All hail King Bey, queen of the desert and mistress of the internet #Beychella served up a panoply of blackness, from HBCUs to Wakanda and Fela Kuti to Nina Simone

The internet has been taking a hammering lately, especially from people who don’t quite understand it.

Earlier this week, a good portion of the chattering classes tuned their televisions to cable news to watch congressmen grill a tech billionaire using a booster seat about his creation, and how it and Vladimir Putin together might be responsible for the downfall of Western democracy. Or something. Earlier this month, the federal government seized the online classified site Backpage.com, shutting it down and putting sex workers at risk by moving their work further into the shadows, many argued. And the Cannes film festival banned Netflix from entering films in its competition, in part because French film purists argue that Netflix is destroying the communal aspect of consuming film.

If you pay attention to the news, the overwhelming conclusion is that the internet is a dangerous place full of lies, conspiracy theories, hate speech, free porn, and Russian trolls and it’s making us worse as human beings. And there’s some truth to that.

But it’s not the whole story of the internet. Leave it to Beyoncé to remind us.

The first lady of Tidal, Houston, fish fries, and — let’s just say the modern African diaspora — made history (again) late Saturday night as the first black woman to headline Coachella, the oovy-groovy, hippie-dippie, psychedelic-infused annual music festival in the California desert. Naturally, she used it to serve up a panoply of blackness, from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to Zamunda to Wakanda to Egypt to Fela Kuti to Nefertiti to Malcolm X to James Weldon Johnson to Nina Simone. But her decision to livestream her entire two-hour performance is what makes Beyoncé as astute as any tech billionaire about the power and possibility of the internet.

It’s not the first time she’s used the internet to vault herself into international conversation. She did it with the surprise release of BEYONCÉ, with the HBO debut of Lemonade, with the launch of her expertly curated website and Instagram account. Beyoncé knows how to create a moment.

But choosing to livestream her Coachella performance signals something more. Rather than limiting her audience to the tens of thousands of ticket-buying festival attendees in Indio, California, Beyoncé created an internet community around #Beychella, harnessing a Southern-fried When and Where I Enter moment to be exported, dissected, and re-created.

This was something everyone with an internet connection got to witness, too. For free.

It’s exactly the sort of democratizing act that used to give us hope in the internet. Because what is the simultaneous clattering of keyboards about #Beychella if not a moment of community, a mechanism for sharing our amens together as we all visit the sanctuary of Beysus?

Fully aware of her dual status as greatest living entertainer and black American woman, Beyoncé didn’t go to Indio to assimilate to the typical Coachella drag of crop-top fringe, ripped denim, and muddy boots. Instead, she brought an HBCU-style halftime show and a probate exhibition, complete with a marching band and dancing dolls. She aggregates elements of black culture, high and low, American, African, Creole, and everything in between, and spits them back out into something new, craveable, and instantly consumable.

Honestly, how many people knew who the orisha Oshun was before Lemonade dropped? Don’t lie, either.

Fully aware of her dual status as greatest living entertainer and black American woman, Beyoncé didn’t go to Indio to assimilate to the typical Coachella drag of crop-top fringe, ripped denim, and muddy boots.

Ever since she released “Formation,” Beyoncé has been exploring ways to carry black people on her back via a series of high-profile, unapologetic salvos in the culture wars. There was the Super Bowl. There was the Grammys. And now there’s Beychella. Forget about Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress. We got Beyoncé in go-go boots.

Thanks to the internet, we bear witness to the way police are weaponized against innocent black people waiting for a friend in a Philadelphia Starbucks. And thanks to the internet, we can rightfully raise hell about it, too. And then, because the nonstop reminders of how black people aren’t fully recognized as people is exhausting and depressing, we can have a much-deserved moment to celebrate ourselves, even if that moment happens to be at 2 o’clock in the morning on the East Coast.

Some will skip over the art and jump straight to arguing that Beyoncé has commodified black liberation.

But I’d say Beyoncé has assessed her power in the world, the possibilities of the internet, and combined the two to march on as an evangelist of black feminism.

Wyatt Cenac can’t fix the world, but he’s sure going to try The comedian’s new HBO show, ‘Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas’ isn’t about identifying everything wrong with the world. It’s about finding solutions.

The most unusual thing about Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, the comedian and Daily Show alum’s new late-night show for HBO, is its startling focus on finding solutions to complex, scary, seemingly impossible problems.

This approach to late night, to comedy and to, well, life on earth is, frankly, surprising. After all, Cenac, 41, is a self-proclaimed nihilist. And his show, which premieres Friday night, joins a field of late-night comedy shows that, to one degree or another, are about all the ways our hair should be on fire because of nutjobs with too much power. They’re all influenced by the OG of this model, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which called out hypocrisy and incompetence. Now we have:

  • Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: calls out corruption and incompetence
  • Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: calls out sexism and incompetence
  • The Rundown with Robin Thede: calls out racism and incompetence

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: offers a nightly summation of all these things while making us laugh before we’re all vaporized in a nuclear Holocaust.

Perhaps sensing that there’s only so much ha-ha-hair-on-fire programming an audience can take, Cenac has steered Problem Areas in the other direction. While billionaires such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson may be looking for ways to bail on Earth, the vast majority of humans can’t afford to do that. The pragmatic approach, Cenac suggests, would be to make Earth work — you know, while it’s still here. This is particularly amusing given that Cenac’s last show, People of Earth, was a fictional comedy for TBS about a journalist investigating an alien invasion. Apparently the aliens aren’t going to save us.

And so, through 10 episodes, Cenac is taking a look at police violence and what can be done to curb it. His studio audience is composed not of other humans but of Siri and Alexa, and Cenac takes his television audience through his “problem areas” in the comfort of a ’70s news set appointed with lots of wood and earth tones. The show re-examines the death of Philando Castile with expert interviews, including of police officers.

The result is a show unlike anything else on late night, a mix of mirth, seriousness and palpable sensitivity. Problem Areas, whose executive producers include Oliver, Cenac and Oscar-winning documentary director Ezra Edelman, feels like a cross between 60 Minutes and Last Week Tonight, but hosted by a guy whose affect suggests he’s just taken couple of hits off a really good vape pen.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s interested in answering questions that too often are ignored. After showing a clip of the daughter of Castile’s girlfriend attempting to comfort her mother, Diamond Reynolds, while she’s handcuffed in the back of a police car, Cenac asks, “For the people of Philando Castile’s community around St. Paul, what needs to happen for them to feel safer? How do they get a different outcome?”

Can another late-night comedy news show change the world? Probably not. But maybe it can inspire us to think differently. And that’s a start.

HBO’s ‘King in the Wilderness’ reveals the loneliness of his last years Interviews with Martin Luther King’s closest friends reveal the personal cost of his focus on poverty and Vietnam

It’s a popular rallying cry for activists: We have nothing to lose but our chains!

But a new documentary on Martin Luther King Jr. illustrates the costs of calling out the shortcomings of your country, and one of them is loneliness.

In King in the Wilderness, which airs Monday night on HBO, Emmy-winning director Peter Kunhardt (The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates Jr., Gloria: In Her Own Words, Jim: The James Foley Story) traces the final three years of King’s life through interviews with 19 of his friends and colleagues, including Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Diane Nash and Xernona Clayton. What emerges is a deeply personal portrait of King as human and vulnerable, someone who was not impervious to the criticism directed his way. HBO is making the full-length interviews, about 35 hours’ worth of footage, available on its website the same day.

King in the Wilderness charts the intellectual path that led King to Beyond Vietnam, the controversial speech he delivered at Riverside Church in Harlem, New York, exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. By 1967, King had identified a triad of oppression, consisting of racism, poverty and militarism. He was trying to convince his followers the three were inextricably linked and that it was impossible to remedy one without addressing the other two.

But as King’s understanding of the world grew more complex and his critique went beyond the barbarism of Jim Crow, it became more difficult to marshal supporters. History is filled with martyrs who eventually find themselves in the wilderness for daring to speak openly about injustice, from Nina Simone to Muhammad Ali to present-day wanderers such as Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid. We want our heroes to shut up and sing, or shut up and grab a gun when your country tells you to, or shut up and play ball, or simply shut up. And when they don’t, we take away the pedestal that allowed them to command our attention in the first place, in the form of album sales, or boxing licenses, or NFL contracts.

When King spoke out publicly against the Vietnam War, friends stopped calling, movement supporters stopped donating and his invitations to speak as a guest preacher began to dwindle. He earned the ire of those who were reluctant to criticize President Lyndon B. Johnson, the man who’d signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And there wasn’t necessarily a natural home for King in the anti-war movement, which featured young, white draft dodgers who had the luxury of burning the American flag in the street in a way that King and his black cohorts did not.

When you lose the adrenaline rush of dancing in the ring, or captivating an audience from your perch at a piano, or evading a sack, or nourishing souls around the country every Sunday, what’s left? That is the revelation of King in the Wilderness: that a man with a deep faith in the power of love could fall victim to something as common as depression.

Kunhardt presents King as more than an amalgamation of factoids, quotations and important dates. He explores King’s relationship with his father, Martin Luther King Sr., and it’s eye-opening to think of King Jr. as a young man bumping up against the authority of his father, who cast a long shadow as a community leader and patriarch. King, for example, was interested in folding the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche into his sermons, while his father, a preacher steeped in black Southern tradition, was not so keen on it.

King didn’t have a natural home in the anti-war movement, which featured young, white draft dodgers who had the luxury of burning the American flag in the street in a way that he and his black cohorts did not.

It’s easy enough to recognize that King paid for the country’s freedom with his life. But there was an earlier price, as King’s vision left his contemporaries feeling betrayed, angry and willing to withdraw the status they had conferred upon him. In the documentary, Clayton recounts how King’s close friends simply wanted to see him smile and laugh again after a year in which he’d done so little of either. She recounted presenting him with a couple of gag gifts at a birthday party in January 1968 in hopes of pulling King into the sun.

If Eyes on the Prize is required viewing for eighth-grade social studies classes, King in the Wilderness feels like an apt follow-up for older students who can identify with feelings of isolation and uncertainty about one’s place in the world. It broadens him beyond the two-dimensional rendering so many schoolchildren are presented with every year in advance of the King holiday. That seems especially valuable now as a generation of young people (including King’s own granddaughter) mobilize and agitate for a country with less gun violence and more compassion.

“I believe he died a happy man,” Clayton told an audience at Riverside Church after a recent screening of King in the Wilderness. “I really do.” She kept nodding as she repeated the words, and it was as though, 50 years later, she wasn’t just saying it to soothe those gathered in the pews, but to remind herself too.

Many believe Austin, Texas’ troubled racial history is behind deadly bombings Families of victims Draylen Mason and Anthony House are prominent in city’s African-American community

Three deadly bombings within 10 days in the Texas capital of Austin, victimizing three African-Americans and one Hispanic, have, shockingly and revealingly, peeled back the layers of a deep-rooted history of racial strife in a city considered, at least on the surface, among the most liberal and progressive in the state, if not the entire country.

“It’s almost like, ‘Do the bombings uncover another side of Austin?’ It’s that other side that people really don’t get that I think is a national story.”

The speaker is Joseph C. Parker, an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas and federal courts and senior pastor at David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in East Austin. A longtime community activist whose father marched with Martin Luther King Jr., Parker drew parallels between the deadly bombings in Austin and the ones that terrorized his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, five decades earlier.

“When the bombings were happening when I was growing up in Birmingham, it was a segregated city and a racist city. When you contrast the image of Birmingham, which we negatively referred to as ‘Bombingham,’ there were killings all across the South. But now you come to the 21st century, and to have bombings in Austin, Texas, raises a different contrast than bombings in the 1960s in Birmingham,” Parker said March 16 after it was revealed that Austin police received 236 suspicious package reports in 24 hours and a total of 735 as of Sunday since March 12, when two package bombs exploded — one killing Draylen Mason, 17, and critically injuring his mother. A second explosion killed 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera. Authorities connected those bombings to the first package bomb that killed Anthony Stephan House, 39, on March 2.

The families of Mason and House are prominent in the African-American community. House and Mason both attended Wesley United Methodist Church, where Mason’s stepfather, Freddie Dixon, was a minister for more than 20 years. Dixon is friendly with Mason’s grandfather, Norman Mason, who operates a dental practice in Austin. A high school senior, Mason was a talented bassist who had been accepted to the prestigious Baker School of Music at the University of Texas. Mason’s grandmother, LaVonne Mason, is a co-founder of the Austin Area Urban League.

On Monday, interim Police Chief Brian Manley said, “We are clearly dealing with what we expect to be a serial bomber at this point.”

Austin police have been joined by more than 500 federal agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and a reward of $115,000 has been offered for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator. “It’s clear to everybody involved this is creating terror in our community, this is creating fear,” Manley said during a community forum on March 15.

After another explosion Sunday in a different part of Austin in which two men in their 20s were hospitalized but in good condition, officials didn’t know if the latest bombing was connected to the first three.

The race of the victims was not released. This time, a suspicious backpack was left near the scene of the explosion. In another incident during the weekend, police arrested a man early Sunday morning who they said emailed a bomb threat that forced the cancellation of a concert by The Roots at the city’s popular South by Southwest music festival.

Said Parker, who is among a group of attorneys who filed four landmark lawsuits last month challenging the winner-take-all method that states use to allocate their Electoral College votes:

“How does that happen here? I believe it’s race-based, but it may be disclosed later that’s not the real reason. People just don’t know. Who’s doing this? Why are they doing this? In my mind, my upbringing, coming up in Birmingham when bombings were taking place, this brings that back for me. When people speak of Austin, they speak of it being a progressive city, a Texas city different from any other place in the state. I love Austin. But there are still some race challenges here, and I believe it is because we have not dealt appropriately with the issue of race in this country.”

Austin acknowledged as much two years ago when Mayor Steve Adler formed a task force in response to racially motivated incidents involving African-Americans and police. One involved the fatal shooting of 17-year-old David Joseph that resulted in a $3.25 million settlement to the teenager’s family — the largest payout in the city’s history as a result of lethal police force. In another incident, Officer Bryan Richter’s forceful arrest of Breaion King led to an HBO documentary, Traffic Stop.

Headed by Huston-Tillotson University president Colette Pierce Burnette and Austin Independent School District superintendent Paul Cruz, the task force found in its initial report that Austin faces severe systematic and institutional racism as a result of racially motivated city policies and ordinances.

In 1928, Austin created a “Negro District,” which resulted in black residents being forced to move east of what is now Interstate 35. Whites took over property west of Interstate 35 once held by blacks. In later years, through gentrification, whites acquired desirable real estate held by blacks closer to downtown.

Much of the distrust and anger in the African-American community can be traced to that history.

Last September, statues of Confederate leaders were removed from the University of Texas campus near the state Capitol. Five months later, the Austin school board voted 7-2 to remove the names of men who served in either the Confederate military or government from five campuses. Trustee Ted Gordon, the only African-American on the school board, put forward the motion.

“Austin, Texas, is viewed nationally as a very prosperous city. But it’s also a white city, that’s very clear,” said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin region’s NAACP branch since 2000. “The policies here have never really treated black people right.”

“There’s an issue with the system continually justifying its behavior. The leadership is OK with always apologizing,” said Fatima Mann, executive director of the grass-roots organization Counter Balance: ATX, who attended the forum. “On top of that, how Anthony [House] was treated. Blacks never get to be the victim, even when we are victimized.”

Linder, who indicated the intended target was another person who might have been connected to House and Mason, said Austin’s poor race relations contributed to black skepticism about the police investigation into the bombings. It was days before police told the public that the explosion that killed House had been caused by a package, and more than a week before authorities warned the public to beware of suspicious packages.

“I’m asking people to keep an open mind. Let’s be willing to follow the facts and go where they lead us,” said Linder, who hired House to build and maintain the NAACP’s website a decade ago. “For me, being involved in the investigation, there’s a force out there targeting families who are connected, and they’re doing it in a very professional manner. We [can’t] be biased ourselves because the folks being killed are black. So while we have these issues of equity and racism, we have to have the ability to not let what we’ve experienced govern all of our ideas. Yet, knowing who we are and the history of what we’ve gone through, that’s a challenge.”

‘Insecure’s’ Natasha Rothwell knows a thing or two about (teaching) drama The writer and actress taps into her life for a new role in ‘Love, Simon’

You probably know Natasha Rothwell as Kelli, who, along with Amanda Seales, rounds out the foursome of female friends on Insecure anchored by Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji.

Kelli had that rather, err, explosive scene in season two. The one in the diner where she’s enjoying herself at the surreptitious hand of her male partner. Men experiencing pleasure in inappropriate places is a whole subgenre of comedy (See: Vince Vaughn and Isla Fisher at the dinner table in Wedding Crashers for an especially memorable example.) But like with so many things, Insecure takes that trope and flips it. There was Kelli, drunk and eyes widening, as her friends looked on.

Did she just … ?

Or maybe you remember Rothwell because she’s been immortalized in GIF form for the way she delivered one word.

Rothwell, a former Saturday Night Live writer, is both a writer and series regular on Insecure. She’s also developing a show of her own for HBO. And on March 9, her new movie, Love, Simon, opens. The film, directed by CW rainmaker Greg Berlanti, is about a kid (Nick Robinson) who struggles with coming out, even though he’s surrounded by supportive family and friends. Instead, he seeks solace and community online, emailing pseudonymously back and forth with another kid at his school who’s also closeted.

All of this happens against the backdrop of regular senior-year angst. Rothwell is a natural scene-stealer as Ms. Albright, a perpetually unimpressed drama teacher trying to lead her students through a production of Cabaret. She does a lot of eye-rolling and huffing about the fact that her career never took off after she was an extra in The Lion King, which is why she’s a high school drama teacher.

There’s a bit of truth in all fiction, and Rothwell didn’t have to look particularly far to find inspiration for Ms. Albright.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Did you have any instructors like Ms. Albright?

I definitely was inspired by drama teachers in high school named Mr. Walsh and Ms. O’Neil, and both of them were very formative in helping me sort of understand theater. But I think my biggest inspiration is that I was a high school drama teacher in real life for four years in the Bronx. It was really sort of nuts how real life had prepared me for this a while ago. When I moved to New York, I really wanted to find my bread job as close to my passion as possible. There’s nobility in waiting tables. But I really wanted to find a job in the arts, and so I started teaching.

What did you take from that experience? High school life is so melodramatic anyway. I have to imagine the kids were a source of entertainment.

Oh, absolutely! I mean, there’s one student who wrote the monologue he was supposed to have memorized down his arm. So, it’s like the comedy of watching someone looking down at his arm and trying to get away with that kind of stuff. And then there’s a real sense of community. I feel like theater in high school seems to be sort of like the safe haven for the outsiders and people who don’t necessarily fit in. And it was a … come-as-you-are sort of class and it’s a come-as-you-are after-school activity.

I often worked with students who didn’t necessarily excel academically, but they thrived in the arts. And I think a lot of the sports teams felt the same way. They may not thrive in this area but were finding a home for their passion. And then that in turn motivated them academically because in order to participate in the theater program, they had to make the grades academically.

“I can sit at home and lament the fact that a really honest-to-goodness romcom starring me doesn’t exist. I could bemoan that and throw a penny in a well, or I can write it.”

You have quite a bit of experience in sketch and improv comedy. What is the most ridiculous ‘yes, and’ situation you’ve ever had to play off of?

It would probably be an improv situation where I was a part of [Upright Citizens Brigade]. We would do jams where you do a show with a bunch of people, and you invite members of the audience that didn’t necessarily come there to participate and do improv in front of an audience. And depending on the time of the jam, some of the audience members could be intoxicated, and so there definitely have been times where I found myself onstage trying to triage the scene with a drunk audience member. Or new people to comedy confuse funny for mean. And so, in those jam situations you get an audience member onstage and they want to be funny so badly that they end up saying something mean or hurtful to someone else. So you’re there to spin it in a positive way to save the scene.

The really awkward moments of just like, ‘I have to agree with this person onstage, but then I have to end it with something that will make the scene palatable.’ I definitely have been there.

Last year the Los Angeles Times published a spread about black women in comedy. There were all these talented actresses, some with years of experience, talking about limits and stereotypes with the roles they’re approached to play. As a writer, have you given thought to the role you want to play that no one else is going to write?

I do feel as a writer the sort of inspiration I get for things … is to fill that gap of “Oh, these are things that I want to do that I don’t get the opportunity to do.” Or scenes [where] people aren’t necessarily considering women of color, they won’t cast women of color in a specific story. I think about it often, but I don’t necessarily think of it in terms of “I want to be cast” or I don’t think about in terms of “Here’s a role that I wish someone would cast me in.” I just feel like to sit and have that wish is inactive. And what’s active is writing it.

I can sit at home and lament the fact that a really honest-to-goodness rom-com starring someone like me doesn’t exist. I could bemoan that and throw a penny in a well, or I can write it. And I can type that version of that story in a writers’ room, if I should be so lucky. Or if I am blessed to direct or cast and have those says as an executive producer, I’ll do those things, and for me that’s an active approach.

You know, we work twice as hard for half as much has been the hand we’ve been dealt. I want to get to work and I want to start creating those roles.

What can you tell me about your project with HBO?

HBO has been incredible and a huge champion of my work, my passions, and has been a great home for my talent, I feel. Developing my own series that I will be writing and starring in is just massive. It’s a comedy. It takes place in New York, and it’s going to be an opportunity to write myself into the role and situation that we haven’t seen yet. And, I am really, really excited because I think we are going to be doing something that I haven’t seen before and HBO hasn’t seen before. That’s about all I can get into it about it. But I can’t wait for everyone to see it.

Oscar-nominated film about Emmett Till contemplates how racial terror affects those left behind Kevin Wilson Jr., the director of ‘My Nephew Emmett,’ is still in film school

Kevin Wilson Jr. has spent more than half his life thinking about Emmett Till and the night he was murdered.

A few days from now, he might just win an Oscar for it.

Wilson, 28, is the director of My Nephew Emmett, which is nominated for an Academy Award for best live action short film. The film looks at the day Till was kidnapped from the viewpoint of his uncle, Mose Wright, the relative Till was visiting in Mississippi in the summer of 1955.

When Wilson was an undergraduate studying journalism and mass communication at North Carolina A&T University, he mounted a play about Till. That one adopted Till’s own perspective as an audacious 14-year-old boy from Chicago going South to visit relatives. Wilson had begun working on the play when he was a 15-year-old student at Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina, which has one of the most respected theater programs in the state.

It’s terrifying, as a black person, to put yourself in the shoes of Till, an innocent snatched from his bed, kidnapped, tortured, murdered and thrown into the Tallahatchie River like so much garbage, all because he’d made the mistake of co-existing for a few moments with a white woman named Carolyn Bryant.

You know the story: Till was at a grocery store in Money, Mississippi. Bryant accused him of whistling at her and later lied to federal prosecutors, telling them that Till had touched her. Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam rode to the Wright house the night of the alleged interaction and took Till at gunpoint. When his broken body was recovered from the Tallahatchie, his mother, Mamie Till, insisted that his casket remain open at his funeral for the world to see what had happened to him. Till’s body was eventually exhumed and reburied, and his original casket is now on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Wilson learned that story when he was 5 years old. His mother, now 54, had not yet been born when Till was killed, but the story reverberated through her childhood just the same. In 1995, she told it to Wilson, her only child, whom she was raising alone. It was a way of protecting him. That’s the legacy of Jim Crow and the terrorism of the lynching era: Half a century after Till’s death, his killers are still robbing black children of the right to grow up peacefully naïve. Wilson has two children of his own, and he plans to educate them similarly.

“It’s still very much relevant because we have, still, people of color, even in present day, who are being killed and no one is being held accountable for it,” Wilson said by phone from Los Angeles a few days before the Academy Awards. “So I think until we get to the point where a life is taken and we can just automatically say, ‘OK, a life was taken. There’s no debate. Someone is being held accountable for it,’ we have to continue telling those stories.”

Half a century after Till’s death, his killers are still robbing black children of the right to grow up peacefully naïve.

Although Wilson speaks with the authority of a filmmaker many years his senior, he won’t finish film school at New York University until later this year. He’s one of two Spike Lee protégés contending for awards Sunday night. The other is Mudbound director Dee Rees, who, along with co-writer Virgil Williams, was nominated for best adapted screenplay.

Lee brought Rees to speak to his class last semester, Wilson said, and he also gave Wilson the funds to finish his film when he came up short in postproduction. Once Wilson decided as an undergraduate that he was more interested in directing than acting, he spent a summer immersing himself in Lee’s work. He watched Do the Right Thing every single day, and he read everything he could find that the famed director had published, including his journals.

Do The Right Thing is the movie that made me fall in love with cinema,” Wilson said.

That love is evident in My Nephew Emmett. Wilson insisted on filming on location in Mississippi, although it upped the production costs, and he treats the story with the intellect and considered beauty that’s typical of the Disciples of Spike. Shot by cinematographer Laura Valladao, My Nephew Emmett forces its audience to think about space and proximity. When Bryant (Ethan Leaverton) and Milam (Dane Rhodes) ride on the Wright house and threaten Mose at gunpoint, they do so under the cover of night. There’s no physical distance in this crime — the men are close enough to wet Mose’s face with spittle. So often, the crimes that took place against black people during Jim Crow, whether it was lynching or sexual assault, happened in small towns where victims knew their assailants, a twisted flip side of the way small-town life is often celebrated as simple and bucolic. The Jim Crow era was marked by physical closeness and heavily enforced psychological distance, a theme Rees explores in Mudbound as well.

In My Nephew Emmett, Mose Wright is forced to decide whether to sacrifice Till to his attackers or subject the entire family to similar treatment by refusing to give up his nephew. The threat of sexual assault looms when one of the attackers grabs Mose’s wife, Elizabeth, played by Jasmine Guy.

“I’m a father, and I was curious about that feeling of having to decide between your son, or nephew in this case, and the rest of your family,” Wilson said. “It’s an impossible decision to make. And then what happens after that, after you make that decision. I think that Mose’s story is one of extreme courage; to be able to identify these men on camera, he was putting his life at risk. His entire family had to leave that home. They didn’t go back to that home after that night. They all moved back up to Chicago eventually.”

My Nephew Emmett is part of a wave of new projects about Till. Taraji P. Henson is producing and starring as Mamie Till in a film that John Singleton is directing. Steven Caple Jr., the director taking over the Creed sequel from Ryan Coogler, is writing an HBO miniseries about Till produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith.

“Mose’s story is one of extreme courage; to be able to identify these men on camera, he was putting his life at risk. His entire family had to leave that home.”

Wilson is a good example of why it’s worth paying attention to shorts, even if you’re a casual film buff. It’s not always easy to see all of the contenders in one place, and few movie theaters screen them (My Nephew Emmett is available on iTunes). But they can be a good predictor of future success and often offer glimpses of a director’s storytelling acumen because their brevity demands discipline. For example, Roger Ross Williams, the director who won the Oscar for best documentary short for Music by Prudence, went on to create the tender and inventive feature-length documentary Life, Animated. Damien Chazelle initially made Whiplash as a short before turning it into the feature-length project of the same name. It won three Oscars — for best supporting actor (J.K. Simmons), sound mixing, and film editing — and was nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay.

Wilson is now trying to find funding for his next project, a feature-length thriller. Sunday, he’ll be in a room full of people with the deep pockets to help him.

“My goal is to be able to make a feature film every year and do television in between or commercials in between and plays in between,” Wilson said. “To be creating every day.”

Chadwick Boseman on the revolutionary success of ’Black Panther’ and the possibility of a sequel ‘When you win a championship with a team, that makes you more ready to win another one’

The morning of Black Panther’s release, Chadwick Boseman, the film’s star, is the coolest guy in the building. On a weekend in Los Angeles when everyone is marveling at the world’s best basketball players, superheroes to kids and adults alike who defy gravity daily, folks are bypassing ballers to crane their necks at Boseman and get off cellphone shots.

Of course they are. Then as now, the film is outpacing what anyone could have ever dared to dream. Anyone. 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens took 10 days to make half a billion dollars globally. It took Black Panther nine days. Nine days.

That, of course, doesn’t account for inflation, but that number most certainly is solid. And impressive. The biggest number ever for a black writer and director. The biggest number ever for a predominantly black cast. A really big number for a film — regardless of the race of the cast, director or writer — period.

And Boseman — a guy who only five years ago was introducing himself to North America as a newbie actor plucked from obscurity to star in the 2013 biopic 42 as Jackie Robinson, a real-life superhero on the field of dreams and in the arena of social justice — is proud. As he should be.

We talk.


How did we get from Jackie Robinson to the Black Panther?

It’s just about trying to find new challenges. Obviously 42 was a huge challenge, and I think each role after that, and leading up to Panther, has been that. The worst thing is for opportunity to come and you’re not ready for it. I think for me, it’s just trying to be ready for whatever comes. That’s how I’m here.

Nate Moore, the lone African-American film producer in the Marvel division, told me that when he saw you as Jackie Robinson, he knew then and there that you were Black Panther. What do you think he saw?

I don’t know! Plus, Nate is a hard person to read, you know? That’s one of the great things about him, that he has a great poker face. I have to try and get up under that and figure out what he saw.

This film is breaking records left and right. How do you even begin to wrap your head around this moment?

Surprise is not the word. It’s relieved. I’m relieved, and just very hopeful for the audience that sees this movie. And it’s a varied audience. It’s not just African-American. It’s not just African. It’s people throughout the world, various ages, gender — none of that matters. Across the board, we’ve had people basically say that they love the movie and that they were touched by the movie. I knew going into it that there was a great opportunity for storytelling here — something that would be cutting-edge. I knew that from a comic book. Even before I got the role, I knew that if there was ever a Black Panther movie made, [it] had the opportunity to do something really special in the world. So to see that come into fruition and to see other people, I’m not going to say unanimously because it’s always going to be some people that are against you or opposing you or haters, but even they can be turned around in the long run! Maybe they wait until they see it on HBO or they see it On Demand and they’re like, ‘I feel dumb that I missed out on this moment.’ But it is a moment. And I appreciate just being able to enjoy it, at the end of all the hard work.

“Internationally, when we were doing a press tour, we saw people from many different countries in Asia … entering into our interviews wearing their traditional garb. Just because they had seen us do it.”

Was there a moment when you were making this film that you thought this is really going to be bigger than even perhaps I thought it could be?

With each of the roles I’ve done, what I’ve made it a point to do is to not get ahead of myself. I think [director] Ryan [Coogler] is very much like that too. He’s a one foot in front of the other type of person, so you don’t miss anything. So I think it was just a thing of us trying to get the work done, and closing out what the impact was going to be and what the response was going to be, because you don’t know that. You can’t control it. I don’t think there was any moment where we were like, ‘Oh, this is going to be …’ [But] we knew it was different. We knew it was something we all wanted to put our lives on hold for.

Every role that you played — Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, James Brown — they’ve done so much and contributed so much. Tell me why you gravitate toward those types of roles.

It’s not just me. There’s a team of people that work behind me. And I think we’re honestly just, first of all, just reading for the enjoyment of it. Like, if I don’t like the script then I’m not going to like the movie. And I think it is, again, the challenge of what those roles are. They didn’t necessarily have to be icons or public figures. As far as the roles that I’ve played, African-American figures or from African descent, sometimes we don’t get to see that often from a black actor. We don’t get to see that often from a black storyteller. For me, I’m just trying to push that envelope. We have some roles that we play where people are like, ‘Why is he doing that?’ But I’m not concerned about that. I’m concerned about pushing myself to a different place, and the envelope to a different place and even a discussion to a different place, even if you don’t like it. It’s my job as an artist to do certain things that people catch later.

What’s the discussion you’d like people to be having about this film right now?

The first conversation is one of pride. I think this movie, it touches pride from a lot of different places. Even internationally when we were doing a press tour, we saw people from many different countries in Asia, they were entering into our interviews wearing their traditional garb. Just because they had seen us do it. They had seen videos of us doing it. They’d seen the movie so wanted to come in wearing the things that were close to them and meant something to them. That specificity … for culture, as opposed to what very often happens when we become multicultural is everybody leaves their culture behind — which is not multicultural, actually. The fact that you can be multicultural and actually express yourself [from] your origin, that conversation is an amazing conversation. This movie is so unapologetically African and black. The fact that other people can take something from it is important. And I think within the movie, there’s also a conversation that’s happening between the African on the continent and the African-American. I think [that will] go on in a way that it hasn’t on a large stage. It’s happened between public figures in history in the past — you have to do your own homework for that — but I don’t think it’s happening across the board, with everyone [being] privy to it, and it can continue. And then there’s a conversation about the women in the movie, and … beauty and strength and … the fact that it can exist in many different ways.

How did being a part of this change you?

The jury’s still out! I think any time you have an experience like this, when you go through a struggle, when you go through a war, essentially, to get something done and you have a group of people around you like we have in this movie, there’s a camaraderie that you share with that group of people. That in and of itself changes you because there’s a sense of community and family. And accomplishment. When you win a championship with a team, that makes you more ready to win another one.

“It’s important for a black, or a child of African descent, to see me. It’s just as important for a white kid to see me.”

What’s next for you?

I’m just trying to keep making movies. That’s it. I don’t want to say what’s exactly next. Can’t give it away just yet.

I’ve seen little kids give you valentines or give you hugs or give you affirmations about how important this moment is. What does it feel like when you have been getting that type of feedback from that particular audience?

It’s beautiful. It’s just beautiful, honestly. I mean because as a kid, you grew up playing superheroes. I would steal different parts because I wanted all the powers I could get! I would try to have Spider-Man’s webs, Superman’s strength, Wonder Woman’s bracelets — I wanted everything! So to be that for somebody … like, first of all, their imagination. They’re creating a whole different world within their minds, and then … you don’t realize it until you get older that you can draw on that feeling of invincibility in real moments and use it. And so, as a kid, you need to have that. You need to be able to play upon that. And it’s important to have superheroes that look like you and don’t look like you. Just like me saying I wanted Wonder Woman’s bracelets; I didn’t see anything wrong with that. And I didn’t see … anything wrong with being a Spider-Man. It’s important for a black, or a child of African descent, to see me. It’s just as important for a white kid to see me.

Before your fans even walked into the film, and certainly when they walk out of the film, they’re ready for Part 2. Is it too early to talk about the sequel?

It’s not too early for them to talk about it. They can talk about it! It’s too early for me to talk about it. But … please talk about it!

HBO to broadcast Anna Deavere Smith’s show on the school-to-prison pipeline Playwright reworked ‘Notes From the Field’ after the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile

Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith is a master of verbatim theater, a marriage between documentary storytelling and the stage that involves the actor re-enacting the words of her subjects. Her latest work, which is debuting on HBO on Saturday at 8 p.m., is Notes From the Field, a one-woman show that delves into the school-to-prison pipeline.

If you’re not a theater nerd, you’re probably more familiar with Deavere Smith from her guest star turns as Rainbow’s mother on black-ish or as the lip-pursing-but-ultimately-loving hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus from Nurse Jackie.

For years, Deavere Smith, 67, who is also a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, has used her one-woman shows to examine race relations and other complicated social problems. Her career has provided a blueprint on how to produce art with a conscience without making it dogmatic.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992) looked at the Crown Heights riot of 1991 from the perspectives of both black and Jewish residents. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994) was about the Rodney King riots. Let Me Down Easy (2008) was about health care and the fragility of human life.

All were constructed from the same process: Deavere Smith traveled across the country to interview hundreds of people — for Notes From the Field, she interviewed 250 — and distilled them down to the 20 or so most effective and moving accounts. Then, Deavere Smith recreates these people on stage: their voices, their clothes, their mannerisms, their emotions, their words. She is a reporter in an actor’s body, and her expeditions in search of the truth earned her the George Polk Career Award in journalism from Long Island University last year.

“I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race.”

“One of the deans of political journalism, David Broder, said to me The New York Times should change that little thing ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ to ‘All the news that’s fit to print — by deadline,’ ” Deavere Smith said during an interview at HBO’s offices in New York. “I have a much longer, fatter deadline. Yes, I’m told, ‘This is previews and this is opening night’ and I have to be ready. But … I’m lingering and lumbering around in a way that [reporters] can’t. I’m like a cow. I gather all this stuff, and then I just sit around and chew it.”

For Notes From the Field, Deavere Smith spoke with experts, teachers and lawmakers. But she also interviewed people whose voices often get lost in the debate over the brokenness of our criminal justice and public school systems: the students and inmates who pass through them.

One account from Denise Dodson, a prisoner at the Maryland Correctional Institution, is particularly wrenching. Dodson speaks about how getting an education while incarcerated has been pivotal in changing the way she sees herself. Still, she told Deavere Smith that she thinks it’s fair that she’s imprisoned on charges of conspiracy and attempted murder. Dodson’s boyfriend killed the man who was trying to rape her, mid-act. The overwhelming majority of women who are imprisoned are survivors of domestic or intimate partner abuse.

Deavere Smith originally staged a shorter version of Notes From the Field in 2014 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and brought it to New York in 2016. The New York Times called it “wonderfully energizing” and labeled Deavere Smith “the American theater’s most dynamic and sophisticated oral historian.”

She had written and researched it before Michael Brown, before Tamir Rice, before Philando Castile, before Walter Scott. Since then, she’s updated it. The HBO adaptation includes Deavere’s depictions of Bree Newsome, the activist and artist who was arrested in June 2015 after she scaled the flagpole of the South Carolina Statehouse to remove the Confederate flag that hung there, and Niya Kenny, the former student at Spring Valley High School in Richland County, South Carolina, who filmed her classmate being dragged from her desk and handcuffed by a school resource officer.

“I wasn’t planning to actually make a full-fledged play out of my project, but I did because I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race,” Deavere Smith said, citing the cellphone videos of police killing unarmed black people. “These windows are always brief, and in fact, I think it is not a picture that is as strong right now as it was, say, in 2015, because other things are happening and some of those things are distractions.”

“I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people.”

Deavere Smith was participating in a panel discussion with CNN commentator Van Jones and former Obama White House chief of staff Valerie Jarrett recently at New York’s 92nd Street Y recently when she reiterated that an actor’s greatest tool is empathy. That empathy, combined with curiosity, results in the most emotionally arresting performance of Notes From the Field, when Deavere Smith recreates the words of Allen Bullock, the protester who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray.

Her performance, filmed in front of a live audience at Second Stage Theater in New York, is kinetic and engaging. Her face is superimposed on a huge screen behind her as she walks the stage, video camera in hand, sporting a Copwatch hoodie. She recreates Bullock’s anguish at witnessing Gray being thrown into a Baltimore police wagon, his anger as he saw officers restraining Gray with leg shackles and dragging him away, simply for the mistake of making eye contact with them. Deavere Smith challenges the audience to see Gray as both subject and object.

Despite a dramatic deep dive that complements the work of Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) and Ava DuVernay (13th), Deavere Smith isn’t ready to call herself a prison abolitionist, like those who want to raze the prison-industrial complex entirely. But she thinks efforts to ban The New Jim Crow from prisons, or shut down prison libraries altogether, are misguided.

“It’s terrible. Terrible,” Deavere Smith said. “They can try to ban it all they want, but you and I both know that the walls of prisons are very porous.”

Although she’s arguably more knowledgeable about schools and prisons than a majority of Americans at this point, Deavere Smith avoids being prescriptive. When it comes to prisons, she’s not Angela Davis, and she’s similarly agnostic about charter schools despite the fact that her reporting led her to conclude that American public schools are “a disaster.” They often fail poor students, students of color, disabled students and students for whom English is a second language, and they’re more segregated today than they were in the late 1960s.

“Most of the people I know who have charter schools want to be able to boast and brag about success and how many kids they send to college,” Deavere Smith said. “And even those things make me nervous when that’s the way they talk about the experience. ‘Well, we’re sending every single person or every single person in our class graduated with such and such SAT score. They’re all going to college.’

“And you go, ‘OK, great.’ But something about it bothers me, and I think what bothers me is that there’s only one measuring stick for success. I know a lot of smart people. I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people. I’d like to meet more generous people. I’d like to meet more forgiving people. … I’d like to see them get commended. You know, smart’s just overrated, as far as I’m concerned.”

Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson bring ‘2 Dope Queens’ to HBO The popular podcast is now a four-part comedy special

The first thing you realize while watching the 2 Dope Queens HBO special is that Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, the aforementioned dope queens, would be perfect at hosting the Golden Globes.

In a television adaptation of their popular 4-year-old WNYC podcast, Williams and Robinson display a familiar, wisecracking comedy that made Tina Fey and Amy Poehler so enjoyable for the three years they hosted Hollywood’s annual alcohol-soaked tribute to arbitrary awards. It’s the magnetism that comes from watching two girlfriends hold court and have a good time while wishing you were cool enough to join the party.

Now, under the direction of comic Tig Notaro (a recent guest on the podcast), 2 Dope Queens has been turned into a series of four one-hour comedy specials. The first one airs at 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 2. Each episode is a variety show built around a theme: blerds, New York, hair (because: black) and “hot peen” (because: alive). In each one, Williams and Robinson kick it for a bit, introduce a comic who does a stand-up set, then interview their celebrity guests before closing with another comic.

Robinson’s been performing stand-up comedy for 10 years and also solo-hosts another WNYC interview podcast called Sooo Many White Dudes, in which her guests are mostly anything but. Williams is best known as a former Daily Show correspondent (her old boss, Jon Stewart, makes an appearance on 2 Dope Queens), and lately she’s been throwing herself into acting. She recently released her second film with writer/director Jim Strouse, and the pair are working on a comedy series for Showtime.

Should they get the call (Dear Golden Globes producers, have some sense and enlist these two already), Robinson’s already thought of the celebrities she’d like to participate in their comedy bits. Oprah (“Because she’s amazing and delightful and she’s truly funny and she has a great personality”), former President Barack Obama (“He would be like, ‘Are you asking me to do a bit for the Golden Globes? I’m like, busy.’ ”) and Jack Nicholson (“I know you’re like semi-retired, but would you do something completely nuts with me? I think he would be like, ‘Sure.’ ”).

Robinson, 33, and Williams, 28, weren’t close friends when they originally began hosting the 2 Dope Queens podcast. Listeners witnessed their chemistry develop in real time as they’ve attended Billy Joel concerts and AfroPunk together. The result is a duo who shimmy and yaaaaaaaaasssssss their affirmations to each other and everyone they interview. In the case of the specials, that includes Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black), Sarah Jessica Parker (Divorce) and Stewart.

“Minorities and people of color, we’re usually supporting characters in other people’s narratives, and so we try to give people a platform to be the star of their own narrative.”

“We were becoming friends as we were working together,” Robinson said by phone recently. “Like any sort of intimate relationship, we’ve learned what works for us, what doesn’t. It’s a really cool process to balance the friendship with working together.”

Both had some advice for new residents of New York, with Williams sounding like Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw giving a clinic to singletons.

“You’re not finding the peen-age? Just walk outside and do exactly what it is that you want to do and go explore your interests,” she said by phone. “Like, go to a SZA concert or a pottery class. … Just go do that and I think you’ll run into some hot sausage.”

Robinson, on the other hand, admitted to being more in the camp of the blind leading the blind.

“If I knew [where to find it], I wouldn’t talk about it as much as I do,” Robinson said. “I’m lucky that I have a boyfriend and I’m off the streets, because I was truly a nightmare. I’m not good at flirting. I think it’s good to travel in packs with your lady friends. You need that line of defense.”

Robinson and Williams curated an eclectic collection of guest comedians for their HBO specials, some of whom, like Michelle Buteau and Aparna Nancherla, may be familiar if you watched Wyatt Cenac’s Night Train series for the now-defunct streaming service Seeso. And like Night Train, 2 Dope Queens relies heavily, and deliberately, on minority comics. Other guests include Baron Vaughn, Sheng Wang and Naomi Ekperigin. Amy Aniobi, a writer and producer on Insecure, served as executive producer.

“We always try to make sure we have stand-up, storytellers or celebrity guests that are … a woman or a person of color or a member of the LGBT community,” Williams said. “Oftentimes, minorities and people of color, we’re usually supporting characters in other people’s narratives, and so we try to give people a platform to be the star of their own narrative. It’s inherently built into the show.”

The specials, which were shot in Brooklyn, New York’s, Kings Theatre, are set against the backdrop of a typical New York rooftop, complete with string lights, a grill and crates that double as seating. Both women said that working with Notaro, who recently wrote and starred in the Amazon series One Mississippi, was pivotal to the show’s success.

“Even when women are the stars of their comedy specials, they still have men directing them,” Robinson said. “I really wanted to have a woman directing ours. … I learned so much from her. She’s a great leader. There’s no drama. She comes in, she does the work and she makes it really fun. Every time we had a meeting, my stomach would be hurting because she’d be making me laugh.”

Venus and Serena Williams: from Compton to the world By changing how the world views black women, they’ve changed everything

It’s really just a makeshift dance floor in a small hotel conference room.

But then a song — some might consider it the Black People’s Party Anthem — drops and everyone falls in line, moving, shaking and, yes, wobbling to the beat of V.I.C.’s 2008 “Wobble,” a song that hasn’t vanished from many black family gatherings, even after a decade. Everyone moves to the beat, celebrating, as if a couple has just jumped a broom.

At the center of this dance-happy moment is Venus Williams. She’s at her most comfortable, dressed in a look from her own athleisure line, EleVen by Venus, and surrounded by family members. For a night, anyway, she gets to just be Venus — instead of “Venus Williams,” who as a burgeoning star tennis player made her Australian Open debut in 1998, playing her baby sister, Serena, in a professional match for the first time at that tournament.

That was the Venus Williams who rocked freshly oiled cornrows adorned with blue and white beads that shook something fierce every time she whacked what became her signature serve return in the direction of Serena Williams, whose own cornrows were bright with green and white beads. This was the Venus Williams who, along with Serena, demonstrated early dominance and took center stage in one of the most stridently white of professional sports. Tennis, a game of rackets and stretched nets, that at times is played in the world’s most stridently white spaces.

But when “Wobble” was on? The revolutionary “Venus Williams” was just Venus — a woman with a mean body roll and a swag surf that dropped so low, gravity was no match for all 6 feet, 1 inch of her very recognizable frame.


Before the holidays, both Venus and her superstar sister sat on a panel to discuss violence in the inner city. A poignant and effective conversation, it reminded everyone at the December 2017 “A Family Affair” that these two beautiful brown women who have both helped change how we consume pop culture — and yes, tennis — aren’t immune to the harsh realities and social justice issues of American “inner” cities.

After all, they both hail from Compton, California — the birthplace of Kendrick Lamar, and the now-gentrifying city that Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre helped make infamous via their provocative supergroup N.W.A. Compton is the city that took the life of their sister, Yetunde Price, who was killed on Sept. 14, 2003, at the age of 31. She was the victim of a drive-by shooting.

But now the Venus Ebony Starr Williams who we all know best is back. And she’s ready to take the place of her rightful throne at the 2018 Australian Open. Serena Williams, a newlywed and new mom to baby Alexis Olympia, is still waiting for what her big return might be. But at the very least — which, certainly is the very most — we get to welcome back half of the duo who helped to change the pop culture game. And Lord, are we ever ready.


Both Venus and Serena Williams have challenged traditional global beauty standards — by simply being.

In 2015, a hater tweeted that Serena Williams was “built like a man.” It was a tweet heard round the world. That affected us all. It insulted us all. Then Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling shut it down by posting a photo of Serena Williams in a slim-fitting red dress with the text: “She is built like a man. Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress. You’re an idiot.”

A year earlier, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, called the tennis legends the “Williams brothers” and said, “It’s scary when you really look at them.” Insulting. The ensuing clapback was mighty too. Tarpischev was fined $25,000 and banned for a year, and Serena Williams called him out for being sexist and racist.

That insult penetrated, though. Throughout history, black female bodies have been both sexualized and besmirched. But the Williams sisters, via presence and practice, have turned any negative black woman body image trope on its head. They create and embrace their chiseled, athletic shapes and flaunt their world championship bodies in public arenas, draped in silks and jewels, in the coolest sneakers, in disruptively fashion-forward tennis “whites.” They continue to shock the world.

Both Venus and Serena Williams have challenged traditional global beauty standards — by simply being.

There are some who are afraid of the Williams sisters’ dominance, confidence and beauty. They both have a similar dark brown hue and features that read very the Motherland. They look like so many woman around the world do. Their hairstyles over the years have transformed as ours have — from little-girl cornrows to micro braids to tree braids to sew-ins with wavy tracks to just a simple hot comb and flat iron of natural hair, at times, brushed back into a bun. So much of this black girl beauty used to be hidden. Right now, at this moment, it’s on the cover of Vogue.

But perhaps the most amazing Williams sisters moment came in April 2016 when Serena made a surprise appearance in Beyoncé’s HBO special Lemonade, which itself turned out to be a surprise album. In “Sorry,” we see Serena (to the tune of close to 250 million views) displaying a not-so-secret talent of hers as she dances and twerks alongside the Bey, who is sprawled across a throne, declaring in a casually aggressive way that she, in fact, is not sorry for the ill behavior of an untrustworthy lover. Beyoncé is queen — and Serena is equally regal.

But perhaps the sisters’ biggest contribution to the culture is just by being excellent, and expanding our horizons through their excellence. The Williams sisters represent us. They make us strong.