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?”

New documentary reminds us that even Toni Morrison had to fight off the haters After she won the Nobel Prize, there were still critics who said her focus on black women was too narrow

For years, one take has ruled the internet as the quintessential example of screwing up as utterly as a critic possibly can.

The headline “Beyoncé: She’s No Ashanti” graced The New York Times’ review of the singer’s debut solo album, Dangerously in Love. It persists in reminding us of the possibility of committing a boo-boo so grand it becomes synonymous with “strong and wrong.”

I was reminded of that headline after seeing the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance and is now playing in theaters. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (The Black List, The Women’s List) for the PBS series American Masters (no airdate has been announced), the film reveals how a number of cultural institutions failed to recognize the genius of Morrison, even as she created a body of work that disrupted a largely white and male literary canon.

The new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am showed that Morrison was subjected to the sort of doubt that black women are all too familiar with.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Reviewing Sula for The New York Times in 1973, one writer chided Morrison for her continued focus on black life: “… in spite of its richness and its thorough originality, one continually feels its narrowness. … Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.”

The film shows Morrison’s response to that kind of critique through archival footage from Charlie Rose’s talk show, pre-#MeToo revelations: “The assumption is that the reader is a white person,” Morrison tells Rose. “That troubled me.”

Similar worries persisted for years. In 1988, 48 black writers published an open letter in the Times protesting the fact that Morrison had not won a National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.

The critique of Morrison wasn’t only about race. Some African American men weren’t shy about their complaints when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for Beloved in 1993. The novel was inspired by the real story of an enslaved Kentucky woman named Margaret Garner. Garner ran away, and when the man who owned her tracked her down, Garner killed her children, slitting one’s throat and drowning the other, offering mortal escape from lives of bondage and degradation.

“I hope this prize inspires her to write better books,” Stanley Crouch told The Washington Post. “She has a certain skill, but she has no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity. ‘Beloved’ was a fraud. It gave a fake vision of the slave trade, it didn’t deal with the complicity of Africans, and it moved the males into the wings. ‘The Bluest Eye’ was her best. I thought something was going to happen after that. Nothing did.”

It’s frustrating to discover that Morrison, one of the greatest writers of her generation, spent years being dismissed.

Charles Johnson, who won the National Book Award in 1990 for Middle Passage, grumbled about Morrison’s commitment to writing through a lens of feminism and black cultural nationalism.

“When that particular brand of politics is filtered through her mytho-poetic writing, the result is often offensive, harsh,” Johnson said. “Whites are portrayed badly. Men are. Black men are.” The award, he added, “was a triumph of political correctness.”

It’s frustrating to discover that Morrison, one of the greatest writers of her generation, spent years being dismissed. For as long as I have known the name Toni Morrison, she has been synonymous with envy-inspiring genius. When I was a child, her 60 Minutes interviews were appointment television. Her books, dense with complex themes and rich with metaphor, were among those my parents would allow me to read before they were truly age-appropriate. Morrison was so exceptional that rules could bend to allow for the consumption of her words. (Meanwhile, Judy Blume and Terry McMillan had to be secreted away from the public library near our house and read under the covers.)

And yet she was subjected to the sort of doubt with which black women are all too familiar, because of her race and because of her gender. It’s the disrespect that propels so many black parents to forcefully instill in their children the directive that they must not hide their intellectual lights under bushels but instead sport them proudly. After all, the chances that someone else will care to illuminate such gifts are slim.

“I am very, very smart early in the day,” Morrison says to the camera in The Pieces I Am, purring with the swagger of a woman who knows she has the goods as she explains her writing process. She begins at 5 a.m. (a habit that began after she gave birth to two sons) and continues till noon. She doesn’t particularly care for afternoon or evening scribbling, and her preferred method of recording her thoughts is in neat cursive on yellow legal pads.

In one jaw-dropping moment, Paula Giddings, author of When and Where I Enter, a history of black women in America, shares that she worked as an assistant at Random House when Morrison was there as a full-time editor. Morrison asked Giddings to type up pages of her legal pad in exchange for a homemade carrot cake. Years later, Giddings realized that she’d been transcribing a draft of The Bluest Eye.

The critique of Morrison wasn’t only about race. Some African American men complained when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for Beloved in 1993.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Visually, The Pieces I Am is largely static, relying on still photographs, scenes from the deck of Morrison’s home in Lorain, Ohio, and the art of Jacob Lawrence, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, and Kerry James Marshall spliced between footage of interviews with the author’s friends, colleagues and admirers, including Giddings, Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley, Fran Lebowitz, The New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als and Oprah Winfrey.

“She’s the architect, the midwife and the artist,” Als remarks.

Greenfield-Sanders has known Morrison since 1981, and their ease with each other is apparent in Morrison’s candor and body language. Even as she reveals that there’s a private part of herself that few will see, Morrison is witty, charming and a little mischievous. “The moment I got to Howard [University], I was loose,” she tells her interviewer, grinning. “It was lovely, I loved it … I don’t regret it.” Now 88, Morrison remains an inspiration for many reasons, but especially because she believed in her own talents long before the institutional arbiters of such things caught on to them.

“I was more interesting than they were,” Morrison says. “I knew more than they did.”

What we’ll miss about ‘2 Dope Queens’: Guilt-free laughs in troubled times The specials on HBO and the podcast are coming to an end

This year marks the end of HBO’s 2 Dope Queens specials, as well as the original podcast by comics Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson.

Now that they’ve opened for Oprah Winfrey and dished with former first lady Michelle Obama about hair, both Williams and Robinson are moving on. Robinson recently appeared in What Men Want, and Williams is in the new indie comedy Corporate Animals, which debuted at Sundance in January.

Their kiki-ing and fangirling over various celebrities has always been amusing. This season includes segments with Daniel Radcliffe, Lupita Nyong’o, Janet Mock and one particularly memorable flute lesson with singer-rapper Lizzo, who can perhaps best be described as Trap Donna Summer. Other recurring bits: the celebration of wigs, which are no longer just for your grandmother when she’s putting on her going-out clothes, and Williams’ cracks about her size 11 feet.

But one of my favorite aspects of the shows has always been Williams’ cheerleading for therapy, which she will happily discuss with friends and strangers alike.

“Even when I don’t feel like going, I always walk out like, ‘That was the best thing.’ It’s like a workout,” Williams told me recently. “It’s like you pay someone money — hopefully with just a gentle copay with your insurance. It’s like every time I go, I’m really happy that I did it. And not only that, but my friends go too, and I find that whenever I need advice from any of the homies, I always ask my therapy homies because they can process things better. But the ones that don’t go to therapy? You’re like, ‘You’re really popping off in a way that doesn’t feel nice or kind or well thought-out or compassionate.’

“I think therapy encourages you to acknowledge your feelings and also realize that you are in a world where a lot of people feel a ways and everyone’s trying all the time. It gives you compassion for yourself and it gives you compassion for others.”

Lupita Nyong’o, Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson on an episode of ‘2 Dope Queens.’

Courtesy of HBO

Perhaps that’s what allows Williams (Robinson does not go to therapy, though she supports it) to consistently find the light in an overwhelmingly dark time and, in turn, offer a balm to this cursed era of Blackface History Month. 2 Dope Queens provides permission for its audience to laugh and enjoy the utterly superficial, one hour at a time, without feeling guilty about it. It’s a frothy escape, powered by underrepresented comics and two women who can embrace their brand of ridiculous and not need it to be anything more.

The last of the 2 Dope Queens specials, taped at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, New York, in December, will air for the next three Friday nights on HBO.

What if the NBA were player-owned? ‘High Flying Bird’ imagines the ultimate disruption In director Steven Soderbergh’s new film, the power struggle and activism across sports comes into focus

André Holland’s eyes were wide open.

A lifelong sports fan — college hoops and professional basketball strike his fancy — Holland enjoyed the game. Loved basketball. The mechanics of seeing larger-than-life players running the ball up and down the court, leaping in the sky and landing an on-the-mark hook shot, alley-oop, slam dunk, you name it, was the ultimate payoff.

Then came the recent college basketball protests. Then he picked up Harry Edwards’ 1968 The Revolt of the Black Athlete. And then, as they might say, Holland woke up. “The inequities in sports made me re-evaluate,” said the Alabama native, a transformative actor who has been in some of the best films of the past few years: 2013’s 42 (the Jackie Robinson biopic that introduced the world to Chadwick Boseman), Selma (Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. biopic) and Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight.

“[I] realized that there’s been a long history of athletic athlete activism,” said Holland, who had a nugget of a film idea. “I wanted to explore that and … do my part in pushing conversations forward.”

How he’s hoping to do that is with his new High Flying Bird, directed by Academy Award winner Steven Soderbergh and written by Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney. The two men brought his nugget to life. The film is about a sports agent who, during a lockout, pitches his rookie basketball client an intriguing and controversial business opportunity: taking the power out of NBA owners’ hands by selling a one-on-one game to a streaming outlet — rather like what we see in the boxing world.

“Why don’t these guys own a bigger piece of this, if not own the game outright?” — Steven Soderbergh

“I’ve always been interested in the business of sports,” said Soderbergh. “And when it came to the NBA in particular, I always wondered … [when] they go through contract negotiations … why don’t these guys own a bigger piece of this, if not own the game outright? As technology developed, especially in the last five to 10 years, and streaming for a wide audience became viable, I returned to the idea of, wow, you really could start a league and finance it by selling all of the streaming by subscription or by advertising revenue. … That was the popping-off point. Can we come up with … a what-if story in which somebody decides, let’s stick our toe in the water of what it would be like to set up a player-based entity … apart from the NBA? What kind of forces would mobilize to keep that from happening?”

High Flying Bird, which is set to stream on Netflix on Friday, is a disrupter. It’s the kind of film that sparks conversation, and maybe some change. Holland also is the film’s executive producer, and in a way the film’s throughline of taking control mirrors his own career in Hollywood. Holland is a leading man. And this is his shot. And like the crafty sports agent he plays in High Flying Bird, he created his own opportunity.

“Just wanting more out of my career,” said Holland, “wanting more than acting, I’m having to take a cold, hard look at the landscape, and … it didn’t look so hopeful. I felt this need to create my own opportunities, and that’s probably what we all have been doing … and need to do more of. Not wait on people to open doors for us, but find those doors, create those doors ourselves.”

In this what-if narrative that Soderbergh pauses at key moments to intersplice real-life NBA players — Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Reggie Jackson — talking through their own truths, Holland’s character has recently discovered that his client, who happens to be No. 1 draft pick Erick Scott (played by Melvin Gregg), has taken out a high-interest loan and, because of the lockout, he can’t pay it back now that there aren’t any checks coming in. Much of the film feels very thriller-heist — an Ocean’s Eleven-, Crash-, Magic Mike-style Soderbergh staple — but set in the fast-paced world of organized professional sports.

McCraney began working on the script amid the NFL/Colin Kaepernick controversy, protests and the sex abuse scandal in USA Gymnastics. “It was … a strange time,” said McCraney. “There [were] moments where black athletes were looking at the way they were being treated. And then this book, Harry Edwards’ … the 50th anniversary edition of the book was coming out. … It was definitely in the air, and we wanted to make sure that we were talking about it.”

“The NBA is the system we looked at for this film, but … it’s just an examination of systems that we take for granted.”
— André Holland

So much of what we’re seeing unfold in real sports storylines centers on power struggle — whether that be social injustices and/or players vs. owner infrastructure. Both are in play in Soderbergh’s fictional world of basketball and make for a compelling story that, even with mixed early reviews, holds beautifully.

“Look, you love the game,” McCraney said. “You love going down the court, you love screaming at people to catch the ball, run the block out. But those people have to get up the court with all the victories that they made [or didn’t make]. That may affect them financially, may affect them in their interpersonal relationships … the fact that there’s a team owner and that they’re called ‘owners’ — that has implications. That has interpersonal implications. We need to continue to look at that.”

The film feels like activism in a lot of ways. The slavery comparisons between professional basketball are overarching. No way did they want that message to be subtle.

“The majority of the folks who [are] on the court are black in the NBA. The majority of the owners who are making surmountable living are white, older men. I think between myself and André and Soderbergh … we want to bring [about that] conversation,” McCraney said. “Also, just to have questions. André, I believe, asked a question like ‘What if all the black players decided they weren’t gonna play? What does that do?’ ”

“What it would be like to set up a player-based entity … apart from the NBA? What kind of forces would mobilize to keep that from happening?” — Steven Soderbergh

What it’s doing for now is being a compelling film that also co-stars Sonja Sohn as the attorney representing the head of the players’ association. “Athletes bring a story of competition and someone’s rise into fame in the world of sports. It’s the ultimate hero’s journey,” Sohn said. “Everybody can relate to that dream, and I think in particular a lot of young men without opportunities … latch on to that dream.”

That’s what Holland is hoping for: that people latch on and listen. And if change is evoked? “I hope it inspires people to exercise their own interest in whatever field or situation is in front of them. The NBA is the system we looked at for this particular film, but … it’s just an examination of systems that we sometimes take for granted,” Holland said. “At the center of it is, what if we did control [our] own s—? What if we just controlled all our own stuff? What might that look like? Regardless of the industry.”

In ‘Creed II,’ Michael B. Jordan takes a beating and keeps on ticking With unforgettable roles in ‘Black Panther’ and now ‘Creed,’ he’s the poster boy for 2018

The American patriot and central hero of Creed II has zero interest in making googly eyes at Vladimir Putin.

Director Steven Caple Jr. made his feature debut in 2016 at Sundance with The Land, a story about skateboarders set in Cleveland. In the latest chapter of the Creed franchise, he turns a good ol’ Russian-American showdown into a deceptively fun vehicle for exploring ideas about race, patriotism, leadership and modern American masculinity. The satisfaction it brings hits unexpectedly hard, the work of a story originally written by Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker and then rewritten a couple of times, including by Juel Taylor and star and producer Sylvester Stallone.

Having ascended to heavyweight champion of the world, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has little time to enjoy his success before boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) presents him with a challenge he can’t ignore. Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the vengeful son of Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) and Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen, who reprises her turncoat role with delicious, biting iciness), wants to fight Adonis, and he wants to fight him bad. This feud is generational: Ivan killed Adonis’ father, Apollo, in the ring before getting beaten by Rocky Balboa (Stallone). The Dragos, still stinging from Ludmilla’s abandonment, have been wallowing in shame and isolation in Ukraine while plotting their way back to the top.

Despite the resurrection of a familiar rivalry, the Cold War enmity that fueled the subtext of the Rocky movies has given way in Creed II to a more complicated expression of patriotism familiar to many black Americans. Adonis fights for himself, for his community, for his city, for his father’s legacy.

They’re too polite to say it, but it’s clear that his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and his mother, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), see his fight with Drago as a suicide mission. Being black women with two working sets of eyes, they are, of course, right.

Creed hangs on to his belt, not because he beats Viktor but because the Russian has so little integrity that he can’t resist landing one more knockout punch after the final bell. Bianca becomes Adonis’ personal Horace Greeley, pushing the couple and baby she’s baking out of the cold, claustrophobic confines of Philadelphia and toward Los Angeles sunshine, where Adonis can figure out how to mend his bruised ego. She wants to get her burgeoning music career off the ground while she still can. Thompson’s performance reveals that no director has yet come close to capturing the full breadth of her talents. She stuns as an artsy-yet-commanding chanteuse and takes full advantage of the third act to unfurl a soaring, magical presence.

Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis Creed in Creed II.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

In Drago, Creed is battling not only revenge-seeking Russians but also in-the-flesh white supremacy. Not only is the titanic Viktor Drago bigger, faster and stronger than Creed, he looks like what would result if master-race mad scientists were allowed to manufacture a heavyweight boxer with CRISPR gene editing.

Drago will only agree to a rematch if the fight is held in Russia. Can Creed win when “neutral” has shifted so heavily? Because asking the United Nations to monitor the officiating is not an option, Creed deduces that nothing less than an undisputed TKO will do.

The outcome of Creed II is, of course, wholly predictable. Its appeal lies in how it gets there, charting Creed’s path to redemption through the choking hot air of the California desert. As training montages go, the shift in venue serves Creed II especially well: Caple rewards Jordan’s fans with ample shots of his leading man’s rippling physique as the appropriately named Adonis gears up for the fight of his life.

In Adonis, Caple and executive producer Ryan Coogler have crafted a bridge from a stoic brand of American hypermasculinity, one in which “working class” is immediately coded as white, to a modern one that finds its core in romance and history-making legacy, a point Caple punctuates with a shot of Adonis cradling his daughter, Amara, in his father’s boxing gym as a billboard-sized image of Apollo stands watch in the background. Anger, hunger for revenge and brute strength aren’t enough to vanquish an existential opponent like Viktor Drago. Only focus, endurance and strategic precision will prevail.

Coogler and Caple are the architects of this year’s one-two punch of cinematic black power, with leading man Jordan as the fulcrum. While Coogler used Black Panther to imagine an African utopia untouched by the evils of imperialism, Caple’s latest chapter of the Rocky story projects a vision in which restoring the glory and honor of an imperfect America lies in the hands of a black man.

As Killmonger in Black Panther and Adonis in Creed II, Jordan toggles from an avatar of the lethal efficiency of the American military-industrial complex, molded and calcified by white supremacy, to a symbol of American perseverance, triumph and calculated might on the world stage. These two unforgettable roles have made Jordan the poster boy for 2018.

Adonis Creed may be an American with a world heavyweight title, but in the hands of Coogler and Caple, he belongs to black people first. And the possibilities for what lies ahead are already spinning. Baby Amara is the next generation of the Creed family, and her father has deemed her “a fighter.” Are Coogler, Caple & Co. setting us up for a chapter in which the future is female?

After 30-plus years and 100-plus roles, Samuel L. Jackson ranks his own roles No. 1 is not what you think it is

Samuel L. Jackson, who stars as “Frozone” in this week’s The Incredibles 2, knows a dope character when he sees one. The legendary actor, now 69, has been bringing to life some of the world’s most quotable characters for 30 years now — his first film credit comes from Spike Lee’s 1988 historically black college classic School Daze.

In 2011, Jackson entered the Guinness Book of World Records because he’s had roles in movies with more than $7.4 billion in total box office, making him the highest-grossing actor of all time. Since then, those totals have only grown. And even when he’s not in a high-grossing film, he can simply turn a movie out. He has more than 100 feature film credits, with several repeat roles in big-budget sequels and prequels and more on the way.

Jackson has done a lot over the years, but something he’s never done is rank his own work. In the spring, we sent Jackson a list of his 111 feature films and asked him to rank his top 20. He did it, while qualifying the list as his very own favorite roles. He’s aware that this list will spark arguments from die-hard fans — pun not entirely unintended. With that, in reverse order, Samuel L. Jackson ranks Samuel L. Jackson.

20. Lazarus Red

Black Snake Moan

2006

“Black Snake Moan”

AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

I spent a year learning to play the guitar to do the role. I had a really great guitar teacher … it was fun. Being back in Tennessee and shooting … [I had] an awesome time with Christina [Ricci]. She’s a great actress.

19. Charles Morritz

The Red Violin

1998

“The Red Violin”

AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

A really beautiful film. One of the most cerebral characters that I’ve played. I spent time with guys that made violins so that I’d understand the process of evaluating violins and knowing their authenticity. It’s just a sprawling and beautiful movie.

18. Elmo McElroy

Formula 51

2001

“Formula 51”

Alliance Atlantis/Getty Images

The most appealing part was I got to wear a kilt the whole movie, which was kind of awesome. And I was running around with these golf clubs on my back the whole film. I rocked these braids and a big turtleneck sweater. We shot in Liverpool, where … I knew about soccer, football, but I never invested in it. So because I was there they took me to some Liverpool games and I became a fan.

17. Major Marquis Warren

The Hateful Eight

2015

“The Hateful Eight”

The Weinstein Company

Just because he is who he is. Major Warren. Always fun having a character who explains himself in plain words, and there’s no mistaking who he is and what he’s about.

16. Darius Kincaid

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

2017

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”

Lionsgate Entertainment

I could have put Kincaid higher. I loved doing that film with Ryan [Reynolds]. We were able to put together two interesting characters with really diverse life views that meshed very well. Ain’t it funny?

15. Ordell Robbie

Jackie Brown

1997

“Jackie Brown.”

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Robbie could have been higher on the list. Ordell is just a good-time guy who lives in a world of his own. He’s his own man. He’s a great friend to have, but he’s definitely the wrong guy to cross. He definitely will put you in a trunk of a car. There’s no ‘might’ about that.

14. Ken Carter

Coach Carter

2005

“Coach Carter”

Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Inspirational. A great story. And the real Ken Carter was around all the time, talking and hanging around. … [He] helped me with some of the characterization. And my relationship with those guys — I liked those kids a lot. We had a great time shooting that movie. And in reality, the team won that championship that year, but the studio decided it was a better object lesson to have them lose, after sacrificing and doing all the things they did to let them know that things don’t always work out that way. But the journey is the thing — not the thing.

13. Carl Lee Hailey

A Time to Kill

1996

“A Time To Kill”

Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Carl Lee is a powerful character. And I have a daughter. I understood the dynamic of what was going on … and how it all worked. I have a lot of mixed feelings about that film. I know it’s a powerful film, and it’s great. But we shot a lot of stuff that’s actually not in that movie, which taught me the power of editing. When we did it, I was doing one thing, and then when the film comes out, it looks like Carl Lee had this plan that he was going to kill these dudes and he was going to get away with it. But that was never the plan. The object of that whole thing was to let my daughter know that I am your protector. And if anything happens to you, I will take care of it. So she wouldn’t have to worry about those two guys being on the planet that she’s on, ever again. And that was the goal of Carl Lee, to do that. And if he got away with it, fine, but if he didn’t, he still did his job as a father. But they made Carl Lee seem a little conniving. I still love him. He represents all the black men in my family, because that’s who they are: hardworking guys who believe family first.

12. Mr. Barron

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

2016

“Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children”

20TH CENTURY FOX/MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTD

I always wanted to play a sort of demonic, crazy guy, and Mr. Barron fits that bill. It’s a Tim Burton movie, so I got to be as bizarre, as quirky as I wanted to be. And that’s very freeing in its own way.

11. Stephen

Django Unchained

2012

Stephen is my dude! Stephen was the king of that plantation, because Leo [DiCaprio] is off fighting his slaves and running his strip joint or whatever. The people didn’t know he could read. They didn’t know he could write. He wasn’t as decrepit as he portrayed himself to be. He was a very formidable guy. Without him, that plantation wouldn’t function. And once again, it’s awesome to be unapologetically evil. And believe me, there are some scenes we shot that aren’t in that movie that Quentin [Tarantino] was like, ‘I don’t want nobody to kill you.’ We shot some stuff that’s pretty nasty. I keep telling [Tarantino], ‘You can do it as like a five-part thing on Netflix or something.’

10. Zeus Carver

Die Hard with a Vengeance

1995

“Die Hard: With a Vengeance”

20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

A springboard role. Most people say that I got famous after Pulp Fiction. When we were shooting DHWAV, Pulp Fiction happened. And Bruce [Willis] and I went to France and watched Pulp for the first time. We’re like, ‘Wow, this is great.’ Bruce is like, ‘Yeah, this is a good movie. People are going to know who you are. But this movie that we’re doing right now is the movie that’s going to put you on the map.’ And Die Hard With a Vengeance was the highest-grossing film in the world that year. So all of a sudden I was an international name.

9. Richmond Valentine

Kingsman: Secret Service

2014

“Kingsman: Secret Service”

Fox Movies

I was fussing to [director] Matthew Vaughn about Kingsman. I was like, ‘So how can I shoot this dude in the face and he still be alive and I kind of got stabbed in the back and I died? Valentine deserves a second take, right?’ I loved him.

8. John Shaft

Shaft and Son of Shaft

2000

“Shaft”

Eli Reed/Paramount Pictures Corp./Getty Images

I was like everybody else: ‘Why do we need to do another Shaft? The one we’ve got is like totally good.’ But then I thought about it: ‘OK. But you have to put Richard [Roundtree] in it so that everybody would know I’m not pretending to be Richard; our characters are relatives.’ It was Shaft for the millennium. The Christian Bale character was going to be the bad guy. But I kept saying that I can just go by his house and kill him. Why would he be the bad guy? And Jeffrey [Wright] was killing it as Peoples. He was the best of bad guys. It’s easy to catch this little rich white kid from Jersey who is hanging around. But [Peoples] is part of the fabric of that community, Uptown, where Shaft is supposed to be.

7. Elijah Price

Unbreakable

2000

“Unbreakable”

Getty Images

Elijah could be up higher too. I love Elijah. He’s just so cerebral. He has his own sense of cool and style. He’s sure of who he is, what his path is and where he’s going. And he’s made plans to find out why he is the way he is, and why other people are the way they are. Even more will be revealed in February when Glass comes out in 2019.

6. Gator Purify

Jungle Fever

1991

“Jungle Fever”

David Lee/UNIVERSAL PICTURES

“Dance for me, Gator!” Gator was me — I was that character. I’d been out of rehab maybe two weeks when we shot Jungle Fever. I didn’t need makeup or nothing. In fact, when I showed up to shoot and I went to craft services to get something to eat, Spike [Lee] had all these Fruit of Islam guys around the set, and they thought I was one of the crackheads from around the neighborhood. They were like, ‘Get away from the table!’ Gator is really close to me because [he] signified me killing that part of my life and moving on. So when Ossie Davis, the Good Reverend Doctor, killed me in that movie, it kind of freed me from all those demons I had in my real life. That was kind of cool. That was the summer of dueling crackheads. It was me, and Chris Rock was Pookie in New Jack City. Gator was that guy everybody had in their family. I was like, ‘This has to be about me ruining my family relationships with all the people that care about me because you get stuff from them, and then you just break their hearts.’ It’s easy to play high. He was just always looking for that next thing. Using his mom, using his brother, using all these people was what Gator was about.

5. Nick Fury

Marvel Universe films

2008-19

“Marvel’s The Avengers”

Marvel

Nick is one of those blessings that just kind of fell out of the sky. I was in the comic book store because I’m in Golden Apple like once a month or twice a month. I saw the ‘Ultimates’ cover and I’m like, ‘Did I give somebody permission to use my face on the comic book?’ So I called my agent and manager and they’re like, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ So I told them, they called Marvel and they’re like, ‘Well, you know, we’re thinking we’re going to make these movies and we hope he’d like to be a part of it.’ And it also says so inside the comic. ‘If they make a movie about us, who would you want to play you?’ And Nick Fury says, ‘Samuel L. Jackson.’ I’m like, ‘Done!’ Because the Nick Fury I knew was this white dude, because I’ve been reading comics all my life and that’s who he was. It was a wonderful opportunity to step into a place and hang out with some superheroes.

4. Frozone, Lucius Best

The Incredibles, 2004

The Incredibles 2, 2018

“Incredibles 2”

Disney/Pixar

He has a superpower. And Lucius is this really cool dude. He shows up, he hangs out, he’s got a solution. He never gets flustered. And he’s got this really dope wife that nobody’s seen yet.

3. Mace Windu

Star Wars

1999-2005

“Star Wars: Attack of the Clones”

Lucasfilm

He’s a Jedi. Come on! I remember going to the first Star Wars in New York when it came out and I was sitting there staring at that movie like, ‘Wow, how do you get in a movie like this? How? How? How?’ And then I was on a talk show in London and this guy asked me if there were any directors I hadn’t worked with that I wanted to work with, and I knew they were shooting Star Wars. I was like, ‘I would really like to work with George Lucas, blah blah blah.’ And I didn’t think anything about it. [Then] I got a call: ‘George would like to meet with you, he heard you wanted to work with him.’ So I went to the ranch and I talked to him and he said, ‘I know your work, but right now I don’t know what I could do. And I was like, ‘Look, man, I could be a stormtrooper. You could put me in one of those white suits, I’ll run across screen, nobody even needs to know!’ He was like, ‘I’m going to find something better.’ Two months or so later, I got a call: ‘George wants you to come to London, he’s found something for you to do …’ I showed up … hadn’t seen the script. They put me in this room, and [someone] came in and said, ‘OK, why don’t you try on this costume?’ And I go, ‘Is this a Jedi costume? Am I a Jedi?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh. Yeah.’ And then somebody came in and gave me a little piece of paper — they still hadn’t given me a script. Who is Mace Windu? And they go, ‘That’s you.’ So I’m actually going to be in the movie?! And then I go downstairs and this man comes over with this big [case] and he opens it and is like, ‘Lightsaber handles; pick one.’ My goal from that point on was, ‘OK, don’t get killed. Just don’t piss anybody off, don’t get killed. Just stay alive.’

2. Jules Winnfield

Pulp Fiction

1994

“Pulp Fiction”

Miramax/Giphy

Jules is one of those kind of dream roles you get. I saw Quentin [Tarantino] at an audition for Reservoir Dogs and I didn’t get the job. But I was at Sundance when they had the first screening. So I watched the movie, I went to him and I said, ‘I really enjoyed your movie.’ And he was like, ‘So how did you like the guy who got your role?’ I didn’t even realize he knew I’d auditioned because I was so bad! But he said, ‘I’m writing something right now, and I’m going to send it to you.’ So I’m off doing a movie and I get this brown envelope with a script in it, and I read it and I’m like, ‘Is this as good as I just thought it was? Wait a minute. Start over.’ I read it again and was like, ‘Wow, amazing!’ And it was just … John [Travolta] and I hanging out and talking and being about who we’re about. It was the most natural and not movie-ish, picture-ish kind of things that I’d ever read. It was like doing a play on the screen.

1. Mitch Henessey

The Long Kiss Goodnight

1996

“The Long Kiss Goodnight”

New Line Cinema/Getty Images

My dude! I love that movie so much. A movie way ahead of its time. Geena Davis — awesome Charly Baltimore character. The studio didn’t know how to market that film because they didn’t know that women like seeing themselves as badasses. I kept saying, ‘You need to advertise this thing during the day when women are watching soaps.’ Whatever. They were like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ But it’s gone on to be like this really great cult classic because Geena is so good. And the Mitch character in the original iteration got killed. When they did a test screening, the audience like lost its mind. Like no, you cannot kill Mitch Henessey. So we went back and we redid those [shots] with Larry King. We did that like three days before the movie opened. And they stuck it in the movie. But I just loved Mitch because he’s got such a big heart. He’s a fun-loving, kind of profane guy that wants to be this thing that he’s not. But he’s not afraid to step into the space for somebody that he cares about.

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.


PHIL MORRIS, 58

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.


BIANCA LAWSON, 38

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.


VANESSA A. WILLIAMS, 54

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.


MARKUS REDMOND, 47

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.”


KENN MICHAEL, 40

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.


KIM COLES, 56

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].


TANGI MILLER, 47

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.


SHAUN BAKER

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.