A black neighborhood’s complicated relationship with the home of Preakness Baltimore’s storied horse race faces an uncertain future in the city

In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.

However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.

“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”

Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.

Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.

Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.

In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.

Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.

The 5100 block of Park Heights Ave is the closest thoroughfare to the race track. The area is in need of investment and redevelopment, and many shops are vacant or boarded up. The Preakness has not brought any significant opportunity to the area over the years.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.

If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.

Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.

City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.

Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.

Track workers prepare the track for the two weeks of racing to come as Preakness nears on the calendar. Pimlico race track is falling apart and the owners would rather take the historic race out of Baltimore than repair it. But who is left behind? The black community that surrounds Pimlico.

André Chung for The Undefeated

In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.

Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.

The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.

Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Melvin Ward, who grew up in the Park Heights neighborhood near Pimlico, is the owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food near the race track.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.

Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.

The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?

“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”

Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.

Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.

LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”

Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.

LaDonna Jones owns property near the track. Her cousin, Roderick Barnette helps her take care of it. Their views differ on whether or not the track should close. Jones wants it to stay but wants to see reinvestment into the community and Barnette would rather see it go because it’s never benefitted the community.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”

When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”

Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”

Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.

Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.

Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Matthew Cherry played briefly for the Baltimore Ravens.

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

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

But there was always a lesson to be learned.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if the NBA were player-owned? ‘High Flying Bird’ imagines the ultimate disruption In director Steven Soderbergh’s new film, the power struggle and activism across sports comes into focus

André Holland’s eyes were wide open.

A lifelong sports fan — college hoops and professional basketball strike his fancy — Holland enjoyed the game. Loved basketball. The mechanics of seeing larger-than-life players running the ball up and down the court, leaping in the sky and landing an on-the-mark hook shot, alley-oop, slam dunk, you name it, was the ultimate payoff.

Then came the recent college basketball protests. Then he picked up Harry Edwards’ 1968 The Revolt of the Black Athlete. And then, as they might say, Holland woke up. “The inequities in sports made me re-evaluate,” said the Alabama native, a transformative actor who has been in some of the best films of the past few years: 2013’s 42 (the Jackie Robinson biopic that introduced the world to Chadwick Boseman), Selma (Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. biopic) and Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight.

“[I] realized that there’s been a long history of athletic athlete activism,” said Holland, who had a nugget of a film idea. “I wanted to explore that and … do my part in pushing conversations forward.”

How he’s hoping to do that is with his new High Flying Bird, directed by Academy Award winner Steven Soderbergh and written by Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney. The two men brought his nugget to life. The film is about a sports agent who, during a lockout, pitches his rookie basketball client an intriguing and controversial business opportunity: taking the power out of NBA owners’ hands by selling a one-on-one game to a streaming outlet — rather like what we see in the boxing world.

“Why don’t these guys own a bigger piece of this, if not own the game outright?” — Steven Soderbergh

“I’ve always been interested in the business of sports,” said Soderbergh. “And when it came to the NBA in particular, I always wondered … [when] they go through contract negotiations … why don’t these guys own a bigger piece of this, if not own the game outright? As technology developed, especially in the last five to 10 years, and streaming for a wide audience became viable, I returned to the idea of, wow, you really could start a league and finance it by selling all of the streaming by subscription or by advertising revenue. … That was the popping-off point. Can we come up with … a what-if story in which somebody decides, let’s stick our toe in the water of what it would be like to set up a player-based entity … apart from the NBA? What kind of forces would mobilize to keep that from happening?”

High Flying Bird, which is set to stream on Netflix on Friday, is a disrupter. It’s the kind of film that sparks conversation, and maybe some change. Holland also is the film’s executive producer, and in a way the film’s throughline of taking control mirrors his own career in Hollywood. Holland is a leading man. And this is his shot. And like the crafty sports agent he plays in High Flying Bird, he created his own opportunity.

“Just wanting more out of my career,” said Holland, “wanting more than acting, I’m having to take a cold, hard look at the landscape, and … it didn’t look so hopeful. I felt this need to create my own opportunities, and that’s probably what we all have been doing … and need to do more of. Not wait on people to open doors for us, but find those doors, create those doors ourselves.”

In this what-if narrative that Soderbergh pauses at key moments to intersplice real-life NBA players — Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Reggie Jackson — talking through their own truths, Holland’s character has recently discovered that his client, who happens to be No. 1 draft pick Erick Scott (played by Melvin Gregg), has taken out a high-interest loan and, because of the lockout, he can’t pay it back now that there aren’t any checks coming in. Much of the film feels very thriller-heist — an Ocean’s Eleven-, Crash-, Magic Mike-style Soderbergh staple — but set in the fast-paced world of organized professional sports.

McCraney began working on the script amid the NFL/Colin Kaepernick controversy, protests and the sex abuse scandal in USA Gymnastics. “It was … a strange time,” said McCraney. “There [were] moments where black athletes were looking at the way they were being treated. And then this book, Harry Edwards’ … the 50th anniversary edition of the book was coming out. … It was definitely in the air, and we wanted to make sure that we were talking about it.”

“The NBA is the system we looked at for this film, but … it’s just an examination of systems that we take for granted.”
— André Holland

So much of what we’re seeing unfold in real sports storylines centers on power struggle — whether that be social injustices and/or players vs. owner infrastructure. Both are in play in Soderbergh’s fictional world of basketball and make for a compelling story that, even with mixed early reviews, holds beautifully.

“Look, you love the game,” McCraney said. “You love going down the court, you love screaming at people to catch the ball, run the block out. But those people have to get up the court with all the victories that they made [or didn’t make]. That may affect them financially, may affect them in their interpersonal relationships … the fact that there’s a team owner and that they’re called ‘owners’ — that has implications. That has interpersonal implications. We need to continue to look at that.”

The film feels like activism in a lot of ways. The slavery comparisons between professional basketball are overarching. No way did they want that message to be subtle.

“The majority of the folks who [are] on the court are black in the NBA. The majority of the owners who are making surmountable living are white, older men. I think between myself and André and Soderbergh … we want to bring [about that] conversation,” McCraney said. “Also, just to have questions. André, I believe, asked a question like ‘What if all the black players decided they weren’t gonna play? What does that do?’ ”

“What it would be like to set up a player-based entity … apart from the NBA? What kind of forces would mobilize to keep that from happening?” — Steven Soderbergh

What it’s doing for now is being a compelling film that also co-stars Sonja Sohn as the attorney representing the head of the players’ association. “Athletes bring a story of competition and someone’s rise into fame in the world of sports. It’s the ultimate hero’s journey,” Sohn said. “Everybody can relate to that dream, and I think in particular a lot of young men without opportunities … latch on to that dream.”

That’s what Holland is hoping for: that people latch on and listen. And if change is evoked? “I hope it inspires people to exercise their own interest in whatever field or situation is in front of them. The NBA is the system we looked at for this particular film, but … it’s just an examination of systems that we sometimes take for granted,” Holland said. “At the center of it is, what if we did control [our] own s—? What if we just controlled all our own stuff? What might that look like? Regardless of the industry.”

‘Selena’ producer Moctesuma Esparza opens fifth movie theater for underserved Latino communities ‘That Magic Johnson had done this was an inspiration to me,’ says Esparza, who also produced ‘Introducing Dorothy Dandridge’

Growing up in the Laurel Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, award-winning Mexican-American filmmaker, producer, entrepreneur and activist Moctesuma Esparza could walk to three movie theaters.

“Every neighborhood in the country had a great theater. … All died in the ’90s and closed,” he said. “It left many communities without any nearby entertainment venues at all, because the multiplexes went to the suburbs and then the megaplexes went to power centers and huge power malls, and the inner cities and the working-class communities and rural communities were left pretty much without any first-class entertainment.”

So it’s no surprise that was the motivation behind Esparza opening his fifth theater in Delano, California, as part of his Maya Cinemas chain. Now having produced some of the most prolific Latino and black films of society’s culture, he’s preserving a home for those moments. Maya Cinemas was chartered in 2000 to develop, build, own and operate modern, first-run megaplex movie theaters in underserved, family-oriented, Latino-dominant communities.

“Seeing that Magic Johnson had done this was an inspiration to me. The fact that he did it also encouraged me that I could do it,” Esparza said. “I’m honored that I’m able to bring a quality, beautiful, state-of-the-art cinema to a working-class family community like Delano, California. We’ve got theaters in Bakersfield, Fresno, Salinas, Pittsburg, now Delano. We have another theater under construction in north Las Vegas, Nevada, and we’ll soon be in Texas and Arizona. Our goal is to be everywhere that’s underserved.”

The grand opening event included more than 500 attendees, activists Dolores Huerta and Paul Chavez, United Farm Worker leaders and community leaders. It’s been 10 years since Delano residents have seen a theater in the area. The new development provides a $20 million real estate investment, as well as jobs for the community and, of course, first-run, quality movies for the whole family, a mission that’s dear to Esparza.

Esparza is revered for his contributions to the movie industry and his commitment to uplifting and preserving Latino communities. He has been nominated for an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award and Emmy Award and has received more than 200 honors and awards, including a Clio, the John F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the Ohio State Award and a Cine Golden Eagle.

He was one of the 13 indicted students who organized the successful 1968 student walkout in East Los Angeles aimed at improving substandard public education for Latinos that focused on training them to be manual workers, not professionals — the premise for the 2006 HBO movie Walkout.

Before producing iconic films such as Selena starring Jennifer Lopez, HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge starring Halle Berry, The Milagro Beanfield War, Gettysburg and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, he was a community organizer and a student at UCLA in the 1960s. Deeply engaged in civil rights, he helped found a campus organization called M.E.Ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán) while focusing on establishing diversity in the university’s education, history, Spanish and social work departments.

“Somebody in the group [M.E.Ch.A.] said, ‘Why don’t you go look at the film school [in the] theater arts department?’ There was an African-American professor there who recruited me onto a campuswide research study on the images of minorities in media back then, and of course, the report came back that there were very few images and the few that existed were all negative.”

Unimpressed by the numbers, he wrote a proposal to create a program called Ethno-communications and submitted it to the film department. He recruited a diverse array of students (four African-Americans, four Asian-Americans, four Native Americans and four Latinos) and staged a sit-in in the dean’s office until it was approved.

“Happily, we didn’t have to sit in too long,” Esparaza said. “The dean was very progressive, and we created this program Ethno-communications.”

Esparza spoke to The Undefeated about his iconic career, his role in civil rights, his Maya Cinemas and the lack of minority, especially Latino, representation in the film industry.


What inspired you to open your very first cinema?

About back in 1987, I was doing a premiere for my movie, The Milagro Beanfield War, that Bob Redford directed, and we did premieres in 20 cities across the United States, and I had convinced Universal that we should do benefit premieres that would be for education for scholarships in the Latino community. I went all over the country and I discovered that there were no quality, first-run venues in any Latino community of the United States, which was really amazing. Ten years later when I did the same thing with Selena, we did 50 premieres, and this is now in 1997. I saw that even the second-run theaters had closed. I saw that there was an opportunity to bring back entertainment to these communities that love movies.

What was behind your decision to bring the story of Selena to the world?

When she, tragically, was killed, I was thinking about, should this be a movie? For a while, I didn’t see it. I didn’t see how to tell the story in a constructive way, and I was afraid that Hollywood would want to get into the tragic gore, the crime. I shied away from it, but it was my daughter, who was a big fan of Selena, who insisted that I needed to go after this story and produce the movie. She kept giving me the music and gave me a documentary about her and gave me a couple books that were written about her, and I finally had an inspiration. But I must credit my daughter, which is that I saw that a movie could be made about the struggle for the American dream of a family. The Selena story was a family story, and when I saw that, then I saw, ‘Oh, this is how we can tell the story. This is how we can make it inspirational and turn this tragedy into something that can inspire people.’ My UCLA classmate, Gregory Nava, saw it as well, and so his script and directing completed the mission.

How did you ignite the idea for Introducing Dorothy Dandridge?

I had focused on doing important documentaries, historical pieces, on people of color, and there was a period there where it was, frankly, easier for me to get a movie about African-Americans made than about Latinos.

I had already done a movie called Selma, Lord, Selma and I did another movie called The Sweetest Gift with Diahann Carroll, and I’d done another movie called Butter, and so when the opportunity came up to do a movie about Dorothy Dandridge — who I had loved as a teenager, she had just such an incredible presence, and her film career had been so inspiring for everybody who was a person of color — I jumped on it. My partner and I went after putting the project together and happily, we were able to get HBO to step up and finance it with Halle Berry, and Halle was very, very important. Her saying yes made the project go.

How was it to executive produce a movie that you were actually a part of history for?

I had worked on it [Walkout] for 20 years, and it was one of my early goals with the document the Chicano civil rights movement, which is very little known yet profoundly impactful to all of the 60 million Latinos in the United States because that one moment back in March of ’68, when 20,000 high school kids went out on strike, really did transform the possibility for education for Latinos. We had tremendous support from all the folks that were engaged in a struggle for civil rights. I got arrested, I faced my jail, indicted by the grand jury, and I remember being in the jail at downtown Los Angeles, Parker Center, and hearing all the people marching around Parker Center at City Hall, chanting.

It was inspiring to us because we knew that we were sacrificing and fighting for something that was worthwhile. Later, I saw news footage and photographs and I saw all the folks that we had historically been working with had come out and were supporting us. Black Panthers were there in force, and people from all the various civil rights organizations were there supporting us, the ACLU, and so it was inspiring. There was a moment where we all came together to support each other.

What message would you like to send to young Latino Americans?

We all have a common struggle for human dignity and human rights and we’ll succeed together, not separately, so we all need to work together and recognize that it’s a human struggle, and that’s what I’m committed to.

What inspires you now, and how has that changed from what inspired you 20 years ago?

It’s the same thing. I made a commitment when I chose this as a career that my goal was to transform the image of Latinos and to explore what it is to be human, and so I’m still doing that. In doing that, I’m also looking to inspire and support the next generation of filmmakers. We’re launching a program at our movie theaters that independent filmmakers who haven’t been able to get a theatrical distribution, as long as they have a film that’s watchable, we’re going to play it.

We’re going to support them, and we’re starting that program because it’s very difficult for people of color, Latinos in particular, to make a movie. And if they do make one, because I see about a dozen independent movies a year, it’s very difficult for them to get distribution.

When will you launch this program?

We already have. We have a little comedy called Taco Shop that we just played in our theaters, and it’s available at home video, so if you’re audience out there, it’s an urban comedy. If you love Cheech & Chong, you’ll love this. It’s got a multicultural cast, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s the story of a taco truck and a taco restaurant who are having their little war.

The woman behind CoverGirl’s ‘I am what I make up’ marketing campaign Ukonwa Ojo added Ayesha Curry and Issa Rae as brand ambassadors

When Ukonwa Ojo left Nigeria for the United States to attend the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she had no clue she’d eventually become global senior vice president for Coty Inc.’s CoverGirl brand, but she knew she had a dream.

“My parents were gutsy enough to let me move to America by myself to follow my dream,” said Ojo. “I always knew that I wanted to work in business, and America was like the nirvana of business.”

Fast-forward to the present day, where that same bravery kicked in when Ojo, who joined CoverGirl in the fall of 2016, gave the brand a makeover by changing its slogan, “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful CoverGirl,” to “I Am What I Make Up” after just a year at the company. Ojo and her team added more brand ambassadors to round out their roster. Along with singer Katy Perry, the new CoverGirl ambassadors included chef and author Ayesha Curry, who is half of a power couple with NBA All-Star Stephen Curry; Issa Rae, the creator of HBO’s Insecure; fitness guru Massy Arias; 69-year-old model Maye Musk; and professional motorcycle racer Shelina Moreda.

It wasn’t an easy decision, but the feedback has been incredible and allowed CoverGirl to bring a lot of innovation to market with bolder colors, deeper tones and glitter with a spring collection that will launch 114 new products.

Making tough decisions isn’t new for Ojo, who decided to change her career after working nearly six years in the finance department at paper company MeadWestvaco. A finance and accounting major in college, she was good at math but realized that she wasn’t in love with it and couldn’t see herself doing it for the rest of her life. Then she heard about brand management.

“I realized that what I didn’t like about finance was that I worked alone most of the time. But with brand management, I’m constantly collaborating and building together with so many departments,” said Ojo. “I’m a classic extrovert, so I get energy from other people.”

Ojo earned an MBA at Northwestern University and, while there, interned at General Mills, where she spent seven years. She handled marketing for brands such as Betty Crocker, Honey Nut Cheerios and Progresso from 2004-11. Later, she worked on branding for the French’s mustard portfolio, as well as Durex and K-Y in London for the British multinational consumer goods company Reckitt Benckiser until 2015. She stayed in London and joined Unilever as senior global director for Knorr, the food and beverage brand, before moving to New York as a CoverGirl senior vice president. With more than 20 years of marketing and brand management experience, she now oversees the cosmetic brand’s global strategy, advertising and communications.

The Undefeated visited Ojo at Coty’s offices in the Empire State Building to learn more about CoverGirl’s evolution, how she exemplifies why “you are what you make up” and why she lives by her Instagram bio, “working hard, playing harder and praying hardest.”


What is a typical day like for you?

There is no typical day, which is one of the things I love about this job and the beauty industry: It’s so fast-paced. I can be looking over the innovation within production operations, presenting to our board of directors or the executive committee, reviewing a pitch from our media partners who may have an amazing idea to meeting with our sales team on how we’re going to drive growth for that quarter. The scope of my role is so broad that it keeps things interesting and my brain challenged.

What’s the most rewarding and challenging part of your job?

The brand means so much because of the impact it has on culture, and that creates such a rewarding feeling for us. The challenge derives from that same responsibility of running such an iconic brand. Whatever you do, you know you’re standing on the shoulders of giants and that you’re pushing culture forward through the brand and the business.

What was behind the decision to change CoverGirl’s slogan from “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful CoverGirl” to “I Am What I Make Up”?

The decision came from really listening to people. I learned how makeup is so much more than cosmetic, and every day when they stand in front of the mirror with their makeup bag they are actually creating who they wanted to be that day. Women play so many different roles in society, and our makeup changes based on those roles because it’s a form of self-expression, and there’s a story behind each look. We realized that some of these looks weren’t so easy, breezy, and in some ways that was limiting us to go on that journey with her to create whoever she wanted to be that day.

How has CoverGirl evolved in how it chooses ambassadors?

It’s never easy picking a CoverGirl because of the legacy and history of what it stood for. It’s one of the hardest things we do as a team because it’s far more than just beauty that meets the eye. We’ve historically always stood for inclusiveness and diversity, but it was primarily limited to ethnicity. We wanted to continue to celebrate ethnic diversity but also the beauty that comes in all ages and vocations. A lot of our CoverGirls usually come from the entertainment industry as models and actresses, but we thought, ‘How awesome would it be to show women in various roles that are pushing society forward?’

Why did you choose Ayesha Curry, Issa Rae, Massy Arias, Maye Musk and Shelina Moreda?

We loved that Ayesha Curry was a chef, entrepreneur, a mom and a wife and was playing these roles in such an inspiring way. Massy Arias, a fitness sensation that could kick anyone’s butt at any time, is balancing that with brand-new motherhood and the ups and downs that come with that and was still thriving on that journey. And then we have Issa Rae, who we loved because she was really pushing the boundaries in Hollywood about what entertainment should look and feel like. She’s a director, producer, writer, actress and just a strong role model for women. [Model] Maye Musk exemplifies how even at 69 years old you can still do what you love and inspire at that same time. Shelina Moreda is the first woman to have raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and at the Zhuhai International Circuit in China.

We just wanted to show all of the different ways that women really thrive in society and have that be an inspiration to us and other women out there.

How can we increase diversity in managing advertising and brand campaigns?

I believe it’s a combination of not knowing that this is a career path and how there’s still a long ways to go on representation on all levels in this field. That’s why I try to be visible in my role, whether that’s with mentoring, participating on panels and speaking engagements so African-Americans not only know but see that this is a path here for them too. Brands, especially those that impact culture, have to have diversity in front and behind the camera to authentically push diversity and inclusivity. I’m very intentional at building a strong and diverse team.

Is it better to be feared or loved as a leader?

I don’t subscribe to fear and would never want to generate that on my team. If I had to pick a word, it would be respect, and I would choose that over being loved. As a leader, you’re going to make decisions that people aren’t always going to love, but if they respect you and you’re transparent, then they’ll recognize that your intent is right.

What is your advice to young women who don’t feel beautiful because they compare themselves to what they see on social media and in Hollywood?

Beauty really does come in every shape, size, ethnicity and vocation. It’s so important that we champion that and show how beauty is confidence. People try to water it down to an idealized vision of beauty. But at the end of the day it is confidence, and when you learn to accept who you are, you will automatically perfect beauty into the world.

What would be your personal theme song and why?

“Live Your Life” by T.I. featuring Rihanna, because I believe in writing your own rules. People could have statistically said where I should end up or what a senior executive should look or lead like. I love challenging those notions. Like our slogan says, ‘you are what you make up,’ and you can become whoever you want to be.

Soccer pro Amobi Okugo remains dedicated to helping pro athletes manage money Okugo turned his frugal tendencies into the website A Frugal Life — a treasure trove of tips on how to play sports and not go broke

As a 15-year-old rising soccer star, Amobi Okugo had all the tools necessary to impress any coach. The midfielder’s speed, quickness and tenacity made an immediate impression on John Hackworth, who at the time oversaw America’s pool of under-17 national players, all with dreams of representing the red, white and blue.

Something else about Okugo caught the young coach’s eye.

“He was a young man at that time — full of ambition,” Hackworth recalled with a laugh. “But I will tell you right off the bat that he was as frugal then as he is now, if not more so. He would get a pretty good teasing from his teammates for how he spent his money and how he didn’t. I’ve teased him for a long time for being flat-out cheap. But he had no problem with it, whether the teasing was from me, his best friends or his teammates. He would never apologize for it; that’s just who Amobi is.”

And still is.

Now 26 and having played eight professional seasons in Major League Soccer, Okugo has grown from teenager to a seasoned veteran whose sights and ambitions are about life beyond professional sports.

“I’ve always been pretty frugal growing up,” said Okugo, a product of Nigerian parents. “I’m not sure if it’s my Nigerian blood or what. I remember getting free Nike gear from youth national team camps and returning them to get cash or telling my mom to pack me extra chicken wings and selling them at lunch at school.”

fru•gal: sparing or economical with regard to money or food.

Synonyms: thrifty, economical, careful, cautious, prudent, unwasteful,
sparing, scrimping, meager, scanty, scant, paltry …

Frugal and creative.

While Okugo had penny-pinching ways from his youth, the midfielder-turned-defender had a complete mindset shift after watching the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Broke, which told tales of former millionaire athletes losing and squandering their earnings in spectacular fashion, oftentimes ending up broke.

Broke was a big eye-opener for me because it really went into detail about how easy it is for athletes to go broke,” said Okugo of the 2012 film, which featured the likes of Curt Schilling, Bernie Kosar, Andre Rison and Cliff Floyd speaking openly about the challenges of managing their money. “It wasn’t until I saw the documentary and saw the accounts of players I personally watched on TV detailing their experiences when it hit me. What caught my eye the most was how avoidable it was for athletes to not go broke but because of perception and lack of preparation, some athletes felt it necessary to spend.”

The film prompted Okugo to take account of his own financial life, and in August 2016 he launched A Frugal Athlete, a website that publishes news and shares advice and viewpoints that he hopes will help athletes take control of their finances. Co-founded with his younger brother, Akachi, and his best friend Kyle Odister, both former college basketball players, the site combines financial tidbits, media analysis and useful consumer-friendly news.

“When I originally launched A Frugal Athlete, my goal was to highlight different athletes who are prudent financially — not superstars like the LeBron James and Tom Bradys of the world who will never have to worry about money in comparison,” said Okugo, who played soccer his freshman year at Jesuit High School in Sacramento, California, before joining the U-17 residency national team program as a sophomore. “I also wanted to increase financial literacy for athletes as a whole, because that is a major issue as well.”

Still a relatively new league, MLS has only 28 players with salaries at or over the $1 million mark. League contracts, according to the players’ union, are more typically in the five and six digits, starting just above $50,000 and topping out around $7 million. Okugo’s 2017 compensation with his last MLS team, Portland, was just over $190,000 in salary and incentives, according to Okugo.

When he was drafted by the Philadelphia Union in 2010 — coincidentally at the urging of Hackworth — who was then an assistant, he hardly thought about money, but thanks to good parents, he knew sports was a window to financial security but likely a small one.

“Amobi was 19 when he moved to Philly,” remembered Hackworth, who eventually became the Union’s head coach in 2012 and played a key early role in Okugo’s development through 2014. “He moved in with Danny Mwanga, who was our No. 1 draft pick, and they both talked about making decent money for being young kids, but they had to figure out a way to manage it. Mwanga had that mindset too. But right away, [Okugo] was like, ‘Coach — I’m getting my degree. I don’t care how I do it, I’m going to get it.’ ”

Okugo had completed only one year of college at UCLA before being drafted; his parents, he said, were adamant about him completing his degree, and he still had aspirations of a career in sports management. After years of offseason studies, Okugo scored his best goal to date — earning his undergraduate degree in organizational leadership from the University of Louisville last December.

Okugo’s frugal ways, and his platform, have caught on in the league, and among other pros. Bilal Duckett, a former MLS player who now plays for the Charlotte Independence of the United Soccer League, a prominent Division II league, understands all too well the importance of thinking beyond your playing days. At 29, Duckett is one of the Independence’s more senior players. And, even though he served as captain the past two seasons — and he just re-signed for one more campaign — Duckett knows his post-soccer life is likely just around the bend.

“I’ve seen players trying to live like basketball and football players — we don’t make that kind of money,” said Duckett, a 2011 Notre Dame grad who earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration. “My background is in IT, and my web consultation company, Duck Digital, is a really important part of my ‘next step’ process,” continued Duckett, who builds and maintains websites when he’s not man-marking speedy forwards and has also championed a project called Tackling Consent, an initiative developed by soccer players to end sexual violence before it starts. “I think Amobi’s platform is brilliant. In my experience, there are far more conversations in the locker room about flippant spending than financial responsibility and frugality.”

Having made the rounds in MLS — playing for Philadelphia, Orlando, Sporting Kansas City and most recently Portland — Okugo is actively staying in shape and shopping his services for a team, domestic or international. But if that call doesn’t come, it’ll hardly be the end of the world.

“I would probably apply to graduate school and continue to grow A Frugal Athlete where it could generate revenue,” he said. “Depending on best fit, I would like to go for a dual MBA-JD degree.”

Hackworth chuckled when he recalled Okugo’s frugal ways from their time together in Philadelphia, particularly on road trips. “When we would travel, the team would book group tickets and the athletes don’t usually get credit for their miles. It was a ritual: Every time Amobi went to the airport, he would insist on getting his miles. He would spend 20 minutes at the counter, and come hell or high water, he was gonna get his miles. Somehow he found a way to get them.”

That’s why they call him the frugal athlete.