TIFF 2019: Contrasting visions of Africa in ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ and ‘Sweetness in the Belly’  Two films examine political and ethnic unrest in Rwanda and Ethiopia, with vastly different results

TORONTO — Director Atiq Rahimi (Earth and Ashes, The Patience Stone) has once again created a beautiful and disturbing work of cinema.

This time, it’s Our Lady of the Nile, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It’s a story about a Rwandan girls boarding school in 1973 that marries the nastiness and cruelty of Mean Girls with far higher stakes. When the school’s most privileged Hutu student, Gloriosa, decides to launch a crusade against Tutsis based on a lie she concocted to keep herself out of trouble, the result isn’t hurt feelings and stolen boyfriends — it’s murder based on ethnic hatred.

Adapted from Scholastique Mukasonga’s bestselling 2012 novel, Notre-Dame du Nil, the movie script by Rahimi and co-writer Ramata Sy is lush and complicated as it works through the way colonialism warped Rwanda, and how that shows up in a Catholic boarding school run by Belgian nuns.

Our Lady of the Nile foreshadows the genocide of nearly 1 million Tutsi Rwandans in 1994. Gloriosa (Albina Sydney Kirenga) is a member of the Hutu ethnic majority, which was ruling the country at the time. Her father is a Catholic priest overseeing the elite school where she is a student. The school has a quota system for the Tutsi minority. No more than 10 percent of the student body may be Tutsi, and so only two girls in Gloriosa’s class are part of the minority, Veronica (Clariella Bizimana) and Virginia (Amanda Mugabekazi). One other girl, Modesta (Belinda Rubango Simbi), has a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother, but she keeps her mother’s ethnicity secret to avoid being ostracized. Only her best friend, Gloriosa, knows and she’s constantly pushing Modesta to redeem her “dirty” mixture of blood.

Rabid with hatred, Gloriosa sets a mission for herself and Modesta. There is a statue of a black Virgin Mary in a waterfall near the school, but Gloriosa thinks it has a “minority” nose that makes her look Tutsi. When their clothes get muddy attempting to get to the statue, Gloriosa tells the head nun that a group of Tutsi men tried to kidnap and rape her and Modesta. It’s not long before a Hutu reign of terror is implemented. When Gloriosa then tries to replace the Virgin’s nose with a “majority” nose — again, in secret — she fails, and instead, the statue appears to have been vandalized. Again, the Tutsis are blamed.

A scene from Atiq Rahimi’s Our Lady of the Nile.

Courtesy of TIFF

Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, Rahimi fills Our Lady of the Nile with beauty in every frame. He does not begin with deadly violence, but builds to it through four acts: “Innocence,” “Sacred,” “Sacrilege,” and finally, “Sacrifice.” He also shows immense compassion toward the Tutsi minority girls of the school, especially through the eyes of a character named Fontenaille (Pascal Greggory), a French artist who lives in the hills and has built a pyramid on top of the grave of the Tutsi queen Nyiramongi. The Tutsi schoolgirls Veronica and Virginia, unaccustomed to such admiration, label him “crazy,” and an “old pagan.”

Rahimi’s shots of remote mountains and hillsides are lovely. But Rahimi goes beyond, offering moments of surrealism when Veronica gets high drinking a concoction that Fontenaille gives her before he paints her portrait, and a brief black-and-white dream vignette that pays homage to the French New Wave. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Rahimi’s debut feature, Earth and Ashes, won the Prix du Regard vers l’Avenir (“Looking to the future”) at Cannes in 2004.

It’s impossible not to notice the similarities between the genocide of Rwandan Tutsis and the scapegoating and murder of European Jews during World War II. Gloriosa’s calls for the assembly of a Militant Rwandan Youth sound awfully similar to the justifications that led to the inception of the Hitler Youth. Her father only eggs her on, calling her “Joan of Arc.”

When Virginia is desperately looking for a safe place to hide as Hutu soldiers storm through the campus looking for Tutsis, a Hutu friend, Imaculeé (Belinda Rubango), hides her in a pile of laundry and instructs her not to move. But Virginia peeks out, and she’s discovered by a Hutu soldier who orders her to strip off her clothes so that he can rape her. Virginia escapes by killing the soldier, but not before he brands her chest. Viriginia is marked, similar to how Jews were required to wear yellow badges that read “Jude” in Nazi Germany.

With Our Lady of the Nile, Rahimi has created more than a story of how genocide begins, because he never allows the film to turn into suffering porn. Instead, he illustrates how easily countrymen and women can turn against each other, all based on a lie and the creation of a scapegoat.

Dakota Fanning (left) as Lilly Abdal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (right) as Aziz in Sweetness in the Belly.

Courtesy of TIFF

Sweetness in the Belly

Well, here’s something you don’t see every day: a film about a white woman born in England, abandoned by her hippie parents in Morocco at age 7 and raised by a Sufi cleric, who finds her way back to her birth country as an adult as a refugee fleeing the violence of the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974.

That is the story of Lilly Abdal, the main character of Sweetness in the Belly, adapted from the bestselling 2006 novel by Canadian author Camilla Gibbs. Dakota Fanning stars as Lilly, and the film traces her life as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Muslim who is more familiar with the customs of northern Africa than anything to do with England.

After she moves to Harar, Ethiopia, as an adult, Lilly falls in love with a local doctor, Aziz (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). They’re both involved in the underground resistance to the Derg, the military junta that overthrows Emperor Haile Selassie. When Selassie falls, Lilly flees to England and makes a new life for herself. Her beloved, Aziz, chooses to stay in Ethiopia and is later imprisoned and executed.

Directed by Zeresenay Mehari, Sweetness in the Belly is lovely to look at, but also anodyne in the way that seems to plague big-budget films about white ladies in Africa. Thematically, Sweetness in the Belly overlaps with another film from earlier in Fanning’s career: The Secret Life of Bees, an adaptation of the novel by Sue Monk Kidd. It, too, is a movie about a white girl named Lily (one “l,” not two) who is failed by her parents, gets taken in by kindly black strangers, and falls in love with a black boy. It takes place in the fictional town of Sylvan, South Carolina, in 1964, in the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

It would not surprise me if Sweetness in the Belly gets labeled as “Habesha Green Book” given that it contains a few similar beats. For instance, Lilly is far more of a devout Muslim than Aziz — she worries about being denied entry into paradise for sleeping with, or even kissing him when the two aren’t married. Aziz is far less dogmatic.

When Lilly escapes to England, the government immediately places her in a one-bedroom apartment in Brixton. She offers her bedroom to a fellow refugee, Amina (Wunmi Mosaku) who has just given birth to a baby conceived in a refugee camp.

Amina and Aziz offer Lilly gentle reminders of her whiteness. Aziz is curious about her simply because she doesn’t look like anyone else in Harar. But that’s as far as it goes. There’s no real investment when it comes to interrogating how Lilly’s whiteness and her connections to the Ethiopian resistance affect those around her. A few throwaway lines add about as much depth as a London rain puddle.

“Must be nice, having this place all to yourself,” Amina remarks the first time she sees Lilly’s apartment.

“Well, I didn’t ask for it,” Lilly responds.

“You didn’t have to,” Amina says.

The shallow focus isn’t limited to questions of race. Laura Phillips’ script never really delves into how much Lilly is affected by being abandoned by her parents when it comes to issues surrounding attachment or her ability to trust others.

Though Lilly is white, in some ways she’s treated like an immigrant in her “home” country. Her training as a nurse in Ethiopia is not regarded as legitimate experience when she applies for a job in a London hospital. She’s finally hired when she convinces the administrator interviewing her that it might be useful to have a staffer who speaks Arabic and Amharic to translate, given the influx of Ethiopian refugees.

Fanning is by far the biggest name attached to Sweetness in the Belly, and it may be that it was easier to find financing for a film set against the Ethiopian Revolution because a well-known white actress was at the center of the story. Still, the assumption that the presence of a white name is the only way to get people to pay attention to a film about Ethiopia is frustrating and limiting.

Sweetness in the Belly has its moments of grace, and director of photography Tim Fleming has a lovely eye for capturing the beauty of a range of skin tones. But for a complicated story set during even more complicated times, Sweetness in the Belly just feels altogether too simple.

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.”

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir endured the heartache of choosing faith over basketball The former Memphis and Indiana State player helped overturn a FIBA rule banning hijabs

A look at the intersection of sports, faith and religion

College basketball star Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir was faced with a choice: faith or sports.

Faith won.

Abdul-Qaadir, now 28, played her entire high school and college career in a hijab. She wore tights under her shorts and a long-sleeved shirt under her jersey. Her face and neck were exposed, but her hair was covered.

She didn’t make the WNBA in 2014, so she sought to play overseas and possibly work her way into the league. Those plans were derailed when her agent told her about the International Basketball Federation’s (FIBA’s) headgear rule: It wasn’t allowed.

“It was devastating,” she recalled. “I struggled with being a Muslim. Having to choose between my hijab, which is essentially my faith, it is more than a piece of material. But to give up my passion was a struggle.”

She joined the #FIBAAllowHijab campaign to garner support to change FIBA’s policy, and it paid off. In 2017, FIBA changed its rules to allow head coverings such as the hijab, tichel and turban in international competition. But after three years of training, rather than jump back on the court, she’s decided to stay on the bench.

“I’m still making peace with the decision,” she said. “People still call me and ask me to play for them.”

FIBA had defended its initial stance on religious headgear as a way to prevent injuries and promote a religiously neutral environment. In 2014, FIBA communications coordinator Simon Wilkinson told Ummah Sports that FIBA rules and regulations “apply on a global scale and make no distinction between the various religions.”

“This measure is in place for reasons of safety and uniformity on the basketball court in particular. This article makes provision for only one exception — headbands no wider than 5 centimeters, which allow for hair and sweat to be held back in order not to disturb the player.”

Abdul-Qaadir, however, saw the policy as a form of discrimination. She saw a life without basketball or her hijab as simply wrong. At one point, Abdul-Qaadir considered playing without a scarf.

“Why can’t I go overseas to a country where nobody knows me, take off my scarf for 40 minutes and put it back on afterwards?”

But that thought never sat well.

“Am I going to give up who I truly am to please this organization who doesn’t want me to represent who I am?” she asked.

Abdul-Qaadir still holds the high school career scoring record in Massachusetts. Her 3,070 total points broke the record of WNBA star and fellow Massachusetts native Rebecca Lobo, whose total of 2,740 points had stood unchallenged for 18 years. Abdul-Qaadir then became the first NCAA Division I athlete to wear a hijab, first at the University of Memphis (2009-13) and later at Indiana State University. She finished her collegiate basketball career there, averaging 14.2 points per game.

President Barack Obama invited her to the White House in 2015 to break the Ramadan fast and again for the White House Easter Egg Roll, where she won a game of H-O-R-S-E with the president. Her journey prompted a documentary film, Life Without Basketball, which was shown Nov. 10 at the DOC NYC film festival.

The NCAA requires athletes to get a waiver to wear “head decorations.” Requests must include why the hijab would not be a danger to other players, a description of the material and how the hijab would be worn. Even if a waiver is granted, referees can still bench a player if they think the hijab appears to pose a danger to other players.

The NCAA was not able to confirm how many waivers have been granted since Abdul-Qaadir started playing. However, they did say that one waiver was granted for the 2016-17 season and another for a different athlete in the 2017-18 season.

The WNBA permits players to wear religious head coverings, but no player has ever competed in one in the U.S. since the league’s inception in 1996. International soccer’s governing body, FIFA, only allowed players to wear hijab in 2014.

Earlier this year, Abdul-Qaadir played in the Arab Women’s Sports Tournament, where more than 1,000 women competed in basketball, volleyball, table tennis, fencing, archery, shooting, karate and more. The basketball competition allowed teams to have up to three American players, and she played for a team from Somalia and scored 31 points in a game against Jordan. Abdul-Qaadir said she was recruited afterward by several pro teams outside of the U.S. but declined the offers.

Although the hiatus from high-level basketball hasn’t diminished Abdul-Qaadir’s love for the sport, it forced her to focus on other things.

In 2015, she earned a master’s degree from Indiana State and started her own campaign, Muslim Girls Hoop Too, which encourages Muslim girls to play sports and openly express their faith. Two years later, Abdul-Qaadir got married and started Dribbling Down Barriers with her husband, A.W. Massey. The program facilitates play between Muslim and non-Muslim athletes to get people of different faiths to be comfortable with each other. She now works as an athletic director and volleyball coach for a pre-K through eighth grade school in London, Ontario.

Instagram Photo

Now, she spends time sharing her story and encouraging Muslim girls to play basketball.

“I need to stand up for the girls who are going to come after me,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “If I don’t open up these doors for them, who’s going to do it? And there’s going to be another Muslim girl who wants to ball and be good enough to play and they’re going to have to make this decision, and I don’t want them to.”

ABC cancels ‘Roseanne’ after Roseanne Barr tweets racist insult about Valerie Jarrett Swift action was needed, but should it ever have come to this in the first place?

Should it ever have gotten this far in the first place?

ABC cancelled the second season of its Roseanne reboot Monday after its star, Roseanne Barr, tweeted a racist insult about former Obama White House advisor Valerie Jarrett.

Barr called Jarrett the baby of “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes.” She tweeted an apology Monday morning, calling the statement a “bad joke.”

Within hours, Wanda Sykes, who had been a consulting producer on the show and was reportedly slated to take over the writing room in the show’s second season, tweeted that she would not be returning, essentially announcing that she had quit.

“Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show,” ABC president Channing Dungey said in a one-sentence statement to the press shortly after Sykes’ tweet. Dungey is the first black woman to preside over a broadcast network.

On one hand, it’s easy to say this is exactly what should have happened. But I’m not so sure ABC should be applauded here. Barr made plenty of hateful quips on Twitter before the network hired her for the Roseanne reboot. What did they think was going to happen?

ABC has long branded itself as “America’s Network.” The decision to invest in a newly MAGA-fied Roseanne seemed to suggest that the network was accommodating a portion of the populace that has come to be associated with racialized violence, such as in Charlottesville, Virginia. This morning, in an essay on the third season of Queen Sugar, I took Dungey to task for giving Barr so much leeway while refusing to extend the same freedom to black-ish creator Kenya Barris. After all, it was under Dungey’s leadership that Barr’s show included a joke directed at fellow ABC sitcoms Fresh Off The Boat and black-ish, essentially reducing them to little more than Asian and black versions of “normal” white families.

At the Televisions Critics Association press tour in January, Barr’s pre-reboot tweeting prompted questions. After all, Barr had tweeted a story from conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ InfoWars site claiming that President Trump would have won the popular vote had “5.7 Million Illegals” not voted in the 2016 presidential election. She called intersectionality a “degenerate pseudo philosophy of fake left,” and shared multiple tweets best characterized as transphobic and Islamophobic, calling Muslim immigrants “savages.” She trafficked in the Seth Rich murder conspiracy.

When challenged, Barr and the rest of the writers and cast present, including showrunner Whitney Cummings, gamely laughed off her unhinged screeds. The problem wasn’t what Barr was saying, was the implication, but that she was saying it on Twitter. Barr informed the press at TCA that she and her children had found a solution: to take away her phone and change her Twitter password, as if that would somehow prevent Barr’s Islamophobia from seeping into the show. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.) In January, her bigotry was distasteful, but it wasn’t disqualifying. Why not?

ABC spent months building anticipation for Roseanne’s return, and it worked. The show’s reboot debuted to an audience of 27.3 million viewers, absolutely gobsmacking numbers in our age of streaming, DVR, and video-on-demand. The network quickly greenlit the now-cancelled second season. But its all-too-predictable ugly collapse should leave the executives of America’s Network seriously asking themselves: Was it worth it?

In its Season 3 premiere, ‘Queen Sugar’ delivers a kneeling episode after ABC balked with ‘black-ish’ This is why it’s important to have multiple creators of color across multiple networks

Who’s afraid of a little pregame kneeling?

Not Queen Sugar.

In its season three premiere, airing Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT on OWN, Queen Sugar builds on its reputation for taking on challenging social issues. This time, that means using Micah West’s (Nicholas L. Ashe) violent season two encounter with a police officer and his awakening to issues of racial justice as a bridge to explore protest and what it means to find one’s voice.

Nova Bordelon, played by Rutina Wesley, has served as the moral center of the show through her work as a journalist uncovering an unjust legal system that throws black people into private prisons without due process. Nova’s nephew Micah begins to realize the significance of his aunt’s work when he’s assaulted by a Louisiana police officer after being pulled over on a remote highway for daring to be black behind the wheel of an expensive sports car, a gift from his father, a pro basketball player.

In the season three premiere, written by Kat Candler and directed by DeMane Davis, Micah attends a basketball game between the two rival public high schools in St. Josephine’s Parish. The event turns into more than just a game when students of the parish’s majority-black high school, dressed head to toe in black, walk onto the gym floor as a white student from the opposing team is singing the national anthem. They kneel quietly and a ruckus ensues, including the unfurling of a giant Confederate flag. Micah, who has a burgeoning interest in photography, documents the conflict. It’s clear that Micah is invested in this protest in a way that he wouldn’t have been when he and his mother first moved to Louisiana in season one. Now a high school junior, Micah is showing an awareness of how class and privilege have blinkered his worldview, and how little that helped him when he was a black boy driving an expensive car in the rural South.

I’ve seen only the first two episodes, but they portend what I expect to be Queen Sugar’s most consistent and thoughtful season yet, in part because the kneeling episode doesn’t feel shoehorned into the show as a way to make it current. Instead, it is a natural outgrowth of the show’s continued reflection on black American life in the South. Furthermore, it becomes apparent by episode two that the kneeling incident will likely color the whole season. It turns out that the officer who harassed Micah targets black people generally. And because St. Josephine’s is so small, he’s also the parent of an athlete on the rival basketball squad.

There is no running from white supremacy in St. Josephine’s. There are no timeouts.

Season three shows what it feels like to push back against racism in a town where everyone knows everyone and a veneer of Southern hospitality is expected as a means of papering over racial hostility and inequity. What’s more, the third season is weaving Micah’s evolution in his thinking on race with his development as a teenager, pushing boundaries and differentiating himself from his mother. It is one of the most seamless examples I’ve seen of the everyday ways in which race insinuates itself into American life.

There is no running from white supremacy in St. Josephine’s. There are no timeouts. It is the white noise that colors life, whether you want it to or not. In that way, Queen Sugar is pushing back against the way larger real-life cultural forces compartmentalize the discomfort that the sight of a black person kneeling during the national anthem seems to stir up.

After all, this premiere lands just as the NFL has announced penalties for teams whose players kneel during the national anthem. And it is creating a storyline centered around kneeling high school students in the same year that ABC pulled an episode of black-ish that included a discussion about the same subject.

ABC has found itself in the midst of controversy this spring. Not only did it pull the kneeling episode of black-ish, but it also brought back Roseanne with a version that is far afield from the show’s working-class, feminist and anti-racist roots. Its title character is now a Trump supporter who’s fearful of her Muslim next-door neighbors. Nothing summed up the ethos of the Roseanne reboot more than one joke taking a cheap shot at two other ABC shows: Fresh Off the Boat and black-ish. Not only did ABC’s standards and practices gatekeepers allow the joke, in which the humor hinged on being dismissive of efforts to make TV more inclusive, but ABC president Channing Dungey defended it.

Would that Dungey were as vociferous in defending black-ish showrunner Kenya Barris. These two programming decisions raised questions about to whom the network was catering and to whom it was capitulating. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Barris reportedly wants to decamp for Netflix.

Racism is a fact of American life, so of course it’s part of sports, the arena that occupies so many of our television-viewing hours. It’s only natural that it’s going to come up in shows about black life, the same way police violence is part of so many shows that are by or about black people. Dear White People, which has found its voice in an excellent second season, brought a deft touch to the story of a student experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder after a campus police officer held him at gunpoint. Atlanta tackled the trauma of witnessing police violence in its season one finale. Even Insecure took on the anxiety triggered by being black and pulled over by a cop.

The existence of Queen Sugar, Dear White People, Atlanta and Insecure right alongside black-ish is an excellent illustration of why it’s important to have multiple creators of color writing from multiple perspectives at multiple networks. Only a few years ago, neither Queen Sugar nor Dear White People existed. Go back a few more years, and neither did the networks that carry them. FX, under the guidance of John Landgraf, only recently began its expansion of high-quality, quirky programming beyond white creators by hosting Atlanta.

Imagine if ABC still drew the audience numbers that it did in the 1990s — the decision to pull the black-ish episode would have been even bigger, given the Big Three networks’ outsized role in shaping pop culture. Without minimizing the broadcast network’s decision, we can be grateful for the fragmented nature of our current television climate. If a subject is too radioactive for one network, that doesn’t mean the topic simply won’t appear on TV.

Certainly there’s always been more creative freedom in cable and streaming than broadcast television. But when can a programming decision be characterized as creative differences, and when is it censorship of ideas about race, policing and protest?

In telling the stories of all-too-common realities for black Americans, Queen Sugar shows us why it’s good to have choices.

Pam Oliver of Fox Sports has been holding it down for 30 years The veteran sportscaster was honored at the ’18 Gracie Awards recognizing women in media and entertainment

LOS ANGELES — Two tables filled with family, friends and colleagues cheered at the mention of Fox Sports reporter Pam Oliver’s name during the 2018 Gracie Awards. She hadn’t taken the stage, but her father-in-law, phone in hand, began taking photos.

“She is the best ever at her job,” said Kevin Burkhardt, a play-by-play announcer for the NFL on Fox, during his introduction of Oliver. “She’s a trailblazer and an icon, and I’m lucky to call her my friend.”

Oliver, in a sequined pantsuit, was camera-ready as people pulled out their cellphones when she accepted the 2018 Gracie Award for on-air talent-entertainment and sports at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The awards, sponsored by the Alliance for Women in Media, recognizes “exemplary programming created by women, for women and about women in all facets of media and entertainment,” according to its website.

“When I first heard [I was a recipient of the award], I was very excited because I knew about the Gracies,” Oliver said. “I went and looked at the previous roster from 2017, and then I saw some of the women that have been honored with me and I was floored. To somehow stand out and be amongst that group of women, I was somewhat thinking, gosh, I’m a little starstruck. Then you are like, ‘How did I get into this?’ Then I’m like, ‘You know what? I earned it,’ so I’m really honored. It’s really a career highlight.”

Among the women honored at this year’s Gracies were Rita Moreno, April Ryan, Issa Rae, Hoda Kotb and Niecy Nash.

“I had an opportunity to talk to a lot of media leading up to tonight about what it is I do and how much I love it,” she told the hundreds of women there. “There are two common denominators related to how I was raised, and my passion. One is sports and the other was journalism. One of my favorite questions is, ‘What can you teach young girls that want to do what you do?’ My thing first and foremost is you have to protect your dream. … I’d like to dedicate this to my family and parents who are up in heaven, Jeff and Mary, probably talking about how proud they are of their daughter, and that’s given me wings for so many years.”

A day before the awards ceremony, Oliver sat in the lobby of the same hotel for an interview. Her infectious smile caught the attention of other guests.

Oliver, the youngest of three girls doted on by her parents, talked about being raised in a military household and shared stories about how her parents always knew she would succeed. Jeff and Mary Oliver set the tone for her journey, one that was centered on faith and religion.

More than 20 years ago, memories of that upbringing welled up during an interview she’s never forgotten. It was with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, who is a devout Muslim.

“All of a sudden, we’re talking about Islam,” Oliver said. “I got so lost in the conversation and so mesmerized. [Spirituality] — that’s my foundation. That’s who I am. I remember, just one of those times where I could have talked to him for two hours and forgotten about lights and the camera, and the producer who’s over there looking at his watch. He was such a gentle giant who is so powerful, and his beliefs, that’s what gave him his fuel. I was really, really interested in that. When people ask me one of my favorites, he’s one of my favorite interviews.

“I was raised like that,” Oliver said. “I feel so much better when I start my day with prayer and meditation. Or if I just need a lift at some point in my day, I’ll just sit. Be still. But I can’t say that every Sunday I’m in church, because every Sunday I’m pretty much around a football game. I do need that spiritual energy. It helps sustain me; it just helps me be calmer.”

Oliver does not take the title of trailblazer lightly, although she doesn’t look at herself as a larger-than-life personality.

“I like to think of myself as humble and down to earth, but I get it,” Oliver said. “I’ve been on the scene for a very long time. Young women reach out to me, and they express how they admire me and all that, and I take it very, very seriously, and I’m honored to be called that, but I feel like the trail had been blazed. Robin Roberts had already been on the scene. Cheryl Miller had already been on the sideline scene, but I understand. Different generations have come along and looked up to me. I’m 30 years in now. I honestly never take that for granted. I think it’s important to understand and embrace that people look up to you in that way.”

Oliver started at Fox Sports in 1995, and for the past 23 seasons she’s been reporting from the NFL sidelines. She’s worked eight Super Bowls. Oliver earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from Florida A&M University, where she was an NCAA and Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women track and field All-American in both the 400-meter and the 4×400 relay. She was inducted into the university’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.

The historically black college experience was important for Oliver.

“My dad was in the military, so I’d grown primarily on all-white bases in my classrooms,” Oliver said. “I was like one of a couple of black people, so I wanted the opposite experience. I chose Florida A&M. I just wanted that experience, and when I got there it was a bit of shock the other way because I had not been in that environment completely with people that looked like me. I was like, ‘This is what I needed at that time.’ ”

“This was all I ever wanted to do,” she said. “To be living this dream, it was important to me that I dedicated myself to it 110 percent.

FAMU is where Oliver first stepped into a men’s locker room as a reporter.

“These guys scattered, and I’m not all that comfortable either. So that was my first real experience, and I just decided at some point that it’s business,” Oliver said. “I’m going to go in. I’m going to carry myself accordingly and get what I need and get out. … They do deserve some privacy in that regard, so I always just try to be mindful with that. It’s their locker room, that’s their space.”

When Oliver graduated, she was hoping her career would lead to sports.

“There was so much resistance early on, and I said, ‘Well, since that’s not happening, I’ll just put all my energy and focus and commitment to news.’ But there was a time I was definitely discouraged. I didn’t think it was going to happen. I gained so much experience in news covering all different sorts of situations. Gubernatorial campaigns, murder trials, did a Trump rally for Pete’s sake. All of that is experience that helped you when you got to sports, where things happen fast and furious as well.”

The hardest part of Oliver’s journey was knowing the importance of balance.

“This was all I ever wanted to do,” she said. “To be living this dream, it was important to me that I dedicated myself to it 110 percent. What I found as I went along was friendships were falling apart because I wasn’t nurturing them. I’d go too long without seeing my family. They were proud of me. They understood. It also impacted me because I didn’t have that kind of outlet. I was just all about work. It was just hectic. It was just what was required, I think at the time, to sort of rise in what you do. I looked at it as I just want to be better and better and better and I needed to dedicate myself to this completely. There are enough hours in the day to be able to say, ‘OK. I’ve done enough for today. Let me stop. Let me call my sister. Let me call my mom. Let me check on this friend. It’s been a while.’ That was probably the hardest thing.”

To help her through the daily grind, Oliver looks for inspiration wherever she can spot it. Whether it’s from a Maya Angelou book or speech, something Oprah Winfrey said or anything from Deepak Chopra.

She says she’s learned to let things unfold.

“I was so particular coming up in the business. I said, ‘I’ll be here for two years, and then I should probably go here in these increments.’ The minute I just let go, things just took off. Sometimes there’s a bigger plan for you than you could ever imagine. I think if I had just been a little bit more relaxed and more flexible and not so rigid.”

As NFL players changed the history by kneeling during the national anthem, Oliver had a firsthand view.

“I love it,” she said. “I feel like it’s about time, and those who do, I just give them crazy love because they are risking a lot of things and they are losing money and a couple of guys can’t get jobs, and I understand that it’s a tough decision. But we all at some point feel like, ‘There has got to be more I can do.’ I’m watching the news and you’re constantly seeing a black man shot in the back and pulled over or all of these incidents, and you just feel like, ‘What can I do?’

“I think when Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel that was powerful, and I’m glad that a couple of guys decided to embrace that and turn it into other things. Trying to get positive results, trying to get action as opposed to just kneeling, and I wish people would take five minutes to try to understand why. Why is this guy kneeling, why is he taking this chance? I think they may surprise themselves. You have to educate. You have to be informed to understand why these players are doing what they are doing, and I applaud them 100 percent. I think it’s awesome, and it makes me proud.“

Serving as a mentor to a couple of students in her life, she likes to remain connected.

“I’m very reachable and approachable,” Oliver said. “I’m just grateful to have sustained a career over this amount of time. You can’t take this stuff with you. Share it. Help somebody who just needs a little bit of guidance.”

Hakeem Olajuwon’s five most impressive Ramadan performances The Hall of Famer played Jordan, Barkley, Robinson and Ewing while fasting, but how did he fare?

When sunset strikes, all around the world Muslims are dunking samosas in chutney like Giannis Antetokounmpo posterizing Aron Baynes. In fact, during this year’s holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, fasts are being broken and thirst quenched just in time for the Splash Brothers to tantalize us with how wet they are.

Despite the challenge of fasting this year during some of the longest days of summer, Ramadan continues to be a festive time for Muslims who sacrifice their appetites in hopes of becoming closer to the divine. Just as Stephen Curry battles through a knee injury to achieve his ultimate goal of another NBA championship, so too are Muslims pushing through this trying month.

For many Muslim fans of the NBA, Ramadan is also a reminder of when their two worlds collided in the shape of Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. In the mid-1990s, Muslims in America were misunderstood in much the same way they are today, conflated in popular imagination with terrorists rather than seen as ordinary American citizens. But then Olajuwon challenged himself to observe fasts while playing during the month of Ramadan and raised awareness of another aspect of what a Muslim could be. He wasn’t just The Dream. To many Muslim-Americans, he was the epitome of the American Dream.

Olajuwon told The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears last year, “As for fasting, it is a spiritual mindset that gives you the stamina required to play. Through Allah’s mercy, I always felt stronger and more energetic during Ramadan.”

Even his former teammates marveled at Olajuwon’s ability to play during the month. “There are 48 minutes to a game and for you to play 42 minutes of that 48 and not even be able to take a sip of water, that is just phenomenal,” Robert Horry once said.

But the story of Olajuwon’s greatness during Ramadan may not be so simple. A closer look through the archives of the Houston Chronicle shows that Olajuwon’s observance of Ramadan evolved during his time in the league.

During Ramadan in March 1992, Olajuwon was sidelined while being “embroiled in hostilities with the Rockets.” Things got so bad between the team and their star player that season, he at one point demanded a trade. At the time, Olajuwon was not fasting on game days, so he was grateful for the opportunity to complete his fasts despite being suspended from the team:

“They have suspended me, so I’m not making any money.

“But fasting is priceless.”

Islam’s lunar calendar means Ramadan shifts up about 11 days every year. This year it takes place through May and June, whereas when Olajuwon played the holy month took place between March (early on in his career) and November (by the end of his career). When Olajuwon began fasting for Ramadan during the 1993 season, he told reporters, “I cannot do it on game days. So what I have to do is make up for the days I miss after the season.”

Olajuwon’s decision to not fast during game days early in his career was not an abdication of his religious responsibility, as Muslims who are traveling, as Olajuwon often was, can choose to make up their fasts at a later time.

But Olajuwon’s perspective on fasting shifted after a conversation with fellow Muslim NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Olajuwon recalled the conversation with Abdul-Rauf to the Chronicle’s Michael Murphy: “We were discussing one day the excitement and the motivation to go all the way,” Olajuwon said. “When you are on the road, you are allowed to make it up. But to go all the way instead of delaying it to make it up [is exciting].”

So, beginning in February 1995, Olajuwon began fasting during game days. Incredibly, he was named NBA Player of the Month that month. He also fasted on game days during the holy month in 1996 and 1997. Olajuwon missed Ramadan in 1998 while recovering from knee surgery, and the lockout-shortened season in 1999 did not have any games during Ramadan. In 1999, Olajuwon did not return to the Rockets’ lineup until after Ramadan ended because of an injury.

In 2000, Olajuwon was playing significantly fewer minutes than in his prime, but he did fast during his last season with the Rockets. He also observed Ramadan the following year while playing limited minutes with the Toronto Raptors.

But not all of Olajuwon’s performances while fasting were created equal. Most of the games in which Olajuwon observed the fast tipped off after sunset, when he was allowed to break the fast. Which meant that at least during the game, he could drink water and have a light snack if necessary. With less food in his body, he claimed, he would experience less back pain. And rather than spending the day leading up to road games ordering room service, Olajuwon felt lighter and more energetic after a small snack to break the fast before tipoff of those night games. He once told the Los Angeles Times that other NBA stars should try it. “If they only knew,” he says, “they would be fasting.” Last summer, Celtics star Jaylen Brown, who “declined to share what religion he identifies with,” seemed to take his advice.

Spiritually centered, and sufficiently nourished, Olajuwon feasted on opposing teams at night after breaking his fast during the three Ramadans he observed between 1995-97. For example, after his first game-day fast on Feb. 2, 1995, Olajuwon dropped 41 points in a win over the Utah Jazz. On Jan. 30, 1997, Olajuwon tallied 48 points and 10 rebounds while playing 46 minutes in a close loss to the Denver Nuggets. When asked about how fasting on game days affected his performance, Olajuwon told the Houston Chronicle near the end of Ramadan in 1995: “But really, it doesn’t affect me except on day games.”

That wasn’t modesty. Indeed, his most impressive Ramadan performances were the handful of times he had to play in nationally televised games on Sunday afternoons while fasting. Playing against Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and David Robinson already posed enough of a challenge, but Olajuwon went head-to-head against his generation’s greatest players without even the opportunity to hydrate until hours after the final buzzer.

Olajuwon was not superhuman while battling the league’s best under these conditions, going 2-3 in the five Sunday afternoon games he played while fasting in his prime. But his resilience and determination did show millions of fans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, just how super a human could be.

’94-’95 stats Regular season Ramadan
Games played 72 15
Minutes 39.6 39.7
Points 27.8 29
Rebounds 10.8 10
Assists 3.5 3.9
Steals 1.8 1.7
Blocks 3.4 3.3
’95-’96 stats Regular season Ramadan
Games played 72 13
Minutes 38.8 40.5
Points 26.9 26.1
Rebounds 10.9 9.7
Assists 3.6 2.8
Steals 1.6 1.1
Blocks 2.9 2.8
’96-’97 stats Regular season Ramadan
Games played 78 14
Minutes 36.6 37.3
Points 23.2 25.4
Rebounds 9.2 8.3
Assists 3.0 3.4
Steals 1.5 2.1
Blocks 2.2 2.1

*LeBron James led the NBA in minutes per game in 2017-2018, averaging 36.9 minutes per game

Hakeem’s top five Ramadan performances

We ranked Olajuwon’s greatest performances while fasting in his prime. Whether it was bad luck or divine intervention, four of the five matchups came against future Hall of Famers. He put up some monster stat lines, but also suffered humbling defeats. I mean, he took an L to Rony Seikaly.

Getty Images; AP

No. 5: Rockets @ Magic (L, 90-103)
Feb. 2, 1997

Hakeem Olajuwon: 33 mins, 17 pts, 8 rebs, 4 asts, 3 blks; Rony Seikaly: 39 mins, 29 pts, 7 rebs, 1 asts, 1 stl, 1 blk

Olajuwon’s final game in which he fasted during his prime is definitely one he’d like to forget. Opposing center Seikaly was so dominant, he had the Chronicle’s Eddie Sefkoe writing: “If you didn’t know better, you would have sworn the Orlando Magic had Shaquille O’Neal again.” Seikaly, who is better known these days as a house music DJ than a basketball player, outscored Olajuwon by a dozen points. Although the Rockets were without an injured Barkley, they still expected better against a middle-of-the-road Orlando team that was dealing with injuries of its own.

If it’s any consolation, Seikaly would later refer to Olajuwon as his toughest matchup in the league: “He would shake you around and you were all shook up.”

As embarrassing as this loss was, a week later it was just a footnote in Olajuwon’s amazing career. On Sunday, Feb. 9, Olajuwon celebrated the Eid holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan, at the All-Star Game in Cleveland, where at halftime he was officially named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

No. 4: Rockets @ Spurs (L, 79-93)
Feb. 18, 1996

Hakeem Olajuwon: 40 mins, 18 pts, 10 rebs, 2 asts, 1 stl, 7 blks; David Robinson: 42 mins, 25 pts, 12 rebs, 5 asts, 2 stls, 7 blks

A Rockets loss during Ramadan meant endless speculation as to how Olajuwon’s insistence on fasting affected his play and the team’s performance. After blowing a 15-point lead late in the third quarter against David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs in a nationally televised game on a Sunday afternoon, Clyde Drexler said after the game: “We all played like we had been fasting.”

Olajuwon led the Rockets with 18 points, along with 10 rebounds and 7 blocks in 40 minutes of playing time without so much as a sip of water. Robinson matched his seven blocks and added 25 points and 12 rebounds to give his team the edge.

After the game, the Chronicle’s Dale Robertson wrote that “to deny Ramadan depletes his strength and endurance is to ignore the obvious.” The next day, on the second game of a back-to-back, after playing 40 minutes while fasting on Sunday, Olajuwon broke his fast on the final day of Ramadan and laced up to battle the Sacramento Kings on Monday night. He played 46 minutes and scored 40 points, including the first six points of overtime, to lead his team to a victory.

Jed Jacobsohn/ALLSPORT

No. 3: Rockets @ Knicks (L, 117-122)
Feb. 19, 1995

Hakeem Olajuwon: 43 mins, 27 pts, 9 rebs, 3 asts, 3 stls, 4 blks; Patrick Ewing: 39 mins, 31 pts, 9 rebs, 5 asts, 2 stls

After losing to the Rockets in the NBA Finals in 1994, the New York Knicks were hungry for revenge. Olajuwon, on the other hand, was just hungry. During a nationally televised Sunday afternoon game in Madison Square Garden, Olajuwon lost the battle against Patrick Ewing. Despite being on the court for 43 minutes and contributing 23 points, Olajuwon was no match for Ewing, who scored 31. After the game, Olajuwon lamented: “I couldn’t challenge a lot of the shots. I had a burning in my chest all day from not being able to drink and didn’t play the kind of game that would allow us to win.”

Although Olajuwon admitted that fasting during daytime games can have a debilitating effect on his performance, he also stated: “I feel like the sacrifices I’m making now will make me stronger mentally when there is much more on the line.”

Maybe it is no coincidence, then, that the Rockets capped off this season with their second NBA championship in a row.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

No. 2: Rockets @ Suns (W, 124-100)
Feb. 5, 1995

Hakeem Olajuwon: 39 mins, 28 pts, 11 rebs, 3 asts, 3 blks; Charles Barkley: 41 mins, 24 pts, 11 rebs, 7 asts, 2 stls

Olajuwon began fasting on game days during Ramadan in 1995. After breaking his second fast of Ramadan, Olajuwon played his first game of the holy month and dropped 41 points on Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz in a rout. He followed that game with a nationally televised showdown on Sunday afternoon against Barkley and the red-hot Phoenix Suns. Playing one of the NBA’s best teams, Olajuwon could not drink during the game, but that didn’t stop him. He led the Rockets with 28 points and 11 rebounds in 39 minutes. And despite Barkley’s 24 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists, the Suns were no match for the Rockets.

Olajuwon followed up this performance with a third straight win, earning him NBA Player of the Week honors. An incredible feat for a player adjusting to fasting on game days for the first time.

Getty Images

No. 1: Rockets vs. Bulls (W, 102-86)
Jan. 19, 1997

Hakeem Olajuwon: 39 mins, 32 pts, 16 rebs, 4 asts, 4 stls, 5 blks; Michael Jordan: 43 mins, 26 pts, 14 rebs, 5 asts, 1 stl, 1 blk

On the second day of Ramadan in 1997, Olajuwon and the Rockets visited the Bulls in Chicago and got blown out in a night game against Michael Jordan and the defending NBA champions. Despite posting 29 points and 8 rebounds, no other Rocket scored in double digits, and the team then set its sights on a rematch between the last two NBA champions that was going to be nationally televised in the afternoon on Jan. 19. With Olajuwon fasting, you couldn’t blame many for thinking that Jordan was going to feast on the Rockets. Despite being without Barkley, the Rockets responded. Olajuwon played 39 minutes and led his team with 32 points and 16 rebounds. Although Jordan had 26 points and 14 rebounds, he could not find his shooting rhythm, and the Bulls collapsed after the Rockets went on a 19-0 run in the fourth quarter.

After the game, Rudy Tomjanovich said, “If this doesn’t quiet down the questions about it [Ramadan], I don’t know what will.”

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

 

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

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

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

We chat.


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

Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

What other character in this film inspires you?

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

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

What if the Muhammad Ali we knew had never existed? From his brief kinship with Malcolm X to the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’ five alternative universes for Ali — and the world

From Michelle Obama, Dwyane Wade and Betty White to Steve Harvey, Jan. 17 offers an embarrassment of riches for celebrity birthday followers. One name in particular, however, towers above the others: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed and globally anointed “Greatest” would have been 76 today. To say Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for Team Undefeated is an understatement.

Loved and feared, Ali was captivating and personable. Flawed and fearless. An unparalleled showman and a ruthless instigator. There are few stones left to turn over on Ali, a man whose life has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene at the 1960 Olympics — the Summer Games that also introduced Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph to the world. How Ali’s life played out is American scripture. But what if there’s an alternative universe in which certain things panned out differently? In some ways, thankfully, we’ll never know. But in others? Follow along …

What if young Cassius Clay’s bike had never been stolen?

If anyone represented the embodiment of the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” it’s Ali. This story has been told a million times, but it’s always fascinating because of the butterfly effect. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay sat on the steps of the Columbia Auditorium in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He was angry and sobbing. Joe Martin approached young Clay. “If I find the guy who took my bike,” Clay told Martin, “I’m gonna whup him.” Martin ran a boxing gym and told the adolescent if he was going to fight, he’d better learn how to fight. Until that point, Clay had never given a thought to boxing.

The rest, as they say, is history. If his bike is never stolen, who’s to say he doesn’t go through life as a normal kid who doesn’t even care about boxing outside of the occasional fight? And what if that same kid one day gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a battle Cassius Clay from Kentucky would have had to fight because he wasn’t a heavyweight champion of the world with religious beliefs that forbade it? It’s wild how life can change in the blink of an eye. We’ll just leave it with this: Theft is a crime and should be treated as such. But bless the soul of the person who decided to steal this kid’s bike. That’s one time when doing bad actually did a world of good.

What if Malcolm X and Ali never had their falling-out?

In order to survive, as a great man once said, we all have to live with regrets. One regret for Ali was his all-too-brief bond with Malcolm X, a fellow product of the Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. X fell out of favor with the teacher, and Ali chose to follow Muhammad’s lead. At the time of X’s assassination in February 1965, the two were not on speaking terms. Never apologizing to Malcolm haunted Ali for the rest of his life. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. … I might never be a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” For a fascinating and detailed breakdown of their life and times, check out Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts’ Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

What if Ali didn’t sacrifice the prime of his career by protesting the Vietnam War?

The better question is, what if the U.S. never involved itself in Vietnam? Whatever the case, Ali’s exile turned him into a larger-than-life figure. At one point in American history, world heavyweight champion was the most coveted title in all of sports. Here was Ali: a young, handsome, outspoken black man who not only dismantled opponents in the ring but also took on America’s ugliest parts in a verbal fashion that has not been seen or heard from an athlete since. And he did all of this while looking the federal government square in the eye, essentially saying, “Come and get me.” Although legions of critics took a carousel-like approach to demeaning him, Ali’s popularity had skyrocketed by the end of 1967. His stated reason for objecting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” is tattooed in the fabric of American race relations. Ali’s most controversial fight, for his beliefs and for our dignity, reverberated worldwide. It cost him the years of 1967-70, when he would’ve been between the ages of 25 and 28 — a fighter’s peak years. As transcendent as his career was, even four decades after his final fight, we’re left to wonder how great it could have been if Prime Ali hadn’t been entangled with the U.S. government at that same time. Which bleeds into the next alternative universe …

What if Ali called it quits after the third Frazier fight?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing, for Ali to make up for lost time in the ring as he continued to fight in his later years. Maybe it was financial. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the cold reality is that his last iconic moment in the ring was 1975’s “Thrilla In Manila,” the end of the trilogy with Joe Frazier. The fights — Frazier handed Ali his first career loss shortly after he returned to boxing in 1971, and Ali won the 1974 rematch — define perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history, with an extremely brutal and even more bitter feud spurred largely by Ali’s vicious and grossly disrespectful racial taunts toward Frazier. Their final clash proved a potluck of haymakers, blood and near-death premonitions. “It was next to death,” Ali said after the fight — a contest he actually won. “When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.” Frazier was never the same after that fight.

And it took decades for Ali and Frazier to quash their beef. By the time Ali called it quits in December 1981, Ali was a beaten and battered man and his Parkinson’s disease was imminent. Those closest to Ali’s former cornerman and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco ( who died in November 2017), say he lived with remorse for not having saved Ali from himself. He begged the boxer to quit after the third Frazier fight. Studies from Arizona State scientists discovered Ali’s speech slowed down 26 percent between the ages of 26 and 39 and he was visibly slurring his speech in 1978 — three years after the final battle with Frazier.

Would calling it a career after the Thrilla In Manila have saved Ali future medical concerns? Who knows. A trilogy with Ken Norton — one of the hardest punchers of all time, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first match and whom some feel Ali lost all three fights to — came with its own undeniable punishment. After his 1977 fight with power puncher Earnie Shavers, who landed a massive 266 punches, Ali’s speech reportedly slowed 16 percent from prefight calculations. “Ali did damage to himself, and he knew it and kept boxing too long,” says Jonathan Eig, author of last year’s Ali: Life, “but he didn’t have the information we now have about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].”

What if Parkinson’s had never robbed Ali of his most powerful punch — his voice?

America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes

— Jay-Z, “F.U.T.W.” (2013)

Ali’s decision to boycott the Vietnam War was supported by many black athletes and large pockets of the black community, but Ali was also media-blitzed from all corners. A May 2, 1967, New York Times editorial theorized that the support Ali was hoping to generate would never develop. The late political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker called Ali “… this strange, pathetic Negro boxer superbly gifted in body, painfully warped in spirit.” Less than a week later, the harsh attack on Ali’s character was rebuked by Boston University professor Theodore Brameld who said, “… because, with his warped spirit, he has the courage and integrity to refuse to participate in a war that millions of us with weaker courage and weaker integrity, and certainly far less to lose, continue to tolerate against our own consciences?”

Much like Martin Luther King, Ali’s legacy, in many ways, has been sanitized. Ali only became a truly lovable figure (to some) once he lost his ability to speak. When he no longer could use his actual voice to deliver knockouts, he was no longer a threat (again, to some) to the status quo. Ali’s political beliefs had always come under fire from both sides of the aisle. But the reality is that Americans 35 and under have no recollection of the charismatic ball of energy that earned him global acclaim and domestic scrutiny. Some prefer this image of the legendary boxer. Ali, the heavyweight champion who continued to vibrantly and verbally shake up the world into his latter decades on earth, is a bracing thought. Seeing Muhammad Ali minimized and marginalized by a handful of quotes and yearly tributes that fail to paint the full features of the man — that is beyond scary.

The Undefeated does 2017 The highs, the lows and the must-reads

Here at The Undefeated, we spent a trying 2017 attempting to cover the world through your eyes. We had the Colin Kaepernick saga on lock, the NFL protests covered. We learned from Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng that “the biggest misconception is people thinking Muslims are terrorists.” We reveled at Whitley Gilbert’s wardrobe and watched Tarik Cohen shine at North Carolina A&T before he was a rookie standout with the Chicago Bears. We showed you chic street style at Afropunk, brought back Drumline and demonstrated that love knows no color. 2017 was a tough year, but TU brought it to you, warts and all.

Hey, 2017, we’d hate to miss you but love to watch you leave.

Experiences

Collage of significant black Americans

The Undefeated 44 most influential black Americans in history A collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.

Sports

Artist rendition of LeBron James making his way to the court from the locker rooms

LeBron Is Crowned On a Detroit night, about a decade ago — via 48 points in double overtime — LeBron graduated from ‘phenom’ to ‘grown man’

Culture

Artist rendition of Whitley

Whitley’s World “You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”

HBCUs

Photo of the Honey Beez performing

Alabama State Honey Beez bring positive plus-size attitude to HBCU dance scene “Where one of us lacks, the other one will pick up. We’re plus-size girls and we still go through bullying in college. But we’re more confident now, so it’s not as bad. But we have a real sisterhood, and this is our home away from home. The Honey Beez took me all the way out of my shell, and I love it.”

The Uplift

Serge Ibaka and his daughter in a pool

NBA standout Serge Ibaka is a standout single father too “Since I was young I always dreamed of myself traveling, envisioned at least three, four kids, five. And then, I’m living my dream right now and something I always love to do, and it’s fun. It’s really changed my life. It’s changed everything about me. The way I think and the way I live my life. It changed everything.”

Videos

Leon Bridges at his piano

Leon Bridges sings his rendition of the national anthem The critically acclaimed soul singer explores the themes of the anthem, creating a beautiful rendition that feels like both a hymn and a benediction

Original Photography

Woman with a wig made of pink flowers

Inside Afropunk “They’re just the ‘standard of beauty’ and here you can be what you want and THAT’S beauty.”

Podcasts

The Plug podcast logo

The Plug It’s the debut of The Plug, hosted by Chiney Ogwumike, Kayla Johnson, Justin Tinsley and Tesfaye Negussie. In episode 1, the crew dives into current events, discuss LaVar Ball’s latest news, NFL social activism and more. Plus, hip-hop icons Jadakiss and Fabolous join.

  • All Day – The Undefeated Podcast: Clinton Yates spent a day in New York profiling various parts of the culture, when news broke that a legend had died. After spending the morning with the creators of Jopwell, a startup helping students of color in the tech industry, the the afternoon with Nike for a new shoe release, he ends up in Queens to talk with a family friend and musician about the life and influence of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy.
  • America’s Black History Museum: 9/20/16 – Jill Hudson, Justin Tinsley and Clinton Yates talk about the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the 86th Emmy Awards. Plus, Mike Wise discusses his story about Joe Paterno.
  • Morning Roast – The gang is all together, talking national anthem protests, possible NFL players strike, potential renaming of Yawkey Way and latest Bachelor in Paradise drama.
  • The Morning Roast & Live at NABJ – Clinton Yates is in for Bomani, and in hour three he is joined by Marc Spears and Myron Medcalf to discuss all the happenings at the National Association of Black Journalists convention.
  • Rhoden Fellows: HBCU 468: 5/11/17 – Stephen A. Smith praised Isaiah Thomas’ compelling effort in the playoffs and explained Kevin Durant’s impact on Golden State. He also talked about attending a historically black university.
  • O.J.: Made in America: 6/11/16 – Domonique Foxworth is joined by guests Jason Reid, Raina Kelley, Ezra Edelman, Sarah Spain and Carl Douglas as they take a look at O.J.: Made in America.