Major Key: Keegan-Michael Key is busting out all over  From ‘Dolemite’ to ‘Lion King’ to this weekend’s ‘Playing with Fire,’ he’s everywhere

Keegan-Michael Key is laughing. Hard. The kind of laugh that makes you want to join in because whatever it is he finds so funny, surely you will, too.

Key says he dreamed his whole entire life of being Billy Sims or Lynn Swann, but never got a chance to play football. So the idea that he garners fanboy love from NFL stars — including Von Miller and Michael Bennett — well, it tickles him.

See, about seven years ago Key — along with his then-comedic partner Jordan Peele — created what’s become a timeless funny take on the sometimes Afrocentric and other times simply creative names that some black football players may have for their Key & Peele show on Comedy Central. That sketch has nearly 53 million views on YouTube alone and one of the characters, Hingle McCringleberry, had made numerous “live” appearances.

And years later, it sticks.

“It is surreal to have these young men know me … my work is the closest I can get to emulate being an athlete,” Key said. “So there’s this really wonderful kind of synergy, this imaginistic — Made up that word! — this imaginistic synergy that I get to have with the players. And they all have really wonderful, rich senses of huge potential. Yes, for lack of a better way of putting it, yes, they do. They fanboy.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (left) and Keegan-Michael Key (right) pose for a picture at the opening of NFL Experience Times Square in New York on Nov. 30, 2017.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

But perhaps — just perhaps — they’re also taken by the growth in Key’s visibility in Hollywood? Because four years after Key & Peele went off the air, he’s everywhere. Sometimes he’s the funny guy as in Playing With Fire, which stars former wrestler John Cena and opens on Friday. And sometimes he plays it straight, as he does as playwright Jerry Jones in Netflix’s much-lauded Dolemite Is My Name.

Or is it his voice work? This past summer he voiced one of those menacing hyenas in Disney’s $1.65 billion blockbuster The Lion King. He also voiced Ducky in Toy Story 4, which has topped $1 billion at the box office.

Point is, Key, 48, is killing it.

“I think the ship is starting to turn a little bit,” he said. “A career is not like a little tiny sailboat, it’s a big aircraft carrier, so it takes a while to kind of start moving in different directions. But I believe it. I believe that people are starting to view me that way.

“I think that a hundred percent people are starting to see it. I’m playing the emotional fulcrum and the kind of solid, strong, straight man role in this musical [The Prom] I’m about to shoot with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman and James Cordon. That’s being directed by Ryan Murphy, which is going to be one of the biggest things I’ve ever done in my career.”

He takes a pause and lets it sink in. Because that’s major.

“I am overwhelmingly excited about it. And I’ve seen that there’s a little shift in the way I’ve been cast and that’s all very intentional,” he said. “When I first met my wife [actress, producer and director Elisa Pugliese] and before we were married, we worked together. Key & Peele was finishing. She said to me, ‘What is it that you’d like to do next? And if you had no barriers, if there’s no story about why you couldn’t do what you wanted to do, what would you want to do?’ ”

The answer was serious drama, maybe even Shakespeare, and action movies like the Jason Bourne series. “That’s what I want to do. There was a very precise direction that the team can focus on that. And we’ve been doing that for like the last two years.”

Key says he’s blessed that there’s been a steady stream of work. He’s juggling a lot.

He’s in postproduction for the films Jingle Jangle (which also stars Forest Whitaker and Phylicia Rashad), All The Bright Places (which stars Elle Fanning, Alexandra Shipp and Luke Wilson) and the highly anticipated stop-motion feature Wendell and Wild, which re-teams him with Peele, now an Oscar winner and one of the most talked about genre-shifting creatives in the industry. And if that’s not enough, Key also is working on a pair of TV hosting gigs. Up first is National Geographic’s Brain Games reboot, which premieres Dec. 1.

“It’s been a very focused thing that requires quite a lot of maintenance,” he said. “The biggest challenge is believing in yourself, because there are days when you have to go, ‘Oh, God, I could absolutely really slay this role. I feel like I could just kill this role!’ But it doesn’t serve my needs, it doesn’t serve my goals.

“So sometimes you get three or four projects come down the pipe and you go, ‘Ugh, it’s all broad, slapstick comedy.’ And you know that you could sit in your lane and be comfortable and really make people laugh really hard at that,” he said. “But you’re not stretching, you’re not moving, you’re not growing, not evolving. So sometimes there’s that sting when you say, ‘No, no, I’m going to better myself. … I’m going to say no to this project.’ You say no a few times … as you tried to disseminate the information about your wants and needs, people start to move in that direction with you. They kind of fall into the current, but that challenge is real and significant.”

Keegan-Michael Key attends the Los Angeles premiere of Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name at Regency Village Theatre on Sept. 28 in Westwood, California.

Rachel Luna/FilmMagic via Getty Images

He knows that most people see him as a sketch comedian. But just as sure as he’s challenging himself to evolve, he wants to challenge his viewership to join in that transformation as well.

“You get nervous that the only offers that are going to come are going to be the same. If I don’t take them, everyone’s going to stop asking and no one’s going to come back and no one’s going to come calling. And you have to face those fears. You have to take a deep breath and say, ‘There’s something that I want. There’s a desire that I have. What are the steps I need to take to achieve that desire?’ ”

Key pauses again. He’s connecting the dots of his career trajectory.

“I think it’s very serendipitous to have been in a project like Dolemite, because Rudy Ray Moore, the whole movie is pretty much a treatise on perseverance and not giving up on your dream,” he said of the game-changing comedian and his life story. “I have to say frankly it’s inspired me.”

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

Friend or Foe: What’s behind Jay-Z’s surprising partnership with the NFL There are a million and one questions about the new alliance. The answers are a combination of money, power and the movement.

It could be just one. Or, more probably, it’s a combination of all four. Jay-Z’s history tells us that the reasons behind the partnership between the NFL and rap’s first billionaire likely revolve around money, power and the movement. And the potential to become the NFL’s first black owner.

For the past decade, the NFL has been at the epicenter of the definitive culture war in sports, from concussions and CTE research to domestic violence, as well as issues of social justice dramatized by exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick. For the NFL, the cost-benefit analysis of this arrangement is clear. The league brings in one of the most famous celebrities of the past half-century who has donated time, money and attention to some of the very topics on which the NFL is accused of being tone-deaf. The league needs to recover its cultural cachet, and a big part of that means reaching out to black fans, at least some of whom swore off the game after Kaepernick’s exile.

Wednesday’s news conference at Roc Nation’s New York headquarters grew out of talks that began in January between Jay, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. (Kaepernick and former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid reached a settlement with the NFL over their collusion grievances a month later for a reported $10 million.) Roc Nation’s partnership with the NFL is set to include entertainment consultation, which includes helping curate the Super Bowl’s halftime show. But, according to Jay, the kicker was the ability to bolster the league’s Inspire Change program through a variety of avenues, including “Songs of the Season” that will entail inspirational songs from a handful of artists played during television broadcasts and “Beyond the Field,” which will feature voices and perspectives of NFL players on a multitude of topics.

Responding to questions about whether this partnership negates his previous support for Kaepernick, who still doesn’t have a job in the NFL, Jay said that it was about figuring out the next step. “I think we’ve moved past kneeling, and I think it’s time to go into actionable items.”

He continued: “No, I don’t want people to stop protesting at all. Kneeling, I know we’re stuck on it because it’s a real thing, but kneeling is a form of protest. I support protest across the board. … I’m not minimizing that part of it because that has to happen, that’s a necessary part of the process. But now that we all know what’s going on, what are we going to do? How are we going to stop it? Because the kneeling was not about a job, it was about injustice.”

Colin Kaepernick onstage at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Award Ceremony at Harvard University on Oct. 11, 2018, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images

It’s impossible to say it’s not about money too. Jay’s career is a case study in the pursuit of wealth. Being broke is childish, he quipped on 1997’s “I Love The Dough” alongside The Notorious B.I.G., and I’m quite grown. On “Imaginary Player,” he raps, You beer money, I’m all year money. Two billionaire conglomerates don’t come together without a return on investment. Morally, sure. Hopefully. But financially, absolutely.

The deal gives Jay the power to program annually the most watched concert in the country and one of the last remaining mass-market entertainment experiences of any kind. Roc Nation will co-produce and consult on entertainment presentations, but it boils down to one real production: the Super Bowl halftime show. In a world where the internet has all but eliminated the concept of must-see viewing, the Super Bowl draws hundreds of millions of people to a live broadcast. But it’s also a moment that, especially for black artists, has become a picket line of sorts. A considerable amount of the backlash against Jay thus far has focused on the perceived hypocrisy over his criticism of Travis Scott’s decision to perform at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta this year.

Jay said Wednesday that Kaepernick wasn’t the rationale for his criticism of Scott. “My problem is [Travis] had the biggest year to me last year and he’s playing on a stage that had a M on it,” Jay said, referring to Maroon 5, the headline performer. “I didn’t see any reason for him to play second fiddle to anyone that year, and that was my argument.”

And while some are uneasy seeing Jay pictured laughing with Goodell, it’s not exactly the first time Jay’s been before the court of public opinion’s firing squad.

Damon Dash (left) and Jay-Z (right) during Dash’s birthday party on May 4, 2004, at La Bodega in New York.

Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

From Roc-A-Fella Records’ demise and his split with its CEO, Damon Dash, to activist Harry Belafonte questioning Jay and Beyoncé’s commitment to social responsibility in 2013, Jay continuing his partnership with luxury retailer Barneys after its “shop-and-frisk” practice ignited debates about racial profiling, and criticism of streaming company Tidal — Jay’s longevity isn’t due as much to winning every round as it is to being able to take a punch.

Now, the haymakers are coming from Kaepernick’s supporters. And it seems from Kaepernick himself.

Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa, and brother-in-protest Reid criticized the deal for helping the NFL clean up the mess while Kaepernick can’t get a job in the league, even as he said last week that he was still ready to return. This week, Kaepernick put up an Instagram post commemorating the third anniversary of the start of his fight against systemic oppression. He then took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon thanking Reid for his loyalty from day one as well as the fans who still see Kaepernick as the face of a movement. Life’s irony is oftentimes wickedly poetic. Their fidelity to Kaepernick and the cause he raged against the machine for call to mind one of Jay-Z’s hardest bars from 1996’s “Feelin’ It:” If every n—a in your clique is rich, your clique is rugged / Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.

Jay-Z’s support and praise of Kaepernick is well-documented — he once wore his jersey during a Saturday Night Live performance and dubbed him an “iconic figure” who deserved to have his name mentioned along with Muhammad Ali. Now, Jay has aligned himself with the same institution that has kept the Super Bowl runner-up quarterback off the field since the 2016 season. And in pursuit of the next phase of equality, he’s seemingly alienated the one athlete who brought the conversation into the living rooms of every house in America.

But it pays to remember that discussions similar to the ones now surrounding Jay were held about Kaepernick months ago. Kaepernick, too, aligned himself with a billion-dollar corporation in Nike in a move that drew criticism from some who felt he corporatized his cause. Did Kap, too, sell his legacy for a check? Even Uncle Luke weighed in on the issue. The truth of the matter is that Jay-Z wasn’t required to obtain Kaepernick’s blessing. But for some, Kap’s lack of involvement is a near unforgivable sin because it may have the effect of making his NFL banishment a lifelong sentence.

Jay-Z (left) and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (right) attend the launch of the Reform Alliance, a criminal justice reform organization, at Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City on Jan. 23.

Photo by Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images

What does success look like in this deal? Bringing more money and quantifiable action toward social justice and educational reform is one metric. A halftime show capable of tapping into the culture and being comfortable with that messaging is too.

But it feels like there’s something else underlying the rollout. Playlists, podcasts and access to players are all opportunities Jay could’ve captured on Tidal. At Wednesday’s announcement, Jay attempted to figure out who a reporter’s question was directed toward, himself or Goodell, by quipping, “I’m not the commissioner yet.” It was a way to lighten the mood while whimsically planting a seed. Connecting the dots, this feels like it could be a path to future ownership in the NFL.

It’s a long game. Attempting to fix the league’s image might be the most uphill battle of Jay-Z’s career — especially while he’s trying to use the platform to benefit his own business interests. It’s capitalistic. It’s selfish. But it’s also a business model that he’s repeatedly used over the last quarter century.

And if it does succeed, he’d become the first black power broker in a league that has acquired a reputation for silencing black voices, not privileging them. Debates will rage on over whether it’s a savvy or snake move by Jay. But any potential buyer of an NFL team has to be someone who at least 24 of the league’s 32 team owners want as a member of one of the most exclusive (yet anything but inclusive) clubs.

How Jay handles the NFL’s inevitable next controversy, whether it be another Stephen Ross public relations debacle or President Donald Trump weaving his way back into league storylines as the 2020 election year approaches, will be interesting to watch. N—as said Hova was over, such dummies / Even if I fail I’ll land on a bunch of money, he rhymed on 2007’s “Success.”

The boast is only partially true now. Jay-Z’s bank account is secure. But his future is now intertwined with a league he blasted just last summer — and seemingly on the opposite side of the aisle from the one player who made this newfound partnership possible. It’s not a stretch to say this could be the most important and daunting blueprint of Jay-Z’s career.

Joining forces with Jay-Z is just what the NFL needed The musical legend gives credibility to a league struggling with its image among African Americans

NEW YORK — The pairing of the NFL and rapper-businessman-activist Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is surprising, but it actually makes tremendous sense for the buttoned-down league.

As part of a long-term agreement that will be announced during a news conference on Wednesday, Carter’s Roc Nation entertainment company will lead the NFL’s music and entertainment endeavors, including advising on the selection of artists for the Super Bowl halftime show, a production that has presented challenges for the league.

The NFL, which will greatly expand its entertainment footprint because of the deal, is still the same organization that has for years shut out onetime San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who protested during the 2016 season to draw attention to police brutality and systemic oppression. And Carter has been a vocal supporter of Kaepernick, who in February settled his collusion grievance against the league for an undisclosed amount.

Despite taking a public stance about Kaepernick that is at odds with the NFL’s position, Carter clearly views the alliance as an opportunity to potentially improve the league’s culture from within. Think of it as sort of a Nixon-goes-to-China moment. As for the NFL, well, joining forces with Carter is a gift that’s heaven-sent, says Harry Edwards.

In fact, Edwards, the legendary sports activist and professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, has only one question about the new partnership: What took NFL commissioner Roger Goodell so long?

“I don’t know why Roger didn’t make this move long before now,” Edwards said on the phone. “I’m surprised that it took Roger so long to say, ‘Hey, we can’t keep going through this every Super Bowl.’ He had to put an end to it.”

In Everything Is Love, Jay-Z’s surprise 2018 album with his superstar wife, Beyoncé, he rapped about declining to participate in the Super Bowl. On the track “APES—,” he says:


“I said no to the Super Bowl

You need me, I don’t need you

Every night we in the end zone

Tell the NFL we in stadiums too.”

In the run-up to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta in February, many A-list entertainers declined to participate in the halftime show and boycotted the game altogether, largely because of the league’s perceived mistreatment of Kaepernick. Additionally, more than 100,000 people signed an online petition requesting that Maroon 5, the show’s eventual headliner, drop out of the performance.

Despite recent efforts to back players in championing social justice, the NFL still lacks credibility with many African Americans, even some who identify as being among the league’s fans. Credibility with black folk is not something Jay-Z lacks, Edwards said.

“To get someone with the awareness and the credibility, as well as the street cred — because let’s not forget that in this situation, that’s important, too — that Jay-Z has is exactly what Roger needs,” said Edwards, a longtime 49ers adviser who has been active at the intersections of race, sports and politics since the 1960s. “Jay-Z provides the cover the NFL needs for [some] entertainers to give it [the NFL] a chance again.

“It’s crystal clear that if Roger had not made this move, every event that the NFL tried to put on would be complicated by the political implications of entertainers not wanting to be part of a system that supports the likes of [Miami Dolphins owner Stephen] Ross and [Jerry] Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and others. Now the challenge for Jay-Z, what he has to ask himself, is, ‘How do I frame that entertainment module so that it reflects, even in an evolving fashion, the right side of history?’ ”

Not surprisingly, many Kaepernick supporters are angered by Jay-Z’s decision to embrace the NFL. On social media on Tuesday, Jay-Z was attacked, predictably, for being a sellout, including by Carolina Panthers defensive back Eric Reid, who had joined Kaepernick in his grievance against the NFL.

Regardless of whether the union of professional sports’ most powerful league and the entertainment impresario improves the NFL’s social justice efforts, some critics won’t forgive Jay-Z for apparently being insufficiently supportive of Kaepernick.

Jay-Z, however, can’t worry about that, Edwards said. He just has to do good work.

“The Super Bowl is Jay-Z’s program to script,” Edwards said. “And if Jay-Z is half as sharp as I believe him to be, he will figure a way to take the burden off of the league so that every year the NFL is not confronted with another question about whether anyone worthy of the halftime musical production of the Super Bowl will even want to participate.

“He’ll also figure out a way, artistically, to project the right message to we the people, because you can do a whole lot through art. Through art, you can express things that you can’t say with a bullhorn, but you can get the message through just as clearly. Jay-Z clearly has the intellectual capacity and the artistic chops to get that done.”

He has proved that by surprising us time and time again with other big moves. And for his latest project, Jay-Z will try to quarterback the NFL to a comeback.

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?”

San Diego Chargers rookie DB Derwin James: ‘It’s time to put on the pads. I’m ready to go’ But what happens when he plays his bestie Jalen Ramsey?

A month before commissioner Roger Goodell called his name on the opening night of 2018 NFL draft, Derwin James already had lofty praise to live up to. When cameras were rolling at Florida State University’s pro day on March 20, Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey delivered the ultimate co-sign of his former college teammate. “Top player in the draft this year,” Ramsey told the NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. “Should go No. 1 overall, but you know how things go in the draft. You never know … top 5, top 10, top 15.”

In their final mock drafts, ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both projected James to be taken by Tampa Bay with the seventh pick. But the first 15 NFL teams to draft — the Buccaneers included — passed on the 6-foot-1 ¾-inch, 215-pound freak-of-athlete safety. That was until No. 17, when James fell into the laps of the San Diego Chargers. Despite dropping on the draft board, James is still oozing with confidence and swag. The Undefeated recently caught up with San Diego’s newly minted defensive back about his brand partnership with New Era Cap, his relationship with Ramsey, and why he changes his hairstyle so much.


How does it feel to finally be in the NFL?

It’s been an emotional roller coaster, but I’m excited. I’m happy that I got the opportunity to finally live out my dream.

Heading into the draft, what team did you think would take you?

Tampa or San Francisco. After it went past them, I said, ‘OK, maybe I could be going to Green Bay.’ After Green Bay traded back, I thought, ‘I’m going to the Chargers.’

Was it nerve-racking, waiting?

It was crazy. I obviously thought I’d go earlier, but once I put on that New Era hat — that Chargers hat. It was an amazing feeling.

“I loveddddd fitteds, because my head was so big as a kid.”

You partnered with New Era ahead of the draft. Have you always been a hat guy?

Growing up, I was a fitted hat guy. Then they came out with the snapbacks, so I converted. But I loveddddd fitteds, because my head was so big as a kid. It would look weird sometimes when my mom would put other caps on me. We couldn’t ever find the right one to fit my head.

The draft cap is a big part of the experience — where will you keep yours?

My hat and my jersey, both of those I’m hanging on my wall. They’re gonna be in a case. Nobody can get to them.

How did you choose your draft outfit?

My favorite colors are red and black. And I went to Florida State, where our color is garnet. So I thought I’d do something along the garnet and red line. I wanted to be a little flashy. I talked to my suit man, and said, ‘Gimme something nice.’

You grew up in Florida, went to Florida State and will now be playing in San Diego — but what’s the coldest place you’ve ever been?

When I was in Green Bay on my visit, it was like 3 degrees. I was like, ‘Oh, s—!’ They told me it was a nice day — that sometimes it’s below zero. Say what!

Do you have any game day traditions or superstitions?

I’ve got my wristbands that I’ve been wearing since high school, and then I got some in college that I have to have on every game. But, for the most part, I just go with the flow.

“My dream scenario would be me, Casey Hayward, Jalen Ramsey, Landon Collins and Earl Thomas. Nobody could complete a pass.”

You always post your ever-changing hairstyles on social media — how do you pick them?

I get a lot of feedback from my teammates on that. They say I have more hairstyles than women do. But I just like being different, being my own self. I don’t really try to copy anybody, or be anybody that I’m not. Being diverse and versatile is just the person I am.

Who’s the most famous person following you on social media?

Probably OBJ [Odell Beckham Jr.].

Take us back to the first time you met Jalen Ramsey — and how has your relationship with him grown over the years?

I met him when I was in high school. I’d already committed to Florida State in 2012, and I think he was just getting there. I built a relationship with him on visits, and he told me he … was going to take me under his wing. And then when I got there, he stuck to his word. Our relationship grew over the years, and he’s like my brother.

Where were you heard Jalen call you the best player in this year’s draft — and how did it make you feel?

I was out in Cali training. When he said that, I wasn’t really surprised, but that was a big compliment coming from a guy like him.

Your dreams corps of defensive backs — who would they be?

My dream scenario would be me, Casey Hayward, Jalen Ramsey, Landon Collins and Earl Thomas. Nobody could complete a pass.

“Now [my number is] 33, so you get Derwin James 2.0. Supercharged.”

Which quarterbacks are you most looking forward to facing this season?

S—, I wanna face all of them. I mean, I haven’t seen a quarterback damn near since October, November. The suit and tie — all of that is out the way. It’s time to put on the pads. I’m ready to go.

You wore No. 3 at FSU. Why No. 33 in San Diego?

Three is my favorite number, so I was thinking for the Chargers, I was just gonna supercharge it! Add another 3. Now it’s 33, so you get Derwin James 2.0. Supercharged.

What’s your favorite tattoo?

My Florida State tattoo … it’s on my left soldier. I got it in 10th grade, and it’s the most meaningful tattoo I have, besides my mom’s name.

Outside of football, who is your favorite athlete?

Floyd Mayweather.

Have you ever met him?

A couple times. He’s a great guy. The media tries to judge him, but he’s really down-to-earth. He’s a winner, he’s a competitor, and he comes from the struggle. One of my favorite people.

In the next five years, what can we expect from Derwin James?

I’m not gonna come in and promise no Super Bowls, but you’ll see a guy that’s gonna work his butt off. I just feel like I’m in a great situation and a great system around a lot of great coaches. The team was already great before I got here. I’m just tryna come in, do my job and hopefully we pull out some ball games together.

Any message to the teams that passed on you?

See you soon.

I’ve got a new NFL catch rule: ‘2-Feet-Plus Rule’ Go ahead, National Football League, steal this great idea

NBC color commentator Cris Collinsworth, during the broadcast of the Super Bowl last month, told an audience of 103.4 million people that he couldn’t explain the NFL’s catch rule. A league flailing for years at defining what constitutes a catch has reached an impasse and now confronts a dilemma: When those entrusted with the duty of interpreting the game for viewers openly admit their inability to do so, someone has failed.

In this case, it’s someones: the NFL’s decision-makers. They need to put forward a definition of a catch that announcers can articulate, fans can understand, referees can evenly enforce and players can tailor their behavior toward.

League commissioner Roger Goodell understands the league must correct the issue, saying the matter has left him “concerned.” And, equally important, he appreciates that the league should create a new rule instead of fixing the old one, saying, per NFL.com, “From our standpoint, I would like to start back, instead of adding to the rule, subtracting the rule. Start over again and look at the rule fundamentally from the start.” Reports surfaced a few weeks ago that the NFL competition committee is investigating alternate rules; thus, we should expect to see the league enforcing a different catch rule next season.

When people malign the current NFL catch rule, three plays ruled non-catches inevitably dominate the discussion:

  • Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson’s non-catch in 2010 against the Chicago Bears;
  • Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant’s non-catch against the Green Bay Packers in the 2014-15 playoffs;
  • Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James’ non-catch against the New England Patriots during the 2017 regular season.

These plays, nearly everyone agrees, should have been ruled catches, and whatever rule the NFL devises should also come to that conclusion.

I think I have the solution, what I’ll call the “2-Feet-Plus Rule”: A catch is completed when a player catches the ball and gets both feet down, plus another action. Here is a list of the other actions that satisfy the “plus” requirement: body part, football move, controlled reach, or catcher sustains possession of the ball when going to the ground. I’m open to adding to this list.

A few explanations or caveats:

  • A knee or body part equals two feet as always.
  • This is a sequential rule, meaning one must get two feet down (or body part) then the plus must occur. So if a player gets one foot down, then a knee, the sequence starts with the knee and the foot doesn’t satisfy the plus requirement.
  • If the sequence starts with a body part first, neither another body part nor a foot can satisfy the plus requirement (unless the player stands up). The player must maintain possession of the ball or perform a controlled reach.

Calvin Johnson’s play

Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) is unable to maintain possession of a ball in the end zone while defended by Chicago Bears cornerback Zack Bowman (35) during the second half at Soldier Field. The Chicago Bears defeated the Detroit Lions 19-14.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson jumps up for the ball and comes down on both feet, satisfying the two feet portion of the sequence. Then he falls down on his left hip, satisfying the plus portion and completing the catch. That he loses the ball afterward means nothing. The catch and touchdown stand. This is a catch under the 2-Feet-Plus Rule.

Dez Bryant’s play

Dez Bryant #88 of the Dallas Cowboys attempts a catch over Sam Shields #37 of the Green Bay Packers during the 2015 NFC Divisional Playoff game at Lambeau Field on January 11, 2015 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Initially ruled a catch, the call was reversed upon review.

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Here, Bryant catches the ball then gets two feet down, satisfying the two feet portion. Then, he gets a foot down again, completing the sequence. For good measure, his forearm strikes the turf, then performs a controlled reach. He obviously completes the catch under the 2-Feet-Plus Rule.

Jesse James’ play

New England Patriots Devin McCourty (32) and Duron Harmon (30) look for a call after Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James, left, lunged over the goal line during the fourth quarter of a game against the New England Patriots at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa., Dec. 17, 2017. After official review, it was ruled an incomplete pass.

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Here, James gets a knee down, satisfying the two feet portion of the sequence. Then, with the ball fully under control, James performs a controlled reach toward the goal line, satisfying the “plus” portion and thereby completing the catch before the ball comes free. This is a catch under the 2-Feet-Plus Rule.

I think the 2-Feet-Plus Rule solves the NFL’s problem. It’s easy to communicate — Collinsworth wouldn’t have stuttered and stammered trying to explain this during the league’s showcase game — and the rule, if enforced, would have resulted in a catch for three of the most obvious blown calls in the past few years.

The NFL is commonly called a copycat league. Go ahead, NFL, steal this.

Saints DE Cameron Jordan is a beast on the field and off of it The NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee goes above and beyond to help his community

A few days before Cameron Jordan rejected five passes that helped lead his team, the New Orleans Saints, to a 31-9 victory over the New York Jets, he’d visited a high school in the Louisiana area “on the West Bank.”

It’s his Tuesday ritual — going into the community to visit high schools or hospitals, or showing his face and lending a hand to any community event — something he’s faithfully done since his rookie season. Giving of himself to serve or encourage others is a habit Jordan learned from his father, six-time Pro Bowler Steve Jordan, who instilled great values and work ethic in him on and off the field.

Cameron Jordan is now up for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, and he is elated about the possibility of ranking No. 1 out of the 32 nominees. The NFL recently announced the nominees for the award, which gives honor to a player who exemplifies the league’s commitment to philanthropy and community impact. Finalists will be announced in January.

Giving back comes naturally to the 28-year-old. Since being drafted by the Saints in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft, he has participated in at least one but sometimes multiple weekly community events as he has evolved into a defensive starter, captain, Pro Bowler and nationally recognized player.

Whether his participation has been team-related or sponsored by a community partner, a teammate or a fan, he’s remained selfless. For the past four years, Jordan has been the face of the Saints Kids Club. He spends several hours during the summer working with kids who take part in the Saints Community Patrol Summer Camps. He also delivers several motivational speeches to youth and high school students.

Each Man of the Year nominee will receive two Super Bowl LII tickets to give away to fans and community heroes. The five current players who have won the award are Drew Brees, Thomas Davis, Larry Fitzgerald, Eli Manning and Jason Witten. All 2017 nominees, including Jordan, have donned a Man of the Year helmet decal since the announcement was made in early December, and they will sport it through the end of the season in recognition of their accomplishments on and off the field. This tradition will continue for future nominees and winners of the award.

“NFL players are outstanding, generous men of character who give back to their communities,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a press release.

“Walter Payton represented the very best on and off the field and this year’s Man of the Year nominees exemplify his legacy of philanthropy and leadership. We are proud to support players as they use their platforms to drive positive change.”

In between practice and community events, The Undefeated caught up with Jordan about the driving force behind caring for the community.


What inspires you to donate your time and effort on a weekly basis to the community?

You know, if anything, I give credit to my dad. For as far back as I can remember, he’s always gave back to the surrounding community of Minnesota when he was playing, and Arizona, where we moved to after, where he’s from. He’s made an emphasis in his life just to give back just as much as he’s gotten from life. That’s a lot.

It’s easy to go to the pros and be able to try and give back to the next generation. What’s more motivating is not the fact that I’m doing it because my dad’s doing it, or I’m doing it because there’s some recognition part. If anything, I don’t want any of the recognition for it.

At the end of the day, I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a thing that can help a kid, will come back to me.

I’m not saying I’m the foundation — just a brick.

What’s your most meaningful cause to give your time to?

At this point, it’s almost a ritual to go out to a different school every Tuesday. Whether that be for New Orleans, whether that be New Orleans East, or whether that be the West Bank, you go out to as far as Houma and Boutte. It doesn’t really matter. Just the inclusiveness, the inclusivity of being able to show that there’s an NFL player that cares about these kids.

How do you balance being such a prolific football player and contributor to the team, and such a wonderful role model and community member?

I don’t know. That’s a great question because in terms of everything I do, I always want to feel like I can do more. We talk about there’s guys who’ve started a foundation, and as much as I talk about I could start my own foundation, is that also that, if I start my foundation, this is what you sort of have to stick to.

I guess it completely makes my possibilities limitless. … Me and [Saints wide receiver] Mike Thomas are doing this event Friday for the battered women’s shelter, where we’re going to take a whole bunch of families out there. It was basically just coming to each other, like, ‘Hey what can we do?’ This is an event that the Saints have helped people in the past. This is something that we can pick up and make it our own. Just whether that be going to Target and giving out gifts. Whether that be … whatever we can do, whatever we so set our minds to, that’s what we can accomplish.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to see in the community?

Anytime you do a hospital visit, anytime you talk about seeing an intensive care unit. It’s one thing to go and talk to kids, be able to see that life force, that active, vibrant energy in all aspects of life. Then you go around and you turn to a hospital visit. You see kids that are super young, months old to a couple years old, that haven’t even had a fraction of a life that you have. The empathy that you feel toward that family is just that much more genuine.

What’s the best piece of advice your father has ever given you about philanthropy?

He never did it for any recognition as well. It’s just something that you assume upon yourself.

There’s so many moments to be proud of that, as a kid, you just don’t pick up on that. As a man now, I realize how much he did. So it’s just easy enough to assimilate into the role of ‘What can I do for my community?’ As much as I try to say I’m my own man, I was molded by a perfect situation. I had a loving mother. My mom was like … she believes in the golden rule. She believes in Jesus. She believes in showing God’s light through a person.

Then you talk about my dad, who of course believes in always trying to teach the next generation, whether that be my first cousins, or my second cousins, or the random kids from our high school that just look like they may need some help. My dad was always there for that.

For more information on the nominees and the award, visit NFL.com/manoftheyear.

This is what happens when a black cop calls out racism in her own department

Lt. Yulanda Williams The truth teller 27 years in uniform

“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”

Black and Blue: Meet San Francisco PD’s Lt. Yulanda Williams

On her day of reckoning, Sgt. Yulanda Williams did not wear the blue. Stomach churning, too nervous to eat much breakfast, she drove across the Bay Bridge into the city. Her mother had pleaded with her to reconsider, but she had given her word: She was going to tell the world about the racism in the San Francisco Police Department.

Williams entered the massive white stone library on Larkin Street, within sight of City Hall. A blue-ribbon panel organized by the district attorney was investigating a shocking string of racist text messages exchanged by 14 officers. Williams would be the only black police officer to testify in public. Others were too afraid.

Waiting to speak, Williams, 61, thought about the years of struggle between black and blue in San Francisco. About promotions denied, slurs hurled, disparate discipline. About complaints filed by the black Officers for Justice organization, and warnings to keep quiet from the police officers union, which wielded considerable influence inside the department. About the text messages from fellow officers that called her a n—– b—-.

Then Williams told her truth: The police force suffered from systemic and institutionalized racism. Not all cops are racist, she said, but the culture of the department allowed racism to fester, to corrupt, and sometimes to explode.

“I’m black, and I will never be blue enough,” she testified. “I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”

The date was Jan. 14, 2016. Within weeks, the president of the police union all but branded her a traitor in a public letter, making Williams fear for her safety on the job. Internal affairs investigators accused her of several questionable violations, including wearing her uniform while shopping off-duty in a Walmart. Someone broke into her house and stole her laptop, but ignored her jewelry and six guns.

As the problems mounted, Williams took the lieutenant’s exam in late 2016 and scored ninth out of 145 candidates. That should have made her a lock for advancement — but officers cannot be promoted with unresolved disciplinary actions.

“Blue is a profession and a career. Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement,” Williams said over the summer as she waited for a decision on her promotion. “However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.

“Blue is a color,” she said. “Black is my self, my skin. And that cannot change.”

No more than a toehold

San Francisco’s black neighborhoods are in the southeast corner of the city, against the shipyards and docks that in the 1940s and ‘50s attracted refugees from the Jim Crow South. But unlike other urban endpoints of the Great Migration, African-Americans never secured more than a toehold inside San Francisco’s city limits. In the 1960s, even as the city’s reputation for liberalism and tolerance grew, African-Americans were segregated into the Bayview, Hunters Point and Potrero Hill neighborhoods.

Conditions there were so oppressive that famed essayist and novelist James Baldwin said during a 1963 trip to the city that “there is no moral distance, which is to say no distance, between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.” In 1966, Hunters Point residents rioted for three days after a white cop shot an unarmed teen running from a stolen car. The city’s black population peaked at 13 percent in 1970, then steadily declined to its current 6 percent.

Williams grew up with three siblings in a two-story home in Potrero Hill that her father, a city plumber and assistant church pastor, built himself. Her mother, now 95, still lives there. Williams attended the University of California, Berkeley and worked her way up to a position as regional credit manager for Holiday Inn. In the late ’80s, divorced with two young daughters, she bought her first home, near the corner of Third Street and Newcomb Avenue in the Bayview.

This was the height of the crack epidemic. The drug traffic on her corner was crazy, and the police seemed ineffective. Williams sent her daughters to stay with her mother and helped organize a “take back our streets” march along Third Street that drew hundreds of citizens, clergy and politicians.

Williams speaks with a young man who approached her on the streets of San Francisco.

After the march, she began working with the local police and met several members of Officers for Justice, which had successfully sued the city in 1973 to increase diversity on the force. They urged Williams to sign up.

“I didn’t want to lose my feminine qualities by doing something I considered was primarily a man’s job,” she recalled during an interview at the OFJ headquarters while wearing large hoop earrings, a tiny diamond nose stud, eight rings, nine bracelets, and long, glittery nails with pointed white tips.

The pay was about the same as her hotel position, but the benefits were better. “I told [OFJ] I was not willing to cut my hair, I was not willing to not wear makeup, I wasn’t willing to give up my manicures and my pedicures.” She hit the Bayview streets on foot patrol in June 1990, with her hair pinned up in a bun beneath her cap.

Williams loved being able to help her people. The drug trade persisted, of course, and some nights she had to leave her house wearing a robe and carrying her gun to talk to the boys on Third Street. But everyone knew she cared, and she earned the street nickname “Auntie.”

Black and Blue: San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood

The OFJ headquarters was four blocks down Third from Williams’ home. When she first joined the force, she thought OFJ had already won the battle for equality. In 1965, only 55 of 1,726 officers were black, three were Asian-American, and almost every police chief since the start of the century had been a white, Catholic man. The OFJ’s lawsuit changed that. The 2,200-member department is now 50 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black, 6 percent Filipino and 17 percent other Asian.

Williams figured everything was kumbaya. Soon, though, she started to notice things.

On patrol, she saw cops targeting African-Americans. White officers seemed to get lighter discipline — especially if they had gone to high school at Archbishop Riordan, Sacred Heart or St. Ignatius, the source of generations of the city’s cops. She heard of a lieutenant who told a black officer wearing gold chains, “What are you doing wearing that n—– jewelry?” When tests were administered for promotions, black officers rarely advanced. After taking the lieutenant’s exam, she wondered whether she would be another casualty of the system.

Williams put in 11 years on the street, then moved on to work as an academy instructor, field training officer, precinct captain’s assistant and school resource officer. She sold her house in the Bayview and moved to a four-bedroom home in a suburban East Bay neighborhood. She made sergeant in 2012 after placing 46th out of 382 officers who took the exam. She was elected vice president and then president of Officers for Justice and also served on the board of the police union.

Police in uber-expensive San Francisco are among the highest-paid in the country, and Williams’ annual base pay reached $144,000. She indulged her passion for Mercedes automobiles, eventually collecting five used but pristine Benzes. She remarried, enjoyed her six grandchildren, continued to advocate for officers of color and prepared to retire on a pension that will provide 95 percent of her salary for the rest of her life.

Then Sgt. Ian Furminger got arrested for robbing drug dealers.

A horrifying exchange

“My [wife’s] friend is over with their kids and her husband is black!” Furminger texted another cop. “[He is] an Attorney but should I be worried?”

“Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots … not against the law to put an animal down,” was the response.

“Well said!” Furminger texted back.

“You may have to kill the half-breeds too. Don’t worry. Their (sic) an abomination of nature anyway,” his fellow officer responded.

Those were some of the milder bigoted messages exchanged by 14 San Francisco Police Department officers on their personal phones over nine months in 2011 and 2012. Equally horrifying was that so many references to N-words, savages and cross-burnings remained under wraps for years, only coming to light in 2015 because of an appeals court filing in Furminger’s conviction.

The case scandalized famously diverse and progressive San Francisco. How could the police department’s culture allow such virulent racism to persist?

To find out, District Attorney George Gascon, who had briefly been chief of the Police Department, formed the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement. Denied city funding for an exhaustive investigation, Gascon secured the pro bono services of judges, law firms and law schools and started gathering evidence.

His every step was resisted by the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

“I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”“I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”

Blurred lines

When Williams testified about institutional racism, she fired a direct shot at a historic foe.

The officers’ union fought the 1973 lawsuit to end discriminatory hiring practices. As far as the union was concerned, any lack of minority representation was the result of a lack of ability among the minorities themselves. “Our attornies (sic) are confident they can refute all charges,” soon-to-be union president Bob Barry wrote in the June 1978 issue of the union newspaper.

Police unions across the country serve as a combination guard dog, priest and defense attorney for cops. Circling the wagons is the default. In San Francisco, the union fought case after case in which African-Americans were slain by police under questionable circumstances, from George Baskett in 1968 to Aaron Williams in 1997 to Mario Woods in 2016. Recently, the union beat back reforms such as more access to police disciplinary records, stricter use-of-force guidelines, and rules to prevent officers from watching body camera footage before writing arrest reports.

In 2016, union consultant and former president Gary Delagnes complained on Facebook about officers reporting another cop’s offensive racial remarks: “Officers are now being encouraged to be trained snitches. … This officer did nothing wrong other than making an ill-advised statement and now they want to hang him and then brag about it to the media. Disgusting!”

The San Francisco Police Department is run by the police chief, who is chosen by the mayor. But the union represents officers up to the rank of captain, giving it a huge amount of influence over promotions, work assignments and the culture of the department.

“The lines were blurred between the department itself and the union,” said Gascon, the district attorney and former chief. “They became so blurred, they were basically working in concert.”

The San Francisco police union does many good deeds, including giving money to officers in need, donating to organizations in minority communities, paying the expenses of tourists struck by tragedy in the city and sponsoring a trip to Africa for black youths.

But its primary function is to defend cops.

From the start of the Blue Ribbon Panel’s work, the association told its members not to talk without a union lawyer present — even though they were not under criminal investigation, according to the panel’s executive director, Anand Subramanian. Except for Williams, he said, no officers of color would testify on the record: “They felt like their career advancement and day-to-day interaction was threatened and jeopardized by public participation in this process.”

“I have never seen so much resistance to reform in a police department as I’ve seen in San Francisco,” said LaDoris H. Cordell, a retired California Superior Court judge who has worked on police oversight cases nationwide and served on the Blue Ribbon Panel.

Union president Martin Halloran did not respond to phone calls and emails for this story. Last year, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that the union isn’t opposed to reform: “Any time there is a little bit of pushback from the POA … the perception according to certain politicians is that we’re the elephant in the room, that we’re the obstructionists. We’re not. We just want to make sure this is done right.”

But his combative views are clear in acidic union newspaper editorials and frequent public letters — such as his response to Colin Kaepernick’s protest.

In August 2016, the then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback cited police killings and cops “getting paid leave and getting away with murder” as a reason he would not stand for the national anthem. Halloran’s response sent to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell accused Kaepernick of pushing “a false narrative and misinformation that lacks any factual basis.”

“Perhaps he could lend his commentary to the over 8,000 murders that African Americans inflicted on one another in 2015,” Halloran wrote.

Williams doesn’t follow sports, but she noticed Kaepernick’s protest and the movement that now engulfs the NFL. She didn’t take Kaepernick’s protest personally: “I know he’s not talking about me.” She saw his stance as speaking up for the voiceless in the black community, and she was delighted when NFL players responded to President Donald Trump’s profane insult by increasing their protests.

The parallels to her own faceoff with the union were inescapable.

“I felt a kinship with Kaepernick because of the fact that, here’s a man who had the conviction to stand for something he believed in. Whether it was right or wrong, it was his belief, and it was his feelings and he expressed them, and he explained why. I did the same thing, and then look what happens to us,” Williams said.

“I felt like he was a whistleblower for what he was talking about, and I was a whistleblower. And the whistleblowers unfortunately seem to never win. They seem to be ostracized, and people try and fight against them and shut them down.”

Worried about her safety

The worst part of her ordeal, Williams said, came from the letter Halloran published in the union newspaper about her testimony, characterizing her statements as “uninformed, inflammatory and disparaging” and insisting there was no evidence of widespread racism in the department.

“Yolanda,” Halloran wrote, not only addressing the 61-year-old officer by her first name but misspelling it, “the references to you in the text messages were disgusting. However, I find your testimony to the Panel to be largely self-centered and grossly unfair.”

She resigned from the union, and her decision was plastered on precinct fliers. She had to explain to her subordinates that she hadn’t called them racists. She feared that if she needed backup, other officers would not respond.

“When you work with someone in this type of environment, your life’s on the line every day,” she said. “You expect people to come for backup. … You trust them with your life. You depend on them for your life.”

As the Blue Ribbon Panel investigation proceeded, cellphone footage of the shooting of Mario Woods fueled national outrage. Three months later, another batch of racist texts was discovered, from a separate set of officers.

In February 2016, the Department of Justice announced a review of the department. On May 19, police killed an unarmed black woman in a stolen car in the Bayview. Hours after that shooting, Police Chief Greg Suhr lost his job — despite strong support from the union.

In July 2016, the Blue Ribbon Panel released its final report. It concluded that the Police Department lacked transparency and oversight, needed to rebuild community trust and should pay greater attention to the potential for racial bias. The report noted that black and Hispanic people were more likely to be searched without consent but were less likely to be found with contraband than other ethnic and racial groups.

“Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement. However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.”“Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement. However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.”

In October 2016, the Justice Department released its report, recommending 272 changes designed to correct “deficiencies in every operational area assessed: use of force; bias; community policing practices; accountability measures; and recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices.” The report also identified “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups” — exactly what Williams had testified about seven months earlier.

But vindication in the Justice Department’s 414-page document was cold comfort. A decision on Williams’ promotion was still pending.

After Suhr’s departure, the union urged Mayor Ed Lee to replace him with interim chief Toney Chaplin, a black career San Francisco officer. Instead, Lee chose an outsider: William Scott, the highest-ranking African-American in the Los Angeles Police Department. Scott pledged to fulfill the recommendations of the Justice Department report. In an email to union members, Halloran said the mayor had “turned his back on the rank and file police officers.”

On Sept. 25, Williams learned that Scott would promote her to lieutenant.

Williams’ work in the community ranges from meeting residents to mentoring youths to trying to open a dialogue between the police force and residents.

A new lieutenant at last

On a brilliant Saturday in October, the soon-to-be Lt. Williams left her house for a community event in the Bayview, her old neighborhood. She chose her black 2006 Mercedes S430 sedan with YOOLOGY plates and the glass tinted dark. She calls the car Black Beauty.

Sipping a smoothie behind the wheel, nails cut short because of a new departmental directive requiring them to be no more than an eighth of an inch long — she refers to it as the “Yulanda Rule” — Williams reflected on her journey.

“It feels a little victorious. I don’t want to claim that there’s nothing else to be done,” she said. “I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”

She parked outside the Bayview Opera House, where several dozen community organizations and a lively crowd had gathered for Neighborfest. Williams’ old house was across the street, within sight of the corner where drug drama pushed her into policing almost 30 years ago. She kept her gun in her purse.

People inquired about her mother and congratulated her on the promotion. She spoke briefly to the crowd, urging everyone to consider a career with the police department. The band played Sly and the Family Stone.

“Auntie!” cried Vincent Tally, known as Tally-Ho. He used to roam the corner drunk, loud and disorderly. Williams would send him home, but she never arrested him. Now he’s been sober for two years.

“She loves everybody. She treats everybody the same. She doesn’t discriminate,” Tally-Ho said. He kissed Williams’ hand. “One thing she will do, though. She see you out of pocket? You in trouble!”

Two weeks later, Williams and two other black sergeants were sworn in and received the gold collar bars of a lieutenant. Three black lieutenants were elevated to captain.

There are now 19 black officers in leadership positions — the most in the 168-year history of the San Francisco Police Department.