The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. It has a problem with black men. The move to regulate agents looks like yet another effort to police black mobility and freedom

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. The problem is that its structure is designed to regulate the freedom of athletes to turn pro in primarily black sports but not in white ones.

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Earlier this week, the NCAA implemented what was immediately labeled the “Rich Paul Rule,” after the man who represents NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, John Wall, Ben Simmons and 2019 first-round draft picks Darius Garland and Darius Bazley. The new regulations require that agents interested in representing players who are considering declaring for the NBA draft now must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified with the National Basketball Players Association for at least three years and take a comprehensive in-person exam at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Paul, who never attended college, is one of many agents affected by this rule — but unquestionably the most prominent.

The NCAA’s move was instantly lambasted as hypocritical and vindictive. “The world is so afraid of ground breakers.…This is beyond sad & major B.S.,” tweeted comedian Kevin Hart. James, Paul’s biggest client, longtime friend and confidant, could only laugh at the NCAA’s energy, saying, “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here.”

Chris Rock explained the context for the NCAA mandate years ago. “We’re only 10% of the population,” he said on 2004’s Never Scared. “We’re 90% of the Final Four!”

Only basketball must adhere to the new NCAA mandate. The actual text doesn’t mention race. Nevertheless, the writing is not just written on the wall, it’s been carved. It’s a “race-neutral” rule that isn’t race-neutral. This comes with historical precedence that the NCAA knows all too well.

One of the worst-kept secrets in sports is how top-tier college football and basketball programs directly benefited from desegregation. Before integration, the vast majority of top black athletes had no choice but to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once the larger and richer predominantly white schools began to integrate, HBCUs couldn’t compete. But there’s been a parallel development too: The graduation rates for black athletes at top sports programs remain consistently and embarrassingly low.

Agent Rich Paul (right), seen here with LeBron James (left), is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power.

Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group

Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, found that, overall, black male athletes graduate at higher percentages than black males who are not involved in sports. But that’s not true for the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Power 5 of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

“The [NCAA] has claimed in television commercials that black male student-athletes at Division I institutions graduate rates are higher than black men in the general student body,” the report says. “This is true across the entire division, but not for the five conferences whose member institutions routinely win football and basketball championships, play in multimillion-dollar bowl games and the annual basketball championship tournament, and produce the largest share of Heisman Trophy winners.”

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Black men made up 2.4% of the Power 5 student population but 55% and 56%, respectively, of its football and basketball teams. Of those numbers, 55% of black male athletes graduated in under six years, compared with 60% of black men in the overall undergraduate population and 76% of all college graduates.

“Over the past two years, 40% of these universities have actually had black male student-athlete graduation rates that have declined,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be getting better, but actually 40% of these places have gotten worse.”

Meanwhile, the debate over paying college athletes is sharply divided by race. Most whites are against “pay to play,” while most blacks strongly support it because the current system exploits a largely black athletic base.

In the NBA, the sport is still primarily black. (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that during the 2015-16 season, 81.7% of NBA players were people of color and 74.3% were black.) But black athletes have significant power and influence over everything from where they play to who coaches them to the structure of their contracts.

This shifting power dynamic is beginning earlier and earlier too. Bazley skipped college last year to become a million-dollar intern with New Balance. R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, both touted as 2020 lottery picks, are taking their talents to Australia for a year before declaring for the NBA draft. Hampton has already inked a shoe deal with Li-Ning.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, the new rule’s standard doesn’t apply to college hockey players or baseball players, who can be drafted out of high school but can choose to attend college if their draft placement doesn’t appeal to them.

If this wasn’t about a young black man who achieved his success out of the mud and then empowered other black men to recognize their worth in spite of an organization that has for years manipulated their talents for the organization’s gain, if this wasn’t about yet another American institution attempting to police black mobility and freedom, then it’s difficult to see what the actual reasoning is.

This brings the discussion back to Paul and James. It’s often been said there is a Jay-Z lyric for any situation in life. Perhaps the most fitting here is a bar from Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint, which entered the Library of Congress in March: All I need is the love of my crew / The whole industry can hate me, I thugged my way through, he pledged on “All I Need.” In essence, this has been the motto for Paul, James and the two other members of their inner circle, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.

When James cut ties to agent Aaron Goodwin in 2005, eyebrows raised and many said that the young basketball phenom had risked his career before it truly tipped off. At the time, it was easy to understand why, given that Goodwin had helped the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick obtain a bevy of endorsements, including Bubblicious chewing gum, Upper Deck trading cards, Sprite, Powerade and, most gaudy of them all, a seven-year, $90 million shoe deal with Nike. Few believed in James’ vision when he turned to three of his childhood friends to chart the course of his career on and off the court.

“James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.

“I will promise you really ugly things will happen,” said former NFL player turned financial adviser Jim Corbett. “This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”

Which leads us to another Jay lyric, this one from 2009’s “Already Home”: And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it / Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it. Thanks to the friends he entrusted with his career nearly 15 years ago, James is not only the most powerful player in basketball history but also a player in Hollywood, fashion, education and politics.

Money and power elicit respect, as elucidated by Kimberly Jones. But they also open the door for fear and angst. President Donald Trump took shots at LeBron on Twitter last August after the launch of his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, saying it was hard to make “LeBron look smart” and weighed in on the NBA’s most contested debate, saying he preferred Michael Jordan over James — which Jordan quickly rebuffed. The two were labeled “mob bosses” by an unnamed Western Conference general manager last season after public attempts to move Anthony Davis to the Lakers (a move that eventually happened).

From left to right: Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Rich Paul, Ben Simmons and Miles Bridges attend the Klutch 2019 All Star Weekend Dinner Presented by Remy Martin and hosted by Klutch Sports Group at 5Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 16.

Photo by Dominique Oliveto/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group 2019 All Star Weekend

Rich Paul is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power. And to the image of an industry that is still dominated by white males and has long exercised fiscal and moral authority over black athletes.

Basketball altered its rules to make it harder for three players who made the game look too easy (i.e., they dominated the white players too much): Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe the NCAA didn’t implement this rule with Paul as its sole motivation. Just like maybe the NCAA wouldn’t be so open to criticism if it made the education of players a higher priority.

Unfortunately, the NCAA addressed a perceived problem while never addressing its own. Sometimes sports really is a reflection of life.

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.”

From ‘The Last O.G.’ to hosting The ESPYS, Tracy Morgan is back Returning from a horrific accident, the comic had to learn to be funny again

Tracy Morgan’s sharks don’t have names.

“Are you crazy?!” he asks me, jutting his head back in mock dramatic fashion at the idea of such a silly question. And then comes the isn’t-it-obvious? tone familiar to anyone who has heard Morgan’s deadpan delivery: “They’re sharks!”

Still, he’s enamored of them. Proud even. He smiles as he points out a hammerhead, a whitetip and a Japanese leopard shark. A puffer fish coexists in that same tank; he’s the first fish to greet us as Morgan uses a remote control to turn the security system off and open the doors to the pool house to reveal the shark tank in the backyard of his palatial, 31,000-square-foot estate in suburban Alpine, New Jersey.

He smiles as he looks over at me. Nearby, there’s a swingset and play area for Maven, his 6-year-old daughter, a barbecue grill area that only he can touch and a pool that would rival that of any five-star vacation compound.

“My babies swim in here,” he says of the house his fish live in, “and my family swims out here,” he says, pointing at his pool.

Morgan, who will host the 27th annual ESPYS show July 10 on ABC, smiles again.

It’s one of the last times he smiles during my time here. For much of our conversation this day, Morgan, who became famous for his ability to make people laugh, is reaching for tissues as we sit next to one another in matching leather recliners in his office, unapologetic about the tears that continually fall from his eyes.

We’re only a few weeks removed from the five-year anniversary of a crash that nearly took Morgan’s life. He had to learn how to walk again. He had to learn how to talk again.

He had to learn how to find, and be, funny again.

“My face was this big,” he says, measuring a space big enough for three Tracy Morgan-sized heads to fit inside.

The accident was horrific. But he’s been coping with trauma since he was a small child. Like many sports superstars, he understands what it takes to return from a devastating injury.


Tracy Morgan and Allen Maldonado of TBS’s “The Last O.G” attend the WarnerMedia Upfront 2019 arrivals on the red carpet at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 15, 2019 in New York City.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

2019 has been Morgan’s comeback year.

Yes, he’s been working steadily since a triumphant return 14 months after his accident to host Saturday Night Live, the show that made him famous.

But 2019 is where the payoff begins.

His TBS series The Last O.G., which he created with Jordan Peele, is some of his best work ever. Morgan plays Tray Baker, a recently sprung ex-con who is surprised to see how much Brooklyn has changed during his 15-year stint in prison, with chain coffee shops, yoga studios and white people inhabiting the old haunts where Baker once worked as a petty drug dealer.

The series launched as the network’s biggest original TV debut last year, came back for a successful second season and was recently renewed for a third. The funny wasn’t a surprise — this is Tracy Morgan, after all — but the show’s depth was revelatory.

“A lot of times as a writer you’re scared of playing with the tone too much because people, admittedly, tune in to a show because they want to laugh or they tune in to a show because they want to see dragons. Very few of us ever think consciously, ‘Oh, I’m going to tune in to that show because I want to laugh and cry,” says comedian and actor Diallo Riddle, who wrote on season one of The Last O.G. “But I think that Tracy had such a good relationship with his audience and such a good relationship with the truth. Even old white people in rural communities can watch that show and watch black men in Brooklyn and be like, ‘I love Tracy Morgan!’ ”

The good news doesn’t stop there. Later this year — Morgan beams every time he mentions this — he’ll begin filming his yet-to-be-announced role in the highly anticipated Coming to America sequel that is set to hit theaters sometime next year. Eddie Murphy is an idol, and now he’s also a friend.

And this week, of course, the 50-year-old Morgan will host the ESPYS, perhaps his biggest audience since the Saturday Night Live gig in October 2015, 16 months after a crash that nearly took his life.

“I still remember the time I saw Tracy after the accident and you just go, ‘I’m so happy he’s alive.’ That’s all you could say,” Riddle says. “I’m so happy he’s alive because he kept grinding, and then to go into a third season of the show and to be hosting the ESPYS? … The ESPYS is a beast of an undertaking. It’s not easy physically or mentally. And the fact that he’s hosting it, given where he was, is incredible.”


June 6, 2019: Tracy Morgan at his home in Alpine, New Jersey just a few weeks from the five-year anniversary of the traffic accident that nearly killed him.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

Back inside his home, Morgan is wiping away a fresh set of tears.

I ask if his ability to be emotionally open is a result of his accident or if this is who he was before June 7, 2014. We don’t generally give black men license to feel like this — not without it being some sort of indictment on their masculinity.

His life has been painful, far more than one person should have to deal with, really. And Morgan allows himself to be, well, human.

“My dad survived Vietnam … he came home a junkie. He didn’t go there that way, [but he] came home that way. That was his terror, seeing babies dying in villages, and he expressed those to me,” Morgan says. “I didn’t understand it because I was a kid in [his] prime in high school, playing football, but I didn’t know what his struggles. … He had demons. You go to war, nobody wins.”

Certainly not Jimmy Morgan Sr., who died of AIDS when Tracy was 19. Morgan also talks about how much he looked up to his Uncle Alvin, the cool uncle who played college football and who died of the same syndrome.

That kind of trauma can be crippling. Somehow, Morgan discovered comedy.

“You find it in that pain,” he says softly. “Without no struggle there’s no progress. People don’t know. ‘How did he get that funny?!’ My father and my mother breaking up when I was 6. My oldest brother being born with cerebral palsy. … Him having 10 operations by the time I’m 5. My mom’s by herself, struggling to help my brother with them Forrest Gump braces on, him screaming, she trying to teach him … I seen all of that.”

Morgan pauses.

“You know why I became famous?” he asks quietly. “Because the kids of the playground could be mean. When they be mean, you go get your big brother, your big brother got your back. … I couldn’t do that. I go get my brother, he come, hey, he crippled. They start laughing. So I had to learn how to be funny to keep the bullies off my a–. All of my life, turned into business.”

Then, as if tossing it over in his head for a bit, he chases all of that heft with some lightness: “And plus, I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?” he recalls. “They want you around, you make them laugh! My biggest audience is female. Same motivation. I’m married now, but I still want to make the girls laugh. Y’all got the world on your shoulders. At the end of the f—ing day, if you can make her forget about all that s— for an hour, you the man.”

“Great comedians — which Tracy is one of the great comedians — their comedy comes from pain,” says director David E. Talbert. “And the great ones allow themselves to access that, and then they share that.”

Morgan’s first taste of fame came in 1993 via HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, which was hosted by Martin Lawrence. Back then, it was a must-watch series, introducing and amplifying many now-famous black comics like Chris Tucker and Bernie Mac.

His childhood best friend Alan always told him how funny he was and that he should really make a go at pursuing comedy. Morgan, who was born in the Bronx and reared largely in Brooklyn, took workshops and eventually was working the local comedy club circuit. Comedy was his love, but he still had one foot in the hustle game.

“I was selling crack [when] my friend Alan got murdered, my best friend,” Morgan shares. Losing Alan made him focus.

“I come home, my youngest son is 2 years old. … Told him, ‘I’m gonna do comedy. …’ By all means, [my first wife, Sabina] could’ve said, ‘No you ain’t m—–f—-, we got three kids. What you going to do is go get a f—ing job.’ She never did that. She said, ‘Pull the trigger, Tracy.’ ”

“Four months later, I was on Def [Comedy] Jam.”

And then, another painful memory: “She passed away three years ago. Cancer.”


Comedians Chris Rock, left, and Amy Schumer, center, sit with actor Tracy Morgan and Morgan’s daughter Maven during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the New York Knicks and the Golden State Warriors, Feb. 26, 2018, in New York.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Morgan was almost gone too.

On June 7, 2014, a Walmart truck driver who had been awake for more than 28 hours was going 20 mph over the 45 mph speed limit in a work zone on the New Jersey Turnpike. He crashed into a limousine bus carrying Morgan and a small group of friends and colleagues. Morgan’s friend James McNair died, and Harris Stanton and Ardie Fuqua were hospitalized. Morgan himself was listed in critical condition and was comatose for two weeks.

The driver, Kevin Roper, was indicted on charges of manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault. He later accepted a plea deal that dismissed the charges in exchange for entering a pretrial intervention program. Walmart settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

Morgan’s life changed that day. He came out on the other side appreciative. Attentive. Spiritual, yet spirited.

“When bad things happen to you, that’s when you grow. It was painful at the time,” he said. “But now you look back on it and you go, ‘Wow.’ So this story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

But before he could do the work physically, Morgan’s road to recovery had to start with forgiveness.

“You have to learn to forgive yourself before you can forgive anybody. OK, you had a setback on the field. But a setback ain’t nothing but a setup. Because when you come back better, you going to do something that ain’t been done,” Morgan says. “Don’t you ever let no doctor, nobody, tell you you can’t. They said no, I broke every bone in my face. On this side of my skull you could see my brain. … I was scared. I didn’t know if I was ever going to walk. That’s when I had to put the work in. …”

Morgan begins to cry again.

“Ugh. Damn. Excuse me.”

I tell him to take his time. Soon, he begins to tell a story of sitting in his wheelchair and watching his infant daughter scoot around in her walker.

“I don’t want her looking at me like this; she ain’t understand what’s going on. I’m working, I’m working hard, because I want to walk again, I want to play with my daughter, I want to chase my daughter. That was my motivation. I wanted to chase my daughter. I didn’t care about show business. I wanted to chase my daughter,” he says, wiping away fresh tears. “And I worked so hard for a year just to get back on my feet. And I don’t care what athlete you are, you better pick a motivation, something near and dear to you. Something that you would give the world for. And you better go for it, don’t let it be over. I put the work in for a year, and then the triumph, like we was talking about. I saw my daughter — she was 14 months — and I seen her take her first steps. It made me get out my wheelchair.”

I ask him to clarify: seeing his daughter take her first steps motivated him to attempt to take his own first steps?

He nods.

“She took her first steps and I got up, and my wife started screaming. She said I was going to hurt myself because my femur was crushed. And I was like, ‘F— that,’ and I stood up and I took a step to my daughter. I took a step with my daughter,” he says. “That was four months after I got hit. The rest of the year, I just started working. It wasn’t just physical, it was cognitive — I didn’t even know my name. I had to learn how to talk again.”

Drying up the last tears with a new piece of tissue, he says, “It was a bad accident.”


This is who Tracy Morgan has always been.

In 2008 he co-starred alongside Ice Cube in First Sunday, a comedy written and directed by Talbert, who was a top-grossing playwright before he directed Morgan in what was his directorial debut.

In that film, Morgan played LeeJohn Jackson, best friend to Cube’s Durell Washington. Together they were portraying petty thieves who concoct a rather desperate scheme to steal $17,000 from a neighborhood church in order to pay off a debt for Durell’s ex-girlfriend — to not do so would mean that she and their son would relocate to a different state.

“This story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

After Morgan auditioned for the role, he and Talbert went out for lunch.

“He started telling me about his relationship with his mother, which is a complicated relationship,” Talbert recalls. “I knew that if I could access that, then he could really dig into the character.”

“And I remember when he was about to do his big scene with Loretta Devine. And he says, ‘Today I’m going to cry because real actors cry! Richard Pryor cried!’ That’s all he was screaming all day! The scene singing ‘Happy Birthday’ with Loretta Devine, he was just telling everybody, ‘I’m going to cry! Real actors cry!’ ”

Talbert gave Morgan some advice before they dug into the scene: “I said, ‘Tracy, the thing about emotion is you have to try not to cry, but it moves you so much that you can’t help but to cry.’ And I said, ‘So I want you to try as hard as you can not to cry. And as she’s singing to you, I want you to think about all those birthdays that were missed.’ ”

That scene is one of Morgan’s favorites. By the time Devine gets to the last few notes of the song, she pulls Morgan in close for an embrace. The camera zooms in on his face, a mixture of bewilderment and sadness. Tears are streaming down the sides of his nose.

It wasn’t just good acting. It was real life. When Morgan was 13, he left his mother’s home to live with his dad in the Bronx. He and his mother went years without speaking.

“Loretta Devine started singing. And Tracy, I saw him. [He] wasn’t playing the character anymore. He was the little boy thinking about his own relationship with his mother. And slowly as Loretta started to sing, he was welling up and just the most genuine, authentic tear fell. I yelled, ‘Cut!’ I only had to do one take of that scene,” Talbert says. “It was beautiful. It was perfect. I only did one take, and he said, ‘D, excuse me for a moment.’ And he went to the back, and about 15 minutes later he came out and I said, ‘You OK?’ He said, ‘I just called my mother and I told her she missed out on a real actor.’ ”

Since the accident, Morgan and his mother have reconciled.


“I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?”

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

As we’re wrapping up, I remind Morgan of a joke I once heard his friend Chris Rock tell in a stand-up routine. Rock observed that he was the only black man in his tony neighborhood and shared all he had to accomplish to afford to live on the street. One of his neighbors is a dentist, Rock said, before landing the punchline: “Know what I had to do to afford this house? Host the Oscars!”

Morgan breaks into the hardest laugh I’ve heard from him this day. He has a similar story.

“Just last week I had some rich white man jogging in front of my gate. So I’m coming out my gate, and he’s looking at my house. And he’s looking at me …”

“So what do you do?” the jogger asked him.

“And I said, ‘About what?!’ ”

Morgan and I both break out laughing.

“I had to justify why the f— I live here … but you know I start f—ing with him,” Morgan says.

“You know the McDonald’s box the french fries come in?”

“Yeah.”

“I make those. You know the straw you drink the Coke [out of]? I make those.”

Morgan laughs at his own story.

“And he started laughing. … In your mind, you got to justify why I’m here.”

Tracy Morgan is here — and hosting the ESPYS.

“That’s going to be fun. Because everybody knows that Tracy Morgan thinks outside the f—ing box. … Buckle up, kids. It’s about to get wild and woolly.”

Richard Wright discovers Joe Louis’ dynamite The author of ‘Native Son’ was strongly influenced by the boxer’s success

In 1941, three giants of African American culture came together to celebrate a king. The tribute, fittingly enough, was a song entitled “King Joe,” sung by Paul Robeson to music composed and performed by Count Basie and his Orchestra. Richard Wright had written the lyrics. Basie, Robeson, and Wright — their names conjure images of foxtrots at the Roseland Ballroom, triumphant performances of Showboat, and the explosive prose of Native Son. The king they lionized was Joe Louis, boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world.

On one verse, Wright clearly wrestles with Louis’ legendary silence:

They say Joe don’t talk much, but he talks all the time.

They say Joe don’t talk much, he talks all the time.

Now you can look at Joe, but sure can’t read his mind.

But the novelist had no doubts about the emotions Louis aroused in black communities across the country:

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

But the best is Harlem when a Joe Louis fight is through.

By then, Wright had witnessed the cleansing power of Joe Louis — the flood of joy on Chicago’s South Side after he defeated Max Baer in 1935, the electricity inside Yankee Stadium during his 1938 fight with Max Schmeling, the lovefest in Harlem after each important victory. Wright knew the importance of the reign of King Joe.

Richard Wright, circa 1950, sits in his hotel room during the Venice Film Festival. Wright had attended the screening of director Pierre Chenal’s film, Native Son, which was adapted from his novel and starred the author.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wright wrote out of the pain of racism. Born in a Mississippi sharecropper’s shack in 1908, abandoned by his father, and circumscribed by the iron chains of Jim Crow, he had a blinding ambition to tell his story, the universal tale of the “color line” in America with all the anger, hatred, and ache that it encompassed. The publication of Native Son in 1940 made him instantly famous — and notorious. Published by Harper & Brothers and selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club as one of its two main selections, it sold 215,000 copies in two weeks.

Wright’s fame, however paled next to that of Louis. Six years younger than Wright, Louis was also part of the great migration of rural Southern black people to the urban north, in his case from Alabama to Detroit. Handicapped by poverty and a stutter, he was virtually uneducated and painfully shy. Yet in 1941 he was in the midst of a 12-year reign as the undisputed heavyweight champion, at a time when the title was, as Eldridge Cleaver once wrote, “the ultimate focus of masculinity in America.” Along with Joe DiMaggio, he was one of the two most celebrated athletes in the nation, and his fame extended across the oceans. Furthermore, Louis was an inspiration and source of pride for black Americans. Especially for Wright.

Wright embraced Louis as an athlete and a symbol early in the boxer’s career. In his 1940 essay, How ‘Bigger’ Was Born, Wright suggested that Bigger Thomas, his protagonist in Native Son, was a composite of a number of men he had known, frustrated men who confronted the racism in their daily life with violence. They were the only people, Wright wrote in his essay, who defied Jim Crow “and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell” before whites killed them or broke their spirits. But in Louis, Wright witnessed a black man who legally beat down white men in the ring without retribution. The novelist alluded to Louis in Native Son, along with boxers Jack Johnson and Henry Armstrong, suggesting that he was a role model for black men. Yet Wright understood that without boxing they may have suffered the same tragic fate as Bigger Thomas.


No one knows exactly when Wright first learned about Louis, but in the mid-1930s they both lived on the South Side of Chicago. The neighborhood’s numbers kingpin, nightclub operator, and sports enthusiast Julian Black was one of Louis’ co-managers, and he arranged for the boxer to move from Detroit to Chicago to train and fight. From the summer of 1934 to the spring of 1935, during Louis’ first year as a professional, he fought two-thirds of his matches in the city. During the same period, Wright became active in politics and began his writing career. He joined the Communist Party, published poetry in leftist journals, and attended various “progressive” writers conferences.

It is difficult to imagine that Wright wouldn’t have read about Louis’ first major bout in New York City, a contest against former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera that took place in June 1935 during the international crisis between Italy and Ethiopia. The 28-year-old Italian fighter was awesome to behold. Sportswriters dubbed him the “Ambling Alp.” In an age when heavyweights were small compared with today, Carnera stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 260 pounds. The 6-foot-2 Louis, only 21 at the time and 196 pounds, knocked him out in six rounds, but not before administering a frightful beating.

Joe Louis scored a decisive technical knockout over Primo Carnera in the sixth round of their bout at the Yankee Stadium in 1935. Here is Louis standing over the bleeding Carnera during one of the three knockdowns in the sixth round.

Getty Images

As he would later demonstrate in Native Son, Wright was keenly aware of how white journalists transformed a powerful black man like Louis into a beast. They transmuted the boxer into a dark, dangerous, primordial creature. Sportswriters compared him with a jungle animal, or, alternatively, a machine. He was a cobra, a panther, or more famously, a Brown Bomber raining death. “Something sly and sinister, and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish a huge hulk that had been Primo Carnera, the giant,” wrote ringside reporter David J. Walsh in the St. Louis Star-Times. Grantland Rice, dean of America’s sportswriters, commented in his report of the match for the New York Sun that Louis moved toward Carnera “as a black panther of the jungle stalks his prey.” Rice especially was struck that Louis’ “expression never changed,” even when the referee raised his hand in victory. He “seems to be the type [of jungle animal] that accepts and inflicts pain without a change of expression,” he wrote.

Judging from his later writings, Wright must have sensed that Louis represented a significant new force. The fighter, Walsh had noted, challenged and defied “the white man’s innate sense of superiority.” The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s leading black newspapers, headlined “HARLEM GOES ‘MAD WITH JOY,’ ” and suggested Louis’ triumph was “its biggest moment since it became the capital of the Negro world.”

Searching the horizon for signs of revolutionary change, Wright latched on to the Louis phenomenon. After the Carnera bout, black Americans could not get enough news about Louis. Newspapers invented his past and speculated about his future. Musicians celebrated his victories in songs. By September 1935, two years before he became heavyweight champion, blues singers had begun to cut records recounting Louis’ fistic deeds. Joe Pullum’s “Joe Louis Is the Man” praised his ring talents as well as noting that he’s “doing things for his mother a young boy should.” Memphis Minnie counseled fans to bet all their money on the “two-fisted fighter” in her joyous paean, “He’s in the Ring (Doin’ the Same Old Thing!).” She sang:

I wouldn’t even pay my house rent.

I wouldn’t buy me nothin’ to eat.

Joe Louis says, ‘Take a chance at me

I’m goin’ to put you on your feet.’

He’s in the ring, doin’ the same old thing.

And in “Joe Louis Blues,” Carl Martin warns all prizefighters “who don’t want to meet defeat … stay off Joe Louis’ beat.”

The early Louis blues songs explode with pride and pleasure, rejoicing in the sheer delight of riding on the Brown Bomber’s bandwagon. As his career progressed, listening to radio broadcasts of his matches became communal experiences for black Americans. Maya Angelou, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recalled joining family and friends to listen to his fights in her grandfather’s store in Stamps, Arkansas. She wondered if the announcer knew that he was addressing “all the Negroes around the world who sat sweating and praying, glued to their ‘master’s voice.’ ”

That white voice became excited when Louis’ white opponent pushed him into the corner and whaled away at his body. “My race groaned,” remembered Angelou. “It was all our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed.” It was one’s worst memory and consummate fear. “It might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.” If Louis fell, she thought, all the vile racist insults and cutting remarks would be true.

Yet, in almost every case, Louis came off the ropes, moved to the center of the ring, and began to punish his opponent. Once again, he assumed the role of a black Moses, delivering his race, at least for a moment, to the promised land. He was their champion. “A Black boy,” wrote Angelou. “Some Black mother’s son.”


The announcer lifts Joe Louis’ arm in token of his six-round technical knockout over Primo Carnera in their bout at the Yankee Stadium in New York City, June 25, 1935. Louis bears only a slight bruise under his left eye as evidence of the encounter.

Getty Images

Wright’s feelings toward Louis came into sharper literary focus a few months after the boxer slaughtered Carnera. Hazel Rowley’s biography recounts how, after battling through a serious bout of pneumonia during the summer, on the night of Sept. 24, 1935, the struggling writer sat in a bar on the South Side, smoking a cigarette, his ear bent toward the radio. It was almost six years since the stock market crash signaled the coming of the Great Depression. It was a hard time to be black in America. Jobs were in short supply, but lynchings weren’t. The wrongly convicted Scottsboro Boys sat in prison in Alabama, sentenced to die in the electric chair. For Wright, their ordeal symbolized the plight of black men in the country. Don’t step outside of your narrowly proscribed path was the message transmitted from white America to millions of black “citizens.”

Yet, Wright knew, something remarkable was happening, and he wanted to understand what it meant. Louis, who would have had trouble reading Wright’s poetry, once more was making quite a stir. In a ring in the middle of Yankee Stadium, the boxer faced former world heavyweight champion Baer, a heavy-punching, wisecracking slugger. Baer was a talker, always ready to deliver a quip. Louis, said one reporter, “says less than any man in sports history, including Dummy Taylor, the Giant pitcher, who was mute.” Neither man, however, had come to Yankee Stadium to debate.

Joe Louis (left) looks to deliver a right jab on his opponent Max Baer (right) during their bout at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, Sept. 24, 1935. Joe Louis would knock out Max Baer in the fourth round of 15.

The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

Wright felt the earth crack that night. Something happened that transcended the punch that knocked out Baer. (After the match, Baer exclaimed he could have gotten up, “but when I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than twenty-five dollars a seat to watch.”) Some belt holding together Jim Crow laws seemed for a moment to break. Looking around the bar, then stepping out in the street, Wright witnessed it. “Something had popped loose, all right,” he wrote in Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite. “And it had come from deep down. Out of the darkness it had leaped from its coil. And nobody wanted to say. Blacks and whites were afraid. But it was a sweet fear, at least for blacks. It was a mingling of fear and fulfillment. Something dreaded and yet wanted. A something had popped out of a dark hole, something with a hydra-like head, and it was darting forth its tongue.”

It was Wright’s first published piece of journalism and appeared in New Masses, a Marxist magazine affiliated with the Communist Party USA. Only incidentally was it a form of sports writing. Instead, it explores the revolutionary potential of black Americans. The central metaphor in the article is water. After Louis’ sensational knockout victory, blacks on Chicago’s South Side “poured out of beer taverns, pool rooms, barber shops, rooming houses and dingy flats and flooded the streets.” More than 25,000 “joy-mad” Louis fans “seeped out of doorways, oozed from alleys, trickled out of tenements, and flowed down the street; a fluid mass of joy.”

They formed a wild river of revolutionary potential, praising Louis at the same time as they expressed their resentment against the varied forms of racism that circumscribed and plagued their lives. Louis had unleashed it all. “Four centuries of repression,” Wright observed, “of frustrated hope, of black bitterness, felt even in the bones of the bewildered young, were rising to the surface. Yes, unconsciously they had imputed to the brawny image of Joe Louis all the balked dreams of revenge, all the secretly visualized moments of retaliation …” Without uttering a word or waving a red flag, Louis had become a revolutionary force. “You see, Joe was the consciously-felt symbol. Joe was the concentrated essence of black triumph over white … And what could be sweeter than long-nourished hate vicariously gratified? From the symbol of Joe’s strength they took strength, and in that moment all fear, all obstacles were wiped out, drowned. They stepped out of the mire of hesitation and irresolution and were free! Invincible!”

Joe Louis Discovers Dynamite concludes with the river receding, moving back into its channel, with the people in the streets “flowing back to the beer tavern, the poolroom, the café, the barbershop, the dingy flat.” Still, freedom imagined is freedom embraced. That evening Wright glimpsed the power of Louis, not only as a fighter but as a potential leveler of social norms, an inarticulate prophet to violent, revolutionary change.

The problem with weighing down Louis with the dreams of revenge and aspirations of the advancement of an entire race, of course, was the possibility that he might lose a fight. It happened on June 19, 1936, when the German Schmeling, another former champion, KO’ed him in 12 rounds. Louis’ physical pain that night was black America’s psychic agony. Singer Lena Horne was performing that evening in Cincinnati’s Moonlite Gardens with Noble Sissle’s band. Backstage, during breaks between sets, she listened to the fight. Schmeling had knocked down Louis in the fourth round, and continued to pummel him with right hands round after round. Men in the band were crying. Horne was nearly hysterical, she recalled in her autobiography. For her, Louis “carried so many of our hopes, maybe even dreams of vengeance.”

Horne’s performance suffered. Outraged, her mother said, “Why, you don’t even know the man.” “I don’t care, I don’t care,” Horne cried. “He belongs to all of us.”


Never did Louis belong to so many Americans, black and white, than on June 22, 1938, when he fought a rematch against Schmeling. By then, Hitler’s legions were jackbooting toward another war in Europe and Schmeling was the darling of the Nazi Party. Also that year, Harper & Brothers published Wright’s first book, Uncle Tom’s Children: Four Novellas. Like so many other Americans, the writer was pulled into the frenzy about the match. Dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” it was the major story from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, and from London to Berlin to Tokyo.

Living in Brooklyn, New York, at the time, Wright agreed to cover the Yankee Stadium event for both the Daily Worker and New Masses. The writing assignment seemed natural. Not only had he published a superb piece on the Louis-Baer fight in New Masses and had worked for the Daily Worker, the Communist Party was actively promoting his career. “Our new comet,” the party hailed him. Uncle Tom’s Children was translated into Russian and praised in a review in Pravda. In England, a leftist publisher had asked Robeson to write the foreword for the British edition.

/> A general view of the fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, on June 22, 1938. Louis won by a knockout in the first round.

The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

An overwhelming racial pride, rather than a class solidarity, distinguished Wright’s approach to the second Louis-Schmeling match. Many white reporters and columnists adopted the black boxer as a representative of American values — democracy, freedom, equality, fair play — doing battle against the racist ideology of Nazi Germany. Wright wanted none of it. Like Horne, he maintained that Louis belonged to the 12 million blacks in America.

Wright’s visit to Louis’ Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, training camp reinforced his feelings. There he discovered “throngs” of black fans “standing around for hours in a state of deep awe waiting for just one glimpse of the champion,” he reported in the Daily Worker. When Louis appeared, “a hush fell on them and they stared.” They knew, as Wright later noted in New Masses, that the Brown Bomber “symbolized the living refutation of the hatred spewed forth daily over the radios, in newspapers, in movies, and in books about their lives … [T]hey have watched a picture of themselves being painted as lazy, stupid, and diseased.” And how could they respond? “[S]o effectively and completely have they been isolated and restricted in vocation that they rarely have had the opportunity to participate in the meaningful processes of America’s national life. Jim Crowed in the army and navy, barred from many trades and professions, excluded from commerce and finance, relegated to menial positions in government, segregated residentially, denied the right of franchise for the most part; in short, forced to live a separate and impoverished life, they were glad for even the meager acceptance of their humanity implied in the championship of Joe Louis.”

Wright left no doubt that Nazi ideology was viler than the American reality, but he also insisted that “reactionary” elements in the United States and Great Britain preached the same racist creed as fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Only among black people in America was the support for Louis universal. For them June 22, 1938, held a promise as sweet, in its own way, as emancipation. On that night, Louis promised to settle an old score and exact revenge for his 1936 loss to Schmeling. Wright knew that symbolically Louis’ revenge would be his race’s revenge.

World heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (left) stands over challenger Max Schmeling, who is down for a count of three, as referee Arthur Donovan sends Louis to a neutral corner at Yankee Stadium in New York City on June 22, 1938. Louis retained his title in a technical knockout over Schmeling in 2:04 of the first round of their scheduled 15-round title bout.

AP Photo

The fight ended with explosive suddenness. Louis had predicted that he would finish Schmeling in two rounds. He did it in one. In a mid-round assault, he broke a vertebra in Schmeling’s back, pounded him with crushing rights, and left him looking, Wright wrote in the Daily Worker, like “a soft piece of molasses candy left out in the sun; he drooped over the ropes, his eyes glassy, his chin nestling in a strand of rope, his face blank and senseless and his widely-heralded powerful right arm hanging ironically useless.” As Wright observed, Louis’ “victory was complete, unquestionable, decisive; his blows must have jarred the marrow not only in [Schmeling’s] but in Hitler’s own bones.” Far from being a competitive contest, Louis’ triumph “was an act of revenge, of dominance, of complete mastery.”

The celebrations in Harlem, the communal finale to Louis victory, interested Wright as much as the actual contest. Using his familiar water metaphor, he wrote that the sight of 100,000 black people pouring into the streets was “like the Mississippi River overflowing at flood time.” Their happiness was inexpressible. “With their faces to the night sky, they filled their lungs with air and let out a scream of joy that seemed would never end, and a scream that came from untold reserves of strength.” Accompanying their primal shouts was a cacophony of beating on garbage pails, tin cans, pots, pans, washboards and wooden boxes. Torn scraps of newspapers snowed from upper story windows on long snake-lines of dancing Harlemites while horns blared, whistles shrieked, and sirens wailed.

The parties in Harlem and other black communities across America were political demonstrations. The racket they created was the sound of freedom long denied and deeply desired. The people in the streets “wanted to feel that their expanded feelings were not limited; that the earth was theirs as much as anyone else’s; that they did not have to live by proscription in one corner of it; that they could go where they wanted to and do what they wanted to, eat and live where they wanted to, like others.” That, Wright knew, was the true dynamite of Joe Louis.

Customers at a bar on 135th Street in Harlem raise a jubilant toast after world heavyweight champion Joe Louis’ first-round knockout of Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium.

NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

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

Kevin Adams, The Cher Show

Howell Binkley, Ain’t Too Proud

Bradley King, Hadestown

Peter Mumford, King Kong

Kenneth Posner and Peter Nigrini, Beetlejuice

Best Lighting Design of a Play

Neil Austin, Ink

Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Peter Mumford, The Ferryman

Jennifer Tipton, To Kill a Mockingbird

Jan Versweyveld and Tal Yarden, Network

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.