‘The Quad’s’ Ruben Santiago-Hudson brings himself to character Cecil Diamond ‘What I bring to each role I play is the best of myself’

Georgia A&M University band director Cecil Diamond may be one of the most polarizing characters on BET’s nighttime drama The Quad.

Diamond, who has led the prestigious 200-member Marching Mountain Cats since 1990, is one of the best band directors Atlanta has seen in this fictional historically black college setting. And once band members get past the sometimes cold exterior of their fearless leader, they learn to love him — for the most part.

There have been some traumatic experiences on Diamond’s watch. Whether the brutal beating of a band member, a betrayal within his band family or personal health scares, Diamond proves that though he can be bruised, he will not be broken. Approaching season two was no different.

“His frailties are much more prevalent now,” said Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the actor who portrays Diamond. “He’s able to expose a lot of that to people who are close to him, and I always look for those opportunities in my characters because they’re clearly signs of his humanity — when you’re not only powerful but you’re also vulnerable. This season gives him opportunities many times, or at least a few significant times, to show the dichotomy of the character and his personality.”

Santiago-Hudson knows the brazen, tough-love, no-nonsense character is exactly what he needed to be. And becoming Cecil Diamond wasn’t the toughest part, since Santiago-Hudson considers the character to be merely an extension of himself.

“Cecil Diamond is one of those guys, I don’t know if you can kill him,” Santiago-Hudson said. “His reserve and his energy and his will is so incredibly powerful that he’s used to fighting. He’ll fight any foe, and he feels he can win.

“We are one. I think there’s times I can be as firm or hard as Cecil, and there are times I can be as soft as Cecil, so all I can give you as an audience member is the best of me. Whatever you see of me, I’m giving it to you real. I’m not a method actor per se, but I am a seasoned actor. And what I bring to each role I play is the best of myself.”

With a career spanning more than four decades, Santiago-Hudson has challenged himself and displayed his acting abilities in several roles. But as he matured in his career, he desired new challenges and different types of roles. Starring as a detective here or a police officer there were great roles to add to the résumé, but Santiago-Hudson tired of fruitless parts that relied on his “black authority” yet omitted his vulnerability, sensitivity and intellect.

Once he received the call from Felicia D. Henderson, the show’s co-creator, Santiago-Hudson knew that this was one role he would not turn down.

“When I read the script and had a discussion with [Henderson], it was just where I wanted to be,” Santiago-Hudson said. “I didn’t want to go to L.A. I wanted to be closer to home, and I wanted to do something other than being a police officer. … I could show a lot more of who we are as a people.”

Santiago-Hudson knew he could be what the role required of him. He could be cold and calculating or caring and emotional. As far as Diamond’s musical career, Santiago-Hudson also had that covered. He is a self-taught harmonica player who also worked as a disc jockey for eight years. Music has always been a means of expression and integral part of his life, but transforming himself into a band director would present some unique challenges.

Santiago-Hudson did not attend a historically black college or university (HBCU), but he said he lived vicariously through his children, who received their college educations at Hampton University, Morris Brown College and Morehouse College. Immersing himself in the HBCU band culture to transform into Diamond was a learning experience for Santiago-Hudson.

“I’m a very studious actor,” Santiago-Hudson said. “I love dramaturgy. I love research. I had some wonderful people around that were provided to me to learn what it meant, what the tradition was, what the status was and what it really meant to be a band director. We brought band directors from high schools in Atlanta and we brought band directors from universities in the South. They all had a different take and something else to offer me, and everybody offered me gems, jewels, that I continue to build so that I can have a whole pocketful of gems and jewels.”

Once the basics were down, Santiago-Hudson made Diamond’s style his own. From facial expressions to commands, the actor took a small piece of everything he’d learned to form a complete character.

“If you watch RonReaco Lee [who plays the role of rival band director Clive Taylor] conduct and you watch me conduct, it’s two different styles,” Santiago-Hudson said. “The expressions on my face, the way I command, the way I look over my shoulder. Watch how I walk through my band and the respect they have for me and how a little look or a raised eyebrow says a lot to them. That marching band culture at black colleges, you can’t get more prestigious.”

Besides studying, learning and researching more about HBCU culture, Santiago-Hudson was even more impressed by the environment, and new family, around him. As long as Cecil Diamond has a place at GAMU, Santiago-Hudson will continue to give his all.

“The community of actors we’ve gathered, the collaborative process with our writers, directors and showrunner, Felicia D. Henderson, the sense of community [is my favorite part of being on the show],” Santiago-Hudson said. “And something that brings me tremendous joy is to look beyond the camera and see people of color pulling cables, adjusting lights, focusing cameras, catering, wardrobe. We have, I would say, 85 percent on the other side of the camera who look like me. I have not seen that, and it really brings me joy to tears. That’s how much that means to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a good thing she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Iowa City, Iowa

Throwback: Melrose Place, Seinfeld

Currently working on: CBS’ 9JKL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Los Angeles

Throwback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek

Currently working on: Queen Sugar

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

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

Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Melrose Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fotos International/Getty Images)

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

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


Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Philadelphia

Throwback: Doogie Howser, M.D.

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

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

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

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

The cast of Doogie Howser, M.D.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

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

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

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


Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: The Parent ‘Hood, Freaks and Geeks

Currently working on: Artificial intelligence software project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Living Single, Frasier

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

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

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

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

Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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


Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Miami

Throwback: Michael Hayes, Felicity

Currently working on: Nwannem: Sisters

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

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

Cast of the show Felicity.

Getty Images

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

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

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

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


Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: V.I.P.

Currently working on: Atone, The Zim

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

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

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

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

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

The cast of V.I.P.

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

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

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

More to Super Bowl: NFL wants to leave lasting legacies in communities through outreach Check out a few highlights that positively impacted the Minneapolis-St. Paul area

Beyond the chilly Minneapolis temperatures, the highly anticipated gridiron showdown, the electrifying halftime performance and the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy, there were a plethora of community service events surrounding Super Bowl LII, as is the case each year.

Sunday’s season-ending celebration closed with a 41-33 win for the Philadelphia Eagles over the New England Patriots. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area saw 32 activities and community outreach events throughout the city, which was part of the NFL’s plan to leave a lasting legacy.

For example, Special Olympics Minnesota partnered with the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee to host a Polar Plunge, a signature winter event centered on participants jumping into a body of icy water and raising funds to support more than 8,200 people with intellectual disabilities across the state.

But there’s more.

Out of the 32 announced events that took place in Minneapolis during Super Bowl LII weekend and the weeks leading up to the big day, here are a few community outreach events of note.


Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee partnered with the Downtown Congregations to kick off Super Bowl week with an interfaith gathering to celebrate unity and shared purpose. The gathering was held at Westminster Presbyterian Church. The celebration showcased Minnesota’s national leadership in multifaith dialogue and cooperation and will raise money to prevent homelessness. The event is the work of the Twin Cities faith community — rabbis, priests, pastors, imams and other leaders — coming together to send a message about unity in the Twin Cities.


The NFL Foundation and Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee Legacy Fund hosted a special character development event for local Minnesota High School athletic directors and their respective head football coach and female coach of influence at the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine.


The NFL and Special Olympics Minnesota hosted a Special Olympics Unified Flag Football game.


The Pro Football Hall of Fame showcased more than 130 artifacts during the week. The one-of-a-kind treasures allowed the Hall to convey the NFL’s 98-year history since the league’s birth in Canton, Ohio, in 1920.


Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis was the site of Super Bowl LIVE, a 10-day fan festival leading up to Super Bowl LII curated by Grammy-winning producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The event, free and open to the public, encompassed six blocks on Nicollet Mall and featured food and fun. Highlights included an evening of music honoring Prince.


Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, along with Diane Sims Page, executive director of the Page Education Foundation, presented TESTIFY, a preview of their collection of Americana from slavery to today. The wide-ranging exhibit features art and artifacts from pivotal eras in American history while providing a platform for visitors to share their thoughts, feelings and personal experiences.


The NFL hosted NFL PLAY 60 Character Camp, a free event on the field at Super Bowl Experience Driven by Genesis at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The event included 300 predominantly Hispanic youths from the Minnesota area. The noncontact football camp was led by Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle Anthony Munoz.


As part of Salute to Service, the NFL invited veterans, active-duty servicemen and women and their families to Military Appreciation Day. The NFL is working with its military nonprofit partners, including Wounded Warrior Project, to invite attendees. The event included football-themed activities, meet-and-greets and a special “Thank You” moment for all service members.


Children from the Minneapolis area participated and learned more about the importance of healthy living at the NFL PLAY 60 Kids’ Day, which gives more than 1,000 local children the opportunity to spend time with NFL players.


The NFL and the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee hosted the Super Bowl LII Business Connect: Celebrating Opportunities, Teamwork & Success, spotlighting the accomplishments of Super Bowl LII Business Connect suppliers and local businesses that have grown and thrived under the tutelage of the program’s professional development initiatives and, acknowledging NFL event contractors who’ve aggressively used the program, awarding contract opportunities to the vendors in the program. More than 350 Minnesota businesses in 40 vendor categories participated in the 18-month Business Connect program, which identifies Super Bowl LII contracting opportunities and matches those contracts with experienced, local diverse business owners in the program. To qualify for participation in Business Connect, businesses must be 51 percent owned by a minority, woman, veteran, lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender individual. The Business Connect Celebration is a ticketed event for participating business owners.


The NFL Player Care Foundation (PCF) and the NFL Alumni Association (NFLA) partnered to conduct their annual Super Bowl Healthy Body and Mind Screening program. This complimentary national program is open to all former NFL players and includes cardiovascular and prostate screenings and mental health resources and education. Comprehensive blood testing will be offered to the wives and significant others who accompany former player screening participants and are being provided by NFLA free of charge.


The NFL seeks to improve the surrounding communities of the Super Bowl host city with the Super Bowl Legacy Grant Program, made possible each year by a $1 million contribution from the NFL Foundation and matched by the Super Bowl Host Committee. This year, the NFL and Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee’s grants are focused on improving access and creating healthy behaviors for a lifetime, whether it’s access to physical activity or nutritious food. To build a healthier, more active, life-changing future for all of Minnesota’s children, the Super Bowl Legacy Fund’s strategic areas of giving are fun, fuel and fundamentals.

As a culmination of their 52 Weeks of Giving Campaign, the yearlong effort to award 52 Minnesota communities with grants leading up to the big game, NFL and Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee executives awarded the 52nd and final Super Bowl Legacy Grant to Anwatin Middle School.


Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee Legacy Fund 52 Weeks of Giving Campaign 52 Weeks of Giving is a yearlong community giving campaign to ensure that hosting the big game will leave a lasting legacy for Minnesota’s children.

Each week, for 52 weeks, the Legacy Fund provides a capital grant to a community organization in Minnesota that is committed to improving the health and wellness of children. The grants help improve access to nutritious food and physical activity and create healthy behaviors in Minnesota’s youths.


For the past 23 years, Rebuilding Together has partnered with the NFL to host community revitalization projects in Super Bowl cities across the country. These NFL-sanctioned events provide critical home repairs for people in need and their communities.

Rebuilding Together Twin Cities hosted a community revitalization project to rehabilitate six homes and develop a community garden in the Bryant neighborhood of South Minneapolis. The community garden will give neighbors access to fresh produce, which is extremely limited in the area, and offer residents opportunities to connect with their neighborhood.

‘Black Panther’ director Ryan Coogler got ready for his high-intensity life on the gridiron In high school, one of the director’s toughest battles was against Marshawn Lynch

As wide receiver, a lot of times you run routes where you can’t even see the ball. You just got to hope that it’s there when you turn your head. You got to trust your teammates to do their job. You’ve got to trust that the lineman is going to block. You’ve got to trust that the quarterback is going to have the right read. And then when … the ball is in the air, you got to catch it. All those things, when it comes to filmmaking? It’s direct preparation.
Ryan Coogler, director, Black Panther

Monday night is game time for Ryan Coogler. There’s a great deal at stake — and he knows it. The director/co-writer of Black Panther is finally showing his masterpiece to friends, cast members, taste makers and a few critics at the much-anticipated Hollywood premiere of his long-awaited film.

Coogler likely hasn’t felt this much pressure since he went up against Marshawn Lynch in a football game during his junior year in their Oakland, California, hometown. “I played against a lot of dudes that were really, really good,” the director said. “Marshawn was probably the best.”

But Monday night? It’s time to put points up on the board. Again.

In this new film, we are transported to the fictional land of Wakanda — and go deep into the story of the Black Panther, portrayed by Chadwick Boseman. But Coogler’s own origin story is one for the history books, as well. “A lot of kids struggle. Somebody asks you who you are, man, you got to be something, ‘Are you in the streets? Are you an athlete? What are you? Growing up, it was always one of those two things,” Coogler said. “My father worked at juvenile hall. It would have broke his heart if I’d become that.”

Ryan Kyle Coogler grew up in Bushrod, which when he was growing up was a well-known predominantly black neighborhood in North Oakland. There was a parks and rec center that served as a gathering place for young people to participate in sports and other activities. “I started school … when I just 4,” said Coogler, 31. “I was doing fine academically, but I was having a tough time because I was smaller than the other kids. I got picked on … because I didn’t fit in. There’s a big difference between a kid at 4 versus a kid who’s 6. So I was dealing with that.”

But Coogler’s life was blessed. His mom Joselyn was a community organizer, and his dad Ira was a juvenile hall probation counselor who had played youth and prep football. Both parents were educated at California State University, East Bay, back when it was known as California State University, Hayward. But his life wasn’t a reality for many of his neighborhood friends. “Where we were living … there were kids that were on Section 8,” Coogler said from his office on the Disney studio lot. “There were housing projects … right behind us. I would play with those kids, but I would get teased … because I went to a nicer school. I had both parents in the house. So, I didn’t really fit in.”

“I was a physical kid. I had a lot of anger issues … I wanted to find somewhere where I could fit in. And football provided an outlet … ”

And back then, his part of North Oakland didn’t really have a youth football team. At the age of 7, he ended up trying out for the nearby Berkeley Cougars because he thought the name was cool, and because it was a different team than his dad played for. For the young Coogler the team felt like home. Almost immediately. “I was a physical kid,” he said. “I had a lot of anger issues. I would get picked on, so I would fight a lot. I wanted to find somewhere where I could fit in. And football provided an outlet for both of those things.”

Football gave Coogler some balance. “I remember stepping on the field for the first time in Berkeley … it was one of the first moments where I was like, ‘Yeah, my life has changed.’ I found something that I’m good at, that I actually like, that I can look forward to. I felt like I belonged.” Coogler stuck with the sport, becoming captain of Saint Mary’s College High School Panthers, where he also excelled in track and basketball.

He was a standout student who had dreams of studying chemistry and going to medical school — if a professional football career didn’t pan out. By the time he hit his senior year in 2003, he was being heavily recruited by schools such as Harvard, Princeton and Penn — his academics were on point.

“He’s our head coach on every production. It starts with him and it trickles down. He gives you the feeling of trust.”

“I wasn’t tall enough, or fast enough … to really get Pac 10 offers,” said Coogler, who played wide receiver. “I came close, but I wasn’t good enough to get those rides. I got injured my senior year … missed a few of those key games. I actually ended up coming back to play against Marshawn our senior year, which was a great game.” He said it’s one of his fondest memories from high school. “We ended up tying.”

Bob Solorio/Sacrament State Athletics

Coogler loved Penn, but got a full scholarship to Saint Mary’s College of California. “I could still be close to home,” he said, “and Saint Mary’s College, they’d just hired an African-American coach, which is a big deal to me.” Also at the time, Derek Mason, currently head coach at Vanderbilt, was the defensive coordinator at Saint Mary’s. “He was an incredible coach, man … I really admired him. I admired working with him, and thought he was so sharp.” Once in Moraga, California, though, the balancing act of being student-athlete kicked in.

“It was crazy hard. We were practicing all the time. I ended up playing as a true freshman, so I was having a tough time my freshman year dealing with the labs, and all of the crap that was coming with chemistry. My grades were suffering, so I was coming to the stark realization, ‘Man, I probably can’t do this major and be a football player.’ It just wasn’t going to work out,” he said.

A buddy of his was majoring in accounting. “He was like, ‘Man, switch up to this business school major, you don’t have to take these crazy labs. And you can still have a good career for yourself.’ So, I already was thinking of changing majors … and then we had to take a creative writing class at Saint Mary’s. That’s where I met Rosemary Graham. She read one of my assignments, and said, ‘I think you should write screenplays.’ That was how I realized that I had a talent for writing, and I realized, maybe I want to find out how to make movies.”

It was 2004, though, and something major happened that shocked everyone on his team — the school decided to drop the football program.“Devastating,” Coogler said. “I realized how little control you have over your life as an athlete.”

Coogler didn’t have to sit out. Because the season was good, and because, as he says, he “had some really decent takes against a real good opponent,” he ended up being recruited again. New Mexico State, Brigham Young University, and Sacramento State were the schools that came calling. He ruled out New Mexico State because they wanted him to play defensive back — when he was at Saint Mary’s, he played receiver, defensive back, and he returned kicks.

“I realized how little control you have over your life as an athlete.”

Brigham Young wanted him to return kicks. But Sacramento State worked best because it was close to home, Coogler is tight with his family and he would still get to be near his two younger brothers, Noah and Keenan. It was a good move for him — in his four years there as receiver, he grabbed 112 receptions for 1,213 yards and six touchdowns.

Yet, it wasn’t all about football. “Sac State had some interesting film production programs, too. I majored in finance … and took some of those film classes,” he said. But it was football that disciplined Coogler. The sport taught him how to deal with negativity. It gave him confidence, and a fulfillment like nothing he’d ever experienced.

Until Hollywood.

It didn’t take long for Coogler to find something else that fed him the way football did. Exactly 10 years after he left high school — where he’d been elected to the homecoming court and won Best Smile and Best Physique — a new game plan kicked off.

It was in 2013 when his debut indie film Fruitvale Station, won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was the story about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, the young Oakland man who was killed on New Year’s Eve in 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer. His story was brought to life by actor Michael B. Jordan, who, before this moment, was likely best known as Vince Howard in NBC’s Friday Night Lights, and of course as tragic corner boy Wallace from The Wire.

“Ryan’s the truth. He’ll never say it. He doesn’t like compliments that much, and he’s real low-key and humble, but Ryan, athletically, he was a stud,” said Jordan, who has become a frequent collaborator with Coogler, most recently on their successful reboot of Rocky with 2015’s Creed. “He played with Marshawn Lynch in college — not on the same team, but against each other. [And] he holds some record at Sac State. Ryan’s that guy!”

“ ‘Are you in the streets? Are you an athlete? What are you?’ Growing up, it was always one of those two things.”

Coogler also is quite competitive on set, Jordan said, laughing because they’ve waged bets on foot races and wrestling competitions while working on films together. “He’s our head coach on every production. It starts with him and it trickles down. He gives you the feeling of trust,” said Jordan, who portrays a villain in Black Panther. “If he tells me to run through that wall, it ain’t gon’ hurt, I’m going to believe him. I’m going to go right through it. There’s something about him that makes you want to follow him as a leader. That’s superimportant as a director.”

And now, perhaps, here’s Coogler’s biggest moment. He’s co-written and directed one of the most anticipated films of the year — a predominantly black film with a Marvel-sized budget and Marvel-sized expectations. The pressure is real.

And Coogler is a perfectionist who knows what’s on the line. If this film does what nearly everyone is expecting it to do — a box office stunner that’s well-received critically and paves the way for other such films to get the greenlight — then a major shift in Hollywood is on the horizon. A lot of eyes are on him, but he’s keeping his cool — for now. Because football taught him how to do that.

“A lot of the things I’ve learned, I learned from playing football. You gotta lead a group of people against sometimes insurmountable odds. Every week, you’ve got to prepare for an opponent. You watch game tape. You prep. You get all your players up. But you get out there, you never know what to expect,” Coogler said. “I’m 31 years old … this is a high-intensity job. You’re responsible for a lot of money. You’re responsible for a lot of people’s livelihoods, and more importantly, you’re responsible for the audience’s dreams and expectations. There’s no way I’d be able to do this job if I hadn’t had the experience I have from playing organized sports. I’d be a different person.”