‘Harriet’ falls prey to the dignity paradox The first major feature film about Harriet Tubman renders her as a symbol rather than a person

Enslaved is not a personality.

That’s the major stumbling block with Harriet, the new biopic about Harriet Tubman, in theaters Friday.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk To Me) and co-written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard, Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo, is so consumed with reverence for the patron saint of Black History Month that it neglects to make her, or any of the supporting characters around her, a real person.

Instead, Tubman falls prey to what I call The Dignity Paradox.

Harriet is the first feature film about Tubman, who died in 1913, but went unrecognized by Hollywood in the years since. Cicely Tyson starred as Tubman in the 1978 NBC miniseries A Woman Called Moses. Such circumstances create a tremendous amount of pressure on whomever is charged with telling Tubman’s story, especially someone aware of the ways that black women have historically been ignored or maligned in major studio projects. But it’s possible to overcorrect for the shameful sting associated with say, Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind. The result is a portrayal that’s so safe, so unwilling to take risks, and so earnest in telling its audience that Tubman was an American hero that it forgets to give the woman a personality. In Harriet, Tubman gets to be determined, psychic, briefly heartbroken — and that’s about it. I daresay Tubman got better treatment in an episode of Drunk History.

Cynthia Erivo (left) stars as Harriet Tubman and Aria Brooks as Anger in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

The film opens in 1849 with Tubman lying in a field on the plantation in Bucktown, Maryland, that was her home. She’s in the midst of one of her narcoleptic spells. (Tubman was famously hit in the head with a 2-pound iron at age 12. The result was her sleeping spells.) Lemmons revisits the mysticism that made Eve’s Bayou such a richly compelling tale in Harriet. She gives Tubman the gift of The Sight, and depicts her narcoleptic psychic visions with a blue filter not unlike the one Nate Parker used in The Birth of a Nation.

When Tubman learns that her owners refuse to grant her or her yet-to-be-born children their freedom, as a previous owner promised, Tubman decides to run. Her husband John (Zackary Momoh), is free, but is afraid to run with her. So Tubman sets out alone. She doesn’t have a plan other than following the North Star and a series of rivers until she reaches the free state of Pennsylvania. She cannot read nor write. Rather than demonstrating Tubman’s cunning intellect, Tubman’s many feats of daring bravery and by-the-skin-of-her-teeth escapes from slave catchers get explained by woo-woo spirituality. Whenever enemies begin to close in, Tubman magically falls asleep and gets a vision that tells her to take a different route.

Janelle Monáe (left) as Marie Buchanon and Cynthia Erivo (right) as Harriet Tubman in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

The dialogue in Harriet consists mostly of Important Speechifying, not only for Tubman, but also her free black Philadelphia accomplices William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). Both Still and Buchanon help the refugee Harriet get settled in Philadelphia before she begins making her famous costumed trips back to plantations and develops the nickname of “Moses the Slave-Stealer.”

At one point Odom launches into a speech about how Congress just passed The Fugitive Slave Act (here, Howard and Lemmons took some liberties with historical fact. In actuality, the act was passed in 1850. The film has it happening much later.) As Still, Odom doesn’t really sound like a person either, but a set piece in a fifth-grade textbook come to life. The same is true of Monáe and Bigger Long, the one-note slave tracker played by Omar J. Dorsey. Were it not for the fact that Erivo, Odom, Dorsey, and Monáe have demonstrated their substantial acting bona fides in other productions, one could not be blamed for assuming that the group might have a future in low-budget basic cable prime-time soaps. It’s little consolation that the film’s white characters come off as blandly evil and one-dimensional, too — is this what equality looks like?

Janelle Monáe stars as Marie Buchanon in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Harriet’s faults are not unique. In fact, they’re rather common in the biopic genre, which is littered with films that feel obligated to touch base with every major point of a person’s Wikipedia entry rather than starting with an interesting story and building from there. Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a good example of a film that bucks biopic norms and is all the better for it. She runs headlong at the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs that had an effect on his marriage, and she focuses on the march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Civil Rights Act instead of King’s entire life from birth to death.

Jennifer Nettles stars as Eliza Brodess in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

In a world that made sense, there would be multiple on-screen works about Tubman, which would allow for a deep dive into the logistics of the Combahee Ferry Raid or Tubman’s time as a Union spy, or a closer examination of the 100-mile route she repeatedly took guiding her enslaved brethren and sistren from Maryland to Philadelphia. In the most disappointing turn of the film, the Combahee Ferry Raid is treated as a coda rather than a major, awe-inspiring point in Tubman’s life. It’s on-screen for maybe two minutes.

Among the many questions Harriet leaves unanswered: What on earth were these poor souls eating as they were on the run from trackers and slave-catchers? Adrenaline is a powerful chemical, but no one is going 100 miles on foot without food. Freedom alone does not supply calories.

Omar J. Dorsey (left) stars as Bigger Long and Joe Alwyn (right) as Gideon Brodess in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Warren Alan Young’s production design is rich with detail, and so is Paul Tazewell’s costume design, but they’re not enough to convey the horrors of America’s peculiar institution in this PG-13 story. There’s no doubt that Lemmons has experience telling beautiful tales about ugly subjects. Her debut feature, after all, was about incest and the crushing disappointment that comes when a child realizes that her biggest hero is a monster. The biggest challenge about rendering slavery on-screen is actually a challenge of world-building. Conveying how vile it was requires a commitment to sinking the viewer into its horrid banality and allowing it to steep, to feel how slowly time moves, how backbreaking the forced labor is without the aid of automation, and the never-ending weariness that is accompanied by the terror of rape and the threat of the lash. Instead, this is conveyed by yet another speech that Tubman gives to an abolitionist meeting in Philadelphia and a brief, darkened peek at Tubman’s whip-scarred back.

When a filmmaker attempts to protect his or her audience from the worst of slavery by simply gesturing at the possibility of violence or rendering it with dialogue alone — as Lemmons does with Tubman and her young owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), the effect is too safe. Gideon likens Tubman to a favorite hog, but semantics rarely hold the same emotional weight as action.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

I realized, after watching Harriet and comparing it to 12 Years a Slave and Beloved, that films about slavery should disturb. They should give us nightmares. They should terrify us. Because they are the closest thing we have to understanding the shameful, disgusting depths to which people will stoop to enact and preserve white supremacy. What’s more, that disgusting behavior was not exceptional; it was the wallpaper of American life for hundreds of years. When we soft-pedal the everyday cruelty of slavery, it deadens our understanding of an institution built on exploiting and destroying an entire people’s humanity.

It’s understandable to want to honor Harriet Tubman. She deserves it, regardless of the short-sighted decisions of the current Treasury secretary. But when we turn away from the truth of the worst circumstances of her life, we do the opposite. To value that for which she fought, it is paramount to understand exactly from what she was running.

Behind the complicated relationship between Washington and baseball The Nationals could win their first World Series, but would it be bittersweet?

D.C. baseball fans were ecstatic last week when the Washington Nationals captured their first National League pennant, high-fiving, screaming and hugging each other all around town. Three local TV affiliates stayed with crowds outside the ballpark and on nearby streets long after their normal broadcast lengths, including one that didn’t join its regularly scheduled programming until well past midnight. The following day, happy Washingtonians rocked Nats gear, recounted game highlights, and reached out to contacts about World Series tickets.

It was a moment many will cherish for the rest of their lives. But not for all Washington baseball fans.

Others reflected on the region’s complicated relationship with pro baseball, its racist past and its current dynamics.

Yes, the Nationals hosted their first World Series game on Friday night against the Houston Astros and hold a 2-1 series lead, but for a generation of locals there is still bitterness over previous teams leaving town. From 1972 to 2004, the nation’s capital was devoid of the national pastime on a professional level. Fans could experience every major sports league except baseball.

Washington had been branded as a place where baseball went to fail. For black sports fans, in particular, the city’s national reputation was especially troubling.


Why BASEBALL ABANDONED Washington

Washington had generally supported the game — in good times and the more frequent lean years — since the late 1800s. And in 1943, the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League began dividing time between Pittsburgh and Washington. Their Washington home was Griffith Stadium, owned by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith.

Grays games were played in a predominantly black section of town called LeDroit Park, home to Howard University and the historic chitlin circuit entertainment venue, the Howard Theater. The team won pennants in 1943, 1944, 1945 and 1948, which happens to be the last time Washington hosted a baseball championship game. When the major leagues were integrated, and the Negro National League folded, the Grays disappeared after a couple of seasons as an independent team. The Senators were integrated in 1954 by signing Cuban outfielder Carlos Paula.

The Homestead Grays pose in 1943 for their team portrait. In the back row, Cool Papa Bell is second from left, and Buck Leonard, second from right. Ray Brown is in the front row, far right.

Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

The 1960 Senators, who finished 73-81, drew more than 743,000 fans — a respectable number for the era (Griffith Stadium seated only 28,669 fans). But when the season ended, owner Calvin Griffith (the nephew of Clark Griffith, who died in 1955) agreed to sell the team to a Minnesota ownership group. Fans were upset that the improving ballclub was being relocated. And by 1965, Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison led the Minnesota Twins to the World Series.

More damaging was the revelation that came years later, in September 1978, when Calvin Griffith explained the move at a Lions Club dinner in Waseca, Minnesota.

“I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota,” Griffith said. “It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ballgames, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.”

This confirmed what black Washingtonians and some sports media had suspected of Griffith all along, and it further branded the city as undesirable for his fellow MLB owners.

“The baseball owners and commissioner didn’t understand the historical bond between the black community and Griffith Stadium [which was open for many black community events], the legacy of the mighty Homestead Grays in the city,” said Washington native Brad Snyder, who has written books about the Senators and the integration of baseball.

The Senators were replaced in 1961 by an expansion team, also named the Senators, after the American League voted to add two new franchises.

During this time, Washington was a social tinderbox. Police brutality was rampant, and Marion Barry, first chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, made his name locally in 1965 and 1966 by calling attention to the issue.

In 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, things got worse. Washington saw a 67% increase in homicides between July 1967 and July 1968. During his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon pronounced the District as “one of the crime capitals of the nation.”

Labels such as “crime capital” are difficult to shed. In the first few years after the ’68 unrest, the city experienced white flight by families apprehensive about safety, and black households with similar concerns. Those who could afford to move — not to mention spend money on a baseball game — relocated to Maryland or Virginia.

In 1971, Washington Senators’ manager Ted Williams (center) gets together with two newly acquired ball players Curt Flood (left) and Denny McLain (right) at training camp in Florida.

Getty Images, Bettmann / Contributor

Although the Washington ballclub drew 918,000 fans in 1969, finished 86-76, and hosted the ’69 All-Star Game to help commemorate MLB’s 100th anniversary, the 1970 and 1971 teams did not play as well, and attendance fell off. Fan sentiment about seeing games in a mostly black part of Southeast Washington contributed as much to the decline as losing records. The 1970 trade for former Cy Young winner Denny McLain, whose career had come to be marked by a suspension for bookmaking, another for carrying a pistol on a team flight, weight gain, and a considerable decline in his pitching skills, symbolized the fall of the franchise.

The Senators’ final home game was against the New York Yankees in 1971. They were leading 7-5 in front of more than 14,000 fans, many of whom hoisted banners and signs criticizing owner Bob Short, who had put the team up for sale after the 1970 season. But with one out remaining in the ninth inning, fans began to pour onto the diamond, pull up the bases, tear the turf, and touch the home players. Washington lost the game by forfeit, and MLB for a generation.

Short sold the team to a Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, group after the 1971 season.

“Losing the team was devastating,” said Washington native Brian Gilmore, now director of the Housing Clinic at the Michigan State University College of Law. “I played little league coming up every year, so when the team left I eventually drifted away from it — as did so many black kids.

“Nevertheless, ‘Chocolate City’ was magical back then for a young black kid like myself. There was a sense of pride and purpose.”


‘City Under Siege’

By the 1970s, Washington became so synonymous with blackness that Parliament released an album titled Chocolate City. For decades, its mayors, police chiefs, school board commissioners and city council chairs were black. Twenty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, most of its high schools were upward of 90% black. Socially, the largely white pockets of Washington west of Rock Creek Park and the predominantly black corridors east of the Anacostia River seldom coalesced.

Between 1972 and 2003, baseball owners who heard presentations about Washington, learned the city had a subway system with a stop at RFK Stadium, a vibrant sports talk radio landscape, avid rooters of the NFL franchise and Maryland and Georgetown college basketball, and baseball-loving transients from all over the U.S. But Washington suffered from its image as a crime capital. One local TV affiliate led its nightly newscast with the number of residents murdered to date, under the headline City Under Siege.

Between 1972 and 2004, Seattle Toronto, Denver, Miami, Tampa, and Phoenix all received major league baseball teams. Washington experienced only close calls (including from the 1974 San Diego Padres, 1987 San Francisco Giants, and the Houston Astros in 1995). The narrative about Washington in baseball media circles was that it was an unsafe, predominantly black city that had already lost two MLB franchises because white fans were afraid to go to the ballpark.

“Certainly the concept of Chocolate City was not a drawing card for the MLB owners when Washington nearly received another team before the 1974 season,” Snyder said. “The baseball owners of that era were a racist and fearful bunch, especially after the 1968 riots about Dr. King’s death, about putting a team in D.C.”

“Certainly the concept of Chocolate City was not a drawing card for the MLB owners.” — Brad Snyder

When Camden Yards opened in 1992, the Baltimore Orioles averaged more than 44,000 fans. A survey determined that 21.9% of fans at Camden Yards were from the Washington metropolitan area. Baltimore had a downtown ticket office in Washington, Orioles results were featured on Washington TV and radio sports reports and some fans rocked their gear, but the city was split on the long game. Some argued that their numbers at Baltimore games signaled a thirst for baseball. Others believed that giving money to Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who opposed a Washington franchise, worked at cross purposes. Fans under 30 could not remember the Senators, so many grew up backing the Orioles.

When Washington investors appealed to MLB for a franchise during the 1990s, though, they cited their share of Baltimore attendance as a strong suit.

After the peak of the crack epidemic in the early ’90s, Washington saw an influx of young white professionals who sought to live closer to Metro transit system stations and their jobs, many of them singles who did not need a large yard or the highly ranked school systems of nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, or Fairfax County, Virginia, two of the wealthiest suburbs in the U.S. By 2009, the city was only 53% black, and violent crime decreased 50% from 1995 to 2010. Washington had become a more attractive destination to MLB brass.


Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper makes the first out of the game as he catches a hit by Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward during the opening day game at Nationals Park between the Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves on April 4, 2014.

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The arrival of the nationals

Some of Washington’s black and civic leadership opposed the return of big league baseball. Opponents voiced skepticism that a new team would bring revenue or employment to an economically challenged section of the city, especially for its poorest residents. But when the Montreal Expos became available, Washington’s Lerner family put in a bid. Most National League owners favored a sale, not wishing for the league to run the franchise. Twenty-nine of 30 owners voted in approval of the Lerners’ $450 million purchase.

Washington was awarded the franchise in 2004 under the condition they would build a new stadium, given that RFK Stadium was more than 40 years old. This city-funded initiative was resisted by some elected officials, especially City Council member Linda Cropp, who opposed public funding for a ballpark, arguing that schools and community services were bigger priorities. Fellow council member and former mayor Marion Barry, meanwhile, advocated that black and Latino contractors and vendors be considered in the enterprise.

Fan reaction to the return was mixed. There were those who echoed the skepticism of city officials. But fans favoring the return were excited because it meant no more trips up to Baltimore. One of the most popular fan choices for the new team’s name was “Grays” in tribute to the Homestead Grays, but team management chose to call them the Washington Nationals.

E. Ethelbert Miller, who has lived in Washington since 1968 and is a former Washington poet laureate, is glad to have the game back.

“When I decided to make this city my home following my graduation in 1972, I didn’t view this city as being a home for baseball,” Miller said. “D.C. and sports seem to always begin and end with the Washington Redskins.

“I was very happy when the game returned to D.C.”

But as the city celebrates the success of its third major league iteration, less apparent to the general public are mixed feelings about the organization’s treatment of manager Dusty Baker, who was fired in 2017 after back-to-back trips to the playoffs, and the entitlement of white fans commuting to the game by subway.

“If you want to know how black people view baseball in Washington, simply ride the Green Line after a game ends. Notice how black folks who get on the Metro at Anacostia view the white baseball fans when the train reaches the ballpark stop,” Miller said.

“This is not the Underground Railroad. It’s easy to monitor fear in the eyes of white folks and disgust in the eyes of blacks. It’s a combination of race and class. … Some of this is not going to change.”

No matter the outcome of the World Series, baseball in Washington either symbolizes triumph over recalcitrant owners, or the gentrification of the 2000s, depending on one’s lens.

LeBron James missed an opportunity with his comments about China The NBA star used a lot of words to say nothing

LeBron James had more than nine days to study the conflict between China and the NBA and formulate an opinion. What he finally said was disappointing for a man who is “more than an athlete” and built much of his brand on social justice and awareness.

On Oct. 4, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for protesters in Hong Kong who say they are seeking to hold China to its promises to protect certain freedoms. China characterizes the protests as rebellion against its sovereignty. Hong Kong has seen increased violence between demonstrators and police during four months of protests sparked by China’s attempt to legalize extradition from the semiautonomous territory to mainland China.

The context for all this is China’s treatment of its own citizens, which according to Human Rights Watch includes “arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and enforced disappearance”; persecution of religious communities; censorship of the media and public speech; and the mass detention and torture of Turkic Muslims.

These are all topics that the LeBron James we’ve come to know would care about.

When Morey sent his tweet, James and his Los Angeles Lakers were headed to play two exhibitions in China, which is a $500 million market for the NBA. China also is an essential partner for Nike, which employs James under a $1 billion lifetime contract, and a key market for James’ growing TV and film empire. (The Undefeated is an ESPN platform; ESPN and its parent company Disney have various business relationships in China.)

China responded to Morey’s tweet with the cancellation of both Lakers-Brooklyn Nets broadcasts and several NBA community events, and the suspension of a smartphone company’s NBA sponsorship. Also suspended were the Rockets’ TV broadcasts, its relationship with the Chinese Basketball Association, and its online news and game streaming deals. NBA commissioner Adam Silver tried to mollify China while standing up for the principle of free speech. The response from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV: “We’re strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right to freedom of expression. We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.”

On Monday, this is what James told reporters before the Lakers game:

“When I speak about something, I speak about something I’m very knowledgeable about, something I’m very passionate about. I feel like with this particular situation, it was something not only I was not informed enough about, I just felt like it was something that not only myself or my teammates or my organization had enough information to even talk about it at that point in time and we still feel the same way.”

That’s implausible. As if James couldn’t get any historian, diplomat or other China expert on the phone in the nine days since Morey’s tweet. As if there is no Google.

What makes this sadder is that Chinese citizens have no Google. It’s blocked.

James doesn’t need to denounce or boycott China, no more than Walmart, Coca-Cola or the NBA should. We all use Chinese products every day, and that relationship creates more opportunities for change. If James had simply said, “No comment because I do big business in China,” at least that would have been honest. Or he could have courageously affirmed the principle of human rights while expressing respect for China’s people and sovereignty.

Instead, James said Morey was “misinformed or not really educated on the situation,” which would be hard for James to judge after just claiming he was not informed himself. (Later Monday night, James tweeted that he was referring to the consequences of Morey’s tweet, not the substance.)

James also said that “social media is not always the proper way to go about things,” which is hypocritical for a man whose primary means of engaging with fans, building his brand and calling out injustice are Instagram and Twitter.

“We all talk about freedom of speech,” James told reporters, “Yes, we do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you are not thinking about others and only thinking about yourself.”

Morey has been silent since deleting his tweet, but he was likely thinking about millions of Hong Kong residents. Morey had nothing to personally gain. James, on the other hand, had his business empire to think about when he implausibly claimed ignorance on all things China. Besides basketball games and shoes, James will be selling his upcoming Space Jam reboot, which could earn nine figures in the nation that James has chosen not to be informed about.

I respect and appreciate James’ activism for social and racial justice, which began in 2012 when he and his Miami Heat teammates tweeted a photo supporting slain teenager Trayvon Martin. In many ways, that photo launched the current resurgence of black athlete activism. Back when Trayvon’s shameful killing gave rise to Black Lives Matter, few top athletes engaged in racial advocacy, fearful that fans would stop watching or buying. James had something to lose when he and his team were photographed in hoodies, but he did what was right. That’s part of what makes his China comments more hypocritical and disappointing.

I’m not one of the critics who want to silence James on racial justice, who want him to “shut up and dribble.” I believe in James’ proclamation that he’s “more than an athlete.” This is his time to be that, to fully inhabit the activist legacy of a Muhammad Ali or an Arthur Ashe. James once had the gumption to call out Donald Trump in a tweet, and the president stayed silent — Trump “did not want it with the King.” Now James is cowed by Xi Jinping? Or maybe he should be leery of the Chinese president ruthless enough to disappear Winnie the Pooh.

James’ voice is so influential, he could help crack the great wall of silence that China has erected against dissent. If James chose to speak on China, how many athletes would follow, as they did after Trayvon? Or do we expect that human rights will never come to China?

On Tuesday, James followed up on his previous comments by basically saying that China is not his problem: “I also don’t think every issue should be everybody’s problem as well. When things come up, there’s multiple things that we haven’t talked about that have happened in our own country that we don’t bring up. There’s things that happen in my own community in trying to help my kids graduate high school and go off to college; that’s been my main concern the last couple of years with my school [in Akron, Ohio]. Trying to make sure the inner-city kids that grow up in my hometown can have a brighter future and look at me as an inspiration to get out of the hellhole of the inner city.

“We don’t talk about those stories enough. We want to talk about so many other things as well. There’s issues all over the world.”

James’ admirable efforts to educate his hometown’s children have received massive media coverage, including from me. And helping Akron should not prevent him from talking about Chinese issues. Nor should China’s distance from Akron. Based on one of James’ own tweets, he should understand why.

On Jan. 15, 2018, James quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal Letter from Birmingham Jail in a tweet, adding the hashtag #ThankYouMLK50. King wrote that letter in 1963, after being arrested for protesting segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama. While King was behind bars, a group of Christian and Jewish clergy released a statement calling him an “outsider” engaged in “unwise and untimely” demonstrations.

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states,” King wrote. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Yes, LeBron James is an American, and he admirably addresses American problems. But China makes and buys his shoes, watches his games and movies, puts untold millions in his pockets. China is James’ country too.

The world has become much smaller in the five decades since King wrote his magnificent letter.

The economies of China and America would suffer without each other. A game perfected by black Americans enraptures millions of Chinese. King wrote, “I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.” James can do the same. He still has time to realize that claiming ignorance of repression in a country where he makes millions of dollars contradicts the calls for justice he has championed at more convenient times.

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

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

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

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

Penguin Random House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was snubbed in Tony nominations for best play. What a relief. Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation ignores the racist Atticus who Harper Lee described in ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles: Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was snubbed Tuesday morning in the Tony nominations for best play, thereby avoiding a disaster of Green Bookian proportions at this summer’s awards ceremony.

That sigh you hear is this writer exhaling in a mixture of both relief and schadenfreude. Since its debut in December, To Kill a Mockingbird has been showered with rapturous plaudits, suggesting it was a shoo-in for a best play nomination. Instead, the nominations went to Choir Boy, The Ferryman, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, Ink and What the Constitution Means to Me.

Mockingbird received nominations for lighting design, sound design, scene design, costume design, score and for performances by Jeff Daniels, Gideon Glick and Celia Keenan-Bolger. Bartlett Sher was also nominated for direction. But it struck out on the big prize, and deservedly so.

This new version of Mockingbird perpetuates one of the most pernicious, seductive lies in the history of this country: That racism, and all that results from it, can be blamed on a few cartoonishly evil characters. I have a name for these characters and the lie they have come to represent. I call them TROTs: Those Racists Over There. TROTs are scapegoats for racism, and they are everywhere, but they seem to proliferate in films that get nominated for awards. There’s Daisy Werthan in Driving Miss Daisy, Hilly Holbrook in The Help, Dixon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and every Southern white person who is mean to Don Shirley in Green Book.

Thanks to Sorkin, the TROT takes up residence eight times a week in the Shubert Theatre. His name is Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), the mouth-breathing bigot who rapes his daughter and falsely accuses a handicapped black man named Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) of attacking her.

Frederick Weller as Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Julieta Cervantes

The TROT exists in a symbiotic relationship with another trope: the white savior, who relies on the TROT so that he or she may be defined as noble, principled and morally unblemished. (Or at least, not so blemished that whatever ails them can’t be remedied by the end of the story with the aid of a psychological helpmeet. In Mockingbird, whatever perspective Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) may be lacking, his domestic, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), dryly provides.)

But the lie that white people can be divided into distinct groups of TROTs and saviors is one that Mockingbird’s original author doesn’t believe, as evidenced by the information Harper Lee introduces about her legendarily heroic country lawyer in Go Set a Watchman.

Set 20 years after the fateful summer in which 6-year-old Scout Finch witnesses her father defend Robinson, the 2015 sequel to Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel provides a complicated and less flattering picture of Atticus than the one Sorkin valorizes through Daniels. While Lee’s Mockingbird supplies a picture of a man as seen through the admiring eyes of his young daughter, her sequel removes Scout’s rose-colored glasses and subjects Atticus to the scrutiny of a grown woman realizing that her father is not a superhero after all.

Most children discover their parents are not as perfect as they once thought. But in adapting Mockingbird for the stage, Sorkin ignored Watchman. He’s still holding fast to the notion that education and liberalism somehow flush out racism in white people like a detox tea. Sorkin’s Atticus refers to the Ewells and people like them as “ignorant citizens stuck in the old ways.” They’re easy to identify, condemn and distance oneself from.

This Mockingbird reassures the Good White People that make up its audience that they are, in fact, good. Should they need to outwardly telegraph their goodness, the production offers hoodies for sale in the basement of the Shubert that simply say “TRAYVON.” More than anything, the play encourages them to see themselves in Atticus, even after the woman who created Atticus told us his goodness was a lie.


LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Calpurnia (left) and Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch (right) in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Julieta Cervantes

Atticus Finch was never as perfect as Sorkin made him. Lee told us so in Go Set a Watchman. He used to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the same organization that Sorkin’s Finch looks down on Bob Ewell for daring to fraternize with. In Mockingbird, Lee wrote that Finch was a descendant of slave owners. In Watchman, the same man who vigorously defended Tom Robinson is also a bigot who despises the NAACP and refers to its lawyers as “buzzards.”

“The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people,” he says. He asks the adult Scout, who goes by Jean Louise, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

Sorkin, then, creates Finch from a position of willful ignorance, which proves useful for avoiding feather-ruffling and culpability. Atticus was always racist, and Watchman provides an opportunity to see how individual racism provides the building blocks for structural inequality. But Sorkin’s Mockingbird reduces structural racism to little more than a figment of the imagination. Somehow, despite the fact that Sheriff Heck Tate, Judge Taylor and Tom Robinson’s own attorney, Atticus, all seem to agree that Ewell is clearly lying, their hands are tied and Robinson is doomed. They are utterly blameless for it.

In a recent talk at the Public Theater, White Noise playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and director Oskar Eustis shared their thinly veiled opinions of Mockingbird.

“There’s a piece of fiction that’s being staged uptown, and it posits that in a small Southern town in the ’50s or early ’60s, that in a small Southern town in that time, that the top lawyer in town [the white lawyer], the top judge in town and the white sheriff in town are all unbelievably enlightened and progressive on the subject of race relations,” Eustis said. “That only the poor white trash hate the black people.

“You sit there watching this critically acclaimed piece and you just go, ‘What world is this describing where the problem of racism is solely the problem of poor white people and the town’s white power structure had nothing to do with it?’ I mean, forget now. We’re talking about the South in the ’60s!”

Sorkin has been repeatedly praised for updating To Kill a Mockingbird for a modern audience, though I would question just how modern. It is the sort of play that either seems to be for white people who love Martin Luther King Jr. but who’ve never read Letter from Birmingham Jail or who cannot imagine that it is they who are being excoriated in it.

[Mockingbird] is describing the desire of people of means to point to impoverished white people as the problem,” Parks said. “This is exactly what’s happening now.”

In the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, director Raoul Peck includes a quotation from James Baldwin about the Birmingham of the 1960s clinging to Jim Crow.

“White people are astounded by Birmingham, black people aren’t,” Baldwin wrote. “They are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars. They don’t want to believe, still, less act on the belief, that what is happening in Birmingham is happening all over the country.”

This is the purpose of the TROT: to reinforce the delusion that the Bob Ewells of the world are Martians so that everyone else can tell themselves they are Atticus Finch (or, at least, who we thought Atticus was before the release of Watchman). The soothing blindness of works such as Sorkin’s Mockingbird, and the absolving embrace they offer to Good White People, is popular. It’s lucrative too. At the end of April, the show broke its own weekly Broadway box-office record for the fourth time. Its total grosses have topped $36 million since previews began in November.

But there is a cost to TROT art and the comforting lie it perpetuates, one that is borne by millions of real Tom Robinsons that America continues to persecute, in ways large and small, personal and structural. Good for the Tony voters for recognizing as much.

The 2019 Tony Nominations

Best Musical

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations

Beetlejuice

Hadestown

The Prom

Tootsie

Best Play

Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney

The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus by Taylor Mac

Ink by James Graham

What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck

Best Revival of a Musical

Kiss Me, Kate

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

Best Revival of a Play

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons

The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley

Burn This

Torch Song by Harvey Fierstein

The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical

Brooks Ashmanskas, The Prom

Derrick Baskin, Ain’t Too Proud

Alex Brightman, Beetlejuice

Damon Daunno, Oklahoma!

Santino Fontana, Tootsie

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical

Stephanie J. Block, The Cher Show

Caitlin Kinnunen, The Prom

Beth Leavel, The Prom

Eva Noblezada, Hadestown

Kelli O’Hara, Kiss Me, Kate

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play

Paddy Considine, The Ferryman

Bryan Cranston, Network

Jeff Daniels, To Kill a Mockingbird

Adam Driver, Burn This

Jeremy Pope, Choir Boy

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play

Annette Bening, All My Sons

Laura Donnelly, The Ferryman

Elaine May, The Waverly Gallery

Janet McTeer, Bernhardt/Hamlet

Laurie Metcalf, Hillary and Clinton

Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me

Best Book of a Musical

Ain’t Too Proud, Dominique Morisseau

Beetlejuice, Scott Brown and Anthony King

Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell

The Prom, Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin

Tootsie, Robert Horn

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

Be More Chill, Joe Iconis

Beetlejuice, Eddie Perfect

Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell

The Prom, Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin

To Kill a Mockingbird, Adam Guettel

Tootsie, David Yazbek

Best Direction of a Musical

Rachel Chavkin, Hadestown

Scott Ellis, Tootsie

Daniel Fish, Oklahoma!

Des McAnuff, Ain’t Too Proud

Casey Nicholaw, The Prom

Best Direction of a Play

Rupert Goold, Ink

Sam Mendes, The Ferryman

Bartlett Sher, To Kill a Mockingbird

Ivo van Hove, Network

George C. Wolfe, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical

André De Shields, Hadestown

Andy Grotelueschen, Tootsie

Patrick Page, Hadestown

Jeremy Pope, Ain’t Too Proud

Ephraim Sykes, Ain’t Too Proud

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

Lilli Cooper, Tootsie

Amber Gray, Hadestown

Sarah Stiles, Tootsie

Ali Stroker, Oklahoma!

Mary Testa, Oklahoma!

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play

Bertie Carvel, Ink

Robin De Jesús, The Boys in the Band

Gideon Glick, To Kill a Mockingbird

Brandon Uranowitz, Burn This

Benjamin Walker, All My Sons

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

Fionnula Flanagan, The Ferryman

Celia Keenan-Bolger, To Kill a Mockingbird

Kristine Nielsen, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Julie White, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Ruth Wilson, King Lear

Best Choreography

Camille A. Brown, Choir Boy

Warren Carlyle, Kiss Me, Kate

Denis Jones, Tootsie

David Neumann, Hadestown

Sergio Trujillo, Ain’t Too Proud

Best Orchestrations

Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, Hadestown

Larry Hochman, Kiss Me, Kate

Daniel Kluger, Oklahoma!

Simon Hale, Tootsie

Harold Wheeler, Ain’t Too Proud

Best Scenic Design of a Musical

Robert Brill and Peter Nigrini, Ain’t Too Proud

Peter England, King Kong

Rachel Hauck, Hadestown

Laura Jellinek, Oklahoma!

David Korins, Beetlejuice

Best Scenic Design of a Play

Miriam Buether, To Kill a Mockingbird

Bunny Christie, Ink

Rob Howell, The Ferryman

Santo Loquasto, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Jan Versweyveld, Network

Best Costume Design of a Musical

Michael Krass, Hadestown

William Ivey Long, Beetlejuice

William Ivey Long, Tootsie

Bob Mackie, The Cher Show

Paul Tazewell, Ain’t Too Proud

Best Costume Design of a Play

Rob Howell, The Ferryman

Toni-Leslie James, Bernhardt/Hamlet

Clint Ramos, Torch Song

Ann Roth, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Ann Roth, To Kill a Mockingbird

Best Sound Design of a Musical

Peter Hylenski, Beetlejuice

Peter Hylenski, King Kong

Steve Canyon Kennedy, Ain’t Too Proud

Drew Levy, Oklahoma!

Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz, Hadestown

Best Sound Design of a Play

Adam Cork, Ink

Scott Lehrer, To Kill a Mockingbird

Fitz Patton, Choir Boy

Nick Powell, The Ferryman

Eric Sleichim, Network

Best Lighting Design of a Musical

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Antoine Fuqua lets Muhammad Ali tell his own story in HBO’s ‘What’s My Name’ Documentary from LeBron’s production company examines the life of The Greatest entirely through boxing

A year before his death in 2016, Muhammad Ali published an autobiography titled The Greatest: My Own Story.

Although the former heavyweight champion boxer never got to tell his story on film, a new documentary from HBO Sports comes pretty close. Directed by Antoine Fuqua and executive produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter, What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali is culled from at least 1,000 hours of video and audio footage and focuses on Ali’s boxing career, narrated with his own words. It will air May 14 on HBO.

What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali debuted Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Ali’s widow, Lonnie, attended the screening, which took place on the 52nd anniversary of Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army to serve in Vietnam. The decision resulted in Ali being stripped of his world heavyweight title, which he later reclaimed two more times.

Fuqua touches upon Ali’s friendships with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and the boxer’s refusal to submit himself for the draft. But everything is presented through the lens of boxing, from one of Ali’s earliest punches — when, as a toddler, he knocked out one of his mother’s teeth — to his last in the ring, when he lost to Trevor Berbick in 1981. Fuqua doesn’t address Ali’s personal relationships, nor the accusations of domestic violence or infidelity that come up in Jonathan Eig’s biography. The film takes its name from an exchange Ali had with opponent Ernie Terrell, who insisted on calling him by his birth name, Cassius Clay. Ali was so angry he called Terrell an Uncle Tom and repeatedly shouted, “What’s my name?!” at him during their subsequent fight, which Ali won by unanimous decision.

Fuqua is best known for his collaborations with Denzel Washington, including Training Day, The Equalizer and a 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. The Pittsburgh native attended West Virginia University on a basketball scholarship and now uses boxing to stay in shape. We talked about his new documentary, Ali’s patriotism and the class divide in sports that are characterized by risk of traumatic brain injury.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


Photo by Ken Regan © 2019 Muhammad Ali Enterprises

What do you think of dictums like “stick to sports” or “shut up and dribble”?

That’s just silly, and that’s an ignorant thing to say. Just because someone plays sports or does anything doesn’t mean that they don’t have an opinion. I think it’s shortsighted and a very immature way of thinking about an athlete. Athletes have an amazing platform, and a lot of them are highly intelligent people and they can be influential. Most of them have lived on both sides of the tracks, especially African American athletes, so there’s a pretty unique perspective on the world. When you come from not much and you make a lot, that’s a long journey and that’s two different worlds. So a lot of times there’s a very interesting, complex perspective that should be heard.

What were your conversations like with James and Carter about how to make an Ali documentary that would manage to stand out?

They were pretty clear. We all love him. We all love what he stood for, and the man he was. We all agreed to be honest about the journey, his journey. We all eventually came to the conclusion: It has to be from his voice. Ali has to tell his own story; avoid as much talking heads as possible unless it’s him talking. There’s been a lot of documentaries, some well-done documentaries, but there’s never been one where Ali’s telling his entire story. There were things that we discussed that we thought were important, which was ultimately let’s show his greatness, but let’s also show some of his weaknesses.

One of his weaknesses was he was chasing greatness, always. That’s not a weakness, but he was at a place where they just wanted him to stop fighting. But how do you say that to someone like Ali? He has that gene in him, and I think that’s what makes him so amazing. Like the scene when he has the torch in his hand and Parkinson’s is at its worst, he lifts the torch twice. He didn’t have to, he did, the crowd went crazy, he came down, he did it again. Every time I see the movie it makes me smile. I think that ultimately, collectively, we walked away going, ‘What a wonderful life. What an amazing, well-lived life.’

He never loses his charisma.

Never, never. He never blinked. And he stood by his principles. He lost a lot; he paid a heavy price for it. But he seemed cool as ice, always. Even when he was in the ring, leaning against the ropes, taking some beatings at times.

Those are so hard to watch.

Even though you knew the outcome, as we made the doc, there were days where I was sitting there sweating, like, ‘Come on, Ali.’ It was rough, but it was a beautiful journey because I was not disappointed in anything that I saw. We found footage that no one’s seen before. Nothing about his life was disappointing for me. It was all very inspiring, even the low points.

“When I have an opportunity to allow a man, especially a black man, to tell his own story, I’m going to do it.”

This documentary gives little snippets of his life, but always in relation to boxing. Why did you decide to frame this story this way?

Boxing is the thing that put him on world stage. The boxing is the thing that — when he’s beating the guys and, saying, ‘What’s my name?’ — to me it’s the metaphor of his life. Fighting is the metaphor of Muhammad Ali’s life. It doesn’t matter to dig into how many kids he has and who he’s married to or not married to, because that’s a given. I’d rather his children did a documentary about him. I think that belongs to them, it doesn’t belong to us.

What we need right now more than anything, I think, is leadership in athletes. What is your platform, and what are you going to do with it? He had a platform and he did greatness with it. He showed us how to stand by your principles: When things were wrong, to speak up about it. He showed us what it means to be physically beat down and get back up. I think that sometime that’s more important than getting into the headline gossip, which a lot of people want to get into, which you could do about anybody’s life that lives a full life, but why?

What do you consider to be gossip?

Gossip, some people get interested in who he was with and who he wasn’t with, who he married and who he didn’t marry, what woman he was with. I mean, come on. There’s enough of that. He was a handsome, beautiful, charming man — use your imagination. Women loved him, he loved women. Men wanted to hang around him.

I don’t think Muhammad Ali’s story’s done. Somebody can go and do whatever they want to do. In my dream, I hope Laila and his children will tell a version of him one day, for them. But it should be done by them. My goal was to show the man that I admire, love, and I’m inspired by every day.

One of the things that becomes apparent is how much power white members of the news media, especially Howard Cosell, had to shape the public’s perception of Ali. Whether it’s calling the Nation of Islam a “racist cult” or framing his two wins against Henry Cooper as tragedies. Was this a way to hand that agency back to him from the beginning, and not just once he’s famous?

We all deserve that. We all deserve to have an opportunity to tell our own stories. He’s not with us anymore, so the closest I can get to that is what I’ve done. I was just telling the story through his eyes as we shaped it and gathered the material. When I have an opportunity to allow a man, especially a black man, to tell his own story, I’m going to do it.

The way this film is structured makes Ali’s decline from Parkinson’s feel like it’s evident much earlier in his life. We associate Parkinson’s with the tremors, but his speech pattern started to slow down in his 30s.

That was intentional to show that journey, because that was another fight. In the end of the documentary, the goal was to show you all the Muhammad Ali fights in the ring, out of the ring, with the military, the government, the loss of Malcolm, his friends, things like that. Being a black man, just because you change your name, the world turns on you because you changed your name, like you don’t have a right to change your name. But also, the internal battles that come from the wars you’re in in the ring: the pounding, the beating, the fighting, the stress.

I’m not a doctor, so who’s to say it was just the punching that led to Parkinson’s? But it certainly, I would imagine, it had a lot to do with it. Then, imagine the stress he was under during that time period. Black people were getting shot down and hung by trees still. He had all the close friends around him getting murdered, like Malcolm, like Martin, Kennedy. His name was as big as theirs, so imagine walking around every day with a target on your back, and as loud as he was. And going against the military.

So the goal was to also find footage where you start to see that, and I’m happy you noticed that. He was in a lot of battles; it wasn’t just the ones in the ring. But he still came out as great, he still affects us, we’re still talking about him. Even when his voice was taken away, one of his biggest attributes, his charm, his voice, his physical abilities were taken away, right? It’s biblical in a way. That’s why at the end, when he lifts the torch twice [at the Atlanta Olympics], I love him even more, because he was still showing us, he was still speaking to us as loud as he always has. That’s ‘I’m still here, man. I’m still the greatest.’

When I went to Jordan and Israel and places like that, I saw T-shirts and stuff with Muhammad Ali around the world every day. His name was known around the world. It’s amazing. How can someone say, ‘Shut up and dribble?’ Is that person’s name known around the world? I don’t think so. Is that person inspiring anybody? I don’t think so. But LeBron James is. Muhammad Ali is.

Photo by Ken Regan © 2019 Muhammad Ali Enterprises

Do you think we can call Muhammad Ali a patriot?

Absolutely. A man goes to the Olympics, wins the gold medal for this country, comes home, goes to a diner just to get a burger, and they tell him, ‘We don’t serve n—–s here.’

And he says, “Well, I don’t eat them!”

The charm, right? And then they’re going to send him over to a country to go kill some people that never did that to him? A war that we didn’t even really know why we were there, to this day. … I’m very patriotic, I love this country, but that’s some bulls—. Let’s call it for what it is, that’s exactly what that was.

What did you think of the concussion crisis within the NFL before you started working on this documentary? Did your thoughts change in any way? Ali says over and over, he doesn’t want anybody to pity him. He was always reiterating how much boxing had given him. But it also eventually took away his voice.

I grew up playing football. My family and friends would go play for the Steelers. [Fuqua’s uncle John “Frenchy” Fuqua was a running back for the Steelers from 1970-76]. I box now every day; I been boxing for 20-something years. What I’m happy about is I think the NFL is taking serious steps, they have been, to try to help prevent damage. It’s a violent sport, there’s only so much you can do, but I think they’ve been handling it really well. The guys get hit, they’re taken out the game and they don’t get to go back in. They get tested right away. I think they seem to be showing great concern in trying to do something about it. But that’s all you can do is do the best you can do, make better helmets, have better protocols. But it’s a very violent sport, and if you ever played or been around, especially guys at that size, on that level, that’s like being hit by a Volkswagen. There’s only so much you can do.

I go to the fights. I’m friends with a lot of fighters. It’s the nature of the sport, to be punched in the head. Punched in the body. I watched the refs, and they do try to stop it as fast as they can if they see someone in trouble — most of the times, not always. But most of the times, everyone seems to be trying to get in there as fast as they can. Those sports are complicated and difficult because they’re violent sports. The nature of the sport is to hit each other.

Why are you so committed to boxing in your own life?

Boxing has a lot of metaphors. Boxing’s a great sport; it’s definitely chess, not checkers. People think it’s just swinging and punching, but that’s not boxing. The whole objective of boxing is get the other opponent to help you kick his a–. You trying to outsmart somebody. It’s not as primitive as people think it is. It’s a great sport to just learn some life skills, to know when to bomb and leave, when to catch your breath, when to stick and move, when to go for broke, how to get back up. And it challenges you on those things, so that’s what I love about it. It’s just you and the other guy. You don’t have help. It’s all about what you’re made of, what you have in you. So it challenges that, when your lungs are burning, your ribs are hurting, guy’s trying to punch you in the eye or jab a bit. It’s like, ‘Do I really need to do this?’

Economic stratification has a huge impact on defining who goes into football and boxing. If you can afford to put your kid into something that doesn’t carry the same risk for potential brain damage, you’re going to do it.

There’s certainly classism. … It’s just opportunity. If you’re poor living in a ghetto — I know when I was — you bounced the ball, you hit a ball with stick. You punched each other or you play football. There was no golf courses that were nearby, there was no lacrosse. There’s no polo.

But some of those sports, you don’t get camaraderie, you don’t learn how to play as a team player, you don’t physically always get challenged the same. There’s plus and minuses to it all. Classism will always be here, and the gladiators will always be the gladiators and some people will always be in the stands. It’s just the fact of life. It’s not going to ever change, ever. If they took away boxing and football … there’ll be another sport.

For some people, like myself, like LeBron, like Ali, Michael Jordan, sports was a way out. I got a scholarship to West Virginia. That was a way out, that was a way of getting out the streets, getting out the ghetto. But also, you love it. It was a place to go that felt safe. It was a place to go to create a family outside of your family, with your teammates. To get that feeling of success, to win, that’s something that you can’t put a price on.

After three years, it makes no sense there are no black female characters in Overwatch Asking for inclusion is not political correctness

The second season of the Overwatch League, perhaps the world’s most popular esports league, has commenced. Ahead of the league’s second week of play, one question must be answered about the widely played video game: Where are the black female characters?

The game’s developers, Blizzard Entertainment, position the team-based first-person shooter as the pinnacle of diversity and inclusion in the industry. Yet, nearly three years since it launched, Overwatch still lacks a playable black female character, although the game does include other women of color. When recently asked about the situation, Jeff Kaplan, the game’s director, talked about new heroes with Nathan Grayson of kotaku.com: “We have no shortage of heroes that we’re currently working on secretly back in Irvine. Right now I think the number’s around six that we have in development. I don’t think people are gonna be disappointed.”

Take a look at the roster of heroes. They have different backgrounds, races and origins. In November, Overwatch introduced its 29th character, Ashe, the game’s seventh white woman, who appeared to be a darker-skinned woman in original concept art. For black female gamers, being unable to play with a character who looks like them is disturbing, yet familiar.

The situation industrywide has improved, albeit slowly. According to Alisha Karabinus, assistant editor for NYMG, a feminist gaming website, there were about 21 playable black female characters in video game history in 2013. Six years later, she bumps the number up to a range of 30 to 32. Thus, Overwatch isn’t guilty of a unique sin. Last month, however, Electronic Arts released Apex Legends, a first-person battle royale shooter that included two playable black female characters out of a roster of eight. Naturally, this precipitated more Overwatch criticism:

Jay-Ann Lopez, creator of Black Girl Gamers, an online community that aims to lift black women’s voices in gaming, has loudly leveled her grievances against Overwatch. “After three years of waiting for a black woman to be revealed, I stopped playing,” she said. “I have no issue with playing characters of any other race, but it stings, a lot, when who I am is left out.” She believes “an unambiguous and non-colorist representation of a black woman” could rekindle her interest.

L.L. McKinney, a novelist, gamer and advocate for diversity and equality, shares a similar Overwatch story: “I got my friends and family into it. They purchased their own copies to play with me and on their own. But as time went on and we kept getting new heroes — and black women kept being left out — my love for the game dimmed. I stopped playing altogether for a good long while.”

Another game, Paladins, piqued her curiosity after it introduced Imani, a new black female character. “I saw the video and was in love. Instantly. In seeing her I saw us, and I felt a multitude of things,” she told me. “And when I played with her, it was amazing. … Hearing her voice, seeing her on-screen, was incredible.”

On Overwatch online forums, some black women such as McKinney petitioned Blizzard to unveil a black female hero. Invariably, venom met these pleas.

One person responded, “You can still live in your lefty diversity dream bubble, but you should better wake up! Real diversity means that it does not matter if a character is female or black, as long it fits to the story.” Another replied, “You seem to put way too much importance on appearances. I highly doubt most people here have a real problem with black women as heroes, but whining to Blizzard and claiming they’re not doing enough is making you sound entitled.” And yet another complained that “people should also not be requesting a specific race, sexuality, or gender of a new character. They should let the creators make what they feel fits it. People coming on here saying they want a black woman because they are. … That’s pandering.

Black folk have grown accustomed to hearing such rejoinders after complaining about the lack of representation in popular culture. The criticism that we encounter amounts to maligning us for asking to be included. Opponents of such requests believe that by asking to see our humanity in the art we consume, we seek some sort of special favor.

When people of color ask for inclusion, some gamers respond with the usual questions: What’s the big deal? Why does the race of video game characters matter? They don’t understand that the answers to those questions undermine their arguments.

If race and gender aren’t that big of a deal, then why the dearth of black female characters? A lack of diversity reflects the desires of decision-makers inside the industry.

When black people complain about the lack of representation in popular culture, we get hit with accusations of demanding political correctness. But if asking for inclusion is political correctness, then the most politically correct of all are white people who harbor desires for representation so strongly that other groups are excluded.

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

André Holland’s eyes were wide open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From small-screen ‘Grown-ish’ to the silver screen’s ‘Superfly,’ this is Trevor Jackson’s year But not long ago, ‘I was going to quit acting. I didn’t want to do it anymore.’

First, there was a breakout television series, followed by two movies and the release of a brand-new album. For singer and actor Trevor Jackson, there couldn’t be a better year.

Jackson, 21, is best known for his roles as Zurich in Burning Sands, Aaron Jackson in Freeform’s Grown-ish and Youngblood Priest in the remake of the 1972 black cult classic SuperFly, which hits theaters Wednesday. This isn’t too shabby for someone who thought of walking away from acting before his role in the television drama series American Crime.

“I was going to quit acting before American Crime because I was trying to focus on my music,” Jackson said. “I didn’t want to do it anymore. My mom was just like, ‘Go,’ and I went and fell in love with it again. Everybody who was on set — Tim Hutton, Andre 3000, Regina King — I was awestruck and inspired by these people. It kind of made me fall back in love with the process.”

His role in SuperFly deepened his passion for acting.

“Priest was a character that was interesting,” Jackson said. “I was trying to find the person that I was afraid of but I also thought was extremely cool. The experience was amazing. I think the coolest thing was working with such amazing people. You got Joel Silver, who has done so many classic films. Director X is a legendary director, and all the actors. They’re all so good at their jobs. It was a blessing to be doing what I love around people that I love.”

Music remains a passion. Jackson signed with his first record label at 15 and released his latest LP, Rough Drafts, Pt. 1, in March. He hopes to continue acting and singing for as long as he can.

“I want to continue balancing,” Jackson said. “I can’t live without either. Even when I was shooting Grown-ish, I recorded most of this album. We would get off around 7 and I’d come home and record. They’ve both saved me. When I wasn’t working, acting and wasn’t getting hired, I was doing music. Whenever one wasn’t happening, the other one was always there. They’re both very close to my heart.”

What was one of the craziest moments you’ve had on set?

I think the craziest moment was when I made Halle [Bailey] cry on set of Grown-ish. She’s vegan and we had tacos. There were beef tacos, chicken tacos and vegan tacos. She was eating a vegan taco, and I’m like, ‘Oh, you know that’s the wrong meat. They had the wrong names on the tacos.’ She started crying. Everyone was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Trevor. You’re such an a-hole!’ I’m like, ‘I’m sorry! I was just kidding.’ My job is big brother on set. My job is to torture them.

When did you feel like you made it in the industry?

I don’t think I can ever have that moment because I’m always trying to outdo myself. I don’t look to the left or right of me to see if I’ve made it or not. I always kind of look inward. I feel like I’ll never feel like that.

Have you ever been starstruck?

Perfect time to ask me this. I freaking met Tom Hardy at CinemaCon. He and Denzel [Washington] are like my top two favorite actors of all time. I met him, I yelled at him. It was me and Jason [Mitchell]; he loves him too. He was having a conversation, and we came up behind him and were like, ‘Dude we’re sorry but we freaking love you. You’re a legend.’ I’m pretty sure he was wondering who we were, but we took like three pictures. Then I met Matthew McConaughey on the plane and I was like what’s happening with my life? He took my clothes off the plane and asked whose bag it was, then carried my bag off the plane. I can always say Matthew McConaughey carried my luggage. I met Will Ferrell too. These are all people I admire and love totally and am inspired by daily. That was too much.

If you weren’t acting or singing, what would you be doing?

I’d be surfing. I’d probably be a pro surfer, skateboarder or playing basketball. That’s how my life is. If I wake up one day and I want to pursue that, that’s what I’ll do. I always try to follow what God puts in my heart to do or achieve, and I don’t stop until I do that. I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was younger. That dream kind of died, but it can come back around.

What’s the last show you binge-watched?

Ozark. It’s probably one of the greatest shows I ever watched.

Which pro athlete would you never want to trade places with?

The ones that I don’t know their names.

What’s your current fashion obsession?

I love silk shirts. They don’t have to be real silk, as long as they look silky and feel silky. They can be 10 bucks. If they look right and feel right, I’ll wear it.

What songs are at the top of your playlists these days?

There’s a song called ‘Tequila’ by Dan + Shay and another called ‘The Long Way Around’ [by Brett Eldredge]. These are all country songs. I love country. It’s my favorite kind of music.

What is the most embarrassing music you have to admit you listen to?

I’m not gonna lie, when Hannah Montana first came out, I was an advocate. I loved it!

What are you looking forward to achieving this year?

I want SuperFly to do very, very well. I want the album to do well, and hopefully a great season two of Grown-ish. And I want to start filming another movie by the end of the year, whatever it may be.

If you could go to dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be?

I can only pick one? I have more than one, and it would be Prince and Michael Jackson. If I had three, I’d put Martin Luther King Jr. in there.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Keep God first and all things will be added unto you.