TIFF 2019: Contrasting visions of Africa in ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ and ‘Sweetness in the Belly’  Two films examine political and ethnic unrest in Rwanda and Ethiopia, with vastly different results

TORONTO — Director Atiq Rahimi (Earth and Ashes, The Patience Stone) has once again created a beautiful and disturbing work of cinema.

This time, it’s Our Lady of the Nile, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It’s a story about a Rwandan girls boarding school in 1973 that marries the nastiness and cruelty of Mean Girls with far higher stakes. When the school’s most privileged Hutu student, Gloriosa, decides to launch a crusade against Tutsis based on a lie she concocted to keep herself out of trouble, the result isn’t hurt feelings and stolen boyfriends — it’s murder based on ethnic hatred.

Adapted from Scholastique Mukasonga’s bestselling 2012 novel, Notre-Dame du Nil, the movie script by Rahimi and co-writer Ramata Sy is lush and complicated as it works through the way colonialism warped Rwanda, and how that shows up in a Catholic boarding school run by Belgian nuns.

Our Lady of the Nile foreshadows the genocide of nearly 1 million Tutsi Rwandans in 1994. Gloriosa (Albina Sydney Kirenga) is a member of the Hutu ethnic majority, which was ruling the country at the time. Her father is a Catholic priest overseeing the elite school where she is a student. The school has a quota system for the Tutsi minority. No more than 10 percent of the student body may be Tutsi, and so only two girls in Gloriosa’s class are part of the minority, Veronica (Clariella Bizimana) and Virginia (Amanda Mugabekazi). One other girl, Modesta (Belinda Rubango Simbi), has a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother, but she keeps her mother’s ethnicity secret to avoid being ostracized. Only her best friend, Gloriosa, knows and she’s constantly pushing Modesta to redeem her “dirty” mixture of blood.

Rabid with hatred, Gloriosa sets a mission for herself and Modesta. There is a statue of a black Virgin Mary in a waterfall near the school, but Gloriosa thinks it has a “minority” nose that makes her look Tutsi. When their clothes get muddy attempting to get to the statue, Gloriosa tells the head nun that a group of Tutsi men tried to kidnap and rape her and Modesta. It’s not long before a Hutu reign of terror is implemented. When Gloriosa then tries to replace the Virgin’s nose with a “majority” nose — again, in secret — she fails, and instead, the statue appears to have been vandalized. Again, the Tutsis are blamed.

A scene from Atiq Rahimi’s Our Lady of the Nile.

Courtesy of TIFF

Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, Rahimi fills Our Lady of the Nile with beauty in every frame. He does not begin with deadly violence, but builds to it through four acts: “Innocence,” “Sacred,” “Sacrilege,” and finally, “Sacrifice.” He also shows immense compassion toward the Tutsi minority girls of the school, especially through the eyes of a character named Fontenaille (Pascal Greggory), a French artist who lives in the hills and has built a pyramid on top of the grave of the Tutsi queen Nyiramongi. The Tutsi schoolgirls Veronica and Virginia, unaccustomed to such admiration, label him “crazy,” and an “old pagan.”

Rahimi’s shots of remote mountains and hillsides are lovely. But Rahimi goes beyond, offering moments of surrealism when Veronica gets high drinking a concoction that Fontenaille gives her before he paints her portrait, and a brief black-and-white dream vignette that pays homage to the French New Wave. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Rahimi’s debut feature, Earth and Ashes, won the Prix du Regard vers l’Avenir (“Looking to the future”) at Cannes in 2004.

It’s impossible not to notice the similarities between the genocide of Rwandan Tutsis and the scapegoating and murder of European Jews during World War II. Gloriosa’s calls for the assembly of a Militant Rwandan Youth sound awfully similar to the justifications that led to the inception of the Hitler Youth. Her father only eggs her on, calling her “Joan of Arc.”

When Virginia is desperately looking for a safe place to hide as Hutu soldiers storm through the campus looking for Tutsis, a Hutu friend, Imaculeé (Belinda Rubango), hides her in a pile of laundry and instructs her not to move. But Virginia peeks out, and she’s discovered by a Hutu soldier who orders her to strip off her clothes so that he can rape her. Virginia escapes by killing the soldier, but not before he brands her chest. Viriginia is marked, similar to how Jews were required to wear yellow badges that read “Jude” in Nazi Germany.

With Our Lady of the Nile, Rahimi has created more than a story of how genocide begins, because he never allows the film to turn into suffering porn. Instead, he illustrates how easily countrymen and women can turn against each other, all based on a lie and the creation of a scapegoat.

Dakota Fanning (left) as Lilly Abdal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (right) as Aziz in Sweetness in the Belly.

Courtesy of TIFF

Sweetness in the Belly

Well, here’s something you don’t see every day: a film about a white woman born in England, abandoned by her hippie parents in Morocco at age 7 and raised by a Sufi cleric, who finds her way back to her birth country as an adult as a refugee fleeing the violence of the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974.

That is the story of Lilly Abdal, the main character of Sweetness in the Belly, adapted from the bestselling 2006 novel by Canadian author Camilla Gibbs. Dakota Fanning stars as Lilly, and the film traces her life as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Muslim who is more familiar with the customs of northern Africa than anything to do with England.

After she moves to Harar, Ethiopia, as an adult, Lilly falls in love with a local doctor, Aziz (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). They’re both involved in the underground resistance to the Derg, the military junta that overthrows Emperor Haile Selassie. When Selassie falls, Lilly flees to England and makes a new life for herself. Her beloved, Aziz, chooses to stay in Ethiopia and is later imprisoned and executed.

Directed by Zeresenay Mehari, Sweetness in the Belly is lovely to look at, but also anodyne in the way that seems to plague big-budget films about white ladies in Africa. Thematically, Sweetness in the Belly overlaps with another film from earlier in Fanning’s career: The Secret Life of Bees, an adaptation of the novel by Sue Monk Kidd. It, too, is a movie about a white girl named Lily (one “l,” not two) who is failed by her parents, gets taken in by kindly black strangers, and falls in love with a black boy. It takes place in the fictional town of Sylvan, South Carolina, in 1964, in the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

It would not surprise me if Sweetness in the Belly gets labeled as “Habesha Green Book” given that it contains a few similar beats. For instance, Lilly is far more of a devout Muslim than Aziz — she worries about being denied entry into paradise for sleeping with, or even kissing him when the two aren’t married. Aziz is far less dogmatic.

When Lilly escapes to England, the government immediately places her in a one-bedroom apartment in Brixton. She offers her bedroom to a fellow refugee, Amina (Wunmi Mosaku) who has just given birth to a baby conceived in a refugee camp.

Amina and Aziz offer Lilly gentle reminders of her whiteness. Aziz is curious about her simply because she doesn’t look like anyone else in Harar. But that’s as far as it goes. There’s no real investment when it comes to interrogating how Lilly’s whiteness and her connections to the Ethiopian resistance affect those around her. A few throwaway lines add about as much depth as a London rain puddle.

“Must be nice, having this place all to yourself,” Amina remarks the first time she sees Lilly’s apartment.

“Well, I didn’t ask for it,” Lilly responds.

“You didn’t have to,” Amina says.

The shallow focus isn’t limited to questions of race. Laura Phillips’ script never really delves into how much Lilly is affected by being abandoned by her parents when it comes to issues surrounding attachment or her ability to trust others.

Though Lilly is white, in some ways she’s treated like an immigrant in her “home” country. Her training as a nurse in Ethiopia is not regarded as legitimate experience when she applies for a job in a London hospital. She’s finally hired when she convinces the administrator interviewing her that it might be useful to have a staffer who speaks Arabic and Amharic to translate, given the influx of Ethiopian refugees.

Fanning is by far the biggest name attached to Sweetness in the Belly, and it may be that it was easier to find financing for a film set against the Ethiopian Revolution because a well-known white actress was at the center of the story. Still, the assumption that the presence of a white name is the only way to get people to pay attention to a film about Ethiopia is frustrating and limiting.

Sweetness in the Belly has its moments of grace, and director of photography Tim Fleming has a lovely eye for capturing the beauty of a range of skin tones. But for a complicated story set during even more complicated times, Sweetness in the Belly just feels altogether too simple.

Steelers’ Mike Tomlin teaches faith along with football Coaches were ‘the guys that told me right from wrong’ as he grew up without his father

Millions of fans see the cross hanging from Mike Tomlin’s neck on Sundays as he commands the sidelines for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when he steps in front of the microphones, the questions are never about faith — they’re always football.

What does that cross mean to Tomlin? What guides the man behind the mirrored sunglasses and guarded coachspeak?

Ahead of his 13th season as the Steelers’ head coach, I spoke with Tomlin about his spiritual life and then followed him to the annual Christian men’s conference ManUp, which supports young people in the Pittsburgh area whose fathers aren’t involved in their lives.

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin speaks to a group of men during a ManUp conference breakout session. Tomlin’s coaching method involves encouraging his players to grow personally and spiritually.

Justin Merriman The Undefeated

Football is full of overt appeals to God: Touchdown Jesus, postgame prayer circles, players in the end zone pointing to the heavens. After winning the Super Bowl in 2018, Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson credited “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Tomlin’s mentor, Tony Dungy, has an open Bible in his commemorative locker at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

None of that is Tomlin’s style. During our interview, and listening to him speak at ManUp, he rarely used the words “God” or “Christ.” He declined to discuss his churchgoing activities. Instead, Tomlin emphasized pragmatic virtues and actions that are needed on the playing field of life.

“We’ve got to find artful ways to instill that moral fiber and that decision-making we’re all talking about,” Tomlin said during a session at ManUp entitled “Coaching to Transform Lives.”

Tomlin’s high school coach burned life lessons into young Mike’s memory as the team sweated through leg lifts in practice. “Maybe your style and delivery is different,” Tomlin said, “but you better find a way to consistently deliver messaging that’s going to push them to be better people. And you got an awesome vehicle in which to do it through your coaching.”

Mike Tomlin (left) is joined onstage by pastor Tunch Ilkin (right), a former Steelers player, as he speaks at the ManUp conference in Pittsburgh.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Steelers tight end Vance McDonald said a subtle undercurrent of faith runs through Tomlin’s interactions with his team.

“He does a great job of his approach as coach, and as leader of the Steelers, of applying biblical and Christian truths but doing it in a way that’s not right in your face,” McDonald told me. “And it’s superdelicate: You’re going to overstep or you’re not going to present it as much as you should. It’s delicate, but he does a great job. He does it humbly, and he does it well, because guys respond to things that he says. And when you are a Christian in the audience, you’re like, ‘Hey, I know exactly what he’s talking about.’ ”

Tomlin, 47, told me his method is to encourage his players to grow personally and spiritually, “but they’re not tangible goals. I want to see continual growth as players and as men, and I think we all should aspire to live our lives in that way. This journey of life that we’re on, or this journey that is a professional football career, you’d like to think that you’re learning from the experiences that you go through. You’d like to think that you’re getting better through the process, and that’s my hope for them.”

Tomlin (center) poses for a photo with a group of men during a VIP meet-and-greet at the ManUp Pittsburgh conference, which drew about 2,000 people.

Justin Merriman The Undefeated

At the ManUp conference, which drew about 2,000 people to a huge church in suburban Pittsburgh earlier this summer, Tomlin showed another side of his coiled-steel work demeanor. He smiled and joked. He wore no hat or sunglasses. He spoke often about the challenges he and his wife face raising their daughter and two sons, including the eldest, Michael Tomlin Jr., nicknamed “Dino,” an incoming freshman wide receiver at the University of Maryland.

Tomlin got one of his biggest laughs at the conference after revealing that his kids accuse him of enjoying their “short-term misery” because it provides teachable moments. Dino finished second in the state of Pennsylvania in the 100-meter dash his junior year, then missed the 2019 championship with a hamstring injury. “Man, I kind of enjoyed it,” Tomlin said, then corrected himself. “I’m just gonna tell you straight up: I enjoyed it.

“It was an opportunity for me, one last opportunity for me, to have my hands on him and be around him as he endures adversity,” Tomlin said. “Injury is a part of sport an any level, particularly once you get beyond high school. So, man, it’s a great opportunity for me to watch him deal with injury in a professional life manner and do the things that you’re required to do.”

Tomlin has a career regular-season record of 125-66-1 with the Steelers and is one of only two African American head coaches in the NFL.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

He spoke about growing up without his father in the football hotbed of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Until age 5, Tomlin lived with his mother and older brother at his grandparents’ home. His mother then got her own apartment and later remarried. Tomlin credits his grandfather, stepfather and youth coaches with serving as his father figures.

“I didn’t get into this to be the head football coach of the Steelers, to be quite honest with you,” Tomlin said during his keynote address at ManUp. “When you come from a less-than-advantageous background, socioeconomic issues and things of that nature, fatherlessness is very prevalent in those communities. And so those young men, they look around and they’re looking for truth. Forget what people say, they look at how [other people] live, how they conduct themselves, what the day-to-day looks like, and the most stand-up guys in my community were coaches. Those are not only the guys that told me right from wrong, but when I watched them, they were living it out.

“I just had so much respect for the living witnesses and for the lives of those men, and wanted to be like them. I wanted to impact kids that were like me.”

Tomlin on his coaching style: “I try to display legitimate humility. There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it.”

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Tomlin is now a living witness for the grown men who play for the Steelers. He was 34 when he was named head coach in 2007. In 2009, he became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl. He reached another Super Bowl in 2011 but lost to Green Bay. Now with a career regular-season record of 125-66-1, and one of the best winning percentages in football, Tomlin is one of only two African American head coaches in the NFL. He should soon surpass Dungy as the most successful black coach in league history.

Asked by a ManUp audience member what role faith plays in his coaching, he cited the Christian maxim that “humility is confidence properly placed in God.”

“That is my coaching style … I try to display legitimate humility,” Tomlin said. “There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it. I just try to live that out in every way that I can, to show legitimate humility, and that I got my confidence properly placed.”

Ronnell Heard, head football coach at Imani Christian Academy in Pittsburgh, and his twin brother, Rodney, an assistant coach at Imani, said Tomlin’s remarks helped them keep faith central to their coaching. “Coach Tomlin spoke about the elephant in the room,” Ronnell said.

“Faith is the biggest aspect of how we coach,” Rodney said. “Everything we do, we put God first. Our performance on the field is in honor of God. The way we conduct ourselves is in honor of God.”

When I asked Tomlin what role prayer plays in his coaching, he said he never prays for victory. “Just leadership, good decisions, but not necessarily anything specific relative to the outcome of games. We’ve all been blessed in all the appropriate ways. I just ask for the wisdom and discernment that comes with the decision-making and leading these guys.”

He became most animated when I asked if there is any conflict between the qualities associated with great football players — ferocious, violent, merciless — and the kindness and mercy encouraged by New Testament scriptures such as “the meek shall inherit the earth” or the Gospel of John’s “God is love.”

Clinton Bridges, 49, of East Liberty, Pennsylvania, asks Tomlin a question during a breakout session at ManUp Pittsburgh. Bridges coaches basketball and expressed his concern about young men swearing.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

“I don’t think there’s a conflict at all,” Tomlin said with a smile. “If Jesus was a football player, I think he would go extremely hard and extremely fair. I think he would finish. I think he would embody all the tough elements of the game that we embrace. Notice I don’t talk about being dirty. I talk about just playing hard and fair, within the rules of the game and the ways that endear you to your teammates. Being selfless in your efforts.”

What position would Jesus play, coach?

“Good question. Let me think about that for a second.

“He’d be a quarterback and a middle linebacker — because you would want to put the game in His hands.”

Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ led him to Jim Crow Florida His new novel, ‘The Nickel Boys,’ is based on a real reform school notorious for its brutality

Elwood and Turner, the adolescent protagonists of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, become fast friends at a brutal, segregated reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, but they are opposites. Elwood is bookish, optimistic and gullible. While working in a hotel kitchen before being sent to the Nickel Academy, Elwood gets duped into dishwashing “competitions,” ending up doing the work of his older, wised-up peers. At home, he listens again and again to a Martin Luther King Jr. oration — “containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be” — and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision he waits expectantly, and in vain, for a black man to enter the hotel’s whites-only dining room and sit down for a meal.

Turner is already at Nickel when Elwood arrives, so he knows how the world works. Turner, Whitehead writes, “was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls upon a creek — it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current.”

Colson Whitehead says he sees himself in the two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, in his book “The Nickel Boys.”

Penguin Random House

Whitehead, who is 49, says he sees himself in both boys. We were having lunch at a diner on New York’s Upper West Side, where the author spent his high school years. He recently moved back to the neighborhood after 18 years in Brooklyn. “It’s really boring and the food’s terrible, but we don’t go out much and my wife’s parents live here,” he said.

The idea for the novel came in 2014, after Whitehead came across news reports about the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which serves as the model for the Nickel Academy. Throughout its 111-year history, Dozier, which shut down in 2011, was known for brutality: beatings, rapes and, yes, murder. Dozier was segregated, but there was one building, “The White House,” where both black boys and white boys would be taken for beatings and worse.

When he first read these accounts, Whitehead was writing The Underground Railroad, which was published in 2016 to wide acclaim. It has since won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and it is being adapted into an Amazon series by Barry Jenkins. The novel follows an enslaved woman’s escape from antebellum Georgia. It’s a haunting, brutal, hallucinatory journey set against the backdrop of several fantastical conceits, including the central one: What if the Underground Railroad were, in fact, a real subterranean railroad?

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book,” Whitehead told me. “The Nickel Boys was a departure because I had just finished Underground.” He was planning to write a detective novel, but current events intervened.

“It was the spring of 2017 and Trump was trying to get his Muslim ban, and I was angry and discouraged by the rhetoric you’d see at his rallies,” Whitehead said. “I hadn’t written anything for a year and a half, and it was time to get back to work. I could do the detective novel or The Nickel Boys. I thought that with the optimistic figure of Elwood and the more cynical character of Turner I could draw on my own confusion about where we were going as a country.”

Unlike with The Underground Railroad, for which Whitehead drew upon stories from former slaves collected by the New Deal-funded Federal Writers’ Project and other historical accounts, there are living survivors of Dozier.

“It was a horrible place,” said Jerry Cooper, president of The Official White House Boys Association, an alumni group of sorts for the abused. Cooper, who is white, said, “We didn’t have interaction with the black boys, aside from maybe when we saw them bringing produce to the cafeteria. They were in one area of the campus, and the whites were another. And if the guards caught you interacting, you’d be sent to the White House — no matter your color.”

Cooper, who was at Dozer in 1961, told me African Americans may have had it worse overall because their work detail involved toiling in fields under the burning Florida sun. “But there wasn’t any difference in the beatings,” he said.

Cooper recalled a 2 a.m. trip to the White House, where he was placed facedown on a mattress and given 135 lashes with a 3-foot leather strap. “I passed out at around 70, but a boy waiting outside for his punishment kept count,” he said. “I still have the scars. That night I realized what it must have been like to have been a slave.”


But neither Cooper nor his ancestors were slaves. Many of Whitehead’s ancestors were.

His mother’s side of the family hailed from Virginia. Her father was named Colson, as was another enslaved forebear, “who bought himself out of slavery,” Whitehead said. His father’s side of the family was rooted in Georgia and Florida — “there’s an ancestor on that side from whom I got the name Turner” — while his paternal grandmother emigrated from Barbados through Ellis Island in the 1920s.

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book. ‘The Nickel Boys’ was a departure because I had just finished ‘Underground.’” — Colson Whitehead

“A lot of my family history is lost to slavery,” Whitehead said. “And some that’s out there, I didn’t know at the time of writing Underground.” After it was published, some of his cousins reached out to chide him. “They’d say, ‘Didn’t you know about this, and this and this, about our history?’ ”

Whitehead grew up in Manhattan to upper-middle-class parents and spent his summers at the family vacation home in an African American enclave of Sag Harbor, New York. “The first generation came from Harlem, Brownstone Brooklyn, inland Jersey islands of the black community,” writes Whitehead in his fourth book, Sag Harbor (2009), a semiautobiographical novel that captures a nerdy, carefree adolescence. “They were doctors, lawyers, city workers, teachers by the dozen. Undertakers. Respectable professions of need, after Jim Crow’s logic: White doctors won’t lay a hand on us, we have to heal ourselves; white people won’t throw dirt in our graves, we must bury ourselves.”

Whitehead’s mother’s family owned three funeral homes in New Jersey, and his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. His mother and father became the parents of two daughters, then Colson and a younger brother. On paper, it was a Cosby Show existence. But as Whitehead recently told Time: “My dad was a bit of a drinker, had a temper. His personality was sort of the weather in the house.” (There are two sad examples of such temper in Sag Harbor, including one in which the father repeatedly punches young Benji, the protagonist, in the face as an ill-conceived demonstration of standing up to racial taunting.)

Colson (right) grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s with his brother Clarke Whitehead (left) and their two sisters.

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

After attending private schools in New York City, Whitehead went to Harvard. Growing up, he had immersed himself in comic books and horror films. “I wanted to write horror, science fiction and comic books,” he said. “A lot of writers my age had similar influences,” he added, citing Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem. “Then, in late high school and college, I started to think, Maybe I don’t have to write about werewolves.”

He was approached by another young African American writer at Harvard, Kevin Young, who is now an accomplished poet, the poetry editor at The New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “I was working with a friend on reviving a black magazine from the 1970s, Diaspora, and she had met Cole and said he could be our new fiction editor,” Young said. “We hit it off instantly, and I published his first story.”

After college, Whitehead worked for five years at The Village Voice, eventually becoming the television critic. It was there he met writer-photographer Natasha Stovall, whom he married in 2000. (They later divorced.) He wrote a novel, but it was turned down by publishers and his agent dropped him.

“I was depressed,” Whitehead said. “But I wasn’t going to get a real job, and no one was going to write my books for me, so I understood I needed to get going. That’s really when I became a writer.”

His second effort, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and is set in a simulacrum of fedora-era New York, where there’s a war brewing within the city’s powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, the first black female inspector in the department, is tasked with investigating a mysterious elevator crash. The book was well-received, including comparisons to debut efforts by Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison.

In 2001, Whitehead published John Henry Days, a multilayered, encyclopedic narrative thematically tied to the legend of John Henry, the railroad laborer who is said to have bested a steam-powered drilling machine. The following year he won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Other novels (Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One), a historical exploration of his city (The Colossus of New York) and even a poker memoir (The Noble Hustle, spun off from a Grantland article), followed. But it was The Underground Railroad (with a boost from Oprah’s Book Club) that launched Whitehead into literary stardom.

“It’s been remarkable to see Cole’s journey both in terms of his writing and as a person,” said writer and publisher Richard Nash, whom Whitehead met at Harvard and to whom The Nickel Boys is dedicated. “I remember going to one of his readings for his first book, The Intuitionist, at a bookstore in Soho. His hands were shaking, he was so nervous. And now I fully expect in a few years you’ll see his name crop up on the betting lists for the Nobel Prize.

“Especially with the last two books, it’s clear that’s where he’s headed.”

Whitehead has his critics. In a stinging review of John Henry Days, The New Republic’s James Wood (now at The New Yorker) pointed out instances of sloppy writing, such as using “deviant” for “divergent” and “discreet” when the intended meaning was “discrete.” Wood went on to note that Whitehead “tends to excessively anthropomorphize his inanimate objects” to “squeeze as much metaphor from them as he can.” Whitehead returned the favor a few years later when he satirized Wood in a Harper’s Magazine essay.

But Whitehead’s style has evolved, and his writing has become more precise. In The Nickel Boys, the anthropomorphization is sparing and powerful, as when he describes the shackles employed on defenseless boys who were beaten to death: “Most of those who know the stories of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”


After our lunch, Whitehead said he was considering making chili for his family — his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, and 5-year-old son, Beckett. “It’s hot, but there’s something about chili, it’s so hearty and satisfying,” he said. Cooking is a passion, and he’s been perfecting his meat smoking skills at his new vacation home in East Hampton.

Colson Whitehead’s book, “The Underground Railroad,” launched him into literary stardom when it was published in 2016.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

When he was writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead said, he was struck by the parallels between the 1960s and today in terms of race relations. As a father myself, I was curious about how he broached the subject of race with his own children.

“It comes up more when we talk about police,” he said. “[My son is] really into cops and robbers. So when we’re walking around and he sees a police car with its sirens blaring, he’ll say, ‘They’re going to catch a robber.’ And I’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s an innocent man. Maybe it’s just a dark-skinned guy driving a nice car.’ ”

Whitehead couldn’t remember when his daughter first became aware of race — when she discovered that, to borrow a phrase from one Nobel Prize-winning writer, the world is what it is.

“That was a long time ago, and I can’t recall a particular moment,” Whitehead said. “But the thing is, everyone figures it out sometime.”

Raptors superfan Drake is the NBA’s biggest celebrity playoff antagonist — and he won’t stop anytime soon From trolling the Greek Freak to massaging Nick Nurse’s shoulders, Drake has made himself part of the Eastern Conference finals

There are many ways to look at Drake taking home the award for best supporting actor in a (postseason) drama. The great majority of which are true.

Are his courtside antics grating? Sure. Are they corny? Hilariously, yes. Was massaging Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse’s shoulders awkward? Yes, but it likely doesn’t even rank in the top 20 most cringeworthy moments of Drake’s career. Love and despise him, because people do both, his moment with Nurse was a quintessential “Drake going full Drake” moment.

Drake has long been a master at media manipulation and always understands where the camera is. The past week was nothing more than an affirmation. Has he officially taken the mantle as Spike Lee’s heir to most polarizing courtside celebrity? Yes. Drake is the NBA’s most recognizable overzealous superfan.

The Canadian rapper is back in the news for his imprint on the 2019 Eastern Conference finals. First, he helped Gucci Mane live up to his rhymes from “Both” — “I got so many felonies I might can’t never go to Canada/ But Drake said he gon’ pull some strings so let me check my calendar” — as the 1017 Brick Squad impresario, wearing a Giannis Antetokounmpo jersey, took in Game 3 on the wood at Scotiabank Arena. Their 2016 collaboration, not so ironically, was certified three times platinum this week. Then he mocked, taunted and laughed at the Milwaukee Bucks superstar for missing free throws and waved goodbye. On Tuesday during Game 4, he gave Nurse that eye-opening in-game massage, which ignited a firestorm of debates over etiquette and conduct. Drake’s now public enemy No. 1 in the Cream City for simply being, well, Drake. The superfan who acts just like a superfan, only he’s one of the most recognizable people in the world.

The entire shtick is equal parts objectively annoying (to the other team and his critics) and artistically hilarious. It was no surprise to see the series take a turn for the petty Thursday night in Milwaukee. Mallory Edens, the daughter of Bucks’ owner Wes Edens, was seated courtside next to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers wearing a Pusha T t-shirt. The nod to the Virginia MC was a flashback to a year ago when Drake found himself behind the eight ball for the first time in his career with a heated and highly personal beef with Pusha that involved Drake’s son, a rumored adidas deal gone awry and a picture of Drake in blackface. Eden’s wardrobe was a solid response — the franchise’s best rebuttal so far — that was diluted by the Bucks’ 105-99 defeat, which put them one loss away from elimination.

Wearing a Pusha T t-shirt, Mallory Edens attends Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors on May 23, 2019 at the Fiserv Forum Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

“There’s certainly no place for fans — or whatever Drake is for the Raptors — on the court,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said on a Wednesday conference call. “There’s boundaries and lines for a reason.”

Antetokounmpo’s former European agent carried the same energy. “Imagine a gig & an athlete on VIP seats, right next to the band, stands upon the stage just to show off during the entire game, knowing cameras are on him, occasionally even massaging the singer,” Georgios Dimitropoulos, a senior executive at Octagon, said in a since-deleted tweet. “Security & him both allow it. Never seen anything as disrespectful as this before …”

Drake responded via Instagram through a series of emojis and a live broadcast that showed him liking a comment in support of his actions. And following Toronto’s Game 5 victory, Drake took to his Instagram Stories to poke fun at Budenholzer and the younger Edens, telling the latter, “All is far in war and war and trust me I’ll still get you tickets to OVO Fest.” Anyone familiar with Drake and how he moves understands this is all part of the blueprint. Just as he remained strategically silent about Kanye West’s demands that he dispel rumors of an affair with Kim Kardashian last year, Drake didn’t directly address Budenholzer’s or Dimitropoulos’ comments, allowing the pendulum of media momentum to stay in his court. For now, at least.

Canadian rap artist Drake (R, rear) yells at Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (L, front) after the NBA Eastern Conference Finals Game 3 basketball game between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Canada, 19 May 2019.

EPA/WARREN TODA SHUTTERSTOCK OUT

There are three undeniably important days in the Raptors’ 24 seasons. The first was June 24, 1998, when the team traded No. 4 pick Antawn Jamison to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for the fifth pick, Vince Carter. The second came 20 years later when the Raptors traded Toronto favorite DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard on July 18, 2018. And the third was Sept. 30, 2013, when the Raptors named hometown kid turned superstar rapper Aubrey Drake Graham as their global ambassador. If it sounds ridiculously foolish, it’s only trumped by how ridiculously accurate the job title has since become.

Despite a season of adverse player-fan interactions, many of which had racial undertones, Drake’s courtside antics do little to affect the league or the Raptors negatively. He didn’t violate any sort of NBA policy for his interaction with Nurse. And judging by its past actions, the league isn’t giving Drake a hometown pass.

In 2014, the Raptors were fined $25,000 after Drake made what the league considered a public recruiting pitch to Kevin Durant, who attended his OVO Festival in Toronto. Last year, both the NBA and the Raptors warned Drake about his behavior after a verbal confrontation with then-Cleveland Cavaliers center Kendrick Perkins.

Drake hugs Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on May 19 in Toronto.

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Drake vs. the Bucks is yet another twist in Drake’s interest in sports. The games and the athletes who play them are frequent muses in his music. And being recognized in a Drake song is pop culture gold. “I made it, I made it,” said Stephen Curry, quoting Draymond Green’s excitement over being name-dropped in Drake’s “Summer Sixteen.” “ ‘First All-Star Game and I got into a Drake song.’ ”

The flip side is that the internet will never let Drake live down his air ball — while in the layup line! — during Kentucky’s 2014 Big Blue Madness. Then there’s the Drake curse, which has allegedly affected the likes of Serena Williams, Conor McGregor, the Alabama Crimson Tide, the aforementioned Kentucky and others. Some New York Giants fans blamed him in part for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s mercurial moods. As coincidence collided with fate, Drake sat courtside at Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals when Kyrie Irving and LeBron James each went for 41 points — and kick-started the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history. But the hex was so deep even Drake believed in the energy as he wore Philadelphia 76ers shorts during Toronto’s Game 7 instant-classic victory earlier this month.

Like Lee, Drake is no stranger to the rush of vitriol against him. He’s also no stranger to inserting himself on to the NBA’s biggest stages. This marks the fourth consecutive postseason where Drake has become a subplot — others might say “antagonist” — during the playoffs. While taunting both Irving and James via, yes, Instagram in 2016, Drake watched his Raptors fall in six games — with James giving Drake an earful in the process. A year later, James not only again led the Cavaliers to victory over the Raptors in the playoffs, he offered to buy Drake margaritas after the game to soften the sting. In 2018, the tide temporarily shifted in Drake’s favor as he trolled John Wall and Kelly Oubre Jr. during Toronto’s first-round series victory over the Washington Wizards. This year, he taunted 76ers superstar center Joel Embiid, mimicking his airplane gesture in this year’s Eastern Conference semifinals.

Drake attends Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers on May 7 in Toronto.

Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

All of the taunts, gestures and boisterous sideline dances could come back to haunt Drake should the Raptors fail to win either Game 6 or 7. And a new crop of Drake memes and GIFs will populate the internet. But understanding that Drake isn’t just a famous fanatic is part of the calculus in understanding why he acts the way he does. For starters, Drake’s not just a fan. “Been flowin’ stupid since Vince Carter was on some through the legs, arm in the hoop s—,” he reflected on “Weston Road Flows.” “I got a club in the Raptors arena,” he barked on his “30 for 30 Freestyle,” “Championship celebrations during regular seasons. F— all that rap-to-pay-your-bill s—,” he waxed on the Grammy-nominated “0 to 100/The Catch Up,” “I’m on some Raptors pay my bill s—.” This is a business investment.

His $7,000-per-year, invitation-only Sher Club (named after his maternal grandparents) sits inside Scotiabank Arena. Both Drake and the Raptors are donating millions of dollars to modernize local basketball courts and to Canada Basketball. Part of his “I’m Upset” video, which has nearly 100 million YouTube views, was filmed at center court of Scotiabank. Canada’s The Sports Network said Drake “is one of several factors responsible for legitimizing the organization in the eyes of the league’s primary demographic and many of its players.” Of those players, DeRozan said it was Drake who played the role of amateur therapist and helped him through the shock of being traded. “Just to hear the words that come from him being the person that he is in this world, especially in Toronto,” DeRozan said. And then there’s his overall economic impact on the city. A 2018 Vice News Tonight report concluded Drake is worth $440 million annually to Toronto’s economy, 5% of the city’s $8.8 billion tourism industry, because “he’s helped to rebrand the city. He’s kind of made himself the same as Toronto.”

None of this excuses anything Drake does from his courtside seat. But it gives some insight as to why. He acts the way he does because he’s fully aware of the weight his name holds in the city. He’s involved with the Raptors’ growth both financially and culturally. And he’s now part of the theater that the Eastern Conference finals have become because it’s no longer just about basketball. For some, there’s genuine joy in seeing Drake double down on his antics. For others, there’s pure disdain as they impatiently await his emotional downfall. But everyone feels some type of way. That’s a cultural moment. Drake’s got the sports world in their feelings.

Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon: ‘My life passion is not basketball. It’s helping people.’ The third-year guard discusses his efforts to bring clean water to East Africa

Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon played a big role in the team’s Game 2 win on Friday night with 14 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds off the bench.

But after the game he was more excited about a larger contribution.

On the set with TNT’s Inside the NBA crew, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley made a surprise $45,000 donation to Brogdon’s Hoops2O initiative, which raises funds to build water wells in East Africa. With Barkley’s contribution, Hoops2O has now raised $274,200 in less than a year.

“It’s extremely generous of [Barkley],” Brogdon told The Undefeated. “Not only does his donation significantly help my cause and thousands of people get access to clean water, but his interest creates a buzz that will magnify the addition that this initiative will get.”

Brogdon spearheaded the launch of Hoops2O on Oct. 29, 2018. Atlanta Hawks guard Justin Anderson, Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Harris, Los Angeles Clippers guard Garrett Temple and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Tolliver were named as part of Brogdon’s “Starting Five” in the Hoops2O Ballin’ for Buckets campaign. Hoops2O was born under the umbrella of the Waterboys initiative started by Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who got 29 players to commit funding after his foundation debuted in 2015. All the money raised through Hoops2O goes toward the building of solar-powered deep borehole wells in East African communities.

“What Malcolm and the Starting Five have accomplished since October is impressive,” said Long. “They set a lofty goal to bring Waterboys to the NBA and raise over a quarter of a million dollars in the first season. … Their involvement means that we will reach our shared goal of providing water to 1 million people that much faster.”

This offseason, Brogdon, Anderson and Harris are slated to go to Tanzania for a Hoops2O project.

“Hoops2O is an amazing initiative that Malcolm brought me into,” said Temple, who plans to make a Hoops2O trip to Africa next year. “When he asked me to be a part of the Starting Five, I jumped at the chance. Water is easily one of the most vital components of life. It feels good to be able to provide that to an area that really needs it.”

Malcolm Brogdon during a trip to Tanzania in July 2018.

Clay Cook Photography and Chris Long Foundation

Brogdon’s initial goal of raising $225,000 for Hoops2O this season has already been surpassed. Three wells are under construction, two more will begin construction next month and another pair will begin construction in the coming months. Each well provides fresh water for more than 13,000 people in each East African community. Waterboys and Hoops2O have combined to fund 61 wells in Tanzania and Kenya.

“I feel like it’s my calling and my passion in life,” said Brogdon. During a trip to Malawi at the age of 14 with his grandparents, he learned that many Africans do not have clean water. “I’ve always viewed it as my dream and something that I love to do. I view it as a tool, something I can gain resources, gain access, money and all these things that can influence and empower other peoples’ lives. Clean water is the way I wanted to go, and Africa is the place I am starting.

“I am very happy with where I am now and the work that is getting done.”

Brogdon, 26, went to Tanzania last offseason in his first efforts to learn about the need for water wells in East Africa. In July, the Atlanta native will fly into Kilimanjaro before he goes to visit wells that have been built as well as sites under consideration. The former University of Virginia star also plans on visiting several elementary schools that are in need of water.

Brogdon said he was heartbroken and further inspired to create Hoops2O after visiting elementary schools in Arusha, Tanzania, last year.

“They brought buckets from home to get water for themselves and their classmates. And there was a little river behind the school,” Brogdon said. “And behind the river there were shantytowns where people lived very poorly. They were littering into the river, and you could see all the drainage, all the trash, dirt and all types of stuff. Everything was running through the river. Ten or 12 feet up the river you could see a line of sewage going across it. All the water was filtering through it, so you knew all the water was bad.

“You could see the kids getting water with their buckets, drinking it and then handing it to their classmates. And after a while after they get to their teens, you can see their teeth rotting and decaying because … the water was so contaminated. It was so unbearable to see. There is so much we take for granted here in the States.”

Brogdon and the Bucks will play Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals in Toronto on Sunday. They are now two wins away from Milwaukee’s first NBA Finals appearance since 1974. No matter the outcome, Brogdon is already viewed as a champion in East Africa.

“They see me as a humanitarian. I’m so big that people wonder and ask if I play basketball. But it is not like people over there are following the NBA really hard,” Brogdon said. “Their worries are bigger than basketball. It’s clean water. It’s living. It’s necessities that they’re looking for. Not celebrities. …

“Basketball is my job, I love it. It’s the dream. But honestly, my life passion is not basketball. It’s helping people and using my resources that I have gotten from basketball.”

In ‘See You Yesterday,’ time travelers can’t escape the ugly present New Spike Lee production brings Black Lives Matter to the science fair

Not even scientific genius has the power to outrun unscrupulous police.

That’s the macabre but justifiable takeaway from See You Yesterday, the debut feature film from director Stefon Bristol, streaming Friday on Netflix.

Two science-loving best friends, Claudette “CJ” Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian J. Thomas (Danté Crichlow), are on a mission to turn back time. The two built a nifty set of personalized time machines that fit in their backpacks and will suck them through a wormhole, where they’ve got roughly 10 minutes to course-correct their lives before heading back to the present.

Danté Crichlow (left) and Eden Duncan-Smith (right) play Claudette “CJ” Walker and Sebastian J. Thomas, who are on a mission to turn back time in hopes of saving a life.

Courtesy of Netlfix

Co-written by Bristol and Fredrica Bailey and produced by Spike Lee, See You Yesterday at first appears to be a fun science fiction ride that happens to be about two West Indian kids obsessed with physics. Michael J. Fox makes a cameo as their science teacher. When she’s not tinkering with her time-traveling jetpack, CJ plunges into books such as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. CJ and Sebastian live in East Flatbush, the heart of West Indian Brooklyn, New York, and they face questions about their relationship status from nosy grandparents who admonish them in accented English to please stop making things go boom in the garage.

But everything explodes when CJ sees her older brother Calvin (Astro) shot and killed by police for a bodega robbery he didn’t commit. Just like that, the stakes of time travel immediately ratchet from something that could win Sebastian and CJ the Westinghouse Award to a way to save a life — if only they can figure out how to properly wield their newfound power.

And so See You Yesterday takes a hard, grief-stricken turn, one that feels especially odd given the overall lighthearted tone Bristol chooses to tell the story. But thematically, it aligns with the “Replay” episode of Jordan Peele’s reimagining of The Twilight Zone, in which a mother played by Sanaa Lathan keeps trying to prevent her son from being killed by a bloodthirsty Virginia state trooper with the aid of a magic camcorder that rewinds life with the touch of button.

When black men and boys are targeted by police, it is their mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts and cousins who are left to pick up their broken bits of their grief and make something of it. Or, in these two cases, try to prevent their deaths from happening in the first place.

In The Hate U Give, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder after she witnesses her friend get fatally shot by a police officer. In See You Yesterday and “Replay,” that trauma takes on an even more tortuous edge. Not only do the women see their loved ones killed, they’re convinced that they can prevent it from happening, and so they try, over and over and over.

As CJ, Duncan-Smith gives a note-perfect performance, as do Thomas and Astro. But no matter the inspired cinematography or considered, authentic performances, these stories carry a weight of inevitability as they suck every particle of hope out of the air.

An unshakable fatalism blows through both “Replay” and See You Yesterday. The male characters eventually surrender to fate, leaving the anguished women who love them tilting at windmills to revive what is gone.

I don’t fault Bristol or Peele for refusing to make work that would make them seem like Pollyannas. Rather, it’s a shame that black innocence has been decimated so completely that even a film about earnest, time-traveling teens cannot outrun the weight of impending death and injustice at the hands of the state.