Not even scientific genius has the power to outrun unscrupulous police.
That’s the macabre but justifiable takeaway from See You Yesterday, the debut feature film from director Stefon Bristol, streaming Friday on Netflix.
Two science-loving best friends, Claudette “CJ” Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian J. Thomas (Danté Crichlow), are on a mission to turn back time. The two built a nifty set of personalized time machines that fit in their backpacks and will suck them through a wormhole, where they’ve got roughly 10 minutes to course-correct their lives before heading back to the present.
Co-written by Bristol and Fredrica Bailey and produced by Spike Lee, See You Yesterday at first appears to be a fun science fiction ride that happens to be about two West Indian kids obsessed with physics. Michael J. Fox makes a cameo as their science teacher. When she’s not tinkering with her time-traveling jetpack, CJ plunges into books such as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. CJ and Sebastian live in East Flatbush, the heart of West Indian Brooklyn, New York, and they face questions about their relationship status from nosy grandparents who admonish them in accented English to please stop making things go boom in the garage.
But everything explodes when CJ sees her older brother Calvin (Astro) shot and killed by police for a bodega robbery he didn’t commit. Just like that, the stakes of time travel immediately ratchet from something that could win Sebastian and CJ the Westinghouse Award to a way to save a life — if only they can figure out how to properly wield their newfound power.
And so See You Yesterday takes a hard, grief-stricken turn, one that feels especially odd given the overall lighthearted tone Bristol chooses to tell the story. But thematically, it aligns with the “Replay” episode of Jordan Peele’s reimagining of The Twilight Zone, in which a mother played by Sanaa Lathan keeps trying to prevent her son from being killed by a bloodthirsty Virginia state trooper with the aid of a magic camcorder that rewinds life with the touch of button.
When black men and boys are targeted by police, it is their mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts and cousins who are left to pick up their broken bits of their grief and make something of it. Or, in these two cases, try to prevent their deaths from happening in the first place.
In The Hate U Give, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder after she witnesses her friend get fatally shot by a police officer. In See You Yesterday and “Replay,” that trauma takes on an even more tortuous edge. Not only do the women see their loved ones killed, they’re convinced that they can prevent it from happening, and so they try, over and over and over.
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As CJ, Duncan-Smith gives a note-perfect performance, as do Thomas and Astro. But no matter the inspired cinematography or considered, authentic performances, these stories carry a weight of inevitability as they suck every particle of hope out of the air.
An unshakable fatalism blows through both “Replay” and See You Yesterday. The male characters eventually surrender to fate, leaving the anguished women who love them tilting at windmills to revive what is gone.
I don’t fault Bristol or Peele for refusing to make work that would make them seem like Pollyannas. Rather, it’s a shame that black innocence has been decimated so completely that even a film about earnest, time-traveling teens cannot outrun the weight of impending death and injustice at the hands of the state.
In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.
However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.
“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”
Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.
Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.
Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.
In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.
Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.
Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.
If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.
Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.
City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.
Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.
In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.
Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.
The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.
Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.
Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.
The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?
“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”
Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.
Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.
LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”
Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.
Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”
When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”
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Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”
Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.
Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.
Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.
It can’t be flippant. It can’t be casual, and it can’t be all about the white people.
Two of off-Broadway’s most unconventional playwrights opened shows this season that feature black characters voluntarily engaging in situations that require them to be enslaved: Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play and Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise.
If one were to compile a list of Things Black People Do Not Care to Resurrect, the institution of slavery would be at the top by unanimous decision. The instinct to reach for pitchforks is understandable, but hold off for a moment. If having modern black characters enter into slavery or recreations of it is going to be a thing, it might be best to establish some guidelines. Not rules, which only invite themselves to be broken, but some best practices.
Slave Play enjoyed a much buzzed-about run at New York Theatre Workshop (Madonna came!) before it closed in January. The plot revolves around three black characters, all in interracial relationships, who invite their white partners to a Virginia plantation for something called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy. The couples have reached psychosexual impasses in their relationships, and they are all seeking a way back to having good, enjoyable sex. Harris, the creator of this scenario, is a 30-year-old graduate student at Yale School of Drama.
White Noise is the product of a 55-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner and is running at the Public Theater through May 5. In it, Leo (Daveed Diggs) is a black artist who asks his white friend, Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), to buy him for a period of 40 days and 40 nights for $89,000, the amount it will take to pay off his credit card and student loan debt. Each man is in a relationship: Leo is with a white woman named Dawn (Zoë Winters) and Ralph has a black girlfriend named Misha (Sheria Irving).
Both plays follow white characters as they submit to the seduction of white supremacy and finally admit that they’re not necessarily the Good White People they believe themselves to be.
The imagery required by such a thought experiment is deeply disturbing, of course. That’s the point.
Slave Play includes a scene in which a black woman named Kaneisha is ordered to eat fruit off the ground at the behest of her white overseer/boyfriend. In White Noise, Leo is placed upon a desk that functions as an auction block while wearing an iron collar designed to snag on trees and branches and break the wearer’s neck should he or she run away. Ralph forces him to wear a T-shirt that reads “SLAVE.”
The night I saw White Noise, there were audible gasps of horror when Diggs-as-Leo entered the stage with the collar around his neck. It wasn’t just the presence of an iron torture device that inspired such reaction. It was Leo’s body language. His shoulders slumped. The light had disappeared from his eyes. He was enveloped in a cloud of shame and resignation. In that moment, I could not see Leo. I could only see Daveed Diggs, and it was beyond awful.
I wanted to vomit.
Forget plausible. In what world, imagined or otherwise, was this level of degradation useful, much less defensible?
I couldn’t be fully present for the remainder of the show. Instead, I started wondering how Diggs was managing to play this role for eight performances a week. I checked my phone to see how much more of Leo’s enslavement we’d have to endure. I squirmed in my seat and I seethed, waiting for the play to end.
Is it even possible to suspend disbelief to accept “modern black person voluntarily enters slavery” as a plausible (if absurd) plot point? How do we determine where the proverbial line is?
Its location depends upon a number of factors. It’s helpful to think about the use of slavery in storytelling the way we do with other topics that audiences can find repellent, such as sexual violence.
In recent years, plenty of critics have written about the way sexual assault is deployed in film and television, especially because both mediums are dominated by male writers and directors and much of the sexual violence that happens to female characters happens without much thought, or as motivation for the vengeful actions of another male character. It’s gratuitous.
In 2016, there was a tense exchange between HBO’s head of programming and members of the Television Critics Association, who were challenging the network’s reliance on rape as a plot device in The Night Of and Westworld. In 2015, after a disturbing episode of Game of Thrones aired in which Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) was raped by her husband on their wedding night, Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenberg offered some clarity on how to think about the way sexual violence is deployed in storytelling. “I think it’s important to preserve the distinction between saying that something simply isn’t for me and drawing a more definitive conclusion that something is a poor artistic choice,” she wrote. “You can assert the former, but you have to argue the latter, using the text and the language of the artistic form at hand.”
So when it comes to Slave Play and White Noise, which are both risky, wire-walking productions, how do we know when the choice to have black characters willingly enter enslavement is simply personally distasteful and when it’s a poor artistic choice?
Well, it can’t be flippant. And it can’t be casual.
The first two points are easy enough to understand. The likelihood that a show will be terrible if it treats the choice to become a slave with the same consideration that one might give to forgoing flossing is 99.9 percent. It’s not an exact comparison, but see: the uproar when Russell Simmons released a “Harriet Tubman sex tape” under the auspices of parody. There are ways to make excellent jokes about the most repugnant of topics (hello, The Producers!), but it’s not easy.
In White Noise, Leo, an insomniac, has a contract drawn up that lays out the terms of the enslaved engagement after he’s attacked by police while walking in his neighborhood one night. Leo comes out of the incident with a badly bruised face, a broken tooth and a desire for one of his oldest friends to own him. As Leo puts it:
“Back in the day, a guy like me would be walking wherever and he’d get stopped by the Law, some law enforcement individual, and there would be a ‘Whose n—– are you, n—–?’ moment and the guy like me would be like, ‘I belong to Master So-And-So,’ and the Law would be like, ‘Oh, if you’re Master So-And-So’s property, then you’re cool with us, so go ahead on with your black self’ and a guy like me would go on,” Leo explains. “ ’Cause he was owned by somebody. ’Cause the brother was the property of the man. He was safe ’cause he was a slave.”
Both White Noise and Slave Play are deeply considered works, not intellectual clickbait. Slave Play especially understands the need for an off-ramp if audiences are to follow its characters to such a dark place. It even includes a safe word: “Starbucks!” Furthermore, Slave Play is based in a real kink that exists in the world of bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism. It’s strange, but it’s not unthinkable.
The journey to urban plantation life in White Noise feels a little more undercooked. Black men get harassed and beaten up by the police with such frequency in this country that black parents prepare their children for it. Using a violent encounter with police as Leo’s motivation does seem rather flippant or, at the very least, not all that well-considered. It certainly invites a question: Given how often these interactions take place, why aren’t other desperate black men offering themselves up for further abuse and unpaid labor? The answer is obvious, and the idea collapses in on itself before we’re halfway through the play.
The third guideline for putting voluntary slavery on stage — it can’t be all about the white people — is the trickiest.
Parks recently participated in a discussion about White Noise in New York with Oskar Eustis, the show’s director and the artistic director of the Public Theater, and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. Parks said she has a rule for her approach to writing characters: “Everyone gets to ride the bus. … No one gets thrown under the bus.”
Parks added: “I love each of these characters, and I understand each of their points of view.”
I wanted to scream. When the person on the bus is a rapist, or a slave owner, or a Nazi, and an enthusiastic one at that, it’s OK to throw them under the damn bus. It is possible to write a play about race and racism that manages to successfully keep all its characters aboard the bus without capitulating to whiteness (The Niceties is an example), but it’s not as straightforward as understanding the white ones.
If only White Noise reflected the love that Parks proclaims for each of her characters. Of the four main roles, Ralph, the sole white man, is the most clearly developed, to a stunning degree. His motivations are the most clearly articulated, and his grievances genuine. Parks sends him down a rabbit hole of white supremacy so deep that by Day 28 of his jaunt into slave ownership Ralph joins a “White Club” and then brags to his White Club friends that he has his own personal slave. Ralph’s storyline cuts off the development of all the other characters in White Noise.
I had a better understanding of the show’s weaknesses after I heard Eustis say he wanted to keep the audience on Ralph’s side for as long as possible. Again, I found myself stifling the urge to scream.
Why!?! Why is there a need to keep the audience on Ralph’s side at all? Everything, from the Constitution (as playwright and actress Heidi Schreck thoughtfully illustrates in What the Constitution Means to Me) to the Supreme Court to virtually every instrument of power in the history of this country is on Ralph’s side. To quote Peggy Olson in Mad Men: “You have everything, and so much of it.”
To conduct a successful thought experiment about a black person volunteering for slavery, it’s paramount to acknowledge this imbalance and to resist the deep gravitational pull of white narcissism, which devours injustice toward black people and spits out white injury. (Ralph finds that slaveholding soothes his wounded ego after he’s passed over for a tenured professorship in favor of a person of color.)
It’s a stage version of “All Lives Matter”: What starts out as a story about how white supremacy affects a black person (Leo) becomes subsumed by talk about how white people feel and how they’re being victimized. There’s no room to center the voice of the person who the terrible thing actually happened to. And that’s not enough to justify the humiliation of trotting out some lost brotha, who doesn’t feel remotely believable, in an iron collar.
Parks concludes White Noise with Leo the insomniac shouting, “I’m awake. I’m awake.” But she never establishes how he managed to be asleep for so long in the first place.
Lest you think this sort of well-intentioned clumsiness is unique to stories about American racism, I assure you it is not. In her 2018 film When Hands Touch, writer-director Amma Asante somehow managed to All Lives Matter the Holocaust with a story in which a black German girl falls in love with an actual Nazi.
By contrast, even though the white characters of Slave Play cannot get past their own solipsism, the play itself does. The black characters go on their own journeys and come to their own realizations independently. And there’s a deeper truth within Slave Play, which is that sometimes nothing, not even placing oneself in the role of a slave owner, will get white people to wake the hell up. Sometimes you just have to take the L and let them go.
“When you seen so much death you start dealing with Christ / If you ever make it out you give em different advice / Put my truth in this music hope I’m givin’ em light / Just another flawed human trying to get this s— right…”
— Nipsey Hussle, “Blueprint” (2016)
LOS ANGELES — Ermias Asghedom was Marcus’ boss at Marathon Clothing, a tech-friendly shop located near the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson in South Central Los Angeles. Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom, with a team of business partners, owned and operated the store, a neighborhood staple since it opened nearly two years ago. Hussle was shot and killed in front of his store in the afternoon of March 31. A suspect has been apprehended. Hussle’s funeral, to be held at Staples Center — home to the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Kings — is set for Thursday, after what is reported to be a 25-mile procession.
Hussle’s “Smart Store” was a definitive moment for South Central. The space was Hussle, a child of cracked concrete, not only giving back but planting deep roots in the community where he was born and raised. The neighborhood came out in droves to the store, as did celebrities such as Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, 21 Savage, Jim Jones and Hussle’s longtime partner, the actress Lauren London. “I remember being shot at by the police in that parking lot,” Hussle said earlier this year. “Getting taken to jail, raided in that parking lot … to actually owning that building.”
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Join Us for the Celebration of the Life & Legacy of Nipsey Hussle ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Thursday, April 11th 2019 – Staples Center ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ For free tickets & additional info please visit: Staplescenter.com/NipseyHussle
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Marcus (not his real name), though, is a young man from around the way and was hired shortly after Marathon opened by Hussle’s brother and Marathon co-owner Samiel “Blacc Sam” Asghedom. “Nipsey just set off that vibe,” Marcus said via FaceTime. “You wanna be just like him. He’s not just a rapper. [He’s] a motivation. Even me working there, seeing him all the time when he comes through, you’re like, ‘Oh, s—. It’s Nip!’ You can see him every single day and it’s still a shocking surprise.”
The two bonded over financial literacy. Marcus yearned to learn more about investing and stocks. Hussle loved to create a cycle of independence those around him would take pride in. “Lead to the lake if they wanna fish,” he rapped on “Hussle and Motivate” from his Grammy-nominated 2018 Victory Lap (which re-entered the Billboard charts at No. 2 this week. Marcus, like Hussle, wanted his money to make money. “[Our last conversation] was more of a business talk.”
On the afternoon of March 31, Marcus was working in the stockroom. Loud pops rang out. He figured they were from nearby construction sites, but something told him to walk outside and check. Chaos had erupted in the parking lot of Marathon. The pops were actually gunshots. “I just seen him laying there,” Marcus said. “He was still breathing, still fighting, but the conditions were critical. It was blood everywhere, man.” Two other men were also hit.
Instead of panicking, Marcus called Samiel Asghedom. Marcus said he attempted to console co-workers and, as he puts it, to “be mentally cool and stable in that situation.” Hussle died a short time later. Two days later, alleged gang member and struggling musician Eric Holder, 29, was charged with his murder, two counts of attempted murder and possession of a firearm by a felon.
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Hussle’s death capped what Los Angeles law enforcement officials are calling a “troubling surge” that included 26 shooting victims and 10 fatalities over a week. The Los Angeles Police Department police chief stated last week that Hussle and Holder knew each other and the “dispute” between the two was a “personal matter.” Tears led to questions. What exactly did Nipsey mean by his last tweet? What was going through his mind in his final moments? His partner, London? His family? Did he know how much his death would shake South Central?
“You get your real random moments [when you think about it]. I think about Nipsey before I go to bed,” Marcus said. “I just been keeping my mind distracted.” While the world mourns Hussle’s death, all it takes is standing in the parking lot of the Fatburger restaurant near Marathon Clothing for a new truth to become clear. Hussle was well on his way to becoming a global star in the entertainment universe. And when he was pronounced dead, Hussle took a piece of South Central Los Angeles with him.
They love me all around the world, my n—a / What’s your problem?
— “All Get Right” (2013)
Grief’s black cloud is everywhere. Washington, D.C., Miami, San Diego, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, Houston. London and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Fans in these cities have paid respect to Hussle through candlelight vigils. Celebrities are deeply moved, some to tears: Westbrook, Snoop Dogg, LeBron James, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Meek Mill, Issa Rae, Jalen Ramsey, Drake, John Legend, YG, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Odell Beckham Jr. and countless others. Both Hussle’s hometown basketball squads, the Lakers and Clippers, paid homage to him. The Eritrean community (Hussle’s father was born in Eritrea) was hit noticeably hard.
Some fans find solace in Hussle’s music — even as hip-hop struggles to find peace just six months after the soul-shattering death in September of Mac Miller. Hussle’s childhood poems — unearthed by an elementary school classmate, revealing a child with vision and empathy beyond his years — have gone viral. Many think constantly of Lauren London and his children, Emani and Kross, as well. There’s also the too-familiar, agonizing pain of Hussle’s parents, siblings, close friends and others — survivors of gun violence, struggling to make sense of it all.
What has so struck countless people — such as Rep. Karen Bass, who’ll honor Hussle this week on the House Floor — was Hussle’s philanthropic and entrepreneurial spirit. There were his real estate ventures — such as placing a bid on luxury beach hotel Viceroy Santa Monica with partners Dave Gross, DJ Khaled, Luol Deng and others. There’s the community pride via Hussle’s advocacy of Destination Crenshaw, a 1.3-mile open-air museum that pays homage to the black history and art of Crenshaw Boulevard. He was active in community revitalization projects, such as refurbishing and reopening L.A. skating rink World on Wheels.
He also launched Vector90, a coworking space, and Too Big To Fail, a science, technology, engineering and math pad where young boys and girls could obtain professional development skills. Deeply personal for Hussle was eliminating the gap between Silicon Valley and children in his Crenshaw community.
Hussle’s death has shifted pop culture’s needle unlike any since Prince nearly three years ago. Hussle’s homegoing service figures to be the biggest funeral — upward of 12,000 are expected — in Los Angeles since Michael Jackson’s a decade ago.
Staples Center sources say that some of Hussle’s friends will be sending signed National Basketball Association memorabilia. This includes Westbrook’s 20-20-20 game-worn jersey and and sneakers, as well as jerseys from LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, James Harden, Isaiah Thomas, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Kuzma and others — all featuring personal handwritten messages to Hussle. At the base of his loyal fanship, which includes these star athletes, is Hussle’s mission to have been the master of his fate and captain of his soul.
This mindset resonated deeply with fans: “Royalties, publishing, plus I own masters,” he boasted on “Dedication.” “Taught you how to charge more than what they paid for you n—-s / Own the whole thing for you n—-s / Re-invest, double up then explained for you n—-s” was his truth on “Last Time That I Checc’d.”
This being Los Angeles, there is no shortage of celebrity deaths. Eazy-E died of complications from AIDS. Hattie McDaniels of breast cancer at 57. Michael Jackson died of cardiac arrest, Richard Pryor of multiple sclerosis. Whitney Houston and Ray Charles both died in Beverly Hills, California. Sam Cooke, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Marvin Gaye and The Notorious B.I.G. were all murdered in the city. Tupac Shakur’s spirit eternally looms over the City of Angels, although he died in Las Vegas.
But Hussle is the first musical artist of his stature, native to Los Angeles, to die in such a violent manner. Hussle’s bodyguard, J Roc, retired immediately because he was so overcome with grief and survivor’s remorse. “I would switch places with you any day,” he wrote. “The world need you here … ”
School officials in South Central spoke off the record to say students have been deeply shaken by the tragedy. Who do we look up to now? some ask. Others remain committed to continuing Hussle’s marathon. Others wonder if this endless cycle of violence is the life they’ll always be forced to endure.
“Losing someone like [Hussle] … he was proud to be from here. He was never afraid to represent and say what he’s done in his life — good and bad. It’s tough to swallow that,” says Los Angeles music reporter and photographer Mya “Melody” Singleton. “He was only 33. He was blessed to know what he was put here on this Earth to do. … To lose a changemaker like that, it just feels like a sucker punch to the gut. How could you take such a good person like that?”
Making sense of senselessness is an exercise in futility. Hussle’s death gave immediate rise to countless conspiracy theories. And a running sentiment is that Hussle was killed over jealousy and hate. Hussle, a man of both principles and flaws, didn’t always say the right thing at the right time, but did tend to own up to his shortcomings. And when discussing Hussle’s death, in particular in Los Angeles, it’s important to look at and listen to to black women. He gushed over having his grandmother in his final video. His mother, Angelique Smith, shared a poignant message about strength, fearlessness and empathy. Samantha Smith, Npsey’s sister, honored her brother as a real-life “superhero.”
“I need you, I need you please let me hold you again,” she wrote in a heartfelt Instagram post. “I love you forever, and I will cry forever.”
“I’m feeling heroic but life is a dice game / And they dare you to blow it / You might get a stripe man, but that ain’t gon’ pay for the strollers.” Like so many Hussle lyrics now, this one from 2016’s “Picture Me Rollin’” — about his daughter, Emani — is agonizing to hear: “It’s never enough to console her / Telling, your daddy’s a soldier / She needs you right now in this moment / Not dead on your back pushing roses.” Hussle’s relationship with London was another growing branch on his tree of life. The two first met in person at The Marathon Clothing. London called Hussle her best friend, sanctuary, protector and soul in her first public statement after his murder.
“When I think of myself as a black woman, and him as a father, and I think of him having Lauren as his partner, I feel like that has to be one of the worst nightmares that any black woman can go through,” says Singleton. “I think about [his children, Emani and Kross] and what they’re gonna have to endure as they get older. I thought [he and Lauren] were one of the cutest couples. It was so cool to see that they really were each other’s equal. And it’s heartbreaking to see that she has literally become part of a sisterhood that nobody wants to be in.”
The despair is palpable for Los Angeles DJ Iesha Irene. “I knew Nipsey knew this. [But] I just want black men to know we really ride for y’all. Nobody is gonna understand you like us. Nobody is going to love you like we do. Even when you leave this Earth, we still mourn you in death. It makes me sad that the world doesn’t love you as much as I do.”
“Where Nipsey got caught up is where so many other n—as got caught up,” says my Uber driver, Chris. He’s a Watts native. Chris didn’t like when a clearly grieving Westbrook, a Los Angeles native, apparently shouted out Hussle’s Rollin 60’s Crips set after his iconic 20-20-20 (equals 60) triple-double against the Lakers on April 2.
“You can’t have one foot in the game and one foot out. It’s just not how this works. But beyond all that … Nipsey … should be saluted because, while I wasn’t the biggest fan of his music, it’s no denying [he] had a good heart, regardless who he banged with. He was actually doing something positive. That’s more than I can say for a lot … out here. But still, if you from here, you know how they get down. And Russ from here!”
“Here” are the ’hoods of Los Angeles — and there’s a long and complex history of gang culture. Yet on April 5, hundreds of Bloods, Crips and other gang members held a private a ceremony at The Marathon Clothing. Leaders from Compton, Inglewood and Watts met the day before and decided to honor Hussle with a peaceful demonstration.
“We having a gang truce and rally so all the different gangs in L.A. can get together and celebrate the life and gift of Nipsey,” said Eugene “Big U” Henley, a 60 who managed Hussle during his career’s early stages. “It’s a lot of people who were calling who said they wanted to get together and come to the vigil and pay respect.”
Most are taking a wait-and-see approach, but there is some hope that Hussle’s death can produce some change moving forward, both within gang culture and in the city and country’s collective mindstate.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever recover from this,” says Irene. “But … I would like to hope that these gangs continue not just talking the talk for the sake of what’s going on right now. I would hope that they continue to promote unity. Beyond that, I hope that the rest of the nation, especially us as black people, [we] take notes from what Nipsey was doing, and what he was trying to do and what he did do, and try and implement that in our daily lives.”
The walk to Hussle’s memorial is nerve-wracking. LAPD officers are blocking off streets but mostly keeping to themselves. The Nation of Islam distributes copies of The Last Call with Hussle on the cover while directing pedestrian and street traffic. But along the way, so many landmarks command attention. There’s the liquor store where part of the “Rap N—as” video was filmed. The ’hood staple, Woody’s Bar-B-Que. The Slauson Donuts where Hussle and London did a portion of their recent, and now painfully immortal, GQ shoot. There’s the sign on a garage door, alongside photos of Muhammad Ali and biblical passages, that says, “LET THE HEALING BEGIN … ”
“Racks in the Middle,” the last single Hussle released before his death, now sounds like a self-created eulogy, and it blares from cars. Those walking on the sidewalk rap along with Hussle. Others passionately sing Roddy Rich’s hook. It’s like Shakur’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” was 23 years ago — a goodbye first to his slain best friend Stephen “Fatts” Donelson. Then to himself. “We just embrace the only life we know / If it was me, I would tell you, ‘N—a, live your life and grow’ / I’d tell you, ‘Finish what we started, reach them heights, you know?’ ” Hussle’s cries kick down the doors of the soul.
Because his voice booms out of every car speaker, the closer The Marathon Clothing becomes, the harder it is to make out which Hussle songs are playing. The black All Money In (his record label) truck still sits in the parking lot, as does (at least as of last week) his black Mercedes GLE 350. In front of the Shell gas station at the corner, locals sell paintings and portraits commemorating Hussle, while music directs mourners to an informal memorial’s line. South Central’s ode to its own royalty.
The line lengthens as afternoon transitions to dusk. To get to the parking lot and the memorial, mourners must walk through the same alley Holder ran through once he permanently altered the course of Crenshaw’s history. This is walking through trauma to attempt to deal with trauma. Perhaps no better description of life in the ghetto. “Put a circle around Nipsey,” a man says, holding a slab of ribs while waiting in line, tears streaming down his face from behind black sunglasses. “He put a circle around us.”
The number of mourners on the evening of April 6 reaches nearly 500. A potluck of ages, races and ethnicities converge on Hussle’s final living place. Saying goodbye is what brings them all here. Love for Hussle keeps them. African Americans are 20 percent more likely than the overall population to suffer from severe mental health problems. Among these conditions, is post-traumatic stress disorder: black people are more likely to be victims of violent crime. Black children are more likely than other children to witness violence. It’s difficult not to think of these hurdles walking around Hussle’s ground zero.
For many, this isn’t their first makeshift memorial. Nor will it be the last. Barriers block off the parking lot where Hussle last stood. That’s part of the moment’s symbolism too. Hussle died on the land he owned. Now the neighborhood tries to piece together how life goes on without him.
Outside what was long ago dubbed by the community as “Nipsey’s Fatburger,” a man and woman console one another through conversation. “You going to the funeral?” she asks. “We have to. We owe that m—–f—– that much.”
“Hell, yeah, I’m going to that m—–f—–,” responds the guy, pulling on a cigarette. “Without a m—–f—ing doubt.”
Similar conversations are heard inside the Fatburger. “It’s a shame Nipsey had to die for the ’hoods to come together like this,” a woman says, eating her fries while looking at the different gang sets and neighborhoods standing in line for food. “I guess … everyone needs a reality check and a starting point. If they come together, and we stay together, at least it feels like Nip didn’t die in vain.” That’s true, yes, but 3420 W. Slauson Ave. is, unfortunately, rap’s newest public tombstone. It follows Koval and Flamingo in Las Vegas and Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard only 7 miles from where Hussle died.
On March 31, the world lost a man, a father, a partner, a visionary and an activist. Los Angeles, in particular South Central, lost a lifeline. Hussle’s creative spirit was lighthouse of prosperity built by a person who refused to give up on blocks many deemed a terror zone. Hustle had the swag and the community activist spirit of Tupac. The spectacular cool and charisma of Biggie Smalls. And the enterprising foresight of Jay-Z. While he surely Slauson’s Malcolm X, make no mistake — Nipsey Hussle was Nipsey Hussle. And one day soon, the corner of Slauson and Crenshaw will bear his name.
“My city won’t ever be the same. I won’t ever be the same,” Irene says. “He was the black American dream. That’s why this hits different. You found yourself in him.”
Nobody knows what to do with Bigger Thomas.
The lead character of Richard Wright’s seminal 1940 novel, Native Son, is one of the most frustrating in American literature. The latest evidence is a new film adaptation written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson in his feature film debut. It airs at 10 p.m. Saturday on HBO.
The Bigger Wright left us on the page is a 20-year-old black man who lives in a one-room Chicago tenement with his brother, sister and mother in 1939. In Wright’s opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the family’s freezing apartment and pounds a giant rat to death with an iron skillet. Bigger is bitterly aware of the limitations his race and class have predetermined for him, and so are his friends. They have nothing, and so they rob other black folks of their tiny bit of something. Bigger seems doomed to a small, miserable life until he gets a job across town as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, the Daltons. The Daltons don’t consider themselves racists, but they benefit handsomely from the structural circumstances that have placed a boot upon Bigger’s neck.
What follows is tragic: A panicked Bigger accidentally kills the Dalton heiress, Mary, whose kindness and uninformed, if well-intentioned, habitual racial line-stepping do more to endanger Bigger than help him. After a night out with her boyfriend, Jan, Mary drunkenly invites Bigger, who’s driven her home, to her bedroom. Bigger assents, hoping to simply settle Mary in her room before stealing off to his own in the back of the house. Instead, he smothers her to death out of fear they’ll be discovered and he’ll be fired. Afterward, Bigger shoves Mary’s body into the mansion’s furnace.
When reporters discover bones and jewelry among the furnace’s ashes, Bigger flees. He explains to his girlfriend, Bessie, how he ended up killing Mary, then rapes and kills Bessie too, disposing of her body down an air shaft. When he’s finally caught, Bigger is bound for the executioner’s chair.
Needless to say, this is not a character who inspires sympathy. The HBO movie is the third attempt to bring Bigger to life on film. (In 1941, Orson Welles produced and directed the story as a play.) Wright actually starred as Bigger in a 1951 version of Native Son filmed in Argentina by the Belgian director Pierre Chenal. A 1986 version, with Victor Love as Bigger, had a big-name Hollywood cast, including Matt Dillon, Elizabeth McGovern, Geraldine Page and Oprah Winfrey.
Each of them has had to struggle with hard questions about Wright’s central character: How much of Bigger’s awfulness can be attributed to a country that twisted him into a murderer and how much of his evil is individual? Is cruelty from those denied dignity inevitable or a choice? Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror?
Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.
This latest film adaptation, produced by A24 (the company behind Moonlight, Lady Bird and First Reformed) has the distinction of being the brainchild of a student of James Baldwin — Parks studied creative writing under Baldwin at Mount Holyoke College.
Baldwin famously seethed at Wright’s interpretation of black life and dismissed Native Son as a “protest novel” full of one-dimensional stereotypes, and he likened Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.
“Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant, flesh of his flesh, so exactly opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses,” Baldwin wrote in the essay Everybody’s Protest Novel. And yet Baldwin softened his stance toward Wright and Native Son after Wright’s death in 1960. Wrote Baldwin in Alas, Poor Richard:
Shortly after we learned of Richard Wright’s death, a Negro woman who was rereading Native Son told me that it meant more to her now than it had when she had first read it. This, she said, was because the specific social climate which had produced it, or with which it was identified, seemed archaic now, was fading from our memories. Now, there was only the book itself to deal with, for it could no longer be read, as it had been in 1940, as a militant racial manifesto. Today’s racial manifestoes were being written very differently, and in many languages; what mattered about the book now was how accurately or deeply the life of Chicago’s South Side had been conveyed.
The ambivalence Bigger inspires in Baldwin and others has come to be one of his defining characteristics. In 1986, Temple University professor David Bradley, writing an introduction for a new edition of the novel, shared his roller coaster of emotions about Native Son, which fluctuated with each new reading.
Both the 1986 film and the new one struggle with the monstrousness of Bigger’s actions — and both decided to dull them. Neither one includes Bigger’s rape and murder of Bessie. It’s the biggest omission from both versions, and especially notable in this latest adaptation, given how much Parks and Johnson elected to change.
They removed Bigger from the South Side of 1939 and dropped him into modern-day Chicago, simultaneously eradicating the bleakness of Bigger’s life as Wright fashioned it. Bigger no longer shares a one-room apartment with his mother, sister and brother but rather a multiroom unit with space for a dining table where the family gathers regularly. His mother, Trudy (Sanaa Lathan), is an ambitious paralegal eyeing law school, not a desperate washerwoman consigned to abject poverty. Trudy has a romantic partner, a do-gooder lawyer named Marty (David Alan Grier). The Thomas household is warm and structured, and there isn’t nearly as much pressure on Bigger to get a job to prevent his family from being turned out on the street.
Bigger, too, has undergone renovation. Played by Ashton Sanders (best known for portraying high school-age Chiron in Moonlight), this modern Bigger sports green hair, black fingernail polish, and an assortment of black coats and jackets customized with graffiti and patches. He’s an Afropunk and an anarchist who prefers the sounds of Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Death, as opposed to, say, Chief Keef. Sanders is tall and lanky, and he mostly plays Bigger as a quiet kid who folds into himself but who can be goaded into violent outbursts. His girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), has been transformed from a figure of pitiable, gin-soaked scorn into a sober and sensible hairdresser.
From the book to the screen, Wright’s white characters remain the most static. Mrs. Dalton is always blind, and Mr. Dalton is always the dutiful limousine liberal who sees himself as doing what he can to help the downtrodden Negroes on the other side of town. Mary Dalton (Margaret Qualley) and her boyfriend, Jan Erlone (Nick Robinson), remain a couple of rebellious anti-capitalists (here, they’re Occupy Wall Street sympathizers) thumbing their noses at Mr. Dalton’s money and privilege while simultaneously enjoying it.
The urge to use a new adaptation of Native Son as a corrective to the perceived faults of Wright’s original work is understandable, especially when its setting, Chicago, is repeatedly slandered as a cesspool of black cultural pathologies. Its murder rate trails that of several other cities, and yet it’s seen as an avatar for gun violence and a favorite example of those looking to deploy the whataboutism of “black-on-black” crime. Chicago is the home of Emmett Till and Laquan McDonald, and somehow also the place that produced Barack Obama and Harold Washington. Victims of white supremacy and heroes who manage to dodge it are much easier to hold in one’s head. But where do we place Bigger?
If we take him as Wright wrote him, perhaps the only appropriate place is exile. Maybe that’s why the resulting Bigger imagined by Parks and Johnson is far more sympathetic than Wright’s original rendering. For instance, Johnson neglects to show Bigger decapitating Mary once he realizes her body is too big to fully fit in the furnace. And in this modern version, Bigger never makes it to jail, much less a trial. He’s gunned down by Chicago police officers the moment they find him.
Parks and Johnson gesture at Bigger’s violence toward Bessie — he begins to strangle her but doesn’t go through with the deed. Bigger’s sexual violence, though, is completely eliminated. When I spoke to Johnson recently at HBO’s offices in New York, he told me that he thought of Bessie’s survival as the truest outcome for this retelling.
“Between 1939 and today, stories around violence towards women and the way that we interpret them has changed dramatically,” Johnson said. “I was raised by a black woman who’s an academic and a feminist. I am not capable of telling stories where a woman is treated violently in the respect that Bigger treats Bessie in the book. That’s not something that I’m interested in.
“I think it neuters the other aspects of the story that are quite complicated around both race, class, etc. I think that it does a damage to the story and its contemporary telling, that story cannot survive. So we’d originally written it with the murder of Bessie and the rape of Bessie and the story, and I read that version in the script because we tried to keep as much in as possible in our early stages of interpreting it. And I called Suzan-Lori Parks very early in the morning and I said, ‘There’s something that is very challenging for me,’ and she said, ‘We can’t murder and rape Bessie.’ ”
Yet black and Native American women today experience the highest rates of death as a result of intimate partner violence, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wright’s Native Son, in part, is a tale of black masculinity, disfigured by white supremacy and run amok. It is a horror story, in the way that Toni Morrison’s Beloved can be seen as horror too.
In 2015, when Straight Outta Compton was released, hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes wrote about the violence she experienced at the hands of Dr. Dre. “There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women,” she wrote. “It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy.”
It’s impossible to separate the murder and rape of Bessie from any discussion about how race and class have victimized Bigger. The same factors contribute to Bigger’s abuse of Bessie, although they do not excuse it. We can see a contemporary example of this dynamic in Erik Killmonger, the villain of Black Panther. Like Bigger, Killmonger is meant to engender sympathy, for the United States turned him into what he is: a psychopathic human instrument of death seeking revenge and power. And yet, for all his wokeness regarding imperialist theft, Killmonger has little regard for women. He does not hesitate to kill them, and he certainly doesn’t have any remorse about it.
When we turn away from black misogyny, as Parks and Johnson do, and as filmmaker F. Gary Gray did in Straight Outta Compton, we do a disservice to black women’s lived reality — the stories preserved on-screen tell an incomplete truth.
This new Native Son from Parks and Johnson doesn’t answer many of the questions Wright presents. Rather, it leaves us with even more questions: How can a film adaptation work if it excises one of the most horrifying scenes in its source material? And can Native Son truly capture the worst effects of America’s subjugation of black people if it turns away from the mortal injuries that befall black women as a result of it?