Errol Spence added the WBC welterweight title to his IBF belt with a thrilling split-decision victory over Shawn Porter
On July 23, 2004, Catwoman, starring Halle Berry, was released on an unsuspecting public. Intended as a summer blockbuster that would cement Berry’s position as a premier talent in Hollywood, it was a disaster. Universally panned, it lost millions and delivered a body blow to a career that had reached unprecedented heights of mainstream success and critical acclaim. Fifteen years later, Berry is still recovering from it.
Looking back, it’s hard to remember how big a star Berry was up until the day Catwoman was released: From 2000 to 2003, she had major roles in four films that topped the box office: 2000’s X-Men, 2001’s Swordfish, 2002’s Bond flick Die Another Day and 2003’s X2: X-Men United. In 2000, she won an Emmy, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe for her title role in HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Then she won the Oscar for best actress for Monster’s Ball, making her the first — and, to this day, the only — black woman to win that award. Not to mention she topped People magazine’s list of the “50 Most Beautiful People” in 2003. Berry had reached the rarefied air of box-office superstardom and critical praise. It seemed as though any role she could ever want lay in front of her.
Then it all fell apart.
Catwoman was flayed by fans and critics alike. Roger Ebert named it one of his most hated films of all time, and it earned only a fraction of its $100 million-plus budget. Berry’s career would soon turn into a series of calamities and quizzical choices. She endured the consequences of a truism that’s far too evident in America: Black women don’t get excused for their missteps, bombs or losses.
But the actress’ career may have finally course-corrected this summer. Berry co-starred with Keanu Reeves in John Wick 3, which saw her return to the action star form we thought we would be getting since she popped out of the ocean in Die Another Day. Berry whipped around electric one-liners. She was sexy as only she can be. And she kicked a bounty of butt. The movie finished No. 1 at the box office on the weekend it opened in May and has made more than $316 million worldwide so far.
She’s currently executive producing the BET series Boomerang, an update of the 1992 film in which she co-starred with Eddie Murphy and Robin Givens. Later this year she’ll make her directorial debut in the martial arts thriller Bruised alongside John Wick producer Basil Iwanyk.
These endeavors are reminders that Berry’s career is one defined by resilience and talent while being complicated by the intersection of race and extraordinary beauty. If there was any question before, there shouldn’t be now: At 52, Halle Berry has still got it.
Berry’s cinematic beginnings exemplified the tightrope act of navigating Hollywood as a gorgeous black woman. “I came from the world of beauty pageants and modeling,” she told W magazine in 2016. She was the first black woman to represent the United States in the Miss World competition in 1986. “And right away when people heard that, I got discounted as an actor.”
So when Berry was approached by upstart director Spike Lee in 1989 to read for his movie Jungle Fever, she decided to break the stereotype of a pretty face with minimal acting chops. While Lee asked Berry to audition for the role of his wife, Berry wanted to play Vivian, the crack addict.
The result was a landmark appearance that is equal parts tragic and hilarious. A strung-out Vivian debuts opposite of Samuel L. Jackson by yelling 14 derivatives of “m—–f——” in 28 seconds.
“It was an amazing way to start my career, playing a crack ho, be directed by Spike Lee. It was major for me,” she continued in 2016. “It was intentional to not play the gorgeous girl. … I took on roles early on that really didn’t rely on my physical self at all and that was a good way to sort of get some credibility within my industry.”
Berry’s next breakout performance leaned into her beauty. She played the unforgettable Angela in the black excellence extravaganza Boomerang. The movie, directed by Reginald Hudlin, was Berry’s emergence as a sex symbol. Her ability to tame Murphy’s suave playboy character and break David Alan Grier’s nerdy heart was both believable and captivating. Ebert, who gave the movie three stars, said Berry was “so warm and charming you want to cuddle her.” Variety called the movie “an ill-fitting comedy vehicle that’s desperately in need of a reality check” but said Berry was “alluring throughout.”
But Boomerang wasn’t concerned with white audiences or critics. Her character’s short haircut sent black women across America rushing to salons to request the “Halle Berry cut” and helped make her a black household name.
Her legend in black homes grew with her performance in the TV miniseries Queen, based on Alex Haley’s real-life ancestry. Berry was so moved by the story of Haley’s mixed-race heritage and its reflection of her own past — her mother is white and her father is black — she paid her way to New York to audition. “They were talking about the African-American people in Roots,” Berry said in a 1993 interview with Entertainment Weekly, “and about the white people, the plantation owners, but I remember thinking then, ‘What about the people like me who are mixed?’ Queen directly addressed this for me.”
Berry was gaining black fans, becoming recognized as one of the most gorgeous women in pop culture and married star baseball player David Justice, yet white Hollywood still had no clue what to do with her. She would spend the next five years fighting for roles that allowed her to show off her skill as an actor while still seeking roles that showed off her beauty. Often, those roles were mutually exclusive.
Yet she always had an eye toward breaking boundaries for black people in Hollywood. For instance, when she played the cartoonish, seductive secretary in 1994’s The Flintstones, she saw it as an opportunity to include black actors in American staples: “I thought it was very important that the black community be represented in such an American film,” she said in 1995. “Children need to see us in movies like that. The beauty of the role was that color wasn’t even mentioned. I played a black woman who was beautiful, an object of desire. That puts us on equal footing.”
Then when she was called on to act, she was playing a crack addict, again, in Losing Isaiah, a role she, again, had to fight for to prove she could act. “Paramount didn’t want me,” she said during a press interview for the movie. “They didn’t think I could shed the outer part of myself, or that I could go deep enough. … I just don’t want to be typecast as a crackhead or as a glamour girl. I want to do it all.”
That led to her only comedic lead, 1997’s B*A*P*S, directed by Robert Townsend. The movie was widely panned, but it proved that Berry, often in long, audacious nails and hair that stood a foot above her head, could be hilarious in a physical comedy while maintaining her drop-dead gorgeous looks. But she has never been allowed to revisit that type of movie in her career.
Which is why Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, the 1999 HBO movie, was such a monumental accomplishment for Berry: It showed every facet of her talent. She was engrossing yet vulnerable, charismatic yet downtrodden. Like a star athlete finally finding the right system in which to show off his or her talents, Introducing (as well as another black cult classic, 1998’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love) seemed made for Berry to put up MVP numbers. She could show depth as an actor without having to be an addict or homeless. She could be beautiful and talented. The ultimate shame, however, is that these roles are few and far between for talented actresses like Berry.
This is the perception of how Hollywood treats its black female stars. They rarely get to be Emma Stone in La La Land, donning high fashion while dancing and singing their way to best actress awards. Jennifer Hudson’s best supporting actress win for Dreamgirls in 2006 is an outlier, because for every one of those awards, there’s Lupita Nyong’o winning best supporting actress for playing a slave or Octavia Spencer’s Oscar-winning role as a maid in The Help.
Berry is no different, and she’s even more blatant an example of this dynamic because her beauty has been so tied to any discussion about her career. Her Golden Globe, Emmy and Screen Actors Guild awards for playing Dorothy Dandridge is an exception to her career when it should have always been the rule.
That star turn kicked off the blazing run from 2000 to 2003. In the X-Men movies, she played Storm, maybe the most recognized black superhero in the world at the time. The movies were seen by millions, and she was a bona fide summer blockbuster star.
Die Another Day and Swordfish (which featured a controversial topless scene) showed that she could be the femme fatale who fans would flock to see. She could finally appear on screen as the desirable figure she’d been painted as in the tabloids.
“I’ve never really explored that part of myself on screen before,” she told cinema.com in 2001. “That’s what was really exciting, and that made me get over the nudity really quickly. Because I saw this as an opportunity to take a black woman to another place where we haven’t gone before. That’s been my struggle to be just a woman in a movie and not let the fact that I’m black hinder me from getting parts that only my white counterparts are able to play.”
Still, a year later, Berry was being critically acclaimed for playing a drug addict in Monster’s Ball, this time winning the Academy Award.
“This moment is so much bigger than me,” she started in her oft-replayed acceptance speech. “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me … and it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
The celebration over her win was quickly replaced with debates over what types of black roles win awards, especially as it came in tandem with Denzel Washington winning the Oscar for best actor for Training Day a decade after getting snubbed for playing Malcolm X. “Why Halle have to let a white man pop her to get a Oscar? Why Denzel have to be crooked before he took it?” Jadakiss famously rapped on his hit 2004 single “Why?”
Even Angela Bassett, whom Berry name-checked in her speech, was critical of the role in a 2002 interview with EW: “I wasn’t going to be a prostitute on film,” she said. “I couldn’t do that because it’s such a stereotype about black women and sexuality. Film is forever. It’s about putting something out there you can be proud of 10 years later. I mean, Meryl Streep won Oscars without all that.”
And in just two years, Berry’s Oscar didn’t matter. Her crossover fame didn’t matter. Her box-office numbers didn’t matter. All that mattered was Catwoman. There is no revisionist history that will save this movie. It’s one of the worst things to ever happen on film, complete with one of the worst sports scenes in cinematic history.
On Feb. 26, 2005, Berry took the stage for another awards ceremony. This time she wasn’t in awe. She was instead taking the embarrassment in stride, bringing her 2002 Oscar with her to the stage in a massive flex move. The award? The Golden Raspberry, or Razzie, for worst actress for her role in Catwoman.
“You know, it was just what my career needed, you know? I was at the top, and then Catwoman just plummeted me to the bottom. Love it. It’s hard being on top, it’s much better being on the bottom.”
But movies such as Catwoman shouldn’t be a death sentence for any actor, especially one with Berry’s resume. Name an actor and you’ll find movies comparable to the failed superhero flick on their IMDb page.
But Berry had a hard time recovering. The 15 years since Catwoman have essentially been a series of box-office disappointments (2012’s Cloud Atlas and 2013’s Movie 43), critical disasters (2007’s Perfect Stranger) and even a Steven Spielberg-produced TV series, Extant, that was swiftly canceled after two seasons of abysmal ratings. Even if Catwoman proved Berry was too toxic or inept to carry an action franchise, there’s no reason she couldn’t enjoy a second act to her career in her late 30s and 40s. Where, for instance, were her slew of rom-coms a la Jennifer Lopez? Why hasn’t she been able to crack into the same spaces as, say, Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock, who continue to be leading ladies as they’ve aged? Race may be a factor:
“What’s hardest for me to swallow,” she told The New York Times in 2002, ”is when there is a love story, say, with a really high-profile male star and there’s no reason I can’t play the part. They say, ‘Oh, we love Halle, we just don’t want to go black with this part.’ What enrages me is that those are such racist statements, but the people saying them don’t think they are. I’ve had it said right to my face.”
But when one looks at her black peers, questions and answers become more complicated. What has stopped Berry from getting the roles that contemporaries such as Regina King and Viola Davis are managing to pull in theaters and Netflix? Maybe that’s not even a fair question to ask. But Hollywood superficiality, or her own career mismanagement, have derailed a career that once looked unstoppable.
Maybe, it is hoped, Berry can finally enjoy her long-awaited, overdue and more than deserved renaissance. In 2016, she joined Instagram and Twitter, posting pics that double as reminders that she’s still as fine as ever. Earlier this year, Berry went viral while on the red carpet for John Wick 3 for making sure that black reporters got time to speak with her. The moment reminded everyone that Berry has always been a black pioneer who fought to break as many boundaries as she could. Then there was her performance in the movie — she was the Halle Berry we thought we’d be able to see after Catwoman: intense, action-packed, emotive and scene-stealing. It was a reminder that Berry was once Hollywood’s most talked-about superstar and she absolutely earned it. We saw the unfulfilled promise of a woman who played an X-Woman and Dorothy Dandridge in a year’s span. The woman who yelled, “M—–f—–!” with Samuel L. Jackson and traded insults with Eddie Murphy.
We never should have gone 15 years between iconic Halle Berry Hollywood runs, but the drought needs to end. She can be the hilarious lead. She can be the romantic comedy star. She can be the gun-toting superhero. She can be the mother, the ex, the wife, the businesswoman, the cop, the CIA agent. Anything. It’s time for Berry’s return to prominence. She deserves it, and there’s a lot of lost time to make up for.
TV’s major networks made their upfront announcements recently, and there are some interesting shows coming to screens this fall.
Saturday Night Live vet Kenan Thompson finally lands a starring vehicle with NBC’s The Kenan Show, a family sitcom about a single dad. ABC’s black-ish spinoff mixed-ish stars Tika Sumpter and centers on an interracial hippie family in the 1980s. Megalyn Echikunwoke is one of the leads on Not Just Me from Fox. It’s about a woman coming to grips with discovering her father sired multiple children. Sunnyside is a Kal Penn-driven NBC sitcom with a multiethnic cast about a former New York City councilman who helps immigrants living in Queens, New York. Folake Olowofoyeku stars with Billy Gardell in Bob Hearts Abishola, a CBS sitcom about a middle-aged white guy who has a heart attack and falls for his Nigerian cardiac nurse. “Hardy har har.”
Considering returning shows such as The Last O.G. and the ever-popular black-ish on traditional networks, there seems to be a resurgence in sitcoms as it pertains to black programming. That isn’t incidental; networks have only recently been embracing of dramas driven by black leads. And that aversion spoke to how those networks saw black imagery and how it is received by white audiences. We had to fight to get black antiheroes on the small screen.
So often in American pop culture, dysfunction in characters has been used as a parallel for the wider human experience — and that dysfunction is regularly white and male. No matter how many snitching wiseguys or horse-killing compadres Tony Soprano strangled, bludgeoned or shot, no matter how many rivals, partners and associates Walter White murdered or manipulated, it was all supposed to show us something about the human condition.
As is the function of privilege, white storytellers not only have the benefit of larger, wider platforms but also of not having to navigate racism’s dizzying maze of double standards and slanted expectations. White criminality on screen could say something about humanity; black criminality on screen was expected to say something about black people. From the ‘hood movies of the early 1990s to that other beloved HBO drama The Wire, if bad black people were at the center of the story, there would be a lot of hand-wringing about what the portrayal was going to yield in a culture that undoubtedly relishes demonizing black folks.
That burden of portrayal and mainstream platforms’ indifference toward black creators and audiences meant that, at least on the small screen, dark or dramatic black content was suddenly in short supply. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as dysfunctional white people became the centerpiece of American television, black shows nearly disappeared from the popular landscape. Even during the beloved “heyday” of black TV shows in the ’80s and ’90s, scripted black TV tended to be predominantly family sitcoms. The few shows that were still prominent in the 2000s remained PG-friendly half-hour comedies — until Scandal.
Debuting to strong ratings back in 2012 and becoming the No. 1 show in its time slot, Shonda Rhimes’ hit announced the arrival of a new era in black television. The show was the first major contemporary drama with a black female lead. In centering on a complex black woman who was both obviously brilliant at what she did but who was wrestling with personal demons and character dysfunctions that would threaten all that she’d built, that prime-time hit changed what popular black television in the “prestige TV”-driven age could look like. Characters such as Olivia Pope of Scandal, Paper Boi of Atlanta, Ghost St. Patrick of Power, Taystee of Orange is the New Black and Cookie Lyon of Empire would be driven by drama, heightened spectacle, suspense, surrealism and provocative storytelling. They showcased intriguing characters of questionable morals but undeniable charisma and riveting conflict. Of course, these were all very different kinds of shows, but they all highlighted the development of a new wave.
The black TV experience of the 2010s has not been defined by sitcoms or reality shows, although both have remained consistently popular. No, much like the wider culture, so much of our television experience has been driven by melodramas, crime shows and nighttime soaps. And in putting black characters on screen who dared to dwell in darkness, it’s helped expand the scope of mainstream black content. “Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.
But that doesn’t mean disparities have disappeared.
The Starz series Power became a surprise hit in 2014 when it debuted. A glitzy urban series about a drug kingpin attempting to climb the social ladder of Manhattan’s elite, the show is the biggest on the network, but the writing and acting aren’t quite at the level of top-tier television dramas, and the tone keeps its storytelling just shy of grim, forgoing (or negating) suspense for shock and salaciousness. And while a character such as Lucious Lyon was always portrayed as the devil in a suede jacket — and there is no denying Cookie Lyon is no angel either — Fox’s Empire relies more on pomp and melodrama than actual suspense, casting the show’s darkness against a blinged-out haze of camp and histrionics. There still seems to be a dearth of black-themed shows on television willing to fully commit to taking their protagonists to an unsettling place, one that, while compelling, also doesn’t assuage the audience’s discomfort.
And Netflix’s ever-popular ensemble prison drama Orange Is the New Black has showcased a diverse set of black female characters: inmates of varying backgrounds thrust together in a minimum security prison. The show highlights personalities that can be as sympathetic and relatable as some are manipulative and murderous. But the acclaimed series was initially marketed as the story of an upper-crust white woman plucked out of her pampered world and now doing time — something it eventually subverted, to be sure. But did being pushed as such help ensure that it wouldn’t be received as a niche “black show” by audiences and critics?
The May 19 series finale of Game of Thrones was the talk of pop culture, as HBO’s gargantuan hit wrapped eight seasons of ice zombies, dragons, brothels, torture and incest with a controversial last episode that underwhelmed many and confounded others. But the better finale that night was from the cable network’s half-hour thriller-comedy Barry, a stunning little show that ended its second season in emotionally gripping (and shockingly violent) fashion. While obviously not the grand blockbuster that HBO has had in Thrones, Barry has proved to be another major critical success for the network, with star Bill Hader earning the outstanding lead actor in a comedy series Emmy last year for his work on the show, which he executive produces with Alec Berg.
On the show, Saturday Night Live alum Hader gets to indulge his serious side and delivers some stellar performances. As hitman turned aspiring actor Barry Berkman, Hader’s everyman persona and comedic talents are still evident, but it’s secondary to a starkly stellar dramatic performance as the emotionally fraught, reluctant killer. The show deftly balances the more screwball moments with searing tension that has all the suspense of a David Fincher thriller. When the violence happens, it’s often swift and brutal — and without a wink or nod. Barry’s genuine desire to change his life sits parallel with his more rage-filled tendencies, and that inner conflict often leads to someone catching a bullet.
Popular shows Orange Is the New Black, Empire and Power will all be concluding soon. The final season of Orange Is the New Black hits Netflix in July, with Fox’s hip-hop soap opera and Starz’s 50 Cent-produced hit ending their runs with their upcoming respective sixth seasons. As such, we will be saying goodbye to some beloved on-screen bad people in the next several months. Hopefully, when we look back at these characters and shows, we’ll see what was only the beginning of a more diverse era in black programming. With upcoming shows such as For Life (described by ABC as “a fictional serialized legal and family drama about a prisoner who becomes a lawyer, litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit”) and returning series such as Snowfall and How to Get Away With Murder, black antiheroes are still on our screens — but networks shouldn’t let such shows fall to the periphery.
Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting. Our deepest dysfunctions can make for compelling truths on screen. Our dark tales are as affirming as any, and they only added to the broadening of our on-screen identity. If these wildly different shows have one common legacy, that is certainly it. And that’s not a bad thing to be remembered for.
When Jezebel writer-director Numa Perrier moved to Las Vegas in 1998, a young woman could make good money taking her clothes off and simulating sex on the internet — about $15 to $20 per hour at a time when the federally mandated minimum wage was $5.15.
It was also a time of incredible personal upheaval for her: Perrier’s adoptive mother died, and she and her siblings were left to figure out how to pay for the burial. Perrier had to grow up, and quick. But Perrier’s first foray into adult independence, and the relative financial success of online “camming,” allowed her to eventually move to Los Angeles and pursue her dream of becoming an artist.
Nearly 20 years later, Perrier was back in Las Vegas and once again juggling a big life transition. This time, though, she was in charge, as writer, director and producer of her own story.
Over the course of 2016 and 2017, Perrier had split from her romantic and business partner of eight years, Dennis Dortch. Together, they’d founded Black & Sexy TV, a production company and network that makes web series. Early collaborators included Issa Rae, Lena Waithe and Ashley Blaine Featherson. (Rae acted in a series called The Couple; Waithe and Featherson co-created another series, Hello Cupid, which starred Featherson.) Dortch and Perrier enjoyed successes, including a development deal with HBO, collaborations with BET and the introduction of a paid streaming service model. They had a daughter, Rockwelle, who is now 7. But their personal relationship was disintegrating, and an opportunity emerged for both parties to try working on their own. In 2017, Dortch briefly went to South Africa to work with BET. Perrier headed to Las Vegas to shoot her feature directorial debut Jezebel, a semi-autobiographical film she wrote about her introduction to online sex work.
The film premiered earlier this month at South by Southwest, marking Perrier’s biggest solo accomplishment of her career. She and her crew were instantly identifiable around the festival: Perrier kitted everyone out in matching satin jackets like the Pink Ladies of Grease. Perrier is currently entertaining offers for distribution.
In Jezebel, Perrier plays Sabrina, a character based on Perrier’s older sister. She cast newcomer Tiffany Tenille to play herself at 19. The two sisters share a small one-bedroom weekly rental with Sabrina’s boyfriend, David (Bobby Field), their brother Dominic (Stephen Barrington) and Sabrina’s daughter (played by Perrier’s real-life daughter). The film takes its name from the most luxurious item Sabrina owns: a wig of long, curly black hair that Tiffany nicknames “Jezebel.” Money is tight, no one has enough privacy and the siblings’ mother is dying of a chronic illness.
Facing pressure to find a job and get her own place, Tiffany takes the wig Sabrina has given her and, at Sabrina’s urging, answers an ad to be a “cam girl” for an internet company owned and operated by a white brother and sister. She names her online alter ego “Jezebel.” Tenille exists fluidly in the gray area between girl and woman in the role; the first time Jezebel appears on camera on the internet, she’s wearing a dowdy white bra. Her own hair, under her wig, is pulled into a ponytail with a scrunchie.
“I saw [Tenille] in a short film,” Perrier said. “She didn’t even have any lines, but I knew immediately — just the sensuality, her face, that mix of innocence and naughtiness — she just kind of lives in that intersection. I knew that’s what the role required, and she seemed brave.”
Jezebel never panders to its audience by glossing over the stress-inducing artifice of serving others that sex work so often requires. But it does take delight in exposing the naive silliness that often characterized the early days of internet porn. There were no high-def cameras, and the customers were connected via dial-up modem. The images were slow, silent and choppy, and cam girls had to type on a keyboard to talk to their clients. The word for the job, “cam girl,” wasn’t even a common part of the lexicon yet. Tiffany is the company’s only black employee, which later becomes an issue when a client begins spewing racist insults at her and her employer fails to see the need to meaningfully intervene.
The film’s portrayal of sex work doesn’t fall into overused tropes of exploitation or victimization, but it doesn’t make the world more glamorous than it is either. The most remarkable thing about Perrier’s vision of sex work is that it’s just that — work. It’s one of the few cases where the story of a black woman engaged in sex work is shown with a frank, matter-of-fact quality without shame, titillation or unchallenged acceptance of race fetishes.
Perrier’s acuity for depicting the unadorned banalities of being broke is reminiscent of Sean Baker’s work in Tangerine or The Florida Project. But then, she was acutely close to the subject. Perrier shot Jezebel in the same Las Vegas weekly rental complex where she lived when she moved there as a teen. To save money on production costs, she and Rockwelle slept on set, and Perrier put the rest of the crew up in a hotel.
The experience of leading a crew and calling the shots on her own was exhilarating but also painful. Revisiting the site of so much economic insecurity was like triggering post-traumatic stress disorder. The memories of the pressure of making weekly rent payments and bickering over meals of ramen and Pop-Tarts came right back. The location was so small, her camera crew wondered how they would compose shots without their equipment getting in the way. The place even smelled the same, she said.
“In Vegas, outside of the Strip, nothing really changes,” Perrier said. “It’s like entering a time warp.”
Still, the choice to revisit Las Vegas, where Perrier filmed most of the movie, paid off. The past year has been explosive for Perrier’s career. She raised the money to complete Jezebel with a successful crowdfunding campaign. She landed a role on Frankie Shaw’s Showtime comedy Smilf. (Showtime recently canceled the show when Shaw was accused of misconduct on set. Perrier said she could not elaborate on the circumstances.) And after enjoying a warm reception and critical notice at SXSW, Perrier headed to New Orleans, where’s she part of Ava DuVernay’s sorority of female directors filming the fourth season of Queen Sugar.
We spoke in Perrier’s hotel room in Austin, Texas, when Perrier blew off the after-party of the SXSW awards. Perrier was spent. The journey to SXSW, as a solo director, had tested her confidence. She was re-evaluating her sense of self and who she was without her longtime creative partner.
“That’s why I’m proud of this movie and not giving up on it,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if anyone would want to work with me or be associated with me now that I’m not with Black & Sexy. I was really insecure about that. I know it sounds weird, but it became my identity too, and I thought it was going to be my legacy. I was like, Oh, we’re gonna build this thing forever and it’s going to grow into all these different — I had such big visions for Black & Sexy. And now I’m like, OK, I’m going to pivot that another way.”
Besides writing, acting and directing, Perrier is a visual artist. With the financial cushion provided by Smilf and Queen Sugar, Perrier is planning her next projects: another movie (a thriller inspired by the story of her adoption) and an art installation project of oversize, customized, black blowup dolls.
“I’m going to be able to provide for myself and my daughter and be creative,” Perrier said. “Do the things I love, tell the stories I want to tell. I can see it all. I’m OK. I’m OK.”
Actor and Howard University alum Laz Alonso believes women are in an era of empowering themselves and taking back their power. This is why he is excited about his new film Traffik, which hit the big screen on April 20.
“It’s an exciting thrill ride,” Alonso said. “I really like the film’s tagline, ‘Refuse to be a victim.’ It’s hard to call a movie that talks about such a serious topic, human trafficking, as ‘exciting,’ but you’re on this ride with the characters not knowing what is going to happen.”
The Washington, D.C., native stars in the film, directed by former athlete Deon Taylor alongside Omar Epps and Paula Patton in a sex trafficking thriller where he plays the stereotypical sports agent. Unlike the 2011 dramedy Jumping the Broom, in which Alonso received a 2012 NAACP Image Award, he and Patton are the opposite of love interests. Instead, their two characters tolerate each other to the point of hate at times in Traffik.
Slowing down is not on the 44-year-old actor’s agenda this year. He had the fortune of mixing his love for music and acting in BET’s miniseries The Bobby Brown Story as Louil Silas Jr., the music executive who helped Brown become a solo success. The miniseries is set for a September premiere and picks up from the network’s record-breaking miniseries The New Edition Story.
Alonso will soon start shooting for Amazon’s newest superhero drama, The Boys, based on the comic book by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. Under the direction of Eric Kripke, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, the series will open the door to a world where superheroes take advantage of their celebrity and fame. A group of vigilantes, known as The Boys, set out to take down these corrupt superheroes. Alonso will play Mother’s Milk, second in command of the group.
Alonso recently returned to D.C. to attend the Washington Redskins’ draft party in April wearing a custom jersey to announce Washington’s fourth-round draft pick, Troy Apke, a defensive back from Penn State.
The Howard University alum also made a pit stop at Home Depot’s Retool Your School ceremony, a competition-based program to help accredited historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) upgrade and renovate their campus facilities. Alonso graduated from Howard with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
He says attending an HBCU is “of optimal importance.”
“Going to an HBCU is like going to Wakanda for four years,” Alonso said. “You’re supported, encouraged by each other and allowed to explore who you are as a black person in society without all of the societal dos and don’ts. There are tons of HBCU alums who are at the top of their professions despite HBCUs sometimes not having as many of the resources as Ivy League schools. It shows how HBCU grads have that intangible.”
He compares the HBCU experience to his frustration with former Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins.
“He’s technically a good quarterback, but there’s an intangible when it comes to winning [that he doesn’t have],” Alonso said. “Can you put the game on your shoulders and will a victory? At Howard, you discover that intangible in your life and you tap into it. You’re going to lean on it, use it and need it. Because of Howard, I went to Wall Street. Out of a class of 300 new employees at Merrill Lynch, I was one of two black guys. There were a few others, but not as black as the two black guys from Morehouse and Howard. We were super black.”
Alonso spoke with The Undefeated about his current and upcoming films, being Afro-Latino, martial arts and growing up in a single-parent household.
Did you understand the extent of human trafficking before doing this film?
I had always looked at it as a Third World country problem. I didn’t know that 62 percent of women being sex-trafficked are African-American and that Atlanta, a place that we love to go and turn up at, is the biggest hub in the U.S. for female sex trafficking. Now that I’m aware of it, I’m starting to see more coverage of it on the news. It’s a $150 billion industry that is only second to illegal arms dealing and just as big as the drug trade. Drugs are consumed and used up, but with human trafficking, people are reused over and over again. It’s dehumanizing.
This fall, we’ll see you in The Bobby Brown Story. What is your favorite Bobby Brown record?
“My Prerogative” was big, and I liked the video, but “Don’t Be Cruel” might be one of my favorites. People forget Bobby had slow jams too, and that’s why I liked playing Louil. He’s who introduced L.A. Reid and Babyface to Bobby. They were able to channel a different Bobby than what everyone else was seeing. Bobby’s whole swag was aggressive and in-your-face, but they were able to smooth him out and make him a sex symbol. Bobby was like the original R&B rapper. It was cool having Bobby on set every day during shooting to make sure we all hit the right notes and nothing was out of place or embellished.
What can viewers expect from The Boys?
It explores the world of superheroes who become corrupted by their own power getting out of control and taking advantage of human beings. Absolute power corrupts, and who checks absolute power? We’re seeing that in our own government now. It’s a parallel universe that addresses real issues and conversations in a fictionalized backdrop. [Checking that power] is where my character, Mother’s Milk, and the rest of The Boys come into play.
Who is your favorite superhero, and why?
Superman. I loved that he could fly.
Do you have a favorite throwback TV show?
There’s so many of them, but what I really loved about sitcoms were their theme songs. Shows don’t have memorable theme songs anymore. Biz Markie is one of my favorite party DJs and does a set that is nothing but old-school theme songs.
You’re a huge D.C. sports fan. Are you a quiet or loud fan when watching games?
I’m the fan that’s a conspiracy theorist. I think refs hate D.C. sports teams because I feel like every call is unfair. They always let the opposing teams get away with stuff that we have to pay for. Nine times out of 10, I yell more at the refs than the opposing team.
How did you get into martial arts as a kid?
I had a single mom and she wanted me to be able to defend myself. Everyone on my block had an older brother that they could call on if they were losing in a fight. I was an only child, so I didn’t have that. I can’t say I won every fight, but there are a couple of guys that still remember my name.
You were 14 years old when your father passed away. How did you get through that?
My dad was in and out of the house going to rehab and AAA meetings because he had a long fight with alcoholism, and that made me feel like I had to be the man of the house very early on, even when he was home. At times, he was unable to function and I had to take care of him. I think back and I feel like that was preparing me for his passing. When he did pass, it was weird because in some ways I felt relief that he no longer had to struggle. I was too young to know what he was going through, but I knew that he wasn’t happy. And now I know he’s happy, and it’s my job every day to make him happy and proud of me.
Describe your Afro-Latino pride.
We are not black or Latino; we are both. There’s so many Afro-Latinos who speak of their pride, and it’s beautiful. No one can take our blackness away from us just like no one can take our Hispanic heritage away from us. We share it. It’s something that I hope expands to Latin America as well.
When filmmaker and director Deon Taylor stopped playing professional basketball to pursue film, a lot of doors were slammed in his face.
“I have become who I am today simply because I was told no everywhere I went. I’m the product of no.”
Now he boasts a 15-year independent film career and is releasing his newest film, Traffik, an intense thriller about sex trafficking starring Paula Patton and Omar Epps due to hit theaters on April 20.
Taylor grew up in Indiana and moved to Sacramento, California, where he played high school basketball. He caught the attention of San Diego State in the ’90s, receiving a full scholarship and being named the conference’s Newcomer of the Year. The former Division I basketball player balled professionally in Germany from 1998 to 2003.
“Basketball is life,” Taylor said. “A lot of people say that, but for me, basketball has been a vehicle my entire life. It has taken me all over the world on a professional level.”
He left the game to pursue his film career. Taylor moved to Los Angeles in 2003, pitching a screenplay he’d written on a tablet. The rejection hit hard.
“I was expecting people to love the screenplay …,” Taylor said. “Six years later, after being kicked out of 300 rooms, I eventually said, ‘I guess the only way you can make movies is if you make them yourself.’ And that started my journey for the last 15 years [as an independent filmmaker].”
Inspired to get his films out, the 42-year-old launched Hidden Empire Film Group in Sacramento. His longtime business partner and lead investor in all of his films is Robert F. Smith, the founder of Vista Equity Partners, whom Forbes recently described as “richer than Oprah and the nation’s wealthiest African-American conquering tech and Wall Street.”
“Still, to this day, I’ve never been hired by a studio to make a film, but I’ve had some major success independently and we’re in a place where the films that I’m making are being released in theaters,” Taylor said.
Taylor wrote, directed and produced the thriller Motivated Seller, starring Dennis Quaid, Michael Ealy and Meagan Good. Along with actor and singer Jamie Foxx, he produced the comedy feature All-Star Weekend, starring Foxx, Robert Downey Jr. and Eva Longoria. Taylor is also behind the 2014 drama Supremacy, starring Danny Glover, based on the true story of a white supremacist who kills a black police officer and takes an African-American family hostage, as well as the horror spoof Meet the Blacks, with Mike Epps and George Lopez. The sequel The House Next Door, starring Epps and Katt Williams, comes out later this year.
The Undefeated spoke with Taylor about Traffik, how basketball led him away from the streets and helped him face adversity in filmmaking, why Jesse Owens and Michael Jordan are greatest of all time and why he believes the NCAA should pay college athletes.
How is Traffik different from other thrillers?
I wanted to make a commercial thriller that would have people on the edge of their seats, but also have them learn about something horrific going on in our country: human trafficking. Many people think it’s just an international problem, but it’s happening right here in America too. As a matter of fact, 85 percent of people who are trafficked are inner-city kids, so that’s the Hispanic girl in Oakland or the African-American boy in Chicago; I can keep going. These kids are being taken, and then someone is pimping them out and later another person is taking them, and this tragic cycle continues endlessly. It’s so sad. I think what this movie does extremely well is give you the goose bumps and chills without it being a documentary.
What personal experiences motivated you to create a thriller around human trafficking?
I started getting a bunch of letters about trafficking in our area [Sacramento] and I didn’t really think too much [about] it. But then my daughter, Milan, who is 12, was up late one night playing on her video games. I asked her who she was talking to at 1 a.m. on this game. I pulled up the screen and printed out the conversation [spanning for a couple of days] and saw how this person who she thought was 11 years old had been asking her questions like ‘Where do you live?’ and ‘Do you ever go out late at night?’ To the naked eye, it seemed innocent [like to my daughter], but you could tell this was definitely a predator. It’s crazy because predators are coming from the computer and TV screens now.
How was it working with Paula Patton and Omar Epps on the film?
It was insane for a lot of great reasons. I approached it like basketball. Everyone has a part in order for us to win and be successful. Paula and Omar are our star players, and they gave 100 percent, which further drove the cast and crew. Paula also performed every single one of her stunts. When you see her being yanked from the car, it’s pretty violent. She did that herself. She wasn’t screaming, ‘Cut!’ or yelling, ‘I can’t do this.’ That kind of commitment from an actor is such a blessing.
How did you learn about filmmaking and further want to pursue it?
I never set out to be the next Tyler Perry or Ron Howard in owning my own stuff. I simply was that guy who played basketball. Growing up poor, I loved watching movies because that was my getaway. While I was playing basketball professionally in Germany, I didn’t speak the language, so I would ask my friends back in the U.S. to send me as many movies as possible. This was before Netflix and Hulu. On a lot of those DVDs, there were ‘the making of xyz’ or ‘behind the scenes’ of those films where directors, writers and filmmakers like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg would show and explain what and how they did their jobs. Watching those scenes taught me filmmaking, and I soon realized that I wanted to become a filmmaker.
How did your basketball background help you face that adversity in the film industry?
I’ve built my filmmaking career by learning, losing and bumping my head a couple of times. There were a lot of sleepless and hurtful nights, but I feel like basketball really helped me get through those times. I tell people all of the time to have their kids play sports. The adversity you go through in sports is the closest thing to real life. It’s the only place where you can be the best player on the team and the coach won’t play you. It’s all these different things that you go through in sports that prepares you for what you’ll experience and see in life. I’ve had those moments, and I apply it to life journeys and filmmaking. It’s easy to ask yourself, ‘Why does this director get hired for a big-budget movie and not me when my stats are far greater?’ But that’s where you have to be grounded in who you are and not stay looking over the fence. You have to trust God.
Did basketball keep you from falling into stereotypes?
Playing in college, it took me out of the projects and into tournaments in different cities and seeing my name in the paper and on the news as a basketball player … not for shooting or robbing someone. That could have been my fate if I fell into streets, but I didn’t because I had that love for the [basketball] game where I would spend countless hours after school practicing on the playground, shooting, dunking and even trying the latest Michael Jordan move. And even now, the game is still teaching me.
As a former Division I, full-scholarship basketball player, do you feel the NCAA should pay college athletes?
When I was playing basketball at San Diego State, I didn’t really have an opinion because I was just thankful to have my school fully paid for and be able to eat while doing something I love. But as I got older and I now look at the business of college basketball and see how much money is generating from March Madness, these players should be getting paid. I’m not saying an 18-year-old kid should be getting $100K a year. Hell, no. But they are doing a service for the university. And think about the parents who are traveling for all of the games and taking off from work to be able to support their kids at the games. It would be nice for the athletes to get paid so they can also help their families with those expenses too.
Who is the greatest athlete of all time?
Jesse Owens and Michael Jordan. Jesse was running in a time when there were no diet supplements, dietitians, sneakers or advanced sports science to enhance your athleticism. He was just a guy who was naturally an athlete. There was nothing to enhance what he was doing at that time, but he was still running that fast and at that level based on just his natural body and the makeup of his DNA. With Michael, it was his will to win. It wasn’t just his ability; it was his stamina in the fourth quarter of games. He wasn’t a freak of nature as far as body physique like LeBron [James] or Shaq [O’Neal], but his brilliance and psychology on the court was something I admired and looked up to growing up. Kobe [Bryant] possessed a lot of that, but he’s no MJ.
What conversations do you have with your daughter to best prepare her in navigating the real world as an African-American woman?
It’s an everyday conversation that’s not just about teaching but creating a lifestyle. I try to educate my daughter, Milan, on each and every thing I see without holding my tongue. I’m teaching her three core things: trust your intuition, everyone will not be happy for you and danger is around you at all times. I didn’t understand a lot of what my mother told me when I was younger, but now as a parent, danger has tripled and it’s not just about getting home before the streetlights come on now. There are predators coming from everywhere, even in the police at times. Take, for instance, the unarmed young black man, Stephon Clark, who was shot 20 times by the cops right here in Sacramento. It’s a lot to take in and continues to evolve the conversations I have with my daughter.
This article contains spoilers.
Add Steven Soderbergh’s new film, Unsane, to the ranks of psychological horror-thrillers that double as documentaries. Those of us who’ve seen Get Out or read too many shiver-inducing tales of #MeToo can never consume horror the same way again.
Partly this is because what constitutes horror is being expanded by our broadening understanding of history. The Netflix series Mindhunter draws on the real-life story of FBI agents developing a framework to understand the motives of serial killers. (Hint: It’s misogyny. It’s always misogyny.) The Handmaid’s Tale draws on the fear of state control over women’s bodies. Get Out, a tale about white body snatchers, reminds you that George Washington used to wear his own slaves’ teeth. All of it is more frightening than dudes in hockey masks or sporting razor blades for fingernails.
The Boogie Monster isn’t It. It’s us.
Is it even possible now to see a woman on screen being gaslit by a man without thinking about other women who have been silenced and discredited by being labeled as hysterical? #MeToo has unveiled a matrix of oppression obscured by a status quo in which women have been encouraged to second-guess ourselves, our abilities and our own perceptions of reality.
Now there’s a new movie about a woman going through the same thing.
Unsane follows Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) as she tries to escape her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard). She’s moved hundreds of miles away from him, deleted her Facebook account, changed her phone number and found a new job. And yet, she cannot stop wondering if he’s still surreptitiously monitoring her every move, so she goes to see a therapist at a mental health facility. Once there, Sawyer falls into a trap, signing documents without fully reading them. Those documents allow the facility to hold her until its doctors decide she’s no longer a threat to herself or others. Against her will, Sawyer is thrown into a ward with people dealing with illnesses far more pronounced than her own post-traumatic stress disorder. She makes friends with another person in the ward, Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah), who’s checked himself in, supposedly to get treatment for an opioid addiction. Nate turns out to be an undercover journalist who rightly suspects that the hospital is trumping up violent symptoms of mental illness so that it can hold patients until their insurance runs out.
It’s like the for-profit prison industry, but for “crazy” people! Ain’t capitalism grand?
When Sawyer calls 911, the police show up but breezily dismiss her accusations without even talking to her. Sawyer’s reaction changes from impertinent “I was told by AppleCare” to full-on maniacal when she realizes that her stalker is working in the facility under an assumed name.
Everything gets worse from there.
The central question of Unsane is supposed to be whether Sawyer is actually being stalked or whether she’s a victim of her own paranoid delusions. But an America in which Harvey Weinstein gaslights Rose McGowan with ex-Mossad agents has rendered that question moot. I didn’t sit through Unsane wondering whether Sawyer was really experiencing what she said she was. I went straight to wondering how she was going to manage to escape it, or if she, and all of us, would be stuck in a padded cell until we learn to submit to white patriarchal hegemony.
There’s a lynching in Unsane. It’s no more literal than Get Out is literally a movie about American slavery. But a deconstructed lynching is a lynching all the same. David is a fragile white man who feels threatened by the rapport between Sawyer and Nate. She belongs to him, not anyone else. And certainly not a black man.
Pharoah didn’t audition for that part, he told me recently. Soderbergh reached out to his agent and said it was expressly for him. Which means Nate didn’t become black because Pharoah was cast to play him. His blackness is as essential to his character as Foy’s and Leonard’s whiteness is to theirs. Even without that nugget of information, it’s impossible to watch Unsane after seeing Get Out and not think about how its themes are complicated by race and gender.
But just to be sure, I watched Gaslight, the 1944 George Cukor thriller about a woman named Paula (Ingrid Bergman) whose husband systematically tries to convince her that she’s mentally unwell so that he can search for and steal some valuable jewels left to her by her aunt. It’s the film that’s responsible for why we now identify the act of trying to convince someone they’re crazy by continually denying what they know to be true as “gaslighting.”
Gaslight remains unnerving, but there’s a quaintness to it. The villain, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), is ultimately in pursuit of some high-priced baubles. Gaslighting is a means to an end. For Unsane’s David, gaslighting is the point. David is insecure, delusional and violent in a world that never assumes he might be any of those things because he has the good fortune of being straight, white, male and cunning. He is the ultimate benefactor of the suspension of doubt. David is fearsome because he walks freely among us — as a Proud Boy, a 4Chan-er, a disgruntled member of the manosphere.
Shot on an iPhone, often with a fisheye lens, Unsane turns its audience into voyeurs peeking in on the private hell of Sawyer’s life. We’re so busy trying to figure out whether this woman is actually crazy that we miss the ways we’re all silent bystanders, complicit and distracted, as one disturbed and empowered man slowly and methodically takes over his own little corner of the universe.
Oh, sure, he’s eventually discovered. But the damage he’s wrought before it happens is lasting and real.