians.

Dave Chappelle (center) is honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center on Oct. 27 in Washington.

Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images

The evening opened with Ellington’s marching band bounding in while playing Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” a tribute to one of Chappelle’s favorite friends and musicians, as well as one of his most well-known sketches based on Charlie Murphy’s recounting of hangout sessions with the rock star.

From then, the ceremony flowed back and forth between musical performances from Erykah Badu, yasiin bey, John Legend, and Jill Scott, video clips of Chappelle’s many comedic feats, and tributes from fellow comics, including Tiffany Haddish, Jon Stewart, Aziz Ansari, Sarah Silverman, and Saturday Night Live stars Michael Che, Colin Jost, and Kenan Thompson.

With the award, Chappelle officially joins the ranks of some of the country’s greatest comedic talents, including Richard Pryor (the first person to be awarded the Mark Twain Prize), Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin, Tina Fey, George Carlin, and David Letterman.

By far, the highlight of the evening’s comedic sets came from Chappelle’s longtime collaborator, Neal Brennan, who co-created Chappelle’s Show and co-wrote the nonsensical Half Baked. Brennan deftly toggled back and forth between sincere — “Dave Chappelle completely changed my life” — and well-integrated deadpan forays into the comedy danger zone. When Brennan referred to Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner as “Jeffrey Epstein with a grotto,” Chappelle actually got up from his seat in the concert hall box because he was laughing so hard.

Comedians Michael Che (left) and Colin Jost (right) watch the performance at the Kennedy Center for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on Oct. 27 in Washington.

Photo by ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Another highlight came from Silverman, who quipped, “It’s actually perfect that you’re getting the Mark Twain Prize, because you both love using the N-word in your masterpieces.”

In an unexpected but fun turn, rappers Q-Tip and bey recreated an anecdote — with Q-Tip playing Chappelle — of Chappelle and bey deciding to stroll up to the White House one afternoon. They’d been hanging out in Lafayette Park, and Chappelle thought it would be a gas to drop in and see if President Bush was home. Neither the president nor the Secret Service welcomed them in.

The program was a comprehensive trip through Chappelle’s career, with friends recollecting his early standup sets at the DC Improv, where his mother would accompany him and then drive him home. When Chappelle came to the stage at the end of the ceremony to accept the Mark Twain Prize, a bust of the American satirist and author, he recounted the singular experience of having his mother critique an early set by remarking that he told “too many p—y jokes.” Besides Chappelle’s Show, which ran from 2003 to 2006, he’s also been in a couple of dozen movies, from comedies such as Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) and Undercover Brother (2002) to his more recent work in A Star is Born (2018) and Chi-Raq (2015).

Chappelle and those who paid tribute to him did not ignore recent criticism he has received because of jokes about those who alleged they were victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson or Louis C.K. Not everyone was a fan of the way he addressed the current president during his monologue while hosting the first episode of Saturday Night Live following the 2016 election. Chappelle addressed such criticism when he came up to give his acceptance speech.

“Rather than talk about myself, just briefly, I want to talk about my genre,” he said. “Stand-up comedy is an incredibly American genre. I don’t think any other country could produce this many comedians. And unbeknownst to many in this audience, I don’t think there’s an opinion that exists in this country that is not represented in a comedy club by somebody. Each and every one of you has a champion in the room. We watch you guys fight, but when we’re together, we talk it out. I know comics who are very racist, and I watch them onstage and everyone’s laughing and I’m like, ‘oooo, that m—–f—– means that s—.’ ”

Chappelle took a drag on a cigarette as the crowd sent up peals of laughter.

The Duke Ellington School of the Arts marching band performed Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” to honor Dave Chappelle as part of the 2019 Mark Twain Prize ceremony.

Tracey Salazar

“Don’t get mad, don’t hate ’em. We go upstairs and have a beer, and sometimes I even appreciate the artistry that they paint their racist opinions with. Man, it’s not that serious. The First Amendment is first for a reason. The Second Amendment is juuuuuuust in case the first one doesn’t work out!”

Since putting on his eponymous block party in 2005, which also became a Michel Gondry documentary, Chappelle has experimented with ways to combine music and comedy and take the two beyond the average live show. The project became his “Juke Joints,” joyous, freewheeling affairs that require attendees to sock their smartphones away so that they can actually live in the moment instead of focusing on whether to record in landscape or portrait. Sunday night’s event was about as close to a Juke Joint party as one can get within the refined confines of the Kennedy Center. But Chappelle appeared to enjoy himself, and stuck around for the after-party. He smoked onstage, danced along to Wu-Tang Clan and appeared about as contented as one man can be as he celebrated his crowning as a comedy hero of both the district and the nation at large.

The prize ceremony, either heavily edited or with copious amounts of bleeps, will air Jan. 6 on PBS.

Another hidden figure: Clyde Foster brought color to NASA Over three decades, he recruited hundreds of African Americans into the space program

Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.

Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.

But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.

A page from a brochure for the Computer Science Center at Alabama A&M. Clyde Foster (on right) started the center.

Alabama A&M

Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.

“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”

Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.

“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”

Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.

“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”

A 1942 photograph of the Foster family: Back row, from left: Betty Foster (Berry), James Foster, James’s wife Elizabeth Foster, Clyde Foster, Dorothy Foster (Sweatt), Otis Foster, Ann Foster (Sweatt), Fred Foster. Front row, from left: David Foster, Katie Foster (Rodgers), Clyde’s father, James Foster, Clyde’s mother, Effie Foster, Geraldine Foster (Franklin), Eddie Foster.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.

While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.

Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.

With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.

Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.

“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”

Foster is seen here in the Army. He landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.

Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”

Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.

George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.

Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.

A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 21, 1931, Foster graduated from Parker High School in Birmingham in 1950 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Chemistry from Alabama A&M College in 1954.

NASA/MSFC

“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”

Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.

“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”

The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.

James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

Photo by Don Rutledge courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”

One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”

Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.

“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”

In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.

Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.

“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”

Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.

The cover of a brochure for the Computer Science Center at was then called Alabama A&M College. Foster started the bachelor’s degree program in computer science.

Alabama A&M

“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”

In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.

“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.

His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.

Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.

Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”

This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.

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.”

What we’ll miss about ‘2 Dope Queens’: Guilt-free laughs in troubled times The specials on HBO and the podcast are coming to an end

This year marks the end of HBO’s 2 Dope Queens specials, as well as the original podcast by comics Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson.

Now that they’ve opened for Oprah Winfrey and dished with former first lady Michelle Obama about hair, both Williams and Robinson are moving on. Robinson recently appeared in What Men Want, and Williams is in the new indie comedy Corporate Animals, which debuted at Sundance in January.

Their kiki-ing and fangirling over various celebrities has always been amusing. This season includes segments with Daniel Radcliffe, Lupita Nyong’o, Janet Mock and one particularly memorable flute lesson with singer-rapper Lizzo, who can perhaps best be described as Trap Donna Summer. Other recurring bits: the celebration of wigs, which are no longer just for your grandmother when she’s putting on her going-out clothes, and Williams’ cracks about her size 11 feet.

But one of my favorite aspects of the shows has always been Williams’ cheerleading for therapy, which she will happily discuss with friends and strangers alike.

“Even when I don’t feel like going, I always walk out like, ‘That was the best thing.’ It’s like a workout,” Williams told me recently. “It’s like you pay someone money — hopefully with just a gentle copay with your insurance. It’s like every time I go, I’m really happy that I did it. And not only that, but my friends go too, and I find that whenever I need advice from any of the homies, I always ask my therapy homies because they can process things better. But the ones that don’t go to therapy? You’re like, ‘You’re really popping off in a way that doesn’t feel nice or kind or well thought-out or compassionate.’

“I think therapy encourages you to acknowledge your feelings and also realize that you are in a world where a lot of people feel a ways and everyone’s trying all the time. It gives you compassion for yourself and it gives you compassion for others.”

Lupita Nyong’o, Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson on an episode of ‘2 Dope Queens.’

Courtesy of HBO

Perhaps that’s what allows Williams (Robinson does not go to therapy, though she supports it) to consistently find the light in an overwhelmingly dark time and, in turn, offer a balm to this cursed era of Blackface History Month. 2 Dope Queens provides permission for its audience to laugh and enjoy the utterly superficial, one hour at a time, without feeling guilty about it. It’s a frothy escape, powered by underrepresented comics and two women who can embrace their brand of ridiculous and not need it to be anything more.

The last of the 2 Dope Queens specials, taped at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, New York, in December, will air for the next three Friday nights on HBO.

Our superheroes get in the act at black comic-con expo Creativity of artists, writers and cosplay characters on display at Black Comix Expo in Brooklyn

It’s been a year since Marvel’s Black Panther was released in theaters. If we’ve learned anything from its Oscar nomination for best picture, the estimated $1.3 billion it grossed and the movements it inspired, it’s that there is an audience craving stories about people of color who are powerful, smart and superheroic.

For many, T’Challa, M’Baku and Shuri were an introduction into a world where black people were not only in the future, they were running it. But the people of color superhero community is vast and established itself well before Wakanda became a household name. You just have to know where to find it.

Attending local comic conventions (cons) that focus on diversity and inclusion, such as the Black Comix Expo in Brooklyn, New York, is one way to do it. On Feb. 10, an estimated 2,000 people filled the halls of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to attend the event. They were greeted with a range of activities, from a panel discussion about black women in sci-fi to a cosplay showcase. Patrons were also able to meet roughly 30 local comic illustrators and creators of color and creators and purchase their work.

Deirdre Hollman, 49, is founder of the Black Comics Collective, which co-presented the Expo with BAM. She said the event is important for people who independently publish comics and graphic novels.

“People can connect with community here,” said Hollman.

Hollman sought a racially diverse group of artists whose protagonists and storylines touch on a range of issues, including Afrofuturism (the belief that black people survive and thrive in the future), climate change and code-switching. The “x” in Comix is meant to embrace various types of art and artists, including graphic and literary novelists.

Jerry Craft, an author and illustrator from Harlem, New York, recently published New Kid. The story follows seventh-grader Jordan Banks as he adjusts to a new, prestigious school with very few students who look like him. He deals with colorism, code-switching and new sports such as soccer and squash.

“The story reflects my own upbringing and is meant to offer support to young adult readers in similar situations,” said Craft.

La Borinqueña is a superhero series from Nuyorican graphic novelist Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez.

La Borinqueña is a superhero series from Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, a 48-year-old Puerto Rican activist and graphic novelist who lives and works in Brooklyn. His main character is Marisol Rios De La Luz, an Afro-Boricua woman who leads a double life. She’s a college student studying earth and environmental sciences and a super heroine who can fly and control storms. She lives in Brooklyn and has strong family and cultural ties in Puerto Rico. La Borinqueña, Marisol’s superhero name, is derived from Puerto Rico’s national anthem.

“The story,” said Miranda-Rodriguez, “highlights the impact of climate change and the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico.”

Ashley Woods, 33, is an illustrator from Chicago. She participated in the Black Comix Expo’s panel discussion on black women in sci-fi. She’s the creator of the comic Millennia War and has worked with various houses to produce comics such as Tomb Raider: Survivor’s Crusade, Niobe and Ladycastle. She’s currently working on Heathen, a comic featuring the female protagonist Aydis. She’s a lesbian Viking warrior and self-proclaimed heathen.

“Now is a good time to be a black woman in comic illustration. People want stories from black creatives. Black Panther really broke a lot of barriers and proved that black creatives can bring in big-budget dollars,” said Woods.

All three artists agreed that there is value in attending cons such as the Black Comix Expo.

Minority creatives and up-and-coming artists are easier to overlook or be priced out of the larger cons. The most popular cons attract around 100,000 attendees or more, and patrons pay entrance fees. In 2018, New York’s Comic Con attracted a record-breaking 250,000 people.

“It’s more intimate,” said Woods. “The big ones are overstimulating. It’s also easier to make money because you are not competing with actors, wrestlers or celebrities. The people who attend are there to support actual artists and buy their work.”

Miranda-Rodriguez added that the expo helps artists connect with community. “These events really promote artists of color, artists who actually have a stake in their characters,” he said.

Craft is a cofounder of the Black Comic Book Festival, along with Hollman, John Jennings and Jonathan Gayles. BCBF takes place at The Schomberg Center in Harlem and has a similar mission to the Black Comix Expo. It just features more patrons, panel discussions, comic book creators and cosplay participants.

“There are a lot of black authors doing really important work, and I would like to add to their narrative by bringing my line of contemporary stories that use humor to tell a message and contemporary stories,” Craft said.

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.

‘Avengers: Infinity War’ goes back to Wakanda, the land where women fight to the finish And the female characters strike as much fear into the enemy as male protagonists do — if not more

 

Avengers: Infinity War will be one of the biggest films of 2018 — and that’s saying a lot after the unprecedented success of Black Panther, which collected an international box office of $1 billion inside of one month. This new Marvel project features superheroes such as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and, of course, Black Panther teaming up to take on a common enemy set to destroy the universe.

But it’s a new day, and there are many more female characters beyond Black Widow to strike fear into enemies as male protagonists do. And Infinity War highlights the strength of Marvel Universe’s female characters — a battalion of badass women who fight alongside their male counterparts with a diversity of strength, intelligence and powers in a way never seen before, collectively, on screen.

The Undefeated sat down with superstar Zoe Saldana — one of Hollywood’s most bankable, who was taking a break from shooting Avatar 2 — and British actor Letitia Wright, who was introduced to U.S. audiences as the Black Panther’s genius kid sister. Both women were featured in the video for Drake’s “Nice For What,” his recent record-breaking you-go-girl anthem. And after witnessing the might of their characters in Avengers: Infinity War, there is no doubt their power will grow tenfold.

We chat.


Zoe Saldana as Gamora along with Dave Bautista as Drax in “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.”

Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Your characters arrive on screen, and everyone in the theater will scream, “Yaaaas!” What does that mean to you?

Saldana: It humbles me. It makes me feel superexcited to know that I am joining a band of women attracted to action-driven films. I love to see women portrayed in complex layers, where your physical abilities are also challenged.

Wright: It’s something I always wanted to do with my work, with my talent. To be in that position where young women feel empowered, or encouraged, or inspired to be cool in their own skin, and do their thing, and contribute positively to the world — it feels really good.

Obviously, you’re reprising roles in Infinity War, but take us back to the first time you suited up and stepped into your character’s shoes.

Saldana: I’m a Gemini, so I was very much a Gemini in the very first movie … becoming Gamora every single day. There was the real Zoe, the actress, the complainer: ‘This costume is itchy! The makeup really feels like it’s burning my skin!’ And then … as soon as I step into set and everybody’s in their character’s suit, that is completely left at the door and I become this excited little girl that feels grateful to be where I’m at, privileged to be collaborating with people that I feel like raise me every day — whether colleagues or my director or producers, or crew.

Wright: The first time … it was kind of scary because it was a set filled with so many amazing actors and actresses. And I [hadn’t done] anything in the U.S., so I was kind of literally fresh off the boat — nobody knows who you are. And also just not wanting to let anybody down, and not fully understanding who she needed to be. I had my own perception of who she was … just super, superserious about everything. And [Black Panther director] Ryan Coogler saw my own personality, saw the light and the love that’s within me, and the fun vibes. And he wanted more of that for Shuri. It was difficult to put my perception of who she was aside … and then, as I went along, playing this character in the lab … and talking about superhard scientific things that I’d never thought about in real life … it allowed me to see that this character is empowering and that something different was about to happen.

The representation of women of color in this film is amazing.

Saldana: The fact that we are more than one in a cast. And that we are more than two. We’re actually like 10 … we feel we’re not alone. There’s a lot of celebration, just a lot of great energy, and I hope it continues. I hope other studios and executives … understand that they need to write complex and layered roles for women. … If audiences are always looking up to what we’re doing as a film industry, then we need to set the tone.

Wright: I take my hat off to Marvel for stepping in and filling shoes that need to be filled in terms of producers and studios who are just doing things. Not just saying it, but doing it, to make change. And, yeah, it feels good that there are more women included in the films, even more so, collectively. And just to see that starting off with Zoe’s character, or Elizabeth’s [Olsen] character, or Scarlett [Johansson], you know? All the women in Guardians. It’s been happening for quite a while, and then to then have Black Panther bring in females of African descent, and a story of an African descent, it’s encouraging, and I’m just happy it’s happening.

“We can … put our missions across as LGBTQIA women, as black women, as Jewish women, as Muslim women, as white women — we are all standing together. We need it.”

Marvel Studios’ AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR: Shuri (Letitia Wright) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

When you were a little girl, which superhero or heroine did you pretend to be?

Saldana: Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, ninjas! The Bionic Woman. Jackie Brown. Every time I would see a woman on screen or in my TV, regardless of the color of her skin, ’cause there was a time in my life when I was completely colorblind, and that was to me true bliss. And it was always in the comfort and in the safety of my home where my mother raised us to be colorblind. And still, to this day, she pursues that mission for us. Even when I’d go to school and the world began to taint my vision of what that was like, I still looked up to women regardless of the color of their skin. I held on to the fact that they were there to remind me that if they’re doing it, then I can as well. It’s important to instill in our girls that regardless of the color of your skin, we should always stand united. … In that unity we will propel change … through all of our subcultures and sub-issues and everything. If we keep it first as a general conversation, then once that’s out there, and we’re reminding people, and we’re not allowing people to forget, then we can also put our missions across as LGBTQIA women, as black women, as Jewish women, as Muslim women, as white women — we are all standing together. We need it.

Wright: Man, this is hard. I looked up to a lot of people who were a part of the civil rights movement. I studied a lot of that when I was a kid, particularly the U.S. civil rights movement. Rosa Parks and, like, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. These people who went out of their way to fight for something that they believed in and stand up for people who they believed in as well. I studied a lot about Rosa Parks … and how she just believed in something and believed in equality and believed in her rights and stood up for that. So those were the people that made an impact on my life.

What would you tell your 10-year-old self? The one who didn’t see Gamora or Shuri or Okoye on a big screen?

Zoe: That yes you can. That you can do anything you want to do, and that you are capable. If you have the ability, if you have the opportunity to lean in and have a role model in your life, just hold on to all of those people around you that tell you that you can do anything. And allow the strength of what they’re saying to you to be the strongest message that numbs out the noise of all the other people that are telling you that you can’t.

Wright: Just saying to her to take in these superhero characters. Take in these women and learn from them. Try to find the positive aspects of what they represent. Learn from them and use them as steppingstones, to build confidence. If there’s a character such as Okoye in the world, or a Shuri in the world or a Black Widow in the world, that’s an amazing thing, you know? I would say to my 10-year-old self if they can do it, you can too.

What other character in this film inspires you?

Saldana: Chadwick’s [Boseman] T’Challa inspired me and made me cry, because to be able to see a man of color be so sensitive, and be so human and be so delicate, really moved me. Because before that, every time I would see a man of color on screen, the emotions that were always highlighted in that man were emotions of anger and rage and injustice. And there are so many other layers to a man, regardless of the color of his skin.

Wright: I’ll definitely say Black Panther. Not to be biased, because he’s my character’s brother, but because he has such a difficult task. It educates me on how to be a leader. Seeing a leader who’s not afraid to take the opinions of other people, especially women, on board. And not think, like, ‘Oh, man! Don’t need a woman’s help!’ No, he’s so receptive, and so open to both genders, no matter what status you are. He even takes advice from his little sister.

Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III embraces himself fully as a rapper, a villain , and a black man with albinism The MC-turned-actor portrays Tobias Whale in the CW’s ‘Black Lightning’  

A supervillain who has the lyrical chops to keep up with your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper? That’s Marvin “Krondon” Jones III for ya. Hailing from South Central Los Angeles, he’s a longtime member of the California hip-hop collective Strong Arm Steady. Throughout his career has written for artists including Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Xzibit. And now he has a lead role in The CW’s Black Lightning, inspired by the DC Comics series.

Jones portrays politician-turned-crime boss Tobias Whale, who serves as the leader of a gang called The 100. In the made-up city of Freeland, Jefferson Pierce, aka Black Lightning, is the hero, and Whale is his antagonist — a character Jones brings to life via his powerful voice that bellows over top of his thick red beard. A characteristic Jones shares with the Whale is that both men are African-American with albinism, a rare genetic condition affecting 1 in 20,000 in the United States. Jones completely embraces his rareness. Before the wrap of season one of Black Lightning, The Undefeated spoke with Jones about the moment he got the call to audition for Tobias Whale, his favorite musical artists, past and present, the plight of Colin Kaepernick and the experience of being a black man in America with albinism.


How were you approached for the role of Tobias Whale?

I was working on a solo album with a friend of mine, Evidence of Dilated Peoples … Next thing you know, I get a call … and I have this role in my email. I’m asked to come in and audition for it. I was completely taken aback by the whole thing. I did some research on the comic book characters of Black Lightning and Tobias Whale. I went in and did what I was supposed to do. By the grace of the God, thankfully, I was called back … and told I got the part and that my life was gonna change. It’s true. My life has changed totally.

Were you aware that there was an African-American villain in DC Universe with albinism?

I wasn’t at all aware. I quickly became aware, once I was asked about the role, and was blown away. I didn’t think because the character had albinism that I was gonna just be handed the role. I know I looked the part. I know I was a slimmer, sexier version of the comic book character Tobias Whale. But I didn’t think it was a given.

“I was told I got the part and that my life was gonna change. And it’s true. My life has changed totally.”

What’s the most rewarding part about being an African-American man with albinism?

The ability to see the world through racial ambiguity. I’m a black man with albinism. I’m completely African-American, I’m completely African, I’m completely black — whatever you wanna call it. I grew up in the ghettos of South Central, Los Angeles. I have a black mother, father, grandmother and grandfather. But from afar — or even close up — I do not appear black at all in terms of physical features. My skin tone is that of a very pale Caucasian man, who cannot tan for the most part … So I see the world from both sides of the fence. I live in the black experience, but at the same time I understand the invalid idea that color decides who a man is … Another thing is, any room I walk in, 99.9 percent of the time, no one else looks like me. I’m a completely unique individual, able to create my own attention and attraction.

Aside from Tobias Whale, who are your top three most intimidating villains in history?

The Joker is one of my favorite all time villains by far … I would say Scarface, but he wasn’t a villain when I really think about his story. I have a human understanding of Scarface … Nino Brown from New Jack City, for sure … And then it’s a tie between Jules Winnfield and Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction. Who’s better than Sam Jackson in Pulp Fiction when it comes to a villain? He created the blueprint.

Who were your biggest musical influences growing up in South Central?

Of course, Ice Cube. He was the Shakespeare of my era. Through his N.W.A. catalog and his first three albums, his writings were like plays. Metallica … I had an opportunity when I was touring with Xzibit to perform with them in Europe … That was a big highlight of my career because growing up in South Central in the ’80s crack era, which my family was affected by, Metallica’s music was like a babysitter to me — Master of Puppets, Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, … And Justice for All were like my nannies. I sent a lot of time in the house alone, watching television, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eating cereal for dinner … And I say that proudly, because it made me who I am. Cube, N.W.A. and Metallica showed me much about myself and life, and gave me a voice as a writer. They gave me a dream … Also, Public Enemy, X-Clan, Boogie Down Productions, Gang Starr — that music and genre molded me into the artist I am today.

Colin Kaepernick should be respected as a leader and an activist, as well as a legendary player.

Which MCs would be in your dream cypher?

Dead or alive? Wow … I gotta start with Cube, for sure. Biggie, Jay-Z … in that order … Andre 3000, Black Thought, Kendrick Lamar and Nas. That’s it. Those are the only cats that would make me rise to the occasion that I wanna rise to.

Which artists do you currently listen to?

Kendrick is my favorite, for real. Of this era, of this generation, he’s the best to me. I’m very proud of him and all of TDE. I like Nipsey Hussle a lot. I’ve watched him come up … the Victory Lap album is like a West Coast classic to me. It’s one of those records where you learn about how the city of L.A. thinks by listening … There’s also a kid out of South Central that I’m working with right now named Bale… He was shot a year and a half ago 28 times and survived. Not a gangbanger. Not a thug. Actually went to college to play football, and while at home visiting he was shot. He’s an incredible talent and has an incredible story.

Who’s your favorite athlete of all time?

Muhammad Ali.

Speaking of Ali, what are your thoughts on Colin Kaepernick?

He’s leading by example … For us in the African-American community who are under so much oppression still, whether it be from politics or policing, I don’t care how much money or fame or influence you have, you are still affected by those things if you are a person of color. And Kaepernick is a shining example … I think we should all take a page from his book, and use our voice to affect change.

Do you think Kaep deserves another chance in the NFL?

Of course. He should be given another opportunity to play and should be respected as a leader and an activist, as well as a legendary player.

Have you ever been mistaken for Detroit Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones?

People have seen my name and thought I played in the NFL … I wanna meet him! I hope he watches the show. I hope he likes my music, too. Because I want a jersey. I think it’s only right I have one since we have the same name. Shout-out to Marvin Jones of the Detroit Lions. Shout-out to that brother, for sure.

Advice to your 15-year-old self?

Love God and be patient. All things work together for the good … and wear a condom [laughs]. I say that because I had a baby earlier. And don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter. She’s the light of my life, but she could’ve been the light of my life about five or 10 years later.

Advice to every kid with albinism reading this?

You are an angel from God. It is not a coincidence that you are unique. Your beauty comes once in 30,000 … and there is nothing that you can’t do, except sit in the sun. But in truth, the sun is the most powerful thing in the sky that no human being can.

Ava DuVernay to be honored by Gordon Parks Foundation The group also will fete Ronald O. Perelman, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Sherrilyn Ifill

Ava DuVernay will soon be toasted by the Gordon Parks Foundation in late May, the group announced on Tuesday. The group’s annual dinner happens May 22 and it honors individuals who make strides in performing and visual arts as well as humanitarianism.

The A Wrinkle In Time filmmaker will be joined by businessman and philanthropist Ronald O. Perelman, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill, photographer Sally Mann and documentary photographer Jamel Shabazz, all who also will be honored at New York staple Cipriani 42nd Street. The night will be co-chaired by Karl Lagerfeld, Kendrick Lamar, Valerie Jarrett, Alicia Keys, Kasseem Dean (megaproducer Swizz Beatz), Usher Raymond, Janelle Monáe, Common, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Kenneth and Kathryn Chenault, Judy and Leonard Lauder, and Alexander Soros.

Previous honorees include: U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, entertainer Janelle Monáe and photographer Annie Leibovitz.

DuVernay’s honor comes on the heels of good recent news: last week it was announced that DC Comics tapped her to direct the superhero film The New Gods for Warner Bros., which makes her the first woman of color to tackle a DC Comics film.

From the runway to Wakanda, black style reigns during New York Fashion Week

Photographer Melissa Bunni Elian went backstage at New York Fashion Week to capture several runway shows and pop-up events that showed off the creativity and ingenuity of black designers, models and attendees — including Marvel Comics’ Welcome to Wakanda event, just in time for the opening week of Black Panther, the Black Accessory Designers Alliance soiree, and the Matthew Adams Dolan, LaQuan Smith and Pyer Moss shows.

A model showcases a design inspired by the Marvel comic and upcoming film Black Panther during a Welcome to Wakanda event held during New York Fashion Week on Feb. 12.

Fashion blogger Joy Adaeze (center) with Black Panther’s wardrobe designer Walé Oyéjidé (right) and a model sporting his design during the Welcome to Wakanda event hosted by Marvel Comics during New York Fashion Week.


LaQuan Smith show.

Backstage at the Michael Adams Dolan show.

Backstage at the Michael Adams Dolan show.

The LaQuan Smith show.

Pyer Moss show.

Pyer Moss show.


Accessories designer N’tasha presents a pair of custom earrings from her collection, House.of.Kaluaah. The Black Accessory Designers Alliance hosts the event for both established and new designers such as N’tasha to expose them to the wide range of New York Fashion Week attendees.

A group of women network while wearing head wraps by Urban Turban for the Black Accessory Designers Alliance pop-up soiree held during New York Fashion Week.

LMCrush designer Lisa McFadden styles a hat on a potential customer for the Black Accessory Designers Alliance pop-up soiree held during New York Fashion Week. The organization presents diverse accessories created by designers of color from across the country and the world.

A model showcases a couture hat for the Black Accessory Designers Alliance pop-up soiree held during New York Fashion Week.