Hair care pioneer Joan Johnson made ‘Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen cosmetics’ a feature of black identity Her company sold an uplifting version of black hair care — by any product necessary

When I learned that Joan Johnson had died a few days ago at 89, I felt an instant pang.

Johnson was the co-founder of Johnson Products, which in 1971 became the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange. She was from the South Side of Chicago, where I spent half of my childhood. (She was married to my mother-in-law’s first cousin.) And it was her company that, among other staples of black grooming products, gave us Ultra Sheen.

I’m not sure anything gets blacker than this, and if I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’.

Johnson Products sponsored the syndicated dance program, Soul Train.

Recently, the news has been full of reports of white teachers, counselors and coaches aggressively policing black hair. My thinking is that if you don’t know that Ultra Sheen is still just $1.21 in grocery stores, then you have no business opening your mouth.

Truth be told, I’ve had a hard time finding those small jars of hair grease for several years. Consolidation in the industry and the move of white-owned firms into the black market led to Johnson Products being sold several times, starting in 1993. It was eventually acquired by Procter & Gamble and later sold to a group of black investment firms. When I’d luck out and spot it on the shelves of some beauty supply store, I’d hoard two or three jars out of both nostalgia and need.

It was the product itself, the not-too-heavy blue grease (or green if you needed the extra dry formula) that had one job — to manage (lay down, wave up, detangle and shine) black hair — it always did what it was supposed to do. It became baked into the daily grooming rituals of my childhood in a way that made it a totem for an era. A pre-gentrification, get-your-education, no-frills time when black people needed neatness, at a minimum, at an accessible price point. It was a tool, rather than a status product, which distinguished it from the fancier, more self-important black hair care lines that followed — especially when white companies moved into the lucrative black hair care market they’d long ignored.

In 1971, Joan Johnson’s Johnson Products became the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange.

Courtesy of the Johnson family

Long before hair tutorials on YouTube, I raised my daughters using Ultra Sheen and a spray bottle of water to provide the foundation for every hairstyle known to black girlhood. I once finished off my own $200 haircut and color with a palm full of Ultra Sheen my stylist jokingly called “European de frissant.”

George “Pete” Johnson II, my husband’s second cousin, grew up hearing the story of how his father, a production chemist for black-owned soap and cosmetics manufacturer Fuller Products, couldn’t get a business loan. But he got a $250 vacation loan that he and his wife, Joan, used to help start Johnson Products in 1954. They created, packaged and distributed hair care products from their basement before opening a production plant on the South Side in the mid-1960s that employed around 500 people at its height. According to Black Enterprise magazine, the company controlled roughly a third of the black hair care market by the late 1970s.

“My mom was the backbone in all of this,” Pete Johnson said. “She was the woman that, along with my father, envisioned the company.”

She was always good with money and initially did all the accounting and acted as the company’s de facto comptroller. She gave to local causes even before they had much to give. She later became a trustee at Spelman College. “My mom really felt the need to empower not only us as a culture, but black women,” Johnson says. We needed an identity “of us being just as elegant, just as gracious and beautiful as anybody else.”

It’s an ethos that showed up in the stylish clothes, hair and makeup she wore every time she walked out of her front door. When you left home, “you better be completely groomed, clean and smelling good,” said Pete Johnson. She always told us to strive for perfection “and it starts with how you look, how you present yourself.”

“My mom was the backbone in all of this. She was the woman that, along with my father, envisioned the company.” — Pete Johnson

It was a way she thought black people could change self-perceptions, and white perceptions of the race, that much of the culture has since moved past but was considered gospel in its day.

Johnson also believed that graciousness translated into how you treated people. “I saw that firsthand as a little boy,” said Pete Johnson. “We had a place in Endeavor, Wisconsin [a small town near the Wisconsin Dells] and we’d get some of the Native Americans coming to our house asking for food.” When his two older brothers ran around behind them making mock Indian noises, “My mom snatched them boys up so quick,” Pete Johnson recalled. “She didn’t play that. You had to respect everybody.”

The company’s product line also included other hair care and grooming products. Johnson Products sponsored the syndicated dance program, Soul Train, and a huge swath of black America will remember the line, “makers of Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen Cosmetics,” voiced by Soul Train host Don Cornelius, for the rest of our lives.

In a Facebook post, educator Cassandra Smith of Prince George’s County, Maryland, remembered how the yellow creme satin press specifically enabled her Sunday church press and curls. Karen Parker, a Washington event curator and producer, calls both the blue and green Ultra Sheen part of hair washing day in her Afro-Caribbean childhood, and the product of choice for greasing her grandmother’s scalp.

And of course Afro Sheen made Afros shine.

“I also remember the joy of putting the sheen on your Afro,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, who is likely the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to have ever voiced that particular recollection. He met Joan and George Johnson when he was president of the Chicago Historical Society, and they talked about the power of those weekly Soul Train plugs. “In a way, the Johnsons captured the tenor of the time and used that desire to express one’s blackness as a key to their marketing strategy,” he said. “Whenever I think about the commercials, I smile and recall a time when we were all discovering our blackness.”

Beginning in the late 1970s, the models on the boxes of Johnson Products’ Gentle Treatment relaxers became their own form of black celebrity. (I once worked with a reporter who’d won the vaunted Johnson Products Gentle Treatment model search.) Before the natural hair care revolution of the last decade helped us move beyond the white gaze, they represented an aspirational version of black respectability that saw black womanhood as beautiful and cultured in a way that corresponded with hair that should always be worn appropriately straight.

Joan Johnson wanted to “lift us up” as a people, Pete Johnson said. The message from white culture, “I believe, back then, was that we were less than, but we weren’t.”

Step one in proving that was looking good. It’s something Joan Johnson believed black people could accomplish, by any product necessary.

An ode to ‘Jet’ magazine’s ‘Beauty of the Week’ Parent company Johnson Publishing filed for bankruptcy last week

This was the point, my dad once told me, that I knew you were interested in women.

I was 6 years old, waiting for a haircut from our regular barber, Clarence. (To this day, I don’t know Clarence’s last name. He is my Cher.) My older brother and I took out about 20 of the pocket-sized weekly magazines, lined them up in a row and flipped each to Page 43 — it was almost always Page 43. We probably didn’t even need the table of contents; we knew exactly what we were looking for.

We found out on our own that we liked girls right there in between the pages of Jet magazine, in “Beauty of the Week.”

On April 9, Johnson Publishing Co., which published Jet magazine and its sister publication Ebony magazine from the 1940s until 2016, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois, effectively ending the black-centric publisher’s 77-year run.

In 2016, Johnson Publishing sold Jet and Ebony to private equity firm Clear View Group. Last week’s filing will not affect either of those publications. Nevertheless, the fate of Johnson Publishing brought back thoughts of “Beauty of the Week,” which placed just ahead of professional wrestling and Power Rangers on the Family Feud-like board of my pastimes.

Your level of fondness for “Beauty of the Week,” the magazine’s famous section dedicated to black women decked out in swimsuits, depends on your perspective.

For some black men, it was somewhere between adoration of the black female body … and Lawd Have Mercy. Whether on the bus, in the barbershop, on the end table at your grandmother’s house or even in prison cells, from teenagers to middle-aged men, some among us went straight to the centerfold of Jet as soon as we set our eyes on the pint-size glossy cover. Black boys and men (and women, too) ogled the pretty brown-skinned women with the voluptuous curves and breathtaking smiles. And while it wasn’t Penthouse or Maxim’s Hot 100, Johnson Publishing exploited black bodies and sexuality, sometimes printing photos that straddled the line between tasteful and lustful.

At the same time, “Beauty of the Week” brought black female bodies into the mainstream, said Cornell University professor Noliwe M. Rooks, whose research focuses on beauty, race and fashion. As a pushback against pinup girls in other magazines of the early 20th century, Johnson Publishing founder John H. Johnson created a domain for black women and their sexuality. These images were a sharp contrast to the all-white bodies presented in other publications. And though Jet was never known for featuring plus-size women, its models came in different colors, sizes and shapes — the antithesis of the blond bombshell.

“They’re not stick figures,” Rooks said.

Stick figures they were not. At the time, I was way too young to understand the meaning of sex or even what it was, but I could somehow recognize black beauty (among other things) and how it differed from other suggestive images on television. Sure, there were the hidden dirty magazines around the shop of my dad’s trucking company, or the always-weakened-signaled Channels 32 and 33 on the “black box,” but I just knew there was something different about the women on the 5 1/8-by-7 3/8-inch pieces of paper.

Former Jet editor-in-chief Mira Lowe came to the publication during its twilight in 2007 but grew up reading the magazine, admiring the risks Johnson Publishing was willing to take with black women featured so prominently on its covers and throughout its pages. Before Jet and Ebony, black women simply didn’t appear on magazine covers. Vogue (1974), Glamour (1968), Life (1969) and Playboy (1971) didn’t put black women on their covers until almost 20 years after Jet’s first issue in 1951.

“Jet helped with the penetration in the black community,” Lowe said. “[It] laid the groundwork and was the pioneer to what we see today in mainstream magazines.”

Johnson Publishing featured black women prominently on its covers and between its pages through the years.

Jet Magazine

Dudley Brooks, who was Jet and Ebony’s photo director from 2007 to 2014, said Jet was forward-thinking at the time in choosing to showcase black women in a way they hadn’t been before.

The early incarnation of “Beauty of the Week” debuted in 1952 in the centerfold. One of the first models was Florida-born Ruth King, who was working a clerical job in a New York City court when she appeared in the Aug. 14 issue. As would come to be Jet’s trademark, King’s full-page portrait was accompanied by a short bio and body size measurements that Sir Mix-a-Lot would rap about some 40 years later.

Outside of King, it wasn’t just aspiring models looking to be the next “It” girl appearing in “Beauty of the Week.” There were women majoring in speech at historically black colleges and universities, beauty consultants from California, and aspiring politicians and musicians. There was Beverly the waitress, Denise the inhalation therapist and Noni, who liked to deep-sea fish and Jet Ski. These women were everyday girls who were given the opportunity to show the world what “normal” looks like.

But there were also those who used “Beauty of the Week” as a launching pad. Former television personality and author Janet Langhart Cohen graced the section in 1966. She told Jet in 1986 that it’s “where I got my start.” Ja’net Dubois, who played wisecracking neighbor Willona Woods on Good Times, appeared in 1977. The most famous of the bunch was blaxploitation film actress Pam Grier, who was set to star in 1971’s The Big Doll House when she posed for the magazine in a two-piece bathing suit in Chicago.

“I think it was just after I finished Black Mama White Mama, and things were starting to blow up, and they said, ‘You’ve got to do Jet and Ebony,’ ” Grier told The Undefeated in 2016. “You can see I am so rough. I just seemed not like the beauties of today: toned and tanned and shiny. I was ashy, no makeup, my hair was all over the place.”

While “Beauty of the Week” was an opportunity to uplift and portray black women in a non-disrespectful manner, at the end of the day it was what it was.

“It was eye candy,” said Brooks, now the deputy director of photography at The Washington Post. “Things that used to be considered normal or accepted widely years ago move on.”

The women, for the most part, were photographed solely in swimsuits and, from 1959-93, were accompanied by their body measurements.

The photos have been called a “quick dose of random, incongruous cheesecake” meant to offset the more serious news stories in the magazine, no more obvious than in 1955 when Jet published the gruesome images from Emmett Till’s funeral just 26 pages ahead of 15-year-old Judith Stewart in a two-piece bathing suit.

The merits of presenting black women in next to no clothing can be argued every day of the week, but, at the same time, the editors and art directors appeared ahead of their time in the mid-20th century, showcasing women of various skin tones, waist sizes and hair lengths. A 2011 research study found that Jet presents “a larger female body size ideal … contrary to mainstream Caucasian media’s practices,” which may reflect a “broader definition of female attractiveness.” From Saartjie Baartman to former first lady Michelle Obama to Serena Williams, black women’s bodies have been ridiculed, mocked and simultaneously ignored for centuries, but Jet (and older publications such as Tan) had the audacity to put black women front and center for the world to see.

There’s not much I remember about my childhood. I vaguely recall learning to ride my bike or almost getting lost at a Six Flags theme park or dressing up for Halloween. But “Beauty of the Week” is one of those things that sits in the back of your memory, never being forgotten. I haven’t picked up a physical copy of the magazine since the early 2000s, but I can envision being in my grandparents’ living room as everyone else watched television, wading through the first 42 pages of the latest Jet, anticipating which pretty woman I’d get to see that week, like an adult L.O.L. Surprise! doll box. (Jet switched to a digital-only operation in 2014 and hasn’t posted a “Beauty of the Week” on its website in more than a year.)

When I was commissioned to write this story, I was told by my editor to keep it classy and tasteful. But crossing that line never crossed my mind. “Beauty of the Week” didn’t make me the man I am today, in that clichéd kind of way, but I can say without a doubt that it helped me learn to appreciate and respect black women and their bodies.

And now, the dissolution of Johnson Publishing means a part of Jet’s soul is gone forever.

And with it, a part of my adolescence.

Aux Cord Chronicles XVIII: An obsessive, 57-song playlist of Drake’s sports obsession Aubrey has never been able to stop talking about sports — all of them

LeBron James‍ (and what’s left of) the Los Angeles Lakers stagger into Toronto on Thursday night to take on the Raptors. At this point, the Lakers have more of a realistic chance to land Zion Williamson than to make the playoffs, which takes much of the luster out of what was supposed to be a late-season meeting between two playoff-bound squads. Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam aim to keep Toronto within reach of the Milwaukee Bucks for the Eastern Conference’s top seed. And while it’s the longest of shots, Drake is always a subplot at courtside — although he’d have to jet over from Paris on his off day from his Assassination Vacation European tour to make it happen.

In addition to the fact that he announced today the OVO Athletic Centre, “the official training facility for the Toronto Raptors,” the Scorpion rapper has a multitude of reasons to hop on a Cessna and pull up to Scotiabank Arena. Drake has been the Raptors’ global ambassador since 2013, and he doesn’t pass up many opportunities to see his friend James up close and personal.

Plus, Drake — who is currently sitting on Billboard’s pop singles charts for the 193rd (!) time, for his “Girls Need Love (Remix)” collaboration with Summer Walker — has long been a fountain of sports references and analogies. What we have here is a vault of those Drake sports lyrics. An anthology, if you will. The references span a range of sports, athletes and moments dating back well over a decade. This isn’t all the looks, but the best and the most of them. So grab a drink. Order some food. Spark up. Get comfortable. We’re going to be here for a while.

Below you’ll find 57 songs, in chronological order, dating to 2007’s Comeback Season up to the current day. Some you’ll remember. Some you’ve probably forgotten. And some you may have never known existed. What’s not up for question, though, is the power and legitimacy of Drake’s co-sign. “When your favorite rapper puts your name in a song,” 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant said, “it makes you feel like you made it.”

Going In For Life” (2007)

If Hov is Jordan, I guess I’m cool with Pippen / ’Til I mention that I wanna play a new position / No team playin’, no screen settin’ / Because I wanna win games / Coach, I’m through assistin’ …

Less than two years before he became a household name, Drake’s sights were already set on rap’s pinnacle. And he knew how to get there: He’d have to look Jay-Z in the eyes. The two artists’ on-again, off-again friendly war of words/peacetime admiration has deep roots.

Drake feat. Lil Wayne — “Ignant S—” (2009)

The same n—a I ball with / I fall with/ On some southern drawl s— / Rookie of the Year / ’06, Chris Paul s— …

Chris Paul’s presence is felt throughout So Far Gone. He’s actually on the outro of the Lil Wayne and Santigold-assisted “Unstoppable.” Meanwhile, earlier on Gone, Drake calls his own shot, dubbing himself rap’s best newcomer — just like Paul, the former Wake Forest Demon Deacon, had been a few years beforehand in the NBA.

Say What’s Real” (2009)

And to my city I’m the 2-3 …

Jordan or James — both apply here. Drake wasn’t the first musical artist to put Canada on the map; names such as Kardinal Offishall, Nelly Furtado and Tamia predate Aubrey Graham. That being said, it’s hard to say the notoriety and legacy Drake brings to his own city aren’t similar to the legacy of 23 in Chicago and Cleveland, both of whom are big fans of Toronto’s figurative 23.

The Calm” (2009)

Tryna enjoy myself with Tez in Miami at the game / I just wish he knew how much it really weighed like Dwyane …

The landmark mixtape’s somber standout is the on-wax meeting of Drake and Wade.

“You know,” Dwyane Wade told me last month in Miami, face beaming with pride, “I was on So Far Gone. That was so cool. That’s when I first heard of Drake.” Such is true, the landmark mixtape’s somber standout is the on-wax meeting of Drake and Wade.

Gucci Mane feat. Drake — “Believe It Or Not” (2009)

OK, I’m all about it, all for it / I’m All-Star Team Jordan, small forward / I’m never putting up a shot unless it calls for it / No hesitation so I’m shooting if I draw for it …

Drake knew from the moment So Far Gone propelled him into superstardom he’d have to defend his name against those who thought he didn’t deserve to be there. Little did he know how much though

9AM In Dallas” (2010)

I’m nervous / But I’ma kill it cause they ’bout to let the realest team in / Throwing up in the huddle, n—a, Willie Beamen / But still throwing touchdown passes/ In tortoise frame glasses hoping that someone catch it …

The first installment in Drake’s famed time/location series. Nearing the end of the decade, it’s fascinating to hear some of the anxiety and uncertainty in his lyrics. Who could’ve really predicted all of this?

Drake feat. Alicia Keys — “Fireworks” (2010)

I’m flying back home / For the Heritage Classic …

The first song on Drake’s first studio album, Thank Me Later, is positioned there for a reason. In the first verse of “Fireworks,” he goes into his fear that fame would eventually drive him and Lil Wayne apart. The second verse is about Rihanna. And the third verse focuses on the relationship with his parents and being the product of a divorced household separated by an international border. The Heritage Classic, by the way, began in 2003 and is one of the NHL’s storied outdoor regular-season games — in Canada.

Thank Me Now” (2010)

And that’s around the time / That your idols become your rivals / You make friends with Mike / But gotta A.I. him for your survival / Damn, I swear sports and music are so synonymous / ’Cause we wanna be them / And they wanna be us …

One of Drake’s most popular and lasting lines speaks to how the cultures of sports and music have always been intertwined — tip your cap to Master P, who not only opened the door but also brought the marriage mainstream in the 90s. Not a single lie was told.

You Know, You Know” (2010)

Game time b—- I hope you’re proud of us / King James s— watch me throw the powder up …

Tell your girlfriend /That I can pull some f—ing strings / So we’re courtside / When LeBron get a f—ing ring …

Back when Drake and Kanye West were on speaking terms, they created this gem, which came with a duo of powerhouse LeBron references — it’s Drake’s most high-profile athlete friendship.

Nicki Minaj feat. Drake — “Moment 4 Life” (2010)

Young Money the Mafia that’s word to Lil’ Cease / I’m in the Dominican, Big Papi Ortiz …

David Ortiz went from being just another random Red Sox signing in 2003 to getting name-dropped by Drake on a hit single — to one day being inducted at Cooperstown. Not a bad come-up for Big Papi.

Rick Ross feat. Chrisette Michele & Drake “Aston Martin Music” (2010)

Which one of y’all got fleets on your key chains? / The seats for these Heat games?

Drake, who originally played post-hook duties on Rick Ross’ “Aston Martin,” obviously had more to say as OVO’s top dog released his own verse called “Paris Morton Music” — dedicated to a model of the same name whom he ended up making two songs about. By the time the official video dropped, Ross made the executive decision to add Drake’s verse. Smart move. Also, sitting courtside during the Miami Heat’s “Big Three” era was the ultimate flex.

Rick Ross feat. “Made Men” (2011)

I’m in the condo posted watching Miami kill / I might just walk to the arena and watch it for real …

Yes, in case you haven’t caught on to the trend yet, we’re in the Miami Heat era of Drake’s career.

Over My Dead Body” (2011)

Are these people really discussing my career again? / Asking if I’ll be going platinum in a year again / Don’t I got the s— the world wanna hear again? / Don’t Michael Jordan still got his hoop earring in?

This picture, taken in 2011, actually does feature Michael Jordan rocking a hoop earring. There’s your answer(s).

Under ground Kings” (2011)

I swear it’s been two years since somebody asked me who I was / I’m the greatest man / I said that before I knew I was …

You might’ve heard someone say that before. Rest in peace, Muhammad Ali.

The Ride” (2011)

I’m out here messing over the lives of these n—as / That couldn’t fuck with my freshman floater …

There’s an argument to be made that “The Ride” is a top-three Drake song, ever. I am more than willing to have that discussion. Just not on social media.

Drake feat. Tyga & Lil Wayne — “The Motto” (2011)

My team good, we don’t really need a mascot / Tell Tune, “Light one, pass it like a relay” / YMCMB, you n—as more YMCA …

It seems like a lifetime ago, but who remembers the controversy — well, controversies — around the phrase “YOLO” (You Only Live Once)?

Rick Ross feat. French Montana & Drake — “Stay Schemin’” (2012)

Kobe ’bout to lose $150M’s / Kobe my n—a, I hate it had to be him / B—- you wasn’t with me shootin’ in the gym (B—- you wasn’t with me shootin’ in the gym!)

For as popular as this line became — and it was extremely popular around the time that rumors were rampant that Kobe Bryant and his wife were barreling toward divorce — the misogyny in the lines is something Drake grew to regret. Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, was none too pleased, especially as the lyric became a true cultural moment.

“I love when immature kids quote a rapper that has never been friends with Kobe and knows nothing about our relationship,” Vanessa Bryant shot back. “I don’t need to be in the gym. I’m raising our daughters, signing checks and taking care of everything else that pertains to our home life.” She wasn’t done. “I really wish people would stop, think and then realize that they are being sucked into someone’s clear intention to monetize and gain attention off of our family’s heartache. This is real life. I hold down our home life so my husband can focus on his career. It’s a partnership.”

Yikes. Vanessa Bryant’s anger got back to Drake, who apologized via text. The line even temporarily put LeBron James in hot water last year, too.

Tuscan Leather (Nothing Was The Same)” (2013)

Bench players talking like starters / I hate it …

I’ve reached heights that even Dwight Howard couldn’t reach …

The Howard comment is true. Drake and Howard were young superstars at one point, but the two have seen their careers veer in different directions over the past eight years. But the bench players and starters bar? A critique very applicable in so many walks of life. We’ll just leave it at that.

DJ Khaled feat. Drake, Rick Ross & Lil Wayne — “No New Friends” (2013)

H-Town my second home like I’m James Harden / Money counter go *brrr* when you sellin’ out the Garden …

Since we’re on the topic, earlier this season, reigning NBA MVP James Harden dropped a career-high 61 points on the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden. The mark tied with Bryant for the most points scored by an opponent vs. the Knicks.

PARTYNEXTDOOR feat. Drake — “Over Here” (2013)

I’m back boy for real / I’m that boy for real / I got hits, n—a / You just a bat boy for real …

This one doesn’t normally get mentioned when Drake’s best guest verses are debated. But it should.

5AM In Toronto” (2013)

Some n—a been here for a couple / Never been here again / I’m on my King James s— / I’m tryin’ to win here again …

A lot has been made of Drake’s supposed sports curse. But here’s one instance where Drake hit the nail on the head in an installment of his time/location series. This song was released in March 2013, and the Heat went on to repeat as NBA champions in a thrilling seven-game series against the San Antonio Spurs three months later. As for the aforementioned James, he secured his second consecutive Finals MVP award as well with a 37-point, 12-rebound (and game-icing jumper) virtuoso performance in Game 7.

French Montana feat. Rick Ross, Drake & Lil Wayne — “Pop That” (2013)

OVO, that’s major s— / Toronto with me that’s mayor s— / Gettin’ cheddar packs like KD / OKC, that’s player s— …

It’s 2019, so it’s not a stretch to proclaim this now. **plants flag** You’d be hard-pressed to find many better party anthems of the 2010s.

Furthest Thing” (2013)

I had to Derrick Rose the knee up ’fore I got the re-up …

Drake, like former NBA MVP Rose, had his own very public stint of injuries. The artist embarked on his America’s Most Wanted tour in 2009 with a torn ACL, MCL and LCL. Drake fell and reinjured his leg again at a performance in Camden, New Jersey. The diagnosis from Lil Wayne (who actually does have a song called “Dr. Carter”), saw it happen firsthand: “That n—a really got a bad leg.”

Worst Behavior” (2013)

I’m with my whole set, tennis matches at the crib / I swear I could beat Serena when she playin’ with her left …

Outrageous boasts and hip-hop go together like Nick Cannon and paychecks. But, yeah … no. Sounded good, though. No denying that.

0 to 100 / The Catch Up” (2014)

Been cookin’ with sauce / Chef Curry with the pot, boy / 360 on the wrist, boy / Who the f— them n—as is, boy …

F— all that rap-to-pay-your-bills s— / Yeah, I’m on some Raptors-pay-my-bills s— …

No need for an apology to the wife of an NBA superstar this time around. This is the song that ignited Drake’s short-lived beef (over beats) with Diddy and also gave credence and aura to the nickname “Chef Curry” — which Stephen and Ayesha Curry both parlayed, on and off the court. For context, Ayesha Curry’s already on her third International Smoke restaurant.

Nicki Minaj feat. Chris Brown, Drake & Lil Wayne: “Only” (2014)

Oh, yeah, you the man in the city when the mayor f— with you / The NBA players f— with you / The badass b— doing makeup and hair f— with you …

No shade at all for this next sentence. But Minaj could really use a single like this in 2019.

Draft Day” (2014)

Draft day, Johnny Manziel / Five years later, how am I the man still?

Well, Drake can still attest to being a marquee attraction a half-decade later. Johnny Football? Not so much. Manziel, to whom the song was dedicated (and who is mentioned by 2 Chainz in his new song “NCAA”), was an incredibly hyped NFL rookie at the time. A Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M, Manziel was undeniably one of the most popular, and controversial athletes of his generation. Manziel spiraled out of the NFL after two years with underwhelming play on the field. And just last month, Manziel was kicked out of the Canadian Football League.

10 Bands” (2015)

I get boxes of free Jordans like I played at North Carolina / How much I make off the deal? / How the f— should I know?

In terms of Cocky Drake, consider this one of his best bars to date. You can feel the disgust in his voice.

6 Man” (2015)

Boomin’ out in South Gwinnett like Lou Will / 6 man like Lou Will / Two girls and they get along like I’m … (Louuu) Like I’m Lou Will / I just got the new deal …”

It’s time we put Lou Williams in the conversation of all-time great sixth men, if we haven’t already. But while this line immortalized Williams, the NBA’s new all-time leading scorer off the bench and a rapper himself, he played it cool with his response to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. “I hear about it every day. Every single day,” he said. “More players do that than you know. I was just the first person to have it mentioned in a song.” Somehow, that’s not surprising. Like, at all.

6PM In New York” (2015)

Every shot you see them take at me they all contested / Allen Iverson shoe deal / These n—as all in question …

Given all the athletes Drake has referenced over the years, it’s low-key wild that he hasn’t mentioned Iverson more. But both entries on this list (see above) are definitely impressive.

Fetty Wap feat. Drake — “My Way” (Remix) (2015)

They should call me James / ’Cause I’m going hard in this b—- …

What’s true: This was one of the biggest records of that year and a day party mainstay. What’s also true: It’s far more fun to drunkenly recite than it is impressive to just read on the screen.

Meek Mill feat. Drake — “R.I.C.O.” (2015)

OVO, East End, Reps Up, we just might get hit with the R.I.C.O. / Everyone home for the summer, so let’s not do nothing illegal / I go make $50 million then I give some millions to my people / They gon’ go Tony Montana and cop them some Shaq at the free throws …

Drake and Mill’s beef, which started almost immediately after the release of this song in the summer of 2015, dented both careers. But perhaps one of the most innocent bystanders was this song — it never received the video and push it more than deserved.

Charged Up” (2015)

Come live all your dreams out at OVO / We gon’ make sure you get your bread and know the ropes / I get a ring and I bring it home like I’m Cory Joe …

Cory Joe is, of course, Cory Joseph, the Toronto native who won the 2014 NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs and later signed with his hometown Raptors. But when you think about it, this wasn’t the first time a Spur found himself smack-dab in the middle of a high-profile Drake beef.

Back To Back” (2015)

Back to back for the n—as that didn’t get the message / Back to back, like I’m on the cover of Lethal Weapon / Back to back, like I’m Jordan ’96, ’97, whoa!

It was never confirmed whether this video of Jordan dancing (exactly how you’d expect Jordan to dance) to “Back to Back” was real. But it does go to show how deeply the Meek beef permeated pop culture.

Future & Drake — “Big Rings” (2015)

This game is different / You only get one shot when n—as gon foul on you …

With the Meek beef still very much on the minds of everyone, Drake continued to take the reins of the narrative by teaming up with Future for a collaborative album. While Drake’s presence was felt on 10 of the 11 tracks, the lingering effects of his fallout with Meek, and the ghostwriting accusations that haunted him, resonated within Drake’s aggression.

Future & Drake — “Scholarships” (2015)

I’m ballin’ outta control, keep on receiving the scholarships / Mail coming to the house / N—a please watch your mouth / I’m the one without a doubt, yeah / And I rock Kentucky blue on these hoes / Drafted, I’m getting choose by these hoes …

No matter how many No. 1 hits he amasses, Drake still has to redeem himself from this moment while wearing said Kentucky blue.

Future & Drake — “Jumpman” (2015)

I hit the Ginobili with my left hand up like, “Woo!”

Jumpman, Jumpman, Jumpman, f— was you expecting? (woo!) / Chi-Town, Chi-Town Michael Jordan just said text me (woo!)

Jumpman, Jumpman, live on TNT I’m flexing (ooh!) / Jumpman, Jumpman they gave me my own collection (ooh!) … Mutombo with the b—-es, you keep getting rejected (woo!)

If nothing else, there should at least have been a video for this project. Nike could’ve fronted the budget and just made it an informal infomercial.

30 For 30 Freestyle” (2015)

S— is purely for sport, I need a 30 for 30 / Banners are ready in case we need to retire your jersey / I got a club in the Raptors arena / Championship celebrations during …

Peyton and Eli when n—as called me they brother the season start / And I don’t wanna see you end up with nothing / Y’all throw the word “Family” around too much in discussion / Rookie season, I would’ve never thought this was coming / They knees give out and they passing to you all of a sudden / Now you the one getting buckets …

With a title such as this one, there had to be a slew of sports-related lyrics.

Summer Sixteen” (2016)

And I blame my day ones / You know Chubbs like Draymond …

Golden State running practice at my house …

Yes, now we’ve entered the Golden State portion of Drake’s discography. And no one was more appreciative than Draymond Green, who views his mention as a career-defining moment.

Weston Road Flows” (2016)

A lot of people just hit me up when my name is mentioned / Shout out to KD, we relate / We get the same attention / It’s raining money, Oklahoma City Thunder / The most successful rapper 35 and under / I’m assuming everybody’s 35 and under / That’s when I plan to retire, man, it’s already funded …

I used to hit the corner store to get Tahiti Treat / Now the talk at the corner store is I’m TBE / The best ever, don’t ever question, you know better …

Drake gives a nod to Floyd Mayweather Jr. with the TBE nod. But it’s Drake’s Kevin Durant mention that raises the most eyebrows. Perhaps Drake knows something we don’t? He and KD are close, and the impending megastar free agent has long called Drake his favorite rapper. The two-time NBA champion revealed last June that he could realistically, as Drake says of himself, envision himself retiring at 35. “This game, your craft, you have to continue studying,” Durant said. “No matter how much you enjoy it, nobody wants to be in school that long. I know I don’t. At some point, you have to be ready to graduate. Thirty-five, that’s just a number in my mind.”

Still Here” (2016)

I gotta talk to God even though he isn’t near me / Based on what I got, it’s hard to think that he don’t hear me / Hittin’ like that 30 on my jersey, man, I’m gifted …

Conversations with God. Comparing himself to the greatest shooter who ever lived. Drake’s confidence was higher than telephone wires.

Pop Style” (2016)

This was when we received confirmation Drake and the Bryant family were still cool.

MVP, MVP, ’09 all the way to ’16 / Even next season looking like a breeze / Lot of y’all ain’t built for the league …

Drake wasn’t the MVP every year from 2009-16, but he was certainly in the conversation. “Pop Style” also rings off in concerts something serious.

Views” (2016)

Me and Niko used to plot on how to make a change / Now me and Kobe doin’ shots the night before the game / Still drop 40 with liquor in my system …

This was when we received confirmation Drake and the Bryant family were still cool. Drake and Kobe, at least.

YG feat. Drake — “Why You Always Hatin?” (2016)

I’m a star like Moesha’s n—a / Runnin’ up the numbers like Ayesha’s n—a …

A subtle Fredro Starr mention here. And Ayesha Curry’s husband was for sure running up the numbers in 2016. That was the year he become the only unanimous MVP in NBA history. Speaking of Steph …

4PM In Calabasas” (2016)

We established like the Yankees / This whole f—ing game thankless …

OVO, the rap game Bronx Bombers?

OVO, the rap game Bronx Bombers? Drake thought so, even if the industry would never acknowledge it as such. Regardless, “4PM” remains one of Drake’s sharpest cuts, with a tidal wave’s worth of Diddy disses throughout.

Free Smoke” (2017)

I took the team plane from Oracle / Mama never used to cook much / Used to chef KD / Now me and Chef, KD / Bet on shots for 20 G’s …

Drake albums are always a big cultural event from coast to coast. Needless to say, in 2017, this song was anything but a fan favorite in the Cleveland area. Especially in Quicken Loans Arena.

Fake Love” (2017)

Soon as s— gets outta reach / I reach back like 1-3 …

To date, this remains the lone Odell Beckham Jr. reference in Drake’s catalog. And that’s a wild stat, given their very public bromance.

Lil Wayne feat. Drake — “Family Feud” (2017)

Super Bowl goals, I’m at the crib with Puff / He got Kaepernick on the phone / He in a whole different mode …

An oft-forgotten collab between Drake and Lil Wayne. It was also one of the earliest nods to the fact that Drake and Meek were, behind the scenes, putting bad blood behind them even as Meek sat in prison. I need my paper long like “A Milli” verse / Or too long like a sentence from a Philly judge, he rhymed. F— is the point in all the beefin’ when we really blood?

Diplomatic Immunity” (2018)

’Cause n—as started talkin’ to me like I’m slowin’ down / Opinions over statistics, of course …

Like Sanders on the Detroit Lions/ Get a run around and I’ll bury you where they won’t find ya …

This is a hard track Drake dropped at the start of 2018 along with the Grammy-winning “God’s Plan.” Both songs were a welcome change of pace, his first new ones since dropping More Life almost a year earlier. But for as tough as Drake’s “Diplomatic Immunity” is, the above phraseology will always belong to the royal family of Harlem. Not even Drake can overtake that.

Nonstop” (2018)

I just took it left like I’m ambidex’ / B—-, I move through London with the Eurostep (Two) / Got a sneaker deal and I ain’t break a sweat / Catch me ’cause I’m goin’ (Outta there, I’m gone) / How I go from 6 to 23 like I’m LeBron?

Money for revenge, man, that’s hardly an expense / Al Haymon checks off of all of my events / I like all the profit, man, I hardly do percents …

While never confirmed, it is widely speculated that the “revenge” line is confirmation of Pusha T’s suspicion that Drake was offering money for dirt on him. Regardless, “Nonstop” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard’s Hot 100. But it’s unclear how many people who chant the “6 to 23” line understand its real meaning. Drake’s from Toronto, which he calls “the 6.” Drake’s got his own sneaker deal — just like No. 23 for the Lakers.

8 Out of 10” (2018)

Miss makin’ ’em pay / Helipad from Will Smith crib straight to the stage / Three Forum shows, but I played Staples today …

All in a day’s work.

Mob Ties” (2018)

Lead the league in scoring, but man look at my assists …

Lightly similar to Jay-Z’s High school crossover, waved away picks / Music is the same s—, gave away hits from 2000’s “Best of Me” (remix). Somewhere, on the slim chance he’s even aware the line exists, NBA great Nate “Tiny” Archibald is smiling. He was living that same life during the 1972-73 season with the Kansas City-Omaha Kings when he led the league in scoring (34) and assists (11.4). That’s the only time in league history that’s happened.

Sandra’s Rose” (2018)

They don’t have enough to satisfy a real one / Maverick Carter couldn’t even get the deal done …

Louisville hush money for my young gunners / Rick Pitino, I take ’em to strip clubs and casinos …

Just when Rick Pitino maybe thought the Adidas pay-for-play scandal that got him ousted as head coach at Louisville was in the rearview mirror, here comes a mention on the most streamed album of 2018.

Drake feat. Jay-Z — “Talk Up” (2018)

This isn’t that, can’t be ignoring the stats / Based off of that, they gotta run me the max / They gotta run me the max / They gotta double the racks …

In other words, the mindstate of every big-name free agent this spring or summer, from Le’Veon Bell to Kevin Durant to Kyrie Irving and others. Look what knowing your worth did for Bryce Harper: $330 million later, he’s set for life.

Drake feat. Future — “Blue Tint” (2018)

Way this s— set up, I live like Ronaldo / But I never been in Madrid, whoa …

It’s impossible to believe Drake has never been to Madrid, considering he’s toured the world several times over. Not exactly the thing I was expecting to have in common with Drake, but alas.

Lil Baby feat. Drake — “Yes Indeed” (2018)

My cousins are crazy / My cousins like Boogie / Life is amazing / It is what it should be / Been here for 10, but I feel like a rookie …

One of the most popular Instagram captions of the past year. Going back through the list, too, it appears the only Golden State Warrior who hasn’t been name-dropped in a song by Drake is Klay Thompson.

Fire In The Booth” (2018)

El chico, this verse is the explanation for the large ego / $100 mil’ hands free like Ronaldinho …

Click the link to the song. How Charlie Sloth didn’t blow a vein in his neck is both a blessing and scary.

Telfar brings black punk rock hip-hop to New York Fashion Week Black. Queer. Street urchin. Punk. Telfar Clemens designs for the kids.

NEW YORK — Thursday night at Irving Plaza, the Manhattan music venue, had all the trappings of a typical punk show: plenty of ripped hems, safety pin earrings, tattoos, Doc Martens, Manic Panic multicolored hair, uncomfortable-looking piercings and unconventional makeup.

But there were two important differences:

  1. The crowd was almost entirely black.
  2. It was actually a fashion show.

Leave it to designer Telfar Clemens to once again upend the mold of just what a fashion show — a trade exhibition, first and foremost — can be. This year, Clemens debuted the fall/winter collection of his eponymous brand in a show created in collaboration with Slave Play and Daddy playwright Jeremy O. Harris. With all the sonic and atmospheric flourishes, the clothes were, frankly, the least important part of the show.

Designer Telfar Clemens walks the runway at the Telfar Fall/Winter 2019 Collection on Feb. 7 in New York City.

Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images

Rather than sending models down a traditional catwalk, Clemens sent his models lifted through a crowd that magically parted like an Afro whose sides have been divorced with the expert flick of a rattail comb.

It was difficult to see the clothes, but Clemens’ message for “COUNTRY,” the name of this year’s show, was absolutely clear. The stage at Irving Plaza was framed with a hollowed-out American flag. The models were beckoned with the deafening sounds of trains — whistles and a chugga-chugga-chugga enhanced with the sort of bass one might expect from Hank Shocklee, conjuring associations with the Great Migration.

Out they came, to the sounds of Total Freedom, followed by Robert Randolph, Oyinda and Butch Dawson. Strums of an Afrofuturist country guitar melded with strains of Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place.”

With his wares presented, Clemens came onstage and threw himself, back first, to surf the crowd of adoring fans.

In his presentation statement, Clemens wrote that “we are all a little bit country. So all our music is country music, like all our bodies are objects. If you can carry that weight — then you know what it is to have an objective. Pick up a stone and throw it.”

The show concluded with performances from the hip-hop punk group Ho99o9 and Na-Kel Smith providing the soundtrack to a jumping, sweaty, testosterone-powered mosh pit, most immediately, but also to the untamed rage of a new, black punk rock generation. It, too, sings America.

After 30-plus years and 100-plus roles, Samuel L. Jackson ranks his own roles No. 1 is not what you think it is

Samuel L. Jackson, who stars as “Frozone” in this week’s The Incredibles 2, knows a dope character when he sees one. The legendary actor, now 69, has been bringing to life some of the world’s most quotable characters for 30 years now — his first film credit comes from Spike Lee’s 1988 historically black college classic School Daze.

In 2011, Jackson entered the Guinness Book of World Records because he’s had roles in movies with more than $7.4 billion in total box office, making him the highest-grossing actor of all time. Since then, those totals have only grown. And even when he’s not in a high-grossing film, he can simply turn a movie out. He has more than 100 feature film credits, with several repeat roles in big-budget sequels and prequels and more on the way.

Jackson has done a lot over the years, but something he’s never done is rank his own work. In the spring, we sent Jackson a list of his 111 feature films and asked him to rank his top 20. He did it, while qualifying the list as his very own favorite roles. He’s aware that this list will spark arguments from die-hard fans — pun not entirely unintended. With that, in reverse order, Samuel L. Jackson ranks Samuel L. Jackson.

20. Lazarus Red

Black Snake Moan

2006

“Black Snake Moan”

AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

I spent a year learning to play the guitar to do the role. I had a really great guitar teacher … it was fun. Being back in Tennessee and shooting … [I had] an awesome time with Christina [Ricci]. She’s a great actress.

19. Charles Morritz

The Red Violin

1998

“The Red Violin”

AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

A really beautiful film. One of the most cerebral characters that I’ve played. I spent time with guys that made violins so that I’d understand the process of evaluating violins and knowing their authenticity. It’s just a sprawling and beautiful movie.

18. Elmo McElroy

Formula 51

2001

“Formula 51”

Alliance Atlantis/Getty Images

The most appealing part was I got to wear a kilt the whole movie, which was kind of awesome. And I was running around with these golf clubs on my back the whole film. I rocked these braids and a big turtleneck sweater. We shot in Liverpool, where … I knew about soccer, football, but I never invested in it. So because I was there they took me to some Liverpool games and I became a fan.

17. Major Marquis Warren

The Hateful Eight

2015

“The Hateful Eight”

The Weinstein Company

Just because he is who he is. Major Warren. Always fun having a character who explains himself in plain words, and there’s no mistaking who he is and what he’s about.

16. Darius Kincaid

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

2017

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”

Lionsgate Entertainment

I could have put Kincaid higher. I loved doing that film with Ryan [Reynolds]. We were able to put together two interesting characters with really diverse life views that meshed very well. Ain’t it funny?

15. Ordell Robbie

Jackie Brown

1997

“Jackie Brown.”

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Robbie could have been higher on the list. Ordell is just a good-time guy who lives in a world of his own. He’s his own man. He’s a great friend to have, but he’s definitely the wrong guy to cross. He definitely will put you in a trunk of a car. There’s no ‘might’ about that.

14. Ken Carter

Coach Carter

2005

“Coach Carter”

Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Inspirational. A great story. And the real Ken Carter was around all the time, talking and hanging around. … [He] helped me with some of the characterization. And my relationship with those guys — I liked those kids a lot. We had a great time shooting that movie. And in reality, the team won that championship that year, but the studio decided it was a better object lesson to have them lose, after sacrificing and doing all the things they did to let them know that things don’t always work out that way. But the journey is the thing — not the thing.

13. Carl Lee Hailey

A Time to Kill

1996

“A Time To Kill”

Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Carl Lee is a powerful character. And I have a daughter. I understood the dynamic of what was going on … and how it all worked. I have a lot of mixed feelings about that film. I know it’s a powerful film, and it’s great. But we shot a lot of stuff that’s actually not in that movie, which taught me the power of editing. When we did it, I was doing one thing, and then when the film comes out, it looks like Carl Lee had this plan that he was going to kill these dudes and he was going to get away with it. But that was never the plan. The object of that whole thing was to let my daughter know that I am your protector. And if anything happens to you, I will take care of it. So she wouldn’t have to worry about those two guys being on the planet that she’s on, ever again. And that was the goal of Carl Lee, to do that. And if he got away with it, fine, but if he didn’t, he still did his job as a father. But they made Carl Lee seem a little conniving. I still love him. He represents all the black men in my family, because that’s who they are: hardworking guys who believe family first.

12. Mr. Barron

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

2016

“Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children”

20TH CENTURY FOX/MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTD

I always wanted to play a sort of demonic, crazy guy, and Mr. Barron fits that bill. It’s a Tim Burton movie, so I got to be as bizarre, as quirky as I wanted to be. And that’s very freeing in its own way.

11. Stephen

Django Unchained

2012

Stephen is my dude! Stephen was the king of that plantation, because Leo [DiCaprio] is off fighting his slaves and running his strip joint or whatever. The people didn’t know he could read. They didn’t know he could write. He wasn’t as decrepit as he portrayed himself to be. He was a very formidable guy. Without him, that plantation wouldn’t function. And once again, it’s awesome to be unapologetically evil. And believe me, there are some scenes we shot that aren’t in that movie that Quentin [Tarantino] was like, ‘I don’t want nobody to kill you.’ We shot some stuff that’s pretty nasty. I keep telling [Tarantino], ‘You can do it as like a five-part thing on Netflix or something.’

10. Zeus Carver

Die Hard with a Vengeance

1995

“Die Hard: With a Vengeance”

20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

A springboard role. Most people say that I got famous after Pulp Fiction. When we were shooting DHWAV, Pulp Fiction happened. And Bruce [Willis] and I went to France and watched Pulp for the first time. We’re like, ‘Wow, this is great.’ Bruce is like, ‘Yeah, this is a good movie. People are going to know who you are. But this movie that we’re doing right now is the movie that’s going to put you on the map.’ And Die Hard With a Vengeance was the highest-grossing film in the world that year. So all of a sudden I was an international name.

9. Richmond Valentine

Kingsman: Secret Service

2014

“Kingsman: Secret Service”

Fox Movies

I was fussing to [director] Matthew Vaughn about Kingsman. I was like, ‘So how can I shoot this dude in the face and he still be alive and I kind of got stabbed in the back and I died? Valentine deserves a second take, right?’ I loved him.

8. John Shaft

Shaft and Son of Shaft

2000

“Shaft”

Eli Reed/Paramount Pictures Corp./Getty Images

I was like everybody else: ‘Why do we need to do another Shaft? The one we’ve got is like totally good.’ But then I thought about it: ‘OK. But you have to put Richard [Roundtree] in it so that everybody would know I’m not pretending to be Richard; our characters are relatives.’ It was Shaft for the millennium. The Christian Bale character was going to be the bad guy. But I kept saying that I can just go by his house and kill him. Why would he be the bad guy? And Jeffrey [Wright] was killing it as Peoples. He was the best of bad guys. It’s easy to catch this little rich white kid from Jersey who is hanging around. But [Peoples] is part of the fabric of that community, Uptown, where Shaft is supposed to be.

7. Elijah Price

Unbreakable

2000

“Unbreakable”

Getty Images

Elijah could be up higher too. I love Elijah. He’s just so cerebral. He has his own sense of cool and style. He’s sure of who he is, what his path is and where he’s going. And he’s made plans to find out why he is the way he is, and why other people are the way they are. Even more will be revealed in February when Glass comes out in 2019.

6. Gator Purify

Jungle Fever

1991

“Jungle Fever”

David Lee/UNIVERSAL PICTURES

“Dance for me, Gator!” Gator was me — I was that character. I’d been out of rehab maybe two weeks when we shot Jungle Fever. I didn’t need makeup or nothing. In fact, when I showed up to shoot and I went to craft services to get something to eat, Spike [Lee] had all these Fruit of Islam guys around the set, and they thought I was one of the crackheads from around the neighborhood. They were like, ‘Get away from the table!’ Gator is really close to me because [he] signified me killing that part of my life and moving on. So when Ossie Davis, the Good Reverend Doctor, killed me in that movie, it kind of freed me from all those demons I had in my real life. That was kind of cool. That was the summer of dueling crackheads. It was me, and Chris Rock was Pookie in New Jack City. Gator was that guy everybody had in their family. I was like, ‘This has to be about me ruining my family relationships with all the people that care about me because you get stuff from them, and then you just break their hearts.’ It’s easy to play high. He was just always looking for that next thing. Using his mom, using his brother, using all these people was what Gator was about.

5. Nick Fury

Marvel Universe films

2008-19

“Marvel’s The Avengers”

Marvel

Nick is one of those blessings that just kind of fell out of the sky. I was in the comic book store because I’m in Golden Apple like once a month or twice a month. I saw the ‘Ultimates’ cover and I’m like, ‘Did I give somebody permission to use my face on the comic book?’ So I called my agent and manager and they’re like, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ So I told them, they called Marvel and they’re like, ‘Well, you know, we’re thinking we’re going to make these movies and we hope he’d like to be a part of it.’ And it also says so inside the comic. ‘If they make a movie about us, who would you want to play you?’ And Nick Fury says, ‘Samuel L. Jackson.’ I’m like, ‘Done!’ Because the Nick Fury I knew was this white dude, because I’ve been reading comics all my life and that’s who he was. It was a wonderful opportunity to step into a place and hang out with some superheroes.

4. Frozone, Lucius Best

The Incredibles, 2004

The Incredibles 2, 2018

“Incredibles 2”

Disney/Pixar

He has a superpower. And Lucius is this really cool dude. He shows up, he hangs out, he’s got a solution. He never gets flustered. And he’s got this really dope wife that nobody’s seen yet.

3. Mace Windu

Star Wars

1999-2005

“Star Wars: Attack of the Clones”

Lucasfilm

He’s a Jedi. Come on! I remember going to the first Star Wars in New York when it came out and I was sitting there staring at that movie like, ‘Wow, how do you get in a movie like this? How? How? How?’ And then I was on a talk show in London and this guy asked me if there were any directors I hadn’t worked with that I wanted to work with, and I knew they were shooting Star Wars. I was like, ‘I would really like to work with George Lucas, blah blah blah.’ And I didn’t think anything about it. [Then] I got a call: ‘George would like to meet with you, he heard you wanted to work with him.’ So I went to the ranch and I talked to him and he said, ‘I know your work, but right now I don’t know what I could do. And I was like, ‘Look, man, I could be a stormtrooper. You could put me in one of those white suits, I’ll run across screen, nobody even needs to know!’ He was like, ‘I’m going to find something better.’ Two months or so later, I got a call: ‘George wants you to come to London, he’s found something for you to do …’ I showed up … hadn’t seen the script. They put me in this room, and [someone] came in and said, ‘OK, why don’t you try on this costume?’ And I go, ‘Is this a Jedi costume? Am I a Jedi?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh. Yeah.’ And then somebody came in and gave me a little piece of paper — they still hadn’t given me a script. Who is Mace Windu? And they go, ‘That’s you.’ So I’m actually going to be in the movie?! And then I go downstairs and this man comes over with this big [case] and he opens it and is like, ‘Lightsaber handles; pick one.’ My goal from that point on was, ‘OK, don’t get killed. Just don’t piss anybody off, don’t get killed. Just stay alive.’

2. Jules Winnfield

Pulp Fiction

1994

“Pulp Fiction”

Miramax/Giphy

Jules is one of those kind of dream roles you get. I saw Quentin [Tarantino] at an audition for Reservoir Dogs and I didn’t get the job. But I was at Sundance when they had the first screening. So I watched the movie, I went to him and I said, ‘I really enjoyed your movie.’ And he was like, ‘So how did you like the guy who got your role?’ I didn’t even realize he knew I’d auditioned because I was so bad! But he said, ‘I’m writing something right now, and I’m going to send it to you.’ So I’m off doing a movie and I get this brown envelope with a script in it, and I read it and I’m like, ‘Is this as good as I just thought it was? Wait a minute. Start over.’ I read it again and was like, ‘Wow, amazing!’ And it was just … John [Travolta] and I hanging out and talking and being about who we’re about. It was the most natural and not movie-ish, picture-ish kind of things that I’d ever read. It was like doing a play on the screen.

1. Mitch Henessey

The Long Kiss Goodnight

1996

“The Long Kiss Goodnight”

New Line Cinema/Getty Images

My dude! I love that movie so much. A movie way ahead of its time. Geena Davis — awesome Charly Baltimore character. The studio didn’t know how to market that film because they didn’t know that women like seeing themselves as badasses. I kept saying, ‘You need to advertise this thing during the day when women are watching soaps.’ Whatever. They were like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ But it’s gone on to be like this really great cult classic because Geena is so good. And the Mitch character in the original iteration got killed. When they did a test screening, the audience like lost its mind. Like no, you cannot kill Mitch Henessey. So we went back and we redid those [shots] with Larry King. We did that like three days before the movie opened. And they stuck it in the movie. But I just loved Mitch because he’s got such a big heart. He’s a fun-loving, kind of profane guy that wants to be this thing that he’s not. But he’s not afraid to step into the space for somebody that he cares about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

GL Askew II for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GL Askew II for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don Cheadle says the time for makers is now: ‘You gotta create that thing that you want‘ The actor/producer/writer also talks ‘Infinity War‘ fantasy football and high jinks with Captain America

Don Cheadle has nabbed a couple of Screen Actors Guild awards, a couple of Golden Globe awards and an Oscar (as a producer for 2004’s Crash), and he’s been nominated for Emmy awards and an Oscar for his acting work in 2004’s Hotel Rwanda. He even collected a Grammy for the Miles Ahead soundtrack, for the 2015 biopic that he wrote, directed and starred in.

But one award he’ll likely never win? Top dog in fantasy football. He tried it for the first time while he and the superstar cast of Avengers: Infinity War were shooting this latest Marvel masterpiece — and he finished dead last. Because of that, he was a target of explicit trash talk from the people who portray some of the world’s most beloved comic book superheroes. Trust Cheadle: He won’t be putting himself through that again. He will, though, talk about sports films, black filmmaking in a post-Black Panther world — and why he doesn’t like taking the easy way out.

You excel at bringing nuanced, gritty characters to life. But in the Marvel Universe, you get to have a little fun.

Things flying, you’re shooting, you’re in fights and battles. You get to do those things that I did, anyway, when I was a little kid. I’m a physical actor, so I love to do stunt stuff. I love to do the stuff on the wires. … War Machine gets to have a sense of humor and cut up … but he’s also dealing with some heavy stuff. To be able to do that kind of a range in a movie like this, where it could just be about green screen and people in CGI [computer-generated imaging] battles, it’s nice [when] you get to dig in a little bit sometimes and act.

Infinity War is coming right behind Black Panther, a film that has opened conversations about predominantly black films doing well here and in overseas markets. You’ve been verbal about fighting to get funding for passion projects and black stories.

Look at the history of black people in the movies. … You had the blaxploitation period, where there was a lot of work for black actors in a certain genre. Then there’s a fallow period. Then an upturn, like in the ’80s, but it was all around gangster and ’hood movies. Then it kinda went fallow again. Now we’re in this moment again where they can’t find enough makeup and hair people for black people because so many of them are working. All the barbers are working. All the makeup people for black people are working. If you took the 10,000-foot perspective, if you’re gonna be honest … this is what’s happening now. And I don’t know that it means this trend is going to carry forward. But while we got the door open, get in here, get in here, get in here. Get stuff made.

“They can’t find enough makeup and hair people for black people because so many of them are working. All the barbers are working.”

What’s the key to your consistency?

Desperation! A constant fear that it’s all gonna be over one day and everyone’s gonna find out that I’m a fraud.

No! Seriously?

Every time we’re done with a job, that’s it. You’re unemployed. You want to believe that, yeah, something’s gonna happen and I’m gonna be good. But you don’t know. There’s those five stages of the actor’s career that we talk about all the time: Who is Don Cheadle? Get me Don Cheadle. Get me a young Don Cheadle type. Get me a young Don Cheadle. Who the hell is Don Cheadle? I started my company for job security, you know? Because there wasn’t a lot coming down the pipe … that I wanted to do. So you gotta create that thing that you want.

You’ve been with this character for at least eight years now. How has that changed things for you? Has being part of this franchise gotten you through more doors? Or attention for your passion projects?

It’s allowed me to pay for them. It’s allowed me to spend some change and not need it to make money, do it because I want to do it, and if this one doesn’t hit, then I’m still fine. Miles Ahead, I spent my own money on that movie, and it didn’t make $4. It was an expensive film school for me, but it was still important for me and my career, a necessary process I had to go through. Having the Avengers allowed me to take that hit and not have to sell stuff. By the time I got into these films, I’d established my presence in this town.

And then some.

Memories are short in this town, and memories are short for audiences. It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kinda situation. ‘Nominated for an Oscar? That’s amazing. What did you do this year?’ That part is the challenge. And we never know how something’s gonna do, really.

In ’96, you brought streetball legend Earl “The Goat” Manigault to life for HBO. Are there other sports stories you’d love to tell?

If I portray him, it’s gonna have to be a sports hero who’s torn his ACL. Has a jumper’s knee! Whatever great legend there is who doesn’t really like to walk up and down stairs anymore, I could do that kind of story. The sports aspect of it would need to be accompanying a human story … like Hoosiers — great sports movie. Great because there’s something about the hero’s journey.

“Miles Ahead, I spent my own money on that movie, and it didn’t make $4.”

It’s about what happens off the field.

And the sport supports what is happening with that person’s life. … It has to not be [that] sportscentric.

I saw the Twitter beef back in January about fantasy football — you versus Captain America. You finished last place. How does that happen?! You were the superhero of NFL ads!

Oh, you mean because I did a commercial I know how to pick fantasy football?!

That didn’t translate?!

Chris Evans was like, ‘Hey, you wanna be in a fantasy football league?’ I’m like, ‘Sure.’ He’s like, ‘You pick players, and you kind of make your teams up.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard about it … let’s do it.’ Here’s what I didn’t realize about fantasy football: every week, [Infinity War co-director] Joe Russo would come up to me and go, ‘Hey, have you set your lineup?’ And I was like, ‘Set my team? I already picked my team!’ He’s like, ‘Oh, no, every week the teams change and their stats change, and you gotta go see who’s on IR [injured reserve] and you gotta take them off, and you’re gonna need to get a good defense. …’ And I’m just wide-eyed.

Wait. This was your first time playing fantasy?

Yes! After about three weeks I was like, this is a job. And I have a job. I have a family. I have Twitter fights to have. I can’t be doing this all day.

“Who is Don Cheadle? Get me Don Cheadle. Get me a young Don Cheadle type. Get me a young Don Cheadle. Who the hell is Don Cheadle?”

How do you measure success? What’s the barometer for job well done for Don Cheadle?

I think that has to happen at the end. That’s almost a deathbed thing, you know? Or when you’re like, ‘I’m hanging it up.’ It’s when you’re finished and you look back and see if you checked the boxes you wanted to check, see if you left it all on the field. I’m still in it. For me, it just would be a way of thinking, ‘Did you not push yourself in a place you could have pushed yourself? Did you not take a chance, did you play this one safe?’ If I look back and see that, yeah, I ducked that one and I skipped that one — I haven’t done any of those things. So I feel like I’m being successful in my journey … but I got a lot of work to do.

A lot? I think some would disagree with you on that.

I think that’s proper. I’m supposed to be going ‘not yet’ on myself, so I don’t just sit on the couch and eat bonbons and just watch Netflix.

That said, what’s your next passion project?

I’ve written a movie, and I’ve sold the movie that I’ve written. It can’t go into production this year because of all the work that we have this year. But perhaps next year we’ll shoot it. It’s kicking my a– right now. I don’t pick easy ones.

“While we got the door open, get in here, get in here, get in here. Get stuff made.”

Can you tell me what the film’s about or who the film is about?

What could I say? It’s a concept that I came up with. It’s a thriller/horror movie. Those are very hard to do well.

We saw some recent success, though, last year with Get Out, obviously.

That’s the thing: to be innovative, and be interesting, and use different subject matters, and still do the things that people want. You know, you still have to give people what they want, but you wanna do it in a way that’s interesting and maybe in a way that they haven’t seen it before … to pull the audience in or to keep them on the edge of their seat. That’s a high bar. It’s a challenge.

But that’s what drives you, yes?

Yeah. I’d love to have the courage to sell out a little bit and not have to have it always be so damn hard, you know? But I’d be bored if I did that.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

‘Avengers: Infinity War’ goes back to Wakanda, the land where women fight to the finish And the female characters strike as much fear into the enemy as male protagonists do — if not more

 

Avengers: Infinity War will be one of the biggest films of 2018 — and that’s saying a lot after the unprecedented success of Black Panther, which collected an international box office of $1 billion inside of one month. This new Marvel project features superheroes such as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and, of course, Black Panther teaming up to take on a common enemy set to destroy the universe.

But it’s a new day, and there are many more female characters beyond Black Widow to strike fear into enemies as male protagonists do. And Infinity War highlights the strength of Marvel Universe’s female characters — a battalion of badass women who fight alongside their male counterparts with a diversity of strength, intelligence and powers in a way never seen before, collectively, on screen.

The Undefeated sat down with superstar Zoe Saldana — one of Hollywood’s most bankable, who was taking a break from shooting Avatar 2 — and British actor Letitia Wright, who was introduced to U.S. audiences as the Black Panther’s genius kid sister. Both women were featured in the video for Drake’s “Nice For What,” his recent record-breaking you-go-girl anthem. And after witnessing the might of their characters in Avengers: Infinity War, there is no doubt their power will grow tenfold.

We chat.


Zoe Saldana as Gamora along with Dave Bautista as Drax in “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.”

Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Your characters arrive on screen, and everyone in the theater will scream, “Yaaaas!” What does that mean to you?

Saldana: It humbles me. It makes me feel superexcited to know that I am joining a band of women attracted to action-driven films. I love to see women portrayed in complex layers, where your physical abilities are also challenged.

Wright: It’s something I always wanted to do with my work, with my talent. To be in that position where young women feel empowered, or encouraged, or inspired to be cool in their own skin, and do their thing, and contribute positively to the world — it feels really good.

Obviously, you’re reprising roles in Infinity War, but take us back to the first time you suited up and stepped into your character’s shoes.

Saldana: I’m a Gemini, so I was very much a Gemini in the very first movie … becoming Gamora every single day. There was the real Zoe, the actress, the complainer: ‘This costume is itchy! The makeup really feels like it’s burning my skin!’ And then … as soon as I step into set and everybody’s in their character’s suit, that is completely left at the door and I become this excited little girl that feels grateful to be where I’m at, privileged to be collaborating with people that I feel like raise me every day — whether colleagues or my director or producers, or crew.

Wright: The first time … it was kind of scary because it was a set filled with so many amazing actors and actresses. And I [hadn’t done] anything in the U.S., so I was kind of literally fresh off the boat — nobody knows who you are. And also just not wanting to let anybody down, and not fully understanding who she needed to be. I had my own perception of who she was … just super, superserious about everything. And [Black Panther director] Ryan Coogler saw my own personality, saw the light and the love that’s within me, and the fun vibes. And he wanted more of that for Shuri. It was difficult to put my perception of who she was aside … and then, as I went along, playing this character in the lab … and talking about superhard scientific things that I’d never thought about in real life … it allowed me to see that this character is empowering and that something different was about to happen.

The representation of women of color in this film is amazing.

Saldana: The fact that we are more than one in a cast. And that we are more than two. We’re actually like 10 … we feel we’re not alone. There’s a lot of celebration, just a lot of great energy, and I hope it continues. I hope other studios and executives … understand that they need to write complex and layered roles for women. … If audiences are always looking up to what we’re doing as a film industry, then we need to set the tone.

Wright: I take my hat off to Marvel for stepping in and filling shoes that need to be filled in terms of producers and studios who are just doing things. Not just saying it, but doing it, to make change. And, yeah, it feels good that there are more women included in the films, even more so, collectively. And just to see that starting off with Zoe’s character, or Elizabeth’s [Olsen] character, or Scarlett [Johansson], you know? All the women in Guardians. It’s been happening for quite a while, and then to then have Black Panther bring in females of African descent, and a story of an African descent, it’s encouraging, and I’m just happy it’s happening.

“We can … put our missions across as LGBTQIA women, as black women, as Jewish women, as Muslim women, as white women — we are all standing together. We need it.”

Marvel Studios’ AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR: Shuri (Letitia Wright) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

When you were a little girl, which superhero or heroine did you pretend to be?

Saldana: Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, ninjas! The Bionic Woman. Jackie Brown. Every time I would see a woman on screen or in my TV, regardless of the color of her skin, ’cause there was a time in my life when I was completely colorblind, and that was to me true bliss. And it was always in the comfort and in the safety of my home where my mother raised us to be colorblind. And still, to this day, she pursues that mission for us. Even when I’d go to school and the world began to taint my vision of what that was like, I still looked up to women regardless of the color of their skin. I held on to the fact that they were there to remind me that if they’re doing it, then I can as well. It’s important to instill in our girls that regardless of the color of your skin, we should always stand united. … In that unity we will propel change … through all of our subcultures and sub-issues and everything. If we keep it first as a general conversation, then once that’s out there, and we’re reminding people, and we’re not allowing people to forget, then we can also put our missions across as LGBTQIA women, as black women, as Jewish women, as Muslim women, as white women — we are all standing together. We need it.

Wright: Man, this is hard. I looked up to a lot of people who were a part of the civil rights movement. I studied a lot of that when I was a kid, particularly the U.S. civil rights movement. Rosa Parks and, like, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. These people who went out of their way to fight for something that they believed in and stand up for people who they believed in as well. I studied a lot about Rosa Parks … and how she just believed in something and believed in equality and believed in her rights and stood up for that. So those were the people that made an impact on my life.

What would you tell your 10-year-old self? The one who didn’t see Gamora or Shuri or Okoye on a big screen?

Zoe: That yes you can. That you can do anything you want to do, and that you are capable. If you have the ability, if you have the opportunity to lean in and have a role model in your life, just hold on to all of those people around you that tell you that you can do anything. And allow the strength of what they’re saying to you to be the strongest message that numbs out the noise of all the other people that are telling you that you can’t.

Wright: Just saying to her to take in these superhero characters. Take in these women and learn from them. Try to find the positive aspects of what they represent. Learn from them and use them as steppingstones, to build confidence. If there’s a character such as Okoye in the world, or a Shuri in the world or a Black Widow in the world, that’s an amazing thing, you know? I would say to my 10-year-old self if they can do it, you can too.

What other character in this film inspires you?

Saldana: Chadwick’s [Boseman] T’Challa inspired me and made me cry, because to be able to see a man of color be so sensitive, and be so human and be so delicate, really moved me. Because before that, every time I would see a man of color on screen, the emotions that were always highlighted in that man were emotions of anger and rage and injustice. And there are so many other layers to a man, regardless of the color of his skin.

Wright: I’ll definitely say Black Panther. Not to be biased, because he’s my character’s brother, but because he has such a difficult task. It educates me on how to be a leader. Seeing a leader who’s not afraid to take the opinions of other people, especially women, on board. And not think, like, ‘Oh, man! Don’t need a woman’s help!’ No, he’s so receptive, and so open to both genders, no matter what status you are. He even takes advice from his little sister.

Deon Taylor, professional basketball player turned filmmaker, talks new flick ‘Traffik,’ sports and family ‘I have become who I am today simply because I was told no everywhere I went. I’m the product of no.’

When filmmaker and director Deon Taylor stopped playing professional basketball to pursue film, a lot of doors were slammed in his face.

“I have become who I am today simply because I was told no everywhere I went. I’m the product of no.”

Now he boasts a 15-year independent film career and is releasing his newest film, Traffik, an intense thriller about sex trafficking starring Paula Patton and Omar Epps due to hit theaters on April 20.

Taylor grew up in Indiana and moved to Sacramento, California, where he played high school basketball. He caught the attention of San Diego State in the ’90s, receiving a full scholarship and being named the conference’s Newcomer of the Year. The former Division I basketball player balled professionally in Germany from 1998 to 2003.

“Basketball is life,” Taylor said. “A lot of people say that, but for me, basketball has been a vehicle my entire life. It has taken me all over the world on a professional level.”

He left the game to pursue his film career. Taylor moved to Los Angeles in 2003, pitching a screenplay he’d written on a tablet. The rejection hit hard.

“I was expecting people to love the screenplay …,” Taylor said. “Six years later, after being kicked out of 300 rooms, I eventually said, ‘I guess the only way you can make movies is if you make them yourself.’ And that started my journey for the last 15 years [as an independent filmmaker].”

Inspired to get his films out, the 42-year-old launched Hidden Empire Film Group in Sacramento. His longtime business partner and lead investor in all of his films is Robert F. Smith, the founder of Vista Equity Partners, whom Forbes recently described as “richer than Oprah and the nation’s wealthiest African-American conquering tech and Wall Street.”

“Still, to this day, I’ve never been hired by a studio to make a film, but I’ve had some major success independently and we’re in a place where the films that I’m making are being released in theaters,” Taylor said.

Taylor wrote, directed and produced the thriller Motivated Seller, starring Dennis Quaid, Michael Ealy and Meagan Good. Along with actor and singer Jamie Foxx, he produced the comedy feature All-Star Weekend, starring Foxx, Robert Downey Jr. and Eva Longoria. Taylor is also behind the 2014 drama Supremacy, starring Danny Glover, based on the true story of a white supremacist who kills a black police officer and takes an African-American family hostage, as well as the horror spoof Meet the Blacks, with Mike Epps and George Lopez. The sequel The House Next Door, starring Epps and Katt Williams, comes out later this year.

The Undefeated spoke with Taylor about Traffik, how basketball led him away from the streets and helped him face adversity in filmmaking, why Jesse Owens and Michael Jordan are greatest of all time and why he believes the NCAA should pay college athletes.

How is Traffik different from other thrillers?

I wanted to make a commercial thriller that would have people on the edge of their seats, but also have them learn about something horrific going on in our country: human trafficking. Many people think it’s just an international problem, but it’s happening right here in America too. As a matter of fact, 85 percent of people who are trafficked are inner-city kids, so that’s the Hispanic girl in Oakland or the African-American boy in Chicago; I can keep going. These kids are being taken, and then someone is pimping them out and later another person is taking them, and this tragic cycle continues endlessly. It’s so sad. I think what this movie does extremely well is give you the goose bumps and chills without it being a documentary.

What personal experiences motivated you to create a thriller around human trafficking?

I started getting a bunch of letters about trafficking in our area [Sacramento] and I didn’t really think too much [about] it. But then my daughter, Milan, who is 12, was up late one night playing on her video games. I asked her who she was talking to at 1 a.m. on this game. I pulled up the screen and printed out the conversation [spanning for a couple of days] and saw how this person who she thought was 11 years old had been asking her questions like ‘Where do you live?’ and ‘Do you ever go out late at night?’ To the naked eye, it seemed innocent [like to my daughter], but you could tell this was definitely a predator. It’s crazy because predators are coming from the computer and TV screens now.

How was it working with Paula Patton and Omar Epps on the film?

It was insane for a lot of great reasons. I approached it like basketball. Everyone has a part in order for us to win and be successful. Paula and Omar are our star players, and they gave 100 percent, which further drove the cast and crew. Paula also performed every single one of her stunts. When you see her being yanked from the car, it’s pretty violent. She did that herself. She wasn’t screaming, ‘Cut!’ or yelling, ‘I can’t do this.’ That kind of commitment from an actor is such a blessing.

How did you learn about filmmaking and further want to pursue it?

I never set out to be the next Tyler Perry or Ron Howard in owning my own stuff. I simply was that guy who played basketball. Growing up poor, I loved watching movies because that was my getaway. While I was playing basketball professionally in Germany, I didn’t speak the language, so I would ask my friends back in the U.S. to send me as many movies as possible. This was before Netflix and Hulu. On a lot of those DVDs, there were ‘the making of xyz’ or ‘behind the scenes’ of those films where directors, writers and filmmakers like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg would show and explain what and how they did their jobs. Watching those scenes taught me filmmaking, and I soon realized that I wanted to become a filmmaker.

Deon Taylor, number 15, during his days on the Oilers basketball team.

Courtesy of Deon Taylor

How did your basketball background help you face that adversity in the film industry?

I’ve built my filmmaking career by learning, losing and bumping my head a couple of times. There were a lot of sleepless and hurtful nights, but I feel like basketball really helped me get through those times. I tell people all of the time to have their kids play sports. The adversity you go through in sports is the closest thing to real life. It’s the only place where you can be the best player on the team and the coach won’t play you. It’s all these different things that you go through in sports that prepares you for what you’ll experience and see in life. I’ve had those moments, and I apply it to life journeys and filmmaking. It’s easy to ask yourself, ‘Why does this director get hired for a big-budget movie and not me when my stats are far greater?’ But that’s where you have to be grounded in who you are and not stay looking over the fence. You have to trust God.

Did basketball keep you from falling into stereotypes?

Playing in college, it took me out of the projects and into tournaments in different cities and seeing my name in the paper and on the news as a basketball player … not for shooting or robbing someone. That could have been my fate if I fell into streets, but I didn’t because I had that love for the [basketball] game where I would spend countless hours after school practicing on the playground, shooting, dunking and even trying the latest Michael Jordan move. And even now, the game is still teaching me.

As a former Division I, full-scholarship basketball player, do you feel the NCAA should pay college athletes?

When I was playing basketball at San Diego State, I didn’t really have an opinion because I was just thankful to have my school fully paid for and be able to eat while doing something I love. But as I got older and I now look at the business of college basketball and see how much money is generating from March Madness, these players should be getting paid. I’m not saying an 18-year-old kid should be getting $100K a year. Hell, no. But they are doing a service for the university. And think about the parents who are traveling for all of the games and taking off from work to be able to support their kids at the games. It would be nice for the athletes to get paid so they can also help their families with those expenses too.

Who is the greatest athlete of all time?

Jesse Owens and Michael Jordan. Jesse was running in a time when there were no diet supplements, dietitians, sneakers or advanced sports science to enhance your athleticism. He was just a guy who was naturally an athlete. There was nothing to enhance what he was doing at that time, but he was still running that fast and at that level based on just his natural body and the makeup of his DNA. With Michael, it was his will to win. It wasn’t just his ability; it was his stamina in the fourth quarter of games. He wasn’t a freak of nature as far as body physique like LeBron [James] or Shaq [O’Neal], but his brilliance and psychology on the court was something I admired and looked up to growing up. Kobe [Bryant] possessed a lot of that, but he’s no MJ.

What conversations do you have with your daughter to best prepare her in navigating the real world as an African-American woman?

It’s an everyday conversation that’s not just about teaching but creating a lifestyle. I try to educate my daughter, Milan, on each and every thing I see without holding my tongue. I’m teaching her three core things: trust your intuition, everyone will not be happy for you and danger is around you at all times. I didn’t understand a lot of what my mother told me when I was younger, but now as a parent, danger has tripled and it’s not just about getting home before the streetlights come on now. There are predators coming from everywhere, even in the police at times. Take, for instance, the unarmed young black man, Stephon Clark, who was shot 20 times by the cops right here in Sacramento. It’s a lot to take in and continues to evolve the conversations I have with my daughter.

In honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Dance Theater of Harlem tells its audience to ‘keep movin’’ Dancer Carmen de Lavallade and civil rights activist Xernona Clayton were feted at the company’s season-opening performance

Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, 50 years ago reverberated through society, bursting through in riots across the nation but also in less obvious decisions. It was King’s death on April 4, 1968, for instance, that prompted Arthur Mitchell to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Mitchell was on his way to Brazil to start the National Ballet Company of Brazil. But in the wake of King’s death, he decided to return to Harlem, New York, the following year and founded a dance company and school in the basement of Harlem’s Church of the Master.

Wednesday night, 50 years after the death that ultimately led to its founding, Dance Theater of Harlem opened its performance season at New York City Center with a celebration of King’s legacy. It did so by honoring one of his most trusted deputies, Xernona Clayton, and dancer Carmen de Lavallade, who brought a magic to the stage that exalted in the joys of blackness.

Last month, the company had announced its new season with a video starring its students that connected the movement of dance with The Movement.

Wednesday night, the students recreated the performance on stage, accompanied by Tony Award-winning singer and actress Lillias White singing “Keep Movin’.” They even added a quick Wakanda salute to the choreography.

The program connects social movements with bodily movement, and so the company honored Clayton with a performance called Change, introduced by Michelle Miller, a correspondent for CBS who called Clayton her “fairy godmother.” Besides her work on civil rights, Clayton became the first black person to host a talk show in the South in 1967 and later went on to become an executive at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta.

Besides heading King’s advance team, Clayton was a close friend of the King family. She’s featured in the new documentary King in the Wilderness, where she revealed how she used her own makeup compact to hide the clay filling King’s face as he lay in his coffin after Coretta Scott King expressed horror at the job done by King’s undertaker.

In a nod to the oft-unseen women, like Clayton, of the civil rights movement, Change featured three women dancing to the vocals of the Spelman Glee Club. At one point, the onstage lights dimmed and the atmosphere grew ominous. The voices of the Glee Club rang out — Don’t let nobody turn you ’round — and the dancers emerged, arms interlocked, determined to power through whatever followed.

Clayton addressed the movement’s gender gap in a phone interview Wednesday morning.

“I resent the fact when people said Dr. King was a chauvinist. I said, ‘Everybody was!’ Men didn’t give us women the same regards that we deserved then,” Clayton said. “We get some of it now, of course. With a lot of effort it brought us to this point now where we’re doing better. We’re not really there yet, so I don’t want anybody to think that we think we have arrived when it comes to maximum inclusion. You certainly knew at that time that women had a role to play, and it was the distant background role, but everybody was doing it.”

“I resent the fact when people said Dr. King was a chauvinist. I said, ‘Everybody was!’ Men didn’t give us women the same regards that we deserved then.”

Civil rights leader Xernona Clayton in Atlanta, June 12, 2017.

Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for Hyatt

If Change was a recognition of struggle, the evening ended in full-on celebration with a performance of choreographer Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla, recreated under the supervision of Leo Holder, the son of Geoffrey and de Lavallade.

Judith Jamison, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and a mentee of de Lavallade’s, introduced the performance. “It’s a work that proves that being a black ballet dancer does not mean leaving your culture behind,” she said.

Dougla is also a reminder that there is more to blackness than pain, grief and triumph over trauma. It’s a dance that tells the story of a wedding ceremony between African and Hindu. De Lavallade beamed as she watched from the audience, clapping her hands, which were encased in gloves covered in silver sequins.

“For me, this means don’t stop,” de Lavallade said after the performance. “Just keep going. You can contemplate, but you have to move forward in contemplation. There’s so much going on. You can’t let outside influences get to you, and that’s what’s happened. You can’t do that. You have to keep your eye on the prize — isn’t that what [King] said?”