In ‘A Wrinkle In Time,’ Oprah appears as the earthly deity she’s been for years Guru, self-help maven and fabulously kitted angel

It’s pretty amusing that a science fiction film based on a book published in 1962 is the one that delivered a role in which Oprah basically plays … herself.¹

How much was this a factor in drawing people to the cineplex? Unclear. A Wrinkle in Time took in $33.3 million at the box office this weekend. But the imagery itself, and the context behind it, is still worth examining.

The first time Oprah appears on screen in A Wrinkle in Time, it’s a breathtaking stunt. She materializes in the backyard of the Murry house as the shimmering, larger-than-life Mrs Which, rising to a height of 30 feet, with a crown of curly, platinum blond hair and fabulously bejeweled eyebrows. Her bottom half never quite fully materializes, giving her an ethereal quality. Mrs Which is the oldest and wisest of the Mrs W’s, which include Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), by a billion or so years.

But upon meeting her, it’s impossible not to think, “Someone finally found a way to visually render Oprah’s role in our culture!”

Throughout her career as an actress, Oprah has brought empathy and dignity to the black women whom society actively overlooks, from Ms. Sofia in The Color Purple to Deborah Lacks in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to Sethe in Beloved.

Mrs Which is a guardian seraph to Meg Murry (Storm Reid), the girl who must travel through space and time to find and rescue her lost father, a famous NASA physicist who’s been missing for four years. Mrs Which is patient and firm with Meg, who’s having trouble loving herself and having faith in her own abilities. Where Mrs Whatsit grows impatient with Meg’s typical teen-age sullenness and doubt, Mrs Which offers realism and gentle reassurance. She repeatedly urges Meg to “be a warrior.” IRL, Oprah may not have an army of warriors for peace, but she does have an Angel Network. The movie isn’t explicit in labeling the Mrs W’s as angels, although that happens in the book, which was heavily influenced by author Madeleine L’Engle’s many years in the Episcopal Church.

Oprah’s role as a quasi-religious figure in America is legendary. She was ahead of many Americans in publicly declaring herself as spiritual rather than an adherent of a specific religious dogma. In doing so, she broadened Americans’ tolerance for religious practice that doesn’t rely on organized religion, and she may even be something of a prophet herself.

“I know some people have called Billy Graham America’s pastor, but in many ways, in a more realistic sense, Oprah is America’s pastor,” said the Rev. Broderick Greer, an Episcopal theologian at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver.

In attempting to parse Oprah’s role as The Oprah Winfrey Show was drawing to a close, The New York Times’ Mark Oppenheimer once called her a “child of poverty” who became “the leader of a worldwide cult.”

Greer said he thinks of her as more of a “guru.” He noted that, like L’Engle, fundamentalist Christians have seen Oprah as a threat, and sometimes that threat was due to Oprah’s race and gender. She was used as a “bogeyman” in sermons, he said, and church leaders would caution their audiences against listening to her.

“I know some people have called Billy Graham America’s pastor, but in many ways, in a more realistic sense, Oprah is America’s pastor.”

“She was seen as being too powerful. She had too much influence,” Greer said.

“Throughout Christian history, women had been very specifically and methodically marginalized by the church. They’ve been called crazy,” he continued. “That has been the struggle of a hyper kind of masculinized, Western Christian church culture: ‘I just can’t believe that this kind of lesser being is saying something that’s profound and life-changing. I need to do everything within my power to make sure that the least amount of people possible hear her.’ ”

So it’s notable that Oprah created a flock of her own, espousing love, generosity and compassion through television without the fire and brimstone of Pat Robertson or Jim Bakker. Oprah exposed people to the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Ed Bacon and Brené Brown. She’s helped remove the stigma associated with talk therapy.

“I do know how my mom and aunt and my deceased grandmother understood her, and it was a black woman with agency they could identify with,” Greer said. “Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, they watched Phil Donahue every day, and took his expertise and followed his taste. Sometime in the late ’80s, early ’90s, that shifted, and they were able to see someone who looked like them, who sounded like them, who came from a similar background, say, ‘I have agency. I’m the host. I’m not the sideshow or the sidekick. I am the host.’ ”

Those are good things, right? Well, yes. But with great power comes great responsibility, and when you consider Oprah’s grounding in journalism, maybe she let us down sometimes. Especially because as we’ve invested in her and her recommendations on our own roads to self-actualization, Oprah has led us down some dubious paths.

Remember The Secret?

The reason you don’t have the life you want is because you just haven’t visualized it hard enough!

Iyanla Vanzant?

Who needs to be licensed as a therapist when you can call yourself a “life coach” and do whatever you want?!

Dr. Phil?

He’s not even an MD, people!

OK, fine. Oprah’s track record as a spiritual leader is a mixed bag. But somehow, her ultimate message that it’s possible to transcend suffering, and even find beauty in that transcendence, that we’re all capable of doing good in the world and that spreading love and light is a worthwhile cause, has gotten through and made her a figure who inspires intense admiration.

And it’s because for decades, we sat in front of the television on weekday afternoons and took part in The Church of Oprah. She’s flawed, sure. But Mrs Which is a powerful visualization of the best Oprah has given us. I’m glad there’s an image that so fittingly captures her contributions with a swoosh of wind or a wrinkle of time.

‘A Wrinkle in Time’ has Ava DuVernay, Oprah and a $100 million budget. But it still needs a better villain. The movie tries to replace swords and wands with self-esteem

Disney’s new adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time sports plenty of shiny features that would normally scream “smash hit!” It’s based on one of the most beloved works of children’s literature of the 20th century. It’s got a superstar director in Ava DuVernay, the first black woman to direct a film with a production budget of $100 million. And it’s got Oprah, America’s very own mononymed mistress with the Midas touch.

Alas, one of the foundational elements of Wrinkle is faulty, and it ain’t DuVernay or Oprah.

For starters, the bad guy is named IT. (Really? Does he have a cousin?) IT has no apparent motive for its evil ways. It’s difficult to visualize, and the path to defeating IT is equally enigmatic.

Those are tough hurdles to clear. The most successful and ubiquitous children’s movie franchise in recent history, the Harry Potter series, is an epic story about a struggle between good and bad, love and hate, dark and light. Minus the “most successful and ubiquitous” part, that description could apply to the 2005 film adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or to the new A Wrinkle in Time.

Yet Wrinkle, co-written by Jennifer Lee (Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia, Children of the Machine) approaches existential questions of good versus evil differently from those other movies. It’s not just because the protagonist, Meg Murry, is a biracial black girl played by Storm Reid. It’s because, at its core, A Wrinkle in Time is about defeating the demons within yourself.

To summarize those two days your 10-year-old self spent speed-reading: Meg, a teenage outcast, must journey to another planet to save her physicist father from IT, and she must do so by traveling through space and time using a concept her father discovered: the tesseract. Meg is aided by the help of three celestial fairy godmothers, known collectively as the Mrs: Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon). Accompanied by her precocious younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and her school friend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), the trio of children must find Mr. Murry (Chris Pine), defeat IT and bring the Murry patriarch home.

Across Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling, there are tropes that tick off some religious adherents for veering too close to the story of Jesus. Each features a hero that is rewarded for self-sacrifice with resurrection. In the Narnia chronicles, it’s Aslan the lion. Harry Potter must die willingly before he can come back to kill Voldemort. Meg gets knocked into unconsciousness struggling against IT before being resurrected by an alien creature she calls Aunt Beast, who, regrettably, is missing from the movie.

In the film adaptation of Wrinkle, Lee and Stockwell lean heavily into the teachings of the Episcopal Church that God (as love and light) exists within us all, that we can all be deputized as “warriors” against evil. L’Engle was a devoted member of the church. She served as a librarian and writer in residence at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The Mrs are in search of warriors to defeat IT, which shows up as a tentacled black shadow spreading across the universe. As villains go, IT is one of the most abstract in children’s fantasy.

According to Oprah/Mrs Which, IT “invades the place inside of us where happiness and joy lives and replaces it with jealousy, judgment, pain and despair. … This is what IT does until fear takes over. Fear turns to rage. Rage turns to violence, until there’s a tipping point.”

As villains go, the movie version of IT is one of the most abstract in children’s fantasy.

A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962, when the country was still living in the shadow of World War II and the threat of fascism. One of the most menacing elements of IT is that it wants to create a planet and a universe ruled by one brain, where humans are automatons who have submitted to a vision of perfection and symmetry as defined by IT. In L’Engle’s version of Wrinkle, IT has a physical manifestation as a hideous, disembodied human brain.

But those details are missing from the film, and in subtracting them, evil doesn’t really have a motivation or a purpose. It just is. The White Witch and Voldemort offer physical, humanlike representations of evil, both of which are hungry for power and uncontested control. At the very least, you can call them sociopaths. A Wrinkle in Time forces us to wonder how you get children to understand evil as a nebulous, ill-defined force. And what’s more, how do you get them to fight it? Mrs Which does it by showing Meg a micro-vision of evil, the way it shows up in her life in the form of cruel classmates, or Calvin’s emotionally abusive father. She does it while they’re visiting a character called The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) a yogi/guru sort of figure who’s all about “balance.”

Asking children to find the hero within themselves by meditating and finding spiritual balance and self-acceptance seems awfully tough. But is it any more unreasonable than leaving a child destined to fight a murderous, power-hungry, sociopathic wizard who splits and deposits pieces of his evil soul around the world so he can keep living? Is it any more arduous than assuming the mantle of royalty as a teenager and leading a world of mythical woodland creatures into battle with a witch who’d rather turn everything around her to stone than tolerate dissent? Perhaps not. Though it certainly doesn’t lend itself well to training montages.

A Wrinkle in Time asks its young audience to “be a warrior” by loving itself. But it doesn’t really illustrate how a young person does that. And when the fate of the universe depends on internal journeys, it inadvertently makes it seem as if everyone else who faced off against IT prior to Meg lost because they didn’t love themselves enough.

That’s a terribly grim flip side, and it’s a good argument for why heroes are so often “chosen”: It takes the heat off well-meaning deputies who can’t kill Voldemort or the White Witch. That’s why so many fantasy heroes are, by definition, exceptional. Harry is The Chosen One, as he smirkingly tells his friend Hermione. The child protagonists of C.S. Lewis’ imagination are royalty, as designated by Narnian prophecy.

Then there’s Meg, who is a hero simply because she believes in herself?

To be sure, challenging these tropes is a worthwhile pursuit. And in doing so, DuVernay also challenges us to accept a heroine whose superpower isn’t rooted in a male model of train, fight, win. Meg’s journey feels organic to the psychological journey so many girls face: learning not to despise themselves for not measuring up to gendered standards of beauty and behavior that are responsible for so much internal misery. Meg wins by doing something that’s ordinary but difficult, something no amount of spell casting or swordsmanship can do.

Does it ultimately make sense? Upon completion of her mission, the Mrs tell Meg that she’s joined the ranks of Gandhi, Frida Kahlo and Jane Austen, but they fail to show how or why. Aside from the fact that Wrinkle screenwriters designated them as “warriors,” the audience is left to wonder: What do these people have in common, again?

Kobe Bryant: Oscar nomination is proof I can do ‘something other than dribble and shoot’ On the eve of the Academy Awards, Bryant talks how basketball helps him in Hollywood and what’s next

This, quite literally, is a whole new game. But trust that Kobe Bryant is ready to suit up for this next chapter. One of the NBA’s biggest stars officially left the game on April 13, 2016, five months after he announced his retirement from professional basketball on Nov. 29, 2015, via a poem that he wrote called Dear Basketball. Bryant was nominated for an Oscar (best short, animated), becoming the first former professional athlete to ever get such a nod, after he set his retirement poem to animation with illustrator Glen Keane, who is best known for his work at Walt Disney Animation Studios for feature films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

On the eve of Bryant’s first Oscar moment, we sit in his Orange County, California, offices — storyboards are hidden in the back, but there’s a wall of portraits for all to see. He points at a Michael Jackson portrait. “My first mentor,” he said.

Books about animation and film production are stacked on bookshelves. And the small group of people working for Granity Studios are buzzing at their desks nearby. This is Hollywood Kobe Bryant. And you should get used to him because he’s going to be here for a while.

Here are 14 nuggets from our conversation, and some outtakes as well.

1. On writing.

“I always enjoyed writing. I had a really great teacher … who taught me the art of storytelling and writing and composition. When I came to the league, I kept writing, kept practicing. When I got injured and we were making a news film — that’s when it kicked in for me. I found enjoyment in writing that film, and writing each chapter … what should we do next? That’s what really kicked it off.”

2. On creativity.

“I love the art of creating. It’s like putting together a puzzle.”

3. Why Dear Basketball is an animated film.

“Once I wrote the story … it called for animation. … Games where you play great games, where you play terribly, days where you’re training, you feel unstoppable, and days when you feel like [you’re] not going to get through it. It had to be hand-drawn animation because of the imperfections that come along with [all] that because … as a viewer you can feel the soul of … Glen Keane as he’s animating. You can feel the texture of it. Twenty-four frames per second. No step skipped.”

4. On what being nominated for an Oscar feels like.

“I’ve always been told that as basketball players the expectation is that you play. This is all you know. This is all you do. Don’t think about handling finances. Don’t think about going into business. Don’t think that you want to be a writer — that’s cute. I got that a lot. What do you want to do when you retire? ‘Well, I want to be a storyteller.’ That’s cute. This is … a form of validation for people to look and say, ‘OK, he really can do something other than dribble and shoot.’ ”

5. On what types of projects he’s gravitating toward …

“They all center around sports. How do we take sports and tell beautiful tales, beautiful stories that connect to human nature? If you look at sports as a whole, it connects people worldwide, on a global scale. Much like music does. But what separates music from sports is that sports is something that unites people, something people do together.”

6. On what he’s working on for ESPN …

“[Detail] is the first show. The original concept came from, how can I help the next generation of elite basketball players? What information can I pass along, from what I learned from some of the most brilliant basketball minds? A thing that came to mind, aside from going out on the court and actually working with them, is how to study the game. … It’s a very intricate look into how to study the game.”

7. On Oprah Winfrey.

“Oprah’s been a really big mentor. When I … had the original idea of starting a company, a studio, she was the first person I reached out to. And she was gracious enough to give me about an hour on the phone and tell me how she built Harpo Productions from its start to where it is today. She’s been absolutely amazing.”

If you look at sports as a whole, it connects people worldwide, on a global scale. Much like music does.

8. On Shonda Rhimes.

“Shonda [Rhimes] was gracious enough to open up her doors for us to … spend the day in Shondaland, the sets of How to Get Away With Murder, and actually sit in on a table read for Scandal. She’s been great to talk to over the phone as well. I actually picked her brain — we were at the White House waiting in line to take a picture with President Obama and the first lady, and she was standing in front of me. And I was like, ‘Excuse me, Shonda, I have a couple questions … OK, so, when you write a script, like, where do you start? Do you start with plot first or character first?’ And then we just started talking. I said, ‘So when you write, how much room do you leave for the actors to be able to kind of make the characters their own?’ The relationship started from there.”

9. On helping make Hollywood more diverse.

“I’m looking at this industry, the animation industry, the writing industry, novelists … and I’m seeing a serious lack in gender diversity. And I want to make sure that we bring the opportunities to children to express themselves, even if they don’t ever want to grow up to be writers.”

10. On what he gets from Hollywood that he never got from basketball.

“The ability to make sure things are as good as we believe they can be before we release it. Basketball, you don’t get that chance. You practice all you want, but when the lights come up, if you play like an idiot, you look like an idiot. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t say, ‘Cut! Take two!’ In Hollywood, we can sit around as a team and nitpick plot, nitpick character and shots and movement of the story, and go over it and over it and over it again and again and again until we feel like it’s where we need it to be.”

11. On how filmmaking makes him feel …

“I love it. I do. I love it. I’ve been really fortunate to love basketball as much as I have, but I love storytelling every bit as much as I love basketball.”

12. On applying his life as a former NBA star to that of a budding filmmaker …

“Trust. That’s been the thing that was the hardest for me to deal with as an athlete — trusting the guys around me. Trusting that they’ll do the work, trusting that they’ll make the right play when it matters most. That was the hardest thing for me to deal with as an athlete, and because I went through that progression as an athlete, it’s a lot easier for me to do that as a creative.”

13. On working with Ava DuVernay …

“Our studio … is a part of the … fund that she’s championing, along with the city of Los Angeles. We’ll have plenty of internships here. That’s the best way to learn as well. You can sit down in the class all you want, but the best way to learn is to actually have interns come in and put boots on the ground and get to it. Actually give them responsibilities, actually give them assignments that lead to the execution of ideas.”

14. On where he’ll put his Oscar if he wins one this weekend …

“I’ll probably sleep with it! When I was a kid, the first time my parents bought me an official, leather NBA basketball, I slept with it for about a week. So it will be [wife] Vanessa, [third daughter] Bianka, me, Oscar. That will be our sleeping arrangement.”

Oprah is talking about box braids and listening to Kendrick. Has she changed or have we? At her latest ‘SuperSoul Conversations,’ a more outspoken version of the world’s most powerful black woman

NEW YORK — A few weeks ago, after she’d delivered her news-cycle-dominating barn burner of a Golden Globes speech, Oprah Winfrey held court at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

She’d booked the place for a marathon day of interviews with pop culture luminaries, which were being taped for the televised OWN series SuperSoul Conversations and the podcast of the same name. Part one, which features Jordan Peele, Salma Hayek Pinault and Trevor Noah, will air on Tuesday at 10 p.m. The interviews with Stephen Colbert, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Yara Shahidi will air in part two on March 6 at 10 p.m.

One moment was especially shocking: Oprah was speaking with Peele, the Oscar-nominated director of Get Out. “I won’t shame anybody, those who haven’t yet seen it. Most of them are up there — ” Oprah said, pointing toward the upper mezzanine, “— and there’s a reason for that.” The black women in the audience, especially those in the orchestra section, erupted with whoops and laughs.

“Those of you who are white, you should go and see it with a black friend,” Oprah continued. “Gayle [King] said she’d seen it at a screening or something and then she went as saw it with a black audience and it was completely different.”

Another round of laughs.

Kill the b—-!” Oprah jeered, referring to the character who lures unsuspecting black men to her family’s compound where she and her family auction them off to whites seeking younger, stronger bodies to inhabit.

This was followed by about 30 seconds of raucous applause, and more whooping.

Where in Sam Hill did this Oprah come from?

Oprah’s always been black and she’s always been forthright about her own experiences with racism. But many black people have had a complicated relationship with Oprah, with her wealth, with perceptions of her obligations to The Black Community. See: those who called on Oprah to rescue the television series Underground even after she explained it didn’t make good financial sense for the OWN network or those who resented her for building a school for poor girls in South Africa instead of stateside or those who resented The Color Purple and her role in it because they thought it unfairly maligned black men. For years, like much of middle America, she had a distant-to-lukewarm relationship with hip-hop.

As some black people saw it, Oprah had an unspoken covenant with the white people who delivered the bulk of her bonkers ratings and subsequent wealth: Sure, she’s allowed to periodically remind white people that she’s black, but she’s sure not going to turn into Assata Shakur.

Oprah is the preeminent white lady whisperer of the 20th century, an observation Saturday Night Live recently resurrected amid speculation of an Oprah 2020 run for president.

Leslie Jones-as-Oprah stopped by the Weekend Update desk to explain why she might turn to public service.

“I need to get white women back on track,” said Jones-as-Oprah. “Ever since I’ve been off the air, they’ve gotten out of control. They voted for Trump. They voted for Roy Moore. They kept 12 different shows about flipping houses on air. It’s a mess!”

In the past few years, though, something has shifted ever so slightly. It was evident from the reactions of black women in the Apollo audience, who murmured with gleeful astonishment to Oprah’s “kill the b—-” comment. I saw a few more eyebrows go up when Oprah suggested to Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, the Two Dope Queens who opened the event for her, that the trio “go to a salon and get box braids.” There was a similar reaction when the bass line to Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” thumped in during a video accompanying Peele’s introduction: OK, Oprah! We see you, girl.

Has black people’s relationship with Oprah changed or has she? Maybe it’s a bit of both.

Oprah’s role in the public imagination, and the attention and commerce it commands, has always been raced and gendered. I remember my college poetry professor dismissing her as a “mammy diva,” referring to Oprah’s penchant for making white people comfortable while also putting herself on the cover of her eponymous magazine every month.

I think she’s following the compass of her power as a public figure. For Oprah, magnetic north has been shifting back toward black women ever since she decided to endorse Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential race. It’s a shift that’s been unfolding for years, as OWN, which launched in January 2011, found its ratings footing thanks to black women, rather than the Oprah show’s bread and butter demo of white mothers and housewives. Oprah has returned the love by investing in programming that caters directly to them, from Black Love to Queen Sugar to Greenleaf to the forthcoming Love Is ___, an hourlong drama from Salim and Mara Brock Akil, the couple behind Girlfriends, Being Mary Jane, and most recently, Black Lightning. (Tyler Perry, the much-maligned actor-director-producer who was responsible for the network’s early ratings success, is moving on to Viacom.)

Oprah is the most powerful black woman in the world, and through her programming choices, she’s redoubled her efforts to reach other black women, reaffirming that, yes, deep down, beneath all that money, she really is just like them. That’s precisely why, upon meeting her last June at a press junket for Queen Sugar, I asked Oprah if she’d ever consider hosting a presidential debate on OWN. It seemed like another way for the mogul to use her network to serve black women, especially considering how the Democratic Party has been criticized for overlooking the one demographic that’s continually bailing it out. If there’s anyone who could refocus the party’s attention on its most loyal constituency, it’s Oprah, right?

Oprah immediately shook her head. “No.”

She started to walk away, then turned back to me. Her eyes narrowed a bit, she pursed her lips, and you could see her considering the idea for another beat. “Wait. You mean in 2020?”


“Anything’s possible.”

In February, Oprah addressed the crowd before her at the Apollo. The audience was mostly women, mostly black, and filled with people turned out in the stylish, elaborate garb that makes for street-style photography gold. Everyone dresses right for Oprah.

Oprah is the most powerful black woman in the world, and through her programming choices, she’s redoubled her efforts to reach other black women, reaffirming that, yes, deep down, beneath all that money, she really is just like them.

“I know so many people are feeling uneasy about the state of our world right now. It’s gon’ be aight,” Oprah said in the calm tones of a parent reassuring her children. “We. Have been. Through tougher times than these. It’s going to be OK. OK? Especially if you don’t buy into the hysteria. OK?”

When she was taping the Oprah show, Oprah always had a more irreverent side to her than the nation’s needy projections of comfortable matronliness would suggest. Our understanding of Oprah as a woman with youthful energy and a sex drive seems to fluctuate with her weight. She can be bashful and flirty — remember the time Jamie Foxx hit on her? She has admitted, on air, to not wearing underwear and she’s drunk tequila shots, too. After her 50th birthday, director Lee Daniels reminded us of Oprah’s sultry side in The Butler, where Oprah, as a drunken Gloria Gaines, took a long drag on a cigarette as she entertained the advances of Howard (Terrence Howard).

But she was also adept at knowing when to use her auntie affect as a way to get her celebrity guests on the Oprah show to divulge details about their lives that they didn’t necessarily wish to discuss. It’s on full display in a 2007 interview with Beyoncé, when the singer was still being cagey about her relationship with Jay-Z, and wasn’t even overtly confirming whether or not the two were married (they were).

Now, at 64, Oprah seems to be in the midst of a youthful renaissance, and not just because she embraces the awkward Gen Z humor of Twooooo Dooope Queeeeeeeeeee-eeeeeeeens, as she calls them. For the SuperSoul taping, Oprah was dressed in an outfit that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place on a woman 30 years younger: skinny black jeans, kicky black moto boots, and an ice-blue velvet blazer over a partially sheer white blouse. Her hair was pulled into a high, bouncy ponytail that gave her a girlish quality. She was sporting a pair of round glasses that featured leopard print detail on the bridge and temples. She looked, well, cool.

More than any other time during her life in the public eye, Oprah seems to be enjoying the freedom to do and say whatever she wants. This was hugely apparent when she told her audience at the Apollo that she had more power being Oprah than she could ever wield as president of the United States.

What does it look like to preserve your faith in humanity while shedding the last remnants of damns you have to give?

Keep your eye on Oprah. She’s showing us.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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].


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.


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.

Why ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ is a must-see The documentary tells the story of how black colleges brought our people out of slavery

I have watched Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Tell Them We Are Rising, three times now.

The first viewing was in 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival, where Nelson and his team received a standing ovation after the audience watched the film. The second was last summer at a private screening in New York, where Nelson discussed the film and filmmaking with five students from historically black colleges. The third time I joined an audience in the Oprah Winfrey Theater at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to view the film on Monday with Nelson in attendance.

Each viewing uncovers new nuggets of insight that underlined the tenacity and resilience of enslaved men and women so desperate for education that they risked death to learn to read.

Nelson said he was inspired to tackle Tell Them We Are Rising for multiple reasons.

His parents attended historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His mother, Alleluia Ransom, attended Talladega College in Alabama. His father, Dr. Stanley Nelson, attended Howard University. “That changed their lives, and it changed my life,” he said.

Nelson’s larger vision was to pay homage to a significant African-American institution. The subject was not particularly sexy, but it illuminated the quest for black freedom through the prism of higher education. “There have been just a few institutions that we’ve had as African-Americans that have sustained us,” Nelson said during a recent interview. “One of them is black colleges and universities. I thought that it was a story that nobody was lining up to tell.”

With several Emmys, a Peabody and MacArthur Fellowship, Nelson has become one of the country’s most accomplished documentarians. This film, Tell Them We Are Rising, may have been one of the most difficult he has attempted.

There were challenges and hurdles. The first was how to take a collection of great but individual HBCU stories and weave them into a narrative that described a powerful, overarching experience.

“So many times, people think of it as the Morgan State story or the Howard story or the Fisk story or the Spelman story,” Nelson said. “Nobody was looking at it as a united story.”

Unlike his powerful civil rights documentary Freedom Summer, based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, there was no one classic text to draw from. In Tell Them We Are Rising, Nelson and his team had to piece together footage, articles, photographs, “everything we could” to tell a captivating story.

The other challenge was telling the story of an institution whose history continues to unfold.

His 2015 documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, accounted for a period between 1966 to 1972 and chronicled certain watershed moments. By contrast, Tell Them We Are Rising covers the 150-year journey of black colleges in 90 minutes.

Some scenes were especially hard to watch, as the film explores historical events particularly personal to African-American viewers, such as the killings by law enforcement of Southern University students Denver Smith and Leonard Brown during 1972 protests, which remain unsolved.

Every black college graduate 65 or older lived through one of these moments, whether at a predominantly white institution petitioning for more black awareness or at an HBCU petitioning a conservative administration to take back its blackness.

But as president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund Michael Lomax said, the story of HBCUs is not simply a story of deprivation, need and want.

“The story of HBCUs as Stanley tells it is the story of powerful action,” Lomax said. “There are so many stories to choose from we had to figure out what stories would work and leave the audience with a sense of what black colleges have been and maybe where they are going.”

One of the most poignant moments of Tell Them We Are Rising takes place at Spelman College when Alversia Wade, an incoming freshman, explains why she chose the institution.

Wade spent her young academic career, from kindergarten through high school, as the single black student in her school. She describes the feeling of walking on campus and seeing a sea of fellow black students. “They all look like you,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “They all looked like you.”

Tell Them We are Rising, which airs Monday night on PBS, comes at a time when there is a hunger for positive, powerful images and good news within the far-flung black community.

On Friday, Marvel’s much-anticipated superhero film, Black Panther, will open in theaters across the country. Nelson was working on his Black Panther documentary when Marvel announced it was planning to release its superhero movie in 2018.

“When I first heard about it, I thought about Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and the bunch,” Nelson said.

There was some confusion. “People would call up and say, ‘I hear you’re working on this Black Panther film, is it Marvel or is it DC?’ ” Nelson recalled. “I said it’s neither one of them. It’s real life.”

He looks forward to seeing the film. “It’s that it’s creating so much excitement. Like, it’s something African-Americans needed and didn’t know they needed.”

The HBCU student, in many ways, is like the hero of Black Panther — a mythical African superhero existing outside the suffocating institutionalized racism that defines virtually every minute, every hour, of life for black Americans. While their institutions are often under-resourced, black students who choose the HBCU experience enjoy the psychic respite and reinforcement of being in the majority.

At a time when 9 percent of black college students were enrolled at an HBCU in 2015, the often-asked question is do we still need HBCUs? The question overlooks the reality that 90 percent of black students are spread over thousands of predominantly white institutions, leaving those who attend a significant but often overwhelmed minority. The largest concentration of young black college students resides at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities. For many young students, that alone is worth the price of the ticket.

HBCUs are not for everyone, no more than single-gender schools are not for everyone. Still, black colleges and universities are needed more than ever.

During a post-film panel discussion Monday, former Spelman president Johnetta Cole said, “If historically black colleges and universities did not exist, we would have to invent them. … Since they do exist, we have an extraordinary responsibility to support them.”

“Until racism and racialism end in this country, there will be a need for HBCUs,” Nelson told me. “Until the education system is an even playing field — from elementary school to junior high school until college, until those things are equal — we still need HBCUs. Until we have an equal society, young African-American people need a safe intellectual space that HBCUs provide.”

Lomax, the United Negro College Fund president and CEO, said Tell Them We Are Rising was “an inspirational story. It is a call to action to our community, first and foremost to invest in them, to own them, to support them and to ensure that they remain durable in the future.”

That resonates.

Tell Them We Are Rising challenges those of us who attended HBCUs. A challenge to look in the mirror, to step up, to donate what Cole referred to as the three Ts: our time, our talent and our treasure.

This is the only way HBCUs will continue to rise.

“These institutions will not survive without our support,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”

To share in the conversation about Tell them We Are Rising, join us on social media Monday, using the hashtags #HBCURising and #BHMxHBCU.

Happy birthday, Oprah! Take a look at 10 times she wowed us all Today, we celebrate our favorite media mogul on her 64th birthday

Happy birthday to the woman who has been a source of inspiration to all — Oprah! Take a look at the 10 times Oprah wowed us all.

1985 — She performed in one of the best black cult classics, The Color Purple.

There will never be a day where The Color Purple is not referenced in some way, shape or form. The popular 1985 film — based on the best-selling 1982 novel written by Alice Walker — has since been used in the form of memes and GIFs on social media, and in more serious settings such as university lectures. In 2016, an interview with entertainment website Collider was published regarding Oprah’s role as the headstrong, fierce and proud Sofia. The media mogul explained how her role as changed her life:

The Color Purple changed my life. It changed everything about my life because, in that moment of praying and letting go, I really understood the principle of surrender. The principle of surrender is that, after you have done all that you can do, and you’ve done your best and given it your all, you then have to release it to whatever you call God, or don’t call God. It doesn’t matter because God doesn’t care about a name. You just release it to that which is greater than yourself, and whatever is supposed to happen, happens. And I have used that principle about a million times now. You release it to Grace. So, when you see me in this movie, I had never been happier in my life. It is the reason why I ended up owning my own show.”

1986 — Oprah earned her college degree and racked up a bunch more along the way.

Oprah may have earned her undergraduate degree from the historically black Tennessee State University, but the talk show host has collected honorary degrees through years from colleges such as Howard, Princeton, Harvard, Duke and the University of the Free State in South Africa. This was also the same year her very first daytime talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, debuted. It was the first successful year of a 25-season run.

1988 — The Skinheads episode of Oprah.

The Oprah Winfrey Show had only debuted two years earlier, yet Oprah was taking on one of the most polarizing moments in the show’s history. A black woman purposely inviting a group of white supremacists to expose ignorance and confront hate was a pretty bold move, but there were some very important lessons learned that day.

The white supremacists riled the audience with their sentiments that only white people created the country, and “blacks still lived in the jungles of Africa.” Oprah was even called a monkey on her very own show.

Twenty years later, Oprah expressed how that particular show changed the way she chose her show’s topics. “I realized in that moment that I was doing more to empower them than I was to expose them,” Oprah said during a 2006 interview. “And since that moment, I’ve never done a show like that again.”

2000 — If having her own show wasn’t enough, Oprah launched her own magazine.

In 1999, Oprah fans were thrilled to learn the queen of daytime television would be launching her own publication and when the first issue arrived in 2000, supporters ran to the closest stands to grab their copies. Eighteen years later, O, The Oprah Magazine remains one of the most successful women’s magazines on shelves. And like the boss she is, Oprah has featured herself on every cover of the magazine. Only a few of her closest friends have had the honor of sharing the cover alongside her.

2004 — “Everybody gets a car!”

It was certainly the happiest day in the show’s history for audience members of The Oprah Winfrey Show, who all received a new Pontiac G6 from Mrs. Oprah Claus herself (maybe she wore that stunning red dress for a reason!). The episode still remains in Oprah’s 25 Most Unforgettable Oprah Show Moments.

2007 — Oprah opened a school for girls in South Africa.

Oprah’s global humanitarian efforts increased in 2007 when the TV personality opened the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls near Johannesburg. Oprah’s motivation to get the school completed was, in part, due to a promise she made to South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela.

“I wanted to give this opportunity to girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty could dim that light,” Oprah said at a news conference at the time. “If you are surrounded by beautiful things and wonderful teachers who inspire you, that beauty brings out the beauty in you.”

2011 — Oprah launches the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).

And what happens when you think you’ve acquired everything you could to build your brand? You OWN a network. Oprah took sole advantage of that feeling of pride, evident by the network’s acronym. Oprah shared her feelings on starting the network with readers shortly before its launch:

“I’m in the countdown to the end of the great phenomenon of my life. Headed off to launch a network of shows intended to do what The Oprah Winfrey Show and this magazine have done for years: inspire and entertain. Everything you’ve ever done prepares you for all that you can do and be. So I move forward to start a new chapter with the lessons I’ve learned and the strength I’ve gained. OWN debuts January 1; in its kickoff year, we’ve planned more than 600 hours of new programs. To fill the time 24/7/365, you need close to 9,000. We have a lot of work ahead. You can see why I hesitated for a moment. Do I really want to take this on? But the launch is just the beginning of what will eventually be a channel filled with creative, meaningful, and mindful programming.”

2013 — Oprah received one of her most important honors: The Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Oprah has collected quite an impressive collection of hardware throughout the years, but her 2013 addition was one that left Oprah beaming as then-President Barack Obama presented her with the highest civilian honor a president can bestow. The honor was bestowed upon Oprah for being “one of the world’s most successful broadcast journalists.

2015 — Oprah also continued her health journey by buying 10 percent of Weight Watchers.

Oprah has publicly shared her weight loss journey with supports over the years, but investing in Weight Watchers was a pleasant, yet unexpected next step. “Weight Watchers has given me the tools to begin to make the lasting shift that I and so many of us who are struggling with weight have longed for,” Oprah said in a statement. “I believe in the program so much I decided to invest in the company and partner in its evolution.” Stocks rose 105 percent after Oprah announced she would not only being investing, but also joining the Weight Watchers board. She has made roughly $300 million with the company since 2015.

2017 — In a candid moment, Oprah shows us why everyone needs a best friend like her.

A video of Oprah caringly, yet jokingly telling her best friend Gayle King that she needed to lotion her elbows was the best thing to happen to the internet that week. Oprah and Gayle’s friendship have been documented throughout the years from road trips to sit-down interviews. This was just a small reminder and rather funny reminder of how real their friendship is.

A Storm is coming — in Ava DuVernay’s ‘Wrinkle in Time’ ‘Essence’ cover features the director and her superstar cast

Soon, we’ll all get to see 13-year-old Storm Reid in Ava DuVernay’s upcoming A Wrinkle In Time. And she’ll be glorious — word to the icon that is Oprah Winfrey. Reid, Winfrey and DuVernay all cover Essence’s February issue, where they talk about the power of imagination.

One big dream DuVernay dared to imagine when she was first taking meetings about directing the film? Seeing a brown girl as the protagonist in this epic, fanciful story, which hits theaters March 9. “Sometimes I’d be watching her on set and would really tear up at her performance because she will become for this generation what Judy Garland’s Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz was for previous generations,” Winfrey shares in the Essence story. “She gets to be that. This little Stormy, our little Stormy, gets to carry that on for generations to come. She gets to be that light for girls like herself …”

Slow down on the Oprah presidency talk. This still is America Fairly or unfairly, in the age of Trump she’ll undergo unbelievable media scrutiny

Slow down on the Oprah presidency talk. This still is America.

Since Oprah Winfrey delivered her dazzling acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes, political talking heads have buzzed about whether she will seek the 46th presidency. CNN recently reported that Oprah, according to two close friends, is “actively thinking” about running. And her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, informed the Los Angeles Times, “It’s up to the people. … She would absolutely [run for president].

With the idea of an Oprah candidacy bustling through the public debate, many journalists are weighing her odds of winning, concluding that Democratic challengers should quake in fear should she enter the ring.

Politico’s Playbook deemed her a formidable foe: “We bet she has pretty high approval ratings among, well, everyone. She’s universally known. She’d raise the money quite easily. She’s a billionaire, so she could say she has business chops. Imagine Donald Trump talking trash about Oprah! Quite frankly, there isn’t any clear Democratic favorite that would clear the field at the moment. Don’t count someone like her out.”

Alex Burns, political reporter for The New York Times, echoed the sentiments:

Yet, this same crowd (political journalists) is the reason we should discount the likelihood that she could win the Democratic Party nomination, let alone the presidency.

Many have overlearned a lesson from 2016, the lesson being that we must reimagine who can win the White House. No longer must a person be a politician or famous war general — celebrity satisfies the burden and thus Oprah, so the argument goes, presents a major challenge in 2020.

A necessary but not sufficient condition for Donald Trump’s win, however, was that the political media failed to seriously and continuously interrogate his political aptitude. The knowledge level of a political novice that close to the most powerful position in the free world should have been regarded as the most important issue in the campaign by the press but wasn’t. In what makes a lot more sense now, Matt Lauer, for instance, pressed Hillary Clinton during the NBC News Commander-in-Chief Forum on Sept. 7, 2016, but allowed Trump to skate by, failing to correct misstatements of facts. Comparable failures continue to recur, most recently with an interview conducted by Michael Schmidt of The New York Times, who refused to probe Trump with pointed questions. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver highlighted the problem with this media failure:

We should not expect the media to treat a black woman, not even Oprah, similarly. If she struggles to display command over domestic and foreign policy issues, the media will pounce, transforming the “Oprah is running” narrative into an “Oprah is unfit” narrative that will depress her likelihood of victory. And such a story is much more likely to occupy center stage for the duration of the campaign.

Women endure extra scrutiny when entering the political arena, as the previous election demonstrated, a reality only exacerbated when that woman has black skin. Our sexist society scoffs at the notion that women can perform as capably as men, forcing women, particularly black women, to clear hurdles men never encounter. Oprah will not benefit from the implicit assumption that a male nonpolitician would benefit from: that she could perhaps still do the job despite an atypical resume.

The media lacks racial diversity, and even if reporters and editors showcase more racial tolerance than the broader population, they nonetheless fall victim to racial stereotyping. Notice how the media, for instance, depicts white male murderers like good kids gone awry but recount the tales of black victims of police brutality through a prism of their personal failings. The media extends a measure of forgiveness and empathy to white folk that they hesitate to extend to black folk. Even if Oprah learned policy quickly, she will err on the campaign trail — even seasoned politicians do — and once that occurs, how will the media treat her?

White men have long reaped jobs and opportunities they had no business receiving. This subplot features prominently in the “white man in America” story. The “black woman in America” corollary contains no such entry. If Oprah stands a chance to be president, she will have to clearly demonstrate her fitness for the Oval Office beyond that of a similarly situated white man. The white journalists pontificating gleefully about the specter of President Oprah will make sure of that.

Sure, she’s Oprah, one of the most respected and adored living Americans, a feat managed in spite of her blackness. But still, twice as hard, twice as good.

Even for Oprah.

The Emmy-winning Jackée Harry brings everybody up to speed The legendary performer on everything from ‘Game of Thrones’ to a ‘Sister, Sister’ reboot

Jackée Harry was glowing. She was at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Sept. 20, 1987, and Bruce Willis presented her with the Emmy Award for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy role, making her the first African-American woman to receive the honor. She won for her role as Sandra Clark on the #BlackGirlMagic standard-setting sitcom 227 (1985-90), beating out Justine Bateman (Family Ties), Julia Duffy (Newhart), Estelle Getty (The Golden Girls) and Rhea Perlman (Cheers). You also certainly remember her as Lisa Landry, the adoptive mother of two long-lost twins named Tia and Tamera, from the timeless Sister, Sister (1994-99).

Harry is still glowing — more than 30 years and countless film and TV appearances later. The woman admired and known to many as Ms. Jackée (who’s superinteractive with her fans on Twitter) makes an illustrious return to the small screen on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) as part of the Tyler Perry-created series The Paynes, a spinoff of Perry’s former TBS comedy House of Payne (2006-12). Before the new show’s Jan. 16 premiere, the free-spirited Ms. Jackée previewed her role as JoAnn Payne, confirms a Sister, Sister reboot and details, between infectious laughs, her love for HBO’s Game of Thrones.

How did you get involved with The Paynes?

Tyler Perry said he’d work with me eventually. He called one Sunday … and he said come on down. … It was really that simple, but it took years. I waited years because I’ve always wanted to work with him.

In your mind, what’s the biggest difference between the spinoff and the original show?

Curtis and Ella, they retire and move to Florida. They come down and begin a whole new TV family. Ella [Cassi Davis] is still an activist and involved in the community and Curtis [LaVan Davis] is still a fool. You get to see more of the two of them. It’s funny. They were funny on the House of Payne, but this is their show now.

How would describe your character, JoAnn Payne?

I play Curtis’ first cousin. I’m a crook, but I also am helpful. I’m working up a new scam. We’re sort of like Lucy and Ethel, me and Cassi. We’re always doing schemes. But she knows how to handle Curtis. I’m standing here with her now, looking at her! Ms. Cassi Davis!

Everyone is wondering — is a Sister, Sister reboot actually in the works?

Oh, yeah. We’re planning to do one. I just spoke to Tia and Tamera. They’re busy working on it right now so we can do it for y’all. Everybody is asking for it, and we’re ready to do it.

Are you recognized more for Sandra Clark from 227 or Lisa Landry from Sister, Sister?

Sandra Clark, because the show is on OWN right now. They’ve been playing it every weekend, all weekend long.

What do you remember most from the night you won your Emmy?

Nothing. I don’t remember a thing because I didn’t expect to win. I’ll be honest, I thought I’d just be nominated one time and that was it. But I won the first time out.

What’s your favorite current TV show?

Game of Thrones is my favorite. I love it. Dragons and you know what!

Who’s your favorite Game of Thrones character?

Emilia Clarke’s character, Daenerys. Her and her dragons. I actually love all the women on the show. The little sister, Arya, and Sansa. They’re all fabulous.

Are there any young actors or actresses that stick out to you nowadays that you’d like to work with?

Regina King, of course. She’s my favorite. Zendaya. She’s just phenomenal. … Yara Shahidi. I did work with them, but when they were little kids. Now they’re all grown up, so I’d like to work with them again.

If you could have dinner with one actor or actress, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Bette Davis [laughs]. Uh huh. I wanna hear All About Eve! I would love to because she’s in one of my favorite movies. Or even an Alan Rickman. He’s my favorite villain. I would love to have dinner with him. I think I’ve seen Die Hard about 600 times.

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

Show up, be on time and know your lines.

What would be your go-to karaoke song, and why?

Boyz II Men, “End of the Road,” because I could get the best harmony with it. I do that at Taco Tuesdays!

What’s one thing you’d like to accomplish in 2018?

To evolve as a person … become kinder and more empathetic … and try not to be as much of a diva!

What will you always be a champion of?

Education. Forever. That’s my No. 1 thing. Formal or informal. Books, computers, however you get it, but it’s gotta be done so we can keep up. Because if we don’t teach these kids, there will be no tomorrow for them.