Exploring the intersection of sports and criminal justice reform Maya Moore, Michael Rubin discuss how athletes are effecting change

WASHINGTON — The time for national criminal justice reform is now and the opportunity for athletes to effect that change has never been greater.

That was the primary takeaway from a discussion Tuesday centered on criminal justice reform and sports, held in Washington, D.C. The conversation, hosted by The Undefeated and The Marshall Project, featured WNBA superstar Maya Moore, Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin and The Undefeated columnist Clinton Yates.

During a two-hour discussion, the group covered an array of topics ranging from prosecutorial misconduct to the impact of athlete platforms.

Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after being present in the courtroom where his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation. Rubin said the moment changed his life.

“I watched a probation officer recommend a reduced sentence. I watched a district attorney recommend a reduced sentence. Then I watched a judge send him to jail for two to four years for not committing a crime. I was shook to my core,” Rubin said.

In January, Rubin and Mill launched the Reform Alliance along with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai and rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z. The initiative was started with a mission to overhaul the probation and parole system. The group has a goal of freeing at least 1 million people caught up in the system within the next five years.

During the discussion, Rubin said he believes that Mill would still be in prison today if it weren’t for so many athletes who were front and center pushing for his release. He is channeling that approach for the Reform Alliance, which will aim to leverage the likeness and following of athletes and celebrities to tell the “crazy” stories of everyday citizens.“What we’re going to do with the Reform Alliance is we’re going to have big celebrities, athletes and influencers tell everyday stories,” Rubin said. “We’re trying to find the person you’ve never heard of, find a crazy story and then have people tell the story on social media.”

Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael G. Rubin sits on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation.

Jeff DiNicola

Rubin’s Alliance Reform partner Jay-Z made waves last month when he signed a multiyear partnership with the NFL to produce its Super Bowl halftime show and amplify the league’s social justice initiatives. Rubin strongly defended Jay-Z’s motives for partnering with the NFL, which have been criticized by some as monetizing a movement largely propelled by Colin Kaepernick’s protests.

“This is a guy who does not care about money, he cares about doing right,” Rubin said about Jay-Z. “The reason he got involved with the NFL is because he felt from the inside he could make a real difference. Anybody who is questioning Jay-Z, they don’t know what he’s about.”

Moore, an example of an athlete attempting to use her platform to enact change in the criminal justice system, shook up basketball when she announced in February that she would sit out the WNBA season. Moore has only spoken publicly on a handful of occasions since her announcement, focusing her year away from basketball on her family and her ministry work. She’s also dedicated much of her time to the criminal case of Jonathan Irons, who has been incarcerated since 1997 after being found guilty of burglary and assault with a deadly weapon and given a 50-year sentence. Moore, who met Irons through her family when she was 18, believes Irons was wrongly convicted.

Moore said the deeper she got into Irons’ case, the more she learned about the infrastructure of the criminal justice system and how it operates, giving her added motivation to educate communities about the problems pertaining to social justice occurring in their neighborhoods.

“Through getting to know Jonathan and his story, the world of criminal justice reform, mass incarceration and racial equality have become so real to me. Part of what I want to do when I tell people about Jonathan’s story is not just look at this story but look at the stories in your community.”

Four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore speaks on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Moore shook up the basketball world when she announced in February that she would sit out the 2019 WNBA season.

Jeff DiNicola

When asked by a member of the audience to detail why she didn’t play in the WNBA this year, Moore said a large part of her decision was to ensure that she would be available to see Irons’ legal proceedings through. Irons’ evidentiary hearing to potentially reopen his case — which Moore plans to attend, according to a report by The Associated Press — is on Oct. 9 in Missouri. For context, the WNBA playoffs, which began last week, could run as late as Oct. 10.

“It’s extremely hard to be engaged in these issues and be at the top of your craft,” Moore said. “I couldn’t imagine what this year would look like for me if I was fully invested in my team and trying to bring Jonathan home and raise awareness for some of these causes.”

Moore emphasized that Irons’ story is just one of many that require attention and education.

“This is a real-life story. There are more Jonathans out there.”

An open letter to Jay-Z Etan Thomas: Jay-Z shouldn’t be canceled, but he does need to answer to his critics

Dear Jay-Z,

Since the announcement of your NFL deal, I have heard many of your fans attempting explanations for your partnership. Be patient. Chess versus checkers. Crabs in a bucket. He’s a billionaire and has to move differently. Wait and see.

For a long time, the “greatest rapper alive” has been an example of “actionable items” in the community. You’ve raised money for the families of Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin, you’ve donated tens of thousands of dollars to help bail out protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, and served as an executive producer on several documentaries about the criminal justice system.

This doesn’t look like chess versus checkers, this looks like Connect 4, you stacking your chips on top of the movement and connecting with the NFL for a straight line across capitalism.

Your body of work speaks for itself. I don’t believe you should be canceled, but we shouldn’t allow our adoration for someone to stifle our critique.

In 2017, you told an audience at a Miami concert, “I want y’all to understand when people are kneeling and putting their fists up in the air and doing what they’re doing, it’s not about the flag, it’s about justice. It’s about injustice. And that’s not a black or white thing, it’s a human issue.”

A year later, you rapped in “APES—“: “I said no to the Super Bowl: you need me, I don’t need you.”

Surprisingly, during a news conference while sitting next to Roger Goodell, you told a room of reporters “that we are past kneeling [and] it’s not about getting [Colin] Kaepernick a job.” Then you asked people in the room, “Do you know the issue? How about you, do you know the issue?”

As you asked the question, I noticed Goodell’s smile as he leaned back in his chair. I thought to myself, was this a prerequisite for Jay-Z to sit at the table with the NFL?

At that same meeting, the NFL announced that Roc Nation will help promote the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative, which will focus on education, economic development, police, community relations and criminal justice reform. In addition, Roc Nation will have a music series and clothing line, both collaborations with the NFL. Capitalism mixed with activism.

It appears as though you changed your entire message once the NFL deal happened. This looks bad, Jay-Z.

Former NBA player Etan Thomas says Jay-Z changed his entire message regarding social justice when he struck a deal with the NFL.

Etan Thomas

Here is the part that’s hard to swallow. It seems as though you are profiting from the very movement that Kaepernick started by partnering with the NFL, which to this day has whiteballed Kaepernick from the league.

Let’s be honest, if Kaepernick never took a knee and verbalized that he was protesting systemic racism and police brutality, this deal would never have been extended to you. That’s why NFL players Eric Reid and Kenny Stills are questioning you, because it’s not adding up.

Is this the chess versus checkers we keep hearing about? Maybe you are working within the system to further the movement that Kaepernick and Reid started. Or, is it simply you using Kaepernick as a ladder to step into a position that will financially benefit you, cloaked in activism but with the stench of capitalism?

I’m not advocating for anyone to be a broke activist. After all, I get paid an honorarium when I speak at universities, where I also sell my books. In fact, I interviewed family members of victims of police brutality for my book We Matter: Athletes and Activism, and I have been working closely with them ever since.

I asked Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, twin sister of Terence Crutcher, who was murdered by officer Betty Shelby in Tulsa, Oklahoma, if she wanted to weigh in on your NFL partnership. She shared the below quote:

Rapper and entertainer Jay-Z grips a football before the NFL season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sept. 11, 2011.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

“At the end of the day, I choose not to get distracted by things that won’t change the laws that give police officers permission to kill unarmed black and brown people in this country. We are in a state of emergency as it relates to being black in America and until the NFL publicly acknowledges that the reason why Kaepernick took a knee is valid, then hiring Jay-Z for their social justice campaign is a farce and I will continue to boycott the NFL.”

In early September, a new report was released saying $400,000 from the Songs of Seasons concerts, a partnership sponsored by Roc Nation and the NFL, are going to Chicago charities. That’s great, but this is not a charity issue, it’s a police brutality issue. If proceeds are going to specific organizations that fight for social justice, be transparent about the organizations.

So that cops like New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo, who choked Eric Garner, an unarmed man, to death, isn’t fired but given prison time. Or Shelby, the cop who killed Crutcher, another unarmed man, doesn’t avoid prison time while conducting speaking tours profiting off Crutcher’s murder. Or Timothy Loehmann, the officer who murdered Tamir Rice, isn’t rehired by another police precinct.

That’s the issue, that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee, and I am having difficulty seeing how your NFL merger is helping the issue.

Let’s be honest, if Kaepernick never took a knee and verbalized that he was protesting systemic racism and police brutality, this deal would have never been extended to you.

And in January, I cringed when you made the comments that a single-parent household is to blame for people “losing their lives.”

I wondered, did Jay-Z just Bill Cosby pound cake speech us? I wanted to ask someone who was directly impacted by the issue of police brutality what his response was to your comments. I asked Eric Garner Jr. — son of Eric Garner. He said:

“I grew up loving Jay-Z . I have nothing but respect for him. What he said was hurtful. It sounded like he was making excuses for the police. My father wasn’t rude. Didn’t say, ‘F you.’ He said, ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times. He didn’t just lose his life, they jumped him and murdered him for selling loosies, and five years later only one cop got fired. No jail time, but just fired. That’s not justice. This isn’t a problem you can just throw money at. Actual laws have to be changed so this doesn’t keep happening, and that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee.”

I had the same reaction as Eric Garner Jr. Maybe you are trying to speak the language to people in a way that will get them on board? Perhaps helping them see that it’s not a “their problem” but an “our problem.” Chess versus checkers? Even if it is the latter, peddling a false narrative to gain support is a dangerous tactic. It feeds into the negative and inaccurate stereotypes of black fathers.

Jay-Z, you are in the upper echelon of revered entertainers who have the ear of the masses. You can’t use that power recklessly. You said it yourself: “Add that to the fact I went plat a bunch of times. Times that by my influence on pop culture. I’m supposed to be No. 1 on everybody’s list.

I wanted to ask someone in law enforcement who I trusted, have worked with and support to weigh in on their perceived effectiveness of your NFL merger, so I asked Capt. Sonia Pruitt of the National Black Police Association, and she said:

“In the realm of social justice, it is important that our actions as activists have depth. While I respect the endeavors of selling clothing and entertainment from a capitalistic view, the reality is that what we need are the added voices of influential members of the community, such as entertainers and those in the athletic arena, to push for actual change. And funding should be funneled to those organizations whose messages, actions and results are strong and meaningful.”

Bottom line, this doesn’t look like chess versus checkers, this looks like Connect 4, you stacking your chips on top of the movement and connecting with the NFL for a straight line across capitalism. You won the game, but it definitely doesn’t equal social justice, not yet at least.

With Respect,
Etan Thomas

TIFF 2019: ‘Clemency’ and ‘Just Mercy’ offer two differing perspectives on death row One asks us to put ourselves in the position of a warden. The other follows a lawyer seeking justice.

TORONTO — Two films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival offer different perspectives of how death row affects those closest to it when people are wrongly sentenced to die.

Clemency is the sophomore feature effort from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who also directed the 2012 film alaskaLand. It stars Alfre Woodard as Bernadine, a prison warden who grows more and more conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners. It’s bad enough when Bernadine witnesses an execution via lethal injection that turns into a moment of torture, first when the emergency medical technician administering the IV cannot find a vein, and then when the drugs take longer to work than they’re supposed to, leaving the prisoner in agony.

Alfre Woodard as Bernadine Williams in Clemency, is a prison warden who grows conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners.

courtesy of TIFF

Then, Bernadine struggles to reconcile what it means to be good at her job with her own opinions, as she follows the case of another death row inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). As it becomes clear to Bernadine that Anthony is probably innocent, she tries to maintain order and composure in her prison. But the energy it takes to maintain her professional demeanor at work means that something else must be sacrificed, and in Bernadine’s case, it’s her marriage. The more her husband (Wendell Pierce) attempts to get close to her, the more she pulls away. Bernadine must ask herself: Is it possible to be ethical, to be empowered, when being skilled at one’s job means ensuring that the state’s unjust decisions are completed with order and clockwork precision?

Then there’s Just Mercy from director Destin Daniel Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster, Short Term 12). Co-produced by star Michael B. Jordan and Macro, the company of former William Morris agent Charles D. King. If Clemency is an examination of the toll of complicity, Just Mercy is a journey into the psychic and spiritual rewards and pitfalls of fighting injustice. It tells the story of a real-life civil rights hero: Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson is probably best known as the person behind the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, but he has spent decades working to free innocent men, most of them black, from death row.

While it’s rewarding work, it’s not easy, which Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, learns firsthand when he moves to Monroe County, Alabama, after graduating from Harvard Law. Stevenson tries to get a stay of execution for Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the war, he was a hero, an expert at defusing bombs. But back home and neglected by the country he served, Herbert ends up listening to the voices in his head telling him to build an explosive. He kills a woman, and then the state of Alabama moves to kill him. The possibility of sending Herbert to a mental institution, which is where he truly belongs, never even materializes.

For Stevenson, witnessing Herbert’s execution crystallizes the urgency of his work, and he dives even more deeply into trying to save another man, Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx). McMillan has been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there is to support McMillan’s innocence because a white girl is dead, McMillan is black, and another prisoner, in exchange for prosecutorial leniency, has given a statement saying McMillan was responsible.

The real reason McMillan is in prison is because the white people of Monroe County were looking for an excuse to lock him up after a white man discovered McMillan having a consensual affair with the man’s wife. Just Mercy exposes how the cogs of the Alabama justice system line up to condemn McMillan to death — from prosecutors who disregard the truth to public defenders who barely do their jobs to sheriff’s officers who terrorize Monroe County’s black residents.

It’s a new twist on the old formula of Yankee lawyers who come to the South and find a wall of community resistance to racial equality and injustice, but it’s a powerful one. That’s especially true given how the film’s screenwriters (Cretton and Andrew Lanham) contrast the real-life Stevenson and Monroe County’s most famous legal hero, Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ultimately, both Clemency and Just Mercy continue the work of highlighting racial inequality in the justice system, leaving their viewers disturbed and impatient for change.

With ‘Brian Banks’ and ‘Clemency,’ actor Aldis Hodge finds the humanity in men society wants to discard ‘Banks’ tells the story of a football star falsely accused of rape

Aldis Hodge has the kind of face that makes you squint and try to place where you’ve seen him before.

Because you’ve seen him before. A lot.

But now, you’re about to see him.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that.”— Brian Banks on actor Aldis Hodge

At 32, Hodge has a long list of acting credits under his belt. He started off as a kid, along with his brother, Edwin, playing small unnamed roles like “Masked teen” and “Basketball teen #2” and “Graduate #1.” He’s had brief roles on NYPD Blue, ER and Cold Case, and he’s also been in cult favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Things began to shift in 2006 when he earned a role in the critically acclaimed high school football drama Friday Night Lights. Portraying Ray “Voodoo” Tatum, the quarterback who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he got the chance to show the emotional complexity he could bring to a character on a large stage. That led to a role on TNT’s Leverage, which ran for five seasons and had him working alongside Timothy Hutton.

And now — finally! — he has a leading role in a film.

In the film, Aldis Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Brian Banks’ life.

Everett Collection

Opening on Aug. 9 is Brian Banks, the true tale of a former high school football star whose dreams of playing in the NFL were derailed by a false rape accusation.

This role is yet another indication that Hodge is on the brink of being the next big thing. Just please don’t call him that. Not to his face, at least.

“People have been telling me for years the thing that I could not stand. They’re like, ‘Yo, man, you next!’ I’m like, ‘Y’all have been telling me that for 10 years!’ ” he says before breaking into a quick laugh. “They’re well-meaning, absolutely well-meaning, but they don’t understand. For an artist who continually sees next, next, next, but you see all these other people come up in that time that they tell you, ‘Next.’ There’s a whole wave of cats coming up, but you’re like, ‘How long am I going to be next?’ ”


Coming later this year is more excellent work from Hodge in Clemency, a film that is already making critics’ short lists for award competitions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor — the exact state is unidentified — will grant him clemency. The story was inspired by the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, who was convicted of and executed for the Aug. 19, 1989, murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. The case attracted widespread attention, including pleas for clemency from former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former FBI director William Sessions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor will grant him clemency.

Eric Branco

Although we’ve seen Hodge toiling on the small screen and in films for nearly 25 years, this moment and these two films mean Hodge is a name to be remembered.

In other words, Hodge acts his behind off. In Clemency, Hodge impresses alongside veteran Alfre Woodard, who plays the prison warden, and Juilliard-trained Danielle Brooks as the condemned man’s estranged partner — both of whom could hear their names nominated for top honors early next year.

Both Clemency and Brian Banks are films that you want to talk about and, in some cases, may make you want to get active after you see them. The real connective tissue, at least as of late, is stories where Hodge gets to find the humanity in characters who might normally be seen as inhumane.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 2 years old,” Hodge says. “Back when I was 14, I [said] that I want to stop taking particular types of roles. The stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people, and I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.”

“I want to stop taking particular types of roles, the stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people by culture is, right? And I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.” — Aldis Hodge

Hodge says he finally assembled the right team to help him find such stories. Not all of the roles he brings to life affect social change, but simply portraying a diverse representation of black men, he says, ultimately helps move the needle for how black men are treated in real life.

“Like my role on Leverage. It was a fun action show. It was cool, but I played a very intelligent hacker, and to me that spoke to truth because they saw the black man playing the hacker,” Hodge says. “My father used to take apart and build computers. That’s normal in the black community, but we don’t see it represented all the time. So for me, that was truth that hadn’t been exposed in that way.

“I’m an actor. I’m not a type of actor, not a dramatic actor, not a comedic actor. I can do whatever, whenever, however. … If we’re going to be funny, how can we make it better? How can we give the audience a better experience? If we’re going to do drama, how can I engage the idea of being with it all? Emotional impact in a completely new way that the audience hasn’t really seen yet?”


Hodge has been in films before: Hidden Figures (the husband of aerospace engineer Mary Jackson), Straight Outta Compton (as MC Ren) and most recently What Men Want (as the love interest to Taraji P. Henson’s sports agent). He laughs pretty hard when I remind him he once starred alongside LeBron James in a 2011 State Farm commercial. (“Back in the day!”)

But carrying the title character in Brian Banks? That’s major.

The real Brian Banks, who is now 34, knew he had found the man to play him in the movie almost immediately.

“Aldis was the first actor that was presented to me as one who would play me in this film. And I remember him most from Underground. And what he did with Underground was very powerful. I’ve seen him in Big Momma’s House, back when he was young, playing basketball, Straight Outta Compton and Leverage,” Banks said.

“And then, after meeting him, the first thing he told me was, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that. Hearing that from him, it really said a lot about him. It said a lot about his methods as far as how he was going to tap into the story.”

Banks’ story is well-known. He was wrongfully convicted of rape at age 16 and spent nearly six years imprisoned and five years on parole, during which he had to wear a GPS tracking device and register as a sex offender. His conviction was overturned in 2012 after the classmate who had accused him confessed that she made up the incident.

Before he was accused, Banks had verbally committed to USC during his junior year at Long Beach’s Polytechnic High School. His teammates there were future NFL players DeSean Jackson, Darnell Bing, Winston Justice and Marcedes Lewis.

Brian Banks attends a special screening of Bleecker Street’s Brian Banks on July 31 in Long Beach, California.

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

After Banks was exonerated, he once again began to pursue the professional football career he’d dreamed of as a kid. After several tryouts with NFL teams, Banks began playing for the Las Vegas team in the UFL in 2012, but the league suspended the season because of “mounting debt” after he had played in only two games. The following year, Banks was signed by the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played in four preseason games at linebacker before being released. In 2014, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked him to speak to league rookies, and he then joined the NFL as a manager in the Football Operations Department and assisted the Officiating Department on game days.

In the film, Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Banks’ life.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three-dimensional character,” says Sherri Shepherd, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother. “There were scenes where every time you see him talk to his parole officer … and I just … I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had … a searching, ‘Please help me, protect me,’ that he had.”

“Those stories gravitate towards me,” Hodge says. “I played basketball, terribly, on a league from 14 years old on up. But my real sport, growing up, was fighting.”

“I still train in martial arts to this day. But I used to compete with southern Shaolin kung fu, and then I moved up to wushu and jeet kune do, taking it to the traditionalist Chinese styles. I do a little bit of capoeira. And then … Philippine knife and stick fighting. And then also Muay Thai, which I love. … I absolutely love fighting. I love the physicality, the capability of what we can do with our bodies.”


Given the critical response to Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us, Hodge’s two new films and an Emmett Till series coming to ABC, it feels like a moment.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three dimensional character. I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had. … a searching, ‘please help me, protect me’ that he had.” — Sherri Shepard, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother

“I think that people are starting to finally understand just how serious this space of wrongful conviction really is,” Banks says. “We have a judicial system that ideally we like to protect the innocent and keep our citizens safe. But often, it happens where the wrong person is locked up, the wrong person is prosecuted. And to just imagine losing life, losing time that you will never get back for something that you didn’t do. Being placed in a cage like an animal for a crime you didn’t commit, watching the dismantling of your family and connection and bond that you have to friends and so forth, and your community. I think that people are starting to really see and understand that this is a very serious subject, just like any other serious subject that we give so much time, attention and money to.

“There are so many people in this world that are uninformed about these types of traumatic experiences and things that go on. So I think that we have to be creative and innovative in a way to where we turn these real-life stories into works of art and some pieces of film so that people that are uninformed, that choose not to be informed, they will be informed by way of being entertained, going to see a movie and then learning something about their city, their community, their society, and hopefully be provoked to want to see change.”

And that’s the work that inspires an actor like Hodge.

“When it comes to digging into these roles, the harder it gets for the characters, and the more honest we get about the situations, the more excited I get,” Hodge says. “I get excited about those because people can see the truth. And what excites me most about these is that we are dignifying and honoring the characters that we play from a point of respect and deference.”

“And then, when I see people are affected, the thing that triggers in my mind is, ‘Oh, now we’ve hit them in the heart space!’ And, hopefully, in the mental space. Hopefully, these people can go out and leave here affected enough to help improve the situation that they just came from watching. Right?”

A$AP Rocky case shows the discomfort of fighting for freedom Wanting black folks free means freeing even those we disagree with

Grammy-nominated Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky (real name Rakim Athelaston Mayers) has spent the past three weeks in a Swedish jail. He was arrested on July 3 after a now-viral video allegedly showed the MC and his entourage beating up two men. In the multiple videos of the incident to hit the internet — Rocky himself released two to tell his side of the story — the two alleged victims are seen following Rocky and his crew, refusing to leave them alone, before the attack transpired. But cooler heads did not prevail, and Rocky’s crew is seen punching and kicking the two men. Rocky himself tosses one man, sending him flying before he crashes down on the street.

Rapper A$AP Rocky speaks at the 2019 SXSW Festival Featured Session: Using Design “Differently” to Make a Difference on March 11 in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Diego Donamaria/Getty Images for SXSW

While Rocky’s video did garner him some sympathy — he is, after all, seen trying to defuse the situation before any blows land — it hasn’t gotten him out of jail. Now, Rocky’s arrest and impending July 30 trial have become the focal point of an international debate over prison reform, race and politics, a debate that has involved everyone from Rocky’s rap peers to fans bombarding trending Twitter hashtags with demands for his release to Kim Kardashian and even President Donald Trump. All of this is intersecting with Rocky’s past comments and the realization that freedom for all also means freedom for people we don’t always agree with or even like.

One reason so many rallied behind Rocky was that he was held in jail for weeks before even being charged with a crime. One of the touchstones of prison reform, in America especially, is that in America alone there are more than half a million people in jail, mostly minorities, who have yet to be charged. They’re in jail simply because they don’t have enough money to pay for bail. The most infamous example is Kalief Browder, the New York teenager who was jailed in Rikers Island for three years in a minor theft case because he couldn’t make bail. He was the victim of brutal violence and spent two years in solitary confinement. After being released, he committed suicide in 2015 and is the focus of a Jay-Z documentary.

Additionally, sources told TMZ that Rocky was being held in abhorrent conditions in Sweden — unclean rooms with feces on the walls, he was eating only an apple a day and sleeping on a yoga mat — and we have the makings of a human rights story that shows how incarcerated people are treated across the world. The widespread support for Rocky, however, has waned in the past few days, as an old interview of his surfaced in which he disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement and said he’d rather talk about fashion than liberating black folks:

Demonstrators hold aloft a symbolic coffin bearing Kalief Browder’s name as they rally near the gate of City Hall in New York on Feb. 23, 2016. About a dozen prison reform activists demanded the closing of the long-controversial Rikers Island Corrections facility, where Browder was held.

Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

“So every time something happens because I’m black I gotta stand up? What the f— am I? Al Sharpton? I’m A$AP Rocky. I did not sign up to be no political activist. I wanna talk about my … lean, my best friend dying, the girls that come in and out of my life, the jiggy fashion that I wear, my new inspirations in drugs! I don’t wanna talk about … Ferguson … because I don’t live over there! I live in f—ing SoHo and Beverly Hills. I can’t relate.”

For many, this was quite the karmic treat. A man who didn’t believe in the most prominent black liberation movement of his lifetime is suddenly in need of help from the activists he would have continued to ignore had he not been incarcerated. And while the schadenfreude is quite delicious to some, that shouldn’t mean that anyone should feel less obligated to find justice for the rapper if they believe he is truly being mistreated. Wanting black folks free means freeing even those black folks we disagree with — even black folks who don’t care about extending that freedom to the rest of us. A$AP Rocky deserves the same revolutionary acts of liberation and kindness we extend to any other incarcerated people, regardless of his stupid comments on activism.

Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served.

Rocky’s situation has been further complicated in recent days by newly converted social justice activist Kardashian lobbying for Trump to get involved. Trump responded by tweeting out support for Rocky, directing aggressive tweets toward the Swedish prime minister and stating that “Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States.”

So to recap, we have a man in jail who has expressed ambivalence about black liberation movements being supported by a woman who has made a career mining black culture for her own gain and who asked for help from a president who went on a racist outburst just last week demanding that four Democratic congresswomen go back to the countries they “came from.” The rest of us have been handed a cocktail of race, entertainment and politics in which we’re left wondering whether the enemies of our enemies are really our friends and which side is right here.

In the end, there should be only one winner: justice. Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served. Because so often, our black and brown brothers and sisters are denied their rights. Of course, if we can extend the resources of Kardashian and the president to get one black man free, then it should be no problem to find the same justice for the Kalief Browders of the world. Then we can really talk about what liberation looks like.

What made ‘Orange Is the New Black’ so fabulous? Her name is Danielle Brooks Now in its seventh and final season, “OITNB shows what the streaming era can and should be: addictive, unique and inclusive

Spoilers ahead! This piece includes details on the seventh season.

If you want to understand the significance of Orange Is the New Black, look at its breakout star, Danielle Brooks, who played Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson.

On Friday, Netflix released the final 13 episodes of the show that has functioned as an exemplar of what the streaming era could and should be: addictive, unique and inclusive. It used actors who are often overlooked — black women, Latinas and older women — to focus our attention on women who are completely overlooked: female prisoners.

Orange Is the New Black debuted in 2013, a few months after House of Cards, Netflix’s first foray into original programming, and it’s still the network’s most watched program. The adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir of life in a women’s prison made celebrities of a number of cast members, among them Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Samira Wiley and Dascha Polanco. It gave Kate Mulgrew a second iconic role, as Red, after years of being known as Star Trek: Voyager’s Kathryn Janeway. Cox, thanks to her role as Sophia Burset, became the first openly transgender actor to be nominated for a prime-time Emmy.

But even surrounded by an ensemble blistering with talent, Brooks was always one of the most exciting things about Orange Is the New Black. She was originally hired to play Tasha for two episodes before getting promoted to a recurring role, and by season two she had secured a position as a series regular.

Showrunner and creator Jenji Kohan has spoken repeatedly about using the character of Piper Chapman — a sheltered, thin, liberal blonde who came from a family of means — as a “Trojan horse.” She was a device that allowed Kohan to tell the stories of women who had been disenfranchised and forgotten — women like Tasha Jefferson.

Tasha is the first person the audience sees Piper interacting with at Litchfield Correctional, the prison in upstate New York where Orange is set. The series opens with Piper’s voice narrating her life, explaining how much being clean is her “happy place,” especially when she’s bathing or showering with a romantic partner.

And then in bounces Tasha, in a cornflower blue muumuu printed with white flowers, the sort of thing that would be at home on a Southern retiree shuffling to her front porch with an Arnold Palmer in hand. Except we’re in prison, and all is not so bucolic for Piper anymore. Brooks immediately steals the scene as she tells Piper to hurry up and finish showering while there’s still a bit of hot water left.

She peeks through a rip in the shower curtain, then proclaims: “Daaaaamn, you got some nice titties! You got them TV titties. They stand up on they own, all perky and everything!”

In a matter of seconds, you had to wonder: Who is this woman, and when do we get to see more of her?

“Unlike theater, you don’t have a long rehearsal period at all,” Brooks said in a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “You just do it. You have limited time to make choices. TV has taught me to make bold choices in the moment, the minute they come to you, and not to hold back.”

Her choices paid off. Tasha quickly became a source of levity within Litchfield, sharp-tongued and skeptical of both whiteness and authority in general. But she was a nurturer too. She looked after the naive, neurodivergent Suzanne, played by Aduba. She kept her best friend Poussey, played by Wiley, from succumbing to hopelessness and addiction.

And then she changed.


Dascha Polanco (left) and Danielle Brooks (right) in a scene from the final season of Orange Is the New Black.

Cara Howe

Over the course of its run, Orange Is the New Black became more ambitious while the conditions at Litchfield worsened, especially after the facility was taken over by a private prison corporation bent on maximizing profits, usually at the expense of basic human decency.

The guards grew tougher, more jaded and sadistic. The inmates grew meaner, more isolated and more indignant. Their interactions and allegiances became increasingly segregated by race. Tasha, motivated by the worsening conditions at Litchfield, shows up at the prison equivalent of the Yalta Conference to represent the black inmates and negotiate a coalition of resistance. Taystee has grown up.

And then everything goes south when Poussey gets suffocated by a guard in the cafeteria.

The women had been peacefully standing on cafeteria tables to protest overcrowding and a staff of inexperienced, undertrained guards. A corrections officer calls for backup, and the guards begin wrestling the women down from the tables. A peaceful protest devolves into mayhem. When the women realize that Poussey is on the floor, lifeless, the chaos subsides. Tasha breaks free from a guard and pushes her way to her best friend’s side. She collapses on the floor beside Poussey and curls into the fetal position, embracing Poussey’s head. Brooks said she drew on the emotions and experiences of real-life women such as Diamond Reynolds, who witnessed the police shooting death of her partner Philando Castile, for this scene. The camera, which is positioned directly above the two women, pans out. It’s the last scene of the episode. The entire dynamic of Litchfield changes permanently.

From then on, Brooks depicts a person who is wracked with grief, depression and fury. Her movements become more self-protective, but also more defiant. She begins to use her size to command fear and respect. Tasha leads a prison riot that lasts for an entire season and strategizes how to make demands that would lead to substantive changes within Litchfield. There’s a sense of control that comes through in Brooks’ work in the later seasons of the show as she extinguishes the light that used to dance in Tasha’s eyes.

And then, for her efforts, Tasha is falsely blamed for the death of corrections officer Desi Piscatella, who was actually killed by a SWAT officer sent in to subdue the prisoners. Tasha is tried for murder and sentenced to live the rest of her days in Litchfield’s maximum security unit. Brooks has to sink deeper into the ugliest parts of herself. In season seven, it’s clear that Tasha doesn’t see what she has to live for. She’s become just as jaded and cruel and resigned as the guards — she has nothing left to lose. Finally released from solitary confinement, Brooks uses her body like a battering ram when she steps onto the prison yard, body-checking anyone who doesn’t have the good sense to get out of her way. Her movements become slower, and slower, as though she’s malingering toward death. Tasha now towers menacingly over the newly installed warden, Tamika (Susan Heyward), whom Tasha knew from her childhood neighborhood. The two women used to have a positive rapport. Not anymore.

Tasha is focused on finding a way to kill herself. She enters into an arrangement with Daya (Polanco), who is now running the drug ring in max, to secure enough drugs for a fatal overdose. But the enterprise is an expensive one, and Tasha begins working in the warden’s office again to earn the money to pay Daya.

But each day becomes more difficult to bear, especially when Tasha’s lawyer informs her that she’ll likely be stuck in prison forever, regardless of her innocence. Afterward, Tasha neatly arranges the few belongings in her cell. She twists the fabric she uses to make a noose. She loops the fabric around her neck, then launches her body away from the bed, feet still on the ground. For several seconds, Tasha struggles against her own body’s instincts for self-preservation. She’s crying and quietly whimpering. Slowly, desperate frustration takes over her face. She’s so miserable, and she can’t even let herself die.

Together with her castmates, Brooks has won three Screen Actors Guild Awards for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series. Still, her work on Orange has never received an individual Emmy nod. The scene in which she nearly hangs herself ought to change that.

The way she continues through the rest of season seven is just as masterful. When she doesn’t succeed in hanging herself, Tasha has to figure out how to live again, how to make it through prison knowing she’ll never experience freedom again. The journey Brooks charts back to the land of the living, to some semblance of her former self, is just as considered as the moments that take place right before Tasha thinks she’s ending her life. It’s like watching Orpheus slowly try to navigate his way out of hell.


Orange Is the New Black was Brooks’ first job after she graduated from Juilliard. It allowed the South Carolina native to showcase a range that other roles — like, say, voicing Charica in an episode of Elena of Avalor or Olive Blue in The Angry Birds Movie — have not.

During the show’s run, Brooks has become a natural at advocating for herself in an industry that tends to pigeonhole black women, especially dark-skinned, plus-size black women. Her Instagram feed is populated by photographs captioned with the hashtag #voiceofthecurves, and she’s used it to showcase herself as an enthusiastic fashion chameleon.

View this post on Instagram

Ever just wake up happy?

A post shared by Danielle Brooks (@daniebb3) on Sep 19, 2017 at 6:39am PDT

In a recent post for the underwear and swimsuit brand Aerie, Brooks wrote, “Middle school and high school years were really hard for me. When it came to accepting my body it felt like a forever struggle that would never ease up. Now I know that my beauty is not determined by how skinny my waistline is or how perfect my skin is. The truth is I know I am beautiful, every day, outside and in. Every pimple, stretch mark, every roll and curve are real and unretouched. My beauty shines every day in every way. And yours does too.”

She made a splash in March 2016 when she appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine with plus-size fashionista Gabi Gregg and singers Jazmine Sullivan and Chrisette Michele. The magazine dubbed them “The Body Brigade.”

By far, her biggest fashion moments have come in frocks designed by Christian Siriano, who has made a name for himself dressing women whom Hollywood and the fashion industry have a tendency to ignore.

View this post on Instagram

The realest. @csiriano 🖤

A post shared by Danielle Brooks (@daniebb3) on May 24, 2019 at 11:26am PDT

View this post on Instagram

Going into Monday like…💕 wearing @csiriano

A post shared by Danielle Brooks (@daniebb3) on Aug 20, 2018 at 6:04am PDT

Now 29 and pregnant with her first child, Brooks is clearly thinking about what’s next. If there’s any justice in the world, it will be more than a series of roles as sassy, irritable government employees or obsequious caretakers to white leads who need assistance finding themselves. Although her other on-screen roles have been limited, she’s been able to soar onstage, securing a Tony nomination for her role as Sofia in a revival of The Color Purple.

This summer, Brooks turned down a movie role to play Beatrice in a Public Theater production of Much Ado About Nothing. The entire company, directed by Kenny Leon, was black. Thanks in part to her booming, soulful singing voice, she breathed life and wit and possibility into Beatrice. At one point, she scampered into the audience and settled into the lap of an audience member. There wasn’t a soul in the house who wasn’t completely charmed by her verve and confidence with Elizabethan English.

“I started thinking, What do I want? What would I be proud of on my résumé? and for me Beatrice was that,” Brooks told Vulture. “To me, getting to play this part is opening doors to young black women that look like me or even relate to me, so that was a no-brainer.

“I look forward to being the lead in a rom-com that has a fresh take. I look forward to being in an action film,” she continued. “I look forward to playing royalty.”

Danielle Brooks on life after OITNB: “I look forward to being the lead in a rom-com that has a fresh take. I look forward to being in an action film. I look forward to playing royalty.”

JoJo Whilden

I want so much for Orange Is the New Black to be more than an anomaly in the history of television. And in a lot of ways, television is different from what it was in 2013. Its success contributed to an atmosphere in which Pose could be welcomed and given a real production budget and an opportunity to do well. The older women of Orange Is the New Black made it easier to see how a show such as Grace and Frankie could thrive. Even short-lived projects such as the reboot of One Day at a Time and The Get Down owe some part of their existence to the revolutionary shift that Orange Is the New Black propelled.

Still, a 2017 study found that only 4.8% of television writers were black. It also revealed that the streaming network Hulu went an entire season without a single black writer employed on any of its original series. Whatever advances Orange ushered in are tenuous at best.

Just as Orange Is the New Black has offered new visions for what television can accomplish, let’s hope the same is true for Brooks. She’s had a terrific six years, but that’s not enough. She deserves a career that’s just as broad and challenging as her overflowing talents.

From ‘The Last O.G.’ to hosting The ESPYS, Tracy Morgan is back Returning from a horrific accident, the comic had to learn to be funny again

Tracy Morgan’s sharks don’t have names.

“Are you crazy?!” he asks me, jutting his head back in mock dramatic fashion at the idea of such a silly question. And then comes the isn’t-it-obvious? tone familiar to anyone who has heard Morgan’s deadpan delivery: “They’re sharks!”

Still, he’s enamored of them. Proud even. He smiles as he points out a hammerhead, a whitetip and a Japanese leopard shark. A puffer fish coexists in that same tank; he’s the first fish to greet us as Morgan uses a remote control to turn the security system off and open the doors to the pool house to reveal the shark tank in the backyard of his palatial, 31,000-square-foot estate in suburban Alpine, New Jersey.

He smiles as he looks over at me. Nearby, there’s a swingset and play area for Maven, his 6-year-old daughter, a barbecue grill area that only he can touch and a pool that would rival that of any five-star vacation compound.

“My babies swim in here,” he says of the house his fish live in, “and my family swims out here,” he says, pointing at his pool.

Morgan, who will host the 27th annual ESPYS show July 10 on ABC, smiles again.

It’s one of the last times he smiles during my time here. For much of our conversation this day, Morgan, who became famous for his ability to make people laugh, is reaching for tissues as we sit next to one another in matching leather recliners in his office, unapologetic about the tears that continually fall from his eyes.

We’re only a few weeks removed from the five-year anniversary of a crash that nearly took Morgan’s life. He had to learn how to walk again. He had to learn how to talk again.

He had to learn how to find, and be, funny again.

“My face was this big,” he says, measuring a space big enough for three Tracy Morgan-sized heads to fit inside.

The accident was horrific. But he’s been coping with trauma since he was a small child. Like many sports superstars, he understands what it takes to return from a devastating injury.


Tracy Morgan and Allen Maldonado of TBS’s “The Last O.G” attend the WarnerMedia Upfront 2019 arrivals on the red carpet at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 15, 2019 in New York City.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

2019 has been Morgan’s comeback year.

Yes, he’s been working steadily since a triumphant return 14 months after his accident to host Saturday Night Live, the show that made him famous.

But 2019 is where the payoff begins.

His TBS series The Last O.G., which he created with Jordan Peele, is some of his best work ever. Morgan plays Tray Baker, a recently sprung ex-con who is surprised to see how much Brooklyn has changed during his 15-year stint in prison, with chain coffee shops, yoga studios and white people inhabiting the old haunts where Baker once worked as a petty drug dealer.

The series launched as the network’s biggest original TV debut last year, came back for a successful second season and was recently renewed for a third. The funny wasn’t a surprise — this is Tracy Morgan, after all — but the show’s depth was revelatory.

“A lot of times as a writer you’re scared of playing with the tone too much because people, admittedly, tune in to a show because they want to laugh or they tune in to a show because they want to see dragons. Very few of us ever think consciously, ‘Oh, I’m going to tune in to that show because I want to laugh and cry,” says comedian and actor Diallo Riddle, who wrote on season one of The Last O.G. “But I think that Tracy had such a good relationship with his audience and such a good relationship with the truth. Even old white people in rural communities can watch that show and watch black men in Brooklyn and be like, ‘I love Tracy Morgan!’ ”

The good news doesn’t stop there. Later this year — Morgan beams every time he mentions this — he’ll begin filming his yet-to-be-announced role in the highly anticipated Coming to America sequel that is set to hit theaters sometime next year. Eddie Murphy is an idol, and now he’s also a friend.

And this week, of course, the 50-year-old Morgan will host the ESPYS, perhaps his biggest audience since the Saturday Night Live gig in October 2015, 16 months after a crash that nearly took his life.

“I still remember the time I saw Tracy after the accident and you just go, ‘I’m so happy he’s alive.’ That’s all you could say,” Riddle says. “I’m so happy he’s alive because he kept grinding, and then to go into a third season of the show and to be hosting the ESPYS? … The ESPYS is a beast of an undertaking. It’s not easy physically or mentally. And the fact that he’s hosting it, given where he was, is incredible.”


June 6, 2019: Tracy Morgan at his home in Alpine, New Jersey just a few weeks from the five-year anniversary of the traffic accident that nearly killed him.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

Back inside his home, Morgan is wiping away a fresh set of tears.

I ask if his ability to be emotionally open is a result of his accident or if this is who he was before June 7, 2014. We don’t generally give black men license to feel like this — not without it being some sort of indictment on their masculinity.

His life has been painful, far more than one person should have to deal with, really. And Morgan allows himself to be, well, human.

“My dad survived Vietnam … he came home a junkie. He didn’t go there that way, [but he] came home that way. That was his terror, seeing babies dying in villages, and he expressed those to me,” Morgan says. “I didn’t understand it because I was a kid in [his] prime in high school, playing football, but I didn’t know what his struggles. … He had demons. You go to war, nobody wins.”

Certainly not Jimmy Morgan Sr., who died of AIDS when Tracy was 19. Morgan also talks about how much he looked up to his Uncle Alvin, the cool uncle who played college football and who died of the same syndrome.

That kind of trauma can be crippling. Somehow, Morgan discovered comedy.

“You find it in that pain,” he says softly. “Without no struggle there’s no progress. People don’t know. ‘How did he get that funny?!’ My father and my mother breaking up when I was 6. My oldest brother being born with cerebral palsy. … Him having 10 operations by the time I’m 5. My mom’s by herself, struggling to help my brother with them Forrest Gump braces on, him screaming, she trying to teach him … I seen all of that.”

Morgan pauses.

“You know why I became famous?” he asks quietly. “Because the kids of the playground could be mean. When they be mean, you go get your big brother, your big brother got your back. … I couldn’t do that. I go get my brother, he come, hey, he crippled. They start laughing. So I had to learn how to be funny to keep the bullies off my a–. All of my life, turned into business.”

Then, as if tossing it over in his head for a bit, he chases all of that heft with some lightness: “And plus, I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?” he recalls. “They want you around, you make them laugh! My biggest audience is female. Same motivation. I’m married now, but I still want to make the girls laugh. Y’all got the world on your shoulders. At the end of the f—ing day, if you can make her forget about all that s— for an hour, you the man.”

“Great comedians — which Tracy is one of the great comedians — their comedy comes from pain,” says director David E. Talbert. “And the great ones allow themselves to access that, and then they share that.”

Morgan’s first taste of fame came in 1993 via HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, which was hosted by Martin Lawrence. Back then, it was a must-watch series, introducing and amplifying many now-famous black comics like Chris Tucker and Bernie Mac.

His childhood best friend Alan always told him how funny he was and that he should really make a go at pursuing comedy. Morgan, who was born in the Bronx and reared largely in Brooklyn, took workshops and eventually was working the local comedy club circuit. Comedy was his love, but he still had one foot in the hustle game.

“I was selling crack [when] my friend Alan got murdered, my best friend,” Morgan shares. Losing Alan made him focus.

“I come home, my youngest son is 2 years old. … Told him, ‘I’m gonna do comedy. …’ By all means, [my first wife, Sabina] could’ve said, ‘No you ain’t m—–f—-, we got three kids. What you going to do is go get a f—ing job.’ She never did that. She said, ‘Pull the trigger, Tracy.’ ”

“Four months later, I was on Def [Comedy] Jam.”

And then, another painful memory: “She passed away three years ago. Cancer.”


Comedians Chris Rock, left, and Amy Schumer, center, sit with actor Tracy Morgan and Morgan’s daughter Maven during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the New York Knicks and the Golden State Warriors, Feb. 26, 2018, in New York.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Morgan was almost gone too.

On June 7, 2014, a Walmart truck driver who had been awake for more than 28 hours was going 20 mph over the 45 mph speed limit in a work zone on the New Jersey Turnpike. He crashed into a limousine bus carrying Morgan and a small group of friends and colleagues. Morgan’s friend James McNair died, and Harris Stanton and Ardie Fuqua were hospitalized. Morgan himself was listed in critical condition and was comatose for two weeks.

The driver, Kevin Roper, was indicted on charges of manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault. He later accepted a plea deal that dismissed the charges in exchange for entering a pretrial intervention program. Walmart settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

Morgan’s life changed that day. He came out on the other side appreciative. Attentive. Spiritual, yet spirited.

“When bad things happen to you, that’s when you grow. It was painful at the time,” he said. “But now you look back on it and you go, ‘Wow.’ So this story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

But before he could do the work physically, Morgan’s road to recovery had to start with forgiveness.

“You have to learn to forgive yourself before you can forgive anybody. OK, you had a setback on the field. But a setback ain’t nothing but a setup. Because when you come back better, you going to do something that ain’t been done,” Morgan says. “Don’t you ever let no doctor, nobody, tell you you can’t. They said no, I broke every bone in my face. On this side of my skull you could see my brain. … I was scared. I didn’t know if I was ever going to walk. That’s when I had to put the work in. …”

Morgan begins to cry again.

“Ugh. Damn. Excuse me.”

I tell him to take his time. Soon, he begins to tell a story of sitting in his wheelchair and watching his infant daughter scoot around in her walker.

“I don’t want her looking at me like this; she ain’t understand what’s going on. I’m working, I’m working hard, because I want to walk again, I want to play with my daughter, I want to chase my daughter. That was my motivation. I wanted to chase my daughter. I didn’t care about show business. I wanted to chase my daughter,” he says, wiping away fresh tears. “And I worked so hard for a year just to get back on my feet. And I don’t care what athlete you are, you better pick a motivation, something near and dear to you. Something that you would give the world for. And you better go for it, don’t let it be over. I put the work in for a year, and then the triumph, like we was talking about. I saw my daughter — she was 14 months — and I seen her take her first steps. It made me get out my wheelchair.”

I ask him to clarify: seeing his daughter take her first steps motivated him to attempt to take his own first steps?

He nods.

“She took her first steps and I got up, and my wife started screaming. She said I was going to hurt myself because my femur was crushed. And I was like, ‘F— that,’ and I stood up and I took a step to my daughter. I took a step with my daughter,” he says. “That was four months after I got hit. The rest of the year, I just started working. It wasn’t just physical, it was cognitive — I didn’t even know my name. I had to learn how to talk again.”

Drying up the last tears with a new piece of tissue, he says, “It was a bad accident.”


This is who Tracy Morgan has always been.

In 2008 he co-starred alongside Ice Cube in First Sunday, a comedy written and directed by Talbert, who was a top-grossing playwright before he directed Morgan in what was his directorial debut.

In that film, Morgan played LeeJohn Jackson, best friend to Cube’s Durell Washington. Together they were portraying petty thieves who concoct a rather desperate scheme to steal $17,000 from a neighborhood church in order to pay off a debt for Durell’s ex-girlfriend — to not do so would mean that she and their son would relocate to a different state.

“This story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

After Morgan auditioned for the role, he and Talbert went out for lunch.

“He started telling me about his relationship with his mother, which is a complicated relationship,” Talbert recalls. “I knew that if I could access that, then he could really dig into the character.”

“And I remember when he was about to do his big scene with Loretta Devine. And he says, ‘Today I’m going to cry because real actors cry! Richard Pryor cried!’ That’s all he was screaming all day! The scene singing ‘Happy Birthday’ with Loretta Devine, he was just telling everybody, ‘I’m going to cry! Real actors cry!’ ”

Talbert gave Morgan some advice before they dug into the scene: “I said, ‘Tracy, the thing about emotion is you have to try not to cry, but it moves you so much that you can’t help but to cry.’ And I said, ‘So I want you to try as hard as you can not to cry. And as she’s singing to you, I want you to think about all those birthdays that were missed.’ ”

That scene is one of Morgan’s favorites. By the time Devine gets to the last few notes of the song, she pulls Morgan in close for an embrace. The camera zooms in on his face, a mixture of bewilderment and sadness. Tears are streaming down the sides of his nose.

It wasn’t just good acting. It was real life. When Morgan was 13, he left his mother’s home to live with his dad in the Bronx. He and his mother went years without speaking.

“Loretta Devine started singing. And Tracy, I saw him. [He] wasn’t playing the character anymore. He was the little boy thinking about his own relationship with his mother. And slowly as Loretta started to sing, he was welling up and just the most genuine, authentic tear fell. I yelled, ‘Cut!’ I only had to do one take of that scene,” Talbert says. “It was beautiful. It was perfect. I only did one take, and he said, ‘D, excuse me for a moment.’ And he went to the back, and about 15 minutes later he came out and I said, ‘You OK?’ He said, ‘I just called my mother and I told her she missed out on a real actor.’ ”

Since the accident, Morgan and his mother have reconciled.


“I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?”

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

As we’re wrapping up, I remind Morgan of a joke I once heard his friend Chris Rock tell in a stand-up routine. Rock observed that he was the only black man in his tony neighborhood and shared all he had to accomplish to afford to live on the street. One of his neighbors is a dentist, Rock said, before landing the punchline: “Know what I had to do to afford this house? Host the Oscars!”

Morgan breaks into the hardest laugh I’ve heard from him this day. He has a similar story.

“Just last week I had some rich white man jogging in front of my gate. So I’m coming out my gate, and he’s looking at my house. And he’s looking at me …”

“So what do you do?” the jogger asked him.

“And I said, ‘About what?!’ ”

Morgan and I both break out laughing.

“I had to justify why the f— I live here … but you know I start f—ing with him,” Morgan says.

“You know the McDonald’s box the french fries come in?”

“Yeah.”

“I make those. You know the straw you drink the Coke [out of]? I make those.”

Morgan laughs at his own story.

“And he started laughing. … In your mind, you got to justify why I’m here.”

Tracy Morgan is here — and hosting the ESPYS.

“That’s going to be fun. Because everybody knows that Tracy Morgan thinks outside the f—ing box. … Buckle up, kids. It’s about to get wild and woolly.”

Richard Wright discovers Joe Louis’ dynamite The author of ‘Native Son’ was strongly influenced by the boxer’s success

In 1941, three giants of African American culture came together to celebrate a king. The tribute, fittingly enough, was a song entitled “King Joe,” sung by Paul Robeson to music composed and performed by Count Basie and his Orchestra. Richard Wright had written the lyrics. Basie, Robeson, and Wright — their names conjure images of foxtrots at the Roseland Ballroom, triumphant performances of Showboat, and the explosive prose of Native Son. The king they lionized was Joe Louis, boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world.

On one verse, Wright clearly wrestles with Louis’ legendary silence:

They say Joe don’t talk much, but he talks all the time.

They say Joe don’t talk much, he talks all the time.

Now you can look at Joe, but sure can’t read his mind.

But the novelist had no doubts about the emotions Louis aroused in black communities across the country:

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

But the best is Harlem when a Joe Louis fight is through.

By then, Wright had witnessed the cleansing power of Joe Louis — the flood of joy on Chicago’s South Side after he defeated Max Baer in 1935, the electricity inside Yankee Stadium during his 1938 fight with Max Schmeling, the lovefest in Harlem after each important victory. Wright knew the importance of the reign of King Joe.

Richard Wright, circa 1950, sits in his hotel room during the Venice Film Festival. Wright had attended the screening of director Pierre Chenal’s film, Native Son, which was adapted from his novel and starred the author.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wright wrote out of the pain of racism. Born in a Mississippi sharecropper’s shack in 1908, abandoned by his father, and circumscribed by the iron chains of Jim Crow, he had a blinding ambition to tell his story, the universal tale of the “color line” in America with all the anger, hatred, and ache that it encompassed. The publication of Native Son in 1940 made him instantly famous — and notorious. Published by Harper & Brothers and selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club as one of its two main selections, it sold 215,000 copies in two weeks.

Wright’s fame, however paled next to that of Louis. Six years younger than Wright, Louis was also part of the great migration of rural Southern black people to the urban north, in his case from Alabama to Detroit. Handicapped by poverty and a stutter, he was virtually uneducated and painfully shy. Yet in 1941 he was in the midst of a 12-year reign as the undisputed heavyweight champion, at a time when the title was, as Eldridge Cleaver once wrote, “the ultimate focus of masculinity in America.” Along with Joe DiMaggio, he was one of the two most celebrated athletes in the nation, and his fame extended across the oceans. Furthermore, Louis was an inspiration and source of pride for black Americans. Especially for Wright.

Wright embraced Louis as an athlete and a symbol early in the boxer’s career. In his 1940 essay, How ‘Bigger’ Was Born, Wright suggested that Bigger Thomas, his protagonist in Native Son, was a composite of a number of men he had known, frustrated men who confronted the racism in their daily life with violence. They were the only people, Wright wrote in his essay, who defied Jim Crow “and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell” before whites killed them or broke their spirits. But in Louis, Wright witnessed a black man who legally beat down white men in the ring without retribution. The novelist alluded to Louis in Native Son, along with boxers Jack Johnson and Henry Armstrong, suggesting that he was a role model for black men. Yet Wright understood that without boxing they may have suffered the same tragic fate as Bigger Thomas.


No one knows exactly when Wright first learned about Louis, but in the mid-1930s they both lived on the South Side of Chicago. The neighborhood’s numbers kingpin, nightclub operator, and sports enthusiast Julian Black was one of Louis’ co-managers, and he arranged for the boxer to move from Detroit to Chicago to train and fight. From the summer of 1934 to the spring of 1935, during Louis’ first year as a professional, he fought two-thirds of his matches in the city. During the same period, Wright became active in politics and began his writing career. He joined the Communist Party, published poetry in leftist journals, and attended various “progressive” writers conferences.

It is difficult to imagine that Wright wouldn’t have read about Louis’ first major bout in New York City, a contest against former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera that took place in June 1935 during the international crisis between Italy and Ethiopia. The 28-year-old Italian fighter was awesome to behold. Sportswriters dubbed him the “Ambling Alp.” In an age when heavyweights were small compared with today, Carnera stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 260 pounds. The 6-foot-2 Louis, only 21 at the time and 196 pounds, knocked him out in six rounds, but not before administering a frightful beating.

Joe Louis scored a decisive technical knockout over Primo Carnera in the sixth round of their bout at the Yankee Stadium in 1935. Here is Louis standing over the bleeding Carnera during one of the three knockdowns in the sixth round.

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As he would later demonstrate in Native Son, Wright was keenly aware of how white journalists transformed a powerful black man like Louis into a beast. They transmuted the boxer into a dark, dangerous, primordial creature. Sportswriters compared him with a jungle animal, or, alternatively, a machine. He was a cobra, a panther, or more famously, a Brown Bomber raining death. “Something sly and sinister, and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish a huge hulk that had been Primo Carnera, the giant,” wrote ringside reporter David J. Walsh in the St. Louis Star-Times. Grantland Rice, dean of America’s sportswriters, commented in his report of the match for the New York Sun that Louis moved toward Carnera “as a black panther of the jungle stalks his prey.” Rice especially was struck that Louis’ “expression never changed,” even when the referee raised his hand in victory. He “seems to be the type [of jungle animal] that accepts and inflicts pain without a change of expression,” he wrote.

Judging from his later writings, Wright must have sensed that Louis represented a significant new force. The fighter, Walsh had noted, challenged and defied “the white man’s innate sense of superiority.” The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s leading black newspapers, headlined “HARLEM GOES ‘MAD WITH JOY,’ ” and suggested Louis’ triumph was “its biggest moment since it became the capital of the Negro world.”

Searching the horizon for signs of revolutionary change, Wright latched on to the Louis phenomenon. After the Carnera bout, black Americans could not get enough news about Louis. Newspapers invented his past and speculated about his future. Musicians celebrated his victories in songs. By September 1935, two years before he became heavyweight champion, blues singers had begun to cut records recounting Louis’ fistic deeds. Joe Pullum’s “Joe Louis Is the Man” praised his ring talents as well as noting that he’s “doing things for his mother a young boy should.” Memphis Minnie counseled fans to bet all their money on the “two-fisted fighter” in her joyous paean, “He’s in the Ring (Doin’ the Same Old Thing!).” She sang:

I wouldn’t even pay my house rent.

I wouldn’t buy me nothin’ to eat.

Joe Louis says, ‘Take a chance at me

I’m goin’ to put you on your feet.’

He’s in the ring, doin’ the same old thing.

And in “Joe Louis Blues,” Carl Martin warns all prizefighters “who don’t want to meet defeat … stay off Joe Louis’ beat.”

The early Louis blues songs explode with pride and pleasure, rejoicing in the sheer delight of riding on the Brown Bomber’s bandwagon. As his career progressed, listening to radio broadcasts of his matches became communal experiences for black Americans. Maya Angelou, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recalled joining family and friends to listen to his fights in her grandfather’s store in Stamps, Arkansas. She wondered if the announcer knew that he was addressing “all the Negroes around the world who sat sweating and praying, glued to their ‘master’s voice.’ ”

That white voice became excited when Louis’ white opponent pushed him into the corner and whaled away at his body. “My race groaned,” remembered Angelou. “It was all our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed.” It was one’s worst memory and consummate fear. “It might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.” If Louis fell, she thought, all the vile racist insults and cutting remarks would be true.

Yet, in almost every case, Louis came off the ropes, moved to the center of the ring, and began to punish his opponent. Once again, he assumed the role of a black Moses, delivering his race, at least for a moment, to the promised land. He was their champion. “A Black boy,” wrote Angelou. “Some Black mother’s son.”


The announcer lifts Joe Louis’ arm in token of his six-round technical knockout over Primo Carnera in their bout at the Yankee Stadium in New York City, June 25, 1935. Louis bears only a slight bruise under his left eye as evidence of the encounter.

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Wright’s feelings toward Louis came into sharper literary focus a few months after the boxer slaughtered Carnera. Hazel Rowley’s biography recounts how, after battling through a serious bout of pneumonia during the summer, on the night of Sept. 24, 1935, the struggling writer sat in a bar on the South Side, smoking a cigarette, his ear bent toward the radio. It was almost six years since the stock market crash signaled the coming of the Great Depression. It was a hard time to be black in America. Jobs were in short supply, but lynchings weren’t. The wrongly convicted Scottsboro Boys sat in prison in Alabama, sentenced to die in the electric chair. For Wright, their ordeal symbolized the plight of black men in the country. Don’t step outside of your narrowly proscribed path was the message transmitted from white America to millions of black “citizens.”

Yet, Wright knew, something remarkable was happening, and he wanted to understand what it meant. Louis, who would have had trouble reading Wright’s poetry, once more was making quite a stir. In a ring in the middle of Yankee Stadium, the boxer faced former world heavyweight champion Baer, a heavy-punching, wisecracking slugger. Baer was a talker, always ready to deliver a quip. Louis, said one reporter, “says less than any man in sports history, including Dummy Taylor, the Giant pitcher, who was mute.” Neither man, however, had come to Yankee Stadium to debate.

Joe Louis (left) looks to deliver a right jab on his opponent Max Baer (right) during their bout at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, Sept. 24, 1935. Joe Louis would knock out Max Baer in the fourth round of 15.

The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

Wright felt the earth crack that night. Something happened that transcended the punch that knocked out Baer. (After the match, Baer exclaimed he could have gotten up, “but when I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than twenty-five dollars a seat to watch.”) Some belt holding together Jim Crow laws seemed for a moment to break. Looking around the bar, then stepping out in the street, Wright witnessed it. “Something had popped loose, all right,” he wrote in Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite. “And it had come from deep down. Out of the darkness it had leaped from its coil. And nobody wanted to say. Blacks and whites were afraid. But it was a sweet fear, at least for blacks. It was a mingling of fear and fulfillment. Something dreaded and yet wanted. A something had popped out of a dark hole, something with a hydra-like head, and it was darting forth its tongue.”

It was Wright’s first published piece of journalism and appeared in New Masses, a Marxist magazine affiliated with the Communist Party USA. Only incidentally was it a form of sports writing. Instead, it explores the revolutionary potential of black Americans. The central metaphor in the article is water. After Louis’ sensational knockout victory, blacks on Chicago’s South Side “poured out of beer taverns, pool rooms, barber shops, rooming houses and dingy flats and flooded the streets.” More than 25,000 “joy-mad” Louis fans “seeped out of doorways, oozed from alleys, trickled out of tenements, and flowed down the street; a fluid mass of joy.”

They formed a wild river of revolutionary potential, praising Louis at the same time as they expressed their resentment against the varied forms of racism that circumscribed and plagued their lives. Louis had unleashed it all. “Four centuries of repression,” Wright observed, “of frustrated hope, of black bitterness, felt even in the bones of the bewildered young, were rising to the surface. Yes, unconsciously they had imputed to the brawny image of Joe Louis all the balked dreams of revenge, all the secretly visualized moments of retaliation …” Without uttering a word or waving a red flag, Louis had become a revolutionary force. “You see, Joe was the consciously-felt symbol. Joe was the concentrated essence of black triumph over white … And what could be sweeter than long-nourished hate vicariously gratified? From the symbol of Joe’s strength they took strength, and in that moment all fear, all obstacles were wiped out, drowned. They stepped out of the mire of hesitation and irresolution and were free! Invincible!”

Joe Louis Discovers Dynamite concludes with the river receding, moving back into its channel, with the people in the streets “flowing back to the beer tavern, the poolroom, the café, the barbershop, the dingy flat.” Still, freedom imagined is freedom embraced. That evening Wright glimpsed the power of Louis, not only as a fighter but as a potential leveler of social norms, an inarticulate prophet to violent, revolutionary change.

The problem with weighing down Louis with the dreams of revenge and aspirations of the advancement of an entire race, of course, was the possibility that he might lose a fight. It happened on June 19, 1936, when the German Schmeling, another former champion, KO’ed him in 12 rounds. Louis’ physical pain that night was black America’s psychic agony. Singer Lena Horne was performing that evening in Cincinnati’s Moonlite Gardens with Noble Sissle’s band. Backstage, during breaks between sets, she listened to the fight. Schmeling had knocked down Louis in the fourth round, and continued to pummel him with right hands round after round. Men in the band were crying. Horne was nearly hysterical, she recalled in her autobiography. For her, Louis “carried so many of our hopes, maybe even dreams of vengeance.”

Horne’s performance suffered. Outraged, her mother said, “Why, you don’t even know the man.” “I don’t care, I don’t care,” Horne cried. “He belongs to all of us.”


Never did Louis belong to so many Americans, black and white, than on June 22, 1938, when he fought a rematch against Schmeling. By then, Hitler’s legions were jackbooting toward another war in Europe and Schmeling was the darling of the Nazi Party. Also that year, Harper & Brothers published Wright’s first book, Uncle Tom’s Children: Four Novellas. Like so many other Americans, the writer was pulled into the frenzy about the match. Dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” it was the major story from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, and from London to Berlin to Tokyo.

Living in Brooklyn, New York, at the time, Wright agreed to cover the Yankee Stadium event for both the Daily Worker and New Masses. The writing assignment seemed natural. Not only had he published a superb piece on the Louis-Baer fight in New Masses and had worked for the Daily Worker, the Communist Party was actively promoting his career. “Our new comet,” the party hailed him. Uncle Tom’s Children was translated into Russian and praised in a review in Pravda. In England, a leftist publisher had asked Robeson to write the foreword for the British edition.

/> A general view of the fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, on June 22, 1938. Louis won by a knockout in the first round.

The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

An overwhelming racial pride, rather than a class solidarity, distinguished Wright’s approach to the second Louis-Schmeling match. Many white reporters and columnists adopted the black boxer as a representative of American values — democracy, freedom, equality, fair play — doing battle against the racist ideology of Nazi Germany. Wright wanted none of it. Like Horne, he maintained that Louis belonged to the 12 million blacks in America.

Wright’s visit to Louis’ Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, training camp reinforced his feelings. There he discovered “throngs” of black fans “standing around for hours in a state of deep awe waiting for just one glimpse of the champion,” he reported in the Daily Worker. When Louis appeared, “a hush fell on them and they stared.” They knew, as Wright later noted in New Masses, that the Brown Bomber “symbolized the living refutation of the hatred spewed forth daily over the radios, in newspapers, in movies, and in books about their lives … [T]hey have watched a picture of themselves being painted as lazy, stupid, and diseased.” And how could they respond? “[S]o effectively and completely have they been isolated and restricted in vocation that they rarely have had the opportunity to participate in the meaningful processes of America’s national life. Jim Crowed in the army and navy, barred from many trades and professions, excluded from commerce and finance, relegated to menial positions in government, segregated residentially, denied the right of franchise for the most part; in short, forced to live a separate and impoverished life, they were glad for even the meager acceptance of their humanity implied in the championship of Joe Louis.”

Wright left no doubt that Nazi ideology was viler than the American reality, but he also insisted that “reactionary” elements in the United States and Great Britain preached the same racist creed as fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Only among black people in America was the support for Louis universal. For them June 22, 1938, held a promise as sweet, in its own way, as emancipation. On that night, Louis promised to settle an old score and exact revenge for his 1936 loss to Schmeling. Wright knew that symbolically Louis’ revenge would be his race’s revenge.

World heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (left) stands over challenger Max Schmeling, who is down for a count of three, as referee Arthur Donovan sends Louis to a neutral corner at Yankee Stadium in New York City on June 22, 1938. Louis retained his title in a technical knockout over Schmeling in 2:04 of the first round of their scheduled 15-round title bout.

AP Photo

The fight ended with explosive suddenness. Louis had predicted that he would finish Schmeling in two rounds. He did it in one. In a mid-round assault, he broke a vertebra in Schmeling’s back, pounded him with crushing rights, and left him looking, Wright wrote in the Daily Worker, like “a soft piece of molasses candy left out in the sun; he drooped over the ropes, his eyes glassy, his chin nestling in a strand of rope, his face blank and senseless and his widely-heralded powerful right arm hanging ironically useless.” As Wright observed, Louis’ “victory was complete, unquestionable, decisive; his blows must have jarred the marrow not only in [Schmeling’s] but in Hitler’s own bones.” Far from being a competitive contest, Louis’ triumph “was an act of revenge, of dominance, of complete mastery.”

The celebrations in Harlem, the communal finale to Louis victory, interested Wright as much as the actual contest. Using his familiar water metaphor, he wrote that the sight of 100,000 black people pouring into the streets was “like the Mississippi River overflowing at flood time.” Their happiness was inexpressible. “With their faces to the night sky, they filled their lungs with air and let out a scream of joy that seemed would never end, and a scream that came from untold reserves of strength.” Accompanying their primal shouts was a cacophony of beating on garbage pails, tin cans, pots, pans, washboards and wooden boxes. Torn scraps of newspapers snowed from upper story windows on long snake-lines of dancing Harlemites while horns blared, whistles shrieked, and sirens wailed.

The parties in Harlem and other black communities across America were political demonstrations. The racket they created was the sound of freedom long denied and deeply desired. The people in the streets “wanted to feel that their expanded feelings were not limited; that the earth was theirs as much as anyone else’s; that they did not have to live by proscription in one corner of it; that they could go where they wanted to and do what they wanted to, eat and live where they wanted to, like others.” That, Wright knew, was the true dynamite of Joe Louis.

Customers at a bar on 135th Street in Harlem raise a jubilant toast after world heavyweight champion Joe Louis’ first-round knockout of Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium.

NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

As 2019’s new fall TV shows come into focus, more black antihero stories need to be told In putting black characters who dwelled in darkness on screen, ABC and others expanded the meaning of mainstream blackness

TV’s major networks made their upfront announcements recently, and there are some interesting shows coming to screens this fall.

Saturday Night Live vet Kenan Thompson finally lands a starring vehicle with NBC’s The Kenan Show, a family sitcom about a single dad. ABC’s black-ish spinoff mixed-ish stars Tika Sumpter and centers on an interracial hippie family in the 1980s. Megalyn Echikunwoke is one of the leads on Not Just Me from Fox. It’s about a woman coming to grips with discovering her father sired multiple children. Sunnyside is a Kal Penn-driven NBC sitcom with a multiethnic cast about a former New York City councilman who helps immigrants living in Queens, New York. Folake Olowofoyeku stars with Billy Gardell in Bob Hearts Abishola, a CBS sitcom about a middle-aged white guy who has a heart attack and falls for his Nigerian cardiac nurse. “Hardy har har.”

“Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

Considering returning shows such as The Last O.G. and the ever-popular black-ish on traditional networks, there seems to be a resurgence in sitcoms as it pertains to black programming. That isn’t incidental; networks have only recently been embracing of dramas driven by black leads. And that aversion spoke to how those networks saw black imagery and how it is received by white audiences. We had to fight to get black antiheroes on the small screen.

So often in American pop culture, dysfunction in characters has been used as a parallel for the wider human experience — and that dysfunction is regularly white and male. No matter how many snitching wiseguys or horse-killing compadres Tony Soprano strangled, bludgeoned or shot, no matter how many rivals, partners and associates Walter White murdered or manipulated, it was all supposed to show us something about the human condition.

As is the function of privilege, white storytellers not only have the benefit of larger, wider platforms but also of not having to navigate racism’s dizzying maze of double standards and slanted expectations. White criminality on screen could say something about humanity; black criminality on screen was expected to say something about black people. From the ‘hood movies of the early 1990s to that other beloved HBO drama The Wire, if bad black people were at the center of the story, there would be a lot of hand-wringing about what the portrayal was going to yield in a culture that undoubtedly relishes demonizing black folks.

That burden of portrayal and mainstream platforms’ indifference toward black creators and audiences meant that, at least on the small screen, dark or dramatic black content was suddenly in short supply. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as dysfunctional white people became the centerpiece of American television, black shows nearly disappeared from the popular landscape. Even during the beloved “heyday” of black TV shows in the ’80s and ’90s, scripted black TV tended to be predominantly family sitcoms. The few shows that were still prominent in the 2000s remained PG-friendly half-hour comedies — until Scandal.

The hit show Scandal, created by Shonda Rhimes (left) and starring Kerry Washington (right), debuted in 2012 and announced the arrival of a new era in black television.

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

Debuting to strong ratings back in 2012 and becoming the No. 1 show in its time slot, Shonda Rhimes’ hit announced the arrival of a new era in black television. The show was the first major contemporary drama with a black female lead. In centering on a complex black woman who was both obviously brilliant at what she did but who was wrestling with personal demons and character dysfunctions that would threaten all that she’d built, that prime-time hit changed what popular black television in the “prestige TV”-driven age could look like. Characters such as Olivia Pope of Scandal, Paper Boi of Atlanta, Ghost St. Patrick of Power, Taystee of Orange is the New Black and Cookie Lyon of Empire would be driven by drama, heightened spectacle, suspense, surrealism and provocative storytelling. They showcased intriguing characters of questionable morals but undeniable charisma and riveting conflict. Of course, these were all very different kinds of shows, but they all highlighted the development of a new wave.

The black TV experience of the 2010s has not been defined by sitcoms or reality shows, although both have remained consistently popular. No, much like the wider culture, so much of our television experience has been driven by melodramas, crime shows and nighttime soaps. And in putting black characters on screen who dared to dwell in darkness, it’s helped expand the scope of mainstream black content. “Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

But that doesn’t mean disparities have disappeared.

The Starz series Power became a surprise hit in 2014 when it debuted. A glitzy urban series about a drug kingpin attempting to climb the social ladder of Manhattan’s elite, the show is the biggest on the network, but the writing and acting aren’t quite at the level of top-tier television dramas, and the tone keeps its storytelling just shy of grim, forgoing (or negating) suspense for shock and salaciousness. And while a character such as Lucious Lyon was always portrayed as the devil in a suede jacket — and there is no denying Cookie Lyon is no angel either — Fox’s Empire relies more on pomp and melodrama than actual suspense, casting the show’s darkness against a blinged-out haze of camp and histrionics. There still seems to be a dearth of black-themed shows on television willing to fully commit to taking their protagonists to an unsettling place, one that, while compelling, also doesn’t assuage the audience’s discomfort.

Taraji P. Henson (left) and Terrence Howard (right) star in the Fox hit Empire as Cookie and Lucious Lyon.

Photo by FOX via Getty Images

And Netflix’s ever-popular ensemble prison drama Orange Is the New Black has showcased a diverse set of black female characters: inmates of varying backgrounds thrust together in a minimum security prison. The show highlights personalities that can be as sympathetic and relatable as some are manipulative and murderous. But the acclaimed series was initially marketed as the story of an upper-crust white woman plucked out of her pampered world and now doing time — something it eventually subverted, to be sure. But did being pushed as such help ensure that it wouldn’t be received as a niche “black show” by audiences and critics?

The May 19 series finale of Game of Thrones was the talk of pop culture, as HBO’s gargantuan hit wrapped eight seasons of ice zombies, dragons, brothels, torture and incest with a controversial last episode that underwhelmed many and confounded others. But the better finale that night was from the cable network’s half-hour thriller-comedy Barry, a stunning little show that ended its second season in emotionally gripping (and shockingly violent) fashion. While obviously not the grand blockbuster that HBO has had in Thrones, Barry has proved to be another major critical success for the network, with star Bill Hader earning the outstanding lead actor in a comedy series Emmy last year for his work on the show, which he executive produces with Alec Berg.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting.

On the show, Saturday Night Live alum Hader gets to indulge his serious side and delivers some stellar performances. As hitman turned aspiring actor Barry Berkman, Hader’s everyman persona and comedic talents are still evident, but it’s secondary to a starkly stellar dramatic performance as the emotionally fraught, reluctant killer. The show deftly balances the more screwball moments with searing tension that has all the suspense of a David Fincher thriller. When the violence happens, it’s often swift and brutal — and without a wink or nod. Barry’s genuine desire to change his life sits parallel with his more rage-filled tendencies, and that inner conflict often leads to someone catching a bullet.

Popular shows Orange Is the New Black, Empire and Power will all be concluding soon. The final season of Orange Is the New Black hits Netflix in July, with Fox’s hip-hop soap opera and Starz’s 50 Cent-produced hit ending their runs with their upcoming respective sixth seasons. As such, we will be saying goodbye to some beloved on-screen bad people in the next several months. Hopefully, when we look back at these characters and shows, we’ll see what was only the beginning of a more diverse era in black programming. With upcoming shows such as For Life (described by ABC as “a fictional serialized legal and family drama about a prisoner who becomes a lawyer, litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit”) and returning series such as Snowfall and How to Get Away With Murder, black antiheroes are still on our screens — but networks shouldn’t let such shows fall to the periphery.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting. Our deepest dysfunctions can make for compelling truths on screen. Our dark tales are as affirming as any, and they only added to the broadening of our on-screen identity. If these wildly different shows have one common legacy, that is certainly it. And that’s not a bad thing to be remembered for.

In ‘When They See Us,’ Ava DuVernay shows the horrors that swallowed the Central Park Five Netflix series establishes her as the pre-eminent truth-teller about our flawed justice system

Ava DuVernay has now established herself as the country’s pre-eminent director in using film and television to foreground the truth about black people, white supremacy and justice.

If it wasn’t obvious before, it is after watching When They See Us, DuVernay’s limited series about the Central Park Five, which begins streaming Friday on Netflix.

When They See Us represents the pinnacle of a directorial career examining injustice. A righteous confidence propels her telling of the story of Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson and Antron McCray, the five boys who were wrongfully convicted of the brutal 1989 rape of a woman known simply as the Central Park Jogger.

Trisha Meili, who is white, was sexually assaulted and left for dead while running in Central Park. A group of brown and black teenagers was implicated. The five were all between the ages of 14 and 16 when they were held for hours by the New York Police Department, without lawyers, and coerced into confessing to the assault. The demand for blood — for revenge, really — reached a fever pitch. Donald Trump — then a publicity-seeking real estate developer, not a president — paid for ads in four New York newspapers calling for the state to bring back the death penalty and apply it in the case.

Although the five were minors, the police released the names of the teens as suspects, and their reputations were trashed across print and local news before their guilt or innocence had been proven.

It wasn’t until 2002, when the real rapist confessed to the crime, that Wise, Santana, Salaam, Richardson and McCray were exonerated. At that point, four of them had served six years each in prison. Wise, who was prosecuted and sentenced as an adult at age 16, spent 13 years bouncing from Rikers jail to Attica prison before he was finally released.

In 2012, Ken and Sarah Burns told the story in their documentary The Central Park Five. It revealed that DNA testing done by the FBI in 1989 concluded that none of the five boys could have raped the victim, yet the New York Police Department and New York district attorney Linda Fairstein proceeded with their prosecution anyway. The Central Park Five told a straightforward story of a horrifying miscarriage of justice, with Wise, Santana, Salaam and McCray speaking about their experiences. But it didn’t have the power to match the onslaught of media coverage from 1989 that defamed a group of scared boys as out-of-control hoodlums and bloodthirsty monsters.

When They See Us does. It is David come to slay the Goliath of a destructive, wrongful, racist narrative once and for all.


Storm Reid (left) and Jharrel Jerome (right) in When They See Us.

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Reframing the systematic and racialized indignities inflicted by America’s prison system is a recurring theme in DuVernay’s narrative and documentary work, from Middle of Nowhere (2012) to Queen Sugar (2016) to 13th (2016) and now When They See Us. In each of these, DuVernay repeatedly turns her lens on those who are dismissed, disregarded and thrown away because they’ve been labeled as criminals. Furthermore, DuVernay always expands her view to consider how mass incarceration affects not only those serving time but also the people they love.

That’s where the impact of When They See Us truly lies. DuVernay takes full advantage of the limited series form, patiently unfurling humanizing details about the lives of the five boys before, during and after police hauled them in for questioning and prosecutors tried and convicted them.

The moral confidence of When They See Us is especially notable considering the flak DuVernay received during the awards campaign for Selma because of her refusal to paint President Lyndon B. Johnson as an anti-racist saint. Selma (2014) took a huge hit in its Oscar campaign when former Johnson aides expressed their discontent with the way he was depicted. A lesser director might have backed down in subsequent projects after weathering such consequences. DuVernay simply dug in.

Fairstein, who went on to become a successful crime fiction writer after leaving the prosecutor’s office, comes off especially poorly. Even though the timeline of the jogger’s run and the vast geography of the park made it impossible for the group to have raped her, Fairstein doubled down on their guilt anyway. The series is sure to reignite questions about the consequences (or really the lack thereof) that she faced for knowingly stealing years from the lives of five innocent boys.

DuVernay repeatedly turns her lens on those who are dismissed, disregarded and thrown away because they’ve been labeled as criminals.

Once again, DuVernay has teamed with Selma cinematographer Bradford Young. The effect is similar to that of If Beale Street Could Talk in the way it captures both the preciousness and banality of freedom and everyday life. DuVernay shows us young love before it’s interrupted, with Wise (Jharrel Jerome) joyously flirting with a girl he likes named Lisa (Storm Reid). Richardson (Asante Blackk) exclaims his pride about making first chair trumpet in the school band. It’s these moments that most get to take for granted that become so precious when they’re wrenched away. She named the series When They See Us as a cue to the audience to really see Richardson, Salaam, Wise, McCray and Santana as discrete individuals rather than as part of the Central Park Five, a moniker, which they had no part in choosing, that works to obscure and dehumanize.

Except for Wise, each of the five is played by two sets of actors, first as free children and then as wounded, previously incarcerated adults. When They See Us follows the group after they’re exonerated in 2002, as they try to reintegrate themselves into society and find new obstacles at every turn, from the difficulties of finding a new job or navigating romantic relationships to the hardship of being an innocent person who still has to register as a sex offender. By its end, the audience understands the true cost of the case, of the unseen toll of wrongful conviction that extends far beyond the prison yard and into the soul.

The decision to keep Jerome, best known for his role as Kevin in the second act of Moonlight, through the entire series is deliberate on DuVernay’s part. It’s meant to underscore that Wise, 16, was the only member of the group tried and sentenced as an adult. Jerome shows impressive range as he charts the loss of Wise’s innocence at the hands of unscrupulous guards and disgusted fellow prisoners who don’t know that he’s been wrongfully imprisoned. Though solitary confinement offers some respite from the physical violence of being in the general population at Rikers and later Attica, it brings madness too. Jerome’s take on a young man whose most resonant life lesson is “trust no one” is impressive and devastating. It stands apart, even as the ensemble cast of When They See Us delivers one gutting performance after another.

Caleel Harris (left) as young Antron McCray and Michael K. Williams (right) as Bobby McCray in When They See Us.

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Michael K. Williams, who plays Bobby McCray, the father of Antron, provides another. When the police are holding Antron for questioning, Bobby tries desperately to persuade his son to tell the police that he was involved in the rape — not because it’s true but because it’s what they want to hear, and the cost of not cooperating is just too high.

“Goddamn it! Why you not listening to me? Tron, these police will mess us up,” says Williams-as-McCray in a heart-rending scene that fully illustrates the racial power imbalance between the police and the black people they’re pursuing. “They’re not playing. They’re not. Look, when the police want what they want, they will do anything. Do you hear me? Anything. They’ll lie on us. They will lock us up. They will kill us. I ain’t gon’ let them kill my son. But you don’t know nothing about that yet. But you will do what they say. You will go along. Do you understand me? Do you understand me?”

What’s incredible is how DuVernay weighs and balances each boy’s story across four episodes. No one gets short shrift. Instead, she marries the drive of a historian with a keen sense of fairness, purpose and, frankly, love. When They See Us gives Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Kevin Richardson back their names. DuVernay knows that she can never replace what was lost, but she is fearless and direct when it comes to revealing what was taken, and why.