Ava DuVernay on the importance of images, having a voice — and why she flipped the script in ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ ‘There was no black woman I could call to say, “How does this go?” Because she doesn’t exist.’

“I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 32,” says Ava DuVernay. “So you finally get to pick up a camera and do these things and it’s like, ‘Wow. I get to say something. I get to make something, and people will pay money to sit down and see and consume,’ and it becomes a part of the culture.”

DuVernay is making a statement — and if you’ve been paying attention for the past eight years or so, you’ll know that she has been making a statement. Film enthusiasts finally got put on to her brilliance in 2012 when her indie film Middle of Nowhere was a Sundance delight and captured the directing award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2012 festival. In that film, she took viewers on a journey of self-discovery, wrapped in a very important story about incarceration — and love. That film was a follow-up to her first indie classic, I Will Follow.

What would this indie-directing darling do next? Tell the story of tennis superstar Venus Williams and her fight for pay equity by way of 2013’s “rousingVenus Vs. (ESPN). DuVernay expertly guided viewers through Williams’ 2005-07 battle for gender-equal prize money at Wimbledon.

The documentary helped establish what DuVernay would give us moving forward. She wants to work on things that say something, and things that mean something. And she’s doing it again with A Wrinkle In Time, which opens in theaters on Friday.

“I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. [The films] go beyond box office, they go beyond reviews.”

“I put my blood into these films,” Duvernay says in a recent interview with The Undefeated. “This is what I do. I’m not a workaholic, I just love this. I think workaholics are like chain-smoking, chained to their death. Yes, I work all the time, but I love it … and I don’t want to be frivolous with that, and I don’t want it to lose meaning. I want it to be worth my time and my energy and my effort. My name is on this.”

And what a name. In a relatively short time, DuVernay has established herself as a visionary director, a big name in Hollywood who delivers nuanced projects that inspire academic conversations. She rightly earned an Oscar nomination in 2017 for her 13th documentary (Netflix), which examined America’s prison system and how it exposes our country’s history of racial inequality. The top prize ultimately went to Ezra Edelman for his “O.J.: Made in America.” But DuVernay was victorious in the best way possible.

That moment gave her a bigger voice in culture overall. Often, she sparks much-needed social media conversations, and the work that she creates is often central to those conversations. The global headlines she grabbed when the Los Angeles Times reported that her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time would make her the first woman of color in history to direct a movie with a $100 million budget were massive. “When I was making this film,” says DuVernay, “as a black woman and I was handed this budget by Disney, there was no one that I could call. There was no black woman I could call to say, ‘How does this go?’ Because she doesn’t exist.”

And her poignant reply back to the news at the time was so Ava. “Not the first [black woman] capable of doing so,” she tweeted. “Not by a long shot.”

DuVernay just believes that it’s incredibly important that we’re having all kinds of people rendering images that focus and concern women and people of color. “You know, 92 percent of the directors that are making the top films people see in theaters … are Caucasian male directors,” she says. “Only 8 percent of the films that you consume are made by women or people of color, or women of color. And that is a percentage that is untenable as it is unacceptable, and yet it’s what we have accepted as an audience, as a culture and as a society for decades.”

She reminds us how powerful film is. “They were draining pools when kids with HIV got in pools,” she says. “It wasn’t CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] reports that changed that. It wasn’t politicians that changed that. It was a story that changed that — it was Philadelphia, that film. It was Angels in America. … It was film that started to help people. It was images [that] people watched … that made them think. These images mean something … and to be able to be a black woman director and be in charge of budgets of this size, render images … about a black girl?”

DuVernay pauses — because, whew. In A Wrinkle In Time, she changed the young protagonist from a young white teen to a young teen of color. In the film, Meg Murry, the main character in Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 fantasy novel, is the daughter of two scientists, a black mom played by British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw and a white dad played by Star Trek’s Chris Pine.

DuVernay presented her vision to Disney, that her dream was that Meg was a young black girl, and they bought in. Asking for that change — a very big, important and remarkable change at that — was courageous. But DuVernay said she approached asking the studio about that as if she had nothing to lose.

“It’s kind of like living in the Hollywood Shuffle, where the mother always told him, ‘You can go out and audition, but you can also have a job at the post office. You can always fall back on the post office.’ Independent film is my post office.” She says she feels like she can walk into any meeting and ask for what she wants, because if they say no, she can go make something else. “I don’t feel like I live and breathe all of [this] … Academy Awards … studio approvals. None of that stuff is my heart’s desire.”

She said she has this take on things because she started being a filmmaker when she was in her early 30s. “Ryan Coogler is 31, and he’s made three films. I look at that and I think I started late. My story’s not just race and gender. It’s age. … Beautiful women filmmakers have made films, but it’s been a challenge for them to have certain resources and support. So it just makes me feel like, ask for what you want. … They’re probably going to say no, but you can still ask and you can still push, and if their answer’s no, you say yes to yourself in a different way.”

It’s a good thing she asked.

There’s an important moment in A Wrinkle In Time where Calvin (Levi Miller) turns to Meg (Storm Reid) and tells her that he likes her hair, which at the time is in its natural, curly state.

“These images don’t exist. People told me early on, ‘This book is unadaptable, this is a very hard book, it’s unadaptable.’ I said, ‘You know what? [Let’s] make Storm Reid fly as a little girl, and boys can see that.’ [Real] Caucasian boys seeing a Caucasian boy on screen say [to a young black girl], ‘I like your hair. You are beautiful with that natural hair, and I will follow you.’ Those are the kinds of things that if some of these boys that I deal with out here in Hollywood, in these boardrooms and on these sets, had seen that when they were young, maybe I’d be treated differently when I walk in the door,” DuVernay says. “When I have the opportunity to do it, I say, ‘I’m going to take this big swing. This is important to me, to just … put this stuff out into the world, and I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. They go beyond box office. They go beyond reviews.”

And it goes beyond black and white — she makes sure of that. Originally from Compton, California, right on the edge of Lynwood, DuVernay talks about how culturally rich her neighborhood was: black, Latino and Filipino. “Me and my friends would put our hands next to each other, and we were all the same shade of brown,” she says. “There’s a lot of people who don’t see themselves.”

One of DuVernay’s stars is actor/creator Mindy Kaling, who first gained notoriety as Kelly Kapoor of NBC’s classic The Office. “Mindy said to me yesterday, and it really got me … ‘I was a chubby Indian girl with glasses who loved sci-fi, but sci-fi never loved me back. I could never, ever find myself on screen …’

“Girls will see this, [and] if I had seen a brown girl doing these things, I would say, ‘Oh, it loves me back!’ It’s an emotional thing. That’s why I did it, [and] that’s why I chose to do this.”

But here’s the good news — because there is good news. DuVernay is actively working to ensure that the headlines she’s grabbing now — especially the ones proclaiming her to be the first black woman this, or the first woman of color that — won’t be wasted.

DuVernay, after all, doesn’t just walk through a door — she holds it open. And she builds a new door — a new house, even — to make sure that other people can come in. In 2010 she founded ARRAY, a grass-roots film distribution collective that focuses on projects by people of color and women. And amid the promo tour for A Wrinkle In Time, she announced that she and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are launching a diversity initiative that will fund internships in the entertainment industry for young people from underserved communities.

“I will be there for whoever’s next,” she says, “because they’re coming. They’re coming. I feel proud that I can call them and that they can call me. That I’ll be able to talk to them about everything I experienced. … We can’t be safe in our boxes. That’s how we don’t move. We have too many freedom fighters and too many sisters that have gotten out there and gone into the darkness. Harriet Tubman had it in her front yard, and she said, ‘There’s something else out there, right?’ Not to compare myself, but you know what I mean? Rosa Parks. Or Amelia Boynton. All of these women who said, you know, ‘I don’t know how this goes, but I’m going to walk over there and see how it is — over there.’ ”

She mentions Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott and Ron Howard. “These men … have been able to make film after film after film,” she says. “Some work, some don’t. They got another one, another one, another one. Women don’t get that. Black directors don’t get that. And black women directors surely don’t get it.

“So the idea that you can say, ‘I want to be Spielberg, I want to be able to move [between] genres,’ go from E.T. to Schindler’s List to The BFG to The Post … make intimate character dramas and historical dramas. But to also make fantasy? Is that possible for us? It remains to be seen, but we have to try. And so, I try.”

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.

‘Tell Them We Are Rising’: Q&A with filmmaker Stanley Nelson The documentary highlighting and celebrating the importance of HBCUs airs Monday night on PBS

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson was on a mission.

After more than 20 years of experience directing and producing, Nelson believed it was time to pay homage to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have done so much to contribute to the world in which we live today. The 100-plus HBCUs still in existence were the first to extend a warm welcome to black students who sought higher education, and many of the black doctors, lawyers, inventors and civic figures heralded for their work to better mankind were the very students who were first turned away from predominantly white institutions.

Thinking of those who came before him, including his father, who graduated from Howard University, Nelson was prepared to celebrate the successes of HBCUs with compelling storytelling through the eyes of those who have experienced the power of education at black colleges and universities.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities begins with the enslavement of black people, when education was forbidden, and explores the arduous journey individuals took to fight for what others had. The documentary ties these connections to modern-day education and transforms into an explanation of why HBCUs still remain so important to our society. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students enrolled at HBCUs rose by 32 percent between 1976 and 2015. Total enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 81 percent, from 11 million to 20 million, during that period.

Tell Them We Are Rising debuts Monday on PBS’ Independent Lens at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the conversation on social media through the hashtag #HBCURising.

The documentary airs tonight. How are you feeling about the nationwide debut of Tell Them We Are Rising?

I’m feeling great. It’s been a year since we premiered at Sundance, so it’s been a year of gearing up to get it seen by a wider audience on TV. It feels great.

How long had the documentary been in the making?

We were probably about three years in production, but probably about five years before that in terms of writing proposals, honing down the idea, and then raising money. And it’s been done for a year. So probably about nine years since the first time I said, hey, let’s do a film about HBCUs, until today. It’s been percolating for a long time.

How were the stories selected?

It was kind of a complicated process. One of the things about this film is that there’s hundreds of great stories of HBCUs, so there’s hundreds of different ways to go. We wanted to tell stories that were dramatic, that were entertaining, that gave an idea of the progression of HBCU history. And there are a couple of stories and ideas that we knew going in that we wanted to cover. So I knew, going in, that I wanted the film to start at the time of enslavement, when education was denied to African-Americans and to set up the idea of the importance of education as something that was denied to African-Americans that became much more important to have that thing that was denied. So there were certain stories like that we knew we wanted to cover. The Howard law school story, the amazing story of it bringing the Brown v. Board of Education suit to fruition. It was a matter of looking for other stories that would help us to tell this long, incredible story of black colleges and universities.

Were there any stories told in the documentary that you wish you could’ve spent more time on?

I think that it all worked out for us. We wanted to tell stories. We didn’t want this to just be a list of a bunch of schools. We went in knowing that what we were telling were short stories. We’re not telling the stories of the killings at Southern in an hourlong documentary. We’re not telling the DuBois-Booker T. story in an hourlong documentary. In some ways, going in, it was freeing to know that I could tell these as short stories.

Were there any stories that didn’t make the cut, but resonated with you?

One thing that happens for me, to be perfectly honest, is that when I finish the film, I kind of don’t think too much about what I didn’t use or couldn’t use or something that I wish I could use. I think, for me, it would just drive me insane to see the film and think about what I wish I could’ve done. So I kind of look at it as a whole. For however my mind works, it’s really good at that. Because I forget. I know stories that we cut, but I don’t feel bad that we cut them. If we had another five hours, we could give you another five hours of stories. I don’t think that you’d want to sit there and watch them, but we could give you those stories.

There are emotions that surface while watching certain scenes. As a producer, director, writer, how do you sort of control your own emotions when piecing these scenes together?

One of the things that happens is you go into producer-director mode and if you know you’re getting something that’s emotional, where the former governor of Louisiana [Edwin Edwards] even today blames the students for getting killed. We know that that was a great piece of film that was really going to help the film. You’re kind of in that other space. I’m a filmmaker, and I realized I was getting something that was going to really serve the production and the film. Inside, I’m not angry. Part of me is just saying, ‘Yes! I’m getting something good here.’ At that point, it’s not about me. It’s about being able to tell this story in a very powerful way to a great number of people.

Later on in the documentary, you have the quote from Richard Robert Wright to Oliver Otis Howard about the plight of former slaves. “Tell them we are rising,” is what Wright said. What about that response spoke so deeply that you wanted to name the documentary after it?

One of the things that happens so many times when you make a film is that sometimes, you have a name going in. You know what you want to call the film before you have the film. Sometimes, you’re in the final stages of editing and you’re still trying to figure out what the name of it is. When we heard that story, we just thought that it embodied so much of the history of black colleges and universities. When the young man told them,”Tell them we are rising,” we thought that was a great title and really kind of had the feeling that we wanted the film to have. The feeling of rising, of positivity, of moving forward.

There’s one point in the documentary where HBCU grads spoke about the type of care and concern teachers showed. It was almost like extended family. Do you think that still exists at HBCUs today?

I think one of the things that HBCUs have done and still do is that they provide a very nurturing environment for their students and that’s been one of the hallmarks for HBCUs since the beginning. That’s something that they still do today. They not only educate, but tell students they can do it. There’s a huge number of students on Pell grants. There’s a huge number of students who are the first generation in their families to attend college. Students are going to need that nurturing, support, that love that they’ll get at HBCUs. It helps them to go forward. In my own family, my father and his brother were the first people to graduate high school. My father went on to Howard and was nurtured there. He was told over and over again that he could do it, that college was for him and he could make it. He went on to the [Howard University College of Dentistry], became a dentist, and is one of the reasons why I’m sitting here talking to you today.

In the 1970s, there were protests at Southern University stemming from financial problems and resources being distributed unevenly. Today, it seems like some of our schools continue that uphill battle. What will it take to preserve these legacies? How can HBCUs survive and thrive?

What I’ve realized today is that we can philosophize about what they need, but really the answer to that is what we can do to support HBCUs. That’s either to support your school or the school of your choice. You can support the Thurgood Marshall College Fund or the United Negro College Fund, which together financially represents the vast majority of HBCUs. Naturally, the question is what can I do to support these HBCUs. And I think it is to give financially. I’m going to do that. I’m going to start tithing my little bit of money per month to HBCUs, and I’ll be glad to do it. I will feel better knowing me and my family give every month to support HBCUs. I think that’s really the answer. We can talk about what HBCUs can do better, but that real question is what we can do as individuals — and collectively?

You’ve visited various HBCU campuses to promote Tell Them We Are Rising. What was that like?

It was crazy. It was great. People came in their school colors and we had standing ovations. What was interesting was that people came from the different cities and towns we were in and also in other school colors, because not everybody in that town went to the same school. People would cheer when their schools came on. The reaction was just wonderful.

These are the schools that I’ve gone to with the film: Howard, Dillard, Jackson State, Virginia State, Fisk, Claflin, Florida A&M, Tennessee State, Texas Southern, Southern, Shaw, Benedict, Morgan State, South Carolina State, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Spelman, North Carolina Central and Allen. Those are the schools that I went to. The film also went to many other schools that I didn’t visit myself. It’s been incredible to be on these campuses, to be with the students and faculty, and see the energy and the love the people have for their HBCUs.

I would be exhausted if I were you.

I am! But it’s been great and fun.

What’s next for you?

[Tell Them We Are Rising] is part of a trilogy we’re doing for PBS. The first film was The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The third is called The Slave Trade: Creating a New World, which is about the Atlantic slave trade and the business of slavery. We’ll be taking a new look at all the incredible new research that’s been done on the slave trade and try to look at it as this business that existed and set so many things that we know today.

How do you balance promotion of this film, and production on the next?

I don’t know how to answer that question. We have a great producer working on the slave trade project. The producer is researching and getting the project off the ground. We’re still raising money for that project and we’re going to go into full production mode pretty soon. We did the same thing with Tell Them We Are Rising. I was running around with the Black Panthers, and we had a great co-producer and co-director named Marco Williams who really worked to do research, get the project off the ground and do a lot of the interviews with this film. As a filmmaker who wants to eat and support a family, it’s not like I can make a film and then stop, wait another year and go on to the next film. I have to figure out how to keep working.

What do you hope the audience takes away from this documentary? Is there one thing you hope resonates more than others?

I hope that the audience is entertained. It’s one of the things we try to do while making these films. Sometimes, they can have a very important and lasting point, but it doesn’t do anything if you’re not entertained by the film. We want them to be entertained and be told something new and have them learn from these great stories that we tell. But the bottom line is that, hopefully at the end, they understand the importance and the pivotal role that black colleges have played not only in the lives of African-Americans, but in all Americans in the world. At certain changing points in our history, it’s been black colleges and black college students who have led the way.


Why ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ is a must-see The documentary tells the story of how black colleges brought our people out of slavery

I have watched Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Tell Them We Are Rising, three times now.

The first viewing was in 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival, where Nelson and his team received a standing ovation after the audience watched the film. The second was last summer at a private screening in New York, where Nelson discussed the film and filmmaking with five students from historically black colleges. The third time I joined an audience in the Oprah Winfrey Theater at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to view the film on Monday with Nelson in attendance.

Each viewing uncovers new nuggets of insight that underlined the tenacity and resilience of enslaved men and women so desperate for education that they risked death to learn to read.

Nelson said he was inspired to tackle Tell Them We Are Rising for multiple reasons.

His parents attended historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His mother, Alleluia Ransom, attended Talladega College in Alabama. His father, Dr. Stanley Nelson, attended Howard University. “That changed their lives, and it changed my life,” he said.

Nelson’s larger vision was to pay homage to a significant African-American institution. The subject was not particularly sexy, but it illuminated the quest for black freedom through the prism of higher education. “There have been just a few institutions that we’ve had as African-Americans that have sustained us,” Nelson said during a recent interview. “One of them is black colleges and universities. I thought that it was a story that nobody was lining up to tell.”

With several Emmys, a Peabody and MacArthur Fellowship, Nelson has become one of the country’s most accomplished documentarians. This film, Tell Them We Are Rising, may have been one of the most difficult he has attempted.

There were challenges and hurdles. The first was how to take a collection of great but individual HBCU stories and weave them into a narrative that described a powerful, overarching experience.

“So many times, people think of it as the Morgan State story or the Howard story or the Fisk story or the Spelman story,” Nelson said. “Nobody was looking at it as a united story.”

Unlike his powerful civil rights documentary Freedom Summer, based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, there was no one classic text to draw from. In Tell Them We Are Rising, Nelson and his team had to piece together footage, articles, photographs, “everything we could” to tell a captivating story.

The other challenge was telling the story of an institution whose history continues to unfold.

His 2015 documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, accounted for a period between 1966 to 1972 and chronicled certain watershed moments. By contrast, Tell Them We Are Rising covers the 150-year journey of black colleges in 90 minutes.

Some scenes were especially hard to watch, as the film explores historical events particularly personal to African-American viewers, such as the killings by law enforcement of Southern University students Denver Smith and Leonard Brown during 1972 protests, which remain unsolved.

Every black college graduate 65 or older lived through one of these moments, whether at a predominantly white institution petitioning for more black awareness or at an HBCU petitioning a conservative administration to take back its blackness.

But as president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund Michael Lomax said, the story of HBCUs is not simply a story of deprivation, need and want.

“The story of HBCUs as Stanley tells it is the story of powerful action,” Lomax said. “There are so many stories to choose from we had to figure out what stories would work and leave the audience with a sense of what black colleges have been and maybe where they are going.”

One of the most poignant moments of Tell Them We Are Rising takes place at Spelman College when Alversia Wade, an incoming freshman, explains why she chose the institution.

Wade spent her young academic career, from kindergarten through high school, as the single black student in her school. She describes the feeling of walking on campus and seeing a sea of fellow black students. “They all look like you,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “They all looked like you.”

Tell Them We are Rising, which airs Monday night on PBS, comes at a time when there is a hunger for positive, powerful images and good news within the far-flung black community.

On Friday, Marvel’s much-anticipated superhero film, Black Panther, will open in theaters across the country. Nelson was working on his Black Panther documentary when Marvel announced it was planning to release its superhero movie in 2018.

“When I first heard about it, I thought about Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and the bunch,” Nelson said.

There was some confusion. “People would call up and say, ‘I hear you’re working on this Black Panther film, is it Marvel or is it DC?’ ” Nelson recalled. “I said it’s neither one of them. It’s real life.”

He looks forward to seeing the film. “It’s that it’s creating so much excitement. Like, it’s something African-Americans needed and didn’t know they needed.”

The HBCU student, in many ways, is like the hero of Black Panther — a mythical African superhero existing outside the suffocating institutionalized racism that defines virtually every minute, every hour, of life for black Americans. While their institutions are often under-resourced, black students who choose the HBCU experience enjoy the psychic respite and reinforcement of being in the majority.

At a time when 9 percent of black college students were enrolled at an HBCU in 2015, the often-asked question is do we still need HBCUs? The question overlooks the reality that 90 percent of black students are spread over thousands of predominantly white institutions, leaving those who attend a significant but often overwhelmed minority. The largest concentration of young black college students resides at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities. For many young students, that alone is worth the price of the ticket.

HBCUs are not for everyone, no more than single-gender schools are not for everyone. Still, black colleges and universities are needed more than ever.

During a post-film panel discussion Monday, former Spelman president Johnetta Cole said, “If historically black colleges and universities did not exist, we would have to invent them. … Since they do exist, we have an extraordinary responsibility to support them.”

“Until racism and racialism end in this country, there will be a need for HBCUs,” Nelson told me. “Until the education system is an even playing field — from elementary school to junior high school until college, until those things are equal — we still need HBCUs. Until we have an equal society, young African-American people need a safe intellectual space that HBCUs provide.”

Lomax, the United Negro College Fund president and CEO, said Tell Them We Are Rising was “an inspirational story. It is a call to action to our community, first and foremost to invest in them, to own them, to support them and to ensure that they remain durable in the future.”

That resonates.

Tell Them We Are Rising challenges those of us who attended HBCUs. A challenge to look in the mirror, to step up, to donate what Cole referred to as the three Ts: our time, our talent and our treasure.

This is the only way HBCUs will continue to rise.

“These institutions will not survive without our support,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”

To share in the conversation about Tell them We Are Rising, join us on social media Monday, using the hashtags #HBCURising and #BHMxHBCU.

‘Black Panther’ director Ryan Coogler got ready for his high-intensity life on the gridiron In high school, one of the director’s toughest battles was against Marshawn Lynch

As wide receiver, a lot of times you run routes where you can’t even see the ball. You just got to hope that it’s there when you turn your head. You got to trust your teammates to do their job. You’ve got to trust that the lineman is going to block. You’ve got to trust that the quarterback is going to have the right read. And then when … the ball is in the air, you got to catch it. All those things, when it comes to filmmaking? It’s direct preparation.
Ryan Coogler, director, Black Panther

Monday night is game time for Ryan Coogler. There’s a great deal at stake — and he knows it. The director/co-writer of Black Panther is finally showing his masterpiece to friends, cast members, taste makers and a few critics at the much-anticipated Hollywood premiere of his long-awaited film.

Coogler likely hasn’t felt this much pressure since he went up against Marshawn Lynch in a football game during his junior year in their Oakland, California, hometown. “I played against a lot of dudes that were really, really good,” the director said. “Marshawn was probably the best.”

But Monday night? It’s time to put points up on the board. Again.

In this new film, we are transported to the fictional land of Wakanda — and go deep into the story of the Black Panther, portrayed by Chadwick Boseman. But Coogler’s own origin story is one for the history books, as well. “A lot of kids struggle. Somebody asks you who you are, man, you got to be something, ‘Are you in the streets? Are you an athlete? What are you? Growing up, it was always one of those two things,” Coogler said. “My father worked at juvenile hall. It would have broke his heart if I’d become that.”

Ryan Kyle Coogler grew up in Bushrod, which when he was growing up was a well-known predominantly black neighborhood in North Oakland. There was a parks and rec center that served as a gathering place for young people to participate in sports and other activities. “I started school … when I just 4,” said Coogler, 31. “I was doing fine academically, but I was having a tough time because I was smaller than the other kids. I got picked on … because I didn’t fit in. There’s a big difference between a kid at 4 versus a kid who’s 6. So I was dealing with that.”

But Coogler’s life was blessed. His mom Joselyn was a community organizer, and his dad Ira was a juvenile hall probation counselor who had played youth and prep football. Both parents were educated at California State University, East Bay, back when it was known as California State University, Hayward. But his life wasn’t a reality for many of his neighborhood friends. “Where we were living … there were kids that were on Section 8,” Coogler said from his office on the Disney studio lot. “There were housing projects … right behind us. I would play with those kids, but I would get teased … because I went to a nicer school. I had both parents in the house. So, I didn’t really fit in.”

“I was a physical kid. I had a lot of anger issues … I wanted to find somewhere where I could fit in. And football provided an outlet … ”

And back then, his part of North Oakland didn’t really have a youth football team. At the age of 7, he ended up trying out for the nearby Berkeley Cougars because he thought the name was cool, and because it was a different team than his dad played for. For the young Coogler the team felt like home. Almost immediately. “I was a physical kid,” he said. “I had a lot of anger issues. I would get picked on, so I would fight a lot. I wanted to find somewhere where I could fit in. And football provided an outlet for both of those things.”

Football gave Coogler some balance. “I remember stepping on the field for the first time in Berkeley … it was one of the first moments where I was like, ‘Yeah, my life has changed.’ I found something that I’m good at, that I actually like, that I can look forward to. I felt like I belonged.” Coogler stuck with the sport, becoming captain of Saint Mary’s College High School Panthers, where he also excelled in track and basketball.

He was a standout student who had dreams of studying chemistry and going to medical school — if a professional football career didn’t pan out. By the time he hit his senior year in 2003, he was being heavily recruited by schools such as Harvard, Princeton and Penn — his academics were on point.

“He’s our head coach on every production. It starts with him and it trickles down. He gives you the feeling of trust.”

“I wasn’t tall enough, or fast enough … to really get Pac 10 offers,” said Coogler, who played wide receiver. “I came close, but I wasn’t good enough to get those rides. I got injured my senior year … missed a few of those key games. I actually ended up coming back to play against Marshawn our senior year, which was a great game.” He said it’s one of his fondest memories from high school. “We ended up tying.”

Bob Solorio/Sacrament State Athletics

Coogler loved Penn, but got a full scholarship to Saint Mary’s College of California. “I could still be close to home,” he said, “and Saint Mary’s College, they’d just hired an African-American coach, which is a big deal to me.” Also at the time, Derek Mason, currently head coach at Vanderbilt, was the defensive coordinator at Saint Mary’s. “He was an incredible coach, man … I really admired him. I admired working with him, and thought he was so sharp.” Once in Moraga, California, though, the balancing act of being student-athlete kicked in.

“It was crazy hard. We were practicing all the time. I ended up playing as a true freshman, so I was having a tough time my freshman year dealing with the labs, and all of the crap that was coming with chemistry. My grades were suffering, so I was coming to the stark realization, ‘Man, I probably can’t do this major and be a football player.’ It just wasn’t going to work out,” he said.

A buddy of his was majoring in accounting. “He was like, ‘Man, switch up to this business school major, you don’t have to take these crazy labs. And you can still have a good career for yourself.’ So, I already was thinking of changing majors … and then we had to take a creative writing class at Saint Mary’s. That’s where I met Rosemary Graham. She read one of my assignments, and said, ‘I think you should write screenplays.’ That was how I realized that I had a talent for writing, and I realized, maybe I want to find out how to make movies.”

It was 2004, though, and something major happened that shocked everyone on his team — the school decided to drop the football program.“Devastating,” Coogler said. “I realized how little control you have over your life as an athlete.”

Coogler didn’t have to sit out. Because the season was good, and because, as he says, he “had some really decent takes against a real good opponent,” he ended up being recruited again. New Mexico State, Brigham Young University, and Sacramento State were the schools that came calling. He ruled out New Mexico State because they wanted him to play defensive back — when he was at Saint Mary’s, he played receiver, defensive back, and he returned kicks.

“I realized how little control you have over your life as an athlete.”

Brigham Young wanted him to return kicks. But Sacramento State worked best because it was close to home, Coogler is tight with his family and he would still get to be near his two younger brothers, Noah and Keenan. It was a good move for him — in his four years there as receiver, he grabbed 112 receptions for 1,213 yards and six touchdowns.

Yet, it wasn’t all about football. “Sac State had some interesting film production programs, too. I majored in finance … and took some of those film classes,” he said. But it was football that disciplined Coogler. The sport taught him how to deal with negativity. It gave him confidence, and a fulfillment like nothing he’d ever experienced.

Until Hollywood.

It didn’t take long for Coogler to find something else that fed him the way football did. Exactly 10 years after he left high school — where he’d been elected to the homecoming court and won Best Smile and Best Physique — a new game plan kicked off.

It was in 2013 when his debut indie film Fruitvale Station, won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was the story about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, the young Oakland man who was killed on New Year’s Eve in 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer. His story was brought to life by actor Michael B. Jordan, who, before this moment, was likely best known as Vince Howard in NBC’s Friday Night Lights, and of course as tragic corner boy Wallace from The Wire.

“Ryan’s the truth. He’ll never say it. He doesn’t like compliments that much, and he’s real low-key and humble, but Ryan, athletically, he was a stud,” said Jordan, who has become a frequent collaborator with Coogler, most recently on their successful reboot of Rocky with 2015’s Creed. “He played with Marshawn Lynch in college — not on the same team, but against each other. [And] he holds some record at Sac State. Ryan’s that guy!”

“ ‘Are you in the streets? Are you an athlete? What are you?’ Growing up, it was always one of those two things.”

Coogler also is quite competitive on set, Jordan said, laughing because they’ve waged bets on foot races and wrestling competitions while working on films together. “He’s our head coach on every production. It starts with him and it trickles down. He gives you the feeling of trust,” said Jordan, who portrays a villain in Black Panther. “If he tells me to run through that wall, it ain’t gon’ hurt, I’m going to believe him. I’m going to go right through it. There’s something about him that makes you want to follow him as a leader. That’s superimportant as a director.”

And now, perhaps, here’s Coogler’s biggest moment. He’s co-written and directed one of the most anticipated films of the year — a predominantly black film with a Marvel-sized budget and Marvel-sized expectations. The pressure is real.

And Coogler is a perfectionist who knows what’s on the line. If this film does what nearly everyone is expecting it to do — a box office stunner that’s well-received critically and paves the way for other such films to get the greenlight — then a major shift in Hollywood is on the horizon. A lot of eyes are on him, but he’s keeping his cool — for now. Because football taught him how to do that.

“A lot of the things I’ve learned, I learned from playing football. You gotta lead a group of people against sometimes insurmountable odds. Every week, you’ve got to prepare for an opponent. You watch game tape. You prep. You get all your players up. But you get out there, you never know what to expect,” Coogler said. “I’m 31 years old … this is a high-intensity job. You’re responsible for a lot of money. You’re responsible for a lot of people’s livelihoods, and more importantly, you’re responsible for the audience’s dreams and expectations. There’s no way I’d be able to do this job if I hadn’t had the experience I have from playing organized sports. I’d be a different person.”

Live from Sundance: Spike Lee says he’ll celebrate iconic Air Jordan ads at NBA All-Star Weekend The legendary director is on top of the world with his Netflix version of ‘She’s Gotta Have It’

Spike Lee was center stage at a brunch Monday morning to celebrate his successful Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It.

The series, he says, was the brainchild of his wife Tonya Lewis Lee. The idea for doing the series on the digital streaming service was born two years ago, at Sundance, which is the largest independent film festival in the country. “From day one I told people we’re not making television — we’re making cinema. I directed all 10 episodes. We’re making a long a– movie. I was never making this for TV,” Lee said. “When the original film came out in 1986 it was only 86 minutes, so it was a joy to come back and revisit this.”

It was another packed house for a Blackhouse Foundation event — standing room only as people juggled plates of sausage, eggs, fruits, mini pastries and cups of juice. Lee also said this is the 30th anniversary of the commercials he made with Michael Jordan, something he’ll celebrate at the NBA All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles.

“We’re going to go in the writers room in February for the second season,” he said of the Netflix series. Lee joked to much crowd laughter that if Malcolm X had been four hours, Denzel Washington might have won the Oscar for best actor instead of Al Pacino.

Up next for Lee is a new movie, Black Klansman, which he said will soon go into production and will star John David Washington.

Sundance 2018: Forest Whitaker, Jada Pinkett Smith, Idris Elba brave the snow, push passion projects ‘Sorry To Bother You’ and ‘Yardie’ are ready for the world

PARK CITY, UTAH — Walking the streets of the Sundance Film Festival, you run into some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Oscar winner Forest Whitaker is one of the many in town pitching a film he helped to produce, Sorry To Bother You, which premiered Saturday night in Park City, and stars Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Jermaine Fowler, Armie Hammer, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews and Danny Glover. The film takes place in Oakland, California: A telemarketer has discovered a magical key to success. Whitaker was seen popping out of an SUV on Main Street, waving at fans as they snapped shots of him.

Navigating the crowds on Park City’s Main Street was the brave Hollywood heartthrob Idris Elba, who premiered his directorial debut with Yardie. The film starts in Kingston, Jamaica, in the ’70s and goes to the Hackney area of London in the ’80s, all the while following a man who is out for retribution after his brother’s murder.

At the DirecTV Lodge, folks were watching the NFL playoff games while staying far away from the cold. The cast members of the social media-themed Assassination Nation, which includes Colman Domingo, Anika Noni Rose and Kelvin Harrison Jr., were there and, as they left, they were greeted by fans holding placards, asking for autographs. A line was wrapped around Sundance’s Blackhouse — people were hoping to get into a panel on which Jada Pinkett Smith was speaking and into the subsequent reception hosted by the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation.

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.”

Live from Sundance: from ‘Compton’ to ‘Mudbound’ and ‘The Chi’ — actor Jason Mitchell is the next superstar Next up? A ‘Get Out’-like film called ‘Tyrel,’ and he’s in the remake of ‘Superfly’

PARK CITY, UTAH — Come Tuesday morning, Jason Mitchell is hoping that he hears at least two familiar names called when the Academy Award nominations are announced. The Academy Awards — the Oscars — are the biggest honor in Hollywood and Mitchell, who starred in both Detroit and Mudbound, is hopeful that the two women who directed him in each of those films get their due.

You likely know Mitchell’s work from his excellent turn as rap icon Eazy-E in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton. Since then, he’s upped the ante by turning in impressive work in 2017’s Mudbound, 2017’s Detroit, and most recently in Showtime’s The Chi. It also was announced last week that he’ll be in the Superfly remake as Eddie; the film that will be directed by Director X and also will star Grown-ish actor Trevor Jackson as Youngblood Priest.

“I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of really dope women,” Mitchell says, at the Sundance Film Festival. “And Dee Rees and Kathryn Bigelow are two of those people who are being talked about. It would be good … to see them do their thing [at the Oscars]. It’s not my vision. I just came and did my job — they just told me exactly what to do, and I went over-the-top. [But] I think it would be nice to see women defy something.”

Mitchell is at the festival promoting his latest, Tyrel, a dramatic film about being the only black guy on a dude’s trip the weekend of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and is being called “2018’s answer to Get Out”). It premiered Saturday night to a crowd that included Emmy-winner / The Chi creator Lena Waithe. Mitchell says he’s inspired by the #TimesUp movement and is ready to see the progression for women in the industry take place.

“Women know how to … fight for it,” he says, sitting on a couch in the Grey Goose Lounge off of the city’s Main Street, a space where actors like Jeffrey Wright, Debra Messing and John Cho are milling about. “I would just like for female directors to get what they deserve. Not just directors, females in the business in general. It’d be nice to see them on those stages.”

Sundance previews ‘Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and  The Notorious B.I.G.’  Will it have the same vibe as FX’s award-winning ‘People v. O.J. Simpson’?

PARK CITY, UTAH: Before the start of the panel about Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G — a limited series coming to USA Networks on February 27, a DJ blasted tracks that made both of the legendary rappers household names. More than twenty years after the genre-lifting rappers were killed, people are still celebrating, dancing and rapping along to the music that soundtracked much of the 1990s. “We get to see what we’ve rarely gotten to see, which is the friendship between biggie and Tupac,” said director and executive producer Anthony Hemingway, who shared Emmy victories for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Also on the panel was showrunner Kyle Long, co-producer / music supervisor Lyah Leflore, Josh Duhamel (L.A. to Vegas, Call of Duty WWII) Marcc Rose (Tupac) and Wavyy Jonez (Big).

Before the start of the conversation, guests viewed an amazing never-before-seen trailer. “We get to see them from a young age,” said Hemingway. “We deal with Biggie before he was a celebrity. We get to learn who they were as artists, and get to see their pain.” Actor Duhamel said that his series is done very in the vein of People v. OJ. While in college, he rushed home daily to watch the real-life courtroom drama and because of that, he thought he knew everything about OJ — but was was blown away by the FX because he realized how much he didn’t know. “Even those who grew up on the rappers’ music,” says Duhamel, “and were around during the times of their deaths, will be astounded at all that they discover [in this series].”