The unbearable whiteness of ‘Oklahoma!’ In new Broadway revival, the blinding sunshine of the Territory exposes the violence beneath the romantic myth

Though it hasn’t always been acknowledged, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has always been a musical about whiteness.

This is important because a new and well-reviewed production is now running on Broadway. Oklahoma! has often been summarized through a lens of racial neutrality as a romantic musical about a woman named Laurey Williams trying to make a choice between two suitors: Jud Fry, a hard-working farmhand who lives in the smokehouse of a farm owned by Laurey and her Aunt Eller. And guitar-strumming Curly McClain, who is more socially adept, but doesn’t offer much beyond a pretty face. Set in the Claremore Indian Territory of Oklahoma in 1906, Oklahoma! delivers a rose-tinted view of history that centers on happy white people whose greatest concern is a town dance that will raise money to build a new school. It’s a classic example of willful erasure and ahistorical mythmaking.

In 1838 and 1839, President Andrew Jackson forced thousands of Native Americans to abandon their homes east of the Mississippi. Even though Oklahoma was the end point of the genocidal forced migration known as the Trail of Tears, Oklahoma! doesn’t feature a single Native American character. In fact, its only explicitly nonwhite character is Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler who seeks romantic encounters that don’t come with marital strings.

Jud Fry (played by Patrick Vaill, left) might be an excellent farmhand, but he is not a good man.

Little Fang Photo

Director Daniel Fish’s new, stripped-down revival of Oklahoma! doesn’t play by those rules, though. In this version, now running at Circle in the Square Theater through Jan. 19, Laurey is played by a black woman, Rebecca Naomi Jones. Laurey’s best friend, Ado Annie, is played by Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, the first actress to do so on a Broadway stage. When Stroker won the Tony for best actress in a featured role in a musical in June, she was the first performer who uses a wheelchair to be nominated, much less win.

Suffice it to say, this ain’t your granny’s Oklahoma! The musical, which won the 2019 Tony for best revival, has been popularly characterized as “Sexy Oklahoma!” That’s largely because of the horny howling of its handsome leading man, Damon Daunno, who plays Curly, and its shamelessly libidinous Ado Annie. But I did not find Oklahoma! to be sexy so much as darkly terrifying — and I mean that in a good way.

That’s because this version, which faithfully maintains the original script and lyrics of the 1943 musical while updating the orchestrations with modern arrangements, subjects toxic whiteness and masculinity to the glaring bleach of the noonday sun.

Oklahoma! provides a nuanced opportunity for audiences to reexamine systems of power from the view of those least protected by them.

The revival is unique because of its deft interrogation of the whiteness and toxic masculinity that has long been romanticized in the American western, and in the many treacly iterations of Oklahoma! that have been mounted since 1943. This version asks its audience to consider a familiar world in an unfamiliar way: through the eyes of a black woman with little to no physical security or power of her own.


The first thing one notices upon entering Circle in the Square is the aggressive brightness of the room’s lighting (more than a few members of the audience wore sunglasses through the performance). The second is that the walls are lined with racks upon racks upon racks of shotguns.

The lighting turns out to be subversive. Much like a black light held over the surfaces of a sketchy motel room, it illuminates all the ickiness lurking on surfaces that appear otherwise innocuous. It welcomes you to the Oklahoma territory, where flowers fill the prairie and the june bugs zoom, and then it ensures that you cannot turn away from the ugliness that lurks there. “Everything’s going my way” certainly applies to the men of the Territory. But its female residents? Not so much.

Tony winner Ali Stroker (left) plays Ado Annie and Will Brill (right) is Ali Hakim in Oklahoma!

Little Fang Photo

It’s strange to see Oklahoma! when the horrors of mass shootings (most recently in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas) are still in the shallow recesses of one’s consciousness. But mostly, I was reminded of violence specifically linked to virulent misogyny, and so Alek Minassian, Elliot Rodger, and George Sodini entered my mind within minutes of the introduction of Jud (Patrick Vaill). Minassian, Rodgers, and Sodini are white men who committed mass murder because they were angry, lonely, and felt entitled to attention from women when they weren’t getting it. Minassian identifies as an “incel,” or involuntary celibate.

There is a rhythm to the news of mass shootings, and one beat in particular is frustratingly metronomic: The killers, more often than not, have a history of abuse or antipathy toward women. In Oklahoma!, Jud is armed with an unshakable crush, a shifty attitude, and a revolver. Vaill imbues Jud with a patina of gentle shyness, underneath which beats a familiar pulse of resentment, entitlement, and a violent temper precariously held in check. Jud might be an excellent farmhand, but he is not a good man. It makes for a terribly dangerous combination for Laurey.

To survive in the modern world, women develop a spidey sense about men who would potentially harm us, and we mold our lives around the avoidance of male aggression. We move to a different subway car if someone stares a little too long, or brushes up a little too close. We slow our gait to let someone pass rather than take the chance that he may be following when we must walk late at night. And we get very good at managing — managing expectations, managing tempers, and managing egos.

The same reality of ever-present male danger is true for the women of the Territory. For them, the most effective way to guard against it is to get married. (Nothing sucks the romance out of courtship quite like knowing you’re seeking a man in hopes that his presence will prevent your rape or murder.) Laurey has a decision to make about who she will choose for the dance and her life afterward: Curly or Jud? By Laurey’s second interaction with the seemingly mild-mannered Jud, I felt my stomach grow queasy with worry. Oda Mae Brown from Ghost made an entrance in my notebook: “Laurey,” I wrote furiously, “You in danger, girl!”

Before Fish reimagined her, Laurey was usually portrayed as a lucky woman blessed with a surfeit of romantic possibilities. Nowhere is that more clear than in Fred Zinneman’s 1955 film adaptation. In Zinneman’s Oklahoma!, Laurey is played by Shirley Jones, a sunny, self-assured blonde whose good looks, tiny waist, and homespun charm are enough to tame any man.

When Shirley Jones sings “Many A New Day,” she’s surrounded by white women pirouetting in bloomers and petticoats, and she’s laying out a philosophy that Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider would come to monetize some four decades later in The Rules, possibly the worst self-help book about dating ever published. Essentially, it is a doctrine that tells women that all their power and moral authority lie in their sexual availability or lack thereof, also known as playing hard to get.

But this display of performative reluctance isn’t an indication of power, so much as the lack of it, especially when you consider the presence of armed threats like Jud. From the beginning of the musical, Aunt Eller is telling Curly how much her niece likes him, no matter how much Laurey’s behavior indicates the opposite. It’s strategic: Aunt Eller’s trying to provide some security for Laurey, in the limited way that she can, by playing matchmaker. Sexual violation is a constant threat for women, even for Ado Annie, who is generally portrayed as a ditsy, well-meaning slut with her rendition of the song “I Cain’t Say No.”

Stroker’s Ado Annie, on the other hand, delivers a rollicking, proudly sex positive rendition of the song, a recognition of the character’s agency.

Still, in both scenarios, Ado Annie’s choices are protected by her father’s ever-present shotgun — to a point. She may get around, and she may like it, but she’s still got to marry somebody, and furthermore, someone with money. Ado Annie’s father insists that a man vying for her affections have at least $50 to his name before he’ll let him marry her. (Remember, it’s 1906.)

Laurey doesn’t really have two viable options so much as she’s faced with making a choice between a man who will almost certainly kill her if he doesn’t get what he wants and a well-meaning dunce who thinks the height of being gentlemanly means getting down to the dirty business of dispatching the Territory’s resident incel.


Jones is not the only member of the Oklahoma! company who is black, but her blackness serves to reinforce just how vulnerable and disenfranchised Laurey is in a place where men hold an overwhelming amount of sociopolitical power and women have nearly none. That social order is enforced and maintained with guns:

  • When Ali Hakim won’t commit to Ado Annie, her father threatens him with a shotgun.
  • When Jud and Curly want to intimidate each other, they shoot holes into the roof and wall of the smokehouse.
  • When Laurey finds herself in need of protection from one bad man, it comes from another wielding — you guessed it — a gun.

Jones plays Laurey as a woman moving through the world with tense, uneasy reluctance. At times, she exhibits an attraction to Curly, but it never seems to permeate too deeply, perhaps with the exception of the dream ballet (danced with magnetic athleticism by Gabrielle Hamilton) that explores Laurey’s subconscious. It concludes with Laurey’s id scooching crotch first offstage toward Curly — she’s made her “choice.”

But even when Laurey agrees to marry Curly and enters the stage in her wedding dress, she’s bereft of the glowing, floaty ebullience typically associated with brides. Instead, the subtle hesitations in Jones’ movements and the drawn expression of her face leaves the viewer wishing poor Laurey had a trusted maid of honor to ask, “You OK, sis? I got the horses in the back if you want to ride east ’til we can’t ride no more.” It’s a beautifully crafted performance, full of simmering internal contradictions that Laurey dare not raise aloud. She seems more resigned than anything to spend her life with Curly, if only because he provides protection from the Juds of the world and she knows that she needs it.

Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones, right) eyes Curly (Damon Daunno, left) as he serenades her in Oklahoma!

Little Fang Photo

I could not help but see parallels between Laurey and the protagonist of Test Pattern, a new film from director Shatara Michelle Ford that premiered earlier this year at BlackStar Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution. Test Pattern explores the aftermath of sexual assault for a black woman living in Austin, Texas, named Renesha. Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is in a loving interracial relationship when she is sexually assaulted during a celebratory night out with a friend. (Coincidentally, the two works share an actor; Will Brill plays Hakim in Oklahoma! and Renesha’s boyfriend Evan in Test Pattern.) Like Laurey, Renesha ends up spending a great deal of time managing the emotions of two white men, one of whom is ostensibly “good” and the other who is “bad.” It turns out the two men are not so different. Like Jud and Curly, they both prioritize their own wants over the needs of the black woman who is the object of their desire or devotion. This is not accidental. In both the Territory of 1906 and modern-day Austin, the world is constructed to serve these men, and that’s what they’ve come to expect. This is their version of neutral.

Oklahoma! becomes a jaunty horror show when Laurey is splattered with Jud’s blood on her wedding day after Curly guns him down and the entire company belts out a lively rendition of “Oklahoma.” The residents of the territory ignore the cancer infecting their community in favor of singing, dancing, and the avoidance of discomfort, in much the same way that no amount of tragic deaths seems to spur meaningful action on gun control.

Ultimately, Oklahoma! provides a nuanced opportunity for audiences to reexamine systems of power from the view of those least protected by them. The artists will even serve you chili and cornbread during the show’s intermission. The timing is key — better to eat a bowl before pore Jud is daid, when its contents can’t remind you of his bullet-blasted innards.

Rapper 21 Savage is helping Atlanta youth learn financial literacy ‘I didn’t really learn about that type of stuff until I got older’

ATLANTA — In the midst of his annual back-to-school drive on Sunday, rapper 21 Savage was in awe at the 2,500 kids who showed up for free haircuts/hairstyles, shoes, school uniforms, backpacks and school supplies.

The turnout wasn’t a shock, as he’s experienced that same energy for the past four years in which he has hosted “Issa Back 2 School Drive” for the kids who live in the Glenwood Road neighborhood where he grew up in Atlanta.

“Doing this every year feels good,” 21 Savage told The Undefeated.

This year, in partnership with Amazon Music and Momma Flystyle, the outdoor event also offered free health screenings, mobile video game arcades, resources on mental health awareness and insurance, tips on eco-friendly sustainability efforts, local vendors, hot dogs, ice cream and fun park activities.

On Aug. 4, Rapper 21 Savage hosted his annual “Issa Back 2 School Drive” for the kids in the Glenwood Road neighborhood where he grew up in Atlanta, Georgia.

Prince Williams/Getty Images

But his giving spans far beyond his school drive.

21 Savage’s passion is in educating youth from underserved communities about the power of the dollar and the value of hard work. The throaty Grammy nominee’s nonprofit organization, Leading by Example Foundation, launched its Bank Account campaign, named after his double-platinum single, to teach young people about financial health and wellness.

“A lot of kids don’t know what to do when they get older,” 21 Savage said. “Financial literacy is an important tool they need to get through life successfully.”

A successful trap music artist known for his grim lyrics depicting poverty, street life and post-traumatic stress, 21 Savage said his efforts to promote youth and economic development are deeply rooted in his own lack of exposure and access to commerce as a kid.

“I didn’t really learn about that type of stuff until I got older and became an artist and entertainer,” he said.

The 26-year-old chart-topping performer, born Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, has a job program, and he offers monthly financial literacy webinars for youth.

He partnered with education-themed nonprofits JUMA Ventures and Get Schooled to offer summer employment to 60 Atlanta-area high school and college students. Their duties include light custodial and concessions jobs.

“We want to work with these young people particularly to give them opportunities,” said Robert Lewis Jr., JUMA’s Atlanta site manager. “You want to give these young folks help. They may have had issues with the law or go to a nontraditional school, and we want to give them a job. It gives them a sense of dignity when they’re working.”

“This is monumental,” said Courage Higdon, a 22-year-old Georgia Southern University student and program participant. “The program keeps us focused. It’s more than a job — it teaches us actual life skills that we can use in other places in our lives. They help us become more financially literate. As an African American community, we need to get better at it.”

The Savage Mode rapper presented JUMA with a $15,000 check to help 150 young people open their own bank accounts.

“21 Savage tries to tell us that he wants us to bring everybody around this neighborhood together to support black-owned businesses and black people in the community,” said participant Khaleege Watts, 20.

21 Savage is set to spend a day shadowing the student participants later this year.

The “No Heart” and “A Lot” rapper hosted his monthly webinars on Get Schooled’s website, where he concentrated on teaching money management habits, budgeting/saving, investments and distinguishing between credit and debit.

But his passion for giving to youth doesn’t stop there.

When he released his sophomore LP I Am > I Was in December 2018, he gifted $16,000 in Amazon gift cards to youngsters who attended the album’s companion interactive Motel 21 activation in Decatur, Georgia. He also visited several colleges and STEM schools in metro Atlanta, along with U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), to lead 21st Century Banking Workshops, cross-topic fireside chats featuring discussions on financial capabilities, career opportunities in the music business, gang violence and gun control.

“21 Savage is putting action behind his money,” Lewis said. “He actually tells people how to start their business and how to save money. He’s turned his life around and is a great spokesperson for young people. Young people were glad that JUMA partnered with 21 Savage because they said he speaks for them.”

21 Savage was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier this year on Super Bowl Sunday for overstaying in the United States on a visa that expired in 2006. The MTV Video Music Award winner, who was born in the U.K. and came to the U.S. with his mother at age 7, was detained for nine days and is still awaiting a deportation hearing. The former troubled teen and high school dropout donated $25,000 to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that assisted with his naturalization issues, in June.

“A lot of people need help that’s in bad situations,” 21 Savage said. “They don’t have the funds to get legal representation, so I just made the donation. The organization does the work for free anyway, so I just thought it was necessary to contribute.”

Alona Stays, 21, received a $1,000 mini-grant from 21 Savage to invest in production equipment for her home studio. The YouTuber and aspiring filmmaker echoes her peers, calling the rapper’s philanthropic gifts and outreach efforts “amazing.”

“Not a lot of artists like him are doing something,” Stays said. “It’s a blessing for him to do this for us, and I’m very grateful. This plays a big role in anybody’s life. People like 21 Savage [are] trying to make things better. It’s not all about guns and drugs; it’s about the community and these kids.”

Will Smith, a pioneering black nerd, helped raise and change rap music Smith’s music career reveals an artist who believed in an Afrocentric American dream based on ambition, hustle and black pride

It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.

That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.

The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.

Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.

“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets

They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast

The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”

Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.

Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.

The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.

But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.

The Plain Brown Rapper

It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.

Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?

Despite their critics, DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and The Fresh Prince (right) were the darlings of radio and MTV in 1988, savoring the success of their hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.

Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”

But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”

As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.

Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”

The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”

Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.

In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.

Triumph of the Will

It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”

Will Smith (left) and Benny Medina (right) attend the premiere of Disney’s Aladdin at El Capitan Theatre on May 21 in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Medina helped launch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.

“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”

Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.

His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.

Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).

While his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.

Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”

Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in a scene from the film Men in Black in 1997. Smith’s single “Men in Black” captured the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.

Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.

He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”

But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.

His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.

The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”

That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”

Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:

“I believe in God, I believe in destiny

Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined

But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”

He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.

Then he faded from the music scene.

The smartest dude

In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.

Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.

Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.

He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.

“The smartest dude survives the best.”

Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson — on friendship, Clippers days, and Team Jordan Nearly 20 years after the ‘Knuckleheads’ were drafted together, the NBA vets have a hit podcast

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

Right now, the Los Angeles Clippers are battling the reigning champion Golden State Warriors in the first round of 2019 NBA playoffs — despite being projected before the season to win just 20 games. Expectations weren’t high for the Clippers at the start of the 2000-01 season, either. Back then, on paper, the Clippers were the worst in the NBA.

“Led by the 19-year-old Darius Miles, the Clippers could be one of two things” read the final sentence of a New York Times’ NBA season preview, “one of the league’s most exciting young teams or a maddening bunch of knuckleheads still trying to learn the game.”

In June 2000, the Clippers had drafted Miles, a 6-foot-9-inch forward, out of high school with the No. 3 overall pick. Fifteen selections later, the Clippers took Quentin Richardson, a sophomore swingman from DePaul University. The two shared the same home state — Richardson a native of Chicago, and Miles from the streets of East St. Louis, Illinois. They’d known each other since they were kids. And in Los Angeles, they became “The Knuckleheads” — a duo recognized across the league by their on-court celebration of two taps to the head with balled-up fists.

Michael Jordan looked at us like … ‘Why y’all got all this AND1 stuff on?’”

In their only two seasons together with the Clippers, Miles and Richardson emerged as a cultural phenomenon. Michael Jordan handpicked the two phenoms to endorse his brand, and spoiled them with every pair of Air Jordans imaginable. They appeared on magazine covers, and made cameos together in films and on television shows. And both players had the respect of the early-2000s community of hip-hop. “For a minute there, we really were the culture,” Miles wrote in a first-person essay for The Players’ Tribune, published in October 2018 and guest-edited by none other than Richardson.

Now, nearly two decades after being drafted together, Miles and Richardson are the retired NBA veterans with their own podcast. Of course, it’s called Knuckleheads, and just nine episodes in after its February debut, it has a 4.9 rating out of 5 on iTunes.

In the spirit of the podcast — which has produced unfiltered interviews with NBA stars from Allen Iverson and Gary Payton to J.R. Smith, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant — The Undefeated chopped it up with The Knuckleheads about everything from the night they were drafted, to the sneakers they wore in the league and the journey of their friendship.

Quentin Richardson (left) and Darius Miles (right) attend Players’ Night Out 2018 hosted by The Players’ Tribune on July 17, 2018, in Studio City, California.

Leon Bennett/Getty Images for The Players' Tribune


How did you two meet?

D-Miles: AAU ball brought us together …

QR: Many years ago.

D-Miles: Q’s AAU coach came down to Southern Illinois …

QR: Larry Butler

D-Miles: … Yeah, Butler was looking for players to play in a ‘spotlight’ he was having. It was the top Illinois players from the state. We’d come down and play in … kinda like a camp … When I came down, that was the first time I saw who Q was … When Larry saw how good I was, he invited me to a tournament and had me play [on his team] two grades above me. He had me playing with Q and them.

QR: Me and D-Miles hit it off from there. Once he began playing AAU with us and would come to Chicago, he would normally stay at my house. He would stay the weekend, and that’s how we got tight.

We were Allen Iverson’s babies. We were A.I.’s lil bros. That was the culture.”

Fast-forward to the 2000 NBA draft. Was there any idea that you’d both get picked by the Los Angeles Clippers?

D-Miles: We were going through the draft process together. But we never thought it would be a possibility to play on the same team … We didn’t even want to go to the Clippers…I don’t think anybody wanted to play for the Clippers. When I ain’t get picked No. 1 or No. 2, the Clippers weren’t gonna pass on me. They picked me anyway, even if I didn’t wanna go there … Q kinda slipped in the draft.

Q: We didn’t think there was an opportunity for us to play together because the projections were so far apart. He was a top-5 projection. I was anywhere from nine to 20. It was a big gap. And neither of us worked out for the Clippers.

D-Miles: After the draft, we hop on a private jet and go to L.A.? I couldn’t have written it no other way.

How did it feel to be together — at 18 and 20 years old — living in Los Angeles?

D-Miles: We didn’t live close to each other…But we was with each other, shittttt, every day probably.

NBA guard Quentin Richardson (right) of the Los Angeles Clippers and his teammate, guard Darius Miles (left) enjoy a pregame joke before challenging the Sacramento Kings at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Kings won, 125-106.

Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

This is always the first question you ask guests on the Knuckleheads podcast. Who was the first player in the league to bust your ass?

D-Miles: The first one to really give me a lot of buckets was Chris Webber. He was jumping hooking my ass to death. I think he had like 35 or 36. I felt like, I at least got 28 or 30 of them points. Seem like he was scoring every time he got the ball on me.

Writer’s note: On Jan. 27, 2001, Sacramento Kings power forward Chris Webber scored a game-high 33 points and 11 rebounds against the Clippers and a 19-year-old D-Miles, who finished the night with a team-high 16 points.

QR: This was early in my rookie year … I think it was in preseason. We’re out in Denver. This was the first time about to go deal with the altitude. The player was Voshon Lenard. You’re like, Who is VoShon Lenard? I knew he could play. I knew he could hoop, but I was being disrespected out there. The first timeout came at six minutes, I came and sat down … matter fact, D-Miles and Keyon [Dooling] was sitting on the bench. They looked at me and just started laughing. My man had the quickest 17 points I’m talking about in the first six minutes, though … Firing my ass up! Giving me post work … hitting 3s … pump fake, one-dribble pullup. He was cooking my ass. And I was dead tired … But I did get him back! He was on the team when I got career-high against the Nuggets on New Year’s Eve [in 2003]. I had 44 on they ass.

“We thought we was Hollywood, boy!”

You two have probably told this story a million times — but how exactly did you two land with the Jordan Brand?

QR: One of the best moments ever. If anybody knows MJ, you know about his Flight School camp for kids. And they would have some epic counselor games … Flight School used to be held at UC-Santa Barbara … two weeks … two sessions. When I went when I was in college, they brought Darius because he was one of the top high school players. We were both counselors. It was our first time going. Fast-forward to after we get drafted by the Clippers, we’re in L.A., which is an hour [by car] from Santa Barbara. When August comes, we’re like, ‘Man, we’re gonna go out there to the Jordan camp …’ because the runs used to be really good … At this point we had no Nike deal, but AND1 was courting us really hard. They had Larry Hughes, and a few guys we looked up to. We were rocking a whole bunch of AND1. After we get through playing pickup, MJ looked at us like … ‘Why y’all got all this AND1 stuff on? I thought y’all was Nike guys.’ Me and D-Miles were like, ‘We wanna be Nike guys…but a contract ain’t happened.’ He was like, ‘Don’t even worry about it. Y’all gon’ be with us.’ We didn’t even know quite what that meant.’ Because Jordan Brand wasn’t what it was going to be. He just had the first years of it with Ray Allen, Derek Anderson, Eddie Jones, Vin Baker and Michael Finley … Then our agent Jeff Weschler was like, ‘I don’t know what happened, but Michael called up Nike and you guys are gonna be with him on some special team.’ We started getting flooded with the most gear you could imagine. Today they don’t give the same amount of gear they used to give. We got everything they made … Stuff that you wouldn’t wear, stuff that you have to give away because it was so much. We were literally in heaven.

What were favorite Jordans to play in?

D-Miles: Mine were the patent leather 11s … I watched Jordan my whole life, so when we had the opportunity to put them patent leathers on, I was just on superstar status. Nobody else in the league were really wearing these.

QR: We wasn’t those kids that were fortunate enough to have every pair of Jordans. My first pair I ever had came when I played AAU … My pops…the most expensive pair of shoes he was gonna buy me that were cool were Air Force 1s because they were $49.99 back then. My pops didn’t believe in buying Jordans that he knew I’m about to run through in two days … So for us to start getting Jordans? It was out of this world. Coming from Chicago and East St. Louis, being MJ fans, watching everything he did on WGN and public TV — for us, it was a dream. And every kid we knew from our hometowns were like, ‘I can’t believe y’all are on Team Jordan.’ And we could give all our friends, our family, our parents all the Jordan stuff they wanted … That was almost better than money to us at that point.

Do you still have a lot of your old Jordan PEs?

D-Miles: I just have a few. I left and went to Reebok, and I was under Allen Iverson’s line. Most of the Jordans I had, I gave them to these two kids. One was from Texas, and the other was from Memphis. My momma kinda built a rapport with they moms, and they was like me — young kids wearing a size 18 … So they didn’t have no options for shoes. So me and my mom shipped them out, I wanna say 40-50 pairs of shoes apiece. When my mom did it, all three moms were on the phone boo-hoo crying.

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DMiles Cavs Retro PEs 🔥🔥🔥🔥

A post shared by @ qrich on May 2, 2018 at 7:54am PDT

What’s your favorite PE?

QR: Awww, man. That’s hard for me to say … I was fortunate enough to play for teams that weren’t close to the Bulls colors. So a lot of my shoes were different. I think I would have to go with my Clippers, Knicks and Suns PEs … So I probably would go with the Knicks 2s or 5s. But then my favorite pair of shoes to play in — it didn’t really matter which color — were the Retro 13s. I have those is Phoenix and Orlando colors. The Phoenix ones I had different flavors. I had purple and white ones, I had orange and white ones, I had all-black with orange trim. Those 13s, were the most comfortable shoe for me to play in, because they’re wide and I got wide, flat feet.

D-Miles: Mine are the ones I wore in that picture with Udonis Haslem. I was so used to seeing red and white shoes when I was with the Clippers. But I got to the Cavs, it was different colors. When they sent me those bright orange ones, I loved them. You don’t even know.

QR: I’m telling you — the orange did something! They looked superdifferent than any Jordan you’d ever seen. Back then, you’d never seen an orange Jordan.

You two appeared in a commercial for the Air Jordan 17. What comes to mind when you think of that shoot?

D-Miles: Spike Lee. We grew up on Jordan and all the Jordan commercials. When we heard Spike Lee was finna do it, when knew it was a big, big deal.

QR: We thought we was Hollywood, boy!

Writer’s note: The Air Jordan 17, crafted by African-American footwear designer Wilson Smith, drew inspiration from the “improvisational nature of jazz.” The 30-second, Spike Lee-directed spot, featured Miles and Richardson playing maestro on the court, and debuted a special remix the Gang Starr track “Jazz Thing,” which the hip-hop duo originally co-wrote with saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

D-Miles: It was an honor. A real, true blessing. Spike is such a legendary director, and it was with Jordan Brand.

“Like how you see NBA players now. It’s hard for them to let themselves go, because they don’t want nobody to take what they say the wrong way, or their actions be misconstrued.”

QR: It was like, ‘We’re about to have our own Jordan commercial … We really have arrived.’ Me and my bro, together, in a commercial … We went to New York to do it. You get there, and it’s like, ‘Spike Lee is shooting it! … Marsssss is shooting it! This is epic.’ We had our own trailers. They got the gear laid out for us. That was the first time I thought, ‘I’m a star … We some stars up in here, boy!’ This was all new to us. Stuff that you dreamed about as a kid. But to actually live it, it was super dope.

D-Miles: Then to hear Spike Lee, when we first met him, say ‘D and Q.’ Like, ‘Oh, he knows us.’

Forward Darius Miles #21 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots the ball during the NBA game against the Boston Celtics at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The Celtics defeated the Clippers 105-103.

Andy Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

And you can’t forget the Jump Men cover of Slam Kicks

QR: I have a copy up in my office.

D-Miles: Back then, Kicks was big. There were other magazines that were bigger, but we were just happy to do anything with anybody who wanted to mess with us. We came straight from the streets, so we dressed a certain type of way. Of course, they were giving us drip, we put it on. We weren’t the typical people wearing that gear. We turned the jerseys backwards, do-rags on, hats cocked …

QR: I got a do-rag, with a headband on, hat to the back. I got a pinky ring on! We both got big ass chains on. We were Allen Iverson’s babies. We were A.I.’s lil bros. That was the culture. That was what was going on. That was part of why people took to us. We were them — kids. We were 18 and 19, playing in a grown man’s league, representing other 18- and 19-year-olds. We dressed like them and did things like they did. We were trying to get into Hollywood clubs. We were too young, couldn’t get in … Literally, we showed up to training camp with Super Soaker guns. Media day, the first day of training camp, and we have those big ass Super Soakers strapped over our shoulders. They looked at us like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ … We were having fun, for real. And the best part about it was we were on this adventure together. Doing things that we never could’ve dreamed of. We got to spend New Year’s at Shaquille O’Neal’s house. And it was crazy. Like a fucking movie. We’re at Shaq’s big ass crib in L.A. To kick it with Shaq and be around him was enough … But Shaq was really rocking with us. He was showing us a good time and embracing us. Like, this is Shaq!

We turned the jerseys backwards, du-rags on, hats cocked …”

Where did that style come from — especially the backwards jerseys?

D-Miles: Kriss Kross started it, but that was just hip-hop culture. We grew up in hip-hop culture. The trend had kinda died down, because Kriss Kross did it in the early ’90s. Nobody was really taking chances, especially during photo shoots, except for Allen Iverson. We were young. Didn’t really care what people thought about us. It’s real traditional when you do photo shoots. They tell you to put your hands on your hips, like you’re a superhero. Put one hand on your hip, hold the ball on the other side. I used to be like, ‘Nah … ’

What was your relationship like with MJ during his last few years in the league?

D-Miles: Once MJ came back to the league [in 2001], we’d already known him for six or seven years, and it was a blessing. I love when I see the picture of me standing on the court next to Michael Jordan. I got that in my house. Those moments, those games we played against him, I’ll cherish them forever. We were on a West Coast team, so we only played him two times a year. But those times we played them those last two seasons? It was a dream come true.

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Me and the GOAT#tbt

A post shared by Darius Miles (@blackking.21) on Oct 25, 2018 at 2:02pm PDT

July 30, 2002: D-Miles, that’s when you got traded from the Clippers to the Cavaliers.

D-Miles: One of the worst days of my life. I ain’t wanna leave, or play with nobody else. I didn’t know how good I had it until I got traded. The crazy thing about it is when I did get traded, I was doing the movie The Perfect Score. I was all the way in Vancouver, when I heard the news like, ‘What?’ It wasn’t a good feeling. But I did understand the move. I loved Andre Miller. He led the league in assists on the worst team in the NBA. So I understand why the Clippers traded for him. But, I wanted to stay.

Writer’s note: The Clippers traded Miles and power forward Harold Jamison to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for point guard Andre Miller and shooting guard Bryant Stith.

QR: We were kids. We were having all this fun. And that was the first time it was like, ‘This is a business … This is real … This ain’t a game or haha fun.’ … I love Andre Miller to this day, but I didn’t want that trade to happen. I was upset. I was mad. I was hurt.

We didn’t even want to go to the Clippers … I don’t think anybody wanted to play for the Clippers.”

Can you pinpoint an NBA friendship quite like D-Miles and Q since you guys?

D-Miles: A lot of guys didn’t grow up together like we did. We were around each other when we didn’t have money. One of the bonds I do see that’s close to what me and Q got is Udonis Haslem and D-Wade. They’ve played so long together that they got that brotherly love like me and Q got. They changed that culture in Miami.

QR: They’ve been together for so long on the same team and same journey. And I don’t even count when D-Wade left. Let’s just throw that whole Chicago and Cleveland window out …

D-Miles: When did that happen!?!

QR: UD and D-Wade played their whole 15, 16 year careers together. They came in, got married, had families, brought kids up at the same time, have businesses together. They rebuilt that organization. But I’ve known Darius since he was in seventh grade, and I was in ninth grade. We got drafted together, played together and now 20 years later, we’re doing a podcast because we’re still tight like that.

Quentin Richardson of the Los Angeles Clippers dunks against the Charlotte Hornets at the Staples Center on Jan. 5, 2001.

Robert Mora/NBAE via Getty Images

How’s it feel to be reunited on the Knuckleheads podcast — and why was now the right time for it?

QR: The thing that makes the podcast is so dope, is it happened organically, almost accidentally. I did my story with The Players’ Tribune. He did his story with The Players’ Tribune. A third party was like, ‘Y’all should do something together.’ And D-Miles, he was originally opposed to the whole media thing. He was like, ‘I don’t want no microphones in my face.’ I’m moving into the media space, so I was open to it. We did a trial demo here on my patio, and it was cool.

D-Miles, is it weird being on the other side now — asking the questions instead of answering them?

D-Miles: It’s definitely weird. I’m not sure if I’d do too much more after this. Like Q said, I’m not big on microphones or cameras. I gotta feel comfortable to let my personality go. Kinda like how you see NBA players now. It’s hard for them to let themselves go, because they don’t want nobody to take what they say the wrong way, or their actions be misconstrued. So you kinda got your guard up. With the podcast, I can kinda let go, laugh, joke and not worry.

QR: We’re tryna spark a real conversation. We don’t feel like we’re going to interview this person, that person. We feel like we’re about to see what’s up with this person and that person.

“Udonis Haslem and D-Wade. They’ve played so long together that they got that brotherly love like me and Q got. They changed that culture in Miami.”

Are there any players you really want to get on the podcast?

D-Miles: Michael Jordan.

QR: That’s the GOAT. That’s our unicorn. But we got a lot of other players already committed that we can’t really share right now. We have some really, really, really big and good names … for season two.

What do you think you two have meant to basketball, and the culture, in the past two decades?

D-Miles: We carved out our space. I think that’s why we get the love and the respect that we get now. It’s overwhelming, and I’m definitely thankful and blessed to even have that. I only played two years with the Clippers, but every time people see me, they associate me with being a Clipper. I think it’s dope.

QR: I’m just superhumbled … I appreciate all the love, respect and support we get, from people who rocked with the Clippers. And we also get a lot of people that talk to us about the fact that we had that little bitty part in Van Wilder. It’s unbelievable to me how many people acknowledge that … To still be able to do stuff with D twenty years later, and they still remember us? People still remember that celebration, and still rock with it. That’s really cool to me.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

By accident, ‘Space Jam’ is a nearly perfect stoner movie #MuteRKelly and ‘Space Jam’ becomes an ideal movie for 4/20

I found it.

I found a perfect movie for 4/20. Well, almost.

It’s Space Jam (minus the treacly R. Kelly theme that doesn’t even match the tone of the movie).

But Space Jam is an accidental stoner classic. It’s a kids movie that just happens to be the perfect mix of hilarious, fantastical, riveting and disturbing when watched while one is stoned out of one’s gourd. The stakes revolve around slavery. Slavery! Imagine if its forthcoming sequel took that energy and made it intentional.

If Space Jam 2 possesses the hallmark phantasmagoria of its director, Terence Nance, it ought to leave sober viewers wondering if they’ve accidentally ingested shrooms. It will be smart. It will be subversive. It will be sublimely weird.

Which gives me great hope that besides being a multiple NBA-championship-winning philanthropist who builds schools and produces documentaries that shine a light on those least illuminated, LeBron James could end up producing and starring in the best stoner flick since The Big Lebowski. One without the asterisk that comes with incorporating a warbling paean to flight sung by the man who showed us just what a superhero Gayle King actually is.

LeBron has the range. And we deserve.

This week, I busied myself with a bit of public service journalism. I went on the hunt for the perfect black stoner flick and kept coming up disappointed. Friday’s casual violence doesn’t age so well. How High is similarly distasteful. Half Baked is innocuous silliness. Newlyweeds is a bit uneven. Where is The Dude who dropped out after three semesters at Howard? Where are the black analogues to Abbi and Ilana? Or Harold and Kumar? What’s the hip-hop album/film mashup that accomplishes the trippy satisfaction of Dark Side of Oz?

Maybe they don’t exist yet. They should.

But until that day comes, let’s revisit what makes Space Jam an excellent stoner film.


In Space Jam — which somehow required not one, not two, not three, but FOUR screenwriters — like an epic adaptation of Doctor Faustus, Michael Jordan has retired from basketball and has moved on to baseball. He has a bulldog named Charles. (As in Charles BARK-ley, get it?) At the same time Michael is making this career transition, a group of aliens from a place called Moron Mountain descends upon Cartoon World, which is the home of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, the Tasmanian Devil, the Road Runner, Lola Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, Marvin the Martian, the weird rooster with the Southern accent and one elderly white granny. (Among elements that go unexplained: why the male-to-female ratio in Cartoon Land is so screwy.)

The Alien Moron Imperialists look like what might result if a person used CRISPR to splice together the DNA of a cockroach, a toucan and a guinea pig. They’re not that bright, but they have guns. They say things like, “You. All of you are now our prisoners.”

“We’re taking you to our theme park in outer space.”

“No food.”

“Where you will be our slaves and placed on display for the amusement of our paying customers.”

The aliens basically declare that they’re establishing a triangular trade between Moron Mountain, Earth and Cartoon Land, which seems to be located somewhere between the Earth’s crust and mantle, given that Jordan ends up there after he’s shrunken and swallowed into a putting green hole.

The Looney Tunes, faced with an existential crisis and no means to defend themselves (except maybe Elmer’s shotgun, which no one bothers to try shooting), hatch a deal with the aliens.

“Give us a chance to defend ourselves,” they request. With a basketball game.

OK, there is actually some defensible logic here. The aliens are about the size of guinea pigs and the Looney Tunes are … taller. The odds should be in their favor. Still, the only thing lying between Porky, Tasmanian Devil, Lola, Tweety, etc., and ending up like Sarah Baartman is … basketball? That’s a bit of a head-scratcher.

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls poses with a cutout of Bugs Bunny at a news conference in New York on June 20, 1995.

AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler

The aliens take the deal, then set about sucking the talent out of a bunch of NBA players for their own use, like hideous, squeaky-voiced precursors to the Armitages of Get Out. (Has Nance thought about casting Allison Williams in Space Jam 2? Because that could be a really nice way to complete this circle.)

So Muggsy Bogues, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing discover that they’ve become instantly terrible at basketball, and they have no idea why. And because “alien body snatchers leeching off black people’s talent so they can win the rights to enslave some other people” doesn’t exactly present itself as an obvious explanation, the rest of the NBA is shook. The other players start wearing gas masks to avoid the mysterious bacterial contagion that’s going around rendering NBA players useless.

The Looney Tunes find themselves facing newly beefed-up Morons who look suspiciously like the sort of big, black, ’roided-up threats that are more a figment of the racist imagination than a real thing. None of the imaginary characters in this film seems to care much about bodily agency — not even their own. Again, we’ve arrived at this point because the only thing standing between the Looney Tunes and slavery is a basketball game. So the Looney Tunes shrink Jordan and suck him down the hole of a putting green when he’s out playing golf with Larry Bird, the publicist of his new baseball team, and Bill Murray.

Can we just take a minute to recognize that Jordan has terrible friends in this movie? Not a one of them tries to save him.

With Jordan firmly ensconced in Looney Tunes Land, Bugs Bunny explains why he and his friends have sucked the greatest basketball player of all time into middle-earth: “You see, these aliens come from outer space and they want to make us slaves in their theme park. Eh, what do we care. They’re little. So then we challenge them to a basketball game. But then they show up and they ain’t so little. They’re HUGE! We need to beat these guys! ’Cause they’re talkin’ slavery! They’re gonna make us do stand-up comedy. The same jokes, every night, for all eternity. We’re gonna be locked up like wild animals and trotted out to perform for a bunch of low-brow, bug-eyed, fat-headed, humor-challenged aliens. What I’m trying to say is, WE NEED YOUR HEEEEEEEEEEELP.”

This bit of exposition is accompanied by an image of Bugs Bunny attached to a ball and chain, shucking and jiving against his will across a stage. How did we miss all the racial subtext packed into this movie?

The ’roided-up body snatcher aliens, now known as the Monstars, are not so impressed by Jordan.

“You heard of the Dream Team?” one asks. “Well, we’re the Mean Team.”

And then they proceed to ball up Jordan like he doesn’t have bones, or ligaments, or a spinal cord, and dribble him around a two-dimensional basketball court.

Meanwhile, on the surface of Earth, a doctor is asking Ewing if he’s been experiencing impotence since he lost his talent. This movie is wild.

The 2-D stars of Space Jam.

Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

Anyway, once Jordan’s regained his natural, nonspherical shape, he sends Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to search his house for his lucky Carolina shorts and his shoes, because you can’t play basketball against a team of body-snatching aliens in golf spikes. That would be preposterous.

It turns out there’s a comically evil, cigar-smoking alien fat cat (voiced by Danny DeVito) who is forcing the Morons to steal the essences of black people, play this game against the Looney Tunes and win. (Way to let the Alien Imperialist Morons off the hook, writers. Turns out they were only following orders!)

Even with Jordan on their side, the Tune Squad is awful. But at halftime, down 66-20, all of the Tune Squad gets a hit of a mysterious bottle labeled “Michael’s Secret Stuff.” They start scoring and playing incredible defense to close the gap to 68-66. Jordan informs his teammates his “secret stuff” is actually just water, leading them to believe in themselves.

The game ends with the Tune Squad winning, 78-77. Jordan not only saves the Looney Tunes from slavery, he manages to repossess the talent of Bogues, Ewing and Barkley and return it. The fat cat goes ricocheting into outer space, Jordan goes back to basketball, and then in pipes the comically incongruous “I Believe I Can Fly.”

That’s it. That’s the (nearly) perfect 4/20 movie.

Time to roll another spliff.

NBA All-Stars celebrate MJ’s 56th birthday by sharing their favorite Jordan stories

They all wanted to be like Mike. At the 2019 NBA All-Star Game, basketball's biggest stars relive their favorite Michael Jordan moments — and, for the young guns, share when they first became aware of the greatness that is His Airness.

Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ video is a beautiful nightmare Waking up from staying woke: Genius or not, Gambino’s frightening dreamlike opus is right on time

The night I watched Childish Gambino’s video for “This Is America,” I was scared. Having skipped the song’s premiere on Saturday Night Live, I’d seen the images and their deconstructions on the internet all weekend. And when I finally sat down to watch the full product, as opposed to just a collection of GIFs and clips, I didn’t even have it in me to turn on the sound.

When it comes to “what people on the internet say about black [insert word here],” I am instantly leery. And, as a matter of course, I’m instantly fearful of any form of black public expression that white people either identify as something they can’t live without or pull away from. With zero sound, the images from Donald Glover’s latest musical project felt like monsters under the bed.

I had a nightmare that night.

The next morning, the headlines were predictable, analytical and, in a basic way, accurate. Yes, Glover’s new work combines (insert description for juxtaposition of serious and jovial that represents how black people either stay sane, or don’t). And the new work certainly was designed to provoke (insert group of people here who don’t want to believe that the symbolism of black people killing other black people is ever effective). It is all of these things, certainly.

The specific mimicry of deplorable stereotypes that call back to an era we try to forget.

It wasn’t that I needed someone else to show me in video form exactly what’s torn our nation apart. It’s that with no real major tricks or magic, he could scare me enough into remembering that I won’t see this disaster alleviated in my lifetime. Which, in itself, compounds the original fear, which is why this video is keeping me up at night. As the kids say, I’ve never felt more seen in my life.


Sometimes I don’t automatically wake up from a nightmare, even when I know I’m having one. There’s a weird part of me that knows I’m sleeping and wants to explore whether or not I can tackle the specific fear. In this video, there’s an eerily similar pace: Things come and go, and images from the recesses from your brain pop up in ways you never imagined.

You’ve already read about the guns. The choir. The white horse. The cars. The African dance influences. And, of course, SZA. But those are specifics in a deliberate and detailed oeuvre already witnessed by likely more than hundreds of millions of people.

But to be clear, this isn’t about anointing Glover/Gambino as some saint. We’ve all seen how problematic that turns out in many cases, and it’s also unfair to the artists themselves. The “genius” category puts everything in a spotlight that is skewed and often pointless — and this is not to discredit Glover’s work by any means.

However, Glover is not without his wild statements that some may find problematic. He’s said a few things about women of color, specifically Asian women, that are gross on every level. There are a slew of other things — about rape, about the Black Lives Matter movement — that would make some immediately write him off. He believes, specifically with regard to comedy, that “nothing is off-limits.”

The difference between Glover and, say, Kanye West (who is completely outta control; these theories of performance art, while perhaps buyable, are stupid on his part) or Kendrick Lamar or any other number of black male artists who’ve been elevated as creative stalwarts is that Glover’s done it almost completely from the inside. He was a writer for the beloved 30 Rock, and then Tina Fey turned around and embarrassed everyone. He starred on Community, a show that, while not a ratings monster, was beloved by an interesting sect of America. You might recall that comedy legend Chevy Chase, whose character was noted for his “curmudgeonly racism,” was booted off that program.

FX’s Atlanta speaks for itself in terms of impact, scope and influence, but the fact that he got such a plum gig at all is an indication of exactly how much Hollywood loves him. And that’s before we even get to the Grammy nominations, his movies and his historic role as Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story. Glover is an insider who’s been allowed to influence within the real framework of the Hollywood system, as opposed to crash-landing as an outsider.

Which is important to take into consideration when we view “This Is America.” Glover’s been making content in many forms for years, and what the new song and video represent is a magnum opus-like culmination of all of that. The sequencing of the video alone is incredible. What the artist presents as chaos is less about being happenstance and random and more about being inevitable and ever-present. That’s a reality that’s hard to portray in such a short space of time. It’s also scary.

The inevitability of destruction. The specific mimicry of deplorable stereotypes that call back to an era we try to forget. Watching him dance the Jim Crow dance is jarring and familiar, which is both equally bizarre and, again, frightening — the real scope of the black experience in this country. It replays over and over again on television, movies, the internet and, yes, music videos. Glover/Gambino is not exploiting as much as he’s reminding us how well-woven all of it is into our consciousness. And, just like in a dream, where you’re never really sure what’s real and what’s a perverse version of your brain creating a reality you don’t know you can trust, this video makes you ask questions. How am I supposed to know what everything means if it’s all free-flowing, dangerous and unstoppable? That’s the reality of being black in this country in 2018.

We live in a nation where we have to create apps in order not to waste food. School administrators get violent with kids who are just looking to celebrate their educations. The Ku Klux Klan is legit making a comeback. Police officers are outfitting their cars with the words popo, so we can apparently feel better about fearing for our lives because the tormentors appear with a familiar name. Even with that being well-known, our generational trauma somehow allows us to make fun of the very specific way that we choose to kill each other. It’s insane on every level.

Instagram Photo

We’ve got 4-year-olds who are adept at handling guns.

They do so in front of women appropriating cultures they don’t respect. Yet, all the while, these presentations of Gambino’s are somehow inspirational because it’s all we’ve ever had.

The final part of this video is the most harrowing because it’s an indication of what I believe to be Glover’s real message: that the capitulation to actual fear results in a flight response that only descendants of slaves can understand. While running for his life from what appears to be a mob of people, the look on his face says it all. Trying to escape in a dark hallway to nothing, the people are gaining on him. He appears to be losing steam but is determined not to stop. The examination of that inner feeling of helplessness that is so often the black experience is what’s most important here. Glover taps into that sentiment in a way that’s hard to grasp if you’ve never lived it.

I’m instantly fearful of any form of black public expression that white people either identify as something they can’t live without or pull away from.

Sure, we all know this is a barbaric and screwed-up place on many levels. But it’s also a place where we’ve found a way to thrive in the worst of conditions: shirtless, deliberate and composed. He can sing about staying woke and its importance of that until he’s blue in the face, but “This Is America” reminds us that the reality is actually scarier than the nightmare we’ve been trapped in since we got here. Waking up might not get you anything but more pain, more despair and, thus, fewer years to enjoy the rights and privileges of life.

That is America. And that’s exactly what it was created to be.

Waffle House shooting victim remembered as a leader on the court and in class DeEbony Groves, 21, a Delta, was her high school basketball team’s defensive stopper

Faculty members at Nashville, Tennessee’s Gallatin High School remember DeEbony Groves as an ideal student-athlete: smart, hardworking, team-oriented and up for almost any challenge.

In the classroom, Groves took advanced placement and honors classes that earned her college credits even before she enrolled at Nashville’s Belmont University in 2014. On the basketball court, Groves was the Lady Wave’s stopper for Gallatin and always drew the opponent’s top player, whether she ran the point or played in the post.

“She was a leader who put others first,” read a statement from several Gallatin staffers and released by school principal Ron Becker.

Groves, 21, was among the four people killed by a gunman wielding an assault rifle early Sunday at a Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee, a Nashville suburb. The others killed in the attack were identified as 29-year-old Taurean C. Sanderlin, a cook at the restaurant, as well as two other patrons, 20-year-old Joe R. Perez and 23-year-old Akilah DaSilva. Two other people were wounded in the gunfire.

Groves “was a brilliant young lady, very, very intelligent and a very hard worker,” former Gallatin coach Kim Kendrick told The Tennessean newspaper. “She was a very likable young lady. She was one of three seniors on her team, and she was a great role model for the other players because of her hard work and dedication to her studies and to her school.”

Groves did not hoop in college, but she otherwise continued her success. A social work major and member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, she was on track to graduate in May.

After an intensive manhunt, police arrested Travis Reinking, 29, who has a history of bizarre behavior, and charged him with criminal homicide on Monday. Reinking, who is originally from central Illinois, lived in an apartment not far from the Waffle House, a popular gathering place for early morning breakfast after a late night of fun.

Police have offered no information about a possible motive.

Groves’ murder stunned Belmont University, a Christian university where Monday chapel was transformed into a prayer session for Groves’ family and friends. A second service was to be held Monday evening at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Antioch, just outside Nashville, Belmont officials said.

“I am shocked and devastated by how such senseless violence has taken the life of this young woman, an individual full of immense potential,” Belmont president Bob Fisher said in a statement.

On social media, people who knew Groves expressed both anger and sadness as they posted tributes to her.

Seven members of the Deltas, three of them with their mouths taped shut, posted a photograph of themselves surrounding a red banner. It read: “Gun Control #DeEbony Groves Rest in Peace Soror.”

Friends also posted numerous pictures of Groves. In her high school graduation portrait, she is smiling broadly into the camera in her black dress and white pearls. And in later shots taken during her college years, Groves was made up and glamorous.

Antoinette Lee, a member of the Nashville Metropolitan Council, went to Vanderbilt University Medical Center to visit one of Groves’ sorority sisters, Sharita Henderson, who was among those injured in the rampage. She was reported to be in critical but stable condition on Monday.

“I met some of the sorority sisters who knew both of them,” Lee said in an interview. “There were about six or seven there at the hospital. All I could do was thank them for being supportive.”

The rampage began when the assailant got out of a pickup truck, naked except for a green jacket, and opened fire in the restaurant’s parking lot, killing two people. He then entered the crowded restaurant and killed two more people before his rifle was wrestled away by James Shaw, a 29-year-old AT&T technician and former Tennessee State University student. Disarmed, the assailant fled the scene.

Nashville police said Reinking was arrested last summer on the grounds of the White House and charged with unlawful entry after breaching a security barrier. Afterward, officials seized his four guns, including the AR-15 assault weapon used in the Waffle House killings. The guns were later given to Reinking’s father, who has acknowledged giving them back to his son, police said. In an earlier encounter with police, Reinking complained of being stalked by the singer Taylor Swift. A local police department in Illinois said that he once showed up at a pool in a pink dress before going to swim in his underwear and daring lifeguards to fight him, according to published reports.

The Waffle House shooting prompted Chris Grady, who identifies himself on Twitter as a member of March for Our Lives, to vent about the need for better gun control. “4 people murdered in cold blood at Waffle House,” he wrote. “We live in a country where going to get waffles can end with you staring down the barrel of a gun. This is not normal. We cannot accept the status quo. This is why we keep fighting, because this keeps happening.”

Our gaming expert unpacks ‘Ready Player One’ The female characters are tougher than the white guy in the lead, but it’s still candy for gamers

Ready Player One, the new Steven Spielberg movie based on Ernest Cline’s novel, is a love letter to gamers, geeks and game designers.

The movie, which is filled with pop culture references that will make any Gen Xer feel seen, tells the story of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who plays under the handle Parzival. It’s 2045 and Wade lives in a dystopian vision of America beset by extreme income inequality, where poor people live in communities called “The Stacks,” which are trailers piled on top of each other.

Wade’s hero is the creator of the virtual reality OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). OASIS isn’t just a game. It’s an entire virtual world. When Halliday dies, he leaves behind a stake in the company he built that is worth half a trillion dollars and a virtual scavenger hunt to determine who will get it.

Practically every gamer is after the loot, and they’re competing with a company called Innovative Online Industries (IOI), whose CEO, Nolan Sorrento, wants to take over Halliday’s company and make over OASIS as his own branded paradise. Sorrento and IOI hire an army of gaming mercenaries, called sixers, to try to crack the hunt. He also hires experts who’ve dedicated their lives to understanding Halliday to chase clues that could lead to the ultimate Easter egg, Halliday’s fortune.

Sorrento’s pretty awful. He conscripts individuals into playing on his behalf and holds them as indentured servants to make them play off debt they’ve amassed in the game. That’s how another gamer, Samantha (Olivia Cooke), who plays under the gamer tag Art3mis, decides that anyone but IOI should get the egg. Her father died in IOI custody playing off his debt. When Parzival wins Halliday’s first challenge, the prospect of winning the egg becomes real, and he’s helped by his friends, including Art3mis, Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao).

I discussed the movie with Latoya Peterson, The Undefeated’s deputy editor for digital innovation. She’s been gaming since she was 6, wrote about games for years, and has given talks on games and game theory at South by Southwest and the Game Developers Conference. She’s also a judge for the World Video Game Hall of Fame. Oh, and she paneled at MAGFest.

(Meanwhile, the only game I’ve ever successfully completed is Monument Valley.)

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and contains spoilers.

Latoya: I loved the movie! Waaaayyyyy better than the world of the book, and I attribute all of that to Spielberg. There are some issues, mind, but the movie is candy for gamers. And playing the OASIS before I watched made it so much more fun.

Soraya: Does it feel like the game that’s presented in the movie?

Oh, yes. When they enter the OASIS, I got so hype because they built that exact feeling into the VR [virtual reality] experience. The experience doesn’t put you in The Stacks like Wade, though. You start in a penthouse accessing the OASIS, which I guess places it toward the end of the movie? Or perhaps they felt like putting it in The Stacks was a little too real?

The geekier side of the world — gaming, fantasy, sci-fi — assumes that you will be the white boy who is going to save the world. And if you are a geek, this is what you are weaned on.

I was really stunned by the visuals. It really is this amazing feat of world creation. Especially Halliday’s journals, jeez.

Yes. I read some review that was negatively comparing the experience to “watching a video game over someone’s shoulder” and I wanted to ask if that reviewer had seen Twitch. Because this is the world now.

The journals should be the model for all future reference libraries.

We should explain! So, basically, rather than making people go and read Halliday’s journals, you go in and it’s almost like going to the Natural History Museum. Except you’re watching scenes from Halliday’s life.

That level of categorization and recall is amazing and so Silicon Valley. Halliday’s character is really interesting as well. It really valorizes that wistful boy genius trope.

One thing I kept wondering while I was watching is if it was odd that he’s making people spend all this time inside his head and analyzing his life to win his fortune? Part of me was like, isn’t this a bit narcissistic?

Yes, but also realistic. There are real-life Silicon Valley moguls who have that mentality, would set up a competition just like this.

I honestly prefer this narcissism to John Galt, so I’m good with it. There are some Silicon Valley types that worship Ayn Rand. They want to create a techno-utopia with no regulation for the rich, by the rich. I’d take Halliday any day.

I wonder if they would have been as introspective and sensitive about it as Halliday, though.

Game developers code their lives and experiences into games, so that part felt real. And people make games for all kinds of reasons: grief, regret, memorials. Last year’s Game Developers Conference was cloaked in grief because a major member of the community died, and it was interesting to watch people grapple with that through games.

Like That Dragon, Cancer.

Exactly. So an extensive cataloging of one’s life in a game isn’t odd. I mean, after all, isn’t Sinatra’s entire playlist doing the same thing?

Ha, ha! I suppose so.

And that tale of money and friendships broken and loves lost is also a very easy one. And the desire to go back before the thing you made was a business. In some ways, the movie is a love letter to artists. However, there were some things that were just ridiculous that I am still trying to wrap my head around. Like Wade’s characterization. I’ve been thinking hard about this since you asked to do this chat. This question of race and geekness and white boy narratives.

Drop that knowledge, Latoya!

You first, because it’s a lot.

So I didn’t find anything about this movie offensive. I think it’s … generous. It kind of papers over the more unsavory elements that we know exist within gaming communities.

Yes. It focuses on the community, not the exclusion. That dynamic is always at play in gaming. There is “we” and there is “you,” and those sides tend to shift.

But I think Wade/Parzival is the kind of person everyone wants to see themselves as. He’s an underdog, he wants to play the game alone. (There’s a whole thing about how he doesn’t “clan.”) He’s sort of sweet and morally/ethically pure, but also scared of girls.

I did not read him as pure so much as naive. And I feel like the way Art3mis is constructed in the film gives him a great foil, until she falls into the love interest trap. But, yes, you are supposed to identify with Wade.

You have to be naive to think you’re going to battle a tech company with an army of gaming mercenaries and think you’re going to beat them.

I believe that faster than I believe some psycho corporate thug would have his little Grinch heart moved because of Wade’s love for the game.

It was kind of refreshing to see a boy who’s so comfortable with being in his feelings. And I wonder how he got that way, because it damn sure wasn’t from his aunt or her cavalcade of roughneck gentlemen callers.

Of all the eye-roll moments in that movie, that was a big one. He’s sensitive. Maybe it’s from the dead parents.

That’s what I wonder about Wade. How did he manage to avoid being full of anger?

I don’t think he did, necessarily. It’s just channeled. He also swings hard into NiceGuy territory a few times. But since he generally gets everything he wants in the narrative, there’s no need to let that side out.

Wade is supposed to be the character you identify with the most onscreen. That is generally the construction around these kinds of offerings. The geekier side of the world — gaming, fantasy, sci-fi — assumes that you will be the white boy who is going to save the world. And if you are a geek, this is what you are weaned on. I realized in prepping for our discussion that this is what I was raised on. It’s how we know how to define the world. I still love Marty McFly and Tom Swift and Paul Muad’Dib Atreides.

The white boy who is “the one” is canon, so I was expecting that in many ways. Now, Wade Watts is no Marty McFly, even with a tricked-out DeLorean. But I see what they wanted to do.

The thing is, though, the world has expanded a lot since the ’80s. Our construction of hero is broader, so it was fascinating to me to see some of the devices employed to keep Wade the hero. I thought I was going to have the most to say about Aech/Helen, but it’s really Art3mis/Samantha that captures my attention.

She’s clearly very smart.

Throughout the game, she proves herself to be a more strategic player. Wade outthinks her on the first challenge, she outthinks him on the second. She’s also markedly a better shooter. In all of her scenes with Wade, she’s lead and nice with the guns. So how does she end up sacrificing herself so Wade could play? And why does he make the [NICEGUY] move of taking her out the game for her own good?

She and Helen get sacrificed. That was infuriating.

Also, if she’s the leader of the rebellion, how did she kneel to a lesser shooter? I will accept zombies in The Shining before I accept a player of that level of skill would roll over for her less experienced love interest.

Also, can we sidebar on their romance?

You are telling me the same kid that almost creamed his pants being touched in through a virtual suit suddenly has game with a real girl in real life on a roof? And this grizzled young leader of the rebellion who watched her father die in debtors prison, who is giving off hella riot girl vibes in her ripped stockings and shorts, is going to roll over for a dude who she has awkward conversation with because he solved a really hard puzzle?

That’s how you can tell who wrote this. But I guess this is what happens when you are the anointed — it’s your narrative, whether you earned it or not. The sacrifice of the friends is a thing — I mean they did it in Sailor Moon! But it’s interesting that the women, who were both independent and rebellious, gave up their own journeys to boost Wade’s.

I will accept zombies in The Shining before I accept a player of that level of skill would roll over for her less experienced love interest.

Wade is very much like Charlie (of the Chocolate Factory), or the Narnia kids, or Harry Potter, even the book version of A Wrinkle in Time. But it still has to make sense!

Well, to be fair, you don’t want a perfect hero.

Right. He has to be relatable.

But there’s a big gap between “perfect” and “you’ve got to be kidding me.” I mean a lot of the fun in the hero’s journey is that process of discovery, of them becoming less of a brat. (You know I’m criticizing Wade hard, but people said the same stuff about Tidus in FFX.)

Wade is more like wish fulfillment.

Yeah, you’re right. Like Wade winning the first challenge got him money and gear, but did he really level up any skills in this narrative?

Which, again, makes him candy for gamers who look like him and will identify with him and who, in their heads, think it makes perfect sense that after getting felt up through a virtual suit he’s going to get his head together and have game.

The OASIS was way better developed as a space and character than many of the villains and side characters.

Exactly. Which brings us to this: The real world in this movie is a horrible dystopian crapfest. I can totally understand how someone could just live in OASIS and abandon their real life. Which is why it seems odd that [spoiler] Wade takes the game offline on Tuesdays and Thursdays in this noble quest to make people appreciate the real world around them.

You know what would make me not want to spend all my time in OASIS? Not living in a dystopian crapfest!

Hmm. Made sense to me. The whole point of the journey was to discover that Halliday’s life was full of games because he couldn’t grok the real world. Wade keeps pledging he won’t make the same mistakes.

Thoughts on Helen?

I wish we knew why she was playing as a dude. She’s kind of a classic black best friend in a lot of ways. I mean, she’s a very clever, amusing one.

Yes. She is leaps and bounds more than I expected but is still doing an amazing job with the traditional spot. Well cast, well executed, but Aech is a shadow character. Just like Daito and Sho.

It’s funny to me that Wade/Parzival has these supersmart friends who clearly have strengths that he does not, but he doesn’t want to clan up?

The OASIS is open world. You normally clan for battle games, but not necessarily others. RPGs [role-playing games], sure. But this is more of a quest game. And even though the OASIS was never meant to be single-player, most of the designed challenges were.

Link was generally solo in Zelda — it’s like that.

Ahh, OK. But let’s close on Helen.

Do I wish Helen had more to do, more characterization? Yes. Am I happy she was there at all? Yes! Do I wish I knew more about her? Yes. It’s the eternal black friend conundrum. Hopefully the box office is high enough that there’s a Ready Player Two (Shout-out to Shira Chess!) that can build out Samantha and Helen as more than plot devices. That said, I’m impressed. It is damn hard to get a good gamer movie, and we got one! I just always want more.

I did not expect to love it as much as I did. It’s a gamer’s movie, 5 out of 5, with all the flaws. Now I just want them to drop the full VR experience.

Trailblazing black journalist Les Payne showed no fear in pursuit of the truth He’ll be remembered as an NABJ founder and Pulitzer Prize winner, and a mentor and role model to many

My friend Les Payne is dead.

During his 38-year journalism career, Les had many close encounters with death. He once escaped the Mediterranean island of Corsica just minutes ahead of the thugs whom a drug dealer sent to his hotel to “turn out his lights.”

On another occasion, Les found himself staring down the barrels of guns when a car he was riding in was stopped by soldiers of a rival guerrilla army faction in the newly created African nation of Zimbabwe. Les was held for hours and threatened with execution by an officer who mistook him for a spy.

Then, while in California trying to make contact with the Symbionese Liberation Army, a black revolutionary group that kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, Les was confronted by a gun-wielding SLA member who ordered him into a phone booth. Les had only minutes to live, the man said, if he couldn’t get someone on the phone at Newsday, the Long Island, New York, newspaper where he spent his entire career, to prove that he was a journalist.

And there was the late-night run-in that Les had with two of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s secret policemen that produced another life-threatening experience for him.

But when Les Payne died Monday night at age 76, it was a heart attack that quickly snatched the life from his body as he stood on the steps of his home in Harlem — not the wrath of those who hated his fearless brand of journalism.

I can’t think of a better ending for a man who was, arguably, the most consequential American journalist of the past 50 years.

Les didn’t just report the news; he often uncovered the story behind the headlines that many journalists missed. He was a bare-knuckles reporter who braved the dangers of journalism. More often than not he worked alone, far away from stampeding herds of journalists. “Wherever you see groups of journalists milling about, there is no news. All you’ll find in places like that is the stuff that people in power want you to know, not the stuff they’re hiding from you,” he once told me.

In four decades of reporting and editing, Les found a lot of what powerful people were hiding.

In 1970, he went undercover to get an up-close look at the mistreatment of black migrant workers on a potato farm on Long Island. A native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Les was no stranger to that kind of labor. As a child, he picked cotton alongside his grandmother on an Alabama farm where the poorly paid black workers were expected to work from dawn to dusk — or, as the old-timers say, “from can’t see, to can’t see.” Les’ story brought improvements to the conditions under which Long Island’s migrant laborers worked.

When heroin deaths spiked in New York City during the early 1970s, Les and two fellow Newsday reporters tracked the flow of heroin, as he often said, “from the poppy fields of Turkey, through the French connection and into the veins of junkies in Harlem.” The 33-part series won them the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for public service.

The following year, Les came together with 43 other black journalists in Washington, D.C., to create the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). They wanted to use their collective muscle to push for the hiring of more black journalists and better coverage of black communities across the nation.

But when Chuck Stone, the group’s first president, called for the drafting of bylaws, Les, who questioned the need for such organizational structure in the fight for black rights, snapped, “We don’t need bylaws. We need to kick some behinds.”

Using his journalistic voice to kick butts was something Les delighted in doing. He did it as an investigative reporter in his coverage of the black liberation movement in Africa. In reporting on the murderous rule of Amin in Uganda, Les called it “a holocaust” — which caused his encounter with Amin’s heavies.

He kicked butt in his coverage of South Africa’s Soweto uprising when he visited funeral homes throughout that black township to prove that the death toll of blacks killed by the gendarmes of that pigmentocracy was substantially higher than what the white apartheid government was telling the world.

Les kicked butt in this country too. His reporting on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. poked holes in the government’s conclusion that James Earl Ray acted alone in taking the life of the civil rights leader. His coverage of the presidential campaign of Barack Obama also pummeled some behinds.

During the 2016 NABJ convention, Les tried to clear from Obama’s road to the White House one of black America’s political toll-takers: “Proving that he is as immune to irony as he is to shame, the Rev. Al Sharpton strutted onto the stage as a panelist for the annual W.E.B. DuBois Lecture. That most vital American scholar of the last century would likely have viewed Sharpton as a noisy answer for which there is no known question.” Ouch!

But Les was no sycophant for any politician. I remember standing with him in Denver’s Mile High Stadium on the night of Aug. 28, 2006, when Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. After allowing himself to smile broadly at the end of Obama’s speech, Les turned to me, and with a tilt of his head and a stare he said: “Just remember, the job of the black journalist is to be a watchdog, not a lap dog.”

I’m proud to have been his friend of 43 years. Les guarded his friends as much as he nurtured his friendships. When Bill O’Reilly linked Randall Pinkston to jihadist terrorists because he worked for Al-Jazeera, Les wrote an open letter to the then-Fox News talk show host.

“Randall Pinkston is too much of a gentleman to answer your on-air slander against him; so I will,” he said. “You have chosen … to question the patriotism of this black journalist born in apartheid Mississippi, who desegregated the local TV station with the assistance of Medgar Evers … I’m sure Randall’s long, patriotic family struggle as African-Americans up from slavery has no meaning whatsoever for you. As the son of Irish immigrants who were extended white privileges, albeit from the dredges, you have ascended the media feeding chain with a sense of fairness as meager as your talents.”

History should not be allowed to forget Les, as it has so many other blacks who championed the race. We owe it to him not only to thank him for his service but also to emulate his determination to be a truth-teller in a profession that more than ever before needs a Les Payne.