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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of TIFF

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of TIFF

Sweetness in the Belly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t have to,” Amina says.

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

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

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

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

‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ puts a new face on death from despair Movie from Brad Pitt’s Plan B is a tale of gentrification and loss

In 2015, a couple of economists coined a term to describe the decline in life expectancy among middle-aged white Americans due to elevated rates of suicide, drug use and alcoholism. They called these untimely deaths, which they tied to a lack of opportunity among whites lacking a college degree, “deaths of despair.”

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which opens in theaters Friday, is not about working-class white people. But it is very much about despair that’s not so different from that described by the economists.

The film, directed by Joe Talbot and written by Talbot and Rob Richert, tells the story of actor Jimmie Fails, who plays a version of himself in the film. Jimmie has been crashing on the bedroom floor of his best friend, Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), for some time as he tries to stake a claim on a multilevel Victorian house in San Francisco that his grandfather once owned. His father, Jimmie Fails Sr. (Rob Morgan), eventually lost it, and Jimmie Jr.’s childhood became pockmarked by lack and uncertainty.

Jimmie Fails as Jimmie in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Courtesy of A24

The house, now worth several millions of dollars, is occupied by an older white woman who doesn’t treat it with the regard Jimmie believes it deserves. So he makes surreptitious improvements — trimming hedges, touching up paint — to honor both the house and his grandfather, who supposedly built it at the turn of the 20th century.

Produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B with A24 and Talbot’s company Longshot Features, The Last Black Man in San Francisco joins Jimmie and Monty at a crucial point: The woman who lives in the Fails house is forced to move out because of family circumstances, and before it can go on the market, Jimmie occupies the property he believes is rightfully his, even though he has no money and no deed. Instead, Jimmie has righteousness and lore on his side — until he doesn’t. Capitalism holds no romance or respect for moral abstractions; only financial assets are revered, and Jimmie has next to none.

The Last Black Man appears to be a story about robbery via gentrification in one of the American capitals of income inequality, and it is. But it’s more than that. Stories about gentrification are also stories about the loss of identity, about the loss of the place a set of people once called home.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco has a scab to pick off a bigger wound.

Monty and the needy curmudgeon Grandpa Allen (played by Danny Glover in one of the best performances of his career) live across the street from Bayview-Hunters Point, an area that is a case study in environmental racism. The movie opens with a shot of a little black girl, no more than 6 or 7, in a dress skipping along the same stretch of street being traversed by a man in a hazmat suit. Jimmie and Monty are well aware of how race has affected their tenuous positions in society. Such inequality wallpapers their lives. Set off with a Greek chorus of neighborhood ne’er-do-wells who congregate outside the Allen house, the script for The Last Black Man in San Francisco dances with wit, tragedy and originality. It’s punctuated by the kinetic photography of Adam Newport-Berra, whose shots of Jimmie and Monty sharing a skateboard through San Francisco’s steep grades and curving blacktops simultaneously invite snickers and awe.

Jimmie isn’t mourning the fact that drunken tech bros in a chaperoned party trolley pollute the city he loves with obscene chants directed at a nude hippie waiting for the bus. (It’s one of my favorite scenes because of the way it cheekily illustrates how definitions of normalcy are relative.) Jimmie’s despair comes from realizing that the option to participate in a key aspect of the American tradition may have never really existed for him. He’s lost out on the opportunity to homestead a new existence, to create his own myth and live it until what’s true and what’s family lore blends into a triumphant, interesting-at-cocktail-parties truthiness.

Before he moved in with Monty and Grandpa Allen, Jimmie was homeless, and before that, he was a ward of the state. Jimmie’s mother is a former drug addict with whom he barely communicates. James Sr., also in recovery, is a grifter who sells bootleg movies to pay his rent in a single room occupancy building. No wonder Jimmie wants to look back a generation in search of a better story, one that puts him in the lineage of a builder of a Victorian masterpiece and injects some greatness into his veins.

Rob Morgan (left) and Jimmie Fails (right) in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Courtesy of A24

It’s a beautiful, unexpected sort of greatness too, because it’s wrapped up in antique furniture and sunlight streaming through lace curtains. Greatness, for Jimmie, is preserved in a time warp.

In this light, we can see all the complementary aspects of Jimmie’s friendship with Monty, the one man in the world fluent in Jimmie’s particular language of weird. Monty’s a playwright who copes with real life by pretending that he’s actually directing it, a man who hoards old playbills and dresses like an East Coast humanities professor. Once you see past Monty’s surface-level strangeness — and he is, by every objective measure, awfully odd — you see a man who worships the promise and magic of created worlds and their ability to transport as they tell the truth.

When tragedy rocks their world, it’s no wonder that Monty’s grand gesture as he tries to save his closest friend involves staging a play about their lives. It honors Jimmie’s current life but also reminds him that there’s still hope of creating a new one.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an exquisite dirge for the loss of a city, of home, of community. But most of all, it mourns the loss of possibility, and for some that load is just too heavy to bear.

Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon: ‘My life passion is not basketball. It’s helping people.’ The third-year guard discusses his efforts to bring clean water to East Africa

Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon played a big role in the team’s Game 2 win on Friday night with 14 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds off the bench.

But after the game he was more excited about a larger contribution.

On the set with TNT’s Inside the NBA crew, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley made a surprise $45,000 donation to Brogdon’s Hoops2O initiative, which raises funds to build water wells in East Africa. With Barkley’s contribution, Hoops2O has now raised $274,200 in less than a year.

“It’s extremely generous of [Barkley],” Brogdon told The Undefeated. “Not only does his donation significantly help my cause and thousands of people get access to clean water, but his interest creates a buzz that will magnify the addition that this initiative will get.”

Brogdon spearheaded the launch of Hoops2O on Oct. 29, 2018. Atlanta Hawks guard Justin Anderson, Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Harris, Los Angeles Clippers guard Garrett Temple and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Tolliver were named as part of Brogdon’s “Starting Five” in the Hoops2O Ballin’ for Buckets campaign. Hoops2O was born under the umbrella of the Waterboys initiative started by Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who got 29 players to commit funding after his foundation debuted in 2015. All the money raised through Hoops2O goes toward the building of solar-powered deep borehole wells in East African communities.

“What Malcolm and the Starting Five have accomplished since October is impressive,” said Long. “They set a lofty goal to bring Waterboys to the NBA and raise over a quarter of a million dollars in the first season. … Their involvement means that we will reach our shared goal of providing water to 1 million people that much faster.”

This offseason, Brogdon, Anderson and Harris are slated to go to Tanzania for a Hoops2O project.

“Hoops2O is an amazing initiative that Malcolm brought me into,” said Temple, who plans to make a Hoops2O trip to Africa next year. “When he asked me to be a part of the Starting Five, I jumped at the chance. Water is easily one of the most vital components of life. It feels good to be able to provide that to an area that really needs it.”

Malcolm Brogdon during a trip to Tanzania in July 2018.

Clay Cook Photography and Chris Long Foundation

Brogdon’s initial goal of raising $225,000 for Hoops2O this season has already been surpassed. Three wells are under construction, two more will begin construction next month and another pair will begin construction in the coming months. Each well provides fresh water for more than 13,000 people in each East African community. Waterboys and Hoops2O have combined to fund 61 wells in Tanzania and Kenya.

“I feel like it’s my calling and my passion in life,” said Brogdon. During a trip to Malawi at the age of 14 with his grandparents, he learned that many Africans do not have clean water. “I’ve always viewed it as my dream and something that I love to do. I view it as a tool, something I can gain resources, gain access, money and all these things that can influence and empower other peoples’ lives. Clean water is the way I wanted to go, and Africa is the place I am starting.

“I am very happy with where I am now and the work that is getting done.”

Brogdon, 26, went to Tanzania last offseason in his first efforts to learn about the need for water wells in East Africa. In July, the Atlanta native will fly into Kilimanjaro before he goes to visit wells that have been built as well as sites under consideration. The former University of Virginia star also plans on visiting several elementary schools that are in need of water.

Brogdon said he was heartbroken and further inspired to create Hoops2O after visiting elementary schools in Arusha, Tanzania, last year.

“They brought buckets from home to get water for themselves and their classmates. And there was a little river behind the school,” Brogdon said. “And behind the river there were shantytowns where people lived very poorly. They were littering into the river, and you could see all the drainage, all the trash, dirt and all types of stuff. Everything was running through the river. Ten or 12 feet up the river you could see a line of sewage going across it. All the water was filtering through it, so you knew all the water was bad.

“You could see the kids getting water with their buckets, drinking it and then handing it to their classmates. And after a while after they get to their teens, you can see their teeth rotting and decaying because … the water was so contaminated. It was so unbearable to see. There is so much we take for granted here in the States.”

Brogdon and the Bucks will play Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals in Toronto on Sunday. They are now two wins away from Milwaukee’s first NBA Finals appearance since 1974. No matter the outcome, Brogdon is already viewed as a champion in East Africa.

“They see me as a humanitarian. I’m so big that people wonder and ask if I play basketball. But it is not like people over there are following the NBA really hard,” Brogdon said. “Their worries are bigger than basketball. It’s clean water. It’s living. It’s necessities that they’re looking for. Not celebrities. …

“Basketball is my job, I love it. It’s the dream. But honestly, my life passion is not basketball. It’s helping people and using my resources that I have gotten from basketball.”

An ode to ‘Jet’ magazine’s ‘Beauty of the Week’ Parent company Johnson Publishing filed for bankruptcy last week

This was the point, my dad once told me, that I knew you were interested in women.

I was 6 years old, waiting for a haircut from our regular barber, Clarence. (To this day, I don’t know Clarence’s last name. He is my Cher.) My older brother and I took out about 20 of the pocket-sized weekly magazines, lined them up in a row and flipped each to Page 43 — it was almost always Page 43. We probably didn’t even need the table of contents; we knew exactly what we were looking for.

We found out on our own that we liked girls right there in between the pages of Jet magazine, in “Beauty of the Week.”

On April 9, Johnson Publishing Co., which published Jet magazine and its sister publication Ebony magazine from the 1940s until 2016, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois, effectively ending the black-centric publisher’s 77-year run.

In 2016, Johnson Publishing sold Jet and Ebony to private equity firm Clear View Group. Last week’s filing will not affect either of those publications. Nevertheless, the fate of Johnson Publishing brought back thoughts of “Beauty of the Week,” which placed just ahead of professional wrestling and Power Rangers on the Family Feud-like board of my pastimes.

Your level of fondness for “Beauty of the Week,” the magazine’s famous section dedicated to black women decked out in swimsuits, depends on your perspective.

For some black men, it was somewhere between adoration of the black female body … and Lawd Have Mercy. Whether on the bus, in the barbershop, on the end table at your grandmother’s house or even in prison cells, from teenagers to middle-aged men, some among us went straight to the centerfold of Jet as soon as we set our eyes on the pint-size glossy cover. Black boys and men (and women, too) ogled the pretty brown-skinned women with the voluptuous curves and breathtaking smiles. And while it wasn’t Penthouse or Maxim’s Hot 100, Johnson Publishing exploited black bodies and sexuality, sometimes printing photos that straddled the line between tasteful and lustful.

At the same time, “Beauty of the Week” brought black female bodies into the mainstream, said Cornell University professor Noliwe M. Rooks, whose research focuses on beauty, race and fashion. As a pushback against pinup girls in other magazines of the early 20th century, Johnson Publishing founder John H. Johnson created a domain for black women and their sexuality. These images were a sharp contrast to the all-white bodies presented in other publications. And though Jet was never known for featuring plus-size women, its models came in different colors, sizes and shapes — the antithesis of the blond bombshell.

“They’re not stick figures,” Rooks said.

Stick figures they were not. At the time, I was way too young to understand the meaning of sex or even what it was, but I could somehow recognize black beauty (among other things) and how it differed from other suggestive images on television. Sure, there were the hidden dirty magazines around the shop of my dad’s trucking company, or the always-weakened-signaled Channels 32 and 33 on the “black box,” but I just knew there was something different about the women on the 5 1/8-by-7 3/8-inch pieces of paper.

Former Jet editor-in-chief Mira Lowe came to the publication during its twilight in 2007 but grew up reading the magazine, admiring the risks Johnson Publishing was willing to take with black women featured so prominently on its covers and throughout its pages. Before Jet and Ebony, black women simply didn’t appear on magazine covers. Vogue (1974), Glamour (1968), Life (1969) and Playboy (1971) didn’t put black women on their covers until almost 20 years after Jet’s first issue in 1951.

“Jet helped with the penetration in the black community,” Lowe said. “[It] laid the groundwork and was the pioneer to what we see today in mainstream magazines.”

Johnson Publishing featured black women prominently on its covers and between its pages through the years.

Jet Magazine

Dudley Brooks, who was Jet and Ebony’s photo director from 2007 to 2014, said Jet was forward-thinking at the time in choosing to showcase black women in a way they hadn’t been before.

The early incarnation of “Beauty of the Week” debuted in 1952 in the centerfold. One of the first models was Florida-born Ruth King, who was working a clerical job in a New York City court when she appeared in the Aug. 14 issue. As would come to be Jet’s trademark, King’s full-page portrait was accompanied by a short bio and body size measurements that Sir Mix-a-Lot would rap about some 40 years later.

Outside of King, it wasn’t just aspiring models looking to be the next “It” girl appearing in “Beauty of the Week.” There were women majoring in speech at historically black colleges and universities, beauty consultants from California, and aspiring politicians and musicians. There was Beverly the waitress, Denise the inhalation therapist and Noni, who liked to deep-sea fish and Jet Ski. These women were everyday girls who were given the opportunity to show the world what “normal” looks like.

But there were also those who used “Beauty of the Week” as a launching pad. Former television personality and author Janet Langhart Cohen graced the section in 1966. She told Jet in 1986 that it’s “where I got my start.” Ja’net Dubois, who played wisecracking neighbor Willona Woods on Good Times, appeared in 1977. The most famous of the bunch was blaxploitation film actress Pam Grier, who was set to star in 1971’s The Big Doll House when she posed for the magazine in a two-piece bathing suit in Chicago.

“I think it was just after I finished Black Mama White Mama, and things were starting to blow up, and they said, ‘You’ve got to do Jet and Ebony,’ ” Grier told The Undefeated in 2016. “You can see I am so rough. I just seemed not like the beauties of today: toned and tanned and shiny. I was ashy, no makeup, my hair was all over the place.”

While “Beauty of the Week” was an opportunity to uplift and portray black women in a non-disrespectful manner, at the end of the day it was what it was.

“It was eye candy,” said Brooks, now the deputy director of photography at The Washington Post. “Things that used to be considered normal or accepted widely years ago move on.”

The women, for the most part, were photographed solely in swimsuits and, from 1959-93, were accompanied by their body measurements.

The photos have been called a “quick dose of random, incongruous cheesecake” meant to offset the more serious news stories in the magazine, no more obvious than in 1955 when Jet published the gruesome images from Emmett Till’s funeral just 26 pages ahead of 15-year-old Judith Stewart in a two-piece bathing suit.

The merits of presenting black women in next to no clothing can be argued every day of the week, but, at the same time, the editors and art directors appeared ahead of their time in the mid-20th century, showcasing women of various skin tones, waist sizes and hair lengths. A 2011 research study found that Jet presents “a larger female body size ideal … contrary to mainstream Caucasian media’s practices,” which may reflect a “broader definition of female attractiveness.” From Saartjie Baartman to former first lady Michelle Obama to Serena Williams, black women’s bodies have been ridiculed, mocked and simultaneously ignored for centuries, but Jet (and older publications such as Tan) had the audacity to put black women front and center for the world to see.

There’s not much I remember about my childhood. I vaguely recall learning to ride my bike or almost getting lost at a Six Flags theme park or dressing up for Halloween. But “Beauty of the Week” is one of those things that sits in the back of your memory, never being forgotten. I haven’t picked up a physical copy of the magazine since the early 2000s, but I can envision being in my grandparents’ living room as everyone else watched television, wading through the first 42 pages of the latest Jet, anticipating which pretty woman I’d get to see that week, like an adult L.O.L. Surprise! doll box. (Jet switched to a digital-only operation in 2014 and hasn’t posted a “Beauty of the Week” on its website in more than a year.)

When I was commissioned to write this story, I was told by my editor to keep it classy and tasteful. But crossing that line never crossed my mind. “Beauty of the Week” didn’t make me the man I am today, in that clichéd kind of way, but I can say without a doubt that it helped me learn to appreciate and respect black women and their bodies.

And now, the dissolution of Johnson Publishing means a part of Jet’s soul is gone forever.

And with it, a part of my adolescence.

Former Georgetown basketball player turns passion into acclaimed documentary RaMell Ross takes unique look at black life in Oscar-nominated ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’

If you are inclined to put people in boxes, you should probably stop reading now.

Because RaMell Ross likely won’t fit in any of them.

Such is life for a Division I athlete turned professional European hooper, turned photography student and professor, turned Oscar-nominated filmmaker for his 2018 documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening — the 36-year-old’s first movie, no less.

Ask Ross about inspiration and he’ll offer Allen Iverson “a guy I bowed down to, with deceptive speed and fluidity, like a bird flying amongst trees when he scores in the paint” alongside Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr and Tarr’s obscure, visually evocative 2011 film The Turin Horse.

If you watched Georgetown in the early 2000s — the golden days of Mike Sweetney, Jeff Green and Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, and coaches Craig Esherick and John Thompson III — you could’ve caught a glimpse of Ross’ 6-foot-6-inch frame on the Hoyas’ bench, or scoring a garbage bucket against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

A scene from ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’ which is set in Greensboro, Alabama.

RaMell Ross

Or perhaps you saw him ahead of the 2019 Academy Awards on The Daily Show promoting Hale County, with host Trevor Noah calling the film “truly beautiful” and “difficult to capture” while suggesting viewers might be asking, “Do I need to be high?” after watching a clip.

Drugs or not, you likely haven’t seen the film yet a current box-office total of roughly $100,000 suggests fewer than 10,000 folks have.

In a way, Hale County is a simple film: It primarily follows two protagonists, Daniel Collins (who played basketball for Selma University) and Quincy Bryant, and their respective lives and families; IMDB sums it up as “a kaleidoscopic and humanistic view of the Black community in Hale County, Alabama.”

The film is named Hale County because that is where both were raised. Greensboro, Alabama, the county seat of Hale County, is where they both lived during most of the filming.

Ross’ documentary is a 76-minute distillation of more than 1,300 hours of film, and seemingly about everything (from the humanist perspective) and nothing (from a traditional Hollywood vantage point).

It is a deeply visual, abstract and immersive experience, a collection of images, moments and life shot over five years in Alabama’s portion of the Black Belt, a fertile region in the South that was historically developed for cotton plantations.

Years into Ross’ journey making Hale County, Danny Glover and Joslyn Barnes, herself an institution in the socially conscious documentary and film world, came on board as producers.

But long before that, it was another “producer” that had an instructive role in the production and preproduction process both for the film, and in Ross’ life that shaped Hale County into what it would eventually become.

That would be the game of basketball.

“I can’t imagine I would have been able to do the film without my sports background,” Ross said.

Act I: A basketball dream

Ross was a late bloomer who only started playing hoops seriously at age 13. His career began to bloom his junior year at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia. A scholarship offer came that same year, and a journey to play in A.I.’s wake at Georgetown followed.

So did Ross’ primal artistic instincts once he got to college, for better or worse.

“Coaches would always tell me to stop dribbling so much,” Ross said of his career. “To me, it wasn’t being fancy. It was like a bird fluttering in the wind, enjoying the free fall before grabbing the food, something more instinctually grace-oriented.

“One of my problems at Georgetown was that I was as much, if not more, interested in doing AND1 moves than I was in scoring. I realized later on I was more interested in the art of the sport, and less of the rest.

“But I also wanted to go to the NBA. It was the only career, the only dream that I had.”

Ross’ life as a Hoya got off to a rocky start after he broke his foot in the summer before his sophomore season — and broke the same foot yet again as the season was about to tip off, essentially dashing those NBA dreams entirely.

“I was ready to start, and it was a devastating realization that led to a deep depression,” he said. “I stayed in my room for two weeks and didn’t do anything. Because, what am I without basketball? What am I without the dream to go to the league?

“If I was on this Earth to go to the NBA, and it didn’t happen, what else am I missing about the world? And what else am I taking for granted about the natural order of things?”

The wheels of change started to turn, pushing him toward the arts but basketball wasn’t done with him yet, or vice versa.

Act II: A filmmaker’s beginnings

Two years after Georgetown, Ross found himself playing for Belfast Star of the Sea, eventually leading the Irish League in scoring.

His bonkers ESPN TrueHoop blog post from 2007 offers a “story from Mars” and a glimpse of the country’s chaos, which Ross experienced in full working as a regional photographer for PeacePlayers International, a community-building nongovernmental organization that brings basketball to war-torn regions, from Gaza to South Africa to Cyprus.

In 2007, one of Ross’ PeacePlayers co-workers, David Cullen, was awarded with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at The ESPYS for using basketball to promote peace and understanding between Protestant and Catholic children amid Northern Ireland’s violent decades-long conflict.

ESPN sent a photographer to Belfast to take pictures of Cullen, and the photog happened to cross paths with Ross — a random moment that sparked something greater.

“He told me you have a really, really good eye,” Ross said. “It was the first time anyone complimented my work. And when I went back to D.C., I started freelancing right away.”

With that, Ross’ second off-the-court act began in concert. Days, weeks and months of shooting soon followed.

In 2009, he moved to Hale County to work at Selma University’s YouthBuild program as a career counselor and high school basketball coach. There, Ross’ NBA dream was seemingly nothing more than a memory. But the game remained, his basketball eye now focused behind a lens.

“This idea of being the point guard, surveying the floor and trying to make all of these decisions, in the context of all these different usages of times and bodies, it’s very much like using the camera,” Ross said. “I was using it as a tool, very much the way you’d use the basketball.

“You’re not thinking about the shot, you’re just looking. And it’s all tied to extreme patience.”

Act III: The imagery of ‘Hale County’

Patience, in some ways, is also required when viewing Hale County itself.

All of which makes the thought-provoking sportscentric imagery Ross weaved into the film more of a revelation.

The film loosely centers on Daniel and Quincy. Along the way, there are still shots, and tracking shots, and time-lapses, with every angle, perspective and point of view mixed in for good measure.

“That’s why there are so many different styles of shot: Every shot is literally responding to the moment,” Ross said. “Filmmakers often preconceive what they need to get: ‘I need a wide, I need a close, cut between these things.’ ”

Indeed, each moment of Hale County offers something unique from a stylistic, storytelling and sporting perspective.

There are shots that last only a few seconds, such as the breathtaking image of a decaying hoop against a starry night. Or the juxtaposition of water dripping on concrete, first falling off Daniel while dribbling a basketball, followed by raindrops hitting the ground from a storm in the same fashion.

There are shots that capture moments rich with subtext that last more than a few minutes too. Such as watching Quincy’s toddler son, Kyrie, running back and forth (and back and forth again) in their living room for what feels like an eternity.

Or Kyrie eventually getting his hair stuck on a little kid’s hoop in the same living room. Is there something Ross is suggesting, given that the viewer watches Kyrie struggle to get unstuck but doesn’t untangle his hair from the hoop, only for the film to move on to its next shot?

“Hell, yeah,” Ross said.

Or perhaps the film’s tensest and most memorable scene: a three-minute, wide-angle still shot of Selma University’s locker room, an entire team gathered around a couch, waiting to take the court and offering up possibly every emotion on the human spectrum.

“To me in that moment, it just required that,” Ross said. “ ‘Whoa, look at this. This is wide frame.’ And I just left it. But footage from other locker room scenes, it’s nothing like that.

“You’re meta in the moment. You’re not worried about certain things, because intuition says you’ve done it so many times. You’re functioning on a different level.”

Indeed, Hale County operates on its own level, especially as a sports documentary. Latent meaning or direct explanations behind Ross’ message are always many counties away.

“It’s complicated,” Ross coyly offered when discussion turned to the film’s portrayal of sports. See the film for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Prologue: 1,000 shots, from beginning to end

Long before a random ESPN photographer unwittingly set off his artistic fuse, Ross credits his early days of practice — yes, we talkin’ bout practice — that cultivated an intensive filming process, something shooters of both types can learn from.

“Working out and thinking, all right, in one year, I’ll be able to do this,” Ross said of the basketball and filmmaking parallels. “The payoff is something that comes far down the line for individual discipline in the moment.

“That’s kind of how I saw the film: ‘I’m going to shoot for a week. Hopefully after the week, I’ll have one or two good shots. But I know that after a month, I’ll have six or seven, and then the next month, 14.’ It all adds up to something later down the line. It’s not about the moment; it’s just about discipline with the idea. This is what I’m doing.”

As a result, Ross’ future is full: He’s still living in Hale County when he’s not teaching photography at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. And he’ll also be traveling back to Durham, North Carolina, soon — this time trading out the early 2000’s Cameron Crazies for curating the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which takes place there April 4-7.

But perhaps none of that would be possible without his first basketball blueprint, one Ross can trace all the way back to Lake Braddock and his freshman coach, Robert Barrow, a high school teammate of Grant Hill’s.

“He told me, ‘You’re going to work on your ballhandling for an hour a day with no rim in sight and do these extremely repetitive drills, building up your muscles,’ ” Ross said. “And you’re going to do this exactly, not deviating at all. Just doing this.

“In college, it was making 1,000 shots a day with my father. Then bring them all together. Devoting yourself. Practicing actual devotion and belief, that what you’re doing now is perhaps painful, and still finding the joy in it.”

In the wake of Ross’ devotion, joy and insistence on following his instincts across the country and world, Hale County, a film you most certainly cannot put into a box, was eventually born.

And thank God, we all have the game of basketball to thank for that.

Our list of 24 can’t-miss books for holiday gifting From a photographic history of hip-hop to magical fantasy to sports activism, it’s all here

Searching for the perfect present for the reader in your family? Or maybe it’s time for some self-gifting (we won’t judge, we promise). From essays to young adult novels to photography and poetry, The Undefeated has you covered. Here’s a collection of some of the most intriguing, well-crafted and engaging books of 2018.

FICTION

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)

Don’t believe anyone who tells you slam poetry is dead, because they clearly missed the memo about Elizabeth Acevedo, an award-winning, fire-spitting Afro-Latino poet who has penned an entire novel in verse. Acevedo won the National Book Award for young people’s literature with a coming of age story about Xiomara Batista. Xiomara lives in Harlem, and as she begins to form her own opinions — about religion, about street harassment, about what it means to become a woman — she collects her thoughts in verse and finds a home in her school’s slam poetry club.


Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)

If you find yourself hooked after reading Tomi Adeyemi’s debut fantasy novel, fear not. She’s got two more coming, all about strong-willed Zélie Adebola and her adventures as she tries to bring magic back to her fictive country of Orïsha, where power has been consolidated by an evil, magic-hating king. The stakes are high: If Zélie fails, Orïsha will lose its magic forever. There’s no shortage of black fantasy fans (remember when Buzzfeed imagined if Hogwarts were an HBCU?), and now young readers have another set of books to add to their collections, right alongside Harry Potter, Shadowshaper and the Bartimaeus trilogy. Adeyemi weaves a story that tackles colorism, class and racism with West African mythology and Yoruba traditions.


My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel crackles with dark humor as she traces the story of sibling rivalry between Nigerian good girl Korede and her maybe-sociopath murderer of a sister, Ayoola. Ayoola’s boyfriends keep turning up dead, and poor, put-upon Korede keeps finding ways to keep her sister free. That is, until Korede’s crush expresses an interest in her sister and Korede is faced with a choice.


A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection of nine short stories is a meditation on modern masculinity, told from the perspectives of various black men in New York, mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The National Book Award finalist focuses on how ideas about what it means to be a man are passed down through generations, and what it takes to define oneself as notions about sex and gender continue to evolve.


The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard

Ladee Hubbard has introduced a new framework for thinking about W.E.B. Du Bois, the Talented Tenth and obligations to fellow black people in struggle against white supremacy: a fantastical crime novel about a black family with ridiculously random superpowers (one of the Ribkins can see colors that remain obscured to others, while another can scale walls like a spider). The protagonist is 72-year-old Johnny, who has gotten himself in way too deep with a mobster. The Talented Ribkins, which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction, is an inventive layer cake of humor, intrigue and insights about race.


Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA)

Remember the head-scratching reaction you had the first time you heard about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? Well, get over it, because literature about a Civil War-era America complicated by the existence of the undead is most definitely a thing. Enter Jane McKeene, the protagonist of Justina Ireland’s bone-chilling account of an America in which the many who died at Gettysburg became, well, not so dead. Jane has been sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, where she learns how to wield a scythe, which is definitely a subversive take on the real-life Miss Porter’s, where women like Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis learned to be the sort of woman who knows when and how to use an asparagus server. In this America, black and Native people are still doing the bidding of power-wielding whites, except now that bidding includes slaying zombies. Just imagine the troubles that can arise when an entire underclass of people is armed with very sharp weapons.


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones, whose novel made this year’s National Book Award long list, trains her lens on the very personal implications of unjust policing and mass incarceration. Her leading lady, Celestial, is married to a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned. While both Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and American Marriage examine the implications of what it means to be a black woman with a partner imprisoned in the American South, the avenues they take vary wildly. Ward’s focus is on the poor, while Jones takes a look at what imprisonment means for a well-to-do middle-class couple who never envisioned this life for themselves, and the romantic compromise Celestial makes in order to cope.


Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange

A collection of poems old and new, in English and Spanish, Wild Beauty is the last published work of the late poet, dancer and playwright. Ntozake Shange died in October at 70. She’d suffered a series of strokes in 2004, but as she recovered, she kept writing. Wild Beauty offers one last bittersweet opportunity to connect with an American treasure.


Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

The theme that unites Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection is one with which many black Americans can identify: being The Only. As in, The Only Black Kid in Private School, or The Only Black Professor, or The Only Black Woman in Yoga Class. In this collection, which made this year’s National Book Award long list, Thompson-Spires conducts a narrative thought experiment, illustrating the world as it’s processed through a variety of Onlys who are carrying around the burden of being representatives for an entire race of people. Lest you think Thompson-Spires has gone too far, never forget the existence of an embarrassingly uncomfortable real-life account of a white woman who projected all of her insecurities onto the only black woman in her yoga class, and then wrote an essay about it. In the world of Thomson-Spires’ characters, readers are encouraged to think about the world from the perspective of The Only, and not the voyeur.

NON-FICTION

Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld

Anyone who’s enjoyed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s foray into cultural criticism as a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter knows that his brain is brimming with trenchant observations. Becoming Kareem offers much of the same, though instead of looking at the entertainment industry, Abdul-Jabbar turns inward to explain his evolution as an athlete, activist and thinker. It’s a worthy addition for anyone who wants an insider’s account of processing where you fit when you’re young, black and blazingly talented and your country is erupting with change.


American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer

Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones, famously spent four months working undercover as a guard in a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. Bauer elaborates on his experiences in Winnfield and shapes them with historical context to explain how we arrived at mass incarceration as we currently know it. Bauer shines much-needed sunlight on a crisis that readers of The New Jim Crow and watchers of 13th will find familiar: a system profiting off the warehousing and mistreatment of millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown.


Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin

If you’re an athlete writing about the intersection of sports, social issues and race, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-suited co-author than Dave Zirin, the sports columnist at The Nation. Here, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman melds the personal with the political — one chapter is called “The NCAA Will Give You PTSD.” The through line is a commitment to standing up for the little guy, even when the little guy happens to be 250-plus pounds. It’s a stirring and smart trip through Michael Bennett’s musings on race and power.


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

There’s no time in American history when this book hasn’t been needed, but, boy, is it ever timely now. Robin DiAngelo’s explanations for why we’re so stymied when it comes to discussing race is refreshing, fact-based and patient. While it’s a book that contains helpful information for everyone, White Fragility is an ideal starting place for white people who want to be allies in anti-racism but feel intimidated about where to begin.


Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves edited by Glory Edim

The founder of the popular Brooklyn, New York-based book club (now in its third year of existence) has released a book of essays written by literary luminaries including Jesmyn Ward, Lynn Nottage, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Walker and Barbara Smith. Every woman answers the question: When did you first see yourself in literature? Thanks to Glory Edim’s work, black women and girls have a reliable space online, and in print, where they know they’ll always be seen.


The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Harry Edwards

If there’s a book that synthesizes and gives historical context to the wave of social activism that’s swept through modern sports, it’s this one. First published in 1968, it has been resurrected, with a new introduction and afterword for a 50th anniversary edition. Harry Edwards traces the history of black athletes from Emancipation onward, explaining how race has always influenced how black athletes have been received and even used in the U.S. government’s efforts at soft power diplomacy overseas. Through Edwards’ eyes, we see the awakening of black athletes to their own power not as a surprise but as an inevitability.


Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

Jonathan Eig conducted more than 500 interviews to report this comprehensive tome on the life of The Champ, and he writes with as much style and verve as Muhammad Ali brought to the ring. Eig provides sweeping context for Ali’s participation in and significance to social movements, from the fight for civil rights to protests against the Vietnam War. Rather than shy away from Ali’s internal contradictions, Eig runs at them head-on, which makes Ali more compelling than any of the more hagiographic attempts to capture his life. Ali is the winner of the 2018 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. (Disclosure: Eig has also contributed to The Undefeated.)


How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide by Crystal M. Fleming

You may know sociologist Crystal Fleming from her flame-throwing Twitter feed. In her second book, the Stony Brook University professor tackles an obstacle that hampers a lot of writing about race in America: moving past Race 101. Because our country isn’t operating from an agreed-upon foundation of established historical facts — for instance, every discussion of Confederate monuments must include a basic explanation of the Lost Cause and why it’s bunk. Therefore, our national discussions don’t move forward so much as stall on a treadmill powered by history textbooks that label enslaved Africans as “immigrants.” Fleming offers readers an easily digestible, well-researched primer, as well as a useful series of steps for “becoming racially literate.” In the words of Biggie: “If you don’t know, now you know.” No excuses!


There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

Moving up the class ladder isn’t an impossible feat, but it’s certainly a difficult one. In this memoir, Casey Gerald writes of growing up in Dallas with his sister and learning to survive on their mother’s disability checks. Football provided opportunities for Gerald; he played at Yale while studying political science. The same sport left his grandfather’s body broken. With elegant, captivating prose, Gerald traces a multigenerational story of race, class and privilege and what it means to grasp at limited opportunities for all they are worth, with one’s faith guiding the way.


This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

If Lena Dunham is any indication, it’s almost never a good idea to label one person as the voice of a generation. However, Morgan Jerkins is definitely a voice, and she’s one worth taking seriously. In her debut essay collection, Jerkins tackles what it means to be living as a black woman in America today with an authoritativeness that’s rare and impressive for a woman with years to go before her 30th birthday. In bringing a relatable voice to discussing the alienation many black women encounter, both within the feminist movement and in society at large, Jerkins has announced herself as a vital social critic with plenty to say.


Heavy by Kiese Laymon

For anyone who misses Gawker and Kiese Laymon’s presence there, Heavy is a long-awaited essay collection from one of the country’s most thoughtful and incisive writers on race. In Heavy, Laymon contemplates his upbringing in Mississippi and his relationships with the women in his life, especially his mother and grandmother. The #MeToo movement has brought new visibility to the ubiquity of sexual abuse in our culture for women, but many male victims still grapple with shame when it comes to publicly discussing their experiences. Here, Laymon writes with elegance and fearlessness about his own experiences with sexual abuse and, in doing so, helps lift its taboo.


Becoming by Michelle Obama

The former FLOTUS created a storm with the initial wave of revelations contained in her memoir. Michelle Obama discusses the loneliness she felt after a miscarriage and reveals that her children were conceived with the assistance of in vitro fertilization. In doing so, she helps remove the stigma from episodes that occur in many women’s lives but remain taboo. Obama gained the trust of a nation by being charming, down-to-earth and candid. In Becoming, Obama takes advantage of an opportunity to fill in the many blanks of her life and open herself to those who felt they already knew her while making the case for why the Obamas are the ultimate American family.


Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry

How is it possible that someone with as much name recognition as Lorraine Hansberry could also be considered a hidden figure? Well, because most of us never learned much about her aside from the fact that she wrote A Raisin in the Sun. Imani Perry gives Hansberry her due in this deeply researched biography, fleshing out her life as a writer, thinker and activist whose contributions to American society go far beyond one play. In Perry’s hands, Hansberry comes alive as self-possessed, nervy and extremely witty — a woman whose personal heroes included Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, and Hannibal, the North African general.


Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak

Contact High traces hip-hop’s evolution from 1979 to 2012 by giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the industry through the contact sheets of the photographers documenting it. Not only does Vikki Tobak provide insight into what goes into a great image by providing the shots that normally remain unpublished, she’s also assembled compelling stories from some of hip-hop’s greatest voices, including RZA, Fab 5 Freddy, Questlove, Young Guru and DJ Premier. Contact High tells the stories of some of hip-hop’s most enduring images, from Jay-Z’s first photo shoot to the Stankonia album cover to XXL’s 1998 assemblage of talent for the photo A Great Day in Hip-Hop.


Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg

Why should we be paying attention to how the classics are being discussed online? Because a significant segment of the population is, and they’re using their interpretations of texts such as Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Herodotus’ The Histories as the intellectual underpinnings for arguments about the supposed superiority of Western civilization, of whiteness and of men. Donna Zuckerberg explains how the alt-right, incels and other online communities are forming their own theories based on ancient texts. It’s impossible to bust myths about the classics if you’re unfamiliar with them or the arguments their interpreters are using as weapons. For those who haven’t thought about the ancient philosophers since high school Latin, Zuckerberg makes everything clear.

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

Who’s afraid of a little pregame kneeling?

Not Queen Sugar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘He Got Game’ Air Jordan 13s starred in Spike Lee’s film — and became one of the most famous ever In a freakishly authentic bit of product placement, Ray Allen and Denzel Washington gave the Jordan Brand’s first shoe a backstory

This is the first of two stories celebrating the 20-year anniversary of basketball cult classic He Got Game. The film, directed by Spike Lee and starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington, hit theaters on May 1, 1998.

His IMDb page features nearly two dozen television and film credits. His résumé boasts a master of fine arts and expertise in classical acting, with 25 stage appearances, including Broadway. But in airports, on trains, pretty much whenever he travels, Avery Glymph is still recognized for a 30-second scene from his decades-old film debut.

In 1997, Glymph received a call from his agent about an audition. It was something called He Got Game, written and to be directed by Spike Lee. The project would star Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttlesworth, the father of the No. 1 high school basketball recruit in the nation, Jesus Shuttlesworth, who would be portrayed by the then-NBA youngster Ray Allen. Glymph originally read for the part of Sip, one of Jesus’ teammates at Abraham Lincoln High School in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York.

“I remember going in and doing the scene,” said Glymph, now 44. “It was going well, and then at the end … Spike was kind of mulling it over, and his last question was, ‘You play ball, man?’ Kind of like, ‘Listen, do you really play ball?’ ”

Lee decided to go in a different direction, casting Travis Best, then a member of the Indiana Pacers, as Sip. But he still wanted Glymph in the film. So he gave him the role of an unnamed sneaker clerk who shares a brief, yet very much so important on-screen moment with Washington.

Jake Shuttlesworth has been released from prison and is desperate for some fresh footwear. Glymph’s character sells him a pair of new Air Jordan 13s. When the scene was shot, during the summer of the 1997 NBA Finals, when the Chicago Bulls won their fifth title in seven years, not even Michael Jordan had worn the unreleased sneakers in a game.

“I’d never seen a pair of shoes that hadn’t come out yet,” Glymph said. “I was all about Jordans, and to have those shoes in my hands, knowing I was like the first person to hold them, was kind of cool.” Back then, they were just the latest installment of Jordan’s signature line of sneakers. Twenty years later, they’re widely regarded as the He Got Game Air Jordan 13s. This is how the film, with the help of Lee, Washington, Allen — and don’t forget Glymph — solidified the shoe as one of the most recognizable in the sneaker culture pantheon.


On Halloween Night 1997, the Chicago Bulls’ season opener, Jordan broke out the Air Jordan 13s at the Fleet Center court in Boston. It’s a primarily white shoe, featuring a black midsole, toe box and tongue, with red accent. The Bulls fell to the Celtics, 92-85, but Jordan dazzled in his new kicks, with a team-high 30 points, six rebounds and four assists.

It was the debut shoe of the Jordan Brand, officially launched in September 1997, as an unprecedented partnership between Nike and one of the company’s star athletes. After signing an endorsement deal with Nike in 1984 — and becoming the greatest player of all time, with the most revered line of signature footwear on the planet — Jordan’s own brand was projected to yield more than $225 million in sales in the first year alone.

Hyped as “the lightest Air Jordan ever made,” the 13 became the first sneaker in Nike’s history to be designed on a computer, using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator on an Apple Macintosh. “This shoe … wasn’t like anything before it. It was really quite a departure,” legendary Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield told The Undefeated in January 2017. “Sometimes, shoes are more evolutionary. They’re a little bit like the previous one. This one wasn’t like anything before it. Of course, that makes the sales … and marketing people nervous, but Michael wasn’t nervous at all. He felt like this design, though it was really different, was going to be successful for him as a player, but also in the marketplace.”

Nobody had the 13. But Spike had it. And Denzel had it. So I’m like, ‘How in the hell did you get the shoe, and I don’t have it?’ ” — Ray Allen

The Air Jordan 13 wasn’t available to the public until the 1997 holiday season. But, of course, Lee got his hands on a pair of the shoes long before then. They’d already made their way into He Got Game, which had wrapped principal photography days before Jordan and the Bulls faced the Celtics. Spike finessed early samples of the shoes for Allen and Washington to wear on camera based on a relationship with Nike and Jordan that dated to 1988, when he first appeared alongside Jordan in an iconic series of TV and print ads as Mars Blackmon, the Air Jordan-loving character he played in his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It.

Even Allen, then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks and one of the first NBA players to be endorsed by Jordan Brand, was surprised by Lee’s sneaker pull. One of the perks of being a part of the original Team Jordan (along with Michael Finley, Derek Anderson, Eddie Jones and Vin Baker) was exclusive pairs of Jordans before they hit the market. But when Allen arrived in Brooklyn for production of He Got Game, there was no size 13 box of the newest shoe awaiting him.

Nobody had the 13,” Allen told The Undefeated at Nike’s New York headquarters in early April. “But Spike had it. And Denzel had it. So I’m like, ‘How in the hell did you get the shoe, and I don’t have it?’ ”

Glymph remembers the day he shot his only scene, and there they were. “When he brought out the shoes, Spike gave them to me, and gave me a little reading of how he wanted me to present them,” he said. “He pulled out these shiny new shoes and said, ‘These are the new Jordans.‘ ”

They rehearsed the sequence a few times before the camera started rolling. “I was doing the scene really well … I thought,” Glymph said. “Then Spike gave me direction … ‘Avery, you’re too happy.’ I toned it down a bit, and you can kind of see me playing it more cool.” But his nerves continued to get the best of him, making him forget to give the shoes as much camera time as the director requested. So Washington improvised. “The last time we did it,” Glymph continued, “Denzel actually holds up the shoe, to give it a nice little closeup. That was his professionalism … knowing what needed to be in the shot.”

The scene made the final cut of the film, which premiered on May 1, 1998. By then, the Bulls had reached the NBA postseason, and Jordan was sporting two different versions of the Air Jordan 13 — the “Playoffs” and “Bred” colorways. In June, he’d hit the winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals to claim his sixth and final NBA championship of his career. But his heroics came in a pair of Air Jordan 14s. Save a game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 13, 1998, Jordan doesn’t have a signature moment in the “Black Toe” Air Jordan 13s.

But He Got Game made the kicks eternal. In spring 1998, the New York Daily News reported that Jordan took it upon himself to push back the Wednesday release date of one of the shoe’s models when he received word that kids were skipping school to cop pairs, which were sold at retail for $149.99. That’s how popular the 13s were then — and they remain so now. Jordan Brand brought back a retro version of the sneaker worn in He Got Game in a countdown pack (along with the Air Jordan 10) in 2008, and in 2013 for $170. The shoes will return for the third time in August for $190, in honor of the film’s anniversary.

“Every time I see these,” said Nick Young, one of the NBA’s biggest sneakerheads, while holding 2013 retros during an interview, “I think about Jesus and Denzel.”

His nerves continued to get the best of him, making him forget to give the shoes as much camera time as the director requested. So Denzel Washington improvised.

Allen finally got his pair. He wears them in the last scene, as Jesus sits in his college dorm room and reads a letter Jake sends from prison. “Your great-grandfather used to always tell me, ‘You keep trying on shoes, and sooner or later you gonna find a pair that fits you,’ ” Washington recites, staring into the camera. The line is appropriate — because the Air Jordan 13s fit perfectly in He Got Game.

“It was great product placement,” Allen said. “Because when the movie came out, everybody’s like, ‘Yo, Jesus got the new Js on his feet.’ ”

Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral, a photographer and a photo that still makes us cry The story behind Moneta Sleet’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo

The proverb says that April showers bring May flowers. T.S. Eliot preferred the darker side, proclaiming April the “cruelest month.” For journalists, April showers can also mean Pulitzer Prizes.

This April also marks 50 years since the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, and thus 50 years since the publication of a famous photograph showing the grieving widow of the fallen martyr. Coretta Scott King mourns at the funeral of her husband, her little daughter Bernice resting her head upon her mother’s lap.

Moneta Sleet, Jr.

Getty Images

That iconic black-and-white image of the veiled widow was taken by a man named Moneta Sleet Jr. (For the record, he used a Nikon camera with a 35 mm lens, with Kodak Tri-x film.) The following year, 1969, Sleet received news that he had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. At that moment, Sleet became the first black man to win a Pulitzer and the first African-American journalist to win one as an individual rather than as part of a journalism team.

(The poet Gwendolyn Brooks won the prize for literature in 1950.)

It was in 1947, remember, that Jackie Robinson (whom Sleet also photographed) broke the color line in baseball. It took another 22 years before a black man crossed that line in the Pulitzer competition.

From 1955 until his death in 1996, Sleet worked for the Johnson Publishing Co. His images, especially in Jet and Ebony magazines, documented every step of the civil rights movement. Beyond that, he captured the work and achievements of black celebrities, performers and politicians in every corner of the country — but also in Africa and around the globe.

Sleet’s eyes were not on a Pulitzer Prize but on a higher calling: to document the life and times of a marginalized and persecuted people in all aspects of their lives, through triumphs, troubles and tragedies.

The historical collection Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs describes Sleet’s most famous image and how it came to be captured on April 9, 1968:

“It has been just five days since a sniper’s bullet killed the civil rights leader. Coretta Scott King has discovered that the pool of journalists covering her husband’s funeral does not include a black photographer. She sends word: If Moneta Sleet is not allowed into the church, there will be no photographers.”

Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., comforts her youngest daughter Bernice, 5, during services in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, 4/9.

In a Johnson Publishing collection of Sleet’s work titled Special Moments in African-American History, 1955-1996: The Photographs of Moneta Sleet, Jr., Ebony Magazine’s Pulitzer Prize Winner, Sleet offers his own, more modest version of events:

“There was complete pandemonium. Nothing was yet organized because the people from SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] were still in a state of shock. We had the world press descending upon Atlanta, plus the FBI, who were investigating the assassination.

“We were trying to get an arrangement to shoot in the church. They were going to pool it. Normally, the pool meant news services: Life, Time and Newsweek. When the pool was selected, there were no black photographers from the black media on it. Lerone Bennett and I got in touch with Mrs. King through Andy Young. She said if somebody from Johnson Publishing is not on the pool, there will be no pool.

“We … made arrangements with AP that they would process the black and white film immediately after the service and put it on the wire. Later, I found out which shot they sent out. … The day of the funeral, Bob Johnson, the executive editor of Jet, had gotten to the church and he beckoned for me and said, ‘There’s a spot right here.’ It was a wonderful spot.

“What I noticed … this was prior to the funeral — was the little girl fidgeting there on her mother’s lap. I could relate to that, being a father and having a child close to the same age. Mrs. King was sitting there, stoic and stately, but it was specifically the child who I was thinking about at the time.”

In a profession whose practitioners are expected to bring a certain detachment to their work, Sleet saw no reason to apologize for his commitment to the cause of racial equality or for his emotional involvement with those he photographed.

“I wasn’t there as an objective reporter,” he once said. “I had something to say and was trying to show one side of it. We didn’t have any problems finding the other side.” The side of racism and intolerance.

At the same time, his professional standards gave him the foundation to create his best work. He said of covering the King funeral: “Professionally, I was doing what I had been trained to do, and I was glad of that because I was very involved emotionally. If I hadn’t been there working, I would have been off crying like everybody else.”

In the Johnson collection of his work, there is a beautiful photo of Sleet and his family. They are beaming. His daughter sits on the floor holding telegrams of congratulations. Sleet is holding his Pulitzer Prize. This is from the May 22, 1969, edition of Jet magazine:

“You must be joking” were the words Moneta Sleet uttered when informed that he had won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize in news feature photography. “I knew that it was a good photograph, but I knew there were lots of good photographs in the running. So, there’s no need of my lying, I was quite happy to win the award. And my wife, Juanita, and the kids, Michael, Gregory and Lisa, were thrilled.”

At the time, magazine features were not eligible for Pulitzer Prizes. Sleet’s image became eligible because of its distribution by The Associated Press.

The Rev. Kenny Irby, a veteran photojournalism leader and a former faculty member at the Poynter Institute, knew Sleet and looked up to him as a role model and mentor. Via email, he responded to questions about Sleet and his legacy:

As an African-American, a photojournalist, a pastor, and a father, what do you see when you look at the famous photo taken by Moneta Sleet?

I see great pain and promise in this photograph. Moneta gave me a copy in 1996 after the Olympic Games, which was his last major assignment. For me, it’s the obvious pain for the murdered martyr for justice and peace. I see the promise in his daughter Bernice, who would pick up the baton of her father’s work. And I see the promise affirmed by Moneta’s Pulitzer Prize, an honor which paved a path for me and generations of other photojournalists.

This is a black-and-white photograph. What do you see technically that interests you?

The elegance of the black-and-white composition has long transfixed me. I love the stark white dress of Bernice, juxtaposed against the black dress and glove. Then there are shimmering shades of gray that flow from the veil throughout the photograph. Yet, the sadness of the eyes in the photograph says all that needs to be said.

Access is so important to any successful photojournalist. What did it take for a black photographer in the 1960s to get access to important social and political events?

That’s a really great question. It took courage and connections. It was actually Coretta who took the bold stand and insisted that Moneta would be the pool photographer while there was one other photographer inside. Flip Schulke, who was white, also had a relationship with Dr. King.

For Jet and Ebony magazines, Sleet covered the civil rights movement, issues related to Africa, the black social and celebrity scene. How would you summarize his contribution to journalism?

Simply put, he was one of the trailblazers — a tremendously kind human being, a great journalist and nurturing mentor to many.

Brooklyn Museum responds to controversy over its new white curator of African art Museum’s director expresses confidence in Kristen Windmuller-Luna’s ‘anticolonial’ approach

The Brooklyn Museum issued a lengthy official response on Friday to the furor over the announcement of its newest curator of African art.

The controversy began March 26 when the museum tweeted that it had hired two new curators: Drew Sawyer, who will oversee photography, and Kristen Windmuller-Luna, who will direct an overhaul of the museum’s extensive collection of African art. Both Sawyer and Windmuller-Luna are white.

In response to the hirings, a coalition of Brooklyn anti-gentrification groups called on the museum to create a “decolonization commission.”

In a lengthy letter released to the press, museum director Anne Pasternak defended Windmuller-Luna against attacks that had been levied against the new curator, mostly on social media.

“The Brooklyn Museum stands by our appointment of Dr. Kristen Windmuller-Luna as the Sills Family Consulting Curator of African Arts,” Pasternak wrote. “The Museum’s collection of African arts is among the most important and extensive in the nation. Giving the collection the prominence it deserves, in terms of both its aesthetics and cultural value, has been one of this institution’s most pressing priorities. In order to ensure the highest level of scholarly excellence in how we preserve and present our collections of historical African arts, we knew the job required a specialist with a Ph.D. in this area.”

Some critics made a connection between the museum appointment and a scene from the wildly popular Black Panther movie. In the film, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) explains to a white curator at the British Museum that the only reason the institution holds African artifacts is because British colonizers raided the continent of its cultural and natural resources.

Pasternak pushed back on those making the comparison to Windmuller-Luna and the Brooklyn museum.

“With her anticolonial approach to curating, she has devoted her professional life to celebrating the individual identities of historical African cultures, and to communicating how those vibrant societies play powerful roles in the world at large,” Pasternak said in a statement. “Her priority at the Museum is to create dynamic, multi-vocal installations that speak to all our communities, including those of African descent, both locally and nationally. All of us at the Museum are confident that with her expertise and care, we will revitalize and transform the presentation and interpretation of our collection, and amplify our capacity to illuminate connections and shared narratives with our broad and diverse audience.”

The controversy over Windmuller-Luna’s race highlighted a few points that usually don’t draw widespread attention. Curation is a disproportionately white profession, as Kimberly Drew, an art curator, creator of the Black Contemporary Art tumblr and social media manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recently pointed out. And the profession requires degrees that can cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars without any guarantee of lucrative work.

“African art scholars in the US are overwhelmingly white and female, tweeted UCLA professor Steven Nelson, a professor of African and African-American art history who serves as director of the UCLA African Studies Center. “Given this situation and given that the very few POC in the field all have jobs better than this one, I find myself unable to manufacture any outrage over this.”

Windmuller-Luna has undeniable expertise. She received her doctorate and master’s degree in art and archaeology from Princeton and her bachelor’s degree in the history of art from Yale. Her work focuses on the early modern period of African art, architecture and Christian Ethiopia.

“Given that the very few POC in the field all have jobs better than this one, I find myself unable to manufacture any outrage over this.”

It’s understandable that black museumgoers want to see themselves among the ranks of those curating black art, especially at the nation’s most visible and highly regarded institutions. But not every black person who studies art history necessarily wants to specialize in art created by black artists.

Pasternak was sensitive to this too.

“The Brooklyn Museum recognizes that the longstanding and pervasive issues of structural racism profoundly affect the lives of people of color,” she wrote. “It is right to press museums and other institutions to diversify their leadership. Museums help shape the cultural imagination and contribute to society, so we have a responsibility to bring the broadest possible range of voices into our work. Cultural institutions also need to do much more to support young people of diverse backgrounds in pursuing advanced degrees in art history and succeeding in leadership positions. Please know that every day the Brooklyn Museum is working to advance these efforts and its longstanding and widely recognized commitment to equity in all its forms, including race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.”