Leslie Jones may be gone, but a change still needs to come to ‘SNL’ The show enters its 45th season still struggling to shake its white-bread image

Saturday Night Live is The House That Lorne Michaels Built. Perhaps it’s finally due for a teardown.

This time, it’s the departure of Leslie Jones that’s prompting a re-evaluation of the show, along with the hiring of the show’s first Asian cast member, Bowen Yang, and the hiring — and then firing — of comedian Shane Gillis. Gillis was let go just four days after the show announced that he would be joining its 45th season because of backlash over his history of using anti-gay jokes and racist slurs.

Gillis’ dismissal might indicate that the cultural shifts taking place in the country have at last announced themselves at SNL, the country’s premier sketch comedy show and one of the few non-sports shows that Americans still watch together live.

What does any of this have to do with Jones?

After five years and three Emmy nominations, Jones, 52, is leaving SNL to pursue other projects, including hosting the reboot of Supermarket Sweep, a role in the Coming to America sequel, a role opposite Kristen Bell in the dark comedy Queenpins and a Netflix comedy special.

Like the six black women who preceded her on SNL, Jones was saddled with an unfair challenge. These women could either find ways to be deferential to the structure that Michaels had built, even when it did not suit their talents, or they could leave. Even though Maya Rudolph found a way to flourish at Saturday Night Live, she also talked about how the show was inhospitable to black women. In Jones’ case, succeeding meant finding ways to break out, even as she was repeatedly portrayed as uncultured, ham-handed, undesirable and lacking self-awareness.

The decision to keep going to those wells was deliberate but not necessary. One of Jones’ best sketches is a send-up of House Hunters that she did with Liev Schrieber. And yet it’s a rare example of a sketch in which her perceived personal deficiencies as a black woman are not the butt of the joke.

“I still feel my blackness is objectified, as opposed to individualized, in the way white people are,” Ellen Cleghorne, the first black woman to last more than one season on SNL, told Slate in 2018. “There’s 10 white boys on that show. Each one of them are individuals, they bring something special … there’s always tokenism. It’s very dangerous.”

Black women were sprinkled through the show’s history like truffle shavings — in 44 years on the air, only seven (Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, Cleghorne, Rudolph, Sasheer Zamata, Jones and Ego Nwodim) have ever been part of the cast. Yang will be the first Asian cast member in the show’s history. That rarity points to deeper problems within SNL, ones that were highlighted in a short-lived show called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.


In 2006, the same year 30 Rock debuted, NBC aired another show that looked at the palace intrigue inside a popular weekly sketch comedy program. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, created by Aaron Sorkin, lasted just 22 episodes. But it did bring out an issue endemic at SNL: The writing for black cast members frequently relied on stereotypes processed through the white gaze.

In one interaction in episode six, the show’s new black castmate, Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley) pleads with head writer and executive producer Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) to hire black writers. Stiles confronts Albie at an episode wrap party. He wants Albie to accompany him to a comedy club to check out a set from a comic who is black.

“I’d like to see more black writers on your staff, or a black writer on your staff,” Stiles tells him.

Moments beforehand, Albie had been entertaining a trio of young women, trying to get them to understand what a big deal he is, when one of them spots Stiles and says, “OMG, it’s Simon Stiles! Do you know him?”

Frustrated that the women don’t recognize his authority over the show, Albie half shouts, half growls his answer: “He works for me!”

But minutes later, when Albie answers Stiles about hiring a black writer, his actions are frustratingly familiar. Suddenly, the man upset that three strangers don’t understand the importance of his job is powerless to change a situation created by his predecessors. He completely absolves himself of responsibility for the fact that the show’s writing staff is all white, even though he makes the hiring decisions. Then he gets defensive.

“I still feel my blackness is objectified, as opposed to individualized, in the way white people are,” Ellen Cleghorne, the first black woman to last more than one season on SNL, told Slate in 2018.

Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

“It’s not my staff,” Albie says. “I didn’t hire these guys. Ricky and Ron did. As the contracts run out, we’ll see what’s what. Is this a diversity issue? … Am I not writing well enough for you? You think I need to bring in help from the bullpen once in a while to write for a black guy?”

“I think there’s comedy to be found in experiences that are far removed from your own,” Stiles answers. “And I think there’s a dramatic and musical language in which you’re not fluent.”

“It’s insulting to me that there are no black writers in the room,” Stiles says.

“It’s insulting to me that you think I need help!” Albie shoots back.

Though it appears in a fictional drama, the confrontation between Stiles and Albie captures a dynamic that prevented SNL from consistently developing a smarter approach to using its minority castmates.


But Jones began as a writer. Shouldn’t she have had more power over the material she performed than most do? Maybe. And yet she still found herself pigeonholed as the butt of jokes that reinforced her perceived lack of desirability and painted her as a sexual predator.

Even last season, when Jones was passionately advocating for women to have a right to make their own reproductive choices, the bit ends with a dig about her lack of romantic graces. She can’t fit her 6-foot, 233-pound frame into a box, and she knows, she quips, because she tried to mail herself to a dude.

Historically, race and racism and earnest action around inclusion have been treated as an inconvenience or an afterthought at Saturday Night Live, not something that’s hindering the quality of the show or driving away potential talent.

Black women could not necessarily expect to find much solidarity from their white counterparts at SNL, or the sketch and improv comedy community that functions as a feeder system for the show. Amy Poehler, together with former SNL head writer Tina Fey, created some of the most memorable sketches in the show’s history. But in 2015, during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Poehler was dismissive when her interlocutor asked whether criticism directed toward SNL for its lack of black women was warranted.

“Ugh,” Poehler answered. “I don’t want to talk about this. Pass.”

The same year, minority members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the improv comedy troupe Poehler co-founded with Matt Besser, spoke openly of demeaning sketches that were hostile to people of color. What has persisted at Saturday Night Live and throughout the entertainment world at large is a deep resistance to self-examination and change. One need look no further than the most recent Primetime Emmys telecast in which multiple groups of all-white writers collected their trophies as if the competition on which those trophies are based is at all equitable or remotely reflective of the world at large.

In 2013, Erik Voss wrote a piece for New York magazine explaining why SNL’s diversity problems exist, and it all comes back to Michaels, who seems to view diversity as a distraction or a sideshow from comedy. Wrote Voss:

For him, SNL isn’t about diversity. It’s about comedy, pure and simple. He doesn’t care if his show accurately reflects the various racial groups in America, so long as it still gets laughs. And for the most part, Michaels has gotten away with this approach. All these years later, while its colorful competitors are long gone, eternally Wonder-Bread SNL is still bringing in big ratings, earning critical praise, churning out box office stars, writers, and directors that go on to dominate Hollywood, producing sketches that are among the most shared and talked about videos online, and remaining at the heart of American pop culture.

If diversity and comedy are seen as being embroiled in a zero-sum competition, not interdependent pieces of a whole package, that explains how minorities who challenge comedy that insults them are viewed as humor-killing agents of “cancel culture.” It also explains how Michaels made the decision to tap Fred Armisen, who is not black, to play President Barack Obama. Michaels thought Armisen was the best person for the role. Mind you, Jordan Peele auditioned for the part and Michaels still picked Armisen, while Peele went on to create the definitive impression of Obama in his own Comedy Central show with Keegan-Michael Key.

As long as the show is rewarded for its narrow definitions of what great sketch comedy can be, there’s no reason to expect it to do anything differently. The best we can do is hope — hope Jones kills it in future endeavors where she has more control over her own image, hope the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences recognizes the refreshing genius of A Black Lady Sketch Show, hope the powers that be can see that what they deride as “cancel culture” is not a crusade of elimination but expansion.

Because when we make room for the Leslie Joneses of the world to flourish, rather than attempting to make them fit into frameworks that weren’t built for them, TV gets more honest and more interesting. And if we’re in agreement that Jones is a national treasure, well then why wouldn’t we want that?

John Singleton’s ‘Snowfall’ came to a tragic finish The season finale remains gutting a week later

Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) knew the consequences of selling drugs were inevitable, but seeing who suffered as he burned the world around him still remains gutting a week after Snowfall‘s season finale.

Early critiques of FX’s Reagan-era drama exploring the origins of the crack epidemic said that it moved too slowly and neglected the drug addicts.

But while Snowfall, created by John Singleton with Dave Andron and Eric Amadio, spent two seasons building the characters and their worlds, season three wasted no time destroying unblemished characters’ lives. The show’s accelerated pace helped the show emerge as one of the best dramas on television.

Damson Idris plays Franklin Saint, who grows increasingly cutthroat as he makes choices that alter the lives of everyone in his orbit in season three of Snowfall.

Prashant Gupta/FX

At the beginning, Saint is a kid with more ambition than options. Season three shows the young drug kingpin grow increasingly cutthroat as he makes choices that alter the lives of everyone in his orbit. The expansion of Saint’s business draws the ire of Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Andre Wright (Marcus Henderson), his former neighbor, who is eager to take him down because of the damage he’s causing in their South Central community and his relationship with Wright’s daughter, Mel (Reign Edwards).

Snowfall delivered a crushing blow in season three by turning an innocent, college-bound teenager into a crack addict without the heavy-handed tone of an anti-drug public service announcement.

Viewers see Wright cruising through South Central, appalled by crack’s effect. His most disturbing discovery is a girl, no older than his daughter, who nearly dies while stealing to feed her addiction. He knows the source of the problem: Saint. In turn, Wright drives Saint to a crack house for a closer look at how he’s poisoning the community.

“[Wright] sees what crack is doing more clearly than most people, which is why he’s taking a strong stand against it,” said crime novelist Walter Mosley, who joined Snowfall as a consulting producer and writer in 2018. “And in doing that, he and Franklin [Saint] become nemeses.”

Special Edition Roundtable: ‘Snowfall’ uses the past to explain the present and the cast explains it all

In a reference to the gang sweeps that the LAPD executed in advance of the 1984 Olympics, Wright gains support for his mission within the department by telling his superiors that crack is making its way toward the site of the Games: the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The police, led by Wright, attack Saint’s operation and family. As quickly as Wright becomes a hero within the department, he’s disgraced after Saint orchestrates the theft of his badge and gun in retaliation. His resulting suspension from the force, despite the successful initiative he led, is a harsh reminder that he’s black first and a cop second. This is underlined when he’s assaulted during a traffic stop by two white cops who only check to confirm that he’s a colleague after beating him.

In reality, Wright’s fate is sealed the moment he faces off against Saint. Both know the other’s vulnerabilities because of their complicated relationship, turning their battle into an antagonistic chess game. While Wright recognizes Saint is no longer the kid he watched grow up, underestimating him proves to be a fatal mistake. Before Wright meets his demise at Saint’s hands, he endures the pain of seeing his worst fear confirmed: Mel, his only child, is ensnared by the drug that’s ravaging the streets of Los Angeles.

Franklin Saint (Damson Idris, left) and Mel (Reign Edwards, right) have an on-again, off-again relationship. It has always been one of Snowfall‘s bright spots, even with the knowledge that it couldn’t last.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP Photo

Mel’s descent into addiction has been Snowfall’s most heartbreaking development. In just a few episodes, she goes from Spelman-bound to vanishing the day Wright is supposed to take her to college because she’s trying to score crack. Her shocking turn illustrates not only how widely available crack was during the 1980s but also how quickly it could dismantle anyone’s life, no matter how bright their future or sturdy their support system.

By ramping up the chaos it’s been building since the pilot, Snowfall depicted crack’s impact on a human level. John Singleton would be proud.

“In the beginning, people didn’t think, ‘Oh, this is terrible, I’m gonna be addicted,’ ” Mosley said. “But the next thing you know, it does happen.”

And no one thought it would happen to Mel. Her arc this season was a harrowing look at addiction, which erases morals, scruples and, in some cases, all traces of who the victim used to be. “Once the rock get a hold of they ass,” Saint’s friend and enforcer Leon (Isaiah John) tells him, “the person you knew, they’re gone.” Mel is sweet-natured and radiant, but as her addiction worsens, Wright, serving as a proxy for the audience, stops recognizing the person he raised. One chilling sequence, a montage set to Roy Ayers Ubiquity’s “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” ends with Wright realizing that he can’t stop his daughter.

It’s through Mel’s addiction that Saint is forced to reckon with the weight of his own actions. He’s in his early 20s and establishing generational wealth for his family in less time than it would have taken him to finish college. Creating this life on his own terms is how Saint justifies selling crack.

According to Mosley, Saint sees his exploits through “million-dollar glasses,” a myopia that blinds him to the societal impact of what he’s doing. He’s able to rationalize everything as “just business” until he’s forced to pull Mel out of a crack house. It’s easier to sell drugs if you don’t humanize the people buying them. In Saint’s mind, he’s giving them what they want from a safe distance.

He’s rattled, however, after seeing what they do to someone he loves. “It takes him a while to realize the absolute devastation of those drugs, and I think toward the end of season three, he’s seeing that and more so experiencing it,” Mosley said.

Saint and Mel’s on-again, off-again relationship has been one of Snowfall’s bright spots, even with the knowledge that it couldn’t last. Needless to say, it’s unlikely that a drug dealer and a cop’s daughter have a future together.

That’s what crack did as it spread throughout the nation during the 1980s. It turned neighbors into enemies. It turned the girl next door into an addict. It turned the boy next door into a monster. Seeing this unfold so rapidly has been tragic, but it’s the payoff of Snowfall’s meticulous approach to storytelling. That Snowfall has even arrived at this point is a testament to patience and the power of slow-burning drama.

John Singleton (left) and Damson Idris (right) arrive at the Oscars on March 4, 2018.

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP Photo

Viewers stuck with Snowfall without much buzz or critical acclaim because the show keeps improving as the drama mounts. Snowfall’s evolution is proof that some shows need room to grow. Imagine if HBO gave up on The Wire after season two.

It’s just unfortunate that Singleton isn’t alive to see Snowfall’s progress, although Mosley says Singleton’s vision and faith in the writers, producers and directors empowered them to make something they’re sure he’d love.

Snowfall delivered a crushing blow in season three by turning an innocent, college-bound teenager into a crack addict without the heavy-handed tone of an anti-drug public service announcement. Mel’s undoing was a tragedy, but it was presented as just a reality, making it more haunting. Wright fell victim to his own morality, and Saint was forced to face the consequences of his actions in a way that changed him for the worse. No one in this complicated triangle emerged unscathed.

By ramping up the chaos it’s been building since the pilot, Snowfall depicted crack’s impact on a human level.

John Singleton would be proud.

TIFF 2019: In ‘Dolemite Is My Name,’ Eddie Murphy makes a way out of no way Hollywood loves films about itself. Finally, we’ve got one from a black perspective.

TORONTO — If there’s one thing that Hollywood loves, it’s films about the hometown business. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Hail, Caesar!, La La Land, The Artist, Sunset Boulevard, Tropic Thunder, The Day of the Locust, Slums of Beverly Hills, Trumbo, Saving Mr. Banks and Hollywoodland, just to name a few. (Then there’s a subset of this genre dedicated entirely to stories about Marilyn Monroe, a well that never seems to run dry.)

There’s just one issue with these films: They suffer from a self-indulgent racial myopia. Films that tell stories of what it’s like to be a minority in Hollywood are all too rare. Enter Dolemite Is My Name, a new Netflix film starring Eddie Murphy that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

In Dolemite Is My Name, Eddie Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, who dreams of making it big but is down on his luck.

Courtesy of TIFF

Directed by Craig Brewer, Dolemite Is My Name shares some familiar beats with your typical film about the movie business, namely a persevering protagonist who dreams of making it big but is down on his luck. This time, he’s played by Murphy, who stars as Rudy Ray Moore, the real-life figure who crafted the Dolemite character and the blaxploitation-era films centered on him.

Moore is an over-the-hill vaudevillian with a potbelly who works as the assistant manager of a record store in Los Angeles and never seemed to catch a break. He sings, he dances, he tells jokes. When he left his sharecropping daddy back in Arkansas, he dreamed of becoming a movie star.

Dolemite Is My Name tells the story of how that finally happened and the challenges that Moore faced getting Dolemite made. Although he didn’t know a thing about filmmaking, Moore miraculously assembled a team through his own grit, hustle and charisma. He persuades a hoity-toity thespian named Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) to co-write the first Dolemite film with him after the character he’s created becomes a hit on the black nightclub circuit. Dolemite wears a wig, carries a cane, dresses like a pimp and tells jokes in verse. Moore doesn’t have the looks, acting ability or panache of Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier, but he has something else: a tremendous knack for entertaining, and an understanding that sometimes a little crude humor makes you forget that you’re broke.

Moore’s director, D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) is a lot like Jerry Jones: a black actor with real credits who can’t break out of the shadows and into the meaty, demanding roles that go to white leads. Snipes gives Martin an assortment of truly gut-busting affectations, from a pinkie nail perfect for escorting a bump of cocaine to his nose to an eye roll that’s just begging to be memed. It’s Snipes’ funniest and most inspired comic role since he played Noxeema in To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar, which came out in 1995. He upstages Murphy, who plays Moore as a showman who’s been humbled but not broken, in just about every scene the two share.

Genocide, systemic injustice and police violence were among the themes that dominated the TIFF films I saw this year, and frankly, Dolemite offered a welcome reprieve. What a relief to see something so nakedly committed to entertaining its audience, and which made the case for doing so with such passion.

What a breath of fresh air to see a film in a genre that’s way too dominated by whiteness, revealing, in funny and stylish fashion, how black artists make a way out of no way.

But Dolemite Is My Name offered more than belly laughs and a light bit of popcorn fare about how a low-budget Shaft-inspired comedy came to be a hit. So many of Moore’s struggles, which largely center on drumming up the money to give himself work when no one else will, are still relevant for black artists trying to make it in the film business today. I’ve spoken to many promising black artists who, like Moore, have had to beg, borrow and steal to get their art made in front of people’s eyes. That’s the story of the early days of Numa Perrier, Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, and of so many black directors of the L.A. Rebellion. So many talented black directors are forced into becoming new iterations of John Cassavetes because Hollywood still struggles to see how employing them is profitable.

Despite their limited viewpoint, I enjoy films about classic Hollywood more often than not. The best ones help us understand what an enormous undertaking it can be to make and release a feature film, and how many people and jobs are involved in such an enterprise. They shed light on eras gone by and the troubles that characterized them, such as the tyranny of the studio system and the struggles against McCarthyism. Plus, the costuming is just delicious.

Costuming, by the way, is essential to Dolemite Is My Name. Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter makes the film a feast for the eyes with an array of 1970s trends, from wide-lapel suits in eye-searing colors to polyester getups that look as though they’ll burst into flames if they come too close to a naked lightbulb. What a breath of fresh air to see a film in a genre that’s way too dominated by whiteness, revealing, in funny and stylish fashion, how black artists make a way out of no way. With any luck, Dolemite Is My Name will make the case for more such films to come.

In theater, the white gaze takes center stage Three plays — ‘Fairview,’ ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘Toni Stone’ — highlight how black theater-makers approach audiences who do not look like them

Right before the end of Act I of Toni Stone, a new play about the first woman to play in baseball’s Negro Leagues, its company engages in an extended shuck-and-jive routine.

The nine actors, all wearing the uniform of the Indianapolis Clowns, sport wide, ersatz grins as they leap across the stage, each performing some grotesque trick. One juggles, another high-kicks. The team of court jesters does its best to amuse an imaginary crowd of white baseball spectators, most of whom showed up to see the team’s feigned merrymaking and Bojangling in the outfield.

There was some laughter from the mostly white and mostly older audience at the performance I attended at Roundabout Theatre Company. It simmered into nervous titters as it became clear that the routine the Clowns were performing was demeaning, soul-deadening work. An uncomfortable silence fell over the audience. The stadium lights of the set flashed bright for an instant, then went black.

The show actively talks to an audience it correctly assumes will be majority white, and so it is written in a way to explain elements of black culture that may seem foreign.

Joan Marcus

Stone, played by April Matthis, delivered the last word: “Our people always did have a way of turning what matters into something beautiful that touches the soul. We call that laughter and they call that clowning. But you know they know. They know it’s powerful so’s they come back for more of it. But they also know they can’t do it … never mind catch a pop an’ flip back an’ throw it in for the double play. White people think if it’s fun an’ have a certain elegance, it ain’t serious. But they know. Everyone knows they can’t turn what’s practical into something more, the Charleston Slide, the Mississippi slow grind, or the art of making a skill pretty. So they laugh and give us a little bit of money so they keep laughing, but they know it’s powerful and they know that we know what they doin’ to us while we still steady makin’ em laugh.”

When the play resumed after intermission, one of the Clowns, known as King Tut (Phillip James Brannon), broke the fourth wall to address the audience. King Tut tried to smooth over any tension from the show’s unexpected turn toward the team’s resentment of racist fans by addressing it head-on. “Oh, good,” he said. “Thoughta mighta scared you at the bottom of the first.”

In another instance, Stone turns to reassure the audience before lighting into another teammate, Jimmy, while they are all on the bus together. Here’s how it appears in the script:

TONI

No … I just called him over here to ask him ’bout his mama.

(to audience) I don’t know Jimmy’s mama. We about to play the dozens. (beat) It’s just a game.

The play is a biographical sketch of Stone, focusing mostly on the ways that she’s an outsider within a group of outsiders. Her male teammates in the Negro Leagues, shut out from the opportunity in the majors, have conversations about what makes a black man like Jackie Robinson suitable to break baseball’s color barrier. Meanwhile, Stone is constantly wrestling with the way her gender impacts how she’s received as a ballplayer, along with expectations about her behavior, hair and style of dress and the roles she and her husband (also the Clowns’ manager) occupy once they’re married.

Stone often faces the audience to explain who she is, what she wants and what she loves to set up scenes from her life. There’s a recurring joke to break up these bits: Stone faces the audience and deadpans, “I’m a little girl” during flashbacks when she is, in fact, a little girl.

But what I kept noticing was how much playwright Lydia R. Diamond had fashioned her play with the white gaze in mind. The show actively talks to an audience it correctly assumes will be majority white, and so it is written in a way to explain elements of black culture that may seem foreign.

Once I realized this was a pattern and not just a one-off, the tic became increasingly grating for a couple of reasons:

1) This sort of narrative hand-holding coddles and enables cultural ignorance on the part of the audience.

2) It tells black audience members that even though they’re watching a show that’s about black people, played entirely by black actors and written by a black playwright, the show isn’t interested in acknowledging its black audience or the knowledge of ourselves that we bring to our own stories.


Considerations about the overrepresentation of whiteness in theater audiences are almost unavoidable because it’s built into the experience of consuming theater in a way that, say, it’s not with television. You can see strangers watching alongside you and their reactions.

So, should playwrights and directors acknowledge this in the work? And if so, how? Three plays running in New York this summer — Toni Stone, Much Ado About Nothing and Fairview — help us focus on those questions.

Toni Stone often faces the audience to explain who she is, what she wants and what she loves to set up scenes from her life.

Toni Stone accommodates its white audience unfamiliar with black traditions. Public Theater’s all-black production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kenny Leon, was utterly unconcerned with explaining Leon’s vision for Beatrice and Benedick. Either you understood the references or you didn’t. Then there’s Fairview, the play that netted Jackie Sibblies Drury the Pulitzer Prize by not just acknowledging the white gaze but also actively challenging it.

I became exasperated with the racial exposition of Toni Stone, but that’s not to say clever ways of acknowledging the whiteness of theater audiences don’t exist. Take, for instance, Jordan E. Cooper’s Ain’t No Mo’, which closed this spring after a run at The Public.

Ain’t No Mo’ starts with a very black funeral taking place in a very black church. It’s Nov. 4, 2008, and within the casket sitting onstage rests not a person but a thing: black people’s right to complain. Or, as the pastor refers to it, “Brother Righttocomplain.”

At one point during an extremely spirited eulogy, Pastor Freeman (Marchánt Davis) begins to lead his congregation in a rather unconventional church shout:

I guess y’all done went to sleep on Pastor Freeman, I-I-I-I-I must be preaching to mySELF this evening cause I ain’t heard a SHOUT yet. I said there ain’t no more tears to be shed because the President is WHAT? Ain’t no more marching in the streets to be heard, because the President is WHAT? Come on and say it, somebody, I can see the spirit doing the Cupid Shuffle in yo chest right now, waiting to rise up and reveal itself as yo true voice. … I want every colored person in this room to turn to yo neighbor and say neighbor … the President is my n—- …… Louder … SAY THE PRESIDENT IS MY N—-.

Pastor Freeman would improvise as he bounced from aisle to aisle, among the theater audience turned congregants. “THE PRESIDENT IS MY N—-,” the good pastor would holler, raising his arms and making eye contact with the black folks in the audience, encouraging them to join in the shouting. Then a white face would appear in his line of sight. “Not you!”

I practically bellowed with laughter.

Considerations about the overrepresentation of whiteness in theater audiences are almost unavoidable because it’s built into the experience of consuming theater in a way that, say, it’s not with television. You can see strangers watching alongside you and their reactions.

Admittedly, my gauge for this sort of thing is heavily influenced by my job, my upbringing and my education. I grew up with a black parent and graduated from a historically black university. I write about culture and race for a site that is mostly trafficked by white readers, but they are not the primary audience I’m addressing. There’s a reason for that distinction. Part of it is simply that not everything is about white people. Even the stuff they can see! But the other part is that getting trapped in a perpetual introductory class of Race Theory 101 becomes rather dull rather quickly. Having to repeatedly pause to explain basic concepts about black culture or about racism eats up time and energy I’d prefer to expend elsewhere. The white gaze doesn’t just assume whiteness is the default. It reorients everything to force that fallacy to be true. It’s indicative of a power imbalance that even in art about black folks, accommodating white ignorance is expected. The fact that Hamilton largely refused to do this was one of the things that made it such a revelation.

These pauses that exist solely to enlighten white people who lead racially blinkered lives have been named “explanatory commas” by Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, the hosts of NPR’s Code Switch podcast. One of the problems with Toni Stone is that its explanatory commas feel retrograde. Frankly, after a season that included work such as BLKS, Ain’t No Mo’, Choir Boy and Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing, all of which are steeped in black culture and not particularly interested in justifying or explaining it, I began to take for granted that black artists could make theater about themselves without having to include a pause for white people to catch up.

Leon’s Much Ado, produced for the Free Shakespeare in the Park series, is hammy and energetic and encourages audience interaction and scene-stealing. It’s a rendering of Shakespeare that pays homage to traveling black stage plays.

Everything about its design, from the giant “STACEY ABRAMS 2020” banners that flank the set to the Morehouse maroon of the actors’ costumes to Camille A. Brown’s choreography, screams bougie black contemporary Atlanta. Yet Shakespeare’s text remained the same. There were no signposts in the dialogue to direct you to the inspirations for Leon’s aesthetic decisions. They simply existed.

The thing I appreciated about the lack of explanatory commas was how it rearranged the power dynamic between artist and patron to something more equitable. What Leon did with Much Ado is move the baseline for cultural literacy in the theater audience. There were things about black life that you’re expected to know because it’s unthinkable that you wouldn’t. And he did it by pairing it with the words of the most universally known and respected playwright in human history: Shakespeare.

Fairview takes a different approach, running head-on at the white gaze, even during its unconventional curtain call. The play challenges the white gaze by making it a part of the show in a way that highlights how such narcissism spills into the consumption of black art.

Fairview starts out as a conventional-seeming work about a black family celebrating its matriarch’s birthday. But lighting and sound changes in the second act reveal to the seated audience that it’s actually witnessing white people watch a play about black people. The second act is a repeat of the first, except the actors are muted while a soundtrack of unseen white people comments about what’s happening in the plot and their own attitudes about race. Finally, the white people physically inject themselves into the story as if they bought tickets to some sort of blackness immersion theme park ride.

Fairview leaves audiences unable to deny the influence of the white gaze and pushes them to question their own complicity in perpetuating it. Toni Stone seems to have succumbed to it. And Leon’s Much Ado ignores it. Here’s to more art that offers up blackness without apology or explanation, expands definitions of cultural literacy and challenges audiences of all stripes to do the reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of HBO

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

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

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

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

Tony-nominated playwright Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people She’s nominated for her work on the hit Broadway musical ‘Ain’t Too Proud’

Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people, and she’s doing it by paying homage to her hometown of Detroit.

The 41-year-old playwright has been having a banner year. In October, she was one of 25 fellows to win grants from the MacArthur Foundation. Morisseau wrote the book for one of Broadway’s hottest shows this season, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. Now, it’s nominated for 12 Tonys, including best musical. There’s a possibility Morisseau could be taking home a statue for herself on Sunday night, as the show is nominated for best book (for spoken dialogue and storyline).

Oprah Winfrey (standing, center) poses with the cast and creative team backstage at the hit musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations on May 17 at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.

Photo by Bruce Glikas/WireImage

The jukebox musical tells the story of one of Motown’s most beloved groups as it soars to worldwide fame while balancing the needs and egos of a rotating array of singers. Founding member Otis Williams, played by Derrick Baskin, narrates the timeline from his beginnings as a teenage singer straight up to the modern day. At 77, the real Williams is still very much alive, and Ain’t Too Proud is based on his memoir. The musical briefly touches on issues that affected the group’s many singers, including being an absentee father, drug abuse and the pressure to avoid commenting on the Vietnam War, segregation or anything else that might pierce the melodic escapism they came to represent. But those issues are never allowed to overtake the tone of the show.

A big Broadway musical is a departure for Morisseau, and as her profile continues to grow, it’s something she’ll likely have to navigate more in the future.

“There are some things about writing a musical that are different than writing a play,” Morisseau told me. “The scarcity of language, how fast I have to convey an idea because we don’t have a lot of time between songs. The songs are really the story.”

Morisseau is married to musician James Keys, and music factors heavily in her plays. She figures they’ll likely write a musical together.

Before Ain’t Too Proud, Morisseau was a queen of off-Broadway, which is typically less commercial, racking up plaudits including a 2015 Steinberg Playwright Award and an Obie for her play Pipeline in 2018. Her work challenges audiences with complicated, interweaving social issues, especially when it comes to race. Pipeline, for instance, is about a black mother and public schoolteacher confronting her feelings of powerlessness in trying to prevent her son from getting sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Morisseau is a passionate advocate for her fellow black playwrights and actors, and for ways to improve the faults she sees in contemporary American theater, whether or not there’s a proscenium involved.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people.” — Dominique Morisseau

“I will say no to very shiny productions of my play if it does not feel like everything around it has the kind of artistic integrity that I want,” Morisseau said. “I’ve had to stand up to theaters several times around the curation of my work or my relationship with them. … I have a really great relationship with a lot of theaters in the city, but it comes from push and pull and us developing mutual respect, because I’m just not going to be the kind of artist that you can tell what to do.

“When it comes to making decisions about who’s going to be in my plays, who’s going to direct my plays, I take a strong stance. I collaborate with a theater. Sometimes they want to push a director on me. I have worked with directors that the theater has brought to the table, but those directors that they brought to the table have been African American women directors or African American directors. Then I’ll go, ‘Oh, OK, well let me meet that person.’ ”

She’s also vocal about calling for more black artistic directors, the people in charge of programming theater seasons who are responsible for maintaining an existing donor base of largely white patrons while courting new, younger and browner audiences. When Hana Sharif was named artistic director of St. Louis Repertory, Morisseau shared her huzzahs on Facebook.

“You don’t see artistic directors of color, period,” Morisseau explained. “And you don’t see women artistic directors very often. There’s a few white women artistic directors of a few regional theaters, significant regional theaters, but not enough. St. Louis Rep, that is a huge regional theater, so for Hana to run that regional theater, it’s a big seismic shift in our industry.”

Actress Simone Missick, who is best known for playing Misty Knight in Luke Cage, told me she considers Morisseau “one of the pre-eminent writers of our time in the theater world and in television.” Although Morisseau’s chief focus is theater, she was also a co-producer on the Showtime series Shameless, and she is currently developing projects for FX and HBO.

Missick starred in Paradise Blue, the middle play of Morisseau’s Detroit Project trilogy. Set in 1949, Paradise Blue follows a talented trumpeter named Blue, who is trying to decide what to do about the jazz club he owns in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. It’s not bringing in much money, and Blue wants to move on. At the same time, white speculators are buying up property in the neighborhood intending to gentrify it and pushing out the black residents. Oh — Blue also has a serious mental illness, and he’s troubled by the fact that his girlfriend, Pumpkin, wants to stay in Detroit even though he wants to leave. A mysterious woman from out of town, a literal black widow known as Silver, raises everyone’s hackles. Morisseau, who played Silver in the play’s original staging, describes the character as “Spicy. Gritty and raw in a way that men find irresistible. Has a meeeeeaaaannnn walk.”

“Dominique has a mastery which I wish more writers had,” Missick said. “When you read it, it reads the way that people talk.

“You could drop a microphone in Detroit or in Alabama, where some of these characters are from, or Louisiana, where my character was from. You could drop a microphone and those people would sound exactly the way that Dominique has written. And that is a beautiful thing because so often when I read work as an actor, you read things and you think, people don’t talk like that. … But she also gives her writing a musicality, and if the rhythm of it does not sync with her spirit, then she changes it.”

Within Morisseau’s story of gentrification and the upheaval it brings is another story about Pumpkin and the fights black women face battling racism and sexism. Morisseau chuckled when I referred to her in conversation as a feminist August Wilson. It turned out that I’d tripped over one of the things she hopes will change about theater, which is that the press compares every black playwright to Wilson, no matter how incongruous their styles may be.

“I laugh when people liken me to August Wilson in any way or shape or form,” she said. “They do that for so many of us young black playwrights. It’s like any of us that have poetry in our language and kind of capture this unapologetic rhythm of black dialect, we all are writing in the fashion of August.

“Some of us actually really are, and would own that. And I don’t think others are doing that at all or intending to do that. I think that they’re getting called that because that’s the easiest go-to reference for a lot of people.

“I can’t ever deny August’s influence on my work,” Morisseau said. “I started writing the Detroit [Project] because I was reading August Wilson’s work. I read his work back to back, and I read Pearl Cleage, who was from Detroit, I read her writing back to back. I was just so inspired by their canon of work. … I just thought, Wow, what his work is doing for the people of Pittsburgh, how they must feel so loved, so immortalized in his writing, I want to do that for Detroit.”

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters, gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect.” — actress Simone Missick

Like Wilson, Morisseau focuses on working-class black people, and her Detroit trilogy (Paradise Blue, Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew) shares some broad ideas with Wilson’s famous Pittsburgh Cycle.

Furthermore, Morisseau writes fully realized black characters who exist in a racist society without being polemical. The contours of white supremacy are very much part of the worlds she creates, but her plays are about people, not arguments. Detroit ’67 is set during the infamous riot that took place in 1967, and Skeleton Crew, set in 2008, examines the difficult decisions autoworkers face as their industry weathers storm after storm. All of them seek to portray a Detroit that’s more than a collection of pathologies, as evidenced in Morisseau’s dedication for Skeleton Crew, which is pointed and personal:

“This is for my Auntie Francine, my grandfather Pike, my cousins Michael Abney and Patti Poindexter, my Uncle Sandy, my friend David Livingston, my relative Willie Felder, and all of the UAW members and autoworkers whose passion for their work inspires me. And this is for the working-class warriors who keep this country driving forward.

“This is also for the politicians, financial analysts, and everyday citizens who echoed the negating sentiments, ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’ Yep, this is for you, too, dammit.”

In some ways, Morisseau plays a role in theater similar to the one Ava DuVernay occupies in film. Both women are vocal about inequities in their fields and the way they affect whose stories get told and the budgets allotted to tell them. Just as DuVernay has been committed to creating a pipeline of female directors with her OWN drama Queen Sugar, Morisseau has pushed to work with black directors in theater.

Like DuVernay, Morisseau’s writing is ambitious, deeply researched work that focuses on characters surmounting challenges large and small stemming from racial inequality.

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect,” Missick said. “It’s not trivial. It’s not trite. There is no character that is used to push the story along. I very rarely see that onstage or on screen, that every single person has something that they’re fighting for. … It’s something that I think makes her writing something that actors for generations will want to perform.”

Morisseau wants to keep challenging audiences. And she wants artistic directors to internalize that approach. She told me that artistic directors too often underestimate how much white audiences are willing to be pushed. And their conception of potential audience members remains blinkered.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people,” Morisseau said.

Phillip Youmans becomes first black director to win at Tribeca with his feature debut, ‘Burning Cane’ Teenage whiz kid is about to finish his freshman year at NYU

For months, 19-year-old Phillip Youmans had to hold fast to what he called “the best-kept secret” of his life. His first feature film, Burning Cane, which he wrote, shot, directed and edited himself, was accepted into the Tribeca Film Festival, making him the youngest director ever to have an entry there.

In March, when this year’s lineup was announced, the New York University freshman could finally exhale. Now, the stomach butterflies associated with great news have returned anew: Last week, Youmans won the Founders Award, the festival’s top prize for narrative film. He is the first black director to win the prize. Youmans also won the prize for best cinematography in a U.S. narrative feature film. And Wendell Pierce, who co-produced the film and stars as Reverend Tillman, took honors for best actor in a U.S. narrative feature film. Both Ava DuVernay and Black List creator Franklin Leonard tweeted their admiration.

“Everything has changed,” Youmans said when I reached him by phone Monday. “Now it feels like we actually have a trajectory. It feels like there are so many opportunities. … Production companies now wanna work with me. It’s crazy!”

Youmans made the film at age 17 with the goal of commenting on the strictures of religious fundamentalism and the ways men blame their internal faults on outside forces — in this case, the devil. It was a way to voice his discomfort with the beliefs held by members of his own family who harbor transphobic or homophobic attitudes.

“I grew up in the [Baptist] church,” Youmans said. “There’s so many things about the doctrine that I disagree with, and because of that I had to separate, but I’m not antagonizing or demonizing the church. … I still love my family despite our differences, but there are some things I just can’t come to terms with.”

Burning Cane director Phillip Youmans

Bijan Gouri/Denizen Pictures

Youmans grew up in New Orleans and first picked up a camera when he was 13. He attended the city’s high school for creative arts and became interested in filmmaking after acting in small roles in projects filming around New Orleans (Sex Ed, For A Dark Skin Girl and American Hero).

When he worked on American Hero, “I saw a bigger budget set in action and I saw the crews interacting with each other,” Youmans said. “There was so much going on behind the camera that became so clear to me. That was part of the catalyst for me to go behind the camera.”

He started to make short films and experiment.

Burning Cane drops its audience into the cane fields of rural Louisiana, following the life of Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers) as she tries, to no avail, to cure her dog Jojo of mange. There are two violent, no-account drunks in Helen’s life: her son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan), and her pastor, Reverend Tillman.

That the Southern gothic aesthetic of Burning Cane recalls Benh Zeitlin’s work in Beasts of the Southern Wild is no accident — Zeitlin was a co-producer on the film. After the release of Beasts, Youmans contacted the director via Instagram.

After making a short based on the same concept, Youmans started an Indiegogo campaign to expand Burning Cane to a feature-length film. He combined that money with savings and family contributions to fund the film. Pierce, who has had roles on The Wire, Suits and Treme, agreed to take the role as Reverend Tillman based on the script. Youmans was too embarrassed by his attempts at short films to share them with the veteran actor.

“Even though they’re all older than me, none of them imposed any sort of hierarchy or pecking order,” Youmans said of his actors. “None of them were talking down to me because I was younger. The camera is a great equalizer with people on a set — usually, if it’s a respectful set. … I think they respected the vigor that I had.”

Burning Cane is clearly literate in the style of Charles Burnett, and the spare way Youmans lights his characters brings to mind the work of cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma). Youmans also cited Barry Jenkins and Paul Thomas Anderson as inspirations. Youmans is the latest in a line of talented black NYU directors to make waves early in their career; Pariah and Mudbound director Dee Rees is another.

NYU students have to leave the dorms for the summer by May 13, Youmans said, so he’ll be moving to a Brooklyn apartment, where he’ll continue to work on projects already in motion, including a couple of new films with Stay Human and Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste, who also graduated from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. One is a short documentary that will accompany a release of the band’s recent concerts at the Village Vanguard. Youmans is also fine-tuning the script on his next narrative project, which will focus on the Black Panther Party in 1970s New Orleans.

Matthew Cherry moved from the practice squad in the NFL to first string in Hollywood His second stint as a TV director airs Sunday on CBS’ ‘Red Line’

The fact that Matthew Cherry was a wide receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens is the least most interesting thing about him.

He was a star at the University of Akron, where he still holds the school record for most yards on punt returns in a season, with 305 in 2003, the same year he was named second-team All-Mid-American Conference.

But Cherry gave up the game in 2007. He walked away from the Ravens, his final team, with a $30,000 pretax settlement for a shoulder injury after being placed on injured reserve.

His professional career lasted about three seasons — some of it on practice squads, some of it on a roster. It was time for a pivot.

The settlement money helped him move to Los Angeles, where he was just another kid from the Midwest trying to make a go at this Hollywood dream.

He worked at it hard. For 12 solid years, including a stint of unemployment that sent him back home to Chicago to live with mom and dad.

And finally, his grind paid off — and then some. Cherry is now a TV director, an executive at Jordan Peele’s highly successful Monkeypaw Productions, helping to bring some of Ava DuVernay’s vision to life on CBS’ new limited series Red Line and working on an animated short in partnership with Sony Pictures Animation. He also is directing in ABC’s new series Whiskey Cavalier.

None of this came easy. Not when he set up fundraising accounts to finance his first feature film. Not when his mother died suddenly of an aneurysm — after telling him the previous night how proud she was seeing him begin to fulfill his dreams.

For a long time, that’s exactly what they were — dreams.

“I really didn’t even tell people I played ball,” he says now, sitting behind his desk at Peele’s Monkeypaw production compound in the Hollywood Hills. “I look at it how athletes are received when they break into music. People always roll their eyes like, ‘Ah, Kobe’s trying to do an album,’ or ‘Shaq is trying to do a project,’ or I remember specifically Allen Iverson, when he tried to drop an album. Athletes are always looked at weirdly when they try to do something outside of what they’ve been known for, and I was always conscious of that. …

“It helped that I really wasn’t a big name when I was in the NFL either. It made it easier just to be like: ‘Matthew. P.A. [Production assistant] I want to learn this from scratch.’ … Because people will have a perception of you, for whatever reason. In my experience, people assume that former pro athletes aren’t hard workers. Or we just want stuff handed to us, and we’re not willing to put in the work and grind for it.”


Matthew Cherry played briefly for the Baltimore Ravens.

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

Cherry grew up on Chicago’s North Side, and the first sport that caught his eye was baseball. He wasn’t a standout athlete, but his dad was a big Chicago Cubs fan, so he stuck with it. His earliest memory of the sport? It was horrible. He couldn’t remember which hand his mitt went on.

But there was always a lesson to be learned.

“I saw very quickly, if you put the time in and you practice, you can get better at it,” he said.

He also was growing. Rapidly. He decided to try football. Although his parents were middle-class, there weren’t enough resources for travel teams. But with practice, he became good enough to catch the eye of the coaches at a private Jesuit school in the northern suburbs, Loyola Academy in Wilmette.

“I very much felt like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Cherry said of his high school experience. “Just being this kid that’s actually from Chicago, a black kid, [and] at the time, it was not diverse at all. I remember my graduating class, we had five black kids in a class of 500.”

In fall 1999, he headed off to Akron, Ohio, and by his senior year he was an All-MAC candidate. Maybe this pipe dream of playing in the NFL — something he never thought seriously about before, as football was merely the means to getting a scholarship — could come to fruition?


He wasn’t drafted. And life in the NFL didn’t look like it looked in the movies, that’s for sure. He was on the practice squad most of his rookie year, until the Cincinnati Bengals signed him to the active roster for the last two games of the 2004 season.

Cherry started thinking of a different plan in 2005. A friend from college called him before training camp of his second season. Cherry had studied broadcasting in college and had worked in campus radio as a music director and on-air personality. He interned at a Cleveland radio station.

“One of my guys that I worked with on the Cleveland radio station, he was like, ‘Man, I’m going to L.A. for the BET Awards. Will and Jada are hosting. We’re doing a live remote there. I don’t know what you’re doing, but we’ll let you kick it with us if you want to come out,’ ” he recalled.

“He listens. I don’t know if that comes from being coached, but he listens. And that’s very rare for a man in this industry.” — Angela Nissel

“In the back of my mind I was already starting to think about what my Plan B was going to be. Because my rookie year, I got cut and placed on practice squad, and that was really the first time I’d ever dealt with a situation like that, where I felt like I was good enough. But because of some of the politics around coming in as an undrafted player, sometimes if you’re not in the right situation, regardless of how well you do, you’re not gonna get a shot,” he said.

Arriving in Los Angeles, “I just remember my mind being blown. The weather. The mountains. The palm trees — but also how the entire city was just based off entertainment. It was all coffee shops, people in there writing scripts. The print/copy place, they’re talking about a discount for headshots and script printing. I was like, ‘This entire city revolves around this industry. That’s crazy.’ I just remember coming back from that experience just being really inspired. And I met this person who knew this other person who knew this other person who had been part of this program called Streetlights … a nonprofit organization that basically helps men and women of color get jobs as production assistants.”

Fast-forward to year three as a professional football player and Cherry is playing for the Baltimore Ravens after stints in NFL Europe with Hamburg and in the Canadian Football League. He had lived in nine cities and three countries in that three-year span.

He’d had enough. And he was ready to see what Hollywood was about. So he got into the production program, and his first job was working on Mara Brock Akil’s comedy series Girlfriends. On his off weeks, he worked on her spinoff series The Game, about a newly minted NFL player navigating his rookie year with his college sweetheart.

He was earning $300-$400 a week. It was low. But he loved it. This was his film school. He got to see how TV directors such as Debbie Allen, Sheldon Epps and Salim Akil worked, used camera equipment, set up shoots.

His next gig was on NBC’s sci-fi drama Heroes, but this time he took some extracurricular initiative: asking if he could use the camera equipment on off days to shoot music videos. He’d scour MySpace and reach out to rhythm and blues artists, offering to direct their music videos free of charge if they could make it out to L.A. He’d come up with the concept and he’d have the equipment — he just wanted a chance to tell a story. He got his first credit in 2008 directing a video for R&B artist Terry Dexter.

His side hustle served him well. He ultimately directed music videos for Michelle Williams featuring Beyoncé & Kelly Rowland, Tweet, Jazmine Sullivan, Lalah Hathaway, Kindred the Family Soul, Snoop Dogg, The Foreign Exchange, Bilal, N’Dambi, Maysa Leak, Dwele, Najee, K’Jon and Chloe x Halle.

Which brings us to now. Cherry has hit the place that he’s worked nonstop for since he arrived in 2007. He’s a creative executive at Monkeypaw. An executive producer on the award-winning BlacKkKlansman and a producer on The Last O.G. for TBS, where he just directed his first episode of TV.

“I thought he was going to be a stereotypical, kind of misogynist-without-recognizing-it, football guy,” said Angela Nissel, the co-executive producer of The Last O.G. “I remember the first time he was on set. Sometimes when you bring things up and there are a lot of guys, sometimes they tend not to hear you. He was the first one to say, ‘Wow, Ang, I hadn’t thought of that perspective. I’m glad we have a woman on set.’ He listens. I don’t know if that comes from being coached, but he listens. And that’s very rare for a man in this industry.”

Cherry’s second stint as a TV director airs Sunday on CBS’ Red Line, an eight-episode limited series about three Chicago families forced by tragedy to think about how race and racial biases affect their lives. The series is executive produced by DuVernay, who encouraged Cherry to write and direct a film about his experience in the NFL years ago. The result was The Last Fall, which aired on BET in 2012 after having its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival and receiving an award for best screenplay at the American Black Film Festival.


Matthew Cherry (left) with Tracy Morgan (right) on the set of The Last O.G.

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

Now, as he thinks about that decade-plus of struggle, Cherry can smile. He met Peele in the midst of the successful run of Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out. Peele liked a tweet Cherry tagged him in, started following Cherry and later sent him a direct message and asked to meet him. That was 2017, right after Peele announced his first-look overall production deal with Universal and Cherry thought maybe he’d be asked to direct a small-budget film. Instead, Peele wanted to hire him. Peele shared with him in that meeting that he was creating a space where he could continue what he did with Get Out: tell stories that have a social message and use genres such as horror, sci-fi and thrillers to make films and TV that are fun and commercially viable.

One of those projects is TBS’s The Last O.G., which stars comedian Tracy Morgan as a newly released felon who is trying to acclimate himself to society, get to know the twins he never knew he fathered and adjust to the new whitewashed affluence of his old Brooklyn neighborhood. The series also stars Cedric the Entertainer and Tiffany Haddish.

“Jordan really has given me that boost. When I first started working here, I was always looking at it like, man, what are the opportunities for directing? Maybe I can do some shows here and try to get that first opportunity. And The Last O.G. was always on my mind … just really fell in love with that show. The heart that it has, seeing Tracy in a way you’ve never seen him before,” Cherry said.

And for what it’s worth, we’ve never seen Cherry like this before either. He’s in the zone. And there doesn’t appear to be a slowdown anytime soon.

“It just literally felt like all these 10-plus years of being in L.A. and struggling, and living out of my car at some point, all these things you would do just to stay in L.A., stay in the game … if you could just stay here long enough, you might be able to make it,” he said.

He did that as a high school football player trying to get a college scholarship. He found it when he was struggling in the NFL and knew he needed to pivot.

And now, he’s figured it out in Hollywood. That early life lesson was key.

“It really is an athlete thing,” he said. “I would even go back further to that first time I picked up a baseball glove and put it on the wrong hand. Being able to see progress is something as an athlete that’s probably been the most important thing. Knowing that if you work hard enough, if you just stick it out long enough, you’ll get your shot.

“And then when you get your shot, you gotta take it. Or you have to go back to the bench. And that’s just always been a thing that’s been with me. I never felt like I had any opportunities that were just given to me. I’ve always had to create my own opportunity or give my own look or try to figure it out myself. And I just think, luckily it’s worked so far. And I think that’s the biggest thing about being an athlete, is being able to set a goal and knowing if you work hard enough, you can reach that goal for sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, John.

Hurry up and see ‘Fast Color’ before it runs from theaters Gugu Mbatha-Raw finally has a role worthy of her spectacular talent

The constant worry for critics is that no matter how much you see, no matter how finely attuned your culture radar is, you could miss something special, especially movies that don’t have a huge promotional budget behind them. I confess this almost happened to me with Fast Color, which I didn’t see until the Tuesday after it opened.

Do not risk making the same mistake. See this before it exits theaters!

Fast Color is a superhero film like few others, possessing emotional depth, uninterested in violence, and full of images of rural America that remind me of celebrated directors such as Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), Ridley Scott (Thelma & Louise) and Terrence Malick (Badlands).

Except this unnamed part of America, which could easily be home to Superman’s human parents, is the purview of black women. They occupy a farmhouse that is enlivened by strains of Nina Simone singing “New World Coming.”

Fast Color is about a family blessed with a matrilineal gift: They’re able to take things apart and reassemble them. But the women — Bo (Lorraine Toussaint), her daughter Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her granddaughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) — are not engineers. What they do is transform objects down to their elemental states, turning bowls and cigarettes and even car repair tools from three-dimensional objects into piles of glittering, lively sand that resemble nebulae. And then, when it suits them, they reassemble them. There are rules, of course. The women can’t reassemble what’s already broken, only that which is whole.

Fast Color is a film about female power and those who seek to study and contain it. It doesn’t have the millions of dollars required to make the superhero tentpoles that DC and Marvel have thrust upon moviegoers. But I’d argue that it’s better for it — a limitation on the whizbang spectacle of constant special effects provides opportunity to appreciate stunning performances from Toussaint, Mbatha-Raw and Sidney.

Lorraine Toussaint (center), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (right) and Saniyya Sidney (left) star in Fast Color.

Courtesy of Codeblack Films

Bo and Ruth are each running away from reality in one way or another. Although Bo possesses a family diary detailing how her maternal forebears tried to make sense of their power, Bo is wedded to a farmhouse in the hopes of keeping her granddaughter safe. She doesn’t offer the full story of the family’s past to her daughter or her granddaughter — the abilities she’s inherited have been more trouble than anything else. At least, they have for Ruth.

A weary Bo tells Ruth, “I’ve been seeing the colors for 52 years.” The magic just isn’t that big a deal to her anymore.

Ruth, on the other hand, is returning home after missing years of her daughter’s childhood. She’s haunted by powers that have gone wrong and are quieted only by substance abuse. The recovering addict is unable to conjure the light that comes so easily to her mother and daughter. Instead, Ruth is overcome by seizures that turn into earthquakes, which attract the attention of authorities and unscrupulous scientists. The film reaches its apex when those who want to study her and bottle her powers converge on the family farmhouse and, once again, Ruth must run.

Yes, the typical superhero movie tropes are there: individuals saddled with unwanted, potentially destructive powers who are sought after by Science Villains; a fading middle America in crisis and in desperate need of transformation; unexplained phenomena. It’s just that the approach is completely, blessedly different.

Written by Julia Hart and her husband, Jordan Horowitz (perhaps best known as the producer of La La Land who informed Oscar viewers that Moonlight had won best picture), Fast Color is the film that finally makes complete use of Mbatha-Raw’s spectacular talents. It combines the wonder and adventure of Mbatha-Raw’s tenure on Doctor Who with her gentle maternalism in A Wrinkle in Time and the gutsiness of the title character she played in Belle.

But in portraying a woman with superpowers she cannot control, Mbatha-Raw reaches something deeper, something spiritual, as each torturous earthquake forces her to lash herself to something solid while she rides out her seizures. That spirituality is heightened by cinematographer Michael Fimognari, who focuses on the exquisite desolation of a place deprived of water but not life. In Fast Color, mystery is in the earth, in the heavens and everything in between, and it’s up to Bo, Ruth and Lila to unlock them and maybe save the world.

Hart and Horowitz’s script left the door open for a sequel, and I hope it gets made. Fast Color is an exceptional, poetic ride that cries out for further exploration.