Criticism of LeBron James’ China comments are rooted in bogus narratives If James tweets about a black person being killed by cops, you can bet his silence on China will be mentioned

We are shortchanging athletes’ activism by using sound bites to define their legacies.

On Dec. 29, 2015, James stood in front of reporters after his Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Denver Nuggets 93-87 and spoke on the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy carrying a toy gun who was shot and killed by Cleveland police. It was a mere 24 hours after a grand jury decided that police officer Timothy Loehmann would not face criminal charges for gunning down Rice.

“To be honest, I haven’t really been on top of this issue. So it’s hard for me to comment. I understand that any lives that [are] lost, what we want more than anything is prayer and the best for the family, for anyone,” James told reporters. “But for me to comment on the situation, I don’t have enough knowledge about it.”

Samaria Rice, the mother of the boy, expressed her disappointment. Even black activists demanded more from James. Black journalists challenged him to say something substantial. But that’s where the outrage stopped — at the feet of black folks who wanted him to use his platform to defend a child who was killed miles from James’ old neighborhood.

How did we go from James getting a pass for being noncommittal about the killing of a 12-year-old boy to being called a disgrace for his comments on a foreign government? The answer is complicated.

Three years after his comments on Rice, James rattled the internet for what he didn’t say about protests in Hong Kong when a pool of reporters asked him about it on Monday night. “Just be careful what we tweet and say and we do, even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too,” James explained. His refusal to condemn China became a trending topic through the night.

But here’s the dirty little secret: Most of the people outraged at James not taking a definitive stance on China’s handling of protesters in Hong Kong don’t care about the protesters themselves. The outrage isn’t about the plight of the protesters. The performative outrage is creating a new “what aboutism” to hold up next time the athletes speak out about a cause.

If James tweets about a black person being killed by cops, you can bet his silence on China will be brought up. Because silencing black folks is all about false equivalencies and bogus narratives. In short, “you didn’t speak about Hong Kong” is the newfangled “what about Chicago?”

How did we go from James getting a pass for being noncommittal about the killing of a 12-year-old boy to being called a disgrace for his comments on a foreign government?

The answer is complicated. This is about the ways in which society tries to undermine black liberation work by using any means to shift goalposts. There are plenty of people using the NBA’s current public relations dilemma with China as a means to undermine the social justice efforts of black athletes in America. So James’ vague comments on Rice’s death must stand alongside his other works.

Since 2015, he’s become a leading advocate for social justice, calling out President Donald Trump and the NFL while building a school for at-risk kids in Akron, Ohio. He’s not the safe athlete anymore. He’s rubbing people the wrong way. His actions have even prompted Fox News host Laura Ingraham to tell him and other athletes to “stick to sports.”

Now, however, the NBA and China situation is a “gotcha” moment to those who want to silence NBA players. The premise of the criticism is clear: If these athletes won’t stand up for the rights of the citizens of Hong Kong, then they don’t really care about equality and human rights.

It’s a veiled “don’t all lives matter?” form of reshaping the narrative to negate the actions of speaking up for black folks in America. After all, how can they really care about police brutality in America if they don’t care about it in China? See how that narrative manipulation works?

The irony here is that athletes are being encouraged to speak out about oppression in China, but if they were to use that energy to, say, draw a comparison between the way the protesters of Hong Kong are being treated to the way protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, were treated, then we’d be back at square one asking them to be silent. We want these athletes to speak out against foreign regimes but not about police abuse of innocent black folks.

How about we try this: Interview an athlete about China, but follow up with something to say about police killing Botham Jean or Atatiana Jefferson. Then we’ll see how much you want athletes to speak up.

An open letter to Jay-Z Etan Thomas: Jay-Z shouldn’t be canceled, but he does need to answer to his critics

Dear Jay-Z,

Since the announcement of your NFL deal, I have heard many of your fans attempting explanations for your partnership. Be patient. Chess versus checkers. Crabs in a bucket. He’s a billionaire and has to move differently. Wait and see.

For a long time, the “greatest rapper alive” has been an example of “actionable items” in the community. You’ve raised money for the families of Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin, you’ve donated tens of thousands of dollars to help bail out protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, and served as an executive producer on several documentaries about the criminal justice system.

This doesn’t look like chess versus checkers, this looks like Connect 4, you stacking your chips on top of the movement and connecting with the NFL for a straight line across capitalism.

Your body of work speaks for itself. I don’t believe you should be canceled, but we shouldn’t allow our adoration for someone to stifle our critique.

In 2017, you told an audience at a Miami concert, “I want y’all to understand when people are kneeling and putting their fists up in the air and doing what they’re doing, it’s not about the flag, it’s about justice. It’s about injustice. And that’s not a black or white thing, it’s a human issue.”

A year later, you rapped in “APES—“: “I said no to the Super Bowl: you need me, I don’t need you.”

Surprisingly, during a news conference while sitting next to Roger Goodell, you told a room of reporters “that we are past kneeling [and] it’s not about getting [Colin] Kaepernick a job.” Then you asked people in the room, “Do you know the issue? How about you, do you know the issue?”

As you asked the question, I noticed Goodell’s smile as he leaned back in his chair. I thought to myself, was this a prerequisite for Jay-Z to sit at the table with the NFL?

At that same meeting, the NFL announced that Roc Nation will help promote the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative, which will focus on education, economic development, police, community relations and criminal justice reform. In addition, Roc Nation will have a music series and clothing line, both collaborations with the NFL. Capitalism mixed with activism.

It appears as though you changed your entire message once the NFL deal happened. This looks bad, Jay-Z.

Former NBA player Etan Thomas says Jay-Z changed his entire message regarding social justice when he struck a deal with the NFL.

Etan Thomas

Here is the part that’s hard to swallow. It seems as though you are profiting from the very movement that Kaepernick started by partnering with the NFL, which to this day has whiteballed Kaepernick from the league.

Let’s be honest, if Kaepernick never took a knee and verbalized that he was protesting systemic racism and police brutality, this deal would never have been extended to you. That’s why NFL players Eric Reid and Kenny Stills are questioning you, because it’s not adding up.

Is this the chess versus checkers we keep hearing about? Maybe you are working within the system to further the movement that Kaepernick and Reid started. Or, is it simply you using Kaepernick as a ladder to step into a position that will financially benefit you, cloaked in activism but with the stench of capitalism?

I’m not advocating for anyone to be a broke activist. After all, I get paid an honorarium when I speak at universities, where I also sell my books. In fact, I interviewed family members of victims of police brutality for my book We Matter: Athletes and Activism, and I have been working closely with them ever since.

I asked Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, twin sister of Terence Crutcher, who was murdered by officer Betty Shelby in Tulsa, Oklahoma, if she wanted to weigh in on your NFL partnership. She shared the below quote:

Rapper and entertainer Jay-Z grips a football before the NFL season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sept. 11, 2011.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

“At the end of the day, I choose not to get distracted by things that won’t change the laws that give police officers permission to kill unarmed black and brown people in this country. We are in a state of emergency as it relates to being black in America and until the NFL publicly acknowledges that the reason why Kaepernick took a knee is valid, then hiring Jay-Z for their social justice campaign is a farce and I will continue to boycott the NFL.”

In early September, a new report was released saying $400,000 from the Songs of Seasons concerts, a partnership sponsored by Roc Nation and the NFL, are going to Chicago charities. That’s great, but this is not a charity issue, it’s a police brutality issue. If proceeds are going to specific organizations that fight for social justice, be transparent about the organizations.

So that cops like New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo, who choked Eric Garner, an unarmed man, to death, isn’t fired but given prison time. Or Shelby, the cop who killed Crutcher, another unarmed man, doesn’t avoid prison time while conducting speaking tours profiting off Crutcher’s murder. Or Timothy Loehmann, the officer who murdered Tamir Rice, isn’t rehired by another police precinct.

That’s the issue, that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee, and I am having difficulty seeing how your NFL merger is helping the issue.

Let’s be honest, if Kaepernick never took a knee and verbalized that he was protesting systemic racism and police brutality, this deal would have never been extended to you.

And in January, I cringed when you made the comments that a single-parent household is to blame for people “losing their lives.”

I wondered, did Jay-Z just Bill Cosby pound cake speech us? I wanted to ask someone who was directly impacted by the issue of police brutality what his response was to your comments. I asked Eric Garner Jr. — son of Eric Garner. He said:

“I grew up loving Jay-Z . I have nothing but respect for him. What he said was hurtful. It sounded like he was making excuses for the police. My father wasn’t rude. Didn’t say, ‘F you.’ He said, ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times. He didn’t just lose his life, they jumped him and murdered him for selling loosies, and five years later only one cop got fired. No jail time, but just fired. That’s not justice. This isn’t a problem you can just throw money at. Actual laws have to be changed so this doesn’t keep happening, and that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee.”

I had the same reaction as Eric Garner Jr. Maybe you are trying to speak the language to people in a way that will get them on board? Perhaps helping them see that it’s not a “their problem” but an “our problem.” Chess versus checkers? Even if it is the latter, peddling a false narrative to gain support is a dangerous tactic. It feeds into the negative and inaccurate stereotypes of black fathers.

Jay-Z, you are in the upper echelon of revered entertainers who have the ear of the masses. You can’t use that power recklessly. You said it yourself: “Add that to the fact I went plat a bunch of times. Times that by my influence on pop culture. I’m supposed to be No. 1 on everybody’s list.

I wanted to ask someone in law enforcement who I trusted, have worked with and support to weigh in on their perceived effectiveness of your NFL merger, so I asked Capt. Sonia Pruitt of the National Black Police Association, and she said:

“In the realm of social justice, it is important that our actions as activists have depth. While I respect the endeavors of selling clothing and entertainment from a capitalistic view, the reality is that what we need are the added voices of influential members of the community, such as entertainers and those in the athletic arena, to push for actual change. And funding should be funneled to those organizations whose messages, actions and results are strong and meaningful.”

Bottom line, this doesn’t look like chess versus checkers, this looks like Connect 4, you stacking your chips on top of the movement and connecting with the NFL for a straight line across capitalism. You won the game, but it definitely doesn’t equal social justice, not yet at least.

With Respect,
Etan Thomas

A$AP Rocky case shows the discomfort of fighting for freedom Wanting black folks free means freeing even those we disagree with

Grammy-nominated Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky (real name Rakim Athelaston Mayers) has spent the past three weeks in a Swedish jail. He was arrested on July 3 after a now-viral video allegedly showed the MC and his entourage beating up two men. In the multiple videos of the incident to hit the internet — Rocky himself released two to tell his side of the story — the two alleged victims are seen following Rocky and his crew, refusing to leave them alone, before the attack transpired. But cooler heads did not prevail, and Rocky’s crew is seen punching and kicking the two men. Rocky himself tosses one man, sending him flying before he crashes down on the street.

Rapper A$AP Rocky speaks at the 2019 SXSW Festival Featured Session: Using Design “Differently” to Make a Difference on March 11 in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Diego Donamaria/Getty Images for SXSW

While Rocky’s video did garner him some sympathy — he is, after all, seen trying to defuse the situation before any blows land — it hasn’t gotten him out of jail. Now, Rocky’s arrest and impending July 30 trial have become the focal point of an international debate over prison reform, race and politics, a debate that has involved everyone from Rocky’s rap peers to fans bombarding trending Twitter hashtags with demands for his release to Kim Kardashian and even President Donald Trump. All of this is intersecting with Rocky’s past comments and the realization that freedom for all also means freedom for people we don’t always agree with or even like.

One reason so many rallied behind Rocky was that he was held in jail for weeks before even being charged with a crime. One of the touchstones of prison reform, in America especially, is that in America alone there are more than half a million people in jail, mostly minorities, who have yet to be charged. They’re in jail simply because they don’t have enough money to pay for bail. The most infamous example is Kalief Browder, the New York teenager who was jailed in Rikers Island for three years in a minor theft case because he couldn’t make bail. He was the victim of brutal violence and spent two years in solitary confinement. After being released, he committed suicide in 2015 and is the focus of a Jay-Z documentary.

Additionally, sources told TMZ that Rocky was being held in abhorrent conditions in Sweden — unclean rooms with feces on the walls, he was eating only an apple a day and sleeping on a yoga mat — and we have the makings of a human rights story that shows how incarcerated people are treated across the world. The widespread support for Rocky, however, has waned in the past few days, as an old interview of his surfaced in which he disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement and said he’d rather talk about fashion than liberating black folks:

Demonstrators hold aloft a symbolic coffin bearing Kalief Browder’s name as they rally near the gate of City Hall in New York on Feb. 23, 2016. About a dozen prison reform activists demanded the closing of the long-controversial Rikers Island Corrections facility, where Browder was held.

Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

“So every time something happens because I’m black I gotta stand up? What the f— am I? Al Sharpton? I’m A$AP Rocky. I did not sign up to be no political activist. I wanna talk about my … lean, my best friend dying, the girls that come in and out of my life, the jiggy fashion that I wear, my new inspirations in drugs! I don’t wanna talk about … Ferguson … because I don’t live over there! I live in f—ing SoHo and Beverly Hills. I can’t relate.”

For many, this was quite the karmic treat. A man who didn’t believe in the most prominent black liberation movement of his lifetime is suddenly in need of help from the activists he would have continued to ignore had he not been incarcerated. And while the schadenfreude is quite delicious to some, that shouldn’t mean that anyone should feel less obligated to find justice for the rapper if they believe he is truly being mistreated. Wanting black folks free means freeing even those black folks we disagree with — even black folks who don’t care about extending that freedom to the rest of us. A$AP Rocky deserves the same revolutionary acts of liberation and kindness we extend to any other incarcerated people, regardless of his stupid comments on activism.

Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served.

Rocky’s situation has been further complicated in recent days by newly converted social justice activist Kardashian lobbying for Trump to get involved. Trump responded by tweeting out support for Rocky, directing aggressive tweets toward the Swedish prime minister and stating that “Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States.”

So to recap, we have a man in jail who has expressed ambivalence about black liberation movements being supported by a woman who has made a career mining black culture for her own gain and who asked for help from a president who went on a racist outburst just last week demanding that four Democratic congresswomen go back to the countries they “came from.” The rest of us have been handed a cocktail of race, entertainment and politics in which we’re left wondering whether the enemies of our enemies are really our friends and which side is right here.

In the end, there should be only one winner: justice. Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served. Because so often, our black and brown brothers and sisters are denied their rights. Of course, if we can extend the resources of Kardashian and the president to get one black man free, then it should be no problem to find the same justice for the Kalief Browders of the world. Then we can really talk about what liberation looks like.

In ‘See You Yesterday,’ time travelers can’t escape the ugly present New Spike Lee production brings Black Lives Matter to the science fair

Not even scientific genius has the power to outrun unscrupulous police.

That’s the macabre but justifiable takeaway from See You Yesterday, the debut feature film from director Stefon Bristol, streaming Friday on Netflix.

Two science-loving best friends, Claudette “CJ” Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian J. Thomas (Danté Crichlow), are on a mission to turn back time. The two built a nifty set of personalized time machines that fit in their backpacks and will suck them through a wormhole, where they’ve got roughly 10 minutes to course-correct their lives before heading back to the present.

Danté Crichlow (left) and Eden Duncan-Smith (right) play Claudette “CJ” Walker and Sebastian J. Thomas, who are on a mission to turn back time in hopes of saving a life.

Courtesy of Netlfix

Co-written by Bristol and Fredrica Bailey and produced by Spike Lee, See You Yesterday at first appears to be a fun science fiction ride that happens to be about two West Indian kids obsessed with physics. Michael J. Fox makes a cameo as their science teacher. When she’s not tinkering with her time-traveling jetpack, CJ plunges into books such as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. CJ and Sebastian live in East Flatbush, the heart of West Indian Brooklyn, New York, and they face questions about their relationship status from nosy grandparents who admonish them in accented English to please stop making things go boom in the garage.

But everything explodes when CJ sees her older brother Calvin (Astro) shot and killed by police for a bodega robbery he didn’t commit. Just like that, the stakes of time travel immediately ratchet from something that could win Sebastian and CJ the Westinghouse Award to a way to save a life — if only they can figure out how to properly wield their newfound power.

And so See You Yesterday takes a hard, grief-stricken turn, one that feels especially odd given the overall lighthearted tone Bristol chooses to tell the story. But thematically, it aligns with the “Replay” episode of Jordan Peele’s reimagining of The Twilight Zone, in which a mother played by Sanaa Lathan keeps trying to prevent her son from being killed by a bloodthirsty Virginia state trooper with the aid of a magic camcorder that rewinds life with the touch of button.

When black men and boys are targeted by police, it is their mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts and cousins who are left to pick up their broken bits of their grief and make something of it. Or, in these two cases, try to prevent their deaths from happening in the first place.

In The Hate U Give, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder after she witnesses her friend get fatally shot by a police officer. In See You Yesterday and “Replay,” that trauma takes on an even more tortuous edge. Not only do the women see their loved ones killed, they’re convinced that they can prevent it from happening, and so they try, over and over and over.

As CJ, Duncan-Smith gives a note-perfect performance, as do Thomas and Astro. But no matter the inspired cinematography or considered, authentic performances, these stories carry a weight of inevitability as they suck every particle of hope out of the air.

An unshakable fatalism blows through both “Replay” and See You Yesterday. The male characters eventually surrender to fate, leaving the anguished women who love them tilting at windmills to revive what is gone.

I don’t fault Bristol or Peele for refusing to make work that would make them seem like Pollyannas. Rather, it’s a shame that black innocence has been decimated so completely that even a film about earnest, time-traveling teens cannot outrun the weight of impending death and injustice at the hands of the state.

HBO’s ‘Say Her Name’ has few answers about what happened to Sandra Bland But new documentary gives her a voice, even in death

The mother of Sandra Bland, the Illinois woman who committed suicide in a Texas jail after being hauled there for back-talking a police officer during a traffic stop, still doesn’t believe her daughter took her own life. In a new documentary, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, which premieres Monday on HBO, directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner follow the Bland family as they attempt to get answers about what happened.

Bland, 28, was starting a new life and career at her alma mater Prairie View A&M when she was pulled over by Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia on July 12, 2015, for failing to signal a lane change. Camera footage from the stop shows that Bland was compliant, but apparently insufficiently deferential to Encinia. He arrested her and took her to the Waller County jail, where she was charged with assaulting a law enforcement official.

Three days later, Bland was dead. A state autopsy and an independent autopsy concluded she died by asphyxiation, the result of hanging herself in her cell with a noose made from plastic garbage can liners. The independent coroner, in presenting her findings to the Bland family, surmises that law enforcement was indirectly responsible for Bland’s death — “Someone’s spirit can be broken in a short amount of time,” she said.

Bland’s death highlighted the fact that unjustified police violence, followed by character assassination via media release, is not only experienced by black men and boys.

The circumstances surrounding Bland’s death are still characterized by frustrating uncertainty. A jail employee who was supposed to check on Bland every hour while she was in solitary confinement falsified official reports of his work. He simply didn’t bother to walk down the hall to check that Bland was alive, but marked that he had.

Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith insists that Bland’s death had nothing to do with race. The state trooper who reached into Bland’s car to drag her out of her vehicle, as captured by dashcam and bystander phone camera footage, faced infuriatingly few repercussions. A grand jury indicted Encinia on a perjury charge that was later dismissed after he agreed not to work in law enforcement again. He was fired from his job as a state trooper, and that was it.

A makeshift memorial to Sandra Bland.

Courtesy of HBO

While the filmmakers gesture at broader issues of race and policing in Waller County, a couple of threads would have benefited from further exploration. Waller County is home to Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college. A Prairie View resident proclaims that the jurisdiction is overpoliced by five different law enforcement agencies, including the sheriff, state troopers, Prairie View police, and campus police. I wish Davis and Heilbroner had followed up with statistics comparing arrests in Prairie View with the larger, whiter community of Waller County at large.

Similarly, the film mentions that the Hempstead City Council fired Sheriff Smith from his previous job as Hempstead police chief due to complaints of misconduct and racial bias, but doesn’t provide further details. Smith was subsequently elected as county sheriff anyway.

Although Say Her Name leaves gaps in reporting the context of institutionalized racism that ultimately doomed Bland, it successfully communicates that she was a woman who was well aware of racial injustice and had a fierce passion for fighting it. The most compelling, but also heartbreaking, elements of Say Her Name are the Facebook videos Bland recorded on her phone to educate her friends and community about racism. She called them “Sandy Speaks.”

Bland talked about black-on-black crime. She blamed racism on both black and white people, saying both groups needed to make more friends across racial lines. She also cheerfully referred to the black people watching her videos as “kings” and “queens.” She was dedicated to educating herself and others — she recorded one video from the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, radiant with pride and enthusiasm.

“Sandy is gonna speak whenever I see something wrong,” Bland informed her audience. More than anything, the value in Say Her Name lies in its refusal to allow Bland to be silenced, even in death.

Director X says his new ‘Superfly’ is more fast and furious than ‘The Wire’ ‘We need some antiheroes. We need diversity of characters. We deserve a mindless action movie too.’

There’s a moment in the 2018 SuperFly remake where Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson) has a go with Scatter (Michael K. Williams). It’s only the two of them: mano a mano on gym mats. Aggression is thick. They’re trying to best the other in a round of jiujitsu — teacher versus star pupil. It’s but a small scene in Director X’s feature film directorial debut, but it is the moment that sets Youngblood Priest on his adventure. It’s the scene where you learn the pretty brown boy with the relaxed hair, styled into a bouffant-looking silhouette, can throw down if need be. He’s a ‘hood superhero who can and will take on four guys all by his lonesome, and win.

But that scene also is a glimpse into how X brought new life to one of the pre-eminent blaxploitation movies of the early 1970s, which was directed by the legendary Gordon Parks Jr. In the original film, Super Fly, the protagonist (played by Ron O’Neal) does enter a gym, so this scene is in homage. But for X, it’s also personal.

“I definitely wouldn’t want to disrespect anyone by saying, ‘I fought like this guy …,’ ” he says with a quick laugh and a shrug — but when he lived in Brooklyn, New York, he had a fight club in his place where people would come over, pad up and spar. X is a fighter. And when he fought, his mind was clear and he imagined bright, crisp visuals — the kind you see in some of his more famous music videos for artists such as Drake. It was beautiful. And welcome.

“Which I think is why fighting is such a … it’s strategic,” he said. We’re in an edit bay on the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City, California. “It’s physical. … You tap into the unspoken.” He pivots slightly to talk about a game he made up one time called 330: He and his friends would draw three 30-second sketches of each other. You pose for 30 seconds, then the other person draws you. They pose for 30 seconds, you draw. You realize that in the short amount of time you’re trying to make a good image, it’s next to impossible.

“I didn’t want to make a super real movie. I’m not trying to inspire young kids to make their neighborhoods worse.”

“It’s removing yourself from this end result and living in this moment. … It just seems to work for all things,” he said. “It’s the same thing when we’re sparring. There’s a Zen place of being aware and being in the moment and doing what you’re doing but not putting yourself ahead of the moment. … By being in the result you’re not in the moment, and if you’re not in the moment, you can’t do the work. You know?” And this was exactly how he created SuperFly 2018.

“I wasn’t making SuperFly like, ‘This has gotta be great! It’s gotta be a hit! It’s gotta be this!’ I never had a big hit when I walked into it thinking, ‘I’m going to make a big hit.’ But I’ve had big hits walking into it thinking about what I’m doing, and being completely focused on the job and vision of the thing.”


Julien Christian Lutz was born almost 43 years ago near Toronto. After an internship with Canadian music video channel Much Music, he moved to New York City. There, he worked under the tutelage of Hype Williams, an influential music video director who, along with music director Alan Ferguson, gave him a pep talk when X thought about giving up and going in a different direction. The two men got him into gear.

Then: “I went and bought all the books I could on filmmaking. Makeup, hair, lights, camera … and then the next time I did a very tiny little job, it was, ‘Scrim that light! Flag that unit!’ Whoa. I said that? And I was right? Oh,” he said. “It was my education, and needing a proper education because you’ve gotta learn the technical side. … That was the turning point. That was really the moment that set me on the path of knowing what I’m doing.”

And it’s a good thing too. The Canadian is of Swiss and Trinidadian descent, and he’s done much to create and shape African-American hip-hop culture for the better part of 20 years. Since 1998, he’s created and collaborated with artists such as Rihanna (“Work”), Usher (“Yeah!”), Kanye West (“The New Workout Plan”), Jay-Z (“Excuse Me Miss”), Kendrick Lamar (“King Kunta”), Nicki Minaj (“Your Love”) and, of course, countless Drake music videos, including “Hotline Bling” and the more recent “God’s Plan.”

“That’s not what [Harlem] is anymore. The music and the culture of black folks emanates now from Atlanta.”

Since 1998, X has collaborated with several hip-hop and R&B artists, including Rihanna (“Work”), Usher (“Yeah!”), Kanye West (“The New Workout Plan”), Jay-Z (“Excuse Me Miss”), Kendrick Lamar (“King Kunta”), Nicki Minaj (“Your Love”), and Drake, most notably for “Hotline Bling.”

GL Askew II for The Undefeated

His music videos are cinematic in approach — he’s helped elevate the genre, his work a throwback to a time when people set their schedules around when a hotly anticipated music video was premiering on MTV or on Sunday nights on In Living Color.

“I come from this stigmatized part of filmmaking where they’re, ‘Oh, music videos. Ugh. Really?’ But I’ve always embraced it,” he said. “That’s where the innovation comes from. This is the stuff that pushes all the boundaries. This is the place where a director has true freedom. I take that with me and put it in this. I’m unconcerned with people’s thoughts. There is no form of filmmaking that’s this free as what you [do] in music videos. It’s allowed me to hone my own style.”

He’s successfully transferred his style and work ethic to the new SuperFly. He also understands what’s at stake, especially after the success of Marvel’s Black Panther, which not only earned more than a billion dollars at the box office but also gave black folks a far different narrative to which to aspire on the big screen.

We were beautiful. We were royalty. We were technologically advanced. And we were superheroes. We are something, quite frankly, that we’ve never seen on film before. A film like SuperFly could feel contrary to this moment, considering that it centers on the drug game and the perils that that particular world brings upon the black community. And X knows this. He’s expecting such a conversation to happen around SuperFly.

He has an answer: This, like those glorious African superheroes from the fictional land of Wakanda, is fantasy too. And it’s entertainment. And he’s not trying to create an instruction book on how to further set back struggling neighborhoods; what he is doing is adding to the canon of black film, expanding the spectrum. He’s giving moviegoers options.

“He goes to his mentor. He gets caught up with some cops. Freddie’s dead. You know what I’m saying? Now we’re hitting.”

“We need some antiheroes. I love ‘The Sopranos.’ It’s insane how much we love Tony Soprano with all the evil sh– he did over six or seven seasons. We need that diversity of characters as well. “

GL Askew II for The Undefeated

“I didn’t want to make a super real movie. I’m not trying to inspire young kids to make their neighborhoods worse,” X said. “This isn’t the movie to watch if you want some inner workings of the drug game. … I remember The Wire, the greatest TV show that ever happened, it also f—ed the ’hood up.” X says he’s toned things down on some sides and made the story bigger. “In the original Super Fly they snort coke to say hello. … They don’t even smoke cigarettes in [the updated film]. They smoke blunts, but I wasn’t trying to make [cocaine use] cool for a new generation. If we were making Sicario, yeah, then maybe I’d deal with functioning addicts. We’re not making that. This is a more Fast and Furious.”

This new film is set in Atlanta as opposed to Harlem. “There’s a Whole Foods on 125th,” he said. “You can’t do Super Fly with a Whole Foods around the corner. I’m sorry.” The director says that in 1972, if you were hot in Harlem, you were hot around the world, as it was the epicenter of black culture. “And that’s not what [Harlem] is anymore. The music and the culture of black folks emanates now from Atlanta. You got a hot record in Atlanta, you got a hot record around the world. You got a hot record in New York, you got a hot record in New York. So it made sense for this [film] to grow.”

Atlanta does makes sense. The cultural explosion can be partially attributed to the idea that a couple of decades ago, it seemed as if every famous black celebrity in music or in the world of professional sports had a home in Atlanta. “Black folks still run it, you know? When we were out there … when I sat with T.I., he was in the other room with Mayor Keisha Bottoms,” he said.

“I remember The Wire, the greatest TV show that ever happened, it also f—ed the ’hood up.”

And his SuperFly is classical by nature. “I treated this like ‘hood Shakespeare. If you’re going to do Romeo and Juliet, there’s a few things that have to happen. Two groups of people don’t get along, two of the people from each group fall in love, a curse on both your houses, and then they die tragically. … You’ve seen all the different iterations of Romeo and Juliet, but they stick to those points. That is how I treated this. The city does not matter. There’s a bunch of s— that does not matter. What matters is Priest gets into an altercation with some kind of drug-related people that inspires him to want to leave the game. He goes to his mentor. He gets caught up with some cops. Freddie’s dead. You know what I’m saying? Now we’re hitting. This is the SuperFly story. That was the mindset.”

One thing that audiences likely will appreciate about this film is that it’s helping to give black films diversity. There’s representation on camera — and not for nothing, it’s introducing a new potential star in Jackson, who is best known from Freeform’s successful, inaugural season of Grown-ish, the A Different Worldlike spinoff of ABC’s black-ish.

“We need some antiheroes,” said Director X. “I love The Sopranos. It’s insane how much we love Tony Soprano with all the evil s— he did over six or seven seasons. We need that diversity of characters as well. We deserve a mindless action movie too.”

‘Evidence of Innocence’ on TV One tells the stories of the wrongfully convicted Almost half of exonerated prisoners are African-American

Lisa Roberts was always high-energy and athletic. Growing up in Boston and Palatka, Florida, she played basketball and volleyball and ran track. She then joined the Army, where she trained as a mechanic, hooped and played flag football and softball. She weighed just 123 pounds, but she later got into powerlifting.

“I was an itty-bitty thing,” she says now, “but I was strong.”

That was long ago, before Roberts left the service, fell into what authorities called a volatile love triangle and ended up pleading guilty to a murder she did not commit. She was locked up for 12 years before new analysis of DNA evidence raised doubts about whether she had actually strangled her girlfriend, and a federal judge found that her lawyer had offered ineffective counsel. She was released from an Oregon prison in 2014.

The story of Roberts’ imprisonment and the work she has done to rebuild her life is featured in a new documentary series, Evidence of Innocence, premiering June 4 on TV One. The show, hosted by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, casts a revealing light on one of the grossest injustices regularly produced by the nation’s flawed criminal justice system: the incarceration of the innocent.

“I call it ‘killing softly’ when you have these prosecutors who knowingly, spitefully, illegally, immorally send poor, majority black and brown people to prison for crimes they know, or should have known, they did not commit,” Crump said.

The innocent are sent to jail in alarming numbers. In the past three decades, 2,215 prisoners have been exonerated after going to prison, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a collaboration between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University law schools and the University of California, Irvine. Crump suspects that figure captures only a fraction of the problem.

On average, those proved to have been wrongfully convicted served nearly nine years before being freed. Forty-six percent of prisoners who were later exonerated were black, the registry said, although African-Americans make up just 12 percent of the nation’s population and 37 percent of the prison population.

In recent years, Crump has become one of the nation’s best-known civil rights attorneys, as he has worked on cases that helped ignite the Black Lives Matter movement and brought new scrutiny of the criminal justice system. His clients have included the families of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old killed by a neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Florida; Michael Brown, the 18-year-old killed in a confrontation with a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old killed by police in Cleveland while holding a toy gun; and Corey Jones, the cousin of former NFL star Anquan Boldin who was killed by a plainclothes officer while he was waiting for a tow truck to pick up his disabled car in South Florida.

“When you get arrested, they say you are innocent until proven guilty. Well, I was guilty trying to prove myself innocent.”

“I always knew that the criminal justice system was terribly unfair and discriminatory, but until you get into the trenches and see how inherently racist and discriminatory the system is, you can’t even fathom it,” Crump said.

When it comes to incarcerating the innocent, the bias is not always obvious. It often lurks in law enforcement’s assumptions about the lifestyles of their targets or the neighborhoods they live in, the shortcuts authorities take to jail those they believe are guilty, or the inadequacy of legal representation for the poor.

Lisa Roberts spent 12 years in prison before being released in 2014 after new DNA evidence raised doubts about her guilt.

Courtesy of William Teesdale and Tricia Leishman

In Roberts’ case, police gathered what from some angles appeared to be compelling evidence against her. She was arrested on Aug. 16, 2002, nearly three months after the naked body of her lover, 25-year-old Jerri Williams, was found dumped in a Portland park.

Prosecutors said Williams, who had a history of drug use and prostitution, was the victim of a love triangle involving Roberts and another woman with whom Roberts had lived for years. They also pointed to witnesses who said that Roberts had a history of violence and had seen her punch, choke and threaten people.

As the case approached trial in 2004, prosecutors told the defense that an analysis of cellphone tower records placed Roberts near the park where Williams’ body was found on the morning of the murder. Her lawyer had hired an expert to do a separate cellphone tower analysis, but it was never completed.

While Roberts had maintained her innocence and said she had never been arrested before, the prosecution’s cell tower analysis was enough to make her accept a plea bargain. If she had gone to trial, she could have received a life sentence. Instead, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to a 15-year term.

“When you get arrested, they say you are innocent until proven guilty,” Roberts said. “Well, I was guilty trying to prove myself innocent. And there was no daggone way. So I took the plea bargain because I couldn’t see myself doing life.”

Two years after her guilty plea, she began a series of appeals. By 2008, her new lawyers had received DNA laboratory reports that cast doubt on Roberts’ guilt but weren’t conclusive. Later DNA testing on semen found in Williams’ body turned up two male profiles, including one of a man who was known to have badgered Williams to work for him as a prostitute. Then, crucially, a re-examination of the cellphone records concluded that the tower data was incapable of pinpointing Roberts’ location.

It wasn’t until 2014, after Roberts had served the lion’s share of her sentence, that a federal judge vacated her guilty plea. She was released from prison on May 28, 2014, and prosecutors dropped charges against her five days later.

“It didn’t feel like victory, but at least I have my freedom and my life,” said Roberts, who is now 53 and works at a commercial laundry in Portland. She relaxes by hiking, running and bike riding. “At least I don’t have any metal doors slamming behind me.”

Roberts let out a deep belly laugh when asked whether she received compensation from the state for her wrongful incarceration. “Excuse my language, but hell, no,” she said.