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.”

Will Smith, a pioneering black nerd, helped raise and change rap music Smith’s music career reveals an artist who believed in an Afrocentric American dream based on ambition, hustle and black pride

It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.

That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.

The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.

Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.

“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets

They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast

The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”

Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.

Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.

The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.

But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.

The Plain Brown Rapper

It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.

Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?

Despite their critics, DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and The Fresh Prince (right) were the darlings of radio and MTV in 1988, savoring the success of their hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.

Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”

But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”

As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.

Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”

The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”

Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.

In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.

Triumph of the Will

It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”

Will Smith (left) and Benny Medina (right) attend the premiere of Disney’s Aladdin at El Capitan Theatre on May 21 in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Medina helped launch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.

“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”

Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.

His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.

Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).

While his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.

Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”

Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in a scene from the film Men in Black in 1997. Smith’s single “Men in Black” captured the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.

Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.

He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”

But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.

His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.

The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”

That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”

Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:

“I believe in God, I believe in destiny

Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined

But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”

He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.

Then he faded from the music scene.

The smartest dude

In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.

Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.

Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.

He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.

“The smartest dude survives the best.”

Today in black history: The NAACP is born, so is Bill Russell, we get a black national anthem, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 12

1900 – The Negro national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is performed. To celebrate President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem Lift Every Voice and Sing, which was turned into a song that was first performed by a group of 500 students in Jacksonville, Florida. It was later adopted by the NAACP as its official song.

1909 – NAACP is founded. Founded in 1909 in New York City by a group of black and white citizens committed to social justice, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is one of the nation’s largest civil rights organizations.

1934 – Happy birthday, Bill Russell. William Felton “Bill” Russell is one of the greatest NBA players of all time. He was player-coach of the Boston Celtics in 1968 and 1969. The five-time MVP won more championship rings than any other player. His Celtics won 11 NBA championships and went to 12 Finals during his 13 seasons. From 1959-66, they won eight straight.

1956 – Happy birthday, Arsenio Hall. Hall was the first black late-night talk show host. The Arsenio Hall Show ran from 1989-94.

2001 – Tiger Woods and Marion Jones are celebrated at the ninth ESPYS.

Today in black history: Alcorn University is founded, Chris Rock is born, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 7

1871 – Alcorn University opens. The oldest public historically black land grant institution in the country and second-oldest state-supported institution of higher learning in Mississippi is founded by former slaves in 1871, named after Gov. James L. Alcorn. Seven years after the school’s opening, Alcorn University changed its name to Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College. In 1974, Alcorn A&M became Alcorn State University after Gov. William L. Waller signed House Bill 298.

1945 – President Harry S. Truman appoints Irvin C. Mollison judge of the U.S. Customs Court, making him the first African-American appointed to a position in the federal judiciary.

1967 – Comedian, actor and talk show host Chris Rock is born in Andrews, South Carolina. He’d go on to enjoy tremendous success as a comedian, including hosting his self-titled show on HBO.

1974 – The Caribbean nation of Grenada attains its independence from Great Britain. The island was claimed as a French colony in 1674 and remained under French rule for 203 years. In 1877, the British proclaimed Grenada its colony until the natives achieved their independence 97 years later.

1989 – Future NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas is born in Tacoma, Washington.

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.

April Ryan and Rita Moreno shout out each other and the power of diversity at Gracie Awards Pam Oliver also shared advice she gives to young journalists

LOS ANGELES — As April Ryan took the stage Tuesday to accept her 2018 Gracie Award, she shouted out several fellow award-winners in the audience and got the love right back.

As Ryan began her acceptance speech — “I’m sitting next to a hero, Elizabeth Smart. Rita Moreno, my God what you went through.” — she was interrupted by a familiar voice from the crowd.

“I love you,” shouted Moreno from the audience. Laughs erupted from the crowd of hundreds of women at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, there to celebrate women and to honor Moreno, who received the lifetime achievement award.

Ryan was onstage to accept the best interview feature award in the national radio category for her American Urban Radio Networks show On the Record. Humbly accepting the compliment from Moreno, she continued.

“I watched West Side Story as a child, and I watched you sashay, and to be able to stand here and say you are one of my idols …”

Morento shouted out to Ryan again, “You have good taste!”

The crowd cheered.

Ryan also acknowledged Smart, a child safety activist, Steve Harvey Show co-host Shirley Strawberry and others, who were part of a diverse group of women who received Gracie Awards.

“We need to be empowered to ask those questions at a time such as this. And I say that as we are under attack as women. I say that as we are under attack as press. But I say most importantly from the late, great Shirley Chisholm, we don’t have a seat at the table, bring a folding chair. My chair is in the third row of the briefing room. They act like they don’t see me, but I’m there,” said Ryan.

She received her award after the lady of honor of the night, Moreno.

According to Page Six, Moreno told Variety that she thinks the recent women’s empowerment movement “is not a gimmick. … I think it’s going to expand more and more, and it’s about damn time.”

She added that she’d like to see better representation of Latinas in Hollywood. “I think we need to take some very valuable lessons from the black community. They did it and they did it really well, and good for them.”

Fox Sports veteran reporter Pam Oliver said she tells young girls, “You have to protect your dream …” Oliver received the 2018 Gracie Award for on-air talent-entertainment and sports.

Other recipients and honorees included:

  • Issa Rae (Actress in a leading role – comedy or musical)
  • This Is Us (Drama)
  • HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Made for Television Movie)
  • Felicia D. Henderson for BET’s The Quad (Producer – Entertainment)
  • Juju Chang (Reporter/Correspondent)
  • Hoda Kotb for Sirius XM’s The Hoda Show (Host/Personality)
  • Shirley Strawberry (Co-host)
  • The View (Talk Show Entertainment)
  • The Rundown with Robin Thede (Variety)
  • Niecy Nash (Actress in a Leading Role – Comedy or Musical)
  • Naturi Naughton (Actress in a Leading Role – Drama)
  • Danai Gurira (Actress in a Leading Role – Drama)
  • Merle Dandridge (Actress in a Leading Role – Drama)
  • Gabrielle Union (Actress in a Leading Role – Drama)
  • Retta (Actress in a Supporting Role Comedy or Musical)
  • Lisa Vidal (Actress in a Supporting Role/Drama)
  • Lynn Whitfield (Actress in a Supporting Role/Drama)

In honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Dance Theater of Harlem tells its audience to ‘keep movin’’ Dancer Carmen de Lavallade and civil rights activist Xernona Clayton were feted at the company’s season-opening performance

Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, 50 years ago reverberated through society, bursting through in riots across the nation but also in less obvious decisions. It was King’s death on April 4, 1968, for instance, that prompted Arthur Mitchell to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Mitchell was on his way to Brazil to start the National Ballet Company of Brazil. But in the wake of King’s death, he decided to return to Harlem, New York, the following year and founded a dance company and school in the basement of Harlem’s Church of the Master.

Wednesday night, 50 years after the death that ultimately led to its founding, Dance Theater of Harlem opened its performance season at New York City Center with a celebration of King’s legacy. It did so by honoring one of his most trusted deputies, Xernona Clayton, and dancer Carmen de Lavallade, who brought a magic to the stage that exalted in the joys of blackness.

Last month, the company had announced its new season with a video starring its students that connected the movement of dance with The Movement.

Wednesday night, the students recreated the performance on stage, accompanied by Tony Award-winning singer and actress Lillias White singing “Keep Movin’.” They even added a quick Wakanda salute to the choreography.

The program connects social movements with bodily movement, and so the company honored Clayton with a performance called Change, introduced by Michelle Miller, a correspondent for CBS who called Clayton her “fairy godmother.” Besides her work on civil rights, Clayton became the first black person to host a talk show in the South in 1967 and later went on to become an executive at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta.

Besides heading King’s advance team, Clayton was a close friend of the King family. She’s featured in the new documentary King in the Wilderness, where she revealed how she used her own makeup compact to hide the clay filling King’s face as he lay in his coffin after Coretta Scott King expressed horror at the job done by King’s undertaker.

In a nod to the oft-unseen women, like Clayton, of the civil rights movement, Change featured three women dancing to the vocals of the Spelman Glee Club. At one point, the onstage lights dimmed and the atmosphere grew ominous. The voices of the Glee Club rang out — Don’t let nobody turn you ’round — and the dancers emerged, arms interlocked, determined to power through whatever followed.

Clayton addressed the movement’s gender gap in a phone interview Wednesday morning.

“I resent the fact when people said Dr. King was a chauvinist. I said, ‘Everybody was!’ Men didn’t give us women the same regards that we deserved then,” Clayton said. “We get some of it now, of course. With a lot of effort it brought us to this point now where we’re doing better. We’re not really there yet, so I don’t want anybody to think that we think we have arrived when it comes to maximum inclusion. You certainly knew at that time that women had a role to play, and it was the distant background role, but everybody was doing it.”

“I resent the fact when people said Dr. King was a chauvinist. I said, ‘Everybody was!’ Men didn’t give us women the same regards that we deserved then.”

Civil rights leader Xernona Clayton in Atlanta, June 12, 2017.

Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for Hyatt

If Change was a recognition of struggle, the evening ended in full-on celebration with a performance of choreographer Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla, recreated under the supervision of Leo Holder, the son of Geoffrey and de Lavallade.

Judith Jamison, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and a mentee of de Lavallade’s, introduced the performance. “It’s a work that proves that being a black ballet dancer does not mean leaving your culture behind,” she said.

Dougla is also a reminder that there is more to blackness than pain, grief and triumph over trauma. It’s a dance that tells the story of a wedding ceremony between African and Hindu. De Lavallade beamed as she watched from the audience, clapping her hands, which were encased in gloves covered in silver sequins.

“For me, this means don’t stop,” de Lavallade said after the performance. “Just keep going. You can contemplate, but you have to move forward in contemplation. There’s so much going on. You can’t let outside influences get to you, and that’s what’s happened. You can’t do that. You have to keep your eye on the prize — isn’t that what [King] said?”

Trailblazing black journalist Les Payne showed no fear in pursuit of the truth He’ll be remembered as an NABJ founder and Pulitzer Prize winner, and a mentor and role model to many

My friend Les Payne is dead.

During his 38-year journalism career, Les had many close encounters with death. He once escaped the Mediterranean island of Corsica just minutes ahead of the thugs whom a drug dealer sent to his hotel to “turn out his lights.”

On another occasion, Les found himself staring down the barrels of guns when a car he was riding in was stopped by soldiers of a rival guerrilla army faction in the newly created African nation of Zimbabwe. Les was held for hours and threatened with execution by an officer who mistook him for a spy.

Then, while in California trying to make contact with the Symbionese Liberation Army, a black revolutionary group that kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, Les was confronted by a gun-wielding SLA member who ordered him into a phone booth. Les had only minutes to live, the man said, if he couldn’t get someone on the phone at Newsday, the Long Island, New York, newspaper where he spent his entire career, to prove that he was a journalist.

And there was the late-night run-in that Les had with two of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s secret policemen that produced another life-threatening experience for him.

But when Les Payne died Monday night at age 76, it was a heart attack that quickly snatched the life from his body as he stood on the steps of his home in Harlem — not the wrath of those who hated his fearless brand of journalism.

I can’t think of a better ending for a man who was, arguably, the most consequential American journalist of the past 50 years.

Les didn’t just report the news; he often uncovered the story behind the headlines that many journalists missed. He was a bare-knuckles reporter who braved the dangers of journalism. More often than not he worked alone, far away from stampeding herds of journalists. “Wherever you see groups of journalists milling about, there is no news. All you’ll find in places like that is the stuff that people in power want you to know, not the stuff they’re hiding from you,” he once told me.

In four decades of reporting and editing, Les found a lot of what powerful people were hiding.

In 1970, he went undercover to get an up-close look at the mistreatment of black migrant workers on a potato farm on Long Island. A native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Les was no stranger to that kind of labor. As a child, he picked cotton alongside his grandmother on an Alabama farm where the poorly paid black workers were expected to work from dawn to dusk — or, as the old-timers say, “from can’t see, to can’t see.” Les’ story brought improvements to the conditions under which Long Island’s migrant laborers worked.

When heroin deaths spiked in New York City during the early 1970s, Les and two fellow Newsday reporters tracked the flow of heroin, as he often said, “from the poppy fields of Turkey, through the French connection and into the veins of junkies in Harlem.” The 33-part series won them the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for public service.

The following year, Les came together with 43 other black journalists in Washington, D.C., to create the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). They wanted to use their collective muscle to push for the hiring of more black journalists and better coverage of black communities across the nation.

But when Chuck Stone, the group’s first president, called for the drafting of bylaws, Les, who questioned the need for such organizational structure in the fight for black rights, snapped, “We don’t need bylaws. We need to kick some behinds.”

Using his journalistic voice to kick butts was something Les delighted in doing. He did it as an investigative reporter in his coverage of the black liberation movement in Africa. In reporting on the murderous rule of Amin in Uganda, Les called it “a holocaust” — which caused his encounter with Amin’s heavies.

He kicked butt in his coverage of South Africa’s Soweto uprising when he visited funeral homes throughout that black township to prove that the death toll of blacks killed by the gendarmes of that pigmentocracy was substantially higher than what the white apartheid government was telling the world.

Les kicked butt in this country too. His reporting on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. poked holes in the government’s conclusion that James Earl Ray acted alone in taking the life of the civil rights leader. His coverage of the presidential campaign of Barack Obama also pummeled some behinds.

During the 2016 NABJ convention, Les tried to clear from Obama’s road to the White House one of black America’s political toll-takers: “Proving that he is as immune to irony as he is to shame, the Rev. Al Sharpton strutted onto the stage as a panelist for the annual W.E.B. DuBois Lecture. That most vital American scholar of the last century would likely have viewed Sharpton as a noisy answer for which there is no known question.” Ouch!

But Les was no sycophant for any politician. I remember standing with him in Denver’s Mile High Stadium on the night of Aug. 28, 2006, when Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. After allowing himself to smile broadly at the end of Obama’s speech, Les turned to me, and with a tilt of his head and a stare he said: “Just remember, the job of the black journalist is to be a watchdog, not a lap dog.”

I’m proud to have been his friend of 43 years. Les guarded his friends as much as he nurtured his friendships. When Bill O’Reilly linked Randall Pinkston to jihadist terrorists because he worked for Al-Jazeera, Les wrote an open letter to the then-Fox News talk show host.

“Randall Pinkston is too much of a gentleman to answer your on-air slander against him; so I will,” he said. “You have chosen … to question the patriotism of this black journalist born in apartheid Mississippi, who desegregated the local TV station with the assistance of Medgar Evers … I’m sure Randall’s long, patriotic family struggle as African-Americans up from slavery has no meaning whatsoever for you. As the son of Irish immigrants who were extended white privileges, albeit from the dredges, you have ascended the media feeding chain with a sense of fairness as meager as your talents.”

History should not be allowed to forget Les, as it has so many other blacks who championed the race. We owe it to him not only to thank him for his service but also to emulate his determination to be a truth-teller in a profession that more than ever before needs a Les Payne.

Disney, Steve Harvey and ‘Essence’ magazine continue to help students achieve big dreams The Disney Dreamers Academy kicks off with a new class of 100

ORLANDO, Fla. — From “curing cancer” to “becoming a pilot” to “overcoming fears,” every child has dreams. And with the help of Walt Disney World Resort, Steve Harvey and Essence magazine, many of them also have a platform to help them achieve those dreams.

On Thursday, 100 high school students, ages 13 to 19, from all over the country found themselves experiencing a four-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World for the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy. Eleven years strong, the weekend is more than games and roller coasters, as Dreamers go through a series of power-packed workshops that give students the tools they need to reach their full potential.

Since 2008, 1,000 Dreamers have done this work. The students are selected from thousands of applicants who answer a series of essay questions about their personal stories and dreams for the future. Per tradition, the weekend kicked off with a parade at the Magic Kingdom, followed by welcoming remarks from Tracey D. Powell, Disney Dreamers Academy’s executive champion and Walt Disney World’s vice president of Deluxe Resorts; author and talk show host Steve Harvey; award-winning gospel artist Yolanda Adams; Mikki Taylor, editor-at-large for Essence magazine; and George Kalogridis, president of the Walt Disney World Resort; Mickey Mouse; and Disney Dreamers Academy alums. The experience ends Sunday with a commencement ceremony.

With a new #Be100 theme, Walt Disney World Resort is continuing its ongoing commitment to inspiring teens at a critical time in their development by providing a space to empower and encourage the Dreamers to relentlessly pursue their dreams.

(Top-bottom, left-right) Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Steve Harvey, Tracey D. Powell, executive champion for Disney Dreamers Academy, and Mikki Taylor, editor-at-large for Essence magazine, star in a special parade Thursday at Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The parade signals the beginning of the 11th annual Disney Dreamers Academy with Steve Harvey and Essence magazine. The event, taking place March 8-11 at Walt Disney World Resort, is a career-inspiration program for distinguished high school students from across the United States.

Courtesy of Todd Anderson

“When I was a dreamer I had a couple of questions,” Disney Dreamers Academy alum Princeton Parker said Thursday evening as he addressed the 100 Dreamers, parents, chaperones and invited guests during the welcome ceremony. “A lot of those questions were centered around ‘what if?’ ”

Parker — a minister and University of Southern California graduate, among his many accomplishments — learned through the program how to overcome his fear. He also attributed his success to the academy, which he said changed his mindset.

“If you decide to Be100, your destiny will respond,” he said.

According to its website, Disney Dreamers Academy aims to “inspire students through immersive and inspirational guest speakers; introduce a world of possibilities in a variety of interactive career sessions, ranging from animation, journalism, entertainment and entrepreneurship to culinary arts, medicine and zoology; and prepare students for the future through developing skills such as networking and interviewing.”

Kalogridis voiced his thoughts about the academy and shared his favorite times at Disney.

“Long before there is a happily ever after, there has to be a once upon a time,” Kalogridis said as he welcomed the new Dreamers. “We at Disney are glad that you’re enjoying your time with us,” he said. “We are thrilled that Disney Academy is entering into its second decade.”

Powell said the academy is challenging the planners on how to build success from the past 10 years.

“It’s our commitment to dream even bigger on how we can empower you,” she said to the Dreamers. “It’s a personal commitment to excellence.”

The impressive résumés of students landed them the opportunity of a lifetime. Dreamers and their parents and/or chaperones all have different itineraries throughout the weekend, which gives the students a sense of independence. Dreamers will engage in a wide variety of experiences while working alongside some of today’s top celebrities, community and industry leaders and dedicated Disney cast members. Celebrity panels include educator Steve Perry; motivational speaker Alex Ellis; retired NFL great Emmitt Smith; artist, producer and songwriter Ne-Yo; actor and singer Jussie Smollett; actress Ruth Carter; actors Miles Brown and Marsai Martin (black-ish); and sisters China, Sierra and Lauryn McClain of the girl group McClain.

Walt Disney World Resort hopes students “leave prepared to be a role model for others as they believe in the power of their dreams and make a positive difference in their communities and the world.”

Kevin Hart on why he became an athlete, why his Hollywood work ethic is so intense—and his true endgame One of the funniest men in the world is also dedicated to make sure he’s one of the fittest

Kevin Hart’s health is no laughing matter. So much of his comedy is rooted in self-deprecation about his own physicality: he’s a 5-foot-4-inch man who makes you laugh even before he says a word. Especially if he’s paired up with a hulk of a man like say, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — the two of them together usually translate into cinematic gold. Sony’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, released on Dec. 20, 2017, has now “earned $377 million in North America, and has topped $904 million globally … [Jumanji] is now Sony’s second-biggest global grosser of all time, between Spider-Man 3 ($890m in 2007) and Skyfall ($1.1 billion),” according to Forbes.

But if you’ve been paying attention, Hart is probably a far better athlete than anyone would naturally want to give him credit for. Yes, athlete.

Two years ago, Hart broke ground as the first comedian to partner with a major footwear and apparel company on a cross-trainer. Armed with a multimillion-dollar deal with Nike, his Hustle Harts are meant to inspire; he wants to help people find their inner athlete — everyday folks who didn’t think they had it in them. Just like him, at one point.

Now, Hart is one of the fittest men in Hollywood, sharing his journey via his social media outlets, including an impressive New York City marathon finish in four hours, five minutes, six seconds back in November — and, ahem, he bested former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber. Bragging rights for years.

Hart figures he’ll do a few more marathons before it’s all said and done. It’ll help him keep up his breakneck schedule: a new digital series, Cold As Balls, more films, production deals and of course, a rigorous stand-up comedy touring schedule is on deck. Because the last thing he wants to ever do again is fall asleep on stage (more on that, later). We talk.


You’re coming off of Jumanji, one of the most successful films of last year, and you’re getting ready to get back on the road. Why is it so important for you to continue to stay out there?

I’m a comedian first. This is my craft, what I started as. And I built this big thing, and this big thing opened up a door to get me to another big thing. But if I forget about this first big thing, these doors could start to close. So, I’m very adamant about staying on course. Stand-up is not only what I love, but … it’s what the world needs. People love to laugh.

You’re also an athlete — not sure if people really understand that. You run marathons, you have a shoe endorsement deal. How do you use and channel that competitiveness into this world of Hollywood?

“I got a DUI at one point and I said, “Oh, my God! Oh s—! I could have died. I could have hurt somebody.” The reality of what it was then hit.”

Here’s the beauty of it: You get one life. And that one life, you got a choice to make. Do I want to live this life to the fullest and do I want to maximize my full potential while I’m on this earth? If I do, what does that entail, what does that mean? What am I going to do? That means I’m going to put absolutely all of my energy into my craft. I’m going to put it into becoming the best possible man that I can be. If I do that correctly, when it’s all said and done, and I look back at it, the story of who I am should be an amazing story.

The story of your life?

What can I accomplish along the way? That’s how I look at it. So, when you’re talking about partnerships, when you’re talking about my career — you’re talking about goals. You’re talking about the athletic side — all of it fits within the story of Kevin Hart. That’s all I want. I want my kids to be able to go back and look at that and go, “Man, dad was cool.” That’s it.

You’ve been grinding it out for a long time and at a certain point, it’s easy to lose that hunger, but you’ve never lost it. It’s only increased. How is that?

I don’t do anything halfway. I don’t want to sign on a for a moment. I don’t need a check. That’s not what I’m here for. I want to be a part of something special. I want to build something. I want to do something that hasn’t been done. That’s how I take on everything. The day you lose that hunger, is the day it closes, and somebody comes up that has it. It’s not guaranteed that I sit in the seat I’m in, or that I’m going to be here forever. The day that you get comfortable and you expect things to stay the way they are is the day they change. I stay hungry as if I have nothing.

Let me tell you what looks really uncomfortable: Cold as Balls. Where the hell and why the hell did that concept come up?

The endgame, when it’s all said and done for me, is going to be a talk show. When my knees hurt, and my arches are bad … I’m just going to have to sit still. And I think being a talk show host of some kind, being able to have the conversations with the people that I want to talk to … it’s something I know will be good. So, Cold As Balls is a way for me to tiptoe in that just to see how it would be … The questions I’m asking may make [my guests] uncomfortable — may not — but the personality ultimately drives the conversation. And that’s why you’ve been seeing a lot of funny interviews. They’re coming out really, really good. I’m happy.

You didn’t play in the celebrity game at NBA All-Star this year, but there was a moment where the thing people thought about Kevin Hart wasn’t athlete. Initially when you started playing in NBA Celebrity games people were probably like, “Oh. The funny guy who’s short is going to play in the basketball game.” And then of course, you dominated.

Damn right I did!

“I stay hungry as if I have nothing.”

But you actually train — who is Kevin Hart the athlete?

Kevin Hart the athlete is a guy that just fell in love with the idea of giving myself a long time to live. When I looked at it, I lost some family members. I lost friends to just simple health issues. From severe heart attacks to strokes. High blood pressure that’s gotten crazy to where it’s flipped a person’s life upside down, to where that person can’t even maneuver the way they want to maneuver. When you look at the effect that just not taking care of yourself can have on you as a person. These are things that I think you don’t believe until you get hit with it. There was a point in time when I was younger [and] you couldn’t tell me that drinking and driving was as bad as everybody said it was … but I got a DUI at one point, and I said, “Oh, my God! Oh s—! I could have died. I could have hurt somebody.” The reality hit … So, I decided to choose a healthy road. That person that you’re defining as an athlete is really a person that’s just trying to stay healthy. I put a large demand on my body. You know, 14, 15 hours a day consistently. If I’m not taking care of myself, there’s no way that I can do that at a high level. It’s impossible.

Was there a point where you started shifting? Was it like five years ago?

There was a point that I was on stage — this is a true story — I fell asleep on stage one time. Nobody noticed. It’s a real story. I was literally performing, and like, you know, I’m up every day, but I’m drinking, I’m eating fast food, everything. And there was a moment we’re on stage, and I stopped, and in the middle of a joke, I fell asleep. It was like a good 30 seconds. And I woke up and I was like, “Yeah, man.” And I got right back to the set. And I was like, “Oh s—!” I just. I didn’t pass out. I really just fell asleep.” I was like, “What the f—?” I remember being so in shock at that moment, and then I remember I went and I looked at my data, and I was like, I’ve been eating cheeseburgers and cheesesteaks and fries all day, and I get on stage, I’m giving like a half of a show. It’s like I’m sluggish, farting all on stage. Come on, Kevin. What are you doing, Kevin? Have you ever had that conversation, you had to really talk to yourself?

I’m having it right now!

Listen, I really was in the mirror and I was like, “Kevin, what the — come on, man. Look at you, Kevin.” And I really had a moment where I was like, “Nah. This isn’t, it can’t be like this.” Not if I’m supposed to give these people a show at a very high level every night. Not if I got to be on set and I’m supposed to be acting at a very high level every single day. Not if people are depending on me every single day. I got to make sure that I’m doing it to the best of my ability. And I don’t want people to think that when they read this that that means that should be your thing, too. I think that when I say that, it’s also a heavy mental thing. So, for anybody out there, this is you understanding that, “Hey, you know what? Let me make sure that I’m taking care of me.” There’s different levels to taking care of yourself. I’m a little extreme with it. That doesn’t mean everybody else should be extreme. There’s levels, but I think when you have that mentality, when you’re aware, you’re OK. Just don’t not be aware. That’s my piece of advice to any and everybody. Because when it smacks you, and then you go, “Oh, oh, what? Huh? I got to lose my foot?” People really don’t understand that’s how fast the reality is. It’s not a, “Oh, you get a warning.” It’s like ‘Heart attack! Oh, s—! I almost died!”

That’s very real.

I saw it firsthand. So that’s where the athlete, that’s where the healthy guy, that’s where the running the marathons comes from. And then there’s a piece of wanting to achieve greatness in there, too. Do you know the percentage of people in the world that have run a marathon? This is going to blow your mind.

Hit me with it.

It’s under 5 percent of the world.

Really?

So out of how many billion people, under 5 percent have actually ran a marathon. I want to be in that 5 percent … the marathon, I’m going to try to do five.

“Kevin Hart the athlete is a guy that just fell in love with the idea of giving myself a long time to live.”

Chasing personal greatness is part of the Kevin Hart story.

This is all a part of the story. The goal is while I’m on tour, I’m trying for a marathon, I’m going to be filming a movie at the same time. So, the goal is to consistently keep it up, and then I think I run the marathon in October. So, that would be checked off the list. I don’t want to fall asleep on stage.

What has to happen in 2018 for you to say, that you outdid yourself this year?

I’m already trying to lay out 2019. The tour goes into 2019. It has to be the biggest tour ever in comedy … what’s my total number of specials that I want to do? George Carlin did 10. I’m on No. 6. I’ve got work to do. When it’s all said and done, what’s my catalog going to look like? What’s my movie catalog going to look like? Am I going to do more dramas? More animation? I’m producing stuff now. My company is part of me, with studios, it doesn’t stop. It literally just continues to grow and grow. Just a little Energizer Bunny.