HBO film ‘True Justice’ recounts Bryan Stevenson’s crusade for the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned The nation’s most important civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall still believes in equal justice under law

Bryan Stevenson may well be the nation’s most consequential civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall.

While Marshall stared down unrepentant racists in Southern courtrooms at a time when inequality was enforced by law, Stevenson’s work is being done decades after the most important legal battles over civil rights supposedly were won. If Marshall and his legal colleagues from the NAACP helped dismantle Jim Crow, the task Stevenson has carved out may be even more difficult: working to eliminate Jim Crow’s legacy.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” — Bryan Stevenson

He is the subject of a new documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, which premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT on HBO. Stevenson, 59, is the founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, and he has dedicated his career to helping some of the most scorned people among us: the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned, and even the guilty.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Stevenson says.

Since EJI was launched in 1989, Stevenson and his staff have won release, reversals or relief for more than 125 death row prisoners. Stevenson has prevailed in several cases he argued before the Supreme Court, including a victory in a case outlawing mandatory sentences of life without parole for children 17 or younger.

In the documentary, Bryan Stevenson makes clear that the problem with the criminal justice system starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

Courtesy of HBO

He has spearheaded the creation in Montgomery of The Legacy Museum and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors more than 4,000 lynching victims. He has earned dozens of honorary degrees and won numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant. By any measure, he has done outstanding work.

Yet, Stevenson’s achievements make up a relatively small part of the film. Instead of shouting out his many successes, directors Peter Kunhardt, George Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt home in on Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Stevenson illuminates the line connecting the racial disparities evident in so many parts of our society to a criminal justice system that nurtured and rationalized white supremacy, making it both legal and acceptable. In the documentary, he makes clear that the problem starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

While the high court eventually became an ally of civil rights, for many years it was just the opposite. The 1857 Dred Scott decision called black people an inferior race who had no constitutional rights. The 1875 Cruikshank case reversed the convictions of members of a white mob whom federal prosecutors had tried for their part in killing 150 black people protesting for political representation in Colfax, Louisiana. The high court said the convictions impinged on states’ rights, helping to form the legal underpinning for legal segregation and Jim Crow.

Even in the years following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the seminal ruling striking down state-sanctioned segregation in public schools, the court sometimes looked the other way in the face of evidence of obvious racial disparities, Stevenson argues.

In the film, he talks about his advocacy for Warren McCleskey, a black man convicted of killing a white police officer in Georgia during a 1978 furniture store holdup. McCleskey was the only one of four defendants sentenced to death in the case, and by the time his case made its way to the Supreme Court, his defense team had produced a study showing that in Georgia, defendants who killed whites were more than four times as likely as those who killed blacks to be sentenced to death. The court shrugged off that study in its majority opinion, saying disparity does not prove deliberate bias. Moreover, the court ruled, such disparities are “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” McCleskey was put to death in Georgia’s electric chair in 1991.

The HBO documentary focuses on Bryan Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Courtesy of HBO

The film makes clear that Stevenson loses in court regularly, and when he does the consequences are often fatal for his clients. Even when he represents clients who are innocent and he is able to win, the injustices wrought by the system cannot be fully rectified because of the trauma of being imprisoned. “For me, the innocence cases are the hardest cases,” Stevenson says in the film. “I think people think of that the other way. They think, ‘Oh, it must be great to work on a case where there is clear evidence of innocence.’ ”

Much of the documentary is narrated by Stevenson, who talks about the need to eradicate “the narrative of racial difference” that infects the country and runs through its history. That is why he has poured energy into creating memorials to help Americans confront this history of racial horrors that he says often manifests itself in the criminal justice system.

“You can’t disconnect the death penalty from the legacy of lynching, and you can’t disconnect the legacy of lynching from the era of enslavement,” he says in the film. “I think that this line is a very real one.”

Yet, Stevenson has an unshakable belief in the power of the law to help make things right. “I’ve argued a bunch of cases before the United States Supreme Court, and each time I go, I stand there in front of the court, I read what it says about equal justice under law,” Stevenson says in the film. “I have to believe that to make sense out of what I do.”

Will Smith, a pioneering black nerd, helped raise and change rap music Smith’s music career reveals an artist who believed in an Afrocentric American dream based on ambition, hustle and black pride

It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.

That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.

The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.

Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.

“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets

They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast

The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”

Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.

Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.

The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.

But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.

The Plain Brown Rapper

It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.

Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?

Despite their critics, DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and The Fresh Prince (right) were the darlings of radio and MTV in 1988, savoring the success of their hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.

Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”

But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”

As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.

Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”

The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”

Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.

In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.

Triumph of the Will

It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”

Will Smith (left) and Benny Medina (right) attend the premiere of Disney’s Aladdin at El Capitan Theatre on May 21 in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Medina helped launch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.

“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”

Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.

His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.

Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).

While his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.

Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”

Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in a scene from the film Men in Black in 1997. Smith’s single “Men in Black” captured the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.

Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.

He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”

But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.

His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.

The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”

That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”

Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:

“I believe in God, I believe in destiny

Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined

But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”

He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.

Then he faded from the music scene.

The smartest dude

In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.

Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.

Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.

He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.

“The smartest dude survives the best.”

‘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

HBO’s ‘Leaving Neverland’ never lets Michael Jackson steal the spotlight Two men who say Jackson molested them reveal how a star weaponized his own magnetism

Leaving Neverland knows you love Michael Jackson.

It lets you love him until, finally, it’s impossible.

HBO’s two-part, four-hour documentary, which first airs March 3 and 4, intentionally mimics the contours of the sexually exploitative relationships Jackson allegedly had with two of his victims, Jimmy Safechuck and Wade Robson.

It’s that ability — that compassion, and that patience — that ultimately makes Leaving Neverland so devastating. Its beginning lulls and seduces you. You’re humming along to the melodies of “Smooth Criminal,” smiling with Jackson as Safechuck is photographed jumping beside him after doing a Pepsi commercial with the King of Pop. You’re marveling along with Robson when he meets his idol at age 5 after winning a dance contest in Australia. You’re thrilled, thrilled, just like young Jimmy and young Wade, when they’re first invited to Neverland Ranch and stay up past their bedtimes to eat junk food and watch movies that aren’t even in theaters yet. How glorious it is to feel liked, to feel special, because one of the most liked, special people in the world sees something in you.

Leaving Neverland is not a character assassination of Jackson. It gives you permission to like him, to like his music, even to love him, because Robson and Safechuck did, and so did their families. It does not demand your immediate sympathy for Robson and Safechuck, nor does it demand immediate condemnation of Jackson.

It only trusts that you will listen.

“He was one of the kindest, loving, gentle, most caring people I knew,” Robson says, “… and he also sexually abused me.”

Jackson’s estate filed a lawsuit against HBO in hopes of stopping the network from airing Leaving Neverland. The suit claims that the cable network violated a non-disparagement clause in a contract it entered to air Jackson’s Dangerous concert in 1992.

Leaving Neverland, directed by Dan Reed, shows how to make a documentary about sexual abuse without allowing the star power of the celebrity in question to upstage his victims. Lesser directors would be tempted to home in on the lurid details of Jackson’s alleged sexual predation and repeat them for shock value. It is the sledgehammer approach to storytelling: Start with the most horrifying, salacious parts, insist repeatedly that the subject was unfathomably monstrous, and then roll credits.

Reed, on the other hand, places his viewers squarely in the mindset of both Safechuck and Robson. He demonstrates how they could be persuaded to lie repeatedly to their parents, to law enforcement officials, and even on the witness stand, to protect Jackson. Yes, Jackson manipulated his young victims by telling them that he and they would go to jail if anyone found out about their assignations. But Jackson didn’t need to resort to violent threats to get what he wanted. He simply withdrew his love, knowing that his young friends would continue to seek it and do whatever was necessary to remain in his good graces, because that is what children do.

Michael Jackson and Jimmy Safechuck (front).

HBO

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the story is that, from a distance, it’s so easy to judge the mothers of Safechuck and Robson as fame-seeking fools who were blinded by celebrity. But Leaving Neverland illustrates how Jackson also endeared himself to the families of his victims. His ingratiating neediness convinced them that they, in some small way, had power over him because he loved them so much. Robson’s mother, Joy, explained that when Jackson died in 2009, she felt as though she’d lost a son.

“Everybody knows he didn’t have a childhood,” she says.

“It was like hanging out with someone your age,” Safechuck explains.

The big reveal of Leaving Neverland is not that Jackson allegedly molested children, or the details of the acts Safechuck and Robson accuse him of committing. It is the emotional time bombs that continued to detonate long after his relationships with Robson and Safechuck ended.

Robson and Safechuck, who did not know each other as children, experienced mirror images of each other’s traumas later in life, from problems with depression to waves of crushing anxiety that developed after their own children were born and they began to imagine their sons experiencing what they did with Jackson. It’s the rifts within the Safechuck and Robson families that distanced both Wade and Jimmy from their own mothers. The actions of one man had consequences that rippled through multiple generations of these two families. Leaving Neverland briefly asks us to consider the same for other victims who did come forward as children, only to be smeared as liars and money-grubbers.

Jackson didn’t need to resort to violent threats to get what he wanted. He simply withdrew his love.

Jackson’s response to being investigated for sexual abuse feels all too familiar. Just as he manipulated the Safechucks and the Robsons into seeing him as a victim in need of love and protection, Jackson did something similar with black people as a whole. Viewers will recognize a commonality with other famous black men accused of sexual assault, such as Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, who publicly fashion themselves as victims of their own success in a racist country seeking to take them down a peg. Jackson made his appeal in a speech at the 1994 NAACP Image Awards, where he equated his legal battles against accusations of child molestation with the organization’s fight for civil rights.

“For decades, the NAACP has stood at the forefront for equal justice under the law for all people in our land,” Jackson said before an enthusiastic crowd brought to their feet by his mere presence. “They have fought in the lunchrooms of the South, in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court, and in the boardrooms of corporate America for justice, equality and the very dignity of all mankind. Members of the NAACP have been jailed and even killed in the noble pursuit of those ideals upon which our country was founded.

“None of these goals is more meaningful for me at this time in my life than the notion that everyone is presumed to be innocent. Everyone is presumed to be innocent and totally innocent until they are charged with a crime and then convicted by a jury of their peers. I never really took the time to understand the importance of that ideal until now. Until I became the victim of false allegations and the willingness of others to believe and exploit the worst before they have had the chance to hear the truth. Because not only am I presumed to be innocent, I am innocent. And I know that the truth will be my salvation.”

Jackson is magnetic. He is radiant. He is a consummate performer, and he revels in his command of the crowd.

“We love you, Michael!” an audience member shouts.

“I love you more,” he responds, beaming.

Leaving Neverland does not blame Jackson’s fans for the love and faith they poured into him for decades. It simply exposes that as much as Jackson might have needed it, that love was never going to be reciprocated. Perhaps it couldn’t be.

“People think his music’s great, so he’s great,” Safechuck said.

Leaving Neverland doesn’t explain or excuse how Jackson became the man he did. There are interviews with Oprah Winfrey and Ed Bradley and Martin Bashir and plenty of others that attempt to do that. Instead, Leaving Neverland redirects the spotlight in the hope that its audience, like Safechuck and Robson, will finally see the truth.

Today in black history: The NAACP is born, so is Bill Russell, we get a black national anthem, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 12

1900 – The Negro national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is performed. To celebrate President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem Lift Every Voice and Sing, which was turned into a song that was first performed by a group of 500 students in Jacksonville, Florida. It was later adopted by the NAACP as its official song.

1909 – NAACP is founded. Founded in 1909 in New York City by a group of black and white citizens committed to social justice, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is one of the nation’s largest civil rights organizations.

1934 – Happy birthday, Bill Russell. William Felton “Bill” Russell is one of the greatest NBA players of all time. He was player-coach of the Boston Celtics in 1968 and 1969. The five-time MVP won more championship rings than any other player. His Celtics won 11 NBA championships and went to 12 Finals during his 13 seasons. From 1959-66, they won eight straight.

1956 – Happy birthday, Arsenio Hall. Hall was the first black late-night talk show host. The Arsenio Hall Show ran from 1989-94.

2001 – Tiger Woods and Marion Jones are celebrated at the ninth ESPYS.

‘Traffik’ star Laz Alonso joins superhero series and says attending an HBCU is like going to Wakanda for four years ‘You’re supported, encouraged by each other and allowed to explore who you are as a black person in society’

Actor and Howard University alum Laz Alonso believes women are in an era of empowering themselves and taking back their power. This is why he is excited about his new film Traffik, which hit the big screen on April 20.

“It’s an exciting thrill ride,” Alonso said. “I really like the film’s tagline, ‘Refuse to be a victim.’ It’s hard to call a movie that talks about such a serious topic, human trafficking, as ‘exciting,’ but you’re on this ride with the characters not knowing what is going to happen.”

The Washington, D.C., native stars in the film, directed by former athlete Deon Taylor alongside Omar Epps and Paula Patton in a sex trafficking thriller where he plays the stereotypical sports agent. Unlike the 2011 dramedy Jumping the Broom, in which Alonso received a 2012 NAACP Image Award, he and Patton are the opposite of love interests. Instead, their two characters tolerate each other to the point of hate at times in Traffik.

Slowing down is not on the 44-year-old actor’s agenda this year. He had the fortune of mixing his love for music and acting in BET’s miniseries The Bobby Brown Story as Louil Silas Jr., the music executive who helped Brown become a solo success. The miniseries is set for a September premiere and picks up from the network’s record-breaking miniseries The New Edition Story.

Alonso will soon start shooting for Amazon’s newest superhero drama, The Boys, based on the comic book by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. Under the direction of Eric Kripke, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, the series will open the door to a world where superheroes take advantage of their celebrity and fame. A group of vigilantes, known as The Boys, set out to take down these corrupt superheroes. Alonso will play Mother’s Milk, second in command of the group.

Alonso recently returned to D.C. to attend the Washington Redskins’ draft party in April wearing a custom jersey to announce Washington’s fourth-round draft pick, Troy Apke, a defensive back from Penn State.

The Howard University alum also made a pit stop at Home Depot’s Retool Your School ceremony, a competition-based program to help accredited historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) upgrade and renovate their campus facilities. Alonso graduated from Howard with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

He says attending an HBCU is “of optimal importance.”

“Going to an HBCU is like going to Wakanda for four years,” Alonso said. “You’re supported, encouraged by each other and allowed to explore who you are as a black person in society without all of the societal dos and don’ts. There are tons of HBCU alums who are at the top of their professions despite HBCUs sometimes not having as many of the resources as Ivy League schools. It shows how HBCU grads have that intangible.”

He compares the HBCU experience to his frustration with former Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins.

“He’s technically a good quarterback, but there’s an intangible when it comes to winning [that he doesn’t have],” Alonso said. “Can you put the game on your shoulders and will a victory? At Howard, you discover that intangible in your life and you tap into it. You’re going to lean on it, use it and need it. Because of Howard, I went to Wall Street. Out of a class of 300 new employees at Merrill Lynch, I was one of two black guys. There were a few others, but not as black as the two black guys from Morehouse and Howard. We were super black.”

Alonso spoke with The Undefeated about his current and upcoming films, being Afro-Latino, martial arts and growing up in a single-parent household.


Did you understand the extent of human trafficking before doing this film?

I had always looked at it as a Third World country problem. I didn’t know that 62 percent of women being sex-trafficked are African-American and that Atlanta, a place that we love to go and turn up at, is the biggest hub in the U.S. for female sex trafficking. Now that I’m aware of it, I’m starting to see more coverage of it on the news. It’s a $150 billion industry that is only second to illegal arms dealing and just as big as the drug trade. Drugs are consumed and used up, but with human trafficking, people are reused over and over again. It’s dehumanizing.

This fall, we’ll see you in The Bobby Brown Story. What is your favorite Bobby Brown record?

“My Prerogative” was big, and I liked the video, but “Don’t Be Cruel” might be one of my favorites. People forget Bobby had slow jams too, and that’s why I liked playing Louil. He’s who introduced L.A. Reid and Babyface to Bobby. They were able to channel a different Bobby than what everyone else was seeing. Bobby’s whole swag was aggressive and in-your-face, but they were able to smooth him out and make him a sex symbol. Bobby was like the original R&B rapper. It was cool having Bobby on set every day during shooting to make sure we all hit the right notes and nothing was out of place or embellished.

What can viewers expect from The Boys?

It explores the world of superheroes who become corrupted by their own power getting out of control and taking advantage of human beings. Absolute power corrupts, and who checks absolute power? We’re seeing that in our own government now. It’s a parallel universe that addresses real issues and conversations in a fictionalized backdrop. [Checking that power] is where my character, Mother’s Milk, and the rest of The Boys come into play.

Who is your favorite superhero, and why?

Superman. I loved that he could fly.

Do you have a favorite throwback TV show?

There’s so many of them, but what I really loved about sitcoms were their theme songs. Shows don’t have memorable theme songs anymore. Biz Markie is one of my favorite party DJs and does a set that is nothing but old-school theme songs.

You’re a huge D.C. sports fan. Are you a quiet or loud fan when watching games?

I’m the fan that’s a conspiracy theorist. I think refs hate D.C. sports teams because I feel like every call is unfair. They always let the opposing teams get away with stuff that we have to pay for. Nine times out of 10, I yell more at the refs than the opposing team.

How did you get into martial arts as a kid?

I had a single mom and she wanted me to be able to defend myself. Everyone on my block had an older brother that they could call on if they were losing in a fight. I was an only child, so I didn’t have that. I can’t say I won every fight, but there are a couple of guys that still remember my name.

You were 14 years old when your father passed away. How did you get through that?

My dad was in and out of the house going to rehab and AAA meetings because he had a long fight with alcoholism, and that made me feel like I had to be the man of the house very early on, even when he was home. At times, he was unable to function and I had to take care of him. I think back and I feel like that was preparing me for his passing. When he did pass, it was weird because in some ways I felt relief that he no longer had to struggle. I was too young to know what he was going through, but I knew that he wasn’t happy. And now I know he’s happy, and it’s my job every day to make him happy and proud of me.

Describe your Afro-Latino pride.

We are not black or Latino; we are both. There’s so many Afro-Latinos who speak of their pride, and it’s beautiful. No one can take our blackness away from us just like no one can take our Hispanic heritage away from us. We share it. It’s something that I hope expands to Latin America as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From ‘Dawson’s Creek’ to ‘Buffy’ to ‘Frasier’ to ‘Seinfeld’ — what happened to those lone, ‘token’ black actors? Eight talents tell stories of offensive scripts, stunt people in blackface and the heartbreak — and hope — of portraying Thug No. 2 and the dope dealer’s girlfriend

This is about television in the 1990s but let’s start with a quick, tragic and important trip to 1975.

Happy Days is about to deliver its infamous and most cringe-worthy episode. In “Fonzie’s New Friend,” the leather jacket-clad Fonz meets up with Sticks Downey, a new-to-town wisecracking drummer. The Fonz decides that Sticks, played with seemingly effortless timing by John Bailey, would make a great addition to Richie Cunningham’s band. When Richie asks a young woman on a date to a luau — with Fonzie’s new buddy as the perfect hookup for her friend, the punchline is of course that Sticks is black.

“Why do I get the feeling I was just humiliated?” Sticks deadpans as the studio audience roars with laughter. From there: one-liners about Downey’s lack of basketball prowess, about eating fried chicken and watermelon and yes, a low-key slavery joke. “Sticks was a very offensive character,” said artist Alida Bailey from her Palmdale, California, home. The easygoing stepdaughter of John Bailey wasn’t alive when the episode aired, but she’s seen it many times. “It was so over-the-top,” she said. “But to his credit, my father was still hilarious. He could shine in any role even if it was a token one.” He appeared in 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie, but by the ’80s, John Bailey bolted to the adult film industry, where he went by name Jack Baker. In 1994, he died of bladder cancer due to complications from AIDS.

“My dad got his foot in the door … despite race being an issue,” Alida Bailey said with pride. “But once the roles started to dry up, he could see that there was no equality in Hollywood … What you’re left with are token roles.” Downey was the 1970s. And while ’80s television — a groundbreaking era that launched The Cosby Show, the criminally underrated Frank’s Place, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and 227, the 1990s were actually awash in tokenism.

Yes, the adored 1990s. Even with the shows that are seared into our collective DNA: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Roc, In Living Color, The Arsenio Hall Show, New York Undercover, and Martin — all of these were must-see TV. There was A Different World, Family Matters, Moesha, Sister, Sister, Living Single. Indeed, in the 1990s, the wealth of black representation on television could lull you into thinking — if you turned the channel from Rodney King taking more than 50 blows from Los Angeles Police Department batons — that black lives actually did matter. But almost all of these shows were in varying ways, an extension of segregated America. It’s there in the memories of the stars below: There were “black shows,” and there were “white shows.” If you were a black actor appearing on a white show, you were usually alone.

For some of the most visible black actors coming of age in the 1990s, it’s clear that along with the triumphs came isolation, blatant racial stereotyping and biased casting calls. As for “crossing over” to the mainstream, in the mostly segregated worlds of Seinfeld, Frasier, Melrose Place, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Felicity, V.I.P., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek and more, blacks were usually relegated to bit parts or were there for a short time. The Undefeated sat down with eight of these talented women and men. These are their stories. This is history.


PHIL MORRIS, 58

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Iowa City, Iowa

Throwback: Melrose Place, Seinfeld

Currently working on: CBS’ 9JKL

When you live in the same house as a father that created such an incredible legacy — not just for himself and his family, but for an entire race of people — it’s expected that you should do the same. Greg Morris broke down racial barriers on Mission: Impossible. Him, Bill Cosby, Diahann Carroll [Julia], Bernie Hamilton [Starsky & Hutch], Lloyd Haynes [Room 222] … they opened the door for all of us as black actors on television. I wanted to continue to break down those barriers.

My first acting job was on Star Trek, way back when I was … around 8. I’m talking about the original Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock. It was stunt-casting episode, so I was in it, my sister Iona was in it, William Shatner’s daughters were in it, and some of the directors’ kids were in it. We were kids who weren’t actors, but we knew when to shut up when the director called “Action!” [Laughs].

“To his credit my father was still hilarious. He could shine in any role, even if it was a token one.”

My earliest adult experiences in the acting world … I stunted my own authenticity because either I was trying to not be my father or trying to live up to his success. But the ’90s kind of opened things up for me. That era allowed for more black images to be seen as intelligent, authoritative, educated, stylish, and beautiful beyond The Cosby Show, which normalized how the world looked at African-American families. I appeared on black shows like 227, The Fresh Prince, and Martin. But I was also able to do series like WIOU [a short-lived CBS news drama], Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and other more mainstream, non-ethnic roles. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the experience for black actors.

I remember [around ’95] going out for a role on Melrose Place — one of the hottest shows on television at that time. I had a long history with Aaron Spelling [Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, and Beverly Hills 90210]. I’ve gone to dinner with Mr. Spelling and I’ve gone to dinner with Mr. Darren Star [co-creator of Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Sex In The City] and I’ve told them, “You need to have more black people on that show than just Vanessa A. Williams.” And they would tell me, “Oh, Phil … it’s all casting … we would bring you in, we would make a role for you in a heartbeat.” I took it as lip service.

A few weeks later, Melrose Place had another role. I told my people to submit me for it. My agents came back and said, “Nah, they’re not going to see you. They want the role to be a white role.” The next time I saw Aaron Spelling, I again told him that I knew I wasn’t going to get the role because I was black. And he said, “Well, I’m only so big. There’s only so much that I can do.” I finally got a role on Melrose Place because I happened to be the right dude.

SEINFELD — “The Finale: Part 1&2” Episode 23 & 24 — Pictured: (l-r) Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, Phil Morris as Jackie Chiles (Photo by )

Joseph Del Valle/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The truth is, you ain’t never going to please everybody, anyway. When I went to audition for Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, I never thought of it as a derogatory token role. They told me, straight up, “We want someone that would give us a rendition of Johnnie Cochran.” I remember seeing Michael Dorn [Worf, of the Star Trek franchise] and Ted Lange from The Love Boat and Michael Boatman. We all looked like the Motown Mafia at that audition with our dark suits [Laughs].

“My Melrose Place experience only strengthened me. I wasn’t going to let no one tell me my worth, or value.”

I’d known Johnnie Cochran most of my whole life. We went to the same barber … Terrell’s Barber Shop in Los Angeles. I’d see Johnnie there almost every Sunday, for years — so I knew this cat way before the O.J. Simpson trial. I had a sense of his rhythm and his thing … that “Uh, huh … You don’t say.” I ended up getting the Seinfeld job, but Johnnie had to sign off on his likeness, which he eventually did. Jackie Chiles was a relief valve for a lot of people who were so frustrated with the O.J. verdict. It gave them a chance to laugh at the proceedings that were sometimes just ridiculous. Personally, I didn’t agree with the O.J. verdict. That’s why Jackie Chiles was so over-the-top. I let them have it.

I saw Johnnie a couple of times after my Seinfeld episodes aired and it was just like an old western movie. I walked into the barbershop and he’s laid back in the chair getting a shave. Everyone was quiet and Johnnie looks at me, laughs and says, “Young man, you are hilarious.”

I don’t know why I don’t have my own show right now. It’s driving me crazy, because my ambition is very high … I’m developing my own show, centering around me as an ex-soap opera star. I’m just trying to control my journey.


BIANCA LAWSON, 38

Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Los Angeles

Throwback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek

Currently working on: Queen Sugar

When I turned 14, I started Saved By The Bell: The New Class [in 1993]. I’d been staying in New York with my dad, and I ended up coming back to L.A. I was in a store and some guy walked up to us and said, “My wife is a manager. Do you act?” And literally that week I got the role for Saved By The Bell. I wasn’t thinking about if I was the “token black girl” on the show. I was just happy to be working.

Bianca Lawson played Megan Jones in Saved By The Bell: The New Class.

Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

I had a recurring role on Sister, Sister and it was so much fun. The UPN writers from that show told me, “Bianca, we’re going to make another series and we are going to write a part just for you.” It was a black sitcom with the legendary Sherman Hemsley called Goode Behavior. I was offered a role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as one of the leads, but I took Good Behavior because the producers had kept their word.

“Can you black it up? Can you make it blacker … more street? That was never me. Honestly, I had more issues with the black directors and producers than the white ones.”

After Goode ended, the Buffy people offered me another part. I thought I was going to be on Buffy longer, but it was only for four episodes. I loved playing Kendra. She was fierce and she was direct. She wasn’t about being liked. She had this mission to accomplish and it wasn’t connected to some guy or some romance.

Bianca Lawson and Alyson Hannigan from season 2 of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.”

I can’t remember how many episodes I was supposed to do on Dawson’s Creek, but there was this thing where my character Nikki, who was a filmmaker, always had to be better than [her white peers]. She even had a discussion with Dawson about this. It was really surreal. The thought of becoming the first black actress on shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer never really occurred to me back then.

Recently, I was on an airplane and someone left a beautiful note on my seat to say what I meant to them as a black actress on television. I didn’t really think about any of that when I was younger because you’re just doing the work. It was only years later as I got older that I realized seeing a young black woman on Buffy and Dawson’s Creek was empowering to a lot of people.

It’s a feeling that I’m experiencing on an even higher level with Queen Sugar. I feel like I’m part of a new black television era.


VANESSA A. WILLIAMS, 54

Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Melrose Place

Currently working on: Vengeance, Days of Our Lives, I Left My Girlfriend for Regina Jones

When I was 6, I wanted to literally know how people got into the TV set [Laughs]. My family is a performing family. My mother was a tap dancer and my grandmother was an accomplished pianist and organist and had played with W.C. Handy, and my auntie sung opera. I started to do singing roles as part of the New York City Opera, and there was a girl there who was also a professional actress. She had an actual manager, which really impressed me. We ended up becoming friends and I got that same manager.

My first big gig was a Bubble Yum commercial with Ralph Macchio [of The Karate Kid] We did a f—ing bubble gum rap [Laughs]. “Yum, so fine, the flavor lasts a long, long time!” It was hilarious … a bunch of white kids and a black girl rapping about gum!

There are two projects that I count as my big break into Hollywood — The Cosby Show and of course New Jack City. As a New York actor, you are trained in theater, and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. So I wasn’t intimidated when I got the Melrose Place phone call. This was a big deal because we knew the show was an Aaron Spelling project coming on the heels of Beverly Hills, 90210. I heard that my role as Rhonda was going to be for a Jewish girl, but I won the role. I just thought, Wow, my dreams are coming true.

“I started out as a standup comedian. I wanted to be Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg.”

When the L.A. riots happened, there was a story line on Melrose Place dealing with the aftermath. In the script, Rhonda was separating herself from her own community — the black community — and saying things like, “Those people … ” I had a serious talk with Darren, who was very amenable about changing that part of the script.

The cast of the TV series, ‘Melrose Place,’ posing on steps, circa 1993.

Fotos International/Getty Images)

It wasn’t until Melrose Place fired me after doing 33 episodes of season one that I felt the sting of Hollywood. There was positive fan feedback about my character, but I guess the Spelling people did some demographic research and decided that they were going to go into a more backbiting, soap opera direction. I thought the only strike against me was that I was a black actress. It had all to do with the fact that they were going to have people sleeping with each other in the cast — and how would that play for Middle America to see a black girl bed-hopping?

But my Melrose Place experience only strengthened me. I wasn’t going to let no one tell me my worth or value. I kept rolling with roles on such shows as Chicago Hope, Soul Food and [most recently] the Bella Thorne-vehicle Famous In Love on ABC’s Freeform network. One thing about the ’90s is there was a plethora of work for black actors even with all the ups and downs. This was the golden age of black television. We literally built Fox and UPN. That is a known fact.


MARKUS REDMOND, 47

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Philadelphia

Throwback: Doogie Howser, M.D.

Currently working on: Wine & Whimsy, The 6th Degree

I always knew I wanted to be a television actor. I was enamored by John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back Kotter. I thought he was the coolest dude in the history of the world, and my parents laughed at me. They were like, “You know acting is an actual job? Travolta is not just some cool guy … he’s acting.” I was like, “Well, I want that job!” It wasn’t until my family moved from North Philadelphia to Ventura County, about an hour north of Los Angeles, that I got into a high school drama class.

I started taking lessons from acting coach Cliff Osmond, rest in peace. After I’d been in the class long enough, he told me, “I think it’s time for you to meet my wife.” She became my first agent in 1989, and I ended up booking a play called Ten November. One of the casting directors from this new show, Doogie Howser, M.D., Beth Hymson, came to the play. She brought me in for an audition to play Friend No. 2.

So I go to the audition and Friend No. 2 is asking Doogie what it’s like being a doctor. Now I grew up in Ventura with a bunch of surfers, so to me it just seemed natural to be like, “Whoa, dude … You get to see blood and guts?!!! Gnarly, dude!” And I’m a big, black guy, so that didn’t make a whole lot of sense doing a white surfer voice, but Beth and the others got a kick out of it. They told me they’d keep me on their radar. And then the very next audition was for Raymond on Doogie Howser, M.D.

The cast of Doogie Howser, M.D.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Early on, I noticed the Doogie script was very surface. My character was written as this tough black guy who’s about to rob a 7-Eleven. Doogie talks him down, he realizes the error of his ways, and Doogie gets to feel good about himself. On the third or fourth day of production, there was a line where Doogie’s mom screams at a cop, “If that animal hurts my son!” She was talking about my character. This became hugely controversial because we had a good number of African-Americans that were extras on set.

The extra that played my mom, she especially took offense to it. I remember production stopped, and when we came back, that “animal” line had been taken out of the script. So there was this slow process of humanizing Raymond on the series.

“I don’t have my own show right now. It’s driving me crazy because my ambition is very high.”

I met a lot of black people while I was on Doogie. They’d be like, “So, wait, you’re on TV?” And I’d say, “I’m on Doogie Howser.” They’d usually respond, “Oh, I don’t watch that show because there ain’t no black people on it.” And that’s the thing. If you segregate yourself, the media will always give those stereotypes to you. If you keep telling the media, “Ghetto, street, rap … that’s all who I am,” the media will respond, just like the universe.

Neil Patrick Harris and Markus Remond on an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

When I’d go out for auditions, there was usually a prerequisite of, “Can you black it up? Can you make it blacker … more street?” And that was never me. Honestly, I had more issues with the black directors and producers than the white ones. I’m not a fan of hip-hop. Look at my Spotify and its mostly country. My favorite actors are William Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart. That’s where I get my juice.

After Doogie, I was able to book a series on UPN called Family Rules as the black next-door neighbor. Everybody knew what the UPN acronym really meant: The Underpaid Negro Network. I was the reverse token … the only black person on a mostly white show on UPN. It was canceled after [six] episodes. It had gotten to the point where none of this acting stuff was relevant to me. I was tired of playing Thug No. 4. Like I said, I grew up with surfers, listened to swing music and loved Woody Allen movies. I didn’t fit in.

I think that’s why I embraced writing. I’ve sold some scripts to studios and I did a film that went to Sundance back in ’07 that Whoopi Goldberg and Sharon Stone starred in along with me called If I Had Known I Was A Genius. I never limit myself. Fortunately, today we have great shows portraying black people in a broad light like How To Get Away With Murder and Scandal. Thank God for Shonda Rhimes for saying, “Let me just make great television shows and just put black people in the lead and surround them with everybody.”


KENN MICHAEL, 40

Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: The Parent ‘Hood, Freaks and Geeks

Currently working on: Artificial intelligence software project

I loved being in front of the camera. I did Reading Rainbow twice, and one of the producers said to my parents, “He’s really good. This seems like something you guys might want to pursue.” I thank my mom, Lola, for my career, because she put in a lot of work.

The first national spot I booked was a commercial for Bubble Yum in 1990. I was around 12, and the role for that ad was originally not created for a black kid, but a white character named Milo, the Mathematical Genius. I guess white kids were only allowed to be intelligent, but the agent I had was incredible. She was like, “Oh, no. We’re going to send Kenn there because they don’t know what they want. And he can do it.” I nailed it.

I always played the smart kid in a lot of crossover roles. And then I hit this rut that was typical with being a black actor where the majority of the roles were the street kid, the drug dealer or the bad kid. All the auditions were the same, and I was bummed, so around 1992 I was an apprentice director on the film Boomerang, shadowing the Hudlin Brothers. I got the chance to watch Eddie Murphy work. I developed a bit of a rapport with him. Eddie noticed I was a little out of sorts.

Hours later, he asked me to see him on his bus. I was excited! I told him what I was experiencing in the television audition game and he gave me this pep talk, like, “Dude, I know. But you have to keep on trucking. Your excellence will shine no matter what you do.” I ended up getting an actual part in Boomerang.

But then you go from being on a big budget film that showed blacks in a nuanced, positive light, and back to the politics of TV. I remember a meeting I had with Darren Star, who was the head of Aaron Spelling’s development company. I walked into this huge office in Beverly Hills. They were interested in creating a show for me, so Darren walks in, puts his feet up on the table and he says, “You may know some of our series like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place …” He had this very arrogant way about him. So I said, “Yeah, I’ve seen those shows, but I don’t really watch them because I don’t see anybody who looks like me.” [A] phrase you heard a lot back in those days [was] … “Oh, we don’t know how to write for black characters.”

Being on the show The Parent ’Hood was an interesting situation. I was on a black series with Robert Townsend, who was show’s creator and executive producer. There was diversity, and it was great at times, but then my character started to get painted in a corner. He was viewed as this superpositive black male character … smart and into music. I was written off the show. The character they replaced me with was this boy who was written as a troubled, streetwise kid. It wasn’t just the white shows that insisted I play the hoodlum. That was an eye-opener.

“I hit this rut that was typical with being a black actor where the majority of the roles were the street kid, the drug dealer or the bad kid.”

When I did Freaks and Geeks, nobody knew anything about it. Judd Apatow was not a huge name at that point, so for me it was just another audition. I was just happy to be on a show where the writing was really funny. We know that Apatow’s projects are mostly white. In hindsight, yeah, it would have been great … for them to have more characters of color.

I got tired of the politics of auditioning for roles. I’d always been directing my own short films before I got my first official directing gig. I was doing film festivals and some projects on the digital side of filmmaking before anybody was talking about it, because the picture quality wasn’t of quality back then. I was also doing a lot of voiceover work for video games and cartoons. I ended up directing BET’s Let’s Stay Together. That was my multicam, sitcom, directorial thing. It was a lot of fun. Doing voice work for video games has been a lot of fun because you get to play all these crazy characters. I do a really great German accent [Michael is an in-demand video game voice actor. He has appeared in the Saints Row series and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas].

I’ve started this next phase of my journey. I’ve been building a software project that is dealing with sound, healing, and sacred numbers and frequencies. My thing is bringing spirituality, technology, and science together. Artificial intelligence is upon us. We need to make sure that we are imbuing things into A.I. that we would want.


KIM COLES, 56

Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Living Single, Frasier

Currently working on: Stand-up comedy, speaking engagements (AARP, American Heart Association among others)

I started out as a stand-up comedian. I wanted to be Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg. [In 1987], I auditioned for A Different World, for the role of Jaleesa … the role that Dawnn Lewis eventually got. Dawn and I had been friends since we were 11, so for her to get that was huge. I remember being at an event and meeting Keenan Ivory Wayans. Keenan tells me that he has a television show coming up and that he wanted me to audition. I found out that it was a multicultural sketch comedy show, which had never been done before.

We filmed the pilot for In Living Color in 1989, but somebody had already gotten a hold of the episode! There were bootlegged copies being sold on the streets. There were people who loved the show and others who thought we were too edgy, too black, and hated it. I was only on In Living Color for the first year … it was an incredible experience.

The cast of Living Single. Kim Coles is the to far right.

Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images

Landing the role of Synclaire on Living Single was massive. It was around 1992, and I’d just left In Living Color. The producers reached out to me and said, “We love you. We want to do a series about black women and their experiences and what they think about life and men.” Living Single was an iconic show with a lot of layers. It wasn’t a stereotypical black sitcom. But it wasn’t hard to notice that networks like Fox and UPN were using black shows just to establish their success. There were black series that were watched by millions on Fox, but apparently they weren’t a part of the network’s vision.

I booked The Geena Davis Show, but they kindly let me walk so I could do an episode of Frasier. Then I booked a second episode, and I have to tell you, the experience was amazing. Kelsey Grammer was beyond kind to me and he loved my Dr. Mary character. I knew that there were no [black people] on Frasier, but I saw that as a challenge.

“That just was the reality of the times … you usually were the only black person on a so-called ‘white’ show.”

The response to Dr. Mary was incredible, so we tried to get the Frasier people to do a spinoff. This was at the time Kelsey was about to do Girlfriends, so I knew he had to be open to black women being the lead [of a show]. The writer who wrote my two episodes on Frasier even won a diversity award because before that they didn’t have anyone like me on that show! But the spin-off never happened.

I do some stand-up and I have my own one-woman show. And I do a lot of speaking engagements for AARP and the American Heart Association. I tell my story and I try to inspire, motivate … and I get to be funny. I think there should be more black shows like black-ish. We have Shonda Rhimes, who is putting together these amazing series with these amazing black women at the helm. But I’m not waiting around for Hollywood to call me for jobs. Everything that I’m doing today keeps me fed until I’m able to get that free food. Because that’s the only reason to do a television show … it’s the free food [Laughs].


TANGI MILLER, 47

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Miami

Throwback: Michael Hayes, Felicity

Currently working on: Nwannem: Sisters

Acting seemed kind of far-fetched. It wasn’t practical. But there was a show called Michael Hayes, which starred David Caruso. It was a detective series, like Miami Vice, and I played a drug dealer’s girlfriend. I was more concerned about my hair than how my peers would perceive me as an actor [laughs].

Thank God I don’t have to worry about that now, because today they have a lot of black hair stylists, but back then that wasn’t the case. So I showed up on set with my hair clean and washed and no makeup. And they would look at me like, “What happened to you?” This one white girl came to me with a pressing comb and she tried to comb my hair in the opposite direction, and I’m like, “No, no, no … the comb goes the other way.”

Cast of the show Felicity.

Getty Images

I don’t think I ever felt like Elena was this lone, token black character when I got the role for Felicity. As a black actress, that just was the reality of the times … you usually were the only black person on a so-called “white” show. When I met J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, who created the show, I actually thought they were assistants because they were so short and cute [Laughs]. I was talking to them like they were my peers … but they were really cool about it.

“When I went to audition for Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, I never thought of it as a derogatory, token role.”

What I was really concerned about was wanting Elena to come across as more than just Felicity’s black friend. It was important to me that you saw some of my character’s girlfriends from before she came to college. If you look back at some of the episodes of Felicity, you will see Elena’s backstory with her family and father. Whenever I made those suggestions, the producers actually followed through. I felt supported.

I didn’t realize how lucky we were until Felicity was over. It was an amazing, well-written show. J.J. is a genius. I wanted another meaty character that I could sink my teeth into … that I could be proud of, but I couldn’t find one. That’s one of the reasons why I started producing and making my own movies. Recently, I directed Diva Diaries. I’ve done Hurricane in the Rose Garden, My Girlfriend’s Back, Love … & Other 4 Letter Words. I’ve done like 10 or 12 films, mostly as a producer and actor. I love what I do.


SHAUN BAKER

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: V.I.P.

Currently working on: Atone, The Zim

The first thing I did when I came out to Los Angeles was House Party, but the first television series I booked was a [1993] sitcom called Where I Live. It was a positive depiction of a young Caribbean family and young African-Americans from Harlem who were supportive of each other. It featured myself, Doug E. Doug and Flex Alexander. We were just starting our careers, and were so excited to be working as young actors. After the second season, when we didn’t get picked up, it was heartbreaking.

I was happy to be a part of Living Single. Kim Coles is incredibly gifted. Everybody from that show from [Queen] Latifah, T.C. Carson, and Kim Fields to Erika Alexander to John Henton were heavy hitters. The role I played, Russell, a West Indian music editor, was interesting, because my family is from Jamaica. I tapped into my own experiences. We were groundbreaking, positive, upwardly mobile, young African-Americans, men and women who were flawed individuals striving for friendship and love.

“The thought of becoming the first black actress on shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer never really occurred to me back then.”

But after that success, all of sudden these popular black series like Roc, In Living Color, Martin, and Living Single were getting canceled. Then you would see all of these white shows like Party of Five and Melrose Place pop up. I don’t know if it was strategic, but it did make us raise an eyebrow and ask, “Well, what happened to all those black shows?”

After Living, I had a meeting with Pamela Anderson for an action comedy called V.I.P. and she was transparent … about a lot of things pertaining to a role she had in mind for me. She told me, “You know why you’re here? You have a following … you have an audience.” Living Single helped me get on V.I.P.

The cast of V.I.P.

V.I.P. [1998-2002] was a huge action comedy series. When you’re minority on such a big show, having a support system is very important. I was very mindful of how I was being portrayed as a black man on V.I.P. But there was a situation that I had to deal with. A lot of times in the stunt world if they don’t think an African-American stunt person is not capable, they will actually [blackface] a non-African American. This would usually be a white person.

We were doing an episode where we were supposed to be circus performers, and they told me they couldn’t find any black circus people, but I knew they just didn’t want to spend the money. So I told them to take me out of the scene if they were going to use a painted-on stunt person. I knew the history of blackface. I understood how serious that was. I went to Pam and the producers and I said, “Not only am I offended, but the NAACP will be in here marching.” They wrote me out of the scene.

But looking back, I still feel fortunate to be part of a special time on television. I’m thankful because just to get one acting role back then was like hitting the lottery. But I had several: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, A Different World, Martin, Living Single, V.I.P. TV is powerful. A lot of times, black people are portrayed as savages. That’s why it’s important to see shows like Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar — that’s how we as artists make a difference.

The Plug, ‘Awards Season: Jemele Hill’ (Episode 7): Who’s the Best of the Best? The co-host of ‘SC6’ talks about meeting Issa Rae — and Hill also talks about Tom Brady’s dominance

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It was only a matter of time before this happened: Chiney, Kayla, Tes, Terrika and I nabbed none other than friend-of-the-family, SC6‘s Jemele Hill. We wasted no time getting Jemele to spill the beans about she and Michael Smith’s time at the recent NAACP Awards. While there, Hill met Issa Rae as well as Congresswoman Maxine Waters. On The Plug, we also got Jemele to weigh-in on the NFL’s run-up to Super Bowl, and our NBA mid-season awards…with a twist. Also on deck? The Houston Rockets’ dominance, Kawhi Leonard’s supposed San Antonio angst, and this weekend’s Grammys. As always, the support is absolutely appreciated, my people. Continue to tell your circle to to subscribe to The Plug on the ESPN app! Until next week…

Previously: The Plug, ‘Fight Night: Francis Ngannou’ (Episode 6): The UFC star opens up

Recy Taylor, subject of new documentary about the rape of black women during Jim Crow, has died 97-year-old was at a nursing home in the same Alabama town where she had been attacked

Recy Taylor, the subject of the new documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor, died Thursday morning at a nursing home in Abbeville, Alabama. She was 97.

Her brother Robert Lee Corbitt, 81, confirmed her death.

‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ explores the little-known terror campaign against black women

Taylor was one of countless black women who were raped by white men during Jim Crow. In 1944, when she was walking home from church one evening, she was kidnapped, blindfolded and assaulted by six white men. Rosa Parks, working as a local NAACP official, came to Abbeville to agitate for the prosecution of Taylor’s attackers. None of them was ever indicted.

In addition to being the subject of the Nancy Buirski documentary, which debuted this year at the New York Film Festival, Taylor was a central figure in a book by historian Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. McGuire’s book traces how anti-rape activism in the South helped fuel the civil rights movement.

After the attack, Taylor spent most of her adult years in Winter Haven, Florida. Her family moved her back to Abbeville when she was 93 because she began to suffer from dementia.

“She was a Christian all of her life,” Corbitt said by phone Thursday afternoon. “She kept us in church all that time. I live about 500 feet from the church where she was going that night, and I’m also a deacon of that church.”

The church, which in 1944 was called Abbeville Holiness Church, is now called Abbeville Memorial Church of God in Christ.

Taylor raised Corbitt and five other brothers and sisters after their mother died when Corbitt was an infant. She is survived by Corbitt and her two remaining sisters, Mary Murry, 90, and Lillie Kinsey, 94, one granddaughter and several great-grandchildren. Her only daughter, Joyce Lee Taylor, died in a car crash in 1967.

Taylor, Corbitt said, “had a very good life,” but she never recovered emotionally from the attack that took place when she was just 24 years old.

After he retired from working as a building maintenance official in New York, Corbitt said he moved back to Alabama to research what happened to his sister and attempt to obtain some measure of justice for her. Corbitt is one of the primary sources for Buirski’s film. Though she was alive during its filming, Taylor only appears near the end, when Corbitt, whom she called “Baby,” went to visit her in her nursing home.

“She would only talk to me,” Corbitt said. “That’s why I dug at it so hard. After I retired, I devoted myself to getting something done about it. We did get an apology from the state of Alabama.”