In sports as in life, happy endings are rare Just ask any Olympic athlete or Hollywood star

When my daughter was a little girl, I’d hear her crying over the twists and turns of one children’s television show or the other. At last, after the cold cereal and hot toy commercials had paraded past her, the television princess, the latest incarnation of Cinderella, would prevail. And my daughter could gleefully exclaim: “Happy Ending.”

In those days, before adult life taught her otherwise, my daughter Lauren was a steadfast believer in happy endings. Always. It’s the American way; our society believes in happy endings, especially when it comes to big-time sports and Hollywood movies, which often borrow storylines from each other.

But, as Orson Welles, the director of Citizen Kane, once said, a happy ending depends upon where the story is stopped.

Had Malcolm Butler’s New England Patriots story ended at Super Bowl XLIX with his interception that preserved a victory over the Seattle Seahawks, the defensive back would be hailed forever in Boston. Instead, it’s likely his Patriots story ended with him being benched at Super Bowl LII, his eyes filled with tears, his heart bursting with sadness.

Or suppose Halle Berry’s Hollywood story had ended in 2002 when she became the first and only black woman to win a best actress Academy Award for Monster’s Ball? Wouldn’t she be hailed as a bright and enduring star? Instead, since 2002 she’s made a raft of forgettable movies. Her star has dimmed. The door Berry thought she’d kicked wide open 16 years ago with her Oscar stands ajar today, not just for herself but for other actresses of color who seek powerful and meaningful lead roles in Hollywood movies.

Oh, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who seeks to warn that happiness can’t last or that failure lurks around the corner from every successful turn.

But sports and Hollywood do teach us to revel in the magic moments when we reach the top of the mountain. No matter how many there are, how endless they seem, magic moments are fleeting. Consequently, when our sports and entertainment stars climb to the top of the mountain, they deserve to breathe the rarefied air that swirls at the peak with pride and a great sense of accomplishment. They deserve a moment to reflect upon their journeys and the hard work and determination that drove them to success. They deserve a moment to remember the elders who paved the way, just as Berry did on Oscar night in 2002: “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll.”

During the Winter Olympics, Lindsey Vonn became at 33 the oldest woman to ever win an Olympic medal in Alpine skiing. Still, some have written and said that her bronze medal in her downhill race is an emblem of failure, a talisman of disappointment. Having overcome horrific crashes and injuries, Vonn holds the record for most career World Cup Alpine wins for female skiers. She won Olympic gold in the downhill in 2010. He greatness is unassailable.

After her penultimate 2018 Olympic race, Vonn wrote on Twitter, “Today I won a bronze medal that felt like gold,” evidence that she won’t allow others to define her success, a lesson that sports stars and entertainers learn and teach the rest of us, again and again. In an act of triumph, she scattered the ashes of her beloved grandfather in South Korea, where he’d served in the American military.

Unfortunately, in sports and entertainment, the better one is, the more cruel and ingenious the chattering classes are in inventing new categories of failure.

If you don’t believe me, just ask LeBron James or the producers of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In each of the past seven years, James has taken his teams to NBA Finals, winning two with the Miami Heat and one with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the star forward’s current team. A four-time NBA MVP, he’s used his money and influence to help countless others. Nevertheless, James endures an annual head-banging from some pundits for being the de facto coach and general manager of a team that’s destined to fail, until it doesn’t.

Despite grossing more than a billion dollars worldwide, the latest Star Wars movie has been assailed by some for not doing as well as it might have, especially in China, an important market for American blockbuster movies.

Further, both James and the latest Star Wars film have come under fire from some right-wing pundits for expressing a world view that differs from theirs.

The Winter Olympics have ended. On Sunday night, the Oscars will begin. The winners will come and go. The fans and pundits, the scribblers and talkers, will travel with them.

Everyone will hope for a happy ending. Depending where the story stops, whose hand controls the roulette wheel of fate, some will get it.

Until the next spin.

From ‘Dawson’s Creek’ to ‘Buffy’ to ‘Frasier’ to ‘Seinfeld’ — what happened to those lone, ‘token’ black actors? Eight talents tell stories of offensive scripts, stunt people in blackface and the heartbreak — and hope — of portraying Thug No. 2 and the dope dealer’s girlfriend

This is about television in the 1990s but let’s start with a quick, tragic and important trip to 1975.

Happy Days is about to deliver its infamous and most cringe-worthy episode. In “Fonzie’s New Friend,” the leather jacket-clad Fonz meets up with Sticks Downey, a new-to-town wisecracking drummer. The Fonz decides that Sticks, played with seemingly effortless timing by John Bailey, would make a great addition to Richie Cunningham’s band. When Richie asks a young woman on a date to a luau — with Fonzie’s new buddy as the perfect hookup for her friend, the punchline is of course that Sticks is black.

“Why do I get the feeling I was just humiliated?” Sticks deadpans as the studio audience roars with laughter. From there: one-liners about Downey’s lack of basketball prowess, about eating fried chicken and watermelon and yes, a low-key slavery joke. “Sticks was a very offensive character,” said artist Alida Bailey from her Palmdale, California, home. The easygoing stepdaughter of John Bailey wasn’t alive when the episode aired, but she’s seen it many times. “It was so over-the-top,” she said. “But to his credit, my father was still hilarious. He could shine in any role even if it was a token one.” He appeared in 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie, but by the ’80s, John Bailey bolted to the adult film industry, where he went by name Jack Baker. In 1994, he died of bladder cancer due to complications from AIDS.

“My dad got his foot in the door … despite race being an issue,” Alida Bailey said with pride. “But once the roles started to dry up, he could see that there was no equality in Hollywood … What you’re left with are token roles.” Downey was the 1970s. And while ’80s television — a groundbreaking era that launched The Cosby Show, the criminally underrated Frank’s Place, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and 227, the 1990s were actually awash in tokenism.

Yes, the adored 1990s. Even with the shows that are seared into our collective DNA: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Roc, In Living Color, The Arsenio Hall Show, New York Undercover, and Martin — all of these were must-see TV. There was A Different World, Family Matters, Moesha, Sister, Sister, Living Single. Indeed, in the 1990s, the wealth of black representation on television could lull you into thinking — if you turned the channel from Rodney King taking more than 50 blows from Los Angeles Police Department batons — that black lives actually did matter. But almost all of these shows were in varying ways, an extension of segregated America. It’s there in the memories of the stars below: There were “black shows,” and there were “white shows.” If you were a black actor appearing on a white show, you were usually alone.

For some of the most visible black actors coming of age in the 1990s, it’s clear that along with the triumphs came isolation, blatant racial stereotyping and biased casting calls. As for “crossing over” to the mainstream, in the mostly segregated worlds of Seinfeld, Frasier, Melrose Place, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Felicity, V.I.P., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek and more, blacks were usually relegated to bit parts or were there for a short time. The Undefeated sat down with eight of these talented women and men. These are their stories. This is history.


Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Iowa City, Iowa

Throwback: Melrose Place, Seinfeld

Currently working on: CBS’ 9JKL

When you live in the same house as a father that created such an incredible legacy — not just for himself and his family, but for an entire race of people — it’s expected that you should do the same. Greg Morris broke down racial barriers on Mission: Impossible. Him, Bill Cosby, Diahann Carroll [Julia], Bernie Hamilton [Starsky & Hutch], Lloyd Haynes [Room 222] … they opened the door for all of us as black actors on television. I wanted to continue to break down those barriers.

My first acting job was on Star Trek, way back when I was … around 8. I’m talking about the original Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock. It was stunt-casting episode, so I was in it, my sister Iona was in it, William Shatner’s daughters were in it, and some of the directors’ kids were in it. We were kids who weren’t actors, but we knew when to shut up when the director called “Action!” [Laughs].

“To his credit my father was still hilarious. He could shine in any role, even if it was a token one.”

My earliest adult experiences in the acting world … I stunted my own authenticity because either I was trying to not be my father or trying to live up to his success. But the ’90s kind of opened things up for me. That era allowed for more black images to be seen as intelligent, authoritative, educated, stylish, and beautiful beyond The Cosby Show, which normalized how the world looked at African-American families. I appeared on black shows like 227, The Fresh Prince, and Martin. But I was also able to do series like WIOU [a short-lived CBS news drama], Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and other more mainstream, non-ethnic roles. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the experience for black actors.

I remember [around ’95] going out for a role on Melrose Place — one of the hottest shows on television at that time. I had a long history with Aaron Spelling [Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, and Beverly Hills 90210]. I’ve gone to dinner with Mr. Spelling and I’ve gone to dinner with Mr. Darren Star [co-creator of Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Sex In The City] and I’ve told them, “You need to have more black people on that show than just Vanessa A. Williams.” And they would tell me, “Oh, Phil … it’s all casting … we would bring you in, we would make a role for you in a heartbeat.” I took it as lip service.

A few weeks later, Melrose Place had another role. I told my people to submit me for it. My agents came back and said, “Nah, they’re not going to see you. They want the role to be a white role.” The next time I saw Aaron Spelling, I again told him that I knew I wasn’t going to get the role because I was black. And he said, “Well, I’m only so big. There’s only so much that I can do.” I finally got a role on Melrose Place because I happened to be the right dude.

SEINFELD — “The Finale: Part 1&2” Episode 23 & 24 — Pictured: (l-r) Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, Phil Morris as Jackie Chiles (Photo by )

Joseph Del Valle/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The truth is, you ain’t never going to please everybody, anyway. When I went to audition for Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, I never thought of it as a derogatory token role. They told me, straight up, “We want someone that would give us a rendition of Johnnie Cochran.” I remember seeing Michael Dorn [Worf, of the Star Trek franchise] and Ted Lange from The Love Boat and Michael Boatman. We all looked like the Motown Mafia at that audition with our dark suits [Laughs].

“My Melrose Place experience only strengthened me. I wasn’t going to let no one tell me my worth, or value.”

I’d known Johnnie Cochran most of my whole life. We went to the same barber … Terrell’s Barber Shop in Los Angeles. I’d see Johnnie there almost every Sunday, for years — so I knew this cat way before the O.J. Simpson trial. I had a sense of his rhythm and his thing … that “Uh, huh … You don’t say.” I ended up getting the Seinfeld job, but Johnnie had to sign off on his likeness, which he eventually did. Jackie Chiles was a relief valve for a lot of people who were so frustrated with the O.J. verdict. It gave them a chance to laugh at the proceedings that were sometimes just ridiculous. Personally, I didn’t agree with the O.J. verdict. That’s why Jackie Chiles was so over-the-top. I let them have it.

I saw Johnnie a couple of times after my Seinfeld episodes aired and it was just like an old western movie. I walked into the barbershop and he’s laid back in the chair getting a shave. Everyone was quiet and Johnnie looks at me, laughs and says, “Young man, you are hilarious.”

I don’t know why I don’t have my own show right now. It’s driving me crazy, because my ambition is very high … I’m developing my own show, centering around me as an ex-soap opera star. I’m just trying to control my journey.


Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Los Angeles

Throwback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek

Currently working on: Queen Sugar

When I turned 14, I started Saved By The Bell: The New Class [in 1993]. I’d been staying in New York with my dad, and I ended up coming back to L.A. I was in a store and some guy walked up to us and said, “My wife is a manager. Do you act?” And literally that week I got the role for Saved By The Bell. I wasn’t thinking about if I was the “token black girl” on the show. I was just happy to be working.

Bianca Lawson played Megan Jones in Saved By The Bell: The New Class.

Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

I had a recurring role on Sister, Sister and it was so much fun. The UPN writers from that show told me, “Bianca, we’re going to make another series and we are going to write a part just for you.” It was a black sitcom with the legendary Sherman Hemsley called Goode Behavior. I was offered a role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as one of the leads, but I took Good Behavior because the producers had kept their word.

“Can you black it up? Can you make it blacker … more street? That was never me. Honestly, I had more issues with the black directors and producers than the white ones.”

After Goode ended, the Buffy people offered me another part. I thought I was going to be on Buffy longer, but it was only for four episodes. I loved playing Kendra. She was fierce and she was direct. She wasn’t about being liked. She had this mission to accomplish and it wasn’t connected to some guy or some romance.

Bianca Lawson and Alyson Hannigan from season 2 of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.”

I can’t remember how many episodes I was supposed to do on Dawson’s Creek, but there was this thing where my character Nikki, who was a filmmaker, always had to be better than [her white peers]. She even had a discussion with Dawson about this. It was really surreal. The thought of becoming the first black actress on shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer never really occurred to me back then.

Recently, I was on an airplane and someone left a beautiful note on my seat to say what I meant to them as a black actress on television. I didn’t really think about any of that when I was younger because you’re just doing the work. It was only years later as I got older that I realized seeing a young black woman on Buffy and Dawson’s Creek was empowering to a lot of people.

It’s a feeling that I’m experiencing on an even higher level with Queen Sugar. I feel like I’m part of a new black television era.


Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Melrose Place

Currently working on: Vengeance, Days of Our Lives, I Left My Girlfriend for Regina Jones

When I was 6, I wanted to literally know how people got into the TV set [Laughs]. My family is a performing family. My mother was a tap dancer and my grandmother was an accomplished pianist and organist and had played with W.C. Handy, and my auntie sung opera. I started to do singing roles as part of the New York City Opera, and there was a girl there who was also a professional actress. She had an actual manager, which really impressed me. We ended up becoming friends and I got that same manager.

My first big gig was a Bubble Yum commercial with Ralph Macchio [of The Karate Kid] We did a f—ing bubble gum rap [Laughs]. “Yum, so fine, the flavor lasts a long, long time!” It was hilarious … a bunch of white kids and a black girl rapping about gum!

There are two projects that I count as my big break into Hollywood — The Cosby Show and of course New Jack City. As a New York actor, you are trained in theater, and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. So I wasn’t intimidated when I got the Melrose Place phone call. This was a big deal because we knew the show was an Aaron Spelling project coming on the heels of Beverly Hills, 90210. I heard that my role as Rhonda was going to be for a Jewish girl, but I won the role. I just thought, Wow, my dreams are coming true.

“I started out as a standup comedian. I wanted to be Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg.”

When the L.A. riots happened, there was a story line on Melrose Place dealing with the aftermath. In the script, Rhonda was separating herself from her own community — the black community — and saying things like, “Those people … ” I had a serious talk with Darren, who was very amenable about changing that part of the script.

The cast of the TV series, ‘Melrose Place,’ posing on steps, circa 1993.

Fotos International/Getty Images)

It wasn’t until Melrose Place fired me after doing 33 episodes of season one that I felt the sting of Hollywood. There was positive fan feedback about my character, but I guess the Spelling people did some demographic research and decided that they were going to go into a more backbiting, soap opera direction. I thought the only strike against me was that I was a black actress. It had all to do with the fact that they were going to have people sleeping with each other in the cast — and how would that play for Middle America to see a black girl bed-hopping?

But my Melrose Place experience only strengthened me. I wasn’t going to let no one tell me my worth or value. I kept rolling with roles on such shows as Chicago Hope, Soul Food and [most recently] the Bella Thorne-vehicle Famous In Love on ABC’s Freeform network. One thing about the ’90s is there was a plethora of work for black actors even with all the ups and downs. This was the golden age of black television. We literally built Fox and UPN. That is a known fact.


Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Philadelphia

Throwback: Doogie Howser, M.D.

Currently working on: Wine & Whimsy, The 6th Degree

I always knew I wanted to be a television actor. I was enamored by John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back Kotter. I thought he was the coolest dude in the history of the world, and my parents laughed at me. They were like, “You know acting is an actual job? Travolta is not just some cool guy … he’s acting.” I was like, “Well, I want that job!” It wasn’t until my family moved from North Philadelphia to Ventura County, about an hour north of Los Angeles, that I got into a high school drama class.

I started taking lessons from acting coach Cliff Osmond, rest in peace. After I’d been in the class long enough, he told me, “I think it’s time for you to meet my wife.” She became my first agent in 1989, and I ended up booking a play called Ten November. One of the casting directors from this new show, Doogie Howser, M.D., Beth Hymson, came to the play. She brought me in for an audition to play Friend No. 2.

So I go to the audition and Friend No. 2 is asking Doogie what it’s like being a doctor. Now I grew up in Ventura with a bunch of surfers, so to me it just seemed natural to be like, “Whoa, dude … You get to see blood and guts?!!! Gnarly, dude!” And I’m a big, black guy, so that didn’t make a whole lot of sense doing a white surfer voice, but Beth and the others got a kick out of it. They told me they’d keep me on their radar. And then the very next audition was for Raymond on Doogie Howser, M.D.

The cast of Doogie Howser, M.D.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Early on, I noticed the Doogie script was very surface. My character was written as this tough black guy who’s about to rob a 7-Eleven. Doogie talks him down, he realizes the error of his ways, and Doogie gets to feel good about himself. On the third or fourth day of production, there was a line where Doogie’s mom screams at a cop, “If that animal hurts my son!” She was talking about my character. This became hugely controversial because we had a good number of African-Americans that were extras on set.

The extra that played my mom, she especially took offense to it. I remember production stopped, and when we came back, that “animal” line had been taken out of the script. So there was this slow process of humanizing Raymond on the series.

“I don’t have my own show right now. It’s driving me crazy because my ambition is very high.”

I met a lot of black people while I was on Doogie. They’d be like, “So, wait, you’re on TV?” And I’d say, “I’m on Doogie Howser.” They’d usually respond, “Oh, I don’t watch that show because there ain’t no black people on it.” And that’s the thing. If you segregate yourself, the media will always give those stereotypes to you. If you keep telling the media, “Ghetto, street, rap … that’s all who I am,” the media will respond, just like the universe.

Neil Patrick Harris and Markus Remond on an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

When I’d go out for auditions, there was usually a prerequisite of, “Can you black it up? Can you make it blacker … more street?” And that was never me. Honestly, I had more issues with the black directors and producers than the white ones. I’m not a fan of hip-hop. Look at my Spotify and its mostly country. My favorite actors are William Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart. That’s where I get my juice.

After Doogie, I was able to book a series on UPN called Family Rules as the black next-door neighbor. Everybody knew what the UPN acronym really meant: The Underpaid Negro Network. I was the reverse token … the only black person on a mostly white show on UPN. It was canceled after [six] episodes. It had gotten to the point where none of this acting stuff was relevant to me. I was tired of playing Thug No. 4. Like I said, I grew up with surfers, listened to swing music and loved Woody Allen movies. I didn’t fit in.

I think that’s why I embraced writing. I’ve sold some scripts to studios and I did a film that went to Sundance back in ’07 that Whoopi Goldberg and Sharon Stone starred in along with me called If I Had Known I Was A Genius. I never limit myself. Fortunately, today we have great shows portraying black people in a broad light like How To Get Away With Murder and Scandal. Thank God for Shonda Rhimes for saying, “Let me just make great television shows and just put black people in the lead and surround them with everybody.”


Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: The Parent ‘Hood, Freaks and Geeks

Currently working on: Artificial intelligence software project

I loved being in front of the camera. I did Reading Rainbow twice, and one of the producers said to my parents, “He’s really good. This seems like something you guys might want to pursue.” I thank my mom, Lola, for my career, because she put in a lot of work.

The first national spot I booked was a commercial for Bubble Yum in 1990. I was around 12, and the role for that ad was originally not created for a black kid, but a white character named Milo, the Mathematical Genius. I guess white kids were only allowed to be intelligent, but the agent I had was incredible. She was like, “Oh, no. We’re going to send Kenn there because they don’t know what they want. And he can do it.” I nailed it.

I always played the smart kid in a lot of crossover roles. And then I hit this rut that was typical with being a black actor where the majority of the roles were the street kid, the drug dealer or the bad kid. All the auditions were the same, and I was bummed, so around 1992 I was an apprentice director on the film Boomerang, shadowing the Hudlin Brothers. I got the chance to watch Eddie Murphy work. I developed a bit of a rapport with him. Eddie noticed I was a little out of sorts.

Hours later, he asked me to see him on his bus. I was excited! I told him what I was experiencing in the television audition game and he gave me this pep talk, like, “Dude, I know. But you have to keep on trucking. Your excellence will shine no matter what you do.” I ended up getting an actual part in Boomerang.

But then you go from being on a big budget film that showed blacks in a nuanced, positive light, and back to the politics of TV. I remember a meeting I had with Darren Star, who was the head of Aaron Spelling’s development company. I walked into this huge office in Beverly Hills. They were interested in creating a show for me, so Darren walks in, puts his feet up on the table and he says, “You may know some of our series like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place …” He had this very arrogant way about him. So I said, “Yeah, I’ve seen those shows, but I don’t really watch them because I don’t see anybody who looks like me.” [A] phrase you heard a lot back in those days [was] … “Oh, we don’t know how to write for black characters.”

Being on the show The Parent ’Hood was an interesting situation. I was on a black series with Robert Townsend, who was show’s creator and executive producer. There was diversity, and it was great at times, but then my character started to get painted in a corner. He was viewed as this superpositive black male character … smart and into music. I was written off the show. The character they replaced me with was this boy who was written as a troubled, streetwise kid. It wasn’t just the white shows that insisted I play the hoodlum. That was an eye-opener.

“I hit this rut that was typical with being a black actor where the majority of the roles were the street kid, the drug dealer or the bad kid.”

When I did Freaks and Geeks, nobody knew anything about it. Judd Apatow was not a huge name at that point, so for me it was just another audition. I was just happy to be on a show where the writing was really funny. We know that Apatow’s projects are mostly white. In hindsight, yeah, it would have been great … for them to have more characters of color.

I got tired of the politics of auditioning for roles. I’d always been directing my own short films before I got my first official directing gig. I was doing film festivals and some projects on the digital side of filmmaking before anybody was talking about it, because the picture quality wasn’t of quality back then. I was also doing a lot of voiceover work for video games and cartoons. I ended up directing BET’s Let’s Stay Together. That was my multicam, sitcom, directorial thing. It was a lot of fun. Doing voice work for video games has been a lot of fun because you get to play all these crazy characters. I do a really great German accent [Michael is an in-demand video game voice actor. He has appeared in the Saints Row series and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas].

I’ve started this next phase of my journey. I’ve been building a software project that is dealing with sound, healing, and sacred numbers and frequencies. My thing is bringing spirituality, technology, and science together. Artificial intelligence is upon us. We need to make sure that we are imbuing things into A.I. that we would want.


Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Living Single, Frasier

Currently working on: Stand-up comedy, speaking engagements (AARP, American Heart Association among others)

I started out as a stand-up comedian. I wanted to be Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg. [In 1987], I auditioned for A Different World, for the role of Jaleesa … the role that Dawnn Lewis eventually got. Dawn and I had been friends since we were 11, so for her to get that was huge. I remember being at an event and meeting Keenan Ivory Wayans. Keenan tells me that he has a television show coming up and that he wanted me to audition. I found out that it was a multicultural sketch comedy show, which had never been done before.

We filmed the pilot for In Living Color in 1989, but somebody had already gotten a hold of the episode! There were bootlegged copies being sold on the streets. There were people who loved the show and others who thought we were too edgy, too black, and hated it. I was only on In Living Color for the first year … it was an incredible experience.

The cast of Living Single. Kim Coles is the to far right.

Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images

Landing the role of Synclaire on Living Single was massive. It was around 1992, and I’d just left In Living Color. The producers reached out to me and said, “We love you. We want to do a series about black women and their experiences and what they think about life and men.” Living Single was an iconic show with a lot of layers. It wasn’t a stereotypical black sitcom. But it wasn’t hard to notice that networks like Fox and UPN were using black shows just to establish their success. There were black series that were watched by millions on Fox, but apparently they weren’t a part of the network’s vision.

I booked The Geena Davis Show, but they kindly let me walk so I could do an episode of Frasier. Then I booked a second episode, and I have to tell you, the experience was amazing. Kelsey Grammer was beyond kind to me and he loved my Dr. Mary character. I knew that there were no [black people] on Frasier, but I saw that as a challenge.

“That just was the reality of the times … you usually were the only black person on a so-called ‘white’ show.”

The response to Dr. Mary was incredible, so we tried to get the Frasier people to do a spinoff. This was at the time Kelsey was about to do Girlfriends, so I knew he had to be open to black women being the lead [of a show]. The writer who wrote my two episodes on Frasier even won a diversity award because before that they didn’t have anyone like me on that show! But the spin-off never happened.

I do some stand-up and I have my own one-woman show. And I do a lot of speaking engagements for AARP and the American Heart Association. I tell my story and I try to inspire, motivate … and I get to be funny. I think there should be more black shows like black-ish. We have Shonda Rhimes, who is putting together these amazing series with these amazing black women at the helm. But I’m not waiting around for Hollywood to call me for jobs. Everything that I’m doing today keeps me fed until I’m able to get that free food. Because that’s the only reason to do a television show … it’s the free food [Laughs].


Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Miami

Throwback: Michael Hayes, Felicity

Currently working on: Nwannem: Sisters

Acting seemed kind of far-fetched. It wasn’t practical. But there was a show called Michael Hayes, which starred David Caruso. It was a detective series, like Miami Vice, and I played a drug dealer’s girlfriend. I was more concerned about my hair than how my peers would perceive me as an actor [laughs].

Thank God I don’t have to worry about that now, because today they have a lot of black hair stylists, but back then that wasn’t the case. So I showed up on set with my hair clean and washed and no makeup. And they would look at me like, “What happened to you?” This one white girl came to me with a pressing comb and she tried to comb my hair in the opposite direction, and I’m like, “No, no, no … the comb goes the other way.”

Cast of the show Felicity.

Getty Images

I don’t think I ever felt like Elena was this lone, token black character when I got the role for Felicity. As a black actress, that just was the reality of the times … you usually were the only black person on a so-called “white” show. When I met J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, who created the show, I actually thought they were assistants because they were so short and cute [Laughs]. I was talking to them like they were my peers … but they were really cool about it.

“When I went to audition for Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, I never thought of it as a derogatory, token role.”

What I was really concerned about was wanting Elena to come across as more than just Felicity’s black friend. It was important to me that you saw some of my character’s girlfriends from before she came to college. If you look back at some of the episodes of Felicity, you will see Elena’s backstory with her family and father. Whenever I made those suggestions, the producers actually followed through. I felt supported.

I didn’t realize how lucky we were until Felicity was over. It was an amazing, well-written show. J.J. is a genius. I wanted another meaty character that I could sink my teeth into … that I could be proud of, but I couldn’t find one. That’s one of the reasons why I started producing and making my own movies. Recently, I directed Diva Diaries. I’ve done Hurricane in the Rose Garden, My Girlfriend’s Back, Love … & Other 4 Letter Words. I’ve done like 10 or 12 films, mostly as a producer and actor. I love what I do.


Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: V.I.P.

Currently working on: Atone, The Zim

The first thing I did when I came out to Los Angeles was House Party, but the first television series I booked was a [1993] sitcom called Where I Live. It was a positive depiction of a young Caribbean family and young African-Americans from Harlem who were supportive of each other. It featured myself, Doug E. Doug and Flex Alexander. We were just starting our careers, and were so excited to be working as young actors. After the second season, when we didn’t get picked up, it was heartbreaking.

I was happy to be a part of Living Single. Kim Coles is incredibly gifted. Everybody from that show from [Queen] Latifah, T.C. Carson, and Kim Fields to Erika Alexander to John Henton were heavy hitters. The role I played, Russell, a West Indian music editor, was interesting, because my family is from Jamaica. I tapped into my own experiences. We were groundbreaking, positive, upwardly mobile, young African-Americans, men and women who were flawed individuals striving for friendship and love.

“The thought of becoming the first black actress on shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer never really occurred to me back then.”

But after that success, all of sudden these popular black series like Roc, In Living Color, Martin, and Living Single were getting canceled. Then you would see all of these white shows like Party of Five and Melrose Place pop up. I don’t know if it was strategic, but it did make us raise an eyebrow and ask, “Well, what happened to all those black shows?”

After Living, I had a meeting with Pamela Anderson for an action comedy called V.I.P. and she was transparent … about a lot of things pertaining to a role she had in mind for me. She told me, “You know why you’re here? You have a following … you have an audience.” Living Single helped me get on V.I.P.

The cast of V.I.P.

V.I.P. [1998-2002] was a huge action comedy series. When you’re minority on such a big show, having a support system is very important. I was very mindful of how I was being portrayed as a black man on V.I.P. But there was a situation that I had to deal with. A lot of times in the stunt world if they don’t think an African-American stunt person is not capable, they will actually [blackface] a non-African American. This would usually be a white person.

We were doing an episode where we were supposed to be circus performers, and they told me they couldn’t find any black circus people, but I knew they just didn’t want to spend the money. So I told them to take me out of the scene if they were going to use a painted-on stunt person. I knew the history of blackface. I understood how serious that was. I went to Pam and the producers and I said, “Not only am I offended, but the NAACP will be in here marching.” They wrote me out of the scene.

But looking back, I still feel fortunate to be part of a special time on television. I’m thankful because just to get one acting role back then was like hitting the lottery. But I had several: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, A Different World, Martin, Living Single, V.I.P. TV is powerful. A lot of times, black people are portrayed as savages. That’s why it’s important to see shows like Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar — that’s how we as artists make a difference.

Tristan Thompson: ‘Vince Carter was our Michael Jordan’ ‘The Carter Effect’ proves that without ‘Vinsanity’ there’s no Toronto basketball and no Drake

Many of us remember the high-flying, 6-foot-6 phenom who took the NBA by a storm that could only be known as “Vinsanity.” From his jaw-dropping dunks to his captivating energy, Vince Carter’s journey is one of epic proportions. And so much of it is captured in The Carter Effect.

The documentary, directed by Sean Menard and executive produced by LeBron James, catapults viewers back in time to explore how the eight-time NBA All-Star played a major role in solidifying the Toronto Raptors’ notoriety in the NBA and creating a basketball culture that put the city on the map.

Friday night, Uninterrupted teamed up with Beats by Dre for a screening of the film, followed by a panel discussion featuring Menard and executive producers Maverick Carter, Future The Prince and Tristan Thompson. Cleveland Cavaliers forward and Toronto native Thompson explained just how influential Carter was for both him and his city growing up.

“Vince was our Michael Jordan,” he said.

The film, which features Tracy McGrady, Thompson, Carter and Toronto native and rapper Drake (who is also one of the film’s executive producers), captures the intoxicating thrill Carter’s arrival brought to a hockey town whose basketball team was seen as a joke amid a league of popular teams in American cities.

Throughout the film, Carter discusses his arrival in Toronto, his legendary win in the 2000 slam dunk contest, his role in making the city a destination for athletes and celebrities and his heartbreaking departure. All of it is placed in the context of Toronto’s contributions to music, art and culture. The lesson: Carter is a large part of the reason that we take the city seriously today. Future The Prince truly drove that point home, telling the audience there might not be a Drake if Carter hadn’t come first.

“If you had told me 20 years ago that a half-white Jewish kid from Toronto who sings and raps would be as big as he is today,” he said. “I would say there’s no way.”

At Jordan Brand’s NBA All-Star pop-up? A working Interscope recording studio The space opens Friday and is laser-focused on the new youth culture

LOS ANGELES — If you want to cop some kicks, or lay down a hot 16-bar verse, then the Jordan Brand pop-up, called Studio 23, is the place to be during NBA All-Star Weekend 2018. Located just outside of downtown L.A. in Little Tokyo, the two-level space houses the freshest new Jordan products, as well as a music studio experience co-created with Interscope Records.

“M.J. [Michael Jordan] transcended the game of basketball into culture, into art, into music. That’s what this space is really about,” said Sarah Mensah, general manager of Jordan Brand North America. “As we look to set the higher standard of greatness, it’s about that intersection between that culture of the game of basketball and the culture of, in this case, L.A.”

The pop-up opens to the public on Friday, but Jordan has a few requirements to get in. Folks who RSVP’d through the app commonly used for the brand’s events can only enter with a valid middle school, high school or college ID. So don’t expect anybody’s moms or pops to be navigating the venue. This weekend, Jordan is dedicated to catering to the youth and embracing a new generation of the brand’s athletes, apparel and consumers.

Don’t expect anybody’s moms or pops to be navigating the venue.

In the entryway of the space hangs the official black-and-white All-Star Game jerseys, which, for the first time in NBA history — and since Nike officially launched Jordan Brand in 1997 — feature the Jumpman logo. The next room is home to a retail space, where creative customization is not only welcome but encouraged. On-site tailors and local artists are around to help tinker with the apparel: bomber jackets, hoodies, fanny packs and more.

It’s also hard to miss the “Recording In Session” sign that leads upstairs, where you’re greeted by the Jumpman logo next to the iconic Interscope “i” on the wall of an area that appears to be taken straight from the record label’s headquarters. Multiplatinum plaques, from Dr. Dre’s The Chronic to the Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, are mounted around two studios, where real live producers are there, and ready, to work on tracks for anyone bold enough to enter with a pad and pen.

Oh, and don’t forget about the sneakers. Jordan’s latest releases are on display and available for purchase, including Drake’s Air Jordan 8 OVOs (in two colorways, black and white), as well as both the “Black Cement” and “Free Throw Line” Air Jordan 3s.

“It was 30 years ago that MJ did that iconic dunk from the free-throw line. There’s that group of folks that understand what the ‘Free Throw Line 3’ is all about. But this space is not just about that,” Mensah said. “This space is about the current Jordan athletes we have. Folks like Russell Westbrook, the reigning MVP, Kemba Walker, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jimmy Butler. That’s the future generation, and it’s really on us to look to those guys to really lead the future and see the new standard for greatness.”

‘Black Panther’s’ superpower allows it to leap over other superhero movies in a single bound More than a cool-looking bit of escapism, it’s a meditation on colonialism

This review contains spoilers.

The most anticipated superhero movie of the year, and quite possibly ever, is a movie about foreign policy.

In Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler has crafted a thoughtful, personal, detailed exploration of the implications of isolationism and colonialism. It’s gorgeous, emotional and full of inventive, eye-popping fight scenes. And it’s also a really good movie, and not just by the curved standards we’ve developed for standard superhero tentpoles.

Honestly, the worst thing about Black Panther is that it had to be released in 2018 and not during the term of America’s first black president. (The producers of The Final Year, the documentary about former President Barack Obama’s real-life Justice League of Wonks and Nerds, must be kicking themselves.)

Try to imagine all the regal African pageantry of Black Panther’s Los Angeles premiere, copied and pasted onto the East Wing of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Had Black Panther been released while Obama was in office and enjoyed a screening at the White House, it would have made for some powerful symbolism, with Obama, the biracial son of a Kenyan graduate student, greeting Chadwick Boseman, the son of Howard University who plays T’Challa, the king of the movie’s mythical African nation of Wakanda. It also would have offered a lasting rebuke to the legacy of President Woodrow Wilson’s White House screening of a different and deadlier fantasy, The Birth of a Nation. (PBS recently aired Birth of a Movement, a documentary that illustrates the way film, particularly D.W. Griffith’s racist Klan propaganda film, became a powerful force in influencing policy.)

It’s quite moving, then, to consider the message embedded within Black Panther, spread through every inch of Hannah Beachler’s meticulously luscious production design, every stitch of Ruth E. Carter’s costuming creations, every word of dialogue conceived by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole.

The worst thing about Black Panther is that it had to be released in 2018 and not during the term of America’s first black president.

Boseman may be the titular star of Black Panther, but the emotional core of the movie lies with the character of Erik Killmonger, who is T’Challa’s cousin and a lost son of Wakanda. Coogler reserved the most complex role for his friend and leading man of his two most recent films, Michael B. Jordan.

Killmonger grew up in the slums of Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, with his American mother. His father, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), was brother to T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka (John Kani).

N’Jobu and T’Chaka had a fundamental disagreement over Wakanda’s role in the world. The country is a magical one, built on a foundation of the mythical substance vibranium, and hidden in plain sight in West Africa. Vibranium is a substance of endless capability, a wonder of physics that absorbs the energy directed toward it, then uses it as fuel. When ingested, it possesses healing qualities, rendering surgery obsolete. When sewn into clothes, it turns into the sort of lightweight supersuit that Tony Stark could only dream of. Used as fertilizer, it nurtures a herb whose fruit allows those who ingest it to commune with the dead. To outsiders, Wakanda looks like an underdeveloped Third World nation, full of brush and goats. The people of Wakanda have pledged to guard its most closely held secret: that with technology powered by vibranium, it’s actually the most advanced society in the world, a place that makes Elon Musk’s house look like little more than a fancy pigsty.

There’s a compelling argument for keeping Wakanda, which accepts no foreign aid and does no importing or exporting, isolated from the rest of the world. Its people have witnessed how colonialism has ravaged the continent, stealing people and dividing families, poaching precious metals and natural resources, creating arbitrary borders and deadly conflicts and leaving corrupt governments in its wake.

In fact, in the rare instances when they encounter white people, Wakandans simply refer to them as “colonizers.”

But N’Jobu, dispatched to see the rest of the globe, encounters a world full of disenfranchised people who look like him, ignorant of the bounty of Wakanda and struggling against the effects of imperialism and systemic racism. He wants to use vibranium to help them. But T’Chaka says no, worried that once the world learns of Wakanda’s secret, it will suffer the fate of the rest of colonized Africa. At the least, Wakanda will be forced to defend itself against ill-intentioned and well-armed outsiders. When N’Jobu decides to subvert his brother’s orders, T’Chaka is forced to kill him, and little Erik discovers his father’s corpse.

About 20 years later, after the U.S. military and intelligence community has turned him into an efficient, merciless, death machine, Killmonger sets out to complete his father’s vision.

It’s too simplistic, and frankly unfair, to label Killmonger simply as a villain. He’s an angry, half-orphaned son of Wakanda whose mind has been colonized in ways he’s incapable of realizing. Without the support of his homeland and his people, lacking the spiritual grounding that protects vibranium and Wakanda, Killmonger grows into a Che Guevara-like figure. He commits what French philosopher Frantz Fanon called “horizontal violence” against his own people.

Therein lies the brilliance of Black Panther. Superhero movies don’t have to be plotless monuments to excess and violence. With this film, Coogler illustrates the yawning expanse between self-indulgent brooding and true profundity.

Coogler puts on a filmmaking clinic, expertly navigating the tropes of superhero films that have made so many of them a chore instead of a joy. Coogler snatched one of Zack Snyder’s (300, Watchmen, Man of Steel) most irritating directorial habits, shooting action and fight scenes in the dark, and made it not just watchable but artful. That’s what happens when you have cinematographer Rachel Morrison at your service — you find natural ways to capture black people in action while retaining detail and color. Morrison recently became the first woman to be nominated for a cinematography Oscar for her work on Mudbound.

Superhero movies don’t have to be plotless monuments to excess and violence.

There is little that feels derivative, aside from the battle scenes with Wakanda’s flying saucers, which feel like they could easily appear in Guardians of the Ragnarok Star Wars, which isn’t wholly surprising given that they’re all Disney properties (full disclosure: Disney owns The Undefeated). The fight scenes in Black Panther feel original, and organic to the film. That’s a challenge considering how often Marvel employs the same second unit (the people who shoot and choreograph fight scenes) across its movies, which leads to a superhero battle homogeneity.

Everything about Wakanda is rooted in real African nations and peoples, such as the Masai, the Zulu, the Mursi and others, not the imagined “generic tribal African” who shows up in pop culture so often. For instance, the setting of the challenge battle, which determines who will ascend to the throne, is a nod to the natural majesty of Victoria Falls. Audiences have every right to be angry at cultural appropriation when it’s poorly done. Coogler and Black Panther prove that having such expectations is not unreasonable or misplaced.

There’s a quote from playwright and director George C. Wolfe that graces the walls of the Blacksonian in Washington. “God created black people,” said Wolfe, “and black people created style.”

That’s the essence of Wakanda.

Black Panther doesn’t feel like any other Marvel movie because this is not a typical Marvel movie. It’s coming out in the middle of Black History Month, and it’s on track to perform just as well as if not better than any highly anticipated summer blockbuster. It’s funny without falling into the sort of smart-aleck remark-smart-aleck remark-EXPLOSION rhythms that have come to typify Marvel movies to the point that somehow Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 don’t feel all that different. That’s not just a Marvel tic, that’s a Hollywood tic: Find something that works and then run it into the ground. Then reboot it, rebrand it and spin it off as long as it makes gobs and gobs of cash.

There is a requisite scene that connects the film to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s a postscript that comes after the credits roll. It’s the only bit that feels like it was mandated by the company. Best of all, Black Panther doesn’t feel as though Coogler had to sacrifice the brilliance and introspection that characterized his earlier movies such as Creed and Fruitvale Station for scale and product licensing. Instead, it’s a compelling character study and full of mirth. That’s especially thanks to T’Challa’s upstart younger sister, Shuri, played by Guyanese actress Letitia Wright, Black Panther’s breakout actress. She’s witty, charming and completely unfazed by her brother’s enormous power and responsibility. She’s also Wakanda’s whip-smart gadget mistress, the Q to T’Challa’s Bond. Also notable are the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s elite, all-female corps charged with guarding the king. Remember the feeling that swelled from your gut to your heart and out your eyeballs while watching Diana Prince walk through No Man’s Land in Wonder Woman? Witnessing the Dora Milaje, especially any scene that includes Okoye (Danai Gurira) or Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is like that, times 10.

At some point, I suspect that chatter surrounding Black Panther will turn to the 2019 Oscars. Black Panther’s masterful execution makes it an undeniably obvious choice. Not only does it have the revelatory newness of Avatar, but it actually has a story to back it up too.

But beyond the concerns of awards or box-office receipts, Black Panther is something special: thoroughly African and yet completely American, and evidence of just how much black people can and have yet to do. Perhaps it’s even capable, just as The Birth of a Nation once was, of helping to steer an entire national conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to Super Bowl: NFL wants to leave lasting legacies in communities through outreach Check out a few highlights that positively impacted the Minneapolis-St. Paul area

Beyond the chilly Minneapolis temperatures, the highly anticipated gridiron showdown, the electrifying halftime performance and the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy, there were a plethora of community service events surrounding Super Bowl LII, as is the case each year.

Sunday’s season-ending celebration closed with a 41-33 win for the Philadelphia Eagles over the New England Patriots. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area saw 32 activities and community outreach events throughout the city, which was part of the NFL’s plan to leave a lasting legacy.

For example, Special Olympics Minnesota partnered with the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee to host a Polar Plunge, a signature winter event centered on participants jumping into a body of icy water and raising funds to support more than 8,200 people with intellectual disabilities across the state.

But there’s more.

Out of the 32 announced events that took place in Minneapolis during Super Bowl LII weekend and the weeks leading up to the big day, here are a few community outreach events of note.


Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee partnered with the Downtown Congregations to kick off Super Bowl week with an interfaith gathering to celebrate unity and shared purpose. The gathering was held at Westminster Presbyterian Church. The celebration showcased Minnesota’s national leadership in multifaith dialogue and cooperation and will raise money to prevent homelessness. The event is the work of the Twin Cities faith community — rabbis, priests, pastors, imams and other leaders — coming together to send a message about unity in the Twin Cities.


The NFL Foundation and Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee Legacy Fund hosted a special character development event for local Minnesota High School athletic directors and their respective head football coach and female coach of influence at the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine.


The NFL and Special Olympics Minnesota hosted a Special Olympics Unified Flag Football game.


The Pro Football Hall of Fame showcased more than 130 artifacts during the week. The one-of-a-kind treasures allowed the Hall to convey the NFL’s 98-year history since the league’s birth in Canton, Ohio, in 1920.


Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis was the site of Super Bowl LIVE, a 10-day fan festival leading up to Super Bowl LII curated by Grammy-winning producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The event, free and open to the public, encompassed six blocks on Nicollet Mall and featured food and fun. Highlights included an evening of music honoring Prince.


Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, along with Diane Sims Page, executive director of the Page Education Foundation, presented TESTIFY, a preview of their collection of Americana from slavery to today. The wide-ranging exhibit features art and artifacts from pivotal eras in American history while providing a platform for visitors to share their thoughts, feelings and personal experiences.


The NFL hosted NFL PLAY 60 Character Camp, a free event on the field at Super Bowl Experience Driven by Genesis at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The event included 300 predominantly Hispanic youths from the Minnesota area. The noncontact football camp was led by Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle Anthony Munoz.


As part of Salute to Service, the NFL invited veterans, active-duty servicemen and women and their families to Military Appreciation Day. The NFL is working with its military nonprofit partners, including Wounded Warrior Project, to invite attendees. The event included football-themed activities, meet-and-greets and a special “Thank You” moment for all service members.


Children from the Minneapolis area participated and learned more about the importance of healthy living at the NFL PLAY 60 Kids’ Day, which gives more than 1,000 local children the opportunity to spend time with NFL players.


The NFL and the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee hosted the Super Bowl LII Business Connect: Celebrating Opportunities, Teamwork & Success, spotlighting the accomplishments of Super Bowl LII Business Connect suppliers and local businesses that have grown and thrived under the tutelage of the program’s professional development initiatives and, acknowledging NFL event contractors who’ve aggressively used the program, awarding contract opportunities to the vendors in the program. More than 350 Minnesota businesses in 40 vendor categories participated in the 18-month Business Connect program, which identifies Super Bowl LII contracting opportunities and matches those contracts with experienced, local diverse business owners in the program. To qualify for participation in Business Connect, businesses must be 51 percent owned by a minority, woman, veteran, lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender individual. The Business Connect Celebration is a ticketed event for participating business owners.


The NFL Player Care Foundation (PCF) and the NFL Alumni Association (NFLA) partnered to conduct their annual Super Bowl Healthy Body and Mind Screening program. This complimentary national program is open to all former NFL players and includes cardiovascular and prostate screenings and mental health resources and education. Comprehensive blood testing will be offered to the wives and significant others who accompany former player screening participants and are being provided by NFLA free of charge.


The NFL seeks to improve the surrounding communities of the Super Bowl host city with the Super Bowl Legacy Grant Program, made possible each year by a $1 million contribution from the NFL Foundation and matched by the Super Bowl Host Committee. This year, the NFL and Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee’s grants are focused on improving access and creating healthy behaviors for a lifetime, whether it’s access to physical activity or nutritious food. To build a healthier, more active, life-changing future for all of Minnesota’s children, the Super Bowl Legacy Fund’s strategic areas of giving are fun, fuel and fundamentals.

As a culmination of their 52 Weeks of Giving Campaign, the yearlong effort to award 52 Minnesota communities with grants leading up to the big game, NFL and Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee executives awarded the 52nd and final Super Bowl Legacy Grant to Anwatin Middle School.


Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee Legacy Fund 52 Weeks of Giving Campaign 52 Weeks of Giving is a yearlong community giving campaign to ensure that hosting the big game will leave a lasting legacy for Minnesota’s children.

Each week, for 52 weeks, the Legacy Fund provides a capital grant to a community organization in Minnesota that is committed to improving the health and wellness of children. The grants help improve access to nutritious food and physical activity and create healthy behaviors in Minnesota’s youths.


For the past 23 years, Rebuilding Together has partnered with the NFL to host community revitalization projects in Super Bowl cities across the country. These NFL-sanctioned events provide critical home repairs for people in need and their communities.

Rebuilding Together Twin Cities hosted a community revitalization project to rehabilitate six homes and develop a community garden in the Bryant neighborhood of South Minneapolis. The community garden will give neighbors access to fresh produce, which is extremely limited in the area, and offer residents opportunities to connect with their neighborhood.

Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson bring ‘2 Dope Queens’ to HBO The popular podcast is now a four-part comedy special

The first thing you realize while watching the 2 Dope Queens HBO special is that Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, the aforementioned dope queens, would be perfect at hosting the Golden Globes.

In a television adaptation of their popular 4-year-old WNYC podcast, Williams and Robinson display a familiar, wisecracking comedy that made Tina Fey and Amy Poehler so enjoyable for the three years they hosted Hollywood’s annual alcohol-soaked tribute to arbitrary awards. It’s the magnetism that comes from watching two girlfriends hold court and have a good time while wishing you were cool enough to join the party.

Now, under the direction of comic Tig Notaro (a recent guest on the podcast), 2 Dope Queens has been turned into a series of four one-hour comedy specials. The first one airs at 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 2. Each episode is a variety show built around a theme: blerds, New York, hair (because: black) and “hot peen” (because: alive). In each one, Williams and Robinson kick it for a bit, introduce a comic who does a stand-up set, then interview their celebrity guests before closing with another comic.

Robinson’s been performing stand-up comedy for 10 years and also solo-hosts another WNYC interview podcast called Sooo Many White Dudes, in which her guests are mostly anything but. Williams is best known as a former Daily Show correspondent (her old boss, Jon Stewart, makes an appearance on 2 Dope Queens), and lately she’s been throwing herself into acting. She recently released her second film with writer/director Jim Strouse, and the pair are working on a comedy series for Showtime.

Should they get the call (Dear Golden Globes producers, have some sense and enlist these two already), Robinson’s already thought of the celebrities she’d like to participate in their comedy bits. Oprah (“Because she’s amazing and delightful and she’s truly funny and she has a great personality”), former President Barack Obama (“He would be like, ‘Are you asking me to do a bit for the Golden Globes? I’m like, busy.’ ”) and Jack Nicholson (“I know you’re like semi-retired, but would you do something completely nuts with me? I think he would be like, ‘Sure.’ ”).

Robinson, 33, and Williams, 28, weren’t close friends when they originally began hosting the 2 Dope Queens podcast. Listeners witnessed their chemistry develop in real time as they’ve attended Billy Joel concerts and AfroPunk together. The result is a duo who shimmy and yaaaaaaaaasssssss their affirmations to each other and everyone they interview. In the case of the specials, that includes Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black), Sarah Jessica Parker (Divorce) and Stewart.

“Minorities and people of color, we’re usually supporting characters in other people’s narratives, and so we try to give people a platform to be the star of their own narrative.”

“We were becoming friends as we were working together,” Robinson said by phone recently. “Like any sort of intimate relationship, we’ve learned what works for us, what doesn’t. It’s a really cool process to balance the friendship with working together.”

Both had some advice for new residents of New York, with Williams sounding like Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw giving a clinic to singletons.

“You’re not finding the peen-age? Just walk outside and do exactly what it is that you want to do and go explore your interests,” she said by phone. “Like, go to a SZA concert or a pottery class. … Just go do that and I think you’ll run into some hot sausage.”

Robinson, on the other hand, admitted to being more in the camp of the blind leading the blind.

“If I knew [where to find it], I wouldn’t talk about it as much as I do,” Robinson said. “I’m lucky that I have a boyfriend and I’m off the streets, because I was truly a nightmare. I’m not good at flirting. I think it’s good to travel in packs with your lady friends. You need that line of defense.”

Robinson and Williams curated an eclectic collection of guest comedians for their HBO specials, some of whom, like Michelle Buteau and Aparna Nancherla, may be familiar if you watched Wyatt Cenac’s Night Train series for the now-defunct streaming service Seeso. And like Night Train, 2 Dope Queens relies heavily, and deliberately, on minority comics. Other guests include Baron Vaughn, Sheng Wang and Naomi Ekperigin. Amy Aniobi, a writer and producer on Insecure, served as executive producer.

“We always try to make sure we have stand-up, storytellers or celebrity guests that are … a woman or a person of color or a member of the LGBT community,” Williams said. “Oftentimes, minorities and people of color, we’re usually supporting characters in other people’s narratives, and so we try to give people a platform to be the star of their own narrative. It’s inherently built into the show.”

The specials, which were shot in Brooklyn, New York’s, Kings Theatre, are set against the backdrop of a typical New York rooftop, complete with string lights, a grill and crates that double as seating. Both women said that working with Notaro, who recently wrote and starred in the Amazon series One Mississippi, was pivotal to the show’s success.

“Even when women are the stars of their comedy specials, they still have men directing them,” Robinson said. “I really wanted to have a woman directing ours. … I learned so much from her. She’s a great leader. There’s no drama. She comes in, she does the work and she makes it really fun. Every time we had a meeting, my stomach would be hurting because she’d be making me laugh.”

DJ Jazzy Jeff, The Fresh Prince and a Grammy boycott that set the tone for three more decades of rap — and culture ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’ was the first hip-hop song ever nominated for a Grammy


It was 1989. The scene: Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium. The host: Billy Crystal, who then was starring in films such as Memories of Me and When Harry Met Sally. The event was the 31st Annual Grammy Awards. George H.W. Bush had recently been sworn in as president of the United States, and the Gulf War would soon be looming. In the last year of the 1980s, pop ruled the Billboard charts but hip-hop continued its rise in sales and its impact on culture. Pioneers such as Public Enemy, Heavy D, 2 Live Crew, The Beastie Boys, Queen Latifah, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul, Special Ed, 3rd Bass, Boogie Down Productions and more were changing music and the music industry.

That night though: Bobby McFerrin, would-be 10-time Grammy winner, won song of the year and record of the year for “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” The song was McFerrin’s only No. 1 hit and had a layer of controversy attached, as it had been used by the Bush presidential campaign in 1988 without the permission of McFerrin. In protest, McFerrin for years removed the song from his concert set lists. The televised broadcast of the Grammys also featured what would become a legendary performance by Whitney Houston — she sang her “One Moment in Time” against a montage backdrop from Team USA highlights of the ’88 Olympics.

But it’s what didn’t happen during the televised broadcast of the 31st Grammy Awards that made the 1989 event even more memorable. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, aka Jeff Townes and Will Smith, who had been nominated for the first-ever best rap performance Grammy for their hit crossover single “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” were not there to pick up their award. When it had been decided that the only rap award would be announced during the nontelevised portion of the show, hip-hop had its own decisions to make. “We chose to boycott,” Smith said at the time. He called the idea of the afternoon award a “slap in the face. … You go to school for 12 years, they give you your diploma and they deny you that walk down the aisle.”

Besides Jeff and Will, the other first rap Grammy nominees were:

All of these songs had been released one, two or, in the case of “Push It,” even three years before. Hip-hop by 1989 was going through a transformation. The anger was no longer mostly underground but rather more out front. Public Enemy would release its critically acclaimed Fear of a Black Planet in 1990, and the cracks in the foundation of revolutionary supergroup N.W.A. were beginning to show.

DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince were in a playful, more mainstream rap lane that included MC Hammer and his diamond 1990 Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” peaked at No. 12 on Billboard’s pop singles chart, but it was the building momentum that DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince saw on one of their first big tours that cemented for the West Philly duo what everyone else was seeing. “We were on the road, so we had no idea how the record was doing on the radio,” Jazzy Jeff said in Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique: Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. “I remember one night … Will did the first verse and then did the first line of the second verse, but told the crowd to finish it. And I thought, Oh, no, this could be the biggest disaster in the world! But … 20,000 people finished the verse.”

Rap was still considered a fringe force, fighting not only for its place at the Grammy Awards but also for acceptance as a respected musical genre.

MC Hammer’s massive sales numbers, though, were the exception at the time for hip-hop, not the rule. Rap was still considered a fringe force, fighting not only for its place at the Grammy Awards but also for acceptance as a respected musical genre. It was just that fight and the almost constant controversy surrounding hip-hop that fueled its ascent to being the most popular musical genre in the world.

The news started out great. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) had announced that rap would have its own official category. “The excitement was through the roof,” said Jazzy Jeff. “It was validation for the culture.” But when the news quickly turned bittersweet, Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen of Def Jam Recordings led a boycott of the 1989 Grammys. Joining them were the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff along with Salt-N-Pepa, Public Enemy, Ice-T and others. Def Jam spokesman Bill Adler’s press release said that NARAS was “ghetto-izing” rap. The boycotting group even held a “Boycott the Grammys” party on the night of the broadcast.

The show wasn’t an all-out rap boycott, however. JJ Fad attended, as did Kool Moe Dee, who presented the embattled best rap performance award at the pre-show, saying, “On behalf of all MCs, my co-workers and fellow nominees — Jazzy Jeff, J.J. Fad, Salt-N-Pepa and the boy who’s bad — we personify power and a drug-free mind, and we express ourselves through rhythm and rhyme. So I think it’s time that the whole world knows rap is here to stay.”

The “boy who’s bad” refers to his rival LL Cool J. Years later, Moe Dee told The New York Times that he believed a better strategy than boycotting would have been for all the artists to show up and “make our case in that space where the world was watching.” Except, of course, that world wouldn’t have been watching the nontelevised version of the show.

One person who did agree with the boycott and believed it ultimately helped the duo cement their place in hip-hop was one of the producers of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” Ruffhouse Records founder Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo. “It was important to make that stand,” said Nicolo. “I actually thought it would help them. They weren’t bowing down to the Grammy gods, and people respect you for that.”

Not even a Grammy slight could take the shine off “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince perform onstage at Nassau Coliseum on August 12, 1988 in Uniondale, New York.

Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Also supporting the boycott was DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s A&R representative at the time, “Tokyo Rose,” aka Ann Carli. “I supported the boycott,” recalled Carli. “Jive Records was always very supportive of artists.”

The stance taken by Smith and Townes in 1989 is difficult to imagine now. At the 58th Grammy Awards in 2016, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was nominated for album of the year. And while the album didn’t win, it was a reminder that rap music is no longer a fringe genre but rather the most important and influential music in the world. But for every Kendrick moment, there is another example where what Smith, Townes and others fought for seems to be all but forgotten — like at the 57th Grammy Awards in 2015, where no rap awards were presented on the televised broadcast for the first time in 25 years.

Looking back on the protest in 2016, Jazzy Jeff (at this point with four Grammy nominations and two wins) said he felt that he and Smith (at this point with eight Grammy nominations and four wins) represented the culture well and ultimately had an impact. “We … were very, very young and thrust into a position with the eyes of the world on us,” he said. “And to see somebody like Kendrick … it just makes you proud.”

Not even a Grammy slight could take the shine off “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Its success, and how it sparked the duo’s careers and the meteoric rise of Smith as a Hollywood heavyweight, is stunning. Carli recalled shooting the video for the single, which was done in one 18-hour shoot, and then watching the footage with director Scott Kalvert.

“Holy crap, the camera loves [this kid],” Carli remembers saying. “He’s so incredibly expressive, and he’s selling the story. I called my boss and I said … ‘You know, this kid is going to be a movie star. I think he can be as big as Eddie Murphy.’ ” Carli then proceeded to call Simmons, who managed the duo at the time, to share her feelings about the budding star. Famously, Simmons told Carli that he might be as big as Malcolm-Jamal Warner, but not Eddie Murphy.

Except for Lil Yachty as someone who presents a similar youthful, colorful vibe, Carli doesn’t see many who compare to DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince in today’s current rap climate. “They had a real love and understanding of the genre,” said Carli. “These young rappers don’t seem to have a knowledge and appreciation for the history and the shoulders they’re standing on. … Still to this day, Will is where he is because of his self-confidence, talent and, as Quincy Jones would say, his ‘ass power’… he sticks in the chair until it’s done.”

But as the 60th Grammy Awards approach, the best rap performance award features a class of nominees who each represent something special and also build on the foundation of what DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and their peers did three decades ago:

  • Kendrick Lamar: The collective spirit of the West Coast
  • Jay-Z: A connection to four different decades of rap
  • Migos: The youthful spirit of the genre today
  • Big Sean: The holding of lyrics in high regard
  • Cardi B: A new rap superstar

Live from Sundance: Tonya Lewis Lee on why she created a ‘Monster’  The producer — and wife of the iconic Spike Lee — has the hottest film the nation’s largest film festival

PARK CITY, UTAH — Tomorrow is a big day for Tonya Lewis Lee and her team: the January 22 premiere of Monster happens at the Sundance Film Festival, and it’s one of the most anticipated films in Park City. That makes her nervous — “It’s like [people] haven’t seen the movie yet! How do [they] know?!” — but it most certainly also makes her feel good.

Monster is a film that she’s been hoping to get made for a dozen years. There have been a bunch of starts and stops and finally, here we are. The cast is stellar: Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, A$AP Rocky, Nas and Kelvin Harrison Jr. are all part of the film, and it’s helmed by Anthony Mandler in his directorial debut. Mandler is best known for his frequent video collaborations with with Rihanna, and has also collaborated on video projects with Jay Z, Beyoncé, Usher, and Lana Del Ray, among many others. The script is based on the novel of the same name by Walter Dean Myers, and was written for the screen by by Hampton University’s own Cole C. Wiley and award-winning playwright Janece Shaffer.

And the film’s concept feels very ripped from today’s headlines.

“Maybe we can change the way kids are locked up. Maybe we can change the over-sentencing of juveniles. We had to stay with it and make it happen.”

“It’s about a 17-year-old black boy who makes one bad decision and is looking at, potentially, his life being thrown away forever,” Lewis Lee says, while sitting in a Park City gallery, one of the many spaces brands have taken over for the duration of the festival. “For me, I have children and I have a boy and when I read the book I was so moved. It’s so creatively written … I fell in love with it.” This was a chance to tell a story that we don’t often see on film.

Monster is an opportunity to contribute a dramatic story about a brown boy coming of age that could impact not only the way people look at brown boys, but potentially our criminal justice system,” says Lee. “Maybe we can change the way kids are locked up. Maybe we can change the over-sentencing of juveniles. We had to stay with it and make it happen.”

This project — her Tonik Productions teamed with John Legend’s Get Lifted Film Co. and Bron Studios to produce this drama — is in line with the mission-driven work she adores. “And I’m unapologetic about that,” Lewis Lee says. “I am blessed to be in a position to create content and media. I feel a real responsibility to create something that moves the human condition forward in a positive way. I hope in the work that I do, it’s entertaining, but that we’re getting messages out there to impact our world and make it better.”

Toward the back of the gallery space is a makeshift photo studio, and people like director Anthony Hemingway are coming in for portraits. This year, the festival has a record 39 projects that either feature black people as the first, second or third lead, has a black director, black producers or black writers. This is a moment and everyone here is buzzing about it.

“When Spike started making movies…he was like if I’m getting through the door, I’m bringing a whole lot of people with me. And he’s done that. And those people have brought people.”

Lewis Lee, who is married to iconic director Spike Lee, is happy that there’s much to celebrate in Black Hollywood these days. But, she cautions, there’s still so much more work to do. “When Spike started making movies, there weren’t that many people out there doing it. To his credit, he was like if I’m getting through the door, I’m bringing a whole lot of people with me,” she says. “And he’s done that. And those people have brought people. So here we are now in a moment where young people can look to my husband and his colleagues and say, Oh My God! If they can do that, I can do that.” She says that people are seeing now that there is a path.

“I look at people like Issa Rae … going back to Spike, Issa will tell you the ’90s formed who she is…to how she can be here. I look at Justin Simien (creator of Dear White People) — that’s a direct line. In terms of women and black people, we have come a long way. We have a long way to go, but it’s exciting to get our voices out there and tell our stories.”

And the stories are robust. Many of the black projects being shown at Sundance this season tap into racism — however nuanced or overt — and the current political climate. “I think we’re trying to grapple with the issues of our time,” says Lewis Lee, who next is working on a film about the Fisk Jubilee Singers. “John Legend said, ‘preparation meets opportunity.’ And we are prepared. And we’re getting a chance to talk about the issues of our time in a really wonderful way.”