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

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

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

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

Courtesy of TIFF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIFF 2019: Contrasting visions of Africa in ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ and ‘Sweetness in the Belly’  Two films examine political and ethnic unrest in Rwanda and Ethiopia, with vastly different results

TORONTO — Director Atiq Rahimi (Earth and Ashes, The Patience Stone) has once again created a beautiful and disturbing work of cinema.

This time, it’s Our Lady of the Nile, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It’s a story about a Rwandan girls boarding school in 1973 that marries the nastiness and cruelty of Mean Girls with far higher stakes. When the school’s most privileged Hutu student, Gloriosa, decides to launch a crusade against Tutsis based on a lie she concocted to keep herself out of trouble, the result isn’t hurt feelings and stolen boyfriends — it’s murder based on ethnic hatred.

Adapted from Scholastique Mukasonga’s bestselling 2012 novel, Notre-Dame du Nil, the movie script by Rahimi and co-writer Ramata Sy is lush and complicated as it works through the way colonialism warped Rwanda, and how that shows up in a Catholic boarding school run by Belgian nuns.

Our Lady of the Nile foreshadows the genocide of nearly 1 million Tutsi Rwandans in 1994. Gloriosa (Albina Sydney Kirenga) is a member of the Hutu ethnic majority, which was ruling the country at the time. Her father is a Catholic priest overseeing the elite school where she is a student. The school has a quota system for the Tutsi minority. No more than 10 percent of the student body may be Tutsi, and so only two girls in Gloriosa’s class are part of the minority, Veronica (Clariella Bizimana) and Virginia (Amanda Mugabekazi). One other girl, Modesta (Belinda Rubango Simbi), has a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother, but she keeps her mother’s ethnicity secret to avoid being ostracized. Only her best friend, Gloriosa, knows and she’s constantly pushing Modesta to redeem her “dirty” mixture of blood.

Rabid with hatred, Gloriosa sets a mission for herself and Modesta. There is a statue of a black Virgin Mary in a waterfall near the school, but Gloriosa thinks it has a “minority” nose that makes her look Tutsi. When their clothes get muddy attempting to get to the statue, Gloriosa tells the head nun that a group of Tutsi men tried to kidnap and rape her and Modesta. It’s not long before a Hutu reign of terror is implemented. When Gloriosa then tries to replace the Virgin’s nose with a “majority” nose — again, in secret — she fails, and instead, the statue appears to have been vandalized. Again, the Tutsis are blamed.

A scene from Atiq Rahimi’s Our Lady of the Nile.

Courtesy of TIFF

Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, Rahimi fills Our Lady of the Nile with beauty in every frame. He does not begin with deadly violence, but builds to it through four acts: “Innocence,” “Sacred,” “Sacrilege,” and finally, “Sacrifice.” He also shows immense compassion toward the Tutsi minority girls of the school, especially through the eyes of a character named Fontenaille (Pascal Greggory), a French artist who lives in the hills and has built a pyramid on top of the grave of the Tutsi queen Nyiramongi. The Tutsi schoolgirls Veronica and Virginia, unaccustomed to such admiration, label him “crazy,” and an “old pagan.”

Rahimi’s shots of remote mountains and hillsides are lovely. But Rahimi goes beyond, offering moments of surrealism when Veronica gets high drinking a concoction that Fontenaille gives her before he paints her portrait, and a brief black-and-white dream vignette that pays homage to the French New Wave. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Rahimi’s debut feature, Earth and Ashes, won the Prix du Regard vers l’Avenir (“Looking to the future”) at Cannes in 2004.

It’s impossible not to notice the similarities between the genocide of Rwandan Tutsis and the scapegoating and murder of European Jews during World War II. Gloriosa’s calls for the assembly of a Militant Rwandan Youth sound awfully similar to the justifications that led to the inception of the Hitler Youth. Her father only eggs her on, calling her “Joan of Arc.”

When Virginia is desperately looking for a safe place to hide as Hutu soldiers storm through the campus looking for Tutsis, a Hutu friend, Imaculeé (Belinda Rubango), hides her in a pile of laundry and instructs her not to move. But Virginia peeks out, and she’s discovered by a Hutu soldier who orders her to strip off her clothes so that he can rape her. Virginia escapes by killing the soldier, but not before he brands her chest. Viriginia is marked, similar to how Jews were required to wear yellow badges that read “Jude” in Nazi Germany.

With Our Lady of the Nile, Rahimi has created more than a story of how genocide begins, because he never allows the film to turn into suffering porn. Instead, he illustrates how easily countrymen and women can turn against each other, all based on a lie and the creation of a scapegoat.

Dakota Fanning (left) as Lilly Abdal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (right) as Aziz in Sweetness in the Belly.

Courtesy of TIFF

Sweetness in the Belly

Well, here’s something you don’t see every day: a film about a white woman born in England, abandoned by her hippie parents in Morocco at age 7 and raised by a Sufi cleric, who finds her way back to her birth country as an adult as a refugee fleeing the violence of the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974.

That is the story of Lilly Abdal, the main character of Sweetness in the Belly, adapted from the bestselling 2006 novel by Canadian author Camilla Gibbs. Dakota Fanning stars as Lilly, and the film traces her life as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Muslim who is more familiar with the customs of northern Africa than anything to do with England.

After she moves to Harar, Ethiopia, as an adult, Lilly falls in love with a local doctor, Aziz (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). They’re both involved in the underground resistance to the Derg, the military junta that overthrows Emperor Haile Selassie. When Selassie falls, Lilly flees to England and makes a new life for herself. Her beloved, Aziz, chooses to stay in Ethiopia and is later imprisoned and executed.

Directed by Zeresenay Mehari, Sweetness in the Belly is lovely to look at, but also anodyne in the way that seems to plague big-budget films about white ladies in Africa. Thematically, Sweetness in the Belly overlaps with another film from earlier in Fanning’s career: The Secret Life of Bees, an adaptation of the novel by Sue Monk Kidd. It, too, is a movie about a white girl named Lily (one “l,” not two) who is failed by her parents, gets taken in by kindly black strangers, and falls in love with a black boy. It takes place in the fictional town of Sylvan, South Carolina, in 1964, in the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

It would not surprise me if Sweetness in the Belly gets labeled as “Habesha Green Book” given that it contains a few similar beats. For instance, Lilly is far more of a devout Muslim than Aziz — she worries about being denied entry into paradise for sleeping with, or even kissing him when the two aren’t married. Aziz is far less dogmatic.

When Lilly escapes to England, the government immediately places her in a one-bedroom apartment in Brixton. She offers her bedroom to a fellow refugee, Amina (Wunmi Mosaku) who has just given birth to a baby conceived in a refugee camp.

Amina and Aziz offer Lilly gentle reminders of her whiteness. Aziz is curious about her simply because she doesn’t look like anyone else in Harar. But that’s as far as it goes. There’s no real investment when it comes to interrogating how Lilly’s whiteness and her connections to the Ethiopian resistance affect those around her. A few throwaway lines add about as much depth as a London rain puddle.

“Must be nice, having this place all to yourself,” Amina remarks the first time she sees Lilly’s apartment.

“Well, I didn’t ask for it,” Lilly responds.

“You didn’t have to,” Amina says.

The shallow focus isn’t limited to questions of race. Laura Phillips’ script never really delves into how much Lilly is affected by being abandoned by her parents when it comes to issues surrounding attachment or her ability to trust others.

Though Lilly is white, in some ways she’s treated like an immigrant in her “home” country. Her training as a nurse in Ethiopia is not regarded as legitimate experience when she applies for a job in a London hospital. She’s finally hired when she convinces the administrator interviewing her that it might be useful to have a staffer who speaks Arabic and Amharic to translate, given the influx of Ethiopian refugees.

Fanning is by far the biggest name attached to Sweetness in the Belly, and it may be that it was easier to find financing for a film set against the Ethiopian Revolution because a well-known white actress was at the center of the story. Still, the assumption that the presence of a white name is the only way to get people to pay attention to a film about Ethiopia is frustrating and limiting.

Sweetness in the Belly has its moments of grace, and director of photography Tim Fleming has a lovely eye for capturing the beauty of a range of skin tones. But for a complicated story set during even more complicated times, Sweetness in the Belly just feels altogether too simple.

TIFF 2019: ‘Clemency’ and ‘Just Mercy’ offer two differing perspectives on death row One asks us to put ourselves in the position of a warden. The other follows a lawyer seeking justice.

TORONTO — Two films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival offer different perspectives of how death row affects those closest to it when people are wrongly sentenced to die.

Clemency is the sophomore feature effort from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who also directed the 2012 film alaskaLand. It stars Alfre Woodard as Bernadine, a prison warden who grows more and more conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners. It’s bad enough when Bernadine witnesses an execution via lethal injection that turns into a moment of torture, first when the emergency medical technician administering the IV cannot find a vein, and then when the drugs take longer to work than they’re supposed to, leaving the prisoner in agony.

Alfre Woodard as Bernadine Williams in Clemency, is a prison warden who grows conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners.

courtesy of TIFF

Then, Bernadine struggles to reconcile what it means to be good at her job with her own opinions, as she follows the case of another death row inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). As it becomes clear to Bernadine that Anthony is probably innocent, she tries to maintain order and composure in her prison. But the energy it takes to maintain her professional demeanor at work means that something else must be sacrificed, and in Bernadine’s case, it’s her marriage. The more her husband (Wendell Pierce) attempts to get close to her, the more she pulls away. Bernadine must ask herself: Is it possible to be ethical, to be empowered, when being skilled at one’s job means ensuring that the state’s unjust decisions are completed with order and clockwork precision?

Then there’s Just Mercy from director Destin Daniel Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster, Short Term 12). Co-produced by star Michael B. Jordan and Macro, the company of former William Morris agent Charles D. King. If Clemency is an examination of the toll of complicity, Just Mercy is a journey into the psychic and spiritual rewards and pitfalls of fighting injustice. It tells the story of a real-life civil rights hero: Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson is probably best known as the person behind the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, but he has spent decades working to free innocent men, most of them black, from death row.

While it’s rewarding work, it’s not easy, which Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, learns firsthand when he moves to Monroe County, Alabama, after graduating from Harvard Law. Stevenson tries to get a stay of execution for Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the war, he was a hero, an expert at defusing bombs. But back home and neglected by the country he served, Herbert ends up listening to the voices in his head telling him to build an explosive. He kills a woman, and then the state of Alabama moves to kill him. The possibility of sending Herbert to a mental institution, which is where he truly belongs, never even materializes.

For Stevenson, witnessing Herbert’s execution crystallizes the urgency of his work, and he dives even more deeply into trying to save another man, Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx). McMillan has been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there is to support McMillan’s innocence because a white girl is dead, McMillan is black, and another prisoner, in exchange for prosecutorial leniency, has given a statement saying McMillan was responsible.

The real reason McMillan is in prison is because the white people of Monroe County were looking for an excuse to lock him up after a white man discovered McMillan having a consensual affair with the man’s wife. Just Mercy exposes how the cogs of the Alabama justice system line up to condemn McMillan to death — from prosecutors who disregard the truth to public defenders who barely do their jobs to sheriff’s officers who terrorize Monroe County’s black residents.

It’s a new twist on the old formula of Yankee lawyers who come to the South and find a wall of community resistance to racial equality and injustice, but it’s a powerful one. That’s especially true given how the film’s screenwriters (Cretton and Andrew Lanham) contrast the real-life Stevenson and Monroe County’s most famous legal hero, Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ultimately, both Clemency and Just Mercy continue the work of highlighting racial inequality in the justice system, leaving their viewers disturbed and impatient for change.

With ‘Brian Banks’ and ‘Clemency,’ actor Aldis Hodge finds the humanity in men society wants to discard ‘Banks’ tells the story of a football star falsely accused of rape

Aldis Hodge has the kind of face that makes you squint and try to place where you’ve seen him before.

Because you’ve seen him before. A lot.

But now, you’re about to see him.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that.”— Brian Banks on actor Aldis Hodge

At 32, Hodge has a long list of acting credits under his belt. He started off as a kid, along with his brother, Edwin, playing small unnamed roles like “Masked teen” and “Basketball teen #2” and “Graduate #1.” He’s had brief roles on NYPD Blue, ER and Cold Case, and he’s also been in cult favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Things began to shift in 2006 when he earned a role in the critically acclaimed high school football drama Friday Night Lights. Portraying Ray “Voodoo” Tatum, the quarterback who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he got the chance to show the emotional complexity he could bring to a character on a large stage. That led to a role on TNT’s Leverage, which ran for five seasons and had him working alongside Timothy Hutton.

And now — finally! — he has a leading role in a film.

In the film, Aldis Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Brian Banks’ life.

Everett Collection

Opening on Aug. 9 is Brian Banks, the true tale of a former high school football star whose dreams of playing in the NFL were derailed by a false rape accusation.

This role is yet another indication that Hodge is on the brink of being the next big thing. Just please don’t call him that. Not to his face, at least.

“People have been telling me for years the thing that I could not stand. They’re like, ‘Yo, man, you next!’ I’m like, ‘Y’all have been telling me that for 10 years!’ ” he says before breaking into a quick laugh. “They’re well-meaning, absolutely well-meaning, but they don’t understand. For an artist who continually sees next, next, next, but you see all these other people come up in that time that they tell you, ‘Next.’ There’s a whole wave of cats coming up, but you’re like, ‘How long am I going to be next?’ ”


Coming later this year is more excellent work from Hodge in Clemency, a film that is already making critics’ short lists for award competitions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor — the exact state is unidentified — will grant him clemency. The story was inspired by the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, who was convicted of and executed for the Aug. 19, 1989, murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. The case attracted widespread attention, including pleas for clemency from former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former FBI director William Sessions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor will grant him clemency.

Eric Branco

Although we’ve seen Hodge toiling on the small screen and in films for nearly 25 years, this moment and these two films mean Hodge is a name to be remembered.

In other words, Hodge acts his behind off. In Clemency, Hodge impresses alongside veteran Alfre Woodard, who plays the prison warden, and Juilliard-trained Danielle Brooks as the condemned man’s estranged partner — both of whom could hear their names nominated for top honors early next year.

Both Clemency and Brian Banks are films that you want to talk about and, in some cases, may make you want to get active after you see them. The real connective tissue, at least as of late, is stories where Hodge gets to find the humanity in characters who might normally be seen as inhumane.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 2 years old,” Hodge says. “Back when I was 14, I [said] that I want to stop taking particular types of roles. The stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people, and I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.”

“I want to stop taking particular types of roles, the stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people by culture is, right? And I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.” — Aldis Hodge

Hodge says he finally assembled the right team to help him find such stories. Not all of the roles he brings to life affect social change, but simply portraying a diverse representation of black men, he says, ultimately helps move the needle for how black men are treated in real life.

“Like my role on Leverage. It was a fun action show. It was cool, but I played a very intelligent hacker, and to me that spoke to truth because they saw the black man playing the hacker,” Hodge says. “My father used to take apart and build computers. That’s normal in the black community, but we don’t see it represented all the time. So for me, that was truth that hadn’t been exposed in that way.

“I’m an actor. I’m not a type of actor, not a dramatic actor, not a comedic actor. I can do whatever, whenever, however. … If we’re going to be funny, how can we make it better? How can we give the audience a better experience? If we’re going to do drama, how can I engage the idea of being with it all? Emotional impact in a completely new way that the audience hasn’t really seen yet?”


Hodge has been in films before: Hidden Figures (the husband of aerospace engineer Mary Jackson), Straight Outta Compton (as MC Ren) and most recently What Men Want (as the love interest to Taraji P. Henson’s sports agent). He laughs pretty hard when I remind him he once starred alongside LeBron James in a 2011 State Farm commercial. (“Back in the day!”)

But carrying the title character in Brian Banks? That’s major.

The real Brian Banks, who is now 34, knew he had found the man to play him in the movie almost immediately.

“Aldis was the first actor that was presented to me as one who would play me in this film. And I remember him most from Underground. And what he did with Underground was very powerful. I’ve seen him in Big Momma’s House, back when he was young, playing basketball, Straight Outta Compton and Leverage,” Banks said.

“And then, after meeting him, the first thing he told me was, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that. Hearing that from him, it really said a lot about him. It said a lot about his methods as far as how he was going to tap into the story.”

Banks’ story is well-known. He was wrongfully convicted of rape at age 16 and spent nearly six years imprisoned and five years on parole, during which he had to wear a GPS tracking device and register as a sex offender. His conviction was overturned in 2012 after the classmate who had accused him confessed that she made up the incident.

Before he was accused, Banks had verbally committed to USC during his junior year at Long Beach’s Polytechnic High School. His teammates there were future NFL players DeSean Jackson, Darnell Bing, Winston Justice and Marcedes Lewis.

Brian Banks attends a special screening of Bleecker Street’s Brian Banks on July 31 in Long Beach, California.

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

After Banks was exonerated, he once again began to pursue the professional football career he’d dreamed of as a kid. After several tryouts with NFL teams, Banks began playing for the Las Vegas team in the UFL in 2012, but the league suspended the season because of “mounting debt” after he had played in only two games. The following year, Banks was signed by the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played in four preseason games at linebacker before being released. In 2014, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked him to speak to league rookies, and he then joined the NFL as a manager in the Football Operations Department and assisted the Officiating Department on game days.

In the film, Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Banks’ life.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three-dimensional character,” says Sherri Shepherd, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother. “There were scenes where every time you see him talk to his parole officer … and I just … I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had … a searching, ‘Please help me, protect me,’ that he had.”

“Those stories gravitate towards me,” Hodge says. “I played basketball, terribly, on a league from 14 years old on up. But my real sport, growing up, was fighting.”

“I still train in martial arts to this day. But I used to compete with southern Shaolin kung fu, and then I moved up to wushu and jeet kune do, taking it to the traditionalist Chinese styles. I do a little bit of capoeira. And then … Philippine knife and stick fighting. And then also Muay Thai, which I love. … I absolutely love fighting. I love the physicality, the capability of what we can do with our bodies.”


Given the critical response to Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us, Hodge’s two new films and an Emmett Till series coming to ABC, it feels like a moment.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three dimensional character. I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had. … a searching, ‘please help me, protect me’ that he had.” — Sherri Shepard, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother

“I think that people are starting to finally understand just how serious this space of wrongful conviction really is,” Banks says. “We have a judicial system that ideally we like to protect the innocent and keep our citizens safe. But often, it happens where the wrong person is locked up, the wrong person is prosecuted. And to just imagine losing life, losing time that you will never get back for something that you didn’t do. Being placed in a cage like an animal for a crime you didn’t commit, watching the dismantling of your family and connection and bond that you have to friends and so forth, and your community. I think that people are starting to really see and understand that this is a very serious subject, just like any other serious subject that we give so much time, attention and money to.

“There are so many people in this world that are uninformed about these types of traumatic experiences and things that go on. So I think that we have to be creative and innovative in a way to where we turn these real-life stories into works of art and some pieces of film so that people that are uninformed, that choose not to be informed, they will be informed by way of being entertained, going to see a movie and then learning something about their city, their community, their society, and hopefully be provoked to want to see change.”

And that’s the work that inspires an actor like Hodge.

“When it comes to digging into these roles, the harder it gets for the characters, and the more honest we get about the situations, the more excited I get,” Hodge says. “I get excited about those because people can see the truth. And what excites me most about these is that we are dignifying and honoring the characters that we play from a point of respect and deference.”

“And then, when I see people are affected, the thing that triggers in my mind is, ‘Oh, now we’ve hit them in the heart space!’ And, hopefully, in the mental space. Hopefully, these people can go out and leave here affected enough to help improve the situation that they just came from watching. Right?”

Is Halle Berry finally done paying for ‘Catwoman’? When the movie came out 15 years ago, she was Hollywood royalty. It’s been a long road back.

On July 23, 2004, Catwoman, starring Halle Berry, was released on an unsuspecting public. Intended as a summer blockbuster that would cement Berry’s position as a premier talent in Hollywood, it was a disaster. Universally panned, it lost millions and delivered a body blow to a career that had reached unprecedented heights of mainstream success and critical acclaim. Fifteen years later, Berry is still recovering from it.

Looking back, it’s hard to remember how big a star Berry was up until the day Catwoman was released: From 2000 to 2003, she had major roles in four films that topped the box office: 2000’s X-Men, 2001’s Swordfish, 2002’s Bond flick Die Another Day and 2003’s X2: X-Men United. In 2000, she won an Emmy, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe for her title role in HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Then she won the Oscar for best actress for Monster’s Ball, making her the first — and, to this day, the only — black woman to win that award. Not to mention she topped People magazine’s list of the “50 Most Beautiful People” in 2003. Berry had reached the rarefied air of box-office superstardom and critical praise. It seemed as though any role she could ever want lay in front of her.

Then it all fell apart.

From 2000 to 2003, Berry had major roles in four films that topped the box office: 2000’s X-Men, 2001’s Swordfish, 2002’s Die Another Day (seen here) and 2003’s X2: X-Men United.

MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

Catwoman was flayed by fans and critics alike. Roger Ebert named it one of his most hated films of all time, and it earned only a fraction of its $100 million-plus budget. Berry’s career would soon turn into a series of calamities and quizzical choices. She endured the consequences of a truism that’s far too evident in America: Black women don’t get excused for their missteps, bombs or losses.

But the actress’ career may have finally course-corrected this summer. Berry co-starred with Keanu Reeves in John Wick 3, which saw her return to the action star form we thought we would be getting since she popped out of the ocean in Die Another Day. Berry whipped around electric one-liners. She was sexy as only she can be. And she kicked a bounty of butt. The movie finished No. 1 at the box office on the weekend it opened in May and has made more than $316 million worldwide so far.

She’s currently executive producing the BET series Boomerang, an update of the 1992 film in which she co-starred with Eddie Murphy and Robin Givens. Later this year she’ll make her directorial debut in the martial arts thriller Bruised alongside John Wick producer Basil Iwanyk.

These endeavors are reminders that Berry’s career is one defined by resilience and talent while being complicated by the intersection of race and extraordinary beauty. If there was any question before, there shouldn’t be now: At 52, Halle Berry has still got it.


Berry’s cinematic beginnings exemplified the tightrope act of navigating Hollywood as a gorgeous black woman. “I came from the world of beauty pageants and modeling,” she told W magazine in 2016. She was the first black woman to represent the United States in the Miss World competition in 1986. “And right away when people heard that, I got discounted as an actor.”

So when Berry was approached by upstart director Spike Lee in 1989 to read for his movie Jungle Fever, she decided to break the stereotype of a pretty face with minimal acting chops. While Lee asked Berry to audition for the role of his wife, Berry wanted to play Vivian, the crack addict.

The result was a landmark appearance that is equal parts tragic and hilarious. A strung-out Vivian debuts opposite of Samuel L. Jackson by yelling 14 derivatives of “m—–f——” in 28 seconds.

“It was an amazing way to start my career, playing a crack ho, be directed by Spike Lee. It was major for me,” she continued in 2016. “It was intentional to not play the gorgeous girl. … I took on roles early on that really didn’t rely on my physical self at all and that was a good way to sort of get some credibility within my industry.”

Berry’s next breakout performance leaned into her beauty. She played the unforgettable Angela in the black excellence extravaganza Boomerang. The movie, directed by Reginald Hudlin, was Berry’s emergence as a sex symbol. Her ability to tame Murphy’s suave playboy character and break David Alan Grier’s nerdy heart was both believable and captivating. Ebert, who gave the movie three stars, said Berry was “so warm and charming you want to cuddle her.” Variety called the movie “an ill-fitting comedy vehicle that’s desperately in need of a reality check” but said Berry was “alluring throughout.”

But Boomerang wasn’t concerned with white audiences or critics. Her character’s short haircut sent black women across America rushing to salons to request the “Halle Berry cut” and helped make her a black household name.

Her legend in black homes grew with her performance in the TV miniseries Queen, based on Alex Haley’s real-life ancestry. Berry was so moved by the story of Haley’s mixed-race heritage and its reflection of her own past — her mother is white and her father is black — she paid her way to New York to audition. “They were talking about the African-American people in Roots,” Berry said in a 1993 interview with Entertainment Weekly, “and about the white people, the plantation owners, but I remember thinking then, ‘What about the people like me who are mixed?’ Queen directly addressed this for me.”

For her performance in the 1999 HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Berry won an Emmy, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe in 2000.

HBO / Courtesy: Everett Collection

Berry was gaining black fans, becoming recognized as one of the most gorgeous women in pop culture and married star baseball player David Justice, yet white Hollywood still had no clue what to do with her. She would spend the next five years fighting for roles that allowed her to show off her skill as an actor while still seeking roles that showed off her beauty. Often, those roles were mutually exclusive.

Yet she always had an eye toward breaking boundaries for black people in Hollywood. For instance, when she played the cartoonish, seductive secretary in 1994’s The Flintstones, she saw it as an opportunity to include black actors in American staples: I thought it was very important that the black community be represented in such an American film,” she said in 1995. “Children need to see us in movies like that. The beauty of the role was that color wasn’t even mentioned. I played a black woman who was beautiful, an object of desire. That puts us on equal footing.”

Then when she was called on to act, she was playing a crack addict, again, in Losing Isaiah, a role she, again, had to fight for to prove she could act. “Paramount didn’t want me,” she said during a press interview for the movie. “They didn’t think I could shed the outer part of myself, or that I could go deep enough. … I just don’t want to be typecast as a crackhead or as a glamour girl. I want to do it all.”

That led to her only comedic lead, 1997’s B*A*P*S, directed by Robert Townsend. The movie was widely panned, but it proved that Berry, often in long, audacious nails and hair that stood a foot above her head, could be hilarious in a physical comedy while maintaining her drop-dead gorgeous looks. But she has never been allowed to revisit that type of movie in her career.

Which is why Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, the 1999 HBO movie, was such a monumental accomplishment for Berry: It showed every facet of her talent. She was engrossing yet vulnerable, charismatic yet downtrodden. Like a star athlete finally finding the right system in which to show off his or her talents, Introducing (as well as another black cult classic, 1998’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love) seemed made for Berry to put up MVP numbers. She could show depth as an actor without having to be an addict or homeless. She could be beautiful and talented. The ultimate shame, however, is that these roles are few and far between for talented actresses like Berry.

Berry played Storm in the X-Men movies, which catapulted her to a summer blockbuster star.

20th Century Fox Film Corp

This is the perception of how Hollywood treats its black female stars. They rarely get to be Emma Stone in La La Land, donning high fashion while dancing and singing their way to best actress awards. Jennifer Hudson’s best supporting actress win for Dreamgirls in 2006 is an outlier, because for every one of those awards, there’s Lupita Nyong’o winning best supporting actress for playing a slave or Octavia Spencer’s Oscar-winning role as a maid in The Help.

Berry is no different, and she’s even more blatant an example of this dynamic because her beauty has been so tied to any discussion about her career. Her Golden Globe, Emmy and Screen Actors Guild awards for playing Dorothy Dandridge is an exception to her career when it should have always been the rule.

That star turn kicked off the blazing run from 2000 to 2003. In the X-Men movies, she played Storm, maybe the most recognized black superhero in the world at the time. The movies were seen by millions, and she was a bona fide summer blockbuster star.

Die Another Day and Swordfish (which featured a controversial topless scene) showed that she could be the femme fatale who fans would flock to see. She could finally appear on screen as the desirable figure she’d been painted as in the tabloids.

“I’ve never really explored that part of myself on screen before,” she told cinema.com in 2001. “That’s what was really exciting, and that made me get over the nudity really quickly. Because I saw this as an opportunity to take a black woman to another place where we haven’t gone before. That’s been my struggle to be just a woman in a movie and not let the fact that I’m black hinder me from getting parts that only my white counterparts are able to play.”

Still, a year later, Berry was being critically acclaimed for playing a drug addict in Monster’s Ball, this time winning the Academy Award.

Berry accepts her Oscar for best performance by an actress in a leading role for Monster’s Ball during the 74th Academy Awards on March 24, 2002.

Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

“This moment is so much bigger than me,” she started in her oft-replayed acceptance speech. “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me … and it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”

The celebration over her win was quickly replaced with debates over what types of black roles win awards, especially as it came in tandem with Denzel Washington winning the Oscar for best actor for Training Day a decade after getting snubbed for playing Malcolm X. “Why Halle have to let a white man pop her to get a Oscar? Why Denzel have to be crooked before he took it?” Jadakiss famously rapped on his hit 2004 single “Why?”

Even Angela Bassett, whom Berry name-checked in her speech, was critical of the role in a 2002 interview with EW: “I wasn’t going to be a prostitute on film,” she said. “I couldn’t do that because it’s such a stereotype about black women and sexuality. Film is forever. It’s about putting something out there you can be proud of 10 years later. I mean, Meryl Streep won Oscars without all that.”


And in just two years, Berry’s Oscar didn’t matter. Her crossover fame didn’t matter. Her box-office numbers didn’t matter. All that mattered was Catwoman. There is no revisionist history that will save this movie. It’s one of the worst things to ever happen on film, complete with one of the worst sports scenes in cinematic history.

On Feb. 26, 2005, Berry took the stage for another awards ceremony. This time she wasn’t in awe. She was instead taking the embarrassment in stride, bringing her 2002 Oscar with her to the stage in a massive flex move. The award? The Golden Raspberry, or Razzie, for worst actress for her role in Catwoman.

“You know, it was just what my career needed, you know? I was at the top, and then Catwoman just plummeted me to the bottom. Love it. It’s hard being on top, it’s much better being on the bottom.”

But movies such as Catwoman shouldn’t be a death sentence for any actor, especially one with Berry’s resume. Name an actor and you’ll find movies comparable to the failed superhero flick on their IMDb page.

But Berry had a hard time recovering. The 15 years since Catwoman have essentially been a series of box-office disappointments (2012’s Cloud Atlas and 2013’s Movie 43), critical disasters (2007’s Perfect Stranger) and even a Steven Spielberg-produced TV series, Extant, that was swiftly canceled after two seasons of abysmal ratings. Even if Catwoman proved Berry was too toxic or inept to carry an action franchise, there’s no reason she couldn’t enjoy a second act to her career in her late 30s and 40s. Where, for instance, were her slew of rom-coms a la Jennifer Lopez? Why hasn’t she been able to crack into the same spaces as, say, Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock, who continue to be leading ladies as they’ve aged? Race may be a factor:

“What’s hardest for me to swallow,” she told The New York Times in 2002, ”is when there is a love story, say, with a really high-profile male star and there’s no reason I can’t play the part. They say, ‘Oh, we love Halle, we just don’t want to go black with this part.’ What enrages me is that those are such racist statements, but the people saying them don’t think they are. I’ve had it said right to my face.”

But when one looks at her black peers, questions and answers become more complicated. What has stopped Berry from getting the roles that contemporaries such as Regina King and Viola Davis are managing to pull in theaters and Netflix? Maybe that’s not even a fair question to ask. But Hollywood superficiality, or her own career mismanagement, have derailed a career that once looked unstoppable.

Berry, seen here in John Wick 3, has always been a black pioneer who fought to break as many boundaries as she could.

Mark Rodgers

Maybe, it is hoped, Berry can finally enjoy her long-awaited, overdue and more than deserved renaissance. In 2016, she joined Instagram and Twitter, posting pics that double as reminders that she’s still as fine as ever. Earlier this year, Berry went viral while on the red carpet for John Wick 3 for making sure that black reporters got time to speak with her. The moment reminded everyone that Berry has always been a black pioneer who fought to break as many boundaries as she could. Then there was her performance in the movie — she was the Halle Berry we thought we’d be able to see after Catwoman: intense, action-packed, emotive and scene-stealing. It was a reminder that Berry was once Hollywood’s most talked-about superstar and she absolutely earned it. We saw the unfulfilled promise of a woman who played an X-Woman and Dorothy Dandridge in a year’s span. The woman who yelled, “M—–f—–!” with Samuel L. Jackson and traded insults with Eddie Murphy.

We never should have gone 15 years between iconic Halle Berry Hollywood runs, but the drought needs to end. She can be the hilarious lead. She can be the romantic comedy star. She can be the gun-toting superhero. She can be the mother, the ex, the wife, the businesswoman, the cop, the CIA agent. Anything. It’s time for Berry’s return to prominence. She deserves it, and there’s a lot of lost time to make up for.

Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ led him to Jim Crow Florida His new novel, ‘The Nickel Boys,’ is based on a real reform school notorious for its brutality

Elwood and Turner, the adolescent protagonists of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, become fast friends at a brutal, segregated reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, but they are opposites. Elwood is bookish, optimistic and gullible. While working in a hotel kitchen before being sent to the Nickel Academy, Elwood gets duped into dishwashing “competitions,” ending up doing the work of his older, wised-up peers. At home, he listens again and again to a Martin Luther King Jr. oration — “containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be” — and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision he waits expectantly, and in vain, for a black man to enter the hotel’s whites-only dining room and sit down for a meal.

Turner is already at Nickel when Elwood arrives, so he knows how the world works. Turner, Whitehead writes, “was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls upon a creek — it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current.”

Colson Whitehead says he sees himself in the two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, in his book “The Nickel Boys.”

Penguin Random House

Whitehead, who is 49, says he sees himself in both boys. We were having lunch at a diner on New York’s Upper West Side, where the author spent his high school years. He recently moved back to the neighborhood after 18 years in Brooklyn. “It’s really boring and the food’s terrible, but we don’t go out much and my wife’s parents live here,” he said.

The idea for the novel came in 2014, after Whitehead came across news reports about the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which serves as the model for the Nickel Academy. Throughout its 111-year history, Dozier, which shut down in 2011, was known for brutality: beatings, rapes and, yes, murder. Dozier was segregated, but there was one building, “The White House,” where both black boys and white boys would be taken for beatings and worse.

When he first read these accounts, Whitehead was writing The Underground Railroad, which was published in 2016 to wide acclaim. It has since won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and it is being adapted into an Amazon series by Barry Jenkins. The novel follows an enslaved woman’s escape from antebellum Georgia. It’s a haunting, brutal, hallucinatory journey set against the backdrop of several fantastical conceits, including the central one: What if the Underground Railroad were, in fact, a real subterranean railroad?

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book,” Whitehead told me. “The Nickel Boys was a departure because I had just finished Underground.” He was planning to write a detective novel, but current events intervened.

“It was the spring of 2017 and Trump was trying to get his Muslim ban, and I was angry and discouraged by the rhetoric you’d see at his rallies,” Whitehead said. “I hadn’t written anything for a year and a half, and it was time to get back to work. I could do the detective novel or The Nickel Boys. I thought that with the optimistic figure of Elwood and the more cynical character of Turner I could draw on my own confusion about where we were going as a country.”

Unlike with The Underground Railroad, for which Whitehead drew upon stories from former slaves collected by the New Deal-funded Federal Writers’ Project and other historical accounts, there are living survivors of Dozier.

“It was a horrible place,” said Jerry Cooper, president of The Official White House Boys Association, an alumni group of sorts for the abused. Cooper, who is white, said, “We didn’t have interaction with the black boys, aside from maybe when we saw them bringing produce to the cafeteria. They were in one area of the campus, and the whites were another. And if the guards caught you interacting, you’d be sent to the White House — no matter your color.”

Cooper, who was at Dozer in 1961, told me African Americans may have had it worse overall because their work detail involved toiling in fields under the burning Florida sun. “But there wasn’t any difference in the beatings,” he said.

Cooper recalled a 2 a.m. trip to the White House, where he was placed facedown on a mattress and given 135 lashes with a 3-foot leather strap. “I passed out at around 70, but a boy waiting outside for his punishment kept count,” he said. “I still have the scars. That night I realized what it must have been like to have been a slave.”


But neither Cooper nor his ancestors were slaves. Many of Whitehead’s ancestors were.

His mother’s side of the family hailed from Virginia. Her father was named Colson, as was another enslaved forebear, “who bought himself out of slavery,” Whitehead said. His father’s side of the family was rooted in Georgia and Florida — “there’s an ancestor on that side from whom I got the name Turner” — while his paternal grandmother emigrated from Barbados through Ellis Island in the 1920s.

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book. ‘The Nickel Boys’ was a departure because I had just finished ‘Underground.’” — Colson Whitehead

“A lot of my family history is lost to slavery,” Whitehead said. “And some that’s out there, I didn’t know at the time of writing Underground.” After it was published, some of his cousins reached out to chide him. “They’d say, ‘Didn’t you know about this, and this and this, about our history?’ ”

Whitehead grew up in Manhattan to upper-middle-class parents and spent his summers at the family vacation home in an African American enclave of Sag Harbor, New York. “The first generation came from Harlem, Brownstone Brooklyn, inland Jersey islands of the black community,” writes Whitehead in his fourth book, Sag Harbor (2009), a semiautobiographical novel that captures a nerdy, carefree adolescence. “They were doctors, lawyers, city workers, teachers by the dozen. Undertakers. Respectable professions of need, after Jim Crow’s logic: White doctors won’t lay a hand on us, we have to heal ourselves; white people won’t throw dirt in our graves, we must bury ourselves.”

Whitehead’s mother’s family owned three funeral homes in New Jersey, and his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. His mother and father became the parents of two daughters, then Colson and a younger brother. On paper, it was a Cosby Show existence. But as Whitehead recently told Time: “My dad was a bit of a drinker, had a temper. His personality was sort of the weather in the house.” (There are two sad examples of such temper in Sag Harbor, including one in which the father repeatedly punches young Benji, the protagonist, in the face as an ill-conceived demonstration of standing up to racial taunting.)

Colson (right) grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s with his brother Clarke Whitehead (left) and their two sisters.

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

After attending private schools in New York City, Whitehead went to Harvard. Growing up, he had immersed himself in comic books and horror films. “I wanted to write horror, science fiction and comic books,” he said. “A lot of writers my age had similar influences,” he added, citing Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem. “Then, in late high school and college, I started to think, Maybe I don’t have to write about werewolves.”

He was approached by another young African American writer at Harvard, Kevin Young, who is now an accomplished poet, the poetry editor at The New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “I was working with a friend on reviving a black magazine from the 1970s, Diaspora, and she had met Cole and said he could be our new fiction editor,” Young said. “We hit it off instantly, and I published his first story.”

After college, Whitehead worked for five years at The Village Voice, eventually becoming the television critic. It was there he met writer-photographer Natasha Stovall, whom he married in 2000. (They later divorced.) He wrote a novel, but it was turned down by publishers and his agent dropped him.

“I was depressed,” Whitehead said. “But I wasn’t going to get a real job, and no one was going to write my books for me, so I understood I needed to get going. That’s really when I became a writer.”

His second effort, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and is set in a simulacrum of fedora-era New York, where there’s a war brewing within the city’s powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, the first black female inspector in the department, is tasked with investigating a mysterious elevator crash. The book was well-received, including comparisons to debut efforts by Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison.

In 2001, Whitehead published John Henry Days, a multilayered, encyclopedic narrative thematically tied to the legend of John Henry, the railroad laborer who is said to have bested a steam-powered drilling machine. The following year he won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Other novels (Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One), a historical exploration of his city (The Colossus of New York) and even a poker memoir (The Noble Hustle, spun off from a Grantland article), followed. But it was The Underground Railroad (with a boost from Oprah’s Book Club) that launched Whitehead into literary stardom.

“It’s been remarkable to see Cole’s journey both in terms of his writing and as a person,” said writer and publisher Richard Nash, whom Whitehead met at Harvard and to whom The Nickel Boys is dedicated. “I remember going to one of his readings for his first book, The Intuitionist, at a bookstore in Soho. His hands were shaking, he was so nervous. And now I fully expect in a few years you’ll see his name crop up on the betting lists for the Nobel Prize.

“Especially with the last two books, it’s clear that’s where he’s headed.”

Whitehead has his critics. In a stinging review of John Henry Days, The New Republic’s James Wood (now at The New Yorker) pointed out instances of sloppy writing, such as using “deviant” for “divergent” and “discreet” when the intended meaning was “discrete.” Wood went on to note that Whitehead “tends to excessively anthropomorphize his inanimate objects” to “squeeze as much metaphor from them as he can.” Whitehead returned the favor a few years later when he satirized Wood in a Harper’s Magazine essay.

But Whitehead’s style has evolved, and his writing has become more precise. In The Nickel Boys, the anthropomorphization is sparing and powerful, as when he describes the shackles employed on defenseless boys who were beaten to death: “Most of those who know the stories of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”


After our lunch, Whitehead said he was considering making chili for his family — his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, and 5-year-old son, Beckett. “It’s hot, but there’s something about chili, it’s so hearty and satisfying,” he said. Cooking is a passion, and he’s been perfecting his meat smoking skills at his new vacation home in East Hampton.

Colson Whitehead’s book, “The Underground Railroad,” launched him into literary stardom when it was published in 2016.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

When he was writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead said, he was struck by the parallels between the 1960s and today in terms of race relations. As a father myself, I was curious about how he broached the subject of race with his own children.

“It comes up more when we talk about police,” he said. “[My son is] really into cops and robbers. So when we’re walking around and he sees a police car with its sirens blaring, he’ll say, ‘They’re going to catch a robber.’ And I’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s an innocent man. Maybe it’s just a dark-skinned guy driving a nice car.’ ”

Whitehead couldn’t remember when his daughter first became aware of race — when she discovered that, to borrow a phrase from one Nobel Prize-winning writer, the world is what it is.

“That was a long time ago, and I can’t recall a particular moment,” Whitehead said. “But the thing is, everyone figures it out sometime.”

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

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

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

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

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

Alabama A&M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Foster Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Foster Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASA/MSFC

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Don Rutledge courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alabama A&M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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