Actor Corr Kendricks is making strides in the acting world from ‘The Chi’ to UMC’s ’5th Ward’ The 28-year-old overcame a troubled childhood to follow his passion in acting and music

When rapper/actor Corr Kendricks needed an outlet from a troubled childhood, he picked up the pen. He was 11 when he began writing.

Now the 28-year-old has a new passion. He’s found solace and solid progress in acting.

Kendricks is Black Rambo in the hit FOX television show Empire, working alongside Taraji P. Henson (Cookie), Terrence Howard (Lucious) and Jussie Smollett (Jamal). Then he landed a part in the new Showtime drama The Chi, brought by Lena Waithe and Common.

Kendricks is continuing to show off his acting chops in his latest role as Ace in 5th Ward, a new show now streaming on the Urban Movie Channel (UMC). The episodic series — named after the Fifth Ward, a historically black Houston community — is capturing issues that plague many communities in America: violence, poverty, scandal, politics, generational relationships and complex family matters. Kendricks stars with singer, songwriter and actor Mya, Carl Payne (The Cosby Show, Martin and The Game) and Nephew Tommy. Kendricks’ character, as he explains him, is much the gentleman of 5th Ward, “but he’s stuck in the street life and not anyone you’d like to cross,” he said. Created by Houston filmmaker Greg Carter, the show’s issues are an extension of a black family that has been living in the neighborhood since the 1950s.

As a rapper, Kendricks is grateful for his many opportunities, including opening for Meek Mill, participating in ciphers with multiplatinum artist Drake and performing at the legendary Apollo Theater in New York City.

Kendricks spoke with The Undefeated about 5th Ward, The Chi, overcoming early childhood wounds and future roles.

How was it for you to work with your wonderful co-stars in 5th Ward?

My co-stars are amazing. They give me a lot when we’re doing certain scenes. They give me room to give back. It could be a dull scene with probably two or three lines that I have, but how they deliver their lines and how they bring it every time onstage, it sparks something inside of me to give back to them. So it’s always good, good vibes. We’re just proud to be a part of something great that’s coming fresh and new from a new network. It’s like family.

As a Chicago native, is The Chi a pretty accurate portrayal?

I do think it’s pretty accurate to me. Most people up here don’t really dress like that in Chicago, but overall everything is pretty much on point, and it’s bringing definitely some light on what’s going on in the city. So just being a part of it is amazing. I never really dreamed that I would be on something great, and I’ve come in to make history. And something from my hometown. It’s amazing. And it’s on Showtime, one of the great networks.

What is your latest music project?

My latest project I just put out is entitled Hardcorr. It’s my name combined into the title, so it’s ‘Corr’ instead of the regular ‘hard-core.’ That project came out last year, December. I was working on it and trying to just get me together and put something out since I’ve been stuck in the acting world. I’m also working on two other projects. I just finished up a mixtape that I’ll put out soon, probably around March 2nd, then working on another project called Who I Am, and that will come out later this year.

Were you a musician or an actor first?

I started with music first. I was 11 when I first wrote my first rap, and it was horrible. I was talking about like green eggs and ham and some, some crazy stuff. I also started writing poetry as well. I fell in love with writing, but I was always in love with music since a little kid.

And how old were you when you got your first acting gig?

I was 25. My first acting gig was Empire. Black Rambo. I battled them all and I lost the battles. But I like those lines, so I just want to say Jussie Smollett, if you want to battle with me, we can battle again.

What do you enjoy most about the craft of acting?

The most I like about acting is that I can tell someone else’s story. I can shed the light on a problem that most people aren’t focused on, or whatever the case is. And for those people, I can help them in a certain way that they haven’t been helped.

What types of roles would you like going forward?

I’m going to put this out there. I want to be the next black superhero of the South. I would love to play a superhero. I would love to play a father role. I would play like a principal. I would want to play anything challenging.

What’s been the hardest part of making your way into the celebrity world?

Well, I have children, so being away from them is the hardest part. The sacrifice. It’s a lot of time away from my fiancée. We’ll be married [in June of 2019]. I have children from ages 9 to 7 months. Just sacrificing, being away from the better purpose, but it’s hard. Very hard.

Aside from your own music, who are you listening to right now?

I still listen to Tupac. I still listen to Snoop. Nipsey Hussle, Victory Lap. Chris Brown is dope. I still listen to Mike [Michael Jackson]. I’m getting into the older school like The Delfonics, a bunch of different stuff. I really love real music, not this stuff that’s going on now.

Where does your courage come from?

My courage comes from past life issues. Things that I’ve been through. It’s like, ugh! But now I’m older and I’m not a kid no more. I can’t be abused. I will not allow certain stuff to happen. I was pretty much the baby boy out of six, and I just got the worst of everything. Everything was always my fault. I was always in trouble, beaten. My mom was a single mom of six, so we lived in homeless shelters and we’ve seen murders in neighborhoods. I just wanted to get away, but God made a way. I could say my mom never gave up on the kids. She was definitely a fighter, and I get that from her. She never gave up on us, and most parents would have. Life is really hard. Moving from state to state, 12 different schools. Barely could really have friends because I wasn’t allowed outside. Always in punishment. It was a lot. Being a juvenile. Locked up as a teenager.

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

Best piece of advice I have received is staying true to myself, no matter the circumstances. And never forget your purpose.

The Next Chapter: Retired NBA player Elliot Perry on leaving basketball, collecting art and living in Memphis His grandfather participated in the famous sanitation workers’ strike in 1968

Memphis, Tennessee, native and 6-foot point guard Elliot Perry was Memphis State University basketball coach Larry Finch’s first recruit. He started every game during his collegiate career (1987-91), leading the program to two NCAA tournament appearances and a second-round berth in 1987.

That was more than three decades ago.

Now, Perry is director of player support for the Memphis Grizzlies, a title he’s held with the team since 2014. His responsibilities include helping players prepare for life outside of basketball — an area in which he’s found much success. He also advises the team on community-based efforts in Memphis.

Perry played for seven teams over his 10-year NBA career. Known as “Socks” because of the high footwear he wore during his collegiate and NBA careers, he retired from the NBA in 2002, closing his career out with his hometown Memphis Grizzlies on a 10-day contract. He later worked a year with the National Basketball Players Association.

“I really loved that job,” Perry said. “I was always a player rep on each team that I was on, so it was just a natural transition when I retired to go work with the NBA players association. Then I got recruited back to Memphis.”

Perry is part of the minority ownership group for the Grizzlies, along with singer Justin Timberlake, Ashley Manning (wife of Peyton Manning), Penny Hardaway and others.

“I’ve been working here about 11 years now, going on 12 years, and loved every minute of it,” he said. “Also, doing the radio with the Grizzlies.”

Perry holds a degree in marketing. He was selected in the second round (37th overall) of the 1991 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Clippers. Inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, he founded the annual SOCKS Banquet (Supporting Our Community and Kids) to provide financial support to organizations committed to helping Memphis-area youth and also serves as a board member of Teach for America.

An avid art collector, Perry focuses on modern and contemporary works by African-American artists and artists of African descent.

Perry spoke with The Undefeated about his grandfather, who was part of the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, art, philanthropy and basketball.

Do you miss the hardwood?

Yes, you always miss it. Now I realize I can’t get out there and play, but you always miss it, and you miss it for a few reasons, I think. Obviously, being in the locker room and being a part of something bigger than yourself, but more importantly it’s the relationships that you build and being able to compete at a high level. Probably, every young kid in the country that’s playing basketball aspires to be in the NBA, and for me I was fortunate enough that by God’s grace and mercy, and the little bit of talent I had and the work ethic I had, I brought to my job every day, I was able to play 10 years.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

What’s been the hardest part of transitioning from the court into the professional space?

I think the hardest part, probably for any player, is they’ve been playing basketball and being on a schedule and having an agenda and knowing exactly what to do for the majority of their life, really, and so the hard part of transitioning is a lot of players just don’t have the skill set. Whether it’s doing whatever they need to do in an office setting or if you’re going to do radio, if you’re going to do TV. I think the NBA players association has done a really good job of trying to help guys transition now. That wasn’t what was happening when I was playing.

I think one of the things that players miss out on is the ability to network while they have opportunities and doors open for them. While I was playing, I was always happy to go meet with people, to speak with kids, to speak with other people.

How did you and your wife get into art collecting?

Back in the summer of ’96, Charles Barkley took a group of us over to Japan and we played three exhibition games. And the who’s who, from Gary Payton to Clyde Drexler to Alonzo Mourning, we had a really, really good crew of guys. Anyway, I was on a plane with Darrell Walker, who was a former NBA player who was coaching at the time in Washington. He started talking to me about art … about how he has started to collect art over the past eight to 10 years, and who got him started was Bernard King. And the more we talked, the more I listened, and just started reading a little bit.

When the season started that year, Darrell would always call and say, ‘Hey, I see you’re in New York, go by this gallery or this museum.’ He would always send me books. The more I read, the more interested I got in artists, artists’ lives, their trajectory, the work that they were making, the conversations they were having around their work and why they were making work. I decided, maybe the year after that, to purchase my first piece. Then it just snowballed. I really got addicted to it. For me, the mission, and for my wife and I, this collection that we’ve been able to amass is a lot of just preservation of history and culture too.

Do you remember your first purchase?

A print by an artist named Paul Goodnight. The title of it was Tennessee T Taster.

Tennessee T Taster by artist Paul Goodnight.

Do you still have it?

Oh, yeah, absolutely still have it. No doubt about it.

Do you sell a lot of the art you collect?

No, we’re not in it for just pure money reasons. Out of the years that I’ve been collecting, that’s over 20 years or so, I’ve probably sold five pieces out of our collection. This has been a kind of labor of love and passion, and we started collecting a lot of old-school artists when we initially started doing it, but in 2004 we did a 180 and really just started collecting young, living, contemporary artists. That’s really been a much better journey in terms of being able to communicate with artists, being able to talk to artists about our mission and why we collect work, and then we’ve been able to visit their studios and hear their work and hear why they make their work.

What made you decide to return to Memphis?

It’s probably like anything else, you always can come home, but I just think that Memphis is an authentic place, this community for me personally. I was born to a 15-year-old mom; my father died a month after I was born. My family has always rallied around me. My mentor, Michael Toney, rallied around me and taught me so much, exposed me to so much at an early age and also challenged me. My high school coach poured a lot into me, and then when I signed with Memphis State at the time, Coach Finch poured a tremendous amount of his time into me and really started to help me shape why I was a leader and how I could be more of a leader in my community.

I feel obligated to give back to my community with the most precious gift that God has given me, and that’s my time.

Tell me about your grandfather’s relationship with the sanitation workers strike in 1968?

Most people know Ernest Withers’ photograph, when all of the men are holding the ‘I Am A Man’ sign and there’s a gentleman that’s walking right in the front of the camera, and he doesn’t have a sign yet, but he looks directly into the camera and the guy that’s looking into the camera is my grandfather. He worked for the city of Memphis at the sewage and drainage department. He wasn’t a sanitation worker, but he worked for the city; they wore the same uniforms.

I remember after Dr. King got killed when I was probably about 6 years old. In honor of Dr. King’s death, my grandfather used to march every year and I used to march with him as a kid. He had a fifth-grade or sixth-grade education. A lot of these injustices that we were fighting for were for his kids, and for his grandkids to be able to sit in a quality seat, around education, to be able to get equal pay, to be able to use whatever water fountain, or to be able to live in whatever community they wanted to live in.

How do you balance family, work and art collecting?

I asked my grandmother this question after I graduated college and started playing in the NBA a little bit and I wasn’t married, but just starting to have bills and do all of those things. And then when I had my daughter, obviously my grandmother was a lot older, just raising one kid is tough in itself. My grandmother and grandfather had nine kids: eight girls and one boy. And I can clearly remember asking her, ‘How did you do it? It’s impossible.’ One thing she told me was that, ‘We didn’t think about it, we just did.’

I don’t think about it, I just do. That’s what I say about balancing it all, is I just do.

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

It’s from mentor Michael Toney. When I was young, growing up in North Memphis, you see so many things. You’re growing up in poverty, so many distractions, and when he started mentoring me and he was exposing to some things, he was helping me try to gain my confidence in myself. And I can remember one time when I was struggling, he took me to a mirror, he said, ‘You see a little boy looking back at you?’ He said, ‘Everything in life that happens to you, that little boy is going to tell you. He’s going to tell you when to quit, he’s going to be the first person to tell you when to quit, he’s going to be the first person to tell you when to compete again, he’s going to be the first person to tell you I can’t do it, he’s going to be the first person to tell you if you can do it. Other people are just going to reinforce that.’

Before season 2 of ‘Atlanta’ kicks off? A spoiler-packed power ranking of season 1’s episodes Swisher Sweets? The Migos? Lemon pepper wet wings?  Which episode was best?

The hiatus lasted well over a year, but the wait is finally, nearly over. Atlanta, the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning FX series starring renaissance man Donald Glover (“Earn”), Zazie Beetz (“Van”), Brian Tyree Henry (“Paper Boi”) and LaKeith Stanfield (“Darius”), returns Thursday with the premiere of season two. It’s dubbed “Robbin’ Season,” a direct homage to ATL slang for the time of year when robberies tend to increase: during the holiday season.

“You might get your package stolen off your front porch. While we were there, my neighbor got her car stolen from her driveway. It’s a tense … time,” Stephen Glover, executive producer and writer, said at the Television Critics Association panel in Pasadena in January. “Our characters are in a desperate transition from their old lives to where they’re headed. And robbin’ season is a metaphor for where we are now.”

There really were no terrible moments from season one — the episodes truly range from “good” to “phenomenal.” That being said, a power ranking is in order. And after reading ours, the real fun arrives with your rankings. Hit us up on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and let us know where you stand. Enough talking, though. Without further ado …

10. Episode 4 — “The Streisand Effect”

Guy D'Alema/FX

This is the episode where we meet Zan, the social media troll who gets the best of Paper Boi after a series of tweets, Instagram posts and videos sullying his good name in these Atlanta streets. It’s an interesting dynamic, and one that illustrates how much people invest in social media these days. But the true crutch of the episode lies with Darius and Earn.

AIDS was invented to keep Wilt Chamberlain from beating Steve McQueen’s sex record. By ’69, he was already No. 3 on the all-time list. By ’71, he would’ve beat that boy, fa sho. — Darius

Earn needs money because he’s broke (as hell). Darius takes on a journey to get money that involves a thrift store, pawning off a sword, and a Cane Corso dog. The only catch is Earn won’t get the money until September, prompting Earn to utter one of the more sobering realities in the first season: Poor people don’t have time to invest because they’re too busy not trying to be poor. A dope episode, but in comparison to the rest of the episodes — well, someone had to finish in 10th.

9. Episode 1 — “The Big Bang”

Guy D'Alema/FX

This starts out with a bang, quite literally, as Paper Boi shoots a guy who kicked a side rearview mirror from his car. It was an example of how pride becomes the downfall for so many. It’s in this episode that we meet the major players. Earn’s broke and living part time with his girlfriend, Vanessa, and their daughter. Paper Boi is selling drugs and trying to get his rap career poppin’. And Darius is just Darius. And to know Darius is to love Darius. Is Earn opportunistic with regard to trying to get on with his cousin, who has a hit record in the A? Of course he is, but as we’d come to find out, he does have his cousin’s best interests at heart.

On the lowest of keys, though, the best part of this episode is Earn’s reaction to Dave (a white guy) saying the N-word when describing a party he’d attended, and how Earn used the white guy’s ignorance against him and also tried to hustle him out of money to get Paper Boi’s song played on the radio. When asked to tell the same story again, but this time around Paper Boi and Darius, Dave not surprisingly omitted the N-word.

“Our characters are in a desperate transition from their old lives to where they’re headed. And robbin’ season is a metaphor for where we are now.”

8. Episode 5 — “Nobody Beats The Biebs”

We have Darius who goes to a shooting range. Everyone looks at him crazy when his target practice is a dog and not a human. He doesn’t understand how shooting a dog is considered inhumane when shooting a human is completely normal. The situation becomes so heated that the owner points a gun at Darius telling him to leave. We could get into a lot of discussion about Darius’ experience in this episode alone — it’s harrowing. At least he made us laugh, though. Meanwhile, across town, Earn and Paper Boi attend a celebrity basketball game. Earn is mistaken by Janice for another black guy she knew (who she says ruined her career). Earn uses the perks for a while.

It’s Paper Boi who is forced to deal with Black Justin Bieber. Now I’m not saying Black Bieber is seeing eye to eye with Dave Chappelle’s “Black Bush” skit, but it’s damn close if it isn’t. We see Black Bieber doing all sorts of outlandish things: urinating in public, mushing a reporter in the face and generally acting out. Everyone thinks it’s adorable. “He’s just trying to figure it out,” the singer Lloyd says in a brief cameo. The twist is, of course, he’s black. Paper Boi and Black Bieber eventually end up fighting, but Black Bieber wins everyone back. He turns his backward cap forward. He apologizes and performs a new song right there at the news conference. Everyone instantly forgives Black Bieber while Paper Boi stands in the back wondering what the hell just happened. It’s an interesting case study: white celebrity behavior vs. black celebrity behavior.

The only white person in the entire episode is Craig, and he wants to be black so bad he even did a spoken word poem to prove it.

7. Episode 2 — “Streets On Lock”

The criminal justice system is addressed here — in its own special Atlanta way. Earn and Paper Boi are still in holding following the shooting. While Paper Boi is bailed out at the beginning of the episode, Earn is locked up until Van bails him out at the end.

“You been arrested for weed. It’s not that bad, right?” — Earn

“Well, it’s not as good as not getting arrested for weed, man.” — Paper Boi

Earn sees what it’s like from the inside. The arguments, the stories of innocence, the mentally unstable who receive anything but rehabilitation, the violence and even the drama. Earn gets a crash course in the prison-industrial complex. On the outside, Paper Boi and Darius celebrate temporary freedom with a stop at Atlanta’s famed J.R. Crickets, where they’re given lemon pepper wet chicken wings. This episode became such a hot topic that Crickets actually added lemon pepper wet to its real-life menu afterward. Paper Boi also comes to understand how his actions affect the youth: He sees kids playing with toy guns, saying they’re mimicking him — a subtle reference to Tamir Rice.

6. Episode 3 — “Go For Broke”

Or, as it will always be remembered, the Migos episode. Quavo, Offset and Takeoff guest star as dope boys copping work from Paper Boi and Darius. The scene is hilarious, as the two attempt to get out of the situation with both the money and their lives intact. Elsewhere, Earn takes Van out to eat. Earn’s broke, so he’s expecting to see a happy hour menu, only the restaurant has recently been redesigned and everything on the menu is way too rich for Earn’s blood. Thanks to a waitress who upsells him on food and drinks all night, Earn has to call Paper Boi — in the middle of a drug deal, mind you — to wire him money so he can pay for the bill. Earn’s poverty hits home on a spiritual level. Especially when he calls his bank the next morning to report his debit card stolen.

5. Episode 10 — “The Jacket”

Quantrell Colbert/FX

Here’s the thing to know about season one. The first half was dope, but the second half is incredible. So much so that the finale, a great episode that really brings a lot of things into perspective, is only No. 5. Earn loses his jacket at a house party and uses Paper Boi’s Snapchat. He eventually figures out he left the jacket in an Uber. The Big 3 of Earn, Paper Boi and Darius drive out to get it, only to find themselves involved in a police sting that leaves the Uber driver dead — with Earn’s jacket on.

We eventually learn why it was so important to retrieve the coat. Earn is homeless. He needed the jacket because he believed a set of keys were in the pocket. The keys unlocked a storage unit where he was spending many nights. The finale is a power episode about the societal trauma of being black in America. Only hours after the same day they were pulled over by the feds and watched a man die, Earn is cooking for Van and their daughter. Pride, the same pride we saw on display in the first episode, won’t let Earn sleep at Van’s another night without being able to fully provide for his family.

4. Episode 6 — “Value”

Guy D'Alema/FX

Prior to this, we had never seen one character carry an episode. And prior to this, we didn’t really know Van. Much like Earn, Van’s trying to figure out a lot of things. Many of which were only compounded by the most uncomfortable moment of the entire season: her dinner date with old friend Jayde. Van is more of the blue-collar, just-trying-to-provide-for-my-daughter type, while Jayde is the type to post her meals on Instagram and “date” NBA and NFL players. After a falling-out at dinner, the two make up and get high at the top of a parking deck.

That’s all well and good, but Van has a drug test the next day. The most unusual and surreal scene of the entire season is Van frantically searching for clean urine — going so far as to slice open her daughter’s dirty diapers to get it. She goes full Breaking Bad in the kitchen, and it works — until it doesn’t. Van gets all the way to the goal line and fumbles. The condom with the urine, literally, pops in her face. She admits to smoking weed. She’s fired. And now both parents are without a source of consistent income. If she wasn’t already, Van instantly became a fan favorite after this episode. Sometimes you just have to get high to funnel out the nonsense in your life. And sometimes you do have to go to desperate measures to pass a drug test.

3. Episode 9 — “Juneteenth”

A lot of people put this in their top two — and I’m not mad at that. The episode starts off with Earn waking up beside another woman, only to realize he’s late to meet up with Van. She picks him up outside the unnamed woman’s apartment and the two ride off, in virtual silence, to a Juneteenth party her ostentatious friend Monique is throwing with her annoyingly hilarious white husband who’s too woke for his own good.

Van and Earn front like they’re married in an effort to look better in front of new company. But it’s impossible in a house full of characters — and a house full of black workers. In fact, the only white person in the entire episode is Craig, and he wants to be black so bad he even did a spoken word poem to prove it. The couple is outed when two valets recognize Earn as Paper Boi’s manager. Monique frowns upon his line of work, causing Craig to check Monique, but by then it’s too late. Earn leaves in disgust with Van not far behind. The lesson? Never sell your soul for an opportunity that wasn’t meant for you to begin with.

Fun Fact: If you go back and watch the episode, you’ll find Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! album cover in Craig’s study. We just didn’t know what it was at the time.

2. Episode 8 — “The Club”

Quantrell D. Colbert/FX

Now if we’re talking my favorite episode, it’s this one. Classic Atlanta in every sense of the words. The theme is as simple as it is true. The club really isn’t all that fun. The celebrities are paid to be there. For those in gen pop (aka, non-VIP) it’s all a game of territory — sections are the highest form of real estate, and bottles are the highest form of cultural currency. Everyone’s just trying to one-up each other.

“F— the club!” — Paper Boi

We really remember this episode for three solid reasons. One, for Marcus Miles’ invisible car. Two, for Earn’s unsuccessful attempt to get their club appearance money from a snake promoter (and then Paper Boi roughing up that same party promoter). And three, for Darius leaving the club after he wasn’t allowed back in the same section the bouncer saw him leave. Darius played the situation perfectly. He went home to eat cereal and play video games.

The theme is as simple as it is true. The club really isn’t all that fun.

1. Episode 7 — “B.A.N.”

An episode so good that even the commercials, in actuality part of the episode, deserve their own separate piece. Seriously, the Swisher Sweets and Dodge Charger commercials made this an instant classic in black television history. As for the episode itself, Paper Boi sits down with Dr. Debra Holt on Black American News’ Montague. After some comments he made on Twitter about Caitlyn Jenner, Paper Boi is accused on the show of being transphobic. He claims he isn’t, saying he doesn’t have anything against the community. Although he’s accused of it, Paper Boi says he never said the trans community shouldn’t have rights. But he finds it hard to fully support that community’s call for freedom when people who look like him are still fighting for theirs. Much to the chagrin of the host, the two come to an understanding.

The “trans-racial” story runs away with MVP honors in this episode as it follows Antoine Smalls, an obviously black male who identifies as Harrison Booth, a 35-year-old white man from Colorado. He’s invited on the show, where he quickly shocks the host and guest. Smalls says he feels deeply ridiculed by black people for not being more understanding of his lifestyle. But he’s also quick to call gay marriage an “abomination.” The hypocrisy is enough to send an already tickled Paper Boi over the edge in laughter, while Montague and Dr. Holt are left to wonder, whereas the rest of us knew, almost as soon as the credits began rolling — this was Atlanta’s magnum opus.

Over All-Star break, the NBA is on the ground doing good work in Los Angeles Community efforts to impact youth and families in L.A.

This year’s All-Star Weekend is a family affair for the NBA, which will be spreading a message of unity, hope, solidarity and change in its host city of Los Angeles. From Thursday through Sunday, the league is sending more than 3,000 volunteers into the City of Angels with more than 30 outreach programs and events.

“It’s the most important time of the year, when you can get everybody together,” said Todd Jacobson, the NBA’s senior vice president of social responsibility. “Obviously, NBA All-Star is a celebration, but the ability for us to utilize it as a platform to give back, to use a sport that brings people together, is just incredible. For years, really, the primary program or highlight for us has been our NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service, which takes place on Friday. We have more than 1,500 volunteers coming out. We’ll be building a playground, we’ll be packing more than 240,000 pounds of food with a food bank, packing supplies and needs for Baby2Baby, which helps provide essentials for families in need. And it just continues to be such a great platform to tip off the weekend.”

Events will include the NBA All-Star Fit Celebration, the 11th annual NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service, Jr. NBA Day, the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game and Building Bridges Through Basketball, among many more.

NBA Cares, the league’s global social responsibility program, will host service projects, basketball clinics and games, and fitness and nutritional activities.

“We tipped it off in 2008. We’ve built more than 90 places now where kids and families can live, learn or play during our NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service,” Jacobson said. “So it’s just a special way to bring people together and celebrate the game and really use it as a point for inclusion and making sure that we are having the largest impact possible.”

The league’s NBA Voices initiative addresses social injustice and bridges divides in communities.

“From an NBA Voices perspective, which is a platform we launched on MLK Day, we’ve had close to 300 events and activities that have taken place over the course of the better of about 18 months now,” Jacobson said. “It actually tipped off here in Los Angeles when Carmelo Anthony helped lead the efforts working with the USA Basketball men’s and women’s Olympic teams. So it’s really terrific to be back here and continuing to have that dialogue, and really helping and utilizing our position to help bring people together.”

This year, through NBA Voices, the league will rally Los Angeles youths, community leaders, law enforcement, and NBA and WNBA players and executives for an in-depth conversation about today’s social climate.

Jr. NBA, the league’s youth basketball participation program, is set to engage more than 2,000 youths in basketball clinics and competitions. The Jr. NBA is focused on helping grow and improve the youth basketball experience for players, coaches and parents. The program offers a free curriculum covering all levels of the game that includes more than 250 instructional videos featuring NBA and WNBA players.

“I think the most important thing we can do is we just want to be part of the community, working with our teams that do so much during the year, the Clippers and the Lakers and all the community partners that we’ve worked with,” Jacobson said.

Here is this year’s schedule of events:

NBA Cares All-Star Community Events:

  • Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Visit (Thursday):
    • Members of the NBA family will visit the hospital and enjoy games and crafts with young patients and their families.
  • NBA All-Star FIT Celebration (Thursday):
    • The NBA, Kaiser Permanente and After-School All-Stars will unveil a newly refurbished fitness center at Alliance Gertz-Ressler/Richard Merkin 6-12 Complex. NBA and WNBA players and legends will join students in fitness and nutritional activities focused on the total health of mind, body and spirit.
  • Community Conversation (Thursday):
    • In partnership with Brotherhood Crusade and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association will bring together local youths, law enforcement and community leaders for a discussion addressing the challenges facing their community and ways to build trust.
  • NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service (Friday):
    • Current and former NBA and WNBA players, coaches, partners and celebrities will lead three service projects with support from Nike, SAP and State Farm. In partnership with KaBOOM!, members of the NBA family will construct a student-designed playground at Jefferson Elementary School. Other volunteers will join Baby2Baby to package donations for children living in poverty. At the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, packed donations will go to local seniors in need.
  • NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game (Saturday):
    • NBA and WNBA players and legends will join 12 Special Olympics athletes from Los Angeles and around the world for a clinic and demonstration game at the Los Angeles Convention Center (LACC).
  • Building Bridges Through Basketball (Saturday):
  • Hoops For Troops (Thursday-Sunday):
    • The NBA will partner with the USO and Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors to host special experiences for military service members, their families and the families of fallen service members at NBA All-Star’s marquee events, including a visit to the Bob Hope USO Center.
  • Make-A-Wish (Thursday-Sunday):
    • The NBA will grant the wishes of eight Make-A-Wish kids with critical illnesses in Los Angeles. The kids and their families will enjoy several days of fun events and life-changing experiences, including meet-and-greets with NBA All-Stars, State Farm All-Star Saturday Night participants, and NBA and WNBA legends.

Jr. NBA schedule:

Events will include clinics, tournaments and educational sessions that teach the values and fundamentals of the game. All events and clinics will take place at LACC on courts provided by SnapSports.

  • NBA Day (Friday):
    • In partnership with Under Armour, more than 1,500 local youths will participate in a series of basketball clinics alongside NBA All-Stars and Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars players.
  • Gatorade Jr. NBA All-Star Invitational (Saturday-Sunday):
    • Sixteen boys and girls middle school basketball teams, which advanced from preliminary tournaments in January, will play in the Gatorade Jr. NBA All-Star Invitational single-elimination quarterfinal and semifinal rounds on Saturday and the championship games on Sunday.
  • NBA Skills Challenge (Saturday-Sunday):
    • More than 500 participants will compete for a chance to advance to the national finals of the Jr. NBA Skills Challenge, which will be held in New York in June. The Jr. NBA Skills Challenge is a national competition that provides boys and girls ages 9-13 the opportunity to showcase fundamental skills through dribbling, shooting and rebounding competitions.
  • NBA Coaches Forum (Sunday):
    • In partnership with Positive Coaching Alliance, A Call to Men, Athlete Ally and the Human Rights Campaign, the Jr. NBA will host a coaches forum to educate and support nearly 100 local coaches in developing young athletes of character. NBA and WNBA legends will discuss teamwork, diversity and inclusion.
  • NBA Clinic for LAPD and LAFD First Responders (Sunday):
    • In partnership with the LAPD and Los Angeles Fire Department, the Jr. NBA will host a Jr. NBA basketball clinic for first responders and their families at LACC. NBA legends will join participants for on-court skills and drills.

The players’ anthem: when Marvin Gaye sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 1983 All-Star game Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, Magic, Dr. J and more on the pride and heartbreak of witnessing Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem

Being the head coach of the Lakers, and coaching the All-Star Game at the Great Western Forum that day … it just made it a special, almost spiritual-type moment for me.

— Pat Riley

Marvin Gaye could not have looked more quintessentially Marvin Gaye if he’d tried. It was Feb. 13, 1983: the afternoon of the 33rd annual NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Everyone was packed in, a stone’s throw from Hollywood. Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maurice Cheeks, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Reggie Theus, Moses Malone, Pat Riley, Bill Laimbeer, Andrew Toney, Alex English, Robert Parish, Jamaal Wilkes and more. Even then the synergy of basketball icons and a musical icon made all the sense in the world. And now as the NBA All-Star Game returns to Los Angeles this weekend — the fourth time since the game’s 1951 inception that it’s been held in the L.A. area — the synergy is a given.

Thirty-five years ago, things were of course different. Nowadays, fans have a huge say with regard to who starts in the game. The top two vote-getters draft their own teams. And music is a quintessential part of the NBA All-Star Weekend experience. The NBA named Migos’ “Stir Fry” the weekend’s official anthem, and a slew of the hottest musical artists in the game are expected to host countless parties. The omnipresence of celebrities courtside has made the NBA America’s most culturally significant sport — and it will be turnt up even higher for the All-Star Game.

The Eastern Conference All-Stars of the 1983 All Star Game: the front row (L to R): Maurice Lucas, Isiah Thomas, Middle Row: Bill Laimbeer, Buck Williams, Robert Parish, Moses Malone & Larry Bird. Back Row: Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Trainer Ray Melchiorre, Sidney Moncrief, Reggie Theus, Marques Johnson, Head Coach Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Assistant Coach Jack McMahon, Assistant Coach Matt Guokes

NBAE via Getty Images

The 1983 Western Conference All-Stars of the 1983 the front row: Gus Williams, Jim Paxson, Middle Row – Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jack Sikma, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Artis Gilmore & Maurice Lukas. Back Row – Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Assistant Coach Dave Wohl, Jamaal Wilkes, Alex English, Head Coach Pat Riley, George Gervin, Kiki Vandeweghe, David Thompson & Trainer Jack Curran

NBAE via Getty Images

But back then, Gaye was a feel-good comeback story. Following a stint in Europe where the singer temporarily escaped demons that had nearly devoured him, he was riding high off the success of the smash album Midnight Love, which was, in turn, fueled by the Goliathan influence of its landmark single “Sexual Healing.” Gaye would use the NBA’s center stage to propel him to the Grammys just 10 days later.

Gaye, a linchpin of swagger, walked to center court at The Forum in a deep blue suit — jacket buttoned — wearing dark shades courtesy of an NBA gift package that had been distributed to all media and VIP guests. But there was something wrong with the shades. “[The sunglasses] had ‘L.A. All-Star’ imprinted on the lenses,” said Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s public relations director in 1983. “Trouble was, whoever printed them, printed it backwards.” Gaye either didn’t know, didn’t show, or didn’t care. He also didn’t know he was the second choice — Lionel Richie, sitting on the huge success of his solo debut, had turned the NBA down for the anthem honors.

Players and coaches lined up on opposite free-throw lines. The honor guard of nearby Edwards Air Force Base was behind Gaye with the American and California flags raised. Seventeen thousand people in the arena were on their feet for the national anthem — there was little reason to expect a diversion from the way “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been performed their entire lives.

“We’d only heard the national anthem done one way,” said then-Chicago Bulls guard Theus. Having coached the Sacramento Kings and at New Mexico State, the two-time All-Star is now head coach at Cal State University, Northridge. “We weren’t anticipating anything. We knew he was Marvin Gaye.”

Gaye had intertwined his way into the sports world before. He’d sung the anthem on many occasions — each time in the traditional format. Four years earlier, in 1979, Gaye sang at the second Larry Holmes/Earnie Shavers fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In 1974, he sang the anthem at Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California, before the Raiders’ regular season finale vs. the Dallas Cowboys. And Motown’s crown prince belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 4 of the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals — the Tigers ended up winning in seven games. Ironically, for Game 5 of that series, young singer José Feliciano performed the anthem with a slower, brooding twist that caused some Tiger Stadium attendees to pepper the blind Puerto Rican musician with boos. The backlash derailed his Grammy-laden career for decades.

“In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ … had the most impact on me than any record, ever.” — Pat Riley

Gaye was an avid sports fan— he even once tried out for the Detroit Lions. And he floored Motown founder (and his former brother-in-law) Berry Gordy when he told him, at the apex of his prolific singing, songwriting and producing career, that he wanted to pursue boxing. Whether he knew it or not though, as much as Gaye found inspiration in the athletes who stood behind him on The Forum’s court, they found as much if not more in him.

“I’ve gone on the record many times saying that Marvin Gaye was my favorite artist. His music touched me in a deep, special and personal way. Reading Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, it’s kind of gut-wrenching. It’s heartfelt in terms of the struggle he had … Just to do what he wanted to do. He really just wanted to be a crooner. He just wanted to sing and share his gift with the world. But pressure came from a lot of different places to be more, do more, and that eventually cost him his life.”

Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Gaye was a tortured spirit whose life oftentimes played out publicly — despite the singer’s natural shyness. “Marvin’s problems can easily be understood by listening to his music,” Gordy said in the 1987 documentary series, Motown on Showtime. I come up hard, come on, get down / There’s only three things that’s for sure / Taxes, death and trouble. ‘Trouble Man’ was a song he did for a soundtrack that was, of course, probably reminiscent of his life.”

Gaye attempted suicide by cocaine overdose in Hawaii in 1980. The years leading up to the All-Star performance were taxing — physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. “About 1975 through about 1983 hasn’t been very good,” he said in a 1983 interview. “The last seven years of my life haven’t been exactly ecstatic … I’ve been happy, and most of the time pretty depressed.”

By the time of the 1983 All-Star Game, Gaye had long since returned from his self-imposed European exile. He spent two years in Ostend, Belgium, ostensibly away from failed relationships, financial woes and drugs. While there, Gaye co-wrote (with Odell Brown and David Ritz) 1982’s sultry “Sexual Healing.” But long before the Europe and “Healing,” Marvin wrote the score to the lives of many NBA All-Stars who surrounded him that February afternoon.

Marvin Gaye performs in the Netherlands.

Rob Verhorst/Redferns

“[Marvin’s music] resonated with me just growing up as a kid in the ’60s and ’70s in Chicago,” said Hall of Famer and 12-time All-Star Isiah Thomas. The two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP point guard laughs at the memory of first meeting Gaye in Hollywood — alongside Johnson — at the famous and infamous The Palladium. Thomas was surprised Gaye knew his name. “His music was our music. He really hit how we were feeling … in poverty, and our desperate cry for just recognition, and understanding.”

Abdul-Jabbar, on a break from the book tour for his Becoming Kareem: On and Off the Court, recalls running into Gaye at studio sessions for his friend Stevie Wonder’s 1976 Songs In The Key of Life. These, said the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, were among the best times ever. “Marvin Gaye was absolutely on the forefront of [artists tackling societal issues]. He was an important guy, artistically, at that time. He talked about issues that resonated in the black community in a very meaningful way.”

“You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.”

Quite possibly the most excited for Gaye’s performance wasn’t a player, but a coach. During The Beatles phenomenon of the ’60s, Riley — much like Quincy Jones, apparently — never truly caught the wave. “I was raised on doo-wop, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Jimmy Smith. Then when Motown really had it course in the early ’60s, that was it for me,” he said, the enthusiasm in his voice rising with each memory. “I was all about The Four Tops and The Temptations. The Supremes.” But as for Gaye himself, “What happened in the late ’60s was a lot of what’s going on in our society today. People just not agreeing what’s happening with our government,” Riley said. “In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ — for my lifetime — had the most impact on me than any record ever.”

“[After the game,] it was just common knowledge that whenever you talked about the anthem, everybody just pointed to it like, ‘Yeah, that was the best one that was ever done.’ Not because his techniques were good — they were — but because spiritually, in that moment, he really captured the feelings of everyone in The Forum. I’ve never been part of an anthem where everybody’s just in unison and lost control and just started moving. It was a beautiful moment.” — Isiah Thomas

Before Marvin took the floor at the Forum, there was mild panic. Then-NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien was an old school, by-the-book type of guy. O’Brien had told McIntyre during the previous day’s rehearsals, “Make sure we don’t have anything that’s going to cause a scene.”

All during the day, and right before the early afternoon tipoff, Gaye was nowhere to be found. “[Lon Rosen, Lakers’ director of promotions] hadn’t heard from Marvin or his people. They weren’t sure where he was,” McIntyre said. There’s a chuckle in his voice now. But 35 years ago it was anything but a laughing matter. “So they started looking for a backup, I think.”

Arriving only moments before showtime, Gaye made his way to the floor. A longstanding myth says the notoriously recluse singer was intentionally late to avoid tension with Lakers personnel who believed his rendition was too long the day before at rehearsal. While he adjusted the microphone stand, a simple, yet infectious instrumental began playing. Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers’ public address announcer panicked. “Ah s—,” he reflected. “They’ve got the wrong tape. This is ‘Sexual Healing.’ ”

But it wasn’t. It was a simple beat dubbing a drum track done by Gaye’s guitarist and musical director Gordon Banks and a keyboard track Gaye laid down himself. And what happened next would be the only time in history the national anthem closely resembled a rhythm and blues song. There isn’t a blueprint for Gaye’s charisma. Or his showmanship. It was innate. “You could feel the vibe as soon as he walked out there,” Theus said. “He was the epitome of cool, and smooth at the same time.” Gaye’s anthem was patriotic in its own soulful way, but it was simultaneously debonair, too. Each note left his vocal chord with the pizzazz of a street crooner.

Something special was happening. Riley was standing next to Abdul-Jabbar. On the surface, Riley was calm. But his mind raced a mile a minute. “I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re about to see something very unique here,’ ” the three-time Coach of the Year said. “Then the first words came out of his mouth, and he went on. Then he went in a different pitch. It was mesmerizing to me.”

Gaye, the archbishop of swagger. “You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.” For a two-minute stretch, the basketball world revolved around Marvin Gaye and within his gravitational pull were MVPs, world champions, former rookies of the year, future Hall of Famers and 17,505 in the stands. “We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh. “We were just bouncing left to right. It blew us away. We just got caught into the moment of this man. People just forgot it was the national anthem.”

“We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh.

Off the rip, the crowd swooned. They shouted and clapped as if the NBA All-Star Game had momentarily swapped places with a gospel choir. “Before you knew it, you were swaying, clapping and were like doing something to the anthem that you’d never done before in your life. Or since,” said Thomas. “It just wasn’t the players. It was the whole arena. Everyone in unison almost caught the Holy Ghost.”

“You kinda paused for a second, listening,” said Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, who was making his first, as a Philadelphia 76er, of four All-Star Game appearances in 1983. Cheeks has also been head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sixers and Detroit Pistons. “You looked around to see if anybody else was appreciating this the way you are … everybody was — especially the crowd.”

A roar had risen by the time And the home of the brave capped off Gaye’s rendition. He’d given the national anthem a makeover. Gaye, later in 1983, offered a self-diagnosis. His depression stemmed from a deep empathy for humanity. All he wanted was for people to listen to him. In less than three minutes on The Forum’s hardwood, he’d done just that. If only for a sliver of time, the anthem wasn’t about the stars, the stripes or whatever its original intentions were. Gaye made it a song about love, inclusion and triumph.

The crowd showered him with a standing ovation. How do we follow THAT? many of the players wondered. The walk back to the bench following the anthem was one of excitement and befuddlement. Players slapped high fives, laughed and recapped. “Everybody was like, ‘Man, he tore the house down!’ ” Johnson said, essentially yelling into the phone. “Going to the bench like, ‘Man! That was unbelievable!’ ”

As Gaye exited the floor, he pulled Erving aside. It was a brief meeting of the sex appeals. The two had met before at shows in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Virginia. “I got something coming out. You gon’ love it,” Gaye told Erving. The “it” he referred to was a then-unreleased song called “Sanctified Lady.” Unfortunately, though, only Erving would be alive to hear the record following its 1985 release.

East All-Star Julius Erving dunks one past the imposing figure of West All-Star Artis Gilmore.

Getty Images

The Eastern Conference, led by Erving’s MVP effort of 25 points, defeated the West, 132-123. But all the talk after the game centered on Gaye. The buzz was still electric. This was of course the pre-internet era. The race was to obtain any sort of recording of the performance. “I remember the conversation being, the game was great,” said Theus. “But that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Marvin Gaye.”

“It wasn’t even about the game,” said Johnson. “The whole attention was on, ‘Is it on TV? Make sure we get a copy! Find Brian [McIntyre]!’ ”

McIntyre for his part was a bit queasy. He knew the younger generation was enamored with the performance. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, called it, even in the moment, “the greatest anthem of all time.” Yet, in the back of his mind McIntyre was dreading the older generation’s response. Of those possible complaints, O’Brien simply told McIntyre, “You have to answer them all.”

The official CBS after-party was packed. Finger foods and cocktails. David Stern, O’Brien’s eventual successor, and his wife Shelly were in attendance, as was Rick Welts (current Golden State Warriors president), Russ Granik and Gary Bettman. All anyone wanted to hear was Gaye’s anthem. “They were replaying the game [at the party], but every so often someone would say, ‘Let’s hear it again!’ ” said McIntyre. “So they’d switch it back to the anthem and play it all over again. The crowd was just into it.”

“[Marvin] died young and it’s like there was an unfulfilled promise. I’m looking at these rock bands, they’re doing all this crazy stuff, and they’re still touring. They’re still making music! Guys going into their ’60s, ’70s and hitting 80 and they’re still out there. Bill Withers is still out there making a little noise every now and then. So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Much has changed. The NBA looks completely different. Players carry far more leverage than they did in 1983. The style of play has shifted to a more perimeter-based attack. And even the national anthem sounds different — in rankings and context. The biggest story of the year is NFL players kneeling during it in protest of police brutality and the state of the criminal justice system. For those who stood on the floor that day in 1983, they remain connected to Gaye’s rendition. The version sung by Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl is the only other anthem close to a comparison to Gaye’s rendition, in their eyes.

“This is what made it so special,” said Johnson. “Everybody said, ‘Wow.’ Everybody went absolutely crazy. It was blacks, whites, everybody — saying, what a moment.”

The moment was one so memorable the NBA had Marvin’s daughter, Nona, perform the same anthem “in a special duet” with her father at the 2004 All-Star Game, when it returned to Los Angeles. In a sport littered with previous anthem singers such as The Temptations, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Brian McKnight and more — Marvin Gaye remains on the NBA’s musical Mount Rushmore.

But how does Gaye’s anthem fit into the current conversation around it? “We have to take everything in context,” said Abdul-Jabbar. Many of the issues Gaye addressed in his music run parallels to Colin Kaepernick’s original message. “I think that people were trying to make an issue of the anthem because they didn’t want to deal with the issue Colin Kaepernick raised, which is the fact that black Americans — unarmed black Americans — should not be getting killed by police officers at the rate that they are. That’s what the issue is.”

For Theus, it’s a simple matter. “Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem superseded and surpassed any negativity that was in anyone’s mind,” he said. “When you hear something like that, you don’t hear the national anthem that everyone is talking about today. It was another national anthem that we were listening to. You can’t relate the two.”

“So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Ten days after the All-Star Game, for “Sexual Healing,” Gaye was awarded the only two Grammys of his career. “I’ve waited … 20-something years to win an award like this,” he said in his acceptance speech. He thanked God, his children, his mother, and his fans. He did not, however, thank his father. Almost prophetically, he closed the speech saying, “Stay with us, we’re gonna try and give you more.” Gaye embarked on what would be his final tour in the summer of 1983. He traveled with, and kept a preacher in one room. His drugs in another. In a figurative sense, Gaye stood between heaven and hell throughout his Midnight Love tour.

Marvin Gaye holds ones of his Grammys.

Ron Galella/WireImage

“I expose myself because the fans demand it,” he told his ex-wife Jan Gaye. “I offer myself up for slaughter. I am the sacrificial lamb. If their pleasure requires my destruction, so be it.”

By the Detroit stop, Gaye was a zombie. “After the performance, we got back to the dressing room,” Mel Farr recalled of his final meeting with Gaye. (Farr died in 2015.) “He had all those hangers-on giving him this drug and this drug. I said, ‘Wow, man. I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ It was that bad.”

Four-hundred fourteen days following his anthem, on April 1, 1984, Gaye was murdered by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., a day shy of what would have been his Marvin Jr.’s 45th birthday. The house where the killing took place was but seven miles from The Forum. Toward the end of his life, as he battled voices in his head, Gaye still understood the importance of Feb. 13, 1983. “I asked God,” he said, “that when I sang [that anthem] that it would move men’s souls.”

He most certainly moved Riley, who keeps hours upon hours upon hours of Gaye’s and Motown’s greatest hits near him at all times. The Miami Heat president still keeps a framed picture of himself, Abdul-Jabbar and the Western Conference All-Stars lined up watching Gaye. Call it his way of paying homage to an artist he says changed his life and enhanced his perspectives long before the NBA came calling. Thirty-five years later, after the 1983 All-Star Game, from his South Florida office, there’s pride and sorrow in his voice.

“I’m privileged to have been there at that moment when this icon sang that song. The people that were in that arena that day saw something unique, probably changed people to some extent,” Riley said. “The tragic way that Marvin died was something that was very depressing for a lot of people. I know it was for me. But,” he said, “[Marvin will] always be in my heart because I hear his voice all the time. You never forget people like this.”

King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ explains the rage over the NFL anthem protests and the persistence of racial injustice Re-reading the famous letter today shows how much still needs to change

On Feb. 11, at 8 p.m., The Undefeated will present Dear Black Athlete, a one-hour special on ESPN featuring conversations with athletes and community leaders about social justice. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the program will be taped at Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where King spoke and led civil rights marches. Below, we examine the meaning of King’s letter in today’s racial climate.

Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail in a narrow cell on newspaper margins, scraps of paper and smuggled-in legal pads. He had no notes or reference materials. Yet, King’s eloquent defense of nonviolent protest and searing critique of moderation continues to resonate in a nation still divided by race.

In 1963, the letter spoke truth to white clergymen who called him a troublemaker for coming to Birmingham, Alabama, to confront that city’s harsh segregation and racial violence. In 2018, King’s tract stands as a beacon to a new generation of activists impatient with injustice perpetuated less by flush-faced bigots than by the ostensibly colorblind institutions that structure our society.

King’s letter famously said creating tension was necessary to the work of nonviolent protesters, and that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” He called out the white church for being an “arch supporter of the status quo,” and castigated its ministers for urging members to comply with desegregation because it is the law, not because it is morally right and “the Negro is your brother.” He also expressed grave disappointment with white moderates, whom he described as “more devoted to order than justice.”

The letter was “prophetic,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racial extremist groups. “King really calls out systemic racism and, particularly, systemic anti-black racism. And, of course, it persists today.”

Brooks hears echoes of the white clergymen who accused King of inciting violence in the stinging criticism of NFL players who protested racial inequities by taking a knee during the national anthem.

“What they have done is in the tradition of nonviolent protest. It forces people to have a conversation,” she said. “But the pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ They are like the outsiders that the clergy mentioned in going after King.”

King’s letter was written nearly a decade after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but Alabama’s largest city operated under its own rules. Black people could not work or try on clothes in downtown stores. They were given used books in separate schools, and made to wait in separate waiting rooms at public hospitals. Those who challenged the established order risked the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan or other terrorists who enforced apartheid so savagely that the town was nicknamed “Bombingham.”

Today, the city is no longer segregated by law, and violent racists no longer run amok. But segregation remains: Many whites fled the city, and its schools are 99 percent black and Hispanic. The city’s poverty rate is more than 30 percent. Then there is the racial wealth gap, income gap, unemployment gap, school achievement gap, incarceration gap and life expectancy gap. It is a story common to many parts of the country.

“The pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ “

Birmingham is now led by Mayor Randall Woodfin, 36, a proud Morehouse College graduate who is among the more than 10,000 black elected officials serving across the country.

“It is hard to read King’s letter and not want to re-reread it and re-read it again,” he said, calling it the civil rights leader’s seminal piece. Not only does it lay out the steps, from self-education to negotiation, that should precede protest, Woodfin said, but it also makes a historical case for why black people are impatient for real change.

“We have black leadership now. But some of the things Dr. King was talking about as it relates to poverty and better education and opportunity, they still exist,” Woodfin said. “We need to be bolder in correcting things we know are not working for many people.”

Better education funding, longer school years, seamless coordination between schools, libraries and recreation centers are some of the things that Woodfin thinks could help. “We are not spending enough time with our children,” he said. “We need to do more with workforce development, that entire pipeline from birth until young people cross that stage.”

But winning support for such initiatives is difficult in Birmingham, much like it is in Detroit or Baltimore or East St. Louis, Illinois. The city alone does not have the wealth to pay for those things, and white taxpayers in neighboring communities do not see problems in places like Birmingham’s as theirs. If polls are any indication, almost none of those white suburbanites see themselves as racist. But they are the present-day equivalent of the moderates King wrote about, minimizing the importance of discrimination in the ongoing struggles of places like Birmingham.

Seven in 10 African-Americans surveyed in a 2016 Pew Research Center poll cited discrimination as a reason blacks have a harder time than whites getting ahead, a view shared by just 36 percent of white respondents. A series of independent studies have found that black people still face discrimination from the criminal justice system, from employers, from real estate agents, and from banks and mortgage companies. Yet, when asked about the racial fairness of institutions fundamental to American life — courts, police, the workplace, mortgage companies — white people are much less likely than African-Americans to say black people are treated unfairly. White evangelicals, who are most prominent in the South, were the group least likely to perceive discrimination against blacks, according to a 2017 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Only 36 percent of white evangelicals reported perceiving a lot of discrimination against black people.

Growing up white in Birmingham, the Rev. Jim Cooley said segregation was a way of life that as a child he never stopped to examine. “It was a different planet then,” said Cooley, who is now pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church. One of his predecessors, the Rev. Earl Stallings, was among the eight clergymen who signed the statement that prompted King’s famous letter.

“I remember seeing separate bathrooms and separate water fountains as a youngster. I guess it was a tribute to my parents that I did not think of it as this is ‘upper’ and that is ‘lower.’ My impression was that there was some natural reason for this that I did not understand.”

Now he knows better, and he thanks King for helping to transform his city. He says the new Birmingham is evident in his own church’s growing racial diversity and the fact that its black organist causes no one in the congregation to as much as raise an eyebrow. He also sees black and white people coming together in civic groups to address the city’s many problems.

Still, Cooley acknowledged that huge racial disparities remain. Some are no doubt the result of Birmingham’s long history of racism, he says. But he thinks the gaps have as much to do with educational shortcomings and social isolation that he said also hinders many white people.

“If I walk around my neighborhood, there is an English couple. A man across the way is involved in the Sons of the Confederacy. There is an African-American doctor. Next to him, an Indian veterinarian and a Chinese pharmacist,” Cooley said. “There is less friction now, for sure. While everything was so drastically race-driven 50 or 60 years ago, now it is about opportunity and education. And that cuts across all kinds of racial strata.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, 67, the longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, grew up in middle-class black Birmingham, as did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, activist Angela Davis and Alma Powell, the wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was a nurturing world of high aspirations tightly controlled by the constant threat of racial violence.

“When we went downtown, we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register,” he recalled. “No police, firemen, nothing. It is hard to understand if you were not there just how dramatically different the world was then.”

Hrabowski was 12 years old when he was arrested and held for five days for taking part in the “Children’s Crusade,” waves of demonstrations that King launched not long after he was released from the Birmingham jail.

“When we went downtown we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register.”

Hrabowski brings the lessons he learned then to his work as president of UMBC, a public university just outside Baltimore. During his more than quarter-century at the university’s helm, he has turned the once nondescript commuter school into one of the nation’s top producers of African-American doctorates in science, technology, engineering and math.

That has not happened by accident. Hrabowski had made it his business to mentor and support black students and those from other underrepresented groups. Hrabowski promotes his school with evangelical zeal and brings at-risk students to campus to help them learn the habits of academic success. He promotes his sharpest science nerds as if they were rap stars, and he singles out basketball players with high grades so they can be seen as both athletic and academic role models.

He shed tears of joy in November when a black woman from suburban Maryland, 21-year-old Naomi Mburu, was named UMBC’s first Rhodes scholar. And when the university opened its new basketball arena and events center last weekend, he made sure Mburu strode onto center court, where she was introduced to the crowd at halftime.

It’s his way of battling the pervasive injustice he once endured in Birmingham.

Hrabowski noted that back when King penned his letter only 2 or 3 percent of African-Americans were college graduates, as were roughly 10 percent of whites. Now, according to the Census Bureau, 23 percent of African-American adults are four-year college graduates, as are almost 37 percent of whites.

“We’ve made tremendous progress since Dr. King’s letter, yes we have,” Hrabowski said. “You want to acknowledge that progress. But a lot of people are left behind, and to solve that we have to look at the unjust policies that Dr. King talks about. Just because it is in the structure, doesn’t mean it is just.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1988 — The Skinheads episode of Oprah.

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

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

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

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

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

2004 — “Everybody gets a car!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Durant: A letter to my neighborhood The NBA Finals MVP reflects on growing up, giving back and the pleasures of going home

I hail from Seat Pleasant, Maryland, a predominantly African-American town of about 5,000 people just east of Washington, D.C., that certainly has had its share of struggles. If I could talk to myself when I was a young man growing up there, I would say that having tunnel vision when you’re passionate about something is a gift and a curse. While I knew how bad my surroundings were, and how tough it is to make it out, I had a laser focus on achieving what was necessary to leave my community. I didn’t want to abandon my hometown, but there was always something going on: police brutality, poverty, crime. In order to get out of this mess, I ultimately had to turn a blind eye to what was going on. I had to ignore it. And I felt like basketball was the only way I could get out of that wreckage.

Looking back at my childhood, I wish I would have just opened my eyes. I lived in a 95 percent black neighborhood with 80 percent of us living in poverty. But I didn’t really have the maturity or the voice to get involved back then. Today, I realize that my achievements are rare for somebody from my neighborhood. Today, I know that I can give a lot of hope to people who feel like they don’t have a way out. While I have regrets that I didn’t realize this earlier, today I can make amends to my community by providing hope and joy to people who come from where I come from and that struggle the way I struggled. Now I am aware of the problems.

When we’re given the gift of a great environment where people care for us and support us, it is our duty to give it back. We need to invest in our own communities. Invest in our kids.

I am in an unusual place—I feel like I’m living two lives, one as an NBA player and another as a black man from an impoverished neighborhood.

After winning an NBA championship, I was in the optimal position to help inspire my hometown. I brought the trophy back last August and saw that the people in my neighborhood were happy about it. It meant everything to me that the people of Seat Pleasant showed up for my championship parade, especially because it was on a weekday in the middle of the day. Usually, people have to work and go provide for their families. I thought about my mom’s struggle and how she could have never shown up to that celebration back in the day. Seeing my community’s reaction to my success proves that if we’re put in good positions by being given the necessary help and resources, we can flourish.

There’s just so many loving, caring and amazing people in Seat Pleasant. But it’s difficult to sustain the foundation of happiness in our souls when our surroundings bring out ugliness. When we’re given the gift of a great environment where people care for us and support us, it is our duty to give it back. We need to invest in our own communities. Invest in our kids. I believe communities will blossom and our country as a whole will be better because of it.

There are many great people who are trying to fight their way out of the struggle. For people like me who come from that struggle, it’s relatively easy to give money back or say how much we care. It’s a tough job, however, for us to really put our feet on the ground and put our imprint on those communities. But it is not an unattainable ideal.

Sadly, back home there is little progress. People are stuck in the same cycle every day, surviving minute by minute. I have been blessed to see the other side. Once given financial freedom, the world opens up. Your eyes open up. Every community needs resources, and those resources give people opportunities to do things they are passionate about and get their minds focused in the right direction. It has a trickle-down effect: a better household, a better community and a better future for our kids.

If I could give some advice to the youth of Seat Pleasant, it would be to find something that you love and do it as if your life depends on it. It sounds cliché, but it’s really that simple. If you put your mind to it, have faith and seek support, all with the foundation of a strong work ethic, the world will open for you. And once the world is open for you, then the conversations with close friends and family about how we can effect further progress in our communities will come from your own fulfillment, joy and freedom. So try to find your passion every day. See what the world has for you.


Kevin Durant from Seat Pleasant

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

What does it mean to be black and play sports? It’s a question that demands you consider athletes in full, starting with their intellect

Two years ago, I interviewed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the main stage at the National Book Festival before an appreciative crowd in the nation’s capital. We were backstage waiting to go on, and Kareem, an introspective man not known for small talk, -surprised me by asking where I was from.

Reflexively, thinking he meant my professional home, I began to tell him what I did at The Undefeated and before that at The Washington Post. He cut me off.

“No, where are you from? Where are your people from?”

I explained my Wichita, Kansas, roots and my dad’s decision to move the family to Washington, D.C., during the early 1960s to pursue a career in geology. This piqued Kareem’s curiosity, as he understood the barriers countless African-Americans have faced in so many professions and how often sports and entertainment have defined our achievement.

Kareem is well-read, the author of 14 books and numerous insightful columns, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient whose interests range from World War II to the Harlem Renaissance. He is an exemplar of the most unexplored and underreported dimension of black athletes: their intellect.

Interviewing Kareem on The Daily Show recently, Trevor Noah remarked: “It’s almost like NBA all-time leading scorer is No. 6 on your résumé. You have lived quite an accomplished life.”

We are proud at The Undefeated to collaborate with ESPN The Magazine on this special issue, State of the Black Athlete, a glimpse into the creativity, struggles and brilliance of African-Americans in sports. We understand these athletes’ quest to be seen and comprehended beyond high-flying dunks and celebratory end zone dances, to have their minds considered fully.

Consider John Urschel, with expertise in spectral graph theory and high dimensional data compression, deciding to retire from the Baltimore Ravens at age 26 to complete his doctorate in math at MIT. Or Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics, who taught himself to play piano, learned the Arabic alphabet and quotes parables from David Foster Wallace to reference Martin Luther King Jr., as he recently did in an interview with Donald McRae of The Guardian. Look at Venus Williams, who hasn’t just won 49 singles titles but fought for pay equity in her sport, including lobbying the British Parliament for equal prize money for male and female players at Wimbledon.

We are witnessing an extraordinary period of activism in sports, one driven by black athletes, but we also are watching some of the greatest sports stars on the planet show off their most undervalued asset: their minds. They’re tackling public policy issues, trekking to Capitol Hill, producing documentaries and books, and otherwise engaging in thoughtful contemplation about how best to use their influence.

Sometimes size or height, athleticism, poverty or just the limitations of your dreams propel you into a life of sports. The thrill of competition enlivens you, the cred you generate in your community empowers you. Athletic success opens doors that never seem to close—and you become defined by your physical skills. The world engages you through highlights and sound bites, and your Twitter feed. The rest of your genius—your tastes, passions, eclectic interests—the world sometimes misses. Or, sadly, just ignores.

I love the photos that French-born basketball veteran Boris Diaw posted on Instagram from the Grand Canyon, with his personal espresso machine resting on rock, the sun rising across the darkened sky. The lives of today’s black athletes are filled with experiences hard to imagine when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was coming of age, or when Paul Robeson was excelling as an actor/singer/scholar/athlete/20th-century Renaissance man while being hounded by racism.

One of the most unheralded tales of black athletic triumph is the story of the 18 black Americans who made the U.S. Olympic team in 1936, captured in Deborah Riley Draper’s brilliant documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. Everyone has heard about Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in Berlin during the height of Nazism. But there were 17 others on that team, including Ralph Metcalfe, who later was elected to Congress, and two women, sprinters Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes.

Both black women also had made the 1932 U.S. Olympic team but were treated harshly by American teammates and never competed in the Los Angeles Games. They were replaced by whites on a relay team that won the gold—a rebuke that devastated them. Pickett went on to become an elementary school principal, and Stokes founded the Colored Women’s Bowling League—both saddened but unbeaten by the prejudice they encountered.

But what more could they have become?

I couldn’t help but think, as I was interviewing Kareem, that black athletes are having a great moment—on the rise in power, influence and confidence.

Had he been a foot shorter, Kareem says, he might have been a history teacher trying to figure out life after retirement. Instead, he has spent the three decades since he stopped dropping skyhooks on centers who couldn’t guard him crafting a vital second career: as an intellectual, an activist and an inspiring role model to black athletes interested in exploiting their brilliance. We’re all better off that Kareem grew that extra foot.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

New documentary shows us that Lorraine Hansberry of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ was one tough-minded woman ‘Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart’ portrays a ‘left-wing radical’ who spoke truth to power

Here’s a phrase I bet you thought you’d never read: Be prepared to fangirl over Lorraine Hansberry.

Told ya.

Friday at 9 p.m., PBS is airing Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, a documentary on Hansberry, whose life story has been collapsed into a criminally incomplete Black History Month tidbit. She wrote A Raisin in the Sun, and then Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee starred in the movie adaptation. At some point you watched it in middle school one February and didn’t pay much attention because it was in black and white. Or someone in your class cracked a joke about Poitier always being ashy.

But Hansberry was so much more. As Dee says in an interview in Sighted Eyes, “She seemed to know something about everything. She was a profound thinker.”

Thank goodness for director Tracy Heather Strain, who committed years to research and gathering the funds and archival footage necessary to make Sighted Eyes. The film transforms the memory of Hansberry from that polite woman who wrote one really important play to, as Hansberry’s friend Douglas Turner Ward deemed her, a “left-wing radical.”

I first saw Sighted Eyes at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and about 20 minutes into it I scribbled in my notebook, “I think I love this woman.”

Hansberry had a wit that would have fit perfectly in today’s times, examining the traps of respectability politics and sending them up. Toward the end of her life, she bought a bucolic compound in a predominantly white area of upstate New York and winkingly named it Chitterling Heights. It was a nod, I think, to the efforts of her father to integrate Chicago’s then-white neighborhood of Woodlawn when she was 7. One of the formative experiences in Hansberry’s life was when a crowd gathered outside the Hansberry house in Woodlawn and someone threw a piece of mortar through their front window that just missed her head. What better way to throw a middle finger to white supremacy than to move into a neighborhood and give your house the blackest name you could think of?

Lorraine Hansberry surrounded by clapping African-American teens at Camp Minisink in upstate New York.

Courtesy of Gin Briggs/Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust

Let’s not disregard the significance of A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry crafted a play in 1959 about a family living on the South Side of Chicago that dared to show black people as, well, people and not buffoons, and she wrote it by drawing from her own experiences. But Hansberry was also a fearless agitator for civil rights, a feminist inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which she said “might very well be the most important work of this century,” a nervy woman who had mapped out a plan for her life by the age of 23 and miraculously stuck to it. She was privately queer and unapologetically black, and undoubtedly someone who would have transformed American culture even more had she lived past the age of 34 (she died of pancreatic cancer). Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a producer and champion of her work, in 1953. He left his white wife to be with her, and he was so devoted to her and in awe of her that even though they divorced in 1962, Nemiroff publicly served as Hansberry’s beard for many years.

Hansberry began her writing career as a journalist for the black newspaper Freedom, which was founded by Paul Robeson. She began writing about racism, sexism, poverty and imperialism, which caught the negative attention of one J. Edgar Hoover. Even as civil rights agitators were being identified and surveilled by the FBI, they persisted in their work, and Hansberry was one of them.

She bought a bucolic compound in a predominantly white area of upstate New York and winkingly named it Chitterling Heights.

Lorraine Hansberry holds hands and sings with singer Nina Simone and other activists at a pre-benefit gathering for the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in June 1963 in the home of activist/singer/actor Theodore Bikel.

Courtesy of Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust

A group of black activists and artists assembled by James Baldwin to meet with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy included Hansberry, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. The May 1963 meeting was meant to pressure the Kennedy administration on civil rights or, at the very least, gain its sympathy.

Baldwin wrote about how frustrating the meeting was because rather than listen to what black Americans were enduring, particularly in the South, Kennedy became defensive, insisting that the Justice Department supported the civil rights movement. There was an undercurrent to his words intimating that those gathered who did not agree with him were ungrateful for the administration’s (frankly, rather meager) efforts.

Jerome Smith, a CORE activist who had been attacked and thrown in jail for protesting in Mississippi, bitterly recounted his experiences and refused to dress them up for the attorney general. He decried the Justice Department’s lack of action as activists were being beaten, arrested or worse.

“Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care anything about you and your brother,” Smith said. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail party patter.”

Hansberry also refused to cower before the face of the American government. She didn’t worry about alienating what the group hoped could be its most powerful ally. Instead, Sighted Eyes recounts, she, too, gave Kennedy a piece of her mind.

“You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General,” Hansberry told Kennedy. “But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there,” she said, referring to Smith.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail party patter.”

Sighted Eyes is part of a trifecta of recent documentaries that have given us colorful new insights into the lives of those we often see in black and white. With What Happened, Miss Simone? and I Am Not Your Negro, about Baldwin, directors Raoul Peck and Liz Garbus produced chapters of an anthology about black intellectuals and artists who were contemporaries and friends. These directors give us insight into how the lives of Hansberry, Baldwin and Simone bled into each other, how their friendships provided solace and comfort to each other, how they lived as members of a community and not just as singular figures. They come alive.

Hansberry’s experiences, often told in her own words, come to life in Sighted Eyes thanks to voiceover from actress Anika Noni Rose reading from Hansberry’s journals and other archival material.

Strain, an experienced documentary filmmaker (I’ll Make Me a World, Race: The Power of an Illusion) and professor at Northeastern University became interested in Hansberry after seeing a community theater production of Hansberry’s play To Be Young, Gifted and Black in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The play, assembled from Hansberry’s own words after her death, shares its name with the Nina Simone song, which Hansberry inspired Simone to write.

With Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, Strain has created a portrait of Hansberry that’s as complete and well-rounded as the portrait of black family life that Hansberry captured in A Raisin in the Sun. In doing so, she’s transformed Hansberry from more than just a pretty young playwright who died tragically young. She’s rightfully preserved her place in American history.