Grammy-winning artist Mya takes it to the streets in ‘5th Ward’ The singer opens up about acting, a cherished moment with Gregory Hines — and even a one-way ticket to the stars

At just 18, Mya Marie Harrison’s 1998 hit “It’s All About Me” skyrocketed up the Billboard rhythm and blues charts, with several other top-selling tunes soon to follow: “The Best of Me,” “Take Me There” and “My Love is Like … Wo.” Sultry lyrics combined with an infectious sound and dynamic dance moves led to two platinum albums, as well as a Grammy award in 2001 for best pop collaboration with vocals for the No. 1 pop cover of Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” which also featured Lil’ Kim, Pink and Christina Aguilera. In a fickle industry that’s the home of either great acceptance or unkind rejection, 20 years later, Mya is always making strides. She’s appeared in CBS’s NCIS and will soon appear in Lazarus, along with Sean Riggs and Costas Mandylor.

The Washington, D.C., native’s latest project is Urban Movie Channel’s original 5th Ward, in which she stars as Mina. The show is set in the center of a historically black neighborhood in Houston, where Mina is a single mother of two children desperately trying to make something out of nothing. Staying true to the authenticity and raw imagery of H-Town, the show is an in-depth look at city life behind headlines.

Mya connects deeply with her on-screen character, especially when maneuvering through life’s many obstacles and detours — she left a major label in 2007 to become an independent artist and creator of her own label, Planet 9. She says it has been both challenging and rewarding.

The Undefeated chatted with the woman so loved (she has close to 2 million people in her social community, and that’s just Twitter and Instagram) that hip-hop blog impresario John Gotty instituted #MyaMondays.

How were you able to connect to your character, Mina, and the script?

My business partner, J. Prince, was born and raised in the 5th and has done wonderful things for his community. And being the oldest sister of two brothers in my family, I looked after them. I applied that dynamic to my character, Mina.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since becoming an independent artist?

Whatever makes you feel alive is going to carry you, make you go harder, and will give you the drive needed to succeed. When you love something, you will go after it, and no one will have to force you to do anything. Regardless of numbers, titles, sales, support or budget, I love music. This is why I’m still going, and my 13th and 14th projects are coming soon!

If your entire life could be summed up in the title of one of your songs, which would it be?

A song I wrote with Tricky Stewart called ‘Nothin’ At All.’ The song speaks to the journey of life, which is filled with winding roads, and ups and downs. But at the end of the day I wouldn’t change a thing, because in this current moment I am breathing, I am alive and I am happy. The things we consider mistakes or failures are the blessings that propel us to move forward into a better space.

“The things we consider mistakes or failures are the blessings that propel us to move forward into a better space.”

Who was your childhood hero?

My parents, first and foremost, and the women in my family, who I’ve watched sacrifice so much. However, I would also say the man that actually had a conversation with myself and my parents long ago. [He] pulled me aside to offer business advice: Gregory Hines. I performed at the Smithsonian, and he walked onstage during my segment and began going toe to toe with me. … He saw something special enough to dance with me.

What’s one thing about you that’s embarrassing?

I am goofy as heck! I can get really silly and go overboard sometimes. It’s very corny. I don’t allow too many people to see that side of me, but when I go there, I go there (Laughs.)

What’s one habit you wish you could shake?

I wish I could shake carbs. I’m in the process of retraining my brain and body to eliminate unhealthy carbs like pasta and rice and instead substituting them with quinoa and wild rice. It’s so hard to shake those things that instantly fill you up and make you feel satisfied.

The last stamp on your passport — and for business or pleasure?

Nassau, Bahamas. It was all business. I worked the entire time. I completed a photo shoot for both my single and album, as well as filmed a mini video for the single.

What’s a place you’ve never been that you want to visit, and why?

Outer space. I’ve been intrigued by outer space since I was 4 years old. My label is called Planet 9, and I study a lot regarding astronomy and astrological symbolism. Being able to look down at our planet and experience it from a different perspective would be an ultimate life experience, even if it’s just a one-way ticket. I’m fine with it because I think it would be very peaceful to me.

How did growing up in Washington, D.C., shape you into the woman you are today?

Washington, D.C., is known as Chocolate City! We are the land of go-go music, and it’s rich in culture. The diversity there has definitely shaped my outlook on the world and inspired me to want to travel and pursue a career that allows it. Although I attended a multicultural high school in Maryland, my roots are in Chocolate City, which is the black community. In a place where laws are made and bills are passed, you can walk a couple of blocks from the White House and end up in the projects.

“Regardless of numbers, titles, sales, support or budget, I love music at the end of the day. Nothing has destroyed that or come in the way of it.”

What’s one thing you would tell your 15-year-old self?

I’d definitely tell 15-year-old Mya to always define everything for yourself. Look to no other person to do that for you. When I say define everything, I mean beauty, success and validation. What it all means to you and what your happiness consists of. Don’t look to everyone else’s model of how they define those things to shape your decisions or your life because everyone is not meant to have the same life. I constantly have to remind myself of this because we can get lost in the sauce and look to societal standards. Always be programmed to think for yourself, think independently and define everything for Y-O-U.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

The Disney Dreamers Academy gets a dose of life-changing Day two was a moment of self-discovery for the kids

ORLANDO, Fla. — When 17-year-old Chloe Russell’s eyes met those of 41-year-old motivational speaker Jonathan Sprinkles, she felt an instant connection. Standing atop a stage, Sprinkles captivates the student athlete. She could relate, especially his testimony of watching his father deal with cancer.

Like Sprinkles, Russell is watching her father — the same man who was her basketball and volleyball coach for years, along with her mother — deal with the disease.

“Mr. Jonathan Sprinkles, his speech was amazing,” Russell said. “It hit a lot of points related to my life. I actually have a dad that’s at home battling cancer. He really touched my soul with his experience of having a father that passed away to the disease.”

Disney Dreamer Chloe Russell

Kelley Evans/The Undefeated

Russell is part of the group of 100 participants in the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy with Steve Harvey and Essence magazine. And on Friday, she and her fellow Dreamers were part of an experience that included tips for life transformation all centered on the theme of the four-day-long event: “Be100.”

“I heard about the Dreamers Academy through my mom,” Russell said. “My mom encouraged me to sign up.”

The 16-year-old is a senior at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. She overcame an ACL injury and harbors a passion for social justice as a member of her school’s Undoing Racism team. A volleyball and basketball player and track athlete, Russell is a 4A volleyball state champion. She plans to major in health sciences and minoring in Spanish, with aspirations to become a doctor of osteopathic medicine with her own practice.

“I think the whole Disney Dreamers is just an awesome experience. This is such a great opportunity. I’m super grateful and ready to Be100,” Russell said.

“My ACL injury changed my life the most out of almost any other experience because I tore it my freshman year, playing basketball trying to save a ball that went out of bounds,” Russell said. “That forced me to look towards other alternatives, such as diversity initiatives and social justice. I’m huge on that aspect. The ACL tear and recovery was a real setback for me, and I went through the strenuous recovery and I got the opportunity to compete for a state champion title my junior year for volleyball. It made me change my path toward not playing basketball anymore and focus on volleyball.”

For Sprinkles, pouring himself into the support of others is more than a full-time passion and commitment. He’s championed the session for the Dreamers for 10 of the 11 years that Disney Dreamers Academy has existed.

“It does replenish me,” Sprinkles told The Undefeated. “Talking to them, sharing with them, seeing their look in their eyes. I got to see something that you didn’t. I get to look in their eyes and see the lights come on, and when it all comes together it’s something special because they now see, ‘You know what, I deserve this. I do have a place at the table.’ And when you see that, that’s the payment. To me this means I get to do for them what was done for me, which is have somebody speak into my life and show me that I can do it.

“The fact that I get to be a voice and I have the honor worth having them believe me, that’s a privilege. It something I look forward to every single year because it’s just something different here. The fact that I get to be a part of it, I’m winning. I feel undefeated myself.”

One by one, at the conclusion of Sprinkles’ interactive discussion, the Dreamers voiced their takeaways from his speech.

“Never tell your life story from the perspective of the victim.”

“I am enough.”

“The more you say it, the truer it becomes.”

“Doubt unlocks determination, but pain unlocks your life.”

“Instead of trying to have likes, be a light.”

“That place in which you were hurt the most reveals the people you have been called to help the most.”

“Find a way to rise above it, find a way out.”

Sprinkles, standing in amazement, told the students that they summed up everything better than he could.

Hudson Osborne was also motivated by Sprinkles’ address. On day two of the event, Osborne feels he’s in the right place at the right time.

“I was online going through programs I wanted to do so I wouldn’t be stuck in school all the time, and I found Disney Dreamers,” Osborne said. “It’s an amazing experience. I was always told I was a good writer, but I never believed it. So for it to really come to life like this is showing me that I can really do a lot with just my writing. I can really achieve that I never really thought that I could see.”

The 15-year-old is a ninth grader at San Lorenzo High in California.

“I play on the football and basketball team. I enjoy speech and debate, also criminal justice,” he said.

As part of his admissions packet, Osborne wrote that “my dreams are to one day become the Secretary of Defense for the United States government and with much more hard work and dedication become President of the United States.”

Those big dreams are in line with the mission of the Disney Dreamers Academy, and day two for the Dreamers is more than in the books — it’s part of students’ newly transformed minds.

‘Black Panther’ dominance: ‘A movie can’t get to $1 billion globally without tapping into some universal truths’ The superhero epic bests even ‘The Dark Night’


As of today, Marvel’s Black Panther has crossed the billion dollar box office mark globally. The film is the sixteenth Disney Studio film to reach this milestone — and it did so in less than a month — and it’s only the fifth Marvel film to achieve this accolade. Other films that have earned this amount include The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3, and Captain America: Civil War. Black Panther continues to impress financially, as it also is now the No. 9 release of all time and after this weekend, it will be the No. 2 superhero release of all time, besting The Dark Knight, which earned $535 million domestically. Black Panther has already claimed the No. 1 February debut, among other achievements, and it’s one of only 4 films to surpass $100M mark in second weekend.

“This is the first time that a movie has opened in February and made $1 billion globally,” says Phil Contrino, the Director of Media & Research for the National Association of Theatre Owners. “The notion that moviegoers will only come out in droves during the summer and the holiday season is now officially dead. Compelling content will play well at any point in the year.” Overseas, Black Panther will shoot past the $500M mark this weekend, after its Friday opening in China – the last market for the film to open in — where it grabbed a first day estimate of $22M. That the film has been able to excel — and breakdown long-held theories that films with largely black casts don’t sell in overseas markets — is remarkable.

“A movie can’t get to $1 billion globally without tapping into some universal truths. Black Panther’s emphasis on the importance of family and identity helped it transcend race, and that’s why it’s had no problem playing so well around the world,” Contrino says. “Audiences are sending a clear message that they want to see more diversity on the big screen. I really hope that five years from now we can look back at Black Panther as the moment that permanent change began.”

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.”

Kobe Bryant: Oscar nomination is proof I can do ‘something other than dribble and shoot’ On the eve of the Academy Awards, Bryant talks how basketball helps him in Hollywood and what’s next

This, quite literally, is a whole new game. But trust that Kobe Bryant is ready to suit up for this next chapter. One of the NBA’s biggest stars officially left the game on April 13, 2016, five months after he announced his retirement from professional basketball on Nov. 29, 2015, via a poem that he wrote called Dear Basketball. Bryant was nominated for an Oscar (best short, animated), becoming the first former professional athlete to ever get such a nod, after he set his retirement poem to animation with illustrator Glen Keane, who is best known for his work at Walt Disney Animation Studios for feature films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

On the eve of Bryant’s first Oscar moment, we sit in his Orange County, California, offices — storyboards are hidden in the back, but there’s a wall of portraits for all to see. He points at a Michael Jackson portrait. “My first mentor,” he said.

Books about animation and film production are stacked on bookshelves. And the small group of people working for Granity Studios are buzzing at their desks nearby. This is Hollywood Kobe Bryant. And you should get used to him because he’s going to be here for a while.

Here are 14 nuggets from our conversation, and some outtakes as well.

1. On writing.

“I always enjoyed writing. I had a really great teacher … who taught me the art of storytelling and writing and composition. When I came to the league, I kept writing, kept practicing. When I got injured and we were making a news film — that’s when it kicked in for me. I found enjoyment in writing that film, and writing each chapter … what should we do next? That’s what really kicked it off.”

2. On creativity.

“I love the art of creating. It’s like putting together a puzzle.”

3. Why Dear Basketball is an animated film.

“Once I wrote the story … it called for animation. … Games where you play great games, where you play terribly, days where you’re training, you feel unstoppable, and days when you feel like [you’re] not going to get through it. It had to be hand-drawn animation because of the imperfections that come along with [all] that because … as a viewer you can feel the soul of … Glen Keane as he’s animating. You can feel the texture of it. Twenty-four frames per second. No step skipped.”

4. On what being nominated for an Oscar feels like.

“I’ve always been told that as basketball players the expectation is that you play. This is all you know. This is all you do. Don’t think about handling finances. Don’t think about going into business. Don’t think that you want to be a writer — that’s cute. I got that a lot. What do you want to do when you retire? ‘Well, I want to be a storyteller.’ That’s cute. This is … a form of validation for people to look and say, ‘OK, he really can do something other than dribble and shoot.’ ”

5. On what types of projects he’s gravitating toward …

“They all center around sports. How do we take sports and tell beautiful tales, beautiful stories that connect to human nature? If you look at sports as a whole, it connects people worldwide, on a global scale. Much like music does. But what separates music from sports is that sports is something that unites people, something people do together.”

6. On what he’s working on for ESPN …

“[Detail] is the first show. The original concept came from, how can I help the next generation of elite basketball players? What information can I pass along, from what I learned from some of the most brilliant basketball minds? A thing that came to mind, aside from going out on the court and actually working with them, is how to study the game. … It’s a very intricate look into how to study the game.”

7. On Oprah Winfrey.

“Oprah’s been a really big mentor. When I … had the original idea of starting a company, a studio, she was the first person I reached out to. And she was gracious enough to give me about an hour on the phone and tell me how she built Harpo Productions from its start to where it is today. She’s been absolutely amazing.”

If you look at sports as a whole, it connects people worldwide, on a global scale. Much like music does.

8. On Shonda Rhimes.

“Shonda [Rhimes] was gracious enough to open up her doors for us to … spend the day in Shondaland, the sets of How to Get Away With Murder, and actually sit in on a table read for Scandal. She’s been great to talk to over the phone as well. I actually picked her brain — we were at the White House waiting in line to take a picture with President Obama and the first lady, and she was standing in front of me. And I was like, ‘Excuse me, Shonda, I have a couple questions … OK, so, when you write a script, like, where do you start? Do you start with plot first or character first?’ And then we just started talking. I said, ‘So when you write, how much room do you leave for the actors to be able to kind of make the characters their own?’ The relationship started from there.”

9. On helping make Hollywood more diverse.

“I’m looking at this industry, the animation industry, the writing industry, novelists … and I’m seeing a serious lack in gender diversity. And I want to make sure that we bring the opportunities to children to express themselves, even if they don’t ever want to grow up to be writers.”

10. On what he gets from Hollywood that he never got from basketball.

“The ability to make sure things are as good as we believe they can be before we release it. Basketball, you don’t get that chance. You practice all you want, but when the lights come up, if you play like an idiot, you look like an idiot. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t say, ‘Cut! Take two!’ In Hollywood, we can sit around as a team and nitpick plot, nitpick character and shots and movement of the story, and go over it and over it and over it again and again and again until we feel like it’s where we need it to be.”

11. On how filmmaking makes him feel …

“I love it. I do. I love it. I’ve been really fortunate to love basketball as much as I have, but I love storytelling every bit as much as I love basketball.”

12. On applying his life as a former NBA star to that of a budding filmmaker …

“Trust. That’s been the thing that was the hardest for me to deal with as an athlete — trusting the guys around me. Trusting that they’ll do the work, trusting that they’ll make the right play when it matters most. That was the hardest thing for me to deal with as an athlete, and because I went through that progression as an athlete, it’s a lot easier for me to do that as a creative.”

13. On working with Ava DuVernay …

“Our studio … is a part of the … fund that she’s championing, along with the city of Los Angeles. We’ll have plenty of internships here. That’s the best way to learn as well. You can sit down in the class all you want, but the best way to learn is to actually have interns come in and put boots on the ground and get to it. Actually give them responsibilities, actually give them assignments that lead to the execution of ideas.”

14. On where he’ll put his Oscar if he wins one this weekend …

“I’ll probably sleep with it! When I was a kid, the first time my parents bought me an official, leather NBA basketball, I slept with it for about a week. So it will be [wife] Vanessa, [third daughter] Bianka, me, Oscar. That will be our sleeping arrangement.”

Until I got to North Carolina A&T, I didn’t know enough black history By learning how powerful black people are, I learned just how powerful I am

For many African-Americans, February is a time of reflection and celebration. Many look back on the trials and tribulations that have oppressed our people and show their appreciation for the brave men and women who fought to make a better way of life for the next generation.

As an African-American kid who grew up attending public school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I was well-versed in African-American history. Figures such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and others have been etched into my brain since third grade.

For many years, however, the struggle that these courageous pioneers went through was my only perspective on black history. While slavery and the civil rights movement are key components of our story, they are not our whole story. I believe growing up in a majority-white public school system blinded me to that fact.

It wasn’t until I stepped foot on the campus of a historically black college or university (HBCU), North Carolina A&T, did I realize everything that encompasses our rich history. The second semester of my freshman year, I took an African-American studies course that was taught by professor Joy Thompson.

In that class, I learned how my ancestors were far more than slaves and disenfranchised people. I learned that my ancestors were powerful African rulers and dignitaries such as Mansa Musa and Queen Tiye, who created some of the richest and most successful societies ever.

I learned that my ancestors created the University of Timbuktu, which was the first university on the planet.

I learned that my ancestors engineered their own versions of Wall Street that focused on black-owned businesses in both Durham, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I learned many accomplishments of black people. But most importantly, I learned that my ancestors were relevant. They were revolutionaries. They were innovators and they were influential without the presence of oppression.

As a young black boy in elementary school, I never had the same sense of pride in my people as I did sitting in Thompson’s class. I had to wait until I turned 19, until I attended an HBCU, to experience this.

“Going to an HBCU has shown me that black history is so diverse. When people think of HBCUs, people think of how they are predominantly black schools, which is true. But there is just so much diversity in the black community,” said Bradford Brooks, a junior multimedia journalism major from Charlotte, North Carolina. “Going to an HBCU has reassured me that our culture and history is so important, because without black history, there would be no history at all.”

I have always been proud to be black. But the inspiration and confidence that manifests in your spirit once you attend an HBCU is unmatched. Especially once you begin to learn about the true greatness of your people.

I guess that is what makes Black History Month at HBCUs so special. By learning how powerful black people are, I learned just how powerful I am.

Kobe Bryant, Quincy Jones, Halle Berry honor Cheryl Boone Isaacs at private pre-Oscars event The pioneering former Academy president is presented with legacy award

When the legendary Quincy Jones took the stage on Tuesday night, he immediately launched into a story. It was about hanging out one day with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Yao Ming. He said he’d grabbed a chair and stood on it so that he was able to look down on the three NBA big men — and instructed a photographer not to shoot his feet. The crowd laughed.

But this night wasn’t actually about sports. Jones was one of many celebrities and true icons to pay tribute to Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who was presented with the inaugural Legacy Award at ICON MANN’s sixth annual pre-Oscar dinner. The dinner was the conclusion of a day-long takeover that also included daytime panels at the SAG/AFTRA headquarters, like an intimate conversation with Boone Isaacs and director and producer Reginald Hudlin and a Black Panther panel that was moderated by ICON MANN founder Tamara Houston.

Jones had just been introduced by Kobe Bryant, who told the dinner guests at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel — Halle Berry, Nia Long and Shannon Sharpe among them — that he’d cold-called Jones when he was 18 years old to ask for advice. “I asked the most random questions,” Bryant said before stopping to laugh at the memory. “I said, ‘How do you do what you do?’ And he laughed. And he proceeded to break down his process. It’s important … to understand the great minds that came before you, and how you do what you do in hopes that we can create something … in our own disciplines and industries to future our own craft.”

Bryant and Jones were among a long line of famous folks and industry influencers who lauded Boone Isaacs and her contributions to film, as well as her work to diversify the voting body of the Academy, in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which started in 2015 after April Reign created the hashtag. The dinner was hosted by Cedric the Entertainer, and before Boone Isaacs took the stage, a parade of people paid tribute to her — some were creative, like rapper and actor Common, who performed a few verses about the power of black women. Others, like Berry, were emotional.

“I’m so proud to be your friend. I’m so proud of everything you’ve done. I’m so proud to be a black woman when black women like you are leading organizations like the Academy,” Berry said to Boone Isaacs. “All the work that you did while you were there has changed the way the Academy runs, and nobody takes that away. I was saddened when I got the news that you weren’t running for re-election, I was, because it meant so much as a black woman that you were there. I felt safer. I felt better about it.”

By the time Boone Isaacs took the stage, she used sports as an analogy, citing the days when there were Olympic games with no black swimmers, when there were no golf champions and when tennis had no diversity. It wasn’t until people of color were given opportunities that progression happened in those sports. There’s still more work to be done, she was careful to note, but she sure was happy that she was no longer the lone person in a space. The organization also announced a special scholarship named for Boone Isaacs and her late brother, Ashley Boone Jr., who was a groundbreaking motion picture marketing and distribution executive for many years in Hollywood.

Anthony Hemingway, a director from ‘Underground,’ takes on the ‘Unsolved’ killings of Biggie and Tupac New USA Network series: ‘It allows you to see how human this story is — how universal it is’

Tupac and Biggie and their untimely — and unresolved — deaths: Sadly, it’s a story we all feel we know so well. Turns out, there’s much that even the most nerdy of hip-hop fans don’t know.

That’s where USA Network’s Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. comes in. Starting Tuesday night, the network will air a 10-part limited series that will examine the origin stories, the friendship, the deaths and the aftermath of the two artists’ deaths. Marcc Rose and Wavyy Jonez portray Shakur and Biggie, and their characters are in the foreground of what is actually a deep dive into the Los Angeles Police Department’s investigations of the cases. The series was created and written by Kyle Long, and the series is largely directed by Anthony Hemingway, who helped to shape WGN’s much-loved and now-canceled Underground. Hemingway approaches Unsolved with a similar historical paintbrush — the one that turned the slave diary trope on its head. And as usual, Hemingway gives us something for the culture.

We talk.

Why did you wanted to be a part of this project?

Like many of the other things I’ve been blessed and fortunate to work on — Underground, especially — I had an opportunity to [showcase] our culture. I’m continuing to find opportunities that speak to that. That allow us to learn more about ourselves. We have to know about our past and our history before we can move on. And so examining this story that took place 20-some years ago, we get to see these two young men who actually supported each other. I don’t see enough of that right now. Underground showed us our strength, and the superheroes that we are … Unsolved does that too. We get to … learn how to even be confident in ourselves, and to not lose ourselves. So many layers … those are the highlights for me in this.

It’s a story from 20 years ago, but this has a contemporary feel to it — that feels deliberate.

It allows you to really see how human this story is, and how universal it is. Seeing how their music transcended so many lines. From old to young, no matter what creed, color, race you come from. They impacted and affected people, and people loved them. It does feel like today. We still rock and jam to their music. It’s timeless, and it’s one of these stories that I think will continue to be relevant.

The diversity behind the camera right now must feel encouraging, it’s allowing for stories like this to be told.

Yes, but … even with seeing this progress, we can’t get comfortable. We have to continue to strive to be the best. To continue paving the way and opening doors for those behind us. I know there were many before me, and knowing and understanding that is not lost on me. I don’t take it for granted, this opportunity. And it really gets me a lot of times when I see young kids come up to me in various places and are inspired. It’s the things and the people that you touch that you don’t realize. And I love that we’re able to hit it on many levels of different scales, from comedy to drama to action to sci-fi. We’re covering all the bases … I’m having a great time. When Malcolm Lee called me to direct second unit on Girls Trip, I did not flinch. I said, “Absolutely, what are the dates?”

Is stuff like that happening a great deal right now?

Kenya Barris is creating things and is calling me like, “I want you to do this. You tell this story right.” And I’m loving that we are doing what we talk about all the time. We practice what we preach … I pray that it continues. It’s up to us to help make sure it continues. And not just find that moment where we say, “We made it.” We have still have so far to go.

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.

Over All-Star break, the NBA is on the ground doing good work in Los Angeles Community efforts to impact youth and families in L.A.

This year’s All-Star Weekend is a family affair for the NBA, which will be spreading a message of unity, hope, solidarity and change in its host city of Los Angeles. From Thursday through Sunday, the league is sending more than 3,000 volunteers into the City of Angels with more than 30 outreach programs and events.

“It’s the most important time of the year, when you can get everybody together,” said Todd Jacobson, the NBA’s senior vice president of social responsibility. “Obviously, NBA All-Star is a celebration, but the ability for us to utilize it as a platform to give back, to use a sport that brings people together, is just incredible. For years, really, the primary program or highlight for us has been our NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service, which takes place on Friday. We have more than 1,500 volunteers coming out. We’ll be building a playground, we’ll be packing more than 240,000 pounds of food with a food bank, packing supplies and needs for Baby2Baby, which helps provide essentials for families in need. And it just continues to be such a great platform to tip off the weekend.”

Events will include the NBA All-Star Fit Celebration, the 11th annual NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service, Jr. NBA Day, the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game and Building Bridges Through Basketball, among many more.

NBA Cares, the league’s global social responsibility program, will host service projects, basketball clinics and games, and fitness and nutritional activities.

“We tipped it off in 2008. We’ve built more than 90 places now where kids and families can live, learn or play during our NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service,” Jacobson said. “So it’s just a special way to bring people together and celebrate the game and really use it as a point for inclusion and making sure that we are having the largest impact possible.”

The league’s NBA Voices initiative addresses social injustice and bridges divides in communities.

“From an NBA Voices perspective, which is a platform we launched on MLK Day, we’ve had close to 300 events and activities that have taken place over the course of the better of about 18 months now,” Jacobson said. “It actually tipped off here in Los Angeles when Carmelo Anthony helped lead the efforts working with the USA Basketball men’s and women’s Olympic teams. So it’s really terrific to be back here and continuing to have that dialogue, and really helping and utilizing our position to help bring people together.”

This year, through NBA Voices, the league will rally Los Angeles youths, community leaders, law enforcement, and NBA and WNBA players and executives for an in-depth conversation about today’s social climate.

Jr. NBA, the league’s youth basketball participation program, is set to engage more than 2,000 youths in basketball clinics and competitions. The Jr. NBA is focused on helping grow and improve the youth basketball experience for players, coaches and parents. The program offers a free curriculum covering all levels of the game that includes more than 250 instructional videos featuring NBA and WNBA players.

“I think the most important thing we can do is we just want to be part of the community, working with our teams that do so much during the year, the Clippers and the Lakers and all the community partners that we’ve worked with,” Jacobson said.

Here is this year’s schedule of events:

NBA Cares All-Star Community Events:

  • Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Visit (Thursday):
    • Members of the NBA family will visit the hospital and enjoy games and crafts with young patients and their families.
  • NBA All-Star FIT Celebration (Thursday):
    • The NBA, Kaiser Permanente and After-School All-Stars will unveil a newly refurbished fitness center at Alliance Gertz-Ressler/Richard Merkin 6-12 Complex. NBA and WNBA players and legends will join students in fitness and nutritional activities focused on the total health of mind, body and spirit.
  • Community Conversation (Thursday):
    • In partnership with Brotherhood Crusade and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association will bring together local youths, law enforcement and community leaders for a discussion addressing the challenges facing their community and ways to build trust.
  • NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service (Friday):
    • Current and former NBA and WNBA players, coaches, partners and celebrities will lead three service projects with support from Nike, SAP and State Farm. In partnership with KaBOOM!, members of the NBA family will construct a student-designed playground at Jefferson Elementary School. Other volunteers will join Baby2Baby to package donations for children living in poverty. At the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, packed donations will go to local seniors in need.
  • NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game (Saturday):
    • NBA and WNBA players and legends will join 12 Special Olympics athletes from Los Angeles and around the world for a clinic and demonstration game at the Los Angeles Convention Center (LACC).
  • Building Bridges Through Basketball (Saturday):
  • Hoops For Troops (Thursday-Sunday):
    • The NBA will partner with the USO and Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors to host special experiences for military service members, their families and the families of fallen service members at NBA All-Star’s marquee events, including a visit to the Bob Hope USO Center.
  • Make-A-Wish (Thursday-Sunday):
    • The NBA will grant the wishes of eight Make-A-Wish kids with critical illnesses in Los Angeles. The kids and their families will enjoy several days of fun events and life-changing experiences, including meet-and-greets with NBA All-Stars, State Farm All-Star Saturday Night participants, and NBA and WNBA legends.

Jr. NBA schedule:

Events will include clinics, tournaments and educational sessions that teach the values and fundamentals of the game. All events and clinics will take place at LACC on courts provided by SnapSports.

  • NBA Day (Friday):
    • In partnership with Under Armour, more than 1,500 local youths will participate in a series of basketball clinics alongside NBA All-Stars and Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars players.
  • Gatorade Jr. NBA All-Star Invitational (Saturday-Sunday):
    • Sixteen boys and girls middle school basketball teams, which advanced from preliminary tournaments in January, will play in the Gatorade Jr. NBA All-Star Invitational single-elimination quarterfinal and semifinal rounds on Saturday and the championship games on Sunday.
  • NBA Skills Challenge (Saturday-Sunday):
    • More than 500 participants will compete for a chance to advance to the national finals of the Jr. NBA Skills Challenge, which will be held in New York in June. The Jr. NBA Skills Challenge is a national competition that provides boys and girls ages 9-13 the opportunity to showcase fundamental skills through dribbling, shooting and rebounding competitions.
  • NBA Coaches Forum (Sunday):
    • In partnership with Positive Coaching Alliance, A Call to Men, Athlete Ally and the Human Rights Campaign, the Jr. NBA will host a coaches forum to educate and support nearly 100 local coaches in developing young athletes of character. NBA and WNBA legends will discuss teamwork, diversity and inclusion.
  • NBA Clinic for LAPD and LAFD First Responders (Sunday):
    • In partnership with the LAPD and Los Angeles Fire Department, the Jr. NBA will host a Jr. NBA basketball clinic for first responders and their families at LACC. NBA legends will join participants for on-court skills and drills.